I don’t really remember the last time I did something I considered a “vacation”. Don’t get me wrong, I do lots of things co-workers have called vacations, but in my own vocabulary I usually talk about “trips” and “long weekends” and “traveling”. I’m that person. Don’t hate.
However, I do understand the perspective of those folks I’ve worked with (and for). For many (most?) Americans “travel” means the two-week family vacation you’ve saved your time off and money for all year. It’s more than a long weekend, or a day of rest. It’s a reward to you and your family for so many things.
So that reward should be both memorable, and as stress-free as possible, right? Well, I’ve got a recommendation. A recommendation I think is important to say and spread, because I don’t think it’s being done very much.
When I was traveling in Guatemala for 4 months, I saw lots of different types of travelers. Backpackers young and old, spiritual seekers, missionaries of various persuasions, and expat business owners. I did not see very many vacationers. I think there are lots of reasons for this, one of them being the American news cycle only talking about Central America and Guatemala as places of problems that people are fleeing.
I find it complete nonsense that all we get of Guatemala is that story. So here’s another one.
Perfect weather all year round? Check. Beautiful lake? Check. Epic volcano views? Check. Indigenous cultures to learn about and support? Checkity check. I cannot recommend this place enough to ANYONE. Not far from Antigua and Guatemala City (where most folks will fly into), Lake Atitlan is easy (and safe) to shuttle straight to. Want to shop and feel some hustle and bustle? Panajachel. Prefer to party a bit, or maybe hike a volcano? San Pedro. Interested in supporting Mayan owned art, chocolate, coffee, and weaving collectives? San Juan. Want to get in touch with your inner hippie? San Marcos. Adventurous Kate already wrote a pretty nice guide to several of the towns around the lake here.
This old world colonial town is mere minutes from Guatemala City (depending on the traffic), and the elevation means the weather here is near perfect. Think April 25th.
We spent hours just walking around the cobblestone streets and enjoying the architecture and bright colors. There are also tons of churches and museums to visit, and a market to get your spend on. We went during Semana Santa, (the Holy Week leading up to Easter) and really enjoyed the celebrations.
Two coasts with beaches
If the beach scene is more your style, the black sand beaches on Guatemala’s western coast are not to be missed. Headed to Belize? Check out Livingston on the eastern coast. The beaches are nice, and the Garifuna culture is very unique to the rest of Guatemala.
One of the biggest tourist attractions in Guatemala is Tikal, the ruins of a huge ancient Mayan city in Peten, the northern part of the country. The park is huge, and you can spend several hours wandering and exploring. There are several other sites in Peten, including Yaxha, and El Mirador which you can only get to by signing up for a multi-day hiking tour through the jungle. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like Indiana Jones, this is probably one of the best places in the world to do it.
The nature in Guatemala is really mind-blowing. Mountains, volcanoes, lakes, hot springs, natural pools, rivers, caves, jungle. It’s all there. Some of our favorite nature moments were at Semuc Champey, Finca al Paraiso, and El Boqueron.
The backpacker trails are so well-worn in Guatemala that in order to hit the highlights, you really don’t need to know that much Spanish (although you should make an effort) or “rough it” in any way. You can shuttle directly to your next destinations, and skip the low-end backpacker hostels if that isn’t your thing. Even some of the hostels are pretty dang nice though. Below are three of the ones we stayed in.
Especially if you’re traveling from the States, you know the value of having a bit of Spanish on your resume and in your life. Regardless of this though, learning languages is fun and for English speakers Spanish is a relatively easy one. It is widely understood that Guatemala is one of the best places to take some classes due to the low cost and the somewhat neutral vocabulary and accent. I had a tutor for a week in Atitlan, and spent a week at a Spanish school in Antigua. Lots of people also take classes in Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela). Good schools and teachers are everywhere, and many offer a home stay option with a family. It will definitely enrich your entire experience.
See the above point about infrastructure. The people that work in the tourism industry rely on your money, and they know word-of-mouth spreads quickly. They aren’t about to mess up their stream of income. Stick with reputable companies, and take the shuttles and tours recommended by your hostel or hotel and actual tour agencies. All will be well.
Of course, my opinion is not and should not be the only story. Everyone should talk to actual Guatemalans. I’m just one Midwest white girl who played tourist for only 4 months and had the money to do so happily. However, I also know that not everyone gets the opportunity to meet people from the places they are thinking of traveling to. So take it for what it is.
A Note of Interest
Over tourism is a thing in so many parts of the world. Lots of backpackers are definitely in the country already. However, backpackers are notoriously cheapskates. I know this because I was one. I write this partially because I feel that Guatemala is a country that could very likely benefit from an influx of tourism dollars. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. The economics and impact of tourism is always an interesting discussion for me.
Let the people know…
Everyone should be planning their next vacay!