Moon Guatemala (Moon Handbooks) - Al Argueta (2015)
The Pacific Coast
the beach in Monterrico.
Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.
S Xocomil Water Park and Xetulul Amusement Park: This amazing recreational center has quickly become Guatemala’s top tourism draw. It’s a must-see if you’re traveling to Guatemala with children—or if you just need to indulge your inner child (click here).
S Takalik Abaj: This site spread over a series of terraces and coffee farms reveals interesting elements of Olmec influence in early Mayan culture. Adding to its allure is a wonderful lodge on its ninth terrace (click here).
S Manchón Guamuchal Wetland Preserve: These important protected wetlands are an excellent spot for bird-watching. The clean, gently sloping dark-sand beaches are also among Guatemala’s best-kept secrets (click here).
S Iztapa: Guatemala is undoubtedly the sailfishing capital of the world, with several world records for single-day catch-and-release in the waters just off the coast of Iztapa (click here).
S Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii: Here is one of Guatemala’s most popular, accessible beaches. In season, you’ll have the rare chance to spot nesting sea turtles before their initial voyage out to sea (click here).
Guatemala’s identity as a mostly mountainous country of cool lakes, evergreen forests, and wandering rivers means the coasts (Caribbean and Pacific) have often been overlooked.
Very few of the Pacific Coast’s black-sand beaches are inhabited, the chief economic activities along the seaboard being fishing, shrimp farming, and loofah production. The actual sand beaches are on a barrier island separated, along much of the coast, from mainland Guatemala by a narrow channel known as the Canal de Chiquimulilla, running the length of the coast from the town of Sipacate east to Las Lisas, near the Salvadoran border, traversing Puerto San José, Iztapa, and Monterrico along the way.
Things have started to change in recent years with the growth of Guatemala’s tourism industry, as visitors and foreign residents seek new places to explore beyond the well-trod path. The Pacific port of San José has always been popular with Guatemala City residents as a place for sun and surf, though foreign visitors will find more acceptable places to visit elsewhere along the Pacific seaboard; it’s just 90 minutes from the capital via a four-lane toll road. Adjacent to Puerto San José is the newer Puerto Quetzal, best known for its cruise ship terminal hosting an increasing number of seafaring visitors to Guatemala. The Pacific Coast plains are bisected by Highway CA-2, which runs west to east from the Mexican border all the way to El Salvador.
The beaches found in and around the area of Monterrico and its namesake sea turtle preserve have become the site of vacation homes and resort hotels. Nestled in between these two poles lies Iztapa, Guatemala’s original colonial seaport, which in recent years has gained notoriety as word gets out about the world-class sailfishing in Guatemala’s Pacific waters.
Guatemala is also Central America’s surfing frontier, with some excellent breaks on many of the coast’s empty beaches, particularly around the village of Sipacate and farther west toward Mexico. Retalhuleu, a haunt of the Pacific Coast’s farming and ranching community, is the site of the large-scale Xocomil and Xetulul amusement parks that are collectively Guatemala’s most-visited tourist attraction.
While many of the Pacific Coast beaches are not particularly good for swimming because of riptides, they are noteworthy because of their dark sand, the product of nearby volcanoes, which can be seen in the distance on a clear day. At the very least, the Pacific Coast offers the chance to enjoy a holiday in warm tropical weather, relaxing in a hammock strung between graceful coconut palms. This can be a welcome respite from an extended stay in the more temperate (and sometimes chilly) Guatemalan highlands.
Dos Mundos Pacific Resort in Monterrico
Border towns, beginning with El Carmen and then moving south and east from the Mexican border, are generally unattractive and increasingly unsafe. There is no reason to linger in these parts.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
Two nights would be optimal to explore and enjoy the twin parks of Xetulul and Xocomil. A few hours is enough time to explore the ruins of Takalik Abaj, but the excellent accommodations at Takalik Maya Lodge might keep you busy for another two days. Retalhuleu also makes an excellent base for exploring some of the surrounding countryside by bike, thanks to the presence of an excellent outfitter based here.
If you are in search of sand and sun, you might find yourself spending several nights at Monterrico. If your interest lies in surfing, you’ll certainly want to spend a few days in Sipacate or Iztapa. For sailfishing, Iztapa is the place to go and you’ll probably spend at least three days here. The 25-kilometer road between Iztapa and Monterrico is shaping up to be the closest thing to a Guatemalan Riviera and will certainly undergo some drastic changes in the next few years. For now, it’s still a sleepy seaside area largely dedicated to the production of loofah.
Retalhuleu and Vicinity
East from the Mexican border, the first town of any real interest to visitors is a rather pleasant place with a newfound importance as the gateway to some increasingly popular attractions. The most prominent of these are also Retalhuleu’s newest: the twin amusement parks of Xocomil and Xetulul, just a few minutes outside of town. Adding to its prominence as the southern coastal region’s new recreational hub is the proximity of the ruins of Takalik Abaj and some decent stretches of beach within a relatively short distance.
Commonly referred to as “Reu” by locals, the town has always been the playground of local coffee and sugarcane farmers, a fact that will be readily apparent by the prevalence of roadside hotels with sparkling swimming pools and pleasant outdoor restaurants. The weather here is warm year-round, but you can always find shelter from the scorching sun under the abundant palm trees, as you will see from the palm-lined boulevard leading to the town center from the main highway.
Reu is becoming increasingly attractive as a hub for exploring this side of Guatemala. Even if amusement parks aren’t your thing, there is plenty to keep you busy here and very comfortable accommodations from which to base your explorations. At least one local outfitter has begun to unravel the beauties of this pleasant sun-kissed stretch of the Pacific lowlands.
Downtown Retalhuleu’s main attraction, aside from the central square, is the Museo de Arqueología y Etnología (6a Avenida 5-68 Zona 1, tel. 7771-0557, 8am-5:30pm Tues.-Sat., 9am-noon Sun., $1.50) featuring archaeological relics on the ground floor and a collection of historical photographs from various stages of the city’s past on the second floor.
Retalhuleu’s impressive outdoor shopping mall, Centro Comercial La Trinidad (www.latrinidad.com.gt, 10am-9pm Mon.-Thurs., 10am-10pm Fri.-Sat., 11am-7pm Sun.), is near the bus depot at 1a Calle and 5a Avenida “A” Zona 5, and has a modern La Torre grocery store, cell phone stores, banks, ATMs, and a Carrion department store. There’s also a large condominium complex attached, attesting to the town’s prosperity and its status as an enclave of the agricultural elite. Another option is Paseo las Palmas (Avenida Circunvalación 8-30 Zona 6, tel. 7771-5156), with several shops and restaurants.
There are several motel-style places lining the main highway just outside of town where Guatemalan families like to stop and visit while en route from chillier locales in the highlands. These places tend to get a bit noisy on weekends, but during the week they tend to be quite silent. Hotel La Colonia (at Km. 178, Carretera al Pacífico, tel. 7955-5600, www.hlacoloniareu.com, duplex bungalows $48-52 d) is an old standby with spotless, comfortable, air-conditioned rooms. There is a swimming pool with a pleasant restaurant and bar. The higher prices are for recently renovated rooms. You can use the pool for the day at a cost of $1.50.
In the heart of town, Hotel La Quinta B&B (Corner of 5a Avenida and 5a Calle, Edificio Moran, 2nd floor, tel. 7771-0267 or 7771-4182, www.hotellaquintaguatemala.com, $34 d including breakfast) has comfortable, modern rooms with nice extras like flat-screen cable TV and free wireless Internet. Another fine place to lay your head is the friendly S Posada de Don José (5a Calle 3-67 Zona 1, tel. 7962-2900, www.posadadedonjose.com, $50-65 d), in an attractive two-story building centered around a small swimming pool and courtyard. Standard rooms are spotless and have good beds, cable TV, air-conditioning, ceiling fan, phone, and private hot-water bath. The larger suites have a sitting area and some nice furniture. The hotel’s restaurant, managed by Don José’s wife, serves some of the town’s tastiest food. The Mexican consulate is also based here. The well-furnished rooms in Hotel Astor (5a Calle 4-60 Zona 1, tel. 7957-8300, www.hotelastorguatemala.com, $55 d), are set in a colonial building and centered around a pretty garden courtyard and swimming pool. All rooms have air-conditioning, ceiling fan, and cable TV in addition to private hot-water bath. There is a restaurant in the lobby and a small sports bar.
