Latin America's Next 'It' Destination Will Surprise You
Posted on 11/06/2017
Guatemala has the food, fun and culture of Latin America without the crowds and rising prices.
From beaches to adventure to scenic beauty, this oft-overlooked country south of Mexico has everything you need for a long weekend or an extended escape.
In a country with a land mass similar to the state of Pennsylvania (42,000 square miles), thirty-seven volcanoes make it one of the most volcanic hot spots on the planet. Three of the thirty-seven are currently quite active, providing the opportunity to witness explosions from safe distances—an experience found in only a handful of Latin American counties.
Guided hikes or trail rides on horseback can take you even closer to the action on some of the volcanoes. (All are relatively difficult hikes so, no matter what the locals tell you, assume that you should be physically fit for any volcano hike in Guatemala.)
The trail at Volcano Pacaya offers the easiest way to get near the summit because horseback rides are offered. Guides are necessary on the trail; Ask at your hotel in either Guatemala City or Antigua for a local service that includes transportation and a guide.
Even when Pacaya is less active, expect to see steam vents and feel rumbles from the uppermost crater as it erupts daily. And don’t forget the marshmallows—nothing says experiential travel like volcano-toasted goo on a stick.
Volcano Fuego can be seen spewing ash clouds and heard rumbling thunderously as you walk the streets of Antigua. Hiking its neighbor—Acatenango, gets you a closer look at Fuego’s eruptions, but it is an overnight backpacking trip reserved for the most adventurous.
For the rest of us, the scenic overlook at Cero de La Cruz offers an easy trail with stunning views of the city and possibly the best photo ops of Fuego in Antigua.
Food in Guatemala is heavily influenced by the Mayan culture. Expect over-stuffed tamales filled with chicken, beef or seafood in the coastal areas. In Guatemala City, Kacao provides an intimate setting with brilliantly-colored Mayan décor and Guatemalan food.
Or try Ambia for a foodie experience fusing Guatemalan and Asian cuisines with molecular touches that imitate the surrounding volcanoes with eruptions of steam and flowing sauces.
With its Spanish colonial architecture, Antigua is perhaps the most photographed city in Guatemala. Shops surround a central plaza and the streets leading to it; Handmade crafts and even a chocolate factory are among the offerings.
The charming village of San Juan La Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlan is a good choice for experiencing the Mayan culture with fewer outside influences. The village is difficult to reach by land but can be accessed by water taxi from Panajachel. Expect to shop for handmade art, Mayan fabrics and local spices.
Where to Stay
Guatemala City offers a central location from which you can explore much of the country.
In the Zona Viva, modern hotels are concentrated within an area featuring food and evening entertainment. Marriott recently expanded into Guatemala with a Courtyard Hotel in the Zona Viva, just minutes from the airport. The hotel has everything you would expect from a Courtyard—onsite food service, bar and modern conveniences—all done with a truly Guatemalan flair.
The expansive second-floor lobby is an experience in itself—a mixture of modern and Mayan décor, where even the light fixtures mirror the lines of the country’s mountainous terrain. In typical Courtyard fashion, the hotel has ample meeting space and services for business travelers. But perks like in-room massage services and luxury showers are geared more toward the leisure traveler—with rates starting around $125 per night.
The staff is eager to assist with plans for exploring the rest of the country from your base in Guatemala City. Arrangements can be made for volcano hiking, day trips to Lake Atitlan, and even overnight trips to the Tikal National Park to explore Mayan ruins.
While guided tours may be the easiest choice of transportation for seeing everything Guatemala has to offer, car rentals are possible from several of the major brands, including, Avis, Hertz, Thrifty and Alamo. Highways are modern, with good traffic flow. All other roads require patience—traffic can be heavy and slowed by winding mountain roads.
PHOTO: Guatemala might well be the next top destination in Latin America. (photo via Pixabay/marcoreyes)