In the end of March, 2015, my wife and I spent a week in Guatemala. The tourism in Guatemala is less developed than, say, in its close neighbor Costa Rica, and a number of friends already asked us questions like “is it worth going there”, or “when should you go there”, or “what can you see there”, etc. So here is what I can say about it on the basis of my very limited experience.
Yes, it is definitely worth visiting Guatemala. It is an interesting and exciting place to see. For example, for me it was quite unexpected to learn that Mayan culture is very much alive and thriving there – until then I somehow thought that the word “Maya” belongs to the same category as Aztec, Babylon or Pharaoh, i.e. something from the distant past. But in fact there are 22 actively spoken Mayan languages in Guatemala, there are Mayan traditions, Mayan holidays and even Mayan economy.
What should you see there? As I mentioned before, tourism to Guatemala is not very well developed yet (although it is growing fast). Maybe this is why all tourist itineraries that came to my attention were very similar, as if they came from the same cookie cutter. They all were essentially based on 4 words – Antigua, Atitlan, Tikal, Chichicastenango – and our itinerary was no exception. So what are these 4 things?
- Antigua is a small nice city with rich history, which was the first capital of Guatemala in colonial times. Part of the old colonial architecture has been restored, part has not, and the combination of both these parts creates an unusual charm. This is the most visited by tourists place in Guatemala and, as a results, there are nice hotels, restaurants and services.
- Atitlan is a beautiful lake, surrounded by several (non-active!) volcanoes and picturesque villages. When the weather is good and clear the views in all directions are great:
- Tikal is the ruins of an ancient city, which was discovered in a rainforest of Northern Guatemala in the mid 19-th century. It contains hundreds of pyramids and other buildings (many of which are still hidden by the jungle), and is one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. For history buffs this is the must see.
- And finally, Chichicastenango – a huge outdoor market. Although part of it caters to tourists with traditional souvenirs, etc, the main purpose of the market is to serve “real people” and the combination of colors, smells and crowds can be overwhelming.
Another attraction is the local cemetery located within 5-10 min walk from the market. In my life I saw many famous cemeteries, but this one is by far the most colorful.
Based on the above, a nice trip to Guatemala would include: 3 nights in Antigua with a one day side trip; 2 nights on the lake Atitlan with a boat trip to surrounding villages; 2-3 hours in Chichicastenango on the way to the airport to fly to Tikal; and 2 nights in Tikal. While in the Tikal area, try to stay in Flores, a charming little town located on an island in the middle of a lake.
When should you go there? Well, the honest answer is: not when we were there. At that time of the year, the weather in Tikal it is extremely hot and humid. During our stay it was above 100 Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) and the humidity was also close to 100. For people like us, the only way to survive was to start our excursions when it was still dark and by 9-10 am be already under the air conditioned protection of our minivan.
As to Antigua and Atitlan, they are located on a higher altitude and the temperature there is always nice (surprisingly, you don’t even need AC in your hotel there). But here is another problem: it is the time when they burn sugar cane plantations in Guatemala. As a result, most of the time the air is very hazy and the visibility is low – see for example the picture of lake Atitlan above. This explains why during the whole week we almost never had beautiful natural views (but compensated them with architecture, ruins, people and Mayan exotics in general). Thus the advice: do not go to Guatemala in the end of March, go in the fall – September to November.
And finally, are there other interesting places in Guatemala? Of course they are! For example, the river and natural lagoons of Semuc Champey. Or the ruins of the barely accessible ancient city of Mirador, whose scale exceeds even Tikal. They are still away from the standard tourists routs, but it is changing and there is a hope that more people will be able to visit them soon.