A variety of decent restaurants are downtown. An excellent choice is the restaurant at S Posada de Don José (5a Calle 3-67 Zona 1, tel. 7771-0180 or 7771-0841, 8am-10pm daily), serving international cuisine with Guatemalan flair. Restaurante La Luna (5a Avenida 4-97 Zona 1, tel. 7771-0194, all meals daily), just off the plaza’s west corner, is a local favorite serving inexpensive Guatemalan fare.
At Paseo las Palmas, you’ll find Puro Rollo (Avenida Circunvalación 8-30 Zona 6, tel. 7771-0776, $2-5), which is Guatemala’s answer to Chipotle. They serve up deliciously fresh burritos made with corn or flour tortillas. You can accompany your meal with plantain chips, beer, soda, or a slushy.
Banco Industrial has Visa ATMs at its locations on the central plaza (6a Calle 5-17 Zona 1) and at Centro Comercial La Trinidad (1a Calle and 5a Avenida “A” Zona 5). Banco Agromercantil, also on 5a Avenida facing the plaza, has a MasterCard ATM. Both banks change U.S. dollars and travelers checks.
Most buses plying the Pacific Coast Highway (Carretera al Pacífico) stop in Retalhuleu’s main bus depot at 7a Avenida and 10a Calle. There are regular buses to Guatemala City, Quetzaltenango, the Mexican border, Champerico, and El Tulate.
NORTH AND WEST OF RETALHULEU
S Xocomil Water Park and Xetulul Amusement Park
The first of these, Parque Acuático Xocomil (Km. 180.5 on the road to Quetzaltenango, tel. 7772-5780, www.irtra.org.gt, 9am-5pm Thurs.-Sun. Jan. 8-Oct. 31, Wed.-Sun. Nov. 1-Dec. 15, daily Dec. 15-Jan. 7, $13 adult, $7 children and seniors), is a wonderful water park on par with the world’s best and a must-see if you are traveling with children. Among the attractions are 14 waterslides, a wave pool, and a lazy river meandering through the complex of re-created Mayan ruins and monuments. The main restaurant showcases a Mayan pyramid painted in ocher, green, and yellow, as it would have looked in the Classic period. Additional food stands are scattered throughout the park.
The second phase of an eventual four-park plan is Parque de Diversiones Xetulul (tel. 7722-9450, www.irtra.org.gt, 10am-6pm Thurs.-Sun. Jan. 8-Oct. 31, Wed.-Sun. Nov. 1-Dec. 15, daily Dec. 15-Jan. 7, $13 adult, $7 children and seniors; admission to both parks $19 adults, $10 for children and seniors), where a variety of amusement park rides are spread out among seven plazas, each with its own restaurant and gift shop showcasing a variety of replicated world monuments. Among the highlights are Paris’s Moulin Rouge, Rome’s Trevi Fountain, and Guatemala’s own Gran Jaguar Temple from Tikal. The park is also home to Central America’s largest roller coaster.
replica of Tikal’s Gran Jaguar Temple at Xetulul
A new convention center and 18-hole golf course were in the planning stages at the time of writing.
Hostales del IRTRA
Just across the road from the two theme parks are the lodgings created specifically to house visitors. The Hostales del IRTRA (Km 180.5 Carretera a Quetzaltenango por la Costa Sur, tel. 7722-9100, www.irtra.org.gt) encompass a virtual leisure city with various lodges, restaurants, bars, swimming pools, and a minigolf course. There are four separate lodging concepts ranging in price from $53 a night in the simplest accommodations without air-conditioning to $355 a night for a suite. The newest of the four hostales, S Hostal Palajunoj, was inspired by the cultures inhabiting the world’s tropical rainforests and is a favorite of guests. The five buildings in this complex each have a different theme: African, Polynesian, Thai, Indonesian, and Mayan. All rooms have air-conditioning, cable TV, a private bathroom, and wonderful wooden furnishings. The buildings housing the rooms at Palajunoj are worth a look for their unique architecture. The hostales outside this complex feature Spanish colonial, Greek, and rustic cabana architecture.
well-designed architecture of Restaurante Kapa Hapa at Hostales del IRTRA
There are three restaurants, the nicest of which is Restaurante Kapa Hapa, inspired by the cultures of Asia and the Pacific. A beautifully luminescent Polynesian sailboat graces the entrance as you make your way up the stairs to the second-floor dining room. Try the chicken satay and wash it down with a mai tai. Main dishes cost $7-12. Outdoor seating overlooking the Moana swimming pools is also available and a great place for breakfast, which includes a delicious menu of croissant sandwiches or lighter fare such as yogurt and pancakes.
A newer addition is that of Los Corozos Spa, offering a variety of spa treatments and massage therapy. Athletic facilities include tennis and squash courts. Racquets are available for rent ($2).
Any bus traveling along the Quetzaltenango-Retalhuleu road can drop you off here.
Dino Park (Parque Xulik)
Hollywood’s fictional Jurassic Park may have Costa Rica as its setting, but the closest thing to a real-world incarnation may be here in Guatemala. The Dino Park features animatronic versions of 12 different dinosaur species scattered among the grounds of a lush, 25,000-square-meter jungle area, complete with replicas of the jeeps and SUVs used in the aforementioned movie. It’s part of the larger Parque Xulik (Km. 175.5 Carretera a Quetzaltenango, 6am-6pm daily, $7 adults, $4 children), which is a toy museum dedicated in large part to action heroes.
Farther north along the road heading to Quetzaltenango, in the area known as Las Palmas, lies S Reserva Patrocinio (tel. 7771-4393 or 5203-5701, www.reservapatrocinio.com), an agro-ecological tourism destination with a variety of recreation options for à la carte fees (advanced reservations required). So-called “agritourism” is an increasingly popular form of recreation in Guatemala and encompasses natural areas adjacent to farms. The main attraction at El Patrocinio is bird-watching in and around its 25-hectare forest reserve. Other areas are dedicated to the cultivation of coffee, cacao, macadamia nuts, and exotic flowers, among others, which visitors are free to check out. There are three rooms in a comfortable, well-equipped farmhouse, each renting for $100 d with shared bath. The house has a kitchen and there is a separate and very pleasant open-sided dining room that fronts the coffee fields; meals can be prepared for you with advance notice.
The farm itself is on the slopes of Santiaguito Volcano and has outstanding views of its smoldering cone. It’s a great place to get away from it all. For the best views of the surrounding coffee fields, mountains, and volcanoes, climb atop the platform near the farmhouse. You can call the owner, Mario Aguilar, for a pickup ($12) or for directions from the Cuatro Caminos crossroads just outside of Retalhuleu; from there, it’s another 14 kilometers to the farm. A detailed map is available on the website.
Birding packages can be arranged by booking in advance directly through Reserva Patrocinio or through Cayaya Birding (tel. 5308-5160, www.cayaya-birding.com).
Comunidad Nueva Alianza
About 45 minutes north of Retalhuleu, Comunidad Nueva Alianza (tel. 5348-5290, www.comunidadnuevaalianza.org) is a 300-acre organic coffee and macadamia plantation owned and operated by a cooperative of 40 Guatemalan families. Large tracts of tropical forest have been preserved on the property. A walk through the plantation will bring you to cascading waterfalls and wonderful views of Santa María and Santiaguito Volcanoes. The community received legal title to the land in 2004 after a drawn-out conflict with the farm’s former owner who failed to pay workers’ wages for 18 months and subsequently declared bankruptcy. The community received a loan to purchase the land and is actively making efforts to fund repayment of the loan via numerous activities. These include ecotourism, production of bamboo furniture, sustainable energy production, and coffee and macadamia nut production.
Tours can be arranged via Quetzaltenango travel agencies or directly through the cooperative. You can stay in the community’s comfortable lodgings in a dorm-style room with shared bath for $9 pp or in a private room with shared bath for $30 d. Meals cost $4-8 each. The community accepts volunteers for hostel maintenance, agricultural work, and community development. See the website for detailed instructions on how to get here.
S Takalik Abaj
The site of Takalik Abaj (7am-5pm daily, $3.50), meaning “standing stones,” is particularly interesting because it reveals elements of Olmec influence in early Mayan culture. It made headlines as recently as 2002 with the discovery of an intact royal burial tomb thought to be that of the site’s last Mayan ruler, a discovery featured in the May 2004 issue of National Geographic.
Formerly known as Abaj Takalik because of an error in translation, the site is spread out over 6.5 square kilometers along nine terraces. Its ceremonial center, at the city’s core, is open to visitors but the remains of the city’s outskirts are now on lands occupied by five coffee farms. One of these, on the ninth terrace, is home to an ecolodge.
In its heyday, between 800 BC and AD 200, Takalik Abaj was an important commercial and political center at the heart of a far-ranging trade network in which cacao and salt were exchanged for obsidian, quetzal feathers, pyrite, and jade.
More than 275 structures have been unearthed here. Now being restored in an area once belonging to a private coffee and banana plantation is Structure 5, the tallest structure at 16 meters high. It occupies Terrace 3. East of here is Structure 7, thought to have been an astronomical observatory. Structure 4 contains some very clear engraving in Mayan style. There are many sculptures scattered throughout the site. Among them are smaller versions of the giant Olmecoid heads seen elsewhere, as well as the potbellied barrigones that are also typical of Olmec influence. Also noteworthy is Structure 12, the largest structure with a base measuring 56 by 42 meters and dating to AD 300. Standing before it are seven carved monuments, including Altar 8, and Stela 5, which shows two kings presiding over bound captives. Olmecoid heads and zoomorphs compose the other finely carved monuments at this structure. Structure 11 is similar, also with seven monuments before it.
Takalik Abaj was sacked sometime around AD 300 and its Mayan-style monuments were ritualistically defaced. Some were rebuilt after AD 600. The location is still an important ceremonial site and many highland Maya perform ceremonies there.
To get to Takalik Abaj, drive or take a bus heading out from Retalhuleu to the town of El Asintal, 12 kilometers northwest of Reu and 5 kilometers north of the Carretera al Pacífico (Pacific Coast Highway, CA-2). The turnoff is at Km. 190.5. Buses leave from 5a Avenida “A” southwest of the town plaza about every half hour during daylight hours. From El Asintal, pickups cover the remaining four kilometers to the site. You can also take a taxi from Reu’s main plaza for about $30 round-trip, including waiting time.
Takalik Maya Lodge
Just two kilometers up the road, on the site’s ninth terrace, is the exquisite S Takalik Maya Lodge (Terraza 9 del Sitio Arqueologico Takalik Abaj, Km. 190.5 Carretera al Pacífico, tel. 4055-9831 or 2506-4716, www.takalik.com, $32-62), where you have your choice between two different concepts, both on lands occupied by the working Montes Eliseos coffee farm. The Kacike Maya concept is built in a heavily forested area near the lodge’s restaurant. There are two beautiful and comfortable rooms, each with unique interior paint and decor. Both have a winding staircase leading to a second-floor balcony, where you can lounge away soothed by the sounds of the surrounding jungle. The rooms are truly a work of art, and the walls are painted with motifs inspired by the natural beauty all around. Indigenous bedspreads, gas lamps, and tile floors complete the ambience. You can stay at the Kacike Maya for $47-62 per person, including breakfast.
A Guatemalan Take on Disney World
The twin theme parks of Xocomil and Xetulul sprouted seemingly out of nowhere just a few years ago on the outskirts of Retalhuleu along the road to Quetzaltenango. The first of these, Xocomil, opened its doors in 1997, with Xetulul being added in 2002. Both parks are operated by IRTRA, the Institute for the Recreation of Guatemalan Private Industry Workers, a private entity created by the Guatemalan congress. This organization operates three other parks near Guatemala City.
Xocomil and Xetulul opened to much fanfare and are beloved by Guatemalans and foreigners alike for the quality of the parks’ attractions, their cleanliness, and the friendliness of the staff. By any standard, the parks are impressive, and they are special because they showcase the excellent quality and amazing potential of the Guatemalan service sector. The theme parks and the accommodations built to house their guests truly have nothing to envy in similar attractions in developed nations. If you are traveling in this part of Guatemala with children, a stop at Xocomil or Xetulul is almost obligatory.
Xocomil and Xetulul receive more than one million visitors annually, making them Guatemala’s top tourist draw. There are plans to build two more parks in the lands adjacent to them. Retalhuleu itself has already begun a transformation inspired by the parks’ creation. Though it has always been a regional recreational center, the arrival of more visitors to the area has vastly improved the quality of local hotels, though prices have likewise increased. In addition to its popularity with Guatemalans, visitors from southern Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras also flock to the parks in droves. There are plans to build an airport, allowing those visitors to arrive by plane on package tours.
At the Paseo del Café, just up the road, you can stay in the heart of a 19th-century coffee farm in comfortable wooden buildings with charming red tin roofs centered around a small plaza. The seven rooms here have electricity and share a bathroom. They are also just steps from a refreshing swimming pool surrounded by lush jungle and coffee bushes. Rooms here range from $32-42 per person and include breakfast. The restaurant, on the Kacike side of the lodge, serves a somewhat limited menu, though the food is quite good, with entrées in the $6-9 range that include kebabs and salads. The homemade lemonade is particularly thirst-quenching after a visit to the ruins.
Numerous nature trails wind their way through the farm and there is a small but refreshing waterfall just a 10-minute hike away. In addition to Takalik Abaj tours, the lodge can also arrange bird-watching, horseback riding, and visits to the Manchón Guamuchal Wetland Preserve and Chicabal Lagoon.
S Manchón Guamuchal Wetland Preserve
This wild, 13,500-hectare private wetland reserve harbors the last remaining undisturbed mangrove swamps in the country. The Manchón Guamuchal is included in the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, encompassing a list of globally important sites, particularly those that provide habitat for aquatic birds. The convention was adopted in 1971 and signed by more than 100 countries. Guatemala ratified the convention in June 1990, and in 1998 the Manchón Guamuchal was added to the list of sites with international importance.
According to a recent study by a Brazilian biologist, the wetlands are an important stop along the path of migratory birds coming from Canada and the United States. Among the varied birdlife are 14 duck species, 12 of which are migratory, sparrow hawks, buzzards, falcons, and 20 species of egrets. Birds arrive sometime in October to November, leaving in March after wintering in the lagoons. In addition to birds, there are crocodiles, iguanas, and an abundance of fish.
The reserve is just now being made accessible to tourism, and ingress to the park is fairly straightforward. Along the road from Retalhuleu to the port of Champerico, a turnoff at kilometer 215 veers right (west) through Aldea Acapán and then 17 kilometers to the village of El Manchón. There is one daily bus leaving for Retalhuleu at 5am and making the return journey to El Manchón at 3pm.
Your best bet for staying here is Casa Mar Azul (tel. 2438-3934 or 4686-0940, www.casamarazulguate.com), where there are comfortable seaside accommodations and good food at decent prices. Facilities include a swimming pool with plenty of room to lounge and kayaks for exploring the mangrove-laden canals.
EAST TO ESCUINTLA
East of Retalhuleu along the Pacific Coast Highway to the department of Escuintla is Mazatenango, a coffee and sugarcane hub with little of interest for the international traveler. If you need to stop for a bite to eat your best bet is Plaza Americas, a modern shopping center conveniently situated just off the Pacific Coast Highway outside the town center. Choose from Pollo Campero, Sarita, Pizza Hut, and Burger King. There’s even a movie theater.
Escuintla department is in many ways the gateway to the Pacific Coast, as it is easily accessed from Guatemala City and La Antigua. The departmental capital is a somewhat shady agglomeration of dilapidated houses and businesses serving mostly as a stopping point on the way elsewhere. (A toll road circumvents the departmental capital, so it’s no longer even necessary to pass through it.) The department itself harbors the Pacific Coast’s main ports, cruise ship terminal, and several seaside attractions.
Sipacate is Guatemala’s surfing capital. Nowhere near as popular as in Costa Rica or even neighboring El Salvador, surfing nonetheless has some aficionados in this neck of the woods, and there are some perfectly surf-worthy waves on the Guatemalan shores. International travelers are just now starting to get a clue, but in the meantime, a lucky few surfers can still ride these waves undisturbed by throngs of fellow wave enthusiasts, despite international travel magazines’ best attempts to make these sites more widely known.
The drive south to Sipacate is almost as pretty as the beaches, with palmettos lining the road on either side of the well-paved, fast highway. Once in town, it should cost you about $1.40 to cross the Canal de Chiquimulilla over to the beaches. Sipacate’s recommended accommodation, Rancho Carrillo (tel. 4730-7024 or 5413-9395, www.marmaya.com, $50-130) is on a clean stretch of private beach. Rancho Carrillo offers a restaurant, pool, and bungalows with air-conditioning, private baths, minifridges, and cable TV. The bungalows house six or eight people and cost $110 or $130-156 regardless of occupancy. A family-sized unit for up to eight people costs $130. Smaller, more basic rooms with air-conditioning, outdoor hammocks, and decks fronting the beach cost $50 d. There are deals available if you’re here Sunday-Thursday.
While neighboring countries such as Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and even El Salvador have acquired relative status as Central American surf spots, Guatemala has remained somewhat obscure in this regard. Although the country’s Pacific shores have perfectly surf-worthy breaks, the coast has always taken a backseat to the scenic and cultural wonders of the highlands, among other areas. A relative lack of tourism infrastructure in this region has also contributed to keeping the Pacific Coast on the periphery of Guatemala’s emerging status as a destination for outdoor-loving, adventurous travelers.
The newfound popularity of beach destinations such as Monterrico and Iztapa has resulted in the corresponding development of coastal areas near these beach towns. As more and more people visit, locals and foreigners alike are discovering that you can, in fact, surf in Guatemala. The Guatemalan surfing community can be found mostly in small villages along the coast and numbers only about 100 people, according to local estimates. Surfing Guatemala’s breaks means you won’t have to share a wave with 20 other people, as is the case with other, more popular regions along the Central American coast. The best surfing beaches in Guatemala can be found at Iztapa and Sipacate, both of which have more-than-adequate accommodations.
Surfing has become increasingly popular in Guatemala.
U.S. travel magazines have put the word out concerning El Paredón Surf Camp (tel. 4593-2490, www.surf-guatemala.com), a bare-bones surfing paradise on one of Guatemala’s best breaks. Still, you wouldn’t know it cruising around the sandy streets of this quiet village where chickens roam freely. You can still show up on almost any given day with nary another surfer in sight.
The biggest waves can be found during swells occurring between mid-March and late October with wave faces sometimes as large as 18 feet. During other times of the year, waves average 3-6 feet with the occasional 10-foot swell.
If you want to check out the surfing scene in Guatemala, a useful website is www.surfinguatemala.com, established by Pedro Pablo Vergara, a local surfer who costarted Maya Extreme Surf School and offers trips to Guatemala’s surf spots. The site lists about 20 breaks along the Pacific Coast with area maps to help you find them, along with information on accommodations ranging from budget surf camps to stays in private villas. The school can also arrange transportation for you and your surfboards to various surf spots from Guatemala City.
Along with Maripaz Fernandez, Vergara started Maya Extreme Surf School (www.mayaextreme.com) in 2001 and Maya Extreme Surf Shop (Centro Comercial Pradera Concepción Local 308, tel. 6637-9593) in 2005. The shop sells the company’s own brand of “G-land surfboards” and is based in one of Guatemala City’s nicest shopping malls. A one-day “learn to surf” package costs $125, including transfers, food, equipment, and instruction.
In 2006, Robert August (of Endless Summer fame) traveled to Guatemala with his crew to surf the Pacific Coast waves. The result was The Endless Journey Continues, a movie chronicling their trip to Guatemala.
El Paredón Buena Vista
East from Sipacate about five kilometers is the village of El Paredón Buena Vista, home to Guatemala’s surfing mecca. El Paredón is inside Sipacate-Naranjo National Park, home to large extensions of mangrove forests. Little has been done to make the park an authentic ecotourism attraction. The emphasis at El Paredón is decidedly on the surfing aspects, though local lodges can arrange kayaking in the neighboring lagoons. El Paredón is accessible by boat from Sipacate or along a dirt road leading to the village. The turnoff for the final 14-kilometer journey is just past the luxury Juan Gaviota condominium complex.
Volunteer opportunities are now available working with La Choza Chula (www.lachozachula.org), which is busy building a school and has already put together a library. They’ve also helped locals build relationships with international retailers for which they produce yoga mat bags and surfboard socks. You can get your surf on and help out the local community.
Featured in National Geographic Adventure and Outside but still very much off the radar, El Paredón Surf Camp (tel. 4593-2490, www.surf-guatemala.com, $3.75-40) is the Pacific Coast’s surfing hideaway. Rates range from $3.75 sleeping in your own tent to $40 in an equipped double-occupancy apartment. Other options include bunk beds ($6 pp) and private rooms ($20 d). Meals ($3-5) are provided by a local family and are heavy on seafood. Surfboards are available for rent at $15 a day, though there is a $50 deposit. You can put them to good use on the sea, which dishes out 1.5- to 2-meter (5- to 6-foot) rollers opposite the lovely beach at your doorstep. The owners insist you book in advance. Transport from Antigua or Guatemala City takes two hours and costs $50-60 per person with a two-person minimum. It is highly recommended, as getting here by public bus involves changing buses four times.
Boats take passengers from Sipacate across the Canal de Chiquimulilla to El Paredón.
Another option is S Paredón Surf House (tel. 5691-3096 or 4994-1842, www.paredonsurf.com, $11 pp in loft to $100 d in casita with private bath and beachfront porch). It’s a stylish and yet simple seaside retreat perfect for surfers looking to be right on the beach in more private surroundings or anyone just looking to get off the grid for a bit. The raised-platform beachfront bungalows ($47 d) share a communal bathroom with the lofts. Spring for one of the private-bath seaview suites, a good value at $75 d. The new casitas are great for couples or those traveling with friends, as they have a downstairs bar area and breezy bedrooms with sea views upstairs. This place just keeps getting better. There are boogie boards and surfboards for rent; surfing lessons are also available. A full restaurant and bar serves up good food and cocktails. A three-course dinner is about $11. Transport from Antigua (starting at $15 pp) and the Guatemala City airport are available.
a seaview casita at Paredón Surf House in El Paredón Buena Vista
The departmental capital of Escuintla is a sweltering, busy place and mainly a pit stop along the road to the coast from Guatemala City, or if you’re heading east-west along the Pacific Coast Highway. A four-lane autopista starts just outside of Guatemala City and leads from Palín to Escuintla, with inspiring views of Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango Volcanoes along the way. Another four-lane highway continues south from Escuintla to Puerto San José, Puerto Quetzal, and Iztapa. A bypass means you don’t need to even pass through town unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Auto Safari Chapín
East on the road from Escuintla to Taxisco is one of the most unusual attractions in Guatemala and indeed all of Central America, the Auto Safari Chapin (Km. 87.5 Carretera a Taxisco, tel. 2222-5858, www.autosafarichapin.com, 9:30am-5pm Tues.-Sun., $8 adults, $7 children), where you can drive through grounds harboring a variety of animals, including zebras, hippos, rhinos, giraffes, and a lion. There are also local species such as macaws and monkeys, which you can see in a small zoo, and an aviary. There is a rest area partway through the drive where you can get up close and personal with the park’s giraffes. A swimming pool and restaurant round out the list of amenities.
West of the dilapidated, grungy port town of Puerto San José, Chulamar is home to many of the weekend vacation homes of wealthy folks from Guatemala City. Here you’ll find one of the Pacific Coast’s most luxurious lodging options, built to satisfy the demands of the Guatemalan elite. The S Soleil Pacífico (tel. 7879-3131, www.hotelessoleilguatemala.com, $80-122 d), formerly a Radisson property, is a huge resort complex on a clean private beach with all the feel of an Acapulco beachside megaresort. Although it’s popular on weekends, you may just have the place all to yourself if you visit during the middle of the week. There are two swimming pools and a variety of dining options. You can get a day pass to enjoy the swimming pool and the hotel grounds for $50 per person, a popular option with cruise ship passengers. Many of the sailfishing outfits also accommodate their clients here. Transport to the hotel is available from Guatemala City and Antigua with prior arrangement.
Juan Gaviota (www.juangaviota.com), a huge planned community spanning 15 kilometers of beachfront located 12 kilometers west of Puerto San José, is the newest enclave of Guatemala’s elite and has all the feel of a Miami subdivision. The first of several construction phases encompassing this ambitious project is Marina del Sur, which features a central clubhouse with a restaurant fronting the Pacific Ocean, in addition to swimming pools, tennis courts, soccer fields, and beach volleyball courts. Juan Gaviota is equipped with a boat marina, and future plans call for a golf course, time-share condos, and hotels. A few homes are available for rent. The best place to look for beach villa rentals in this neck of the woods is on the website of Antigua-based Century 21 Casa Nova (www.vacationrentalsguatemala.com). Homes here rent for about $700 a week, or $400 for a weekend. This is a self-contained, gated community, and you won’t find much outside of the private homes in the community.
Juan Gaviota: Guatemala’s Planned Paradise
While Guatemala’s Pacific Coast hasn’t yet attracted the attention of foreign investors, this doesn’t mean the region lacks infrastructure comparable to that of its better-known neighbors. Local investors, as they always do in Guatemala, have stepped in to fill the void. The planned community of Juan Gaviota began in the late 1990s as the dream of a group of five Guatemalan investors who purchased a sizable land plot with 15 kilometers of beachfront.
The development essentially sprang up out of nowhere. A trail crisscrossing the property was upgraded to a serviceable road, a canal was dredged (and a bridge to cross it built), and electricity had to be brought in. The latter, at a cost of over $4 million, now benefits nearby communities in addition to residents of Marina del Sur. Wave breakers were installed in order to provide a safe haven for boats and facilitate the construction of the marina. Several thousand tons of rock were also brought in. The first phase of Marina del Sur alone is estimated to have cost over $130 million.
The project has a 20-year master plan, made in conjunction with a local consulting firm. The next phase encompasses a golf course and three hotels, opening Juan Gaviota to foreign investors and visitors. It is rumored the hotels are being built by a U.S. investment firm.
The main attraction here is the Puerto Quetzal Cruise Ship Terminal, where an increasing number of boats calling on Guatemala’s Pacific Coast make landfall. Within the larger terminal area is the Marina Pez Vela (tel. 2379-5790), harboring boats for sailfishing adventures. You can also book sailfishing trips from here. Guatemala Sport Fishing (tel. 5709-8697) has a charter desk that operates out of the marina. Cruise ship passengers will find several amenities, including Internet access, telephone communications, and stands selling a variety of local handicrafts. There’s also an excellent restaurant, 7 Caldos del Mar (Seven Soups of the Sea, tel. 2361-8176, $10-30), run by the amiable Dimitris Moliviatis. You’ll find more than seven soups on the menu—including tapado, sancocho, and kakik—as well as a variety of meat and seafood dishes, and a fully stocked bar. Order a Cuba Libre (rum and coke) with Guatemala’s famous Zacapa Centenario rum.
Farther west along the coastline are the lovely beaches of Iztapa, which are remarkably clean, wide, and sandy. Although the town itself is a dilapidated old port town, it is becoming increasingly popular as the jumping-off point for some of the world’s best sailfishing. Iztapa is Guatemala’s original port, used by the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Alvarado to build boats and set sail for his onward journey to Peru. Anglers will find first-class accommodations to complement the world-class fishing just off the coast. Surfers will find plenty of waves to ride here, as there is a fairly decent break. A newer recreational offering is that of whale-watching tours during the winter months. All beach access in Iztapa is private and visitors have to cross the canal to get to the beaches. Your best bet is to stay at an area lodge.
the shoreline at Iztapa
A five-night fishing package (includes boat, captain, meals, transport from Guatemala City airport, accommodation in Iztapa and Antigua/Guatemala City hotels) generally starts at $1,550 per person, based on a group of four. Add-ons include golfing in Guatemala City or La Antigua. Tips for the boat captain generally run about $100 per day per group.
Among the recommended outfitters is the American-owned and operated Sailfish Bay Lodge (tel. 2426-3909 direct or 800/638-7405 U.S. reservations, www.sailfishbay.com). Packages include food and accommodations at a beautiful eight-room lodge right on the beach across the canal in Iztapa. Under the same ownership, Pacific Fins Resort & Marina (tel. 888/700-3467 U.S., www.pacificfins.com.gt) operates out of its very attractive namesake lodge and restaurant fronting the Canal de Chiquimulilla. Another option is Buena Vista Sportfishing Lodge (Calle Baja Mar, Aldea Buena Vista, tel. 7880-4203/04 or 866/699-3277 U.S., www.buenavistasportfishing.com, $100 d), owned by an American expatriate. Its developer sees huge potential along the Guatemalan coast after having drifted here from Costa Rica.
Based in Antigua, and a joint Guatemalan-American venture, is The Great Sailfishing Company (tel. 7934-6220, Antigua or 877/763-0851 U.S., www.greatsailfishing.com). You can fish using conventional methods as well as fly-fishing, and the company’s informative website can point you in the right direction when planning a sailfishing trip to Guatemala. Guests stay at Soleil Pacífico resort or a private villa within the same compound.
Based in Florida and operating out of its namesake lodge one mile west of Puerto San José, Casa Vieja Lodge (tel. 800/882-4665 U.S., www.casaviejalodge.com) is one of the larger outfitters. Many of its staff members worked for Iztapa’s original sailfishing lodge, Fins ‘N Feathers. The lodge is in an old wood house (as its name implies) that has been wonderfully restored to afford anglers a comfortable place to come back to after a day of fishing. Also recommended is Blue Bayou Sailfishing (tel. 5208-0098 Guatemala, 810/516-0578 U.S., www.bluebayouguatemala.com), run by a Michigan transplant. Sailfishing trips include accommodations in a comfortable poolside villa inside a private compound near Marina Pez Vela.
A good value-priced option is Big Buoy Fishing (tel. 3215-9312 Guatemala, 850/226-2608 U.S., www.bigbuoyfishing.com). It operates out of a somewhat less ostentatious villa fronting the canal. Last but not least is Sailfish Oasis (tel. 5251-4809 in Guatemala, www.sailfishoasissportfishing.com) operating out of its namesake (and very attractive) lodge on the banks of the Canal de Chiquimulilla.
Whale Watching Guatemala (tel. 2366-1026, www.whalewatchingguatemala.com, $235 per person adults, $210 per child) operates a six-hour tour. In addition to whales (humpback, short-finned pilot, finback, and whale sharks), you can expect to see bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles, and manta rays. Trips leave on weekends from December through April (at 7am from Aldea Buena Vista), and the cost includes breakfast, lunch, and drinks onboard the boat. You can also charter a boat with a minimum of eight people on weekdays. Guatemala Fishing Tours & Whale Watching (tel. 5707-1710, www.guatemalafishingtours.com, $800-1,350 for boat charter) also does whale-watching tours. They charge for the boat charter, including fuel but nothing else. Maximum capacity is six. It’s an alright setup if you want to put a group together and take care of your own food and beverage.
landing a sailfish on Guatemala’s Pacific coast
Accommodations and Food
In town, adequate accommodations can be found at Sol y Playa Tropical (1a Calle 5-48 Zona 1, tel. 7867-3847, $40 d), which has rooms with private baths and ceiling fans or air-conditioning, situated around a nicely landscaped swimming pool area. A nicer option is Hotel Suites Mar y Sol (Km. 104.5 Carretera a Iztapa, tel. 7934-2364, www.hotelmarysol.com, $78 d). Its spacious suites include a kitchen with microwave oven and refrigerator; rooms have cable TV and air-conditioning. There are two swimming pools and a swim-up bar. Across the Canal de Chiquimulilla and right on the beach, Iztapa’s nicest accommodations are at the S Sailfish Bay Lodge (tel. 2426-3909 direct or 800/638-7405 U.S. reservations, www.sailfishbay.com, $175 d). Accommodations here are usually sold as part of a sailfishing package, but you are more than welcome to stay on your own. The Guatemalan Pacific Coast’s best-kept secret is a modern, well-designed lodge featuring a thatched-roof seaside bar and swimming pool with whirlpool bath, comfortable ocean-view rooms with all the usual amenities, and an excellent restaurant fronting the canal. You can enjoy phenomenal views of three volcanoes rising above the surrounding mangroves while you dine. The outstanding feature of this place is that it’s the only lodge sitting right on the broad, black-sand beach. A number of luxurious beach villas are the only neighbors. There are surfboards for guests’ use. Transportation to the lodge from Guatemala City or Antigua is also available.
The Sailfish Capital of the World
A unique swirling of ocean currents between Mexico and El Salvador creates an eddy unusually rich in pelagic fish (such as herring and mackerel) right on Guatemala’s doorstep, where billfish, including sailfish and marlin, gather to feed along with large concentrations of dorado, yellowfin tuna, and wahoo. The result is some of the world’s best sailfishing waters.
Enthusiasts of Guatemala’s emerging sailfishing scene are quick to point out that it is the true “Sailfish Capital of the World” and have the numbers to back up their claims. The world records for conventional and fly-fishing single-day catches have been set here, at 75 and 23 respectively. In March 2006, a single vessel carrying five anglers caught and released a whopping 124 sailfish. While the records are indeed impressive, anglers plying the Guatemalan Pacific Coast need not worry about any “feast or famine” phenomenon, as catch-and-release numbers are quite consistent. In terms of billfish releases per angler, Guatemala ranks at the top (a statistic compiled by The Southwest Fisheries Science Center in California). Its catch per unit of effort (CPUE) for Pacific sailfish in 2005 was 5.83 compared to Costa Rica’s 2.57 and Panama’s 2.25. On average, you can expect to catch 15-20 fish per boat per day, but catches of 25 fish aren’t uncommon.
Guatemala’s strength is certainly in its numbers. Unlike most of its competitors, Guatemala’s not known as a beach destination with impressive resort accommodations. All that is starting to change, however, and there are now some very comfortable accommodations where you can stay right on the beach and relax after a long day at sea. Some outfitters accommodate anglers in their own lodges; otherwise there are private luxury villas on the beach or the large Soleil Pacífico resort. Many outfits combine fishing packages with a round of golf on one of Guatemala City’s excellent golf courses. All of the outfitters listed practice catch-and-release and use circle hooks, as mandated by Guatemalan law.
Fishing is active year-round, but most anglers come between November and May seeking a respite from colder climates. Prices for fishing packages vary by the size of the boat used and can be fairly expensive in Guatemala; boats generally travel 40-80 kilometers (25-50 miles) offshore to a deep, 600-meter (2,000-foot) basin where sailfish tend to congregate around its rim, translating into higher fuel costs. Boats heading out this way are usually in the 28-foot range, but there are also a few 42- and 43-foot boats. Expect to pay about $2,100 per person for two people on a two-day and three-night fishing package on a 28-foot boat. Most packages include food and drink, accommodations, boat and captain, gear, and transfers to and from the Guatemala City airport. Anglers often spend their last night in Antigua or Guatemala City.
Another option is Buena Vista Sportfishing Lodge (Calle Baja Mar, Aldea Buena Vista, tel. 7880-4203/04 or 866/699-3277 U.S., www.buenavistasportfishing.com), housed in a large yellow villa fronting the Chiquimulilla canal. Boats dock right in front of the property, so it’s a quick trip to your shower or the lodge’s swimming pool. The large somewhat spartan rooms feature air-conditioning and private baths.
Iztapa’s best-known restaurant is popular with anglers and locals alike. El Capitán (tel. 7881-4403 or 3036-7333, 7am-9pm daily) serves large portions of tasty seafood and meat dishes under a thatched-roof palapa facing the lagoon. It also has a lively bar.
Next door to El Capitán, the S Pacific Fins Resort & Marina (tel. 888/700-3467 U.S., www.pacificfins.com.gt, $150-250 d) is an attractive lodge with six two-bedroom/two-bath villas with kitchenette and living room. Rooms include satellite flat-screen televisions, hardwood accents, wireless Internet, and brand-new furniture. All rooms have air-conditioning. The bar and restaurant, facing the lodge’s swimming pool, offer a varied menu that includes sandwiches, pasta, grilled, sauteéd, or breaded fish, chicken Florentine, and Argentinean-style parrilladas. Stays at the resort are usually part of a multiday fishing package, but hosts are also open to receiving guests just looking for a place to relax in the tropical swelter. If you’re not in Guatemala to fish and just want to stay here, your best chance of scoring a room is during the off-season (May-Oct.).
The same buses that leave Guatemala City’s bus terminal for Puerto San José more often than not continue to Iztapa. Most anglers arrive on all-inclusive packages booked directly through their operation of choice, covering transportation logistics.
ALONG THE IZTAPA-MONTERRICO ROAD
Heading east from Iztapa, a smooth paved road travels along the coastline for about 25 kilometers to Monterrico. A bridge from Iztapa’s Colonia 20 de Octubre ($3 per vehicle) transports you across the canal to Puerto Viejo, from where the road begins. You’ll see loofah farms lining the side of the road and the occasional turnoff toward the beach, where numerous small hotels have begun to spring up on what is probably the finest stretch of sand on Guatemala’s Pacific shores. There are rumors of a luxurious 18-hole golf course planned somewhere along this route in the not-too-distant future.
Accommodations and Food
S Cayman Suites (Km. 10.5, tel. 5529-6518/19 lodge; 2332-7161 reservations, www.caymansuites.com.gt, $85-155 d) is set on a spectacular beach flanked by a kidney-shaped swimming pool and open-air palapa-roofed restaurant and bar. Its 22 rooms feature all the usual amenities, some with gorgeous sea views, and include deluxe rooms, junior suites, and spacious, fully furnished suites. All rooms have wireless Internet, DirecTV, and fine hardwood accents. The restaurant serves good international cuisine and seafood. ATVs are available for rent. Just one kilometer away, at kilometer 11.5, is the also stylish S Villa Los Cabos (tel. 2363-4325, www.villaloscabos.com.gt, $300-325). Although a private community, villa number 12C has been kept open for rentals. The horseshoe-shaped complex comprises three-story units built around a sprawling swimming pool overlooking the sea. The beautiful villa includes three bedrooms, two bathrooms, air-conditioning, a private patio with hot tub, and a living room, dining room, and full kitchen. It sleeps eight and comes fully equipped.
Should you need to fill up, there is a gas station at kilometer 17. A good place to stop for a snack or pick up any needed groceries is Las Garzas (Km. 17.5, tel. 4073-1399, 7:30am-9pm daily). The owners of this friendly roadside minimart can help you get your bearings. They also serve snacks, including pizza and sandwiches, which you can enjoy in a pleasant outdoor patio setting.
The last place you’ll come across on this road is Utz Tzaba (Km. 21.8, tel. 5318-9452, www.utz-tzaba.com, $95 d, $200 bungalow for up to 6 people), which has 10 rooms in a large main building as well as four bungalows. All rooms have tile floors, private hot-water bathrooms, wireless Internet, air-conditioning, and ceiling fans. The bungalows include two bedrooms and a living room and come fully furnished with minifridge, gas range, kitchen sink, and dining room table. There is a bar by the infinity-edge swimming pool, along with whirlpool tub. The hotel’s restaurant serves excellent meals, including sandwiches, pasta, and seafood in the $6-10 range. The lodge is closed yearly on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Call ahead, as it’s also closed for fumigation about every two months.
Monterrico and Hawaii
Monterrico, once a sleepy fishing village with one hotel run by an ex-Peace Corps volunteer is fast becoming popular with foreigners looking to get some time by the beach on their trip to Guatemala. The village has grown considerably in the last few years, as has the quality of its accommodations. It is a popular weekend destination with folks from Guatemala City and students from Antigua’s Spanish schools. The same architects who gave Xocomil and Xetulul Parks their outstanding visual appeal were hired by INGUAT and local tourism authorities to provide Monterrico with an urban face-lift—complete with a tree-lined entrance to the main beach, pedestrian walkway, and a boat marina fronting Canal de Chiquimulilla. The pedestrian thoroughfare, officially dubbed Paseo de Don Pedro (after Pedro Cofiño Kepfer, a key player in masterminding Monterrico’s urban face-lift, who died in a tragic accident in 2007), has yet to attract the upscale businesses it seems to have been designed for. Nonetheless, it is a pleasant way to get from town to the beach.
oceanfront Cayman Suites, along the road from Iztapa to Monterrico
Although it’s easy to see Monterrico as a beach destination, it should be noted that it was a protected sea turtle nesting site long before it became the haunt of beach-seeking vacationers. Visitors can contribute to the conservation efforts of the local sea turtle conservation site via their paid admission to tour its grounds. As for the beaches in Monterrico, there are, in all honesty, better and cleaner stretches elsewhere along Guatemala’s Pacific seaboard. The waves break very close to the sand here and the beaches slope dramatically downward, which means you don’t have a particularly wide stretch of beach, unlike at Iztapa or Tilapa farther west. The undertow, as along much of the Pacific Coast, is severe, and drownings are not uncommon. Exercise due caution.
In addition to the beaches, Monterrico offers the opportunity to interact with nature in some unique ways, whether it’s touring the mangrove canals, holding a baby sea turtle in your hand before its maiden voyage out to sea, or watching a mother turtle come ashore to lay eggs in total darkness. Try to engage in at least one of these ecologically responsible activities while keeping in mind the ecological significance of this site. The sea turtles here have a fighting chance, though they are being wiped out elsewhere by the indiscriminate harvesting of their eggs. A newer threat to Guatemala’s coastal ecosystems comes from Canadian and Australian mining interests, as its black-sand beaches are said to harbor 12 percent of the world’s iron reserves.
Eight kilometers east along the sandy shoreline is Parque Hawaii, a remoter turtle nesting and iguana and crocodile breeding site on a pretty beach marked by the presence of sand dunes. The Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Association (ARCAS, www.arcasguatemala.com) has a sea turtle, crocodile, and mangrove conservation project here. Volunteers are welcome for a minimum one-week commitment ($90 per week for accommodations only) and assist in various projects, including animal care, construction projects, mangrove reforestation, environmental education, and turtle egg collection and hatchery management. Volunteers are also needed for another project in the neighboring village of El Rosario, six kilometers east. Turtle nesting season runs June-November with the peak of the action in August and September.
Hawaii is host to a few weekend homes for Guatemala’s elite but has also added some recommended hotels of late. It has an online presence at www.hawaiiguatemala.com. You can get to Hawaii from Monterrico via public bus ($0.50), pickup ($4), or a 20-minute boat ride through the canals ($12). Buses leave at 6am, 11am, 1:30pm, and 3:30pm.
S Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii
The protected biotope of Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii (www.visitmonterrico.com) encompasses the beaches and mangrove swamps of Monterrico and those of adjacent Hawaii, which are the prime nesting sites for sea turtles on Guatemala’s Pacific seaboard, including the giant leatherback and smaller olive ridley turtles. Residents are involved in a conservation project with the local turtle hatchery whereby they are allowed to keep half of the eggs they collect from nests and turn in the other half to the hatchery. Sadly, leatherback turtle arrivals have declined dramatically in recent years.
Monterrico-Hawaii and Its Sea Turtles
If you’re traveling to the Monterrico-Hawaii area between June and December, you might have the opportunity to witness a sea turtle coming ashore to lay its eggs or watch baby sea turtles making their maiden voyage out to sea.
Turtle nesting peaks during August and September, when you might be able to glimpse a large leatherback (baule) or the smaller olive ridley (parlama) coming ashore to lay eggs. Unfortunately, locals are also on the lookout for egg-laying sea turtles to snatch up the eggs and sell them, but under an agreement with the CECON monitoring station at Monterrico and ARCAS in Hawaii, they donate part of their stash toward conservation efforts. Your best bet for seeing a nesting turtle is to go with one of the CECON-trained guides or volunteer with ARCAS.
Volunteers are welcome at both stations. Among the duties are the collection of turtle eggs after the mothers have come ashore and moving them to a protected nesting site, where they are reburied and allowed to hatch. The typical incubation period for olive ridley eggs is 50 days, 72 for leatherbacks. After a few days in a holding pen, the young turtles are released, either at sunrise or sunset, and make their way across the sand and into the ocean. As the young turtles scamper across the sand, they are being imprinted with the unique details of the beach and its sand, where they will return and nest when they are adults. All this assumes they make it to adulthood, a big assumption when taking into account that only one turtle in 100 lives that long. Sea turtles are threatened not just by the collection of their eggs but also by fishing activities, where they often end up in nets, and sea pollution. Plastic bags, for example, are often mistaken for jellyfish by hungry sea turtles. The CECON station at Monterrico (www.visitmonterrico.com) releases about 5,000 sea turtle hatchlings per year.
Turtle eggs are incubated in designated areas at the tortugario. Upon hatching, the baby sea turtles crawl through the sand to the surface. They are placed in large cement tanks and held for release the same day. Turtle releases happen at sunset (in season) and you can donate to the tortugario in exchange for a baby sea turtle for release on its maiden voyage to the sea. There’s nothing quite like watching these cute little critters crawling toward the ocean as the sun sets behind the waves. A newer initiative is the annual Festival de la Tortuga Marina, which takes place sometime during October or November. It features turtle releases, live music, and a surfing competition.
The ARCAS turtle hatchery in Hawaii also releases sea turtles. Visitors are allowed to witness turtle releases in limited numbers for a donation of about $3.25 (includes admission to the hatchery). If you’re interested in volunteering with sea turtle conservation efforts, check out local grassroots turtle conservation group Akazul (http://akazul.org).
In the heart of town and run by the San Carlos University Center for Conservation Studies (CECON), the Tortugario Monterrico (on the sandy street just behind Johnny’s Place, tel. 5978-3588, www.tortugamarina.info/monte-rico, 8am-noon and 2pm-5pm daily, $1) encompasses a turtle hatchery right on the beach, where collected eggs are reburied and allowed to hatch under protected conditions. There’s also a visitors center. In addition to baby sea turtles, the hatchery has enclosures housing green iguanas, crocodiles, and freshwater turtles bred on-site for release into the wild. The staff at CECON is always on the lookout for Spanish-speaking volunteers.
a baby sea turtle in Monterrico
For a Central American beach town, the nightlife scene in Monterrico is pretty tame (weekends aside). This is certainly not your average spring break destination. Most places close at 10pm, with only a few exceptions. The liveliest spot in town is Johnny’s Place (right on the beach, tel. 4369-6900, www.johnnysplacehotel.com), where the party goes until 1am on weekends. Another hot spot is the beachfront El Animal Desconocido (tel. 4661-9255, 5pm-2am Fri.-Sat.), where you can chill out to an eclectic mix of dance and rock music in a colorful atmosphere. Behind Johnny’s Place is Taberna El Pelícano (tel. 4001-5885), but it also closes early. The poolside bar at El Marlin (tel. 5715-4934) is another popular watering hole. It sometimes closes late.
You won’t find a whole lot to do around here other than the beaches. Whether from a lack of entrepreneurial initiative or what have you, the recreational options aside from sunbathing and walking along the shore are pretty limited. Boat tours of the mangrove-lined canals are offered by ARCAS and CECON. They can often be arranged via the local hotels. You’ll see plenty of birds and, with some luck, iguanas and anteaters. Antigua-based Old Town Outfitters (www.adventureguatemala.com) offers kayaking in the canals with prior arrangement. Monterrico’s riptides and huge waves that literally crash onshore make swimming a perilous option.
A good value can be found at Hotel Long Beach (tel. 7848-1577 or 5867-3732, www.hotellongbeach.galeon.com, $10 pp), down the street from Taberna El Pelícano, with spotless rooms with firm beds built next to a pool. There are hammocks for lounging outside your door. Another recommended budget hotel is Hotel El Delfin (tel. 4187-7260, www.hotel-el-delfin.com, shared bath $5 pp, private bath $15 pp). There are basic but clean rooms with shared bath or rooms with two king-size beds and private bath. All of the beds, as in most Monterrico budget hotels, consist of a foam mattress on a concrete slab. There’s a clean swimming pool, a bar and restaurant, and plenty of hammocks to lounge on.
An old standby enjoying a new lease on life, thanks to savvy web marketing and good management, is Johnny’s Place (tel. 5812-0409 or 4369-6900, www.johnnysplacehotel.com, $6 pp in dorm to $150 for 6-person bungalow) set right on the beach. The rooms are built so as to share a swimming pool with the unit next door and run the gamut from basic backpacker accommodations to souped-up bungalows sleeping up to eight. The basic shared-bath dorm rooms have foam beds and some spartan furnishings under a thatched roof. Room rates for weekend stays are about 20 percent higher. There’s a restaurant and bar on the beach and a sand volleyball court. Johnny’s is popular with the backpacking crowd. A few doors down, I like the quirkiness of Hotel El Mangle (tel. 5514-6517, www.hotelelmangle.com, $26-39 d), with its pseudo-colonial architecture reminiscent of Antigua. Some of the rooms on upper floors have nice sea views, and there are pleasant lounging areas with hammocks. It has a nice, family-friendly atmosphere that makes a good alternative to the budget backpacker hotels. There’s a restaurant and a small swimming pool. The degree of comfort varies greatly here from room to room, so be sure to check out the various room types to find one that suits your needs.
Along the beach heading east from Johnny’s Place, you’ll find S Hotel Pez de Oro (tel. 2368-3684 or 5232-9534, www.pezdeoro.com, $40-52 d), an excellent choice with tastefully decorated rooms built around a swimming pool with wooden deck. The 11 attractive bungalows, all with private baths, feature terra-cotta floors, nice decorative accents, and firm beds. Rates are $40 on weekdays and $52 on weekends. The cost is the same for equally well-decorated and furnished raised-platform bungalows with nice decks (or patios) and hammocks in a separate area with its own swimming pool. The restaurant here is recommended.
West of Calle Principal along the beach you’ll find pleasant S Café del Sol (tel. 5810-0821 or 5050-9173, www.cafe-del-sol.com, $40-74 d), where double rooms in the original building with warm-water showers in private bath, fan, and mosquito netting cost $40-67. There’s a newer section behind the hotel across the street where slightly nicer rooms painted in cheerful yellows and equipped with air conditioning cost $74 d. These rooms also have a small patio fronting the street. The restaurant here is quite good.
A welcome addition to the options in Hawaii is S Freedom Beach House (Km. 159, tel. 5308-3018 or 5716-6988, www.freedombeachhouse.com, $39-110 d). All the rooms are cheerfully painted in green and white tones and have private bathroom and either fan or a/c. The deluxe private room also has a balcony with sea views. Room rates are discounted $7 Monday through Thursday nights. Breakfast (featuring banana pancakes) is included in the room rate, and there is a full restaurant and bar, along with a swimming pool.
Heading east toward Hawaii are a number of slightly more expensive beach hotels. Hotel Honolulu (tel. 4005-0500, www.hotelhonolulu.com.gt, $80 d) is a comfortable beachfront hotel housed in quaint wooden cottages built round a pleasant swimming pool. It has a restaurant and bar serving mostly seafood dishes. My favorite of Hawaii’s accommodations is also a good value. S Hotel Playa Plana (Km. 161, Aldea Los Limones; tel. 5628-0379 or 5417-6860, www.playaplana.com, $78-94 d with breakfast) enjoys a wonderful seaside location. The modern rooms are nicely decorated and set round a swimming pool. There’s a restaurant and poolside bar.
Monterrico’s most stylish beachside digs are at the Italian-owned S Dos Mundos Pacific Resort (tel. 7823-0820, www.hotelsdosmundos.com/monterrico, $122 d weekends, $90 d weekdays), about one kilometer east of Monterrico, along the beach. This fabulous property features 14 luxurious beachfront villas with terra-cotta floors, hot-water showers, and air-conditioning housed in ecochic thatched-roof structures with private patios. The bathrooms feature artsy ceramic sinks and oversized “rain” showerheads. The fine restaurant serves excellent Italian cuisine overlooking an infinity-edge swimming pool and the sea.
Dos Mundos Pacific Resort in Monterrico
Another option in this pricier domain is east of Monterrico in Hawaii. Casa Bella (tel. 7821-3088 or 5907-2522, www.casabellamonterrico.com, from $150 per bungalow) offers spacious one- or two-story bungalows (two or four bedrooms) with cable TV, full kitchens, and sitting areas featuring tropical rattan furniture. Each bungalow has a covered private patio with sea views. A pool and a restaurant are also on the premises. Also in Hawaii, Hawaian Paradise (tel. 5361-3011, www.hawaianparadise.com, $127 d) is another welcome addition to the area’s hotel infrastructure. Comfortable air-conditioned rooms are housed in a cheerful yellow structure topped with a palapa-roofed terrace. Spacious apartments with comfortable living room area ($300-450) sleep up to seven guests. The hotel fronts a swimming pool and the ocean. There are a restaurant/bar, hammock lounges, and a pool table. It’s a good alternative if you’re not into Monterrico’s somewhat raucous weekend atmosphere and just want to get away from it all.
Most of Monterrico’s hotels, particularly those that are on the beach, serve food. The following are the best of the hotel restaurants, along with a few non-hotel eateries serving decent food. S Café del Sol (tel. 5810-0821, www.cafe-del-sol.com, all meals daily) serves excellent seafood dishes ($4-8) under an airy palapa or on a pleasant beachside patio. For Italian fare at affordable prices, you can’t beat the atmosphere at Pez de Oro (tel. 2368-3684, www.pezdeoro.com, $5-7). On the pricier side, the restaurant at S Dos Mundos Pacific Resort (tel. 7823-0820, www.hotelsdosmundos.com/monterrico, 8am-10pm daily, $10-35), overlooking both the sea and an infinity-edge swimming pool, is simply wonderful. Accompany your meal with a selection from the decent wine list.
Hotels aside, there are also a few decent stand-alone eateries in town. Behind Johnny’s Place, on the sandy street parallel to the shore, is Taberna El Pelícano (noon-2pm and 6:30pm-9:30pm Mon.-Fri., 6:30pm-10pm Sat., noon-3pm and 7pm-9:30pm Sun.), where there are good pasta dishes and seafood ($8-20) and a fully stocked bar.
Dining options are limited in Hawaii outside of the aforementioned hotels, though Lahaina East (on the main street, tel. 3320-0949, open weekends, $8-20) plays off the town’s Hawaiian name and serves tasty American comfort and Asian fusion cuisine in a seaside setting. Among the options are summer rolls, burgers, artisanal pizzas, fish tacos, and Korean barbecue. It also doubles as the town’s main sports bar.
There is an ATM at Banrural, right in the heart of town. Monterrico’s post office is on Calle Principal. You’ll also find a nameless Internet communications center on this street.
If you want to learn Spanish at the beach, head to Proyecto Lingüistico Monterrico (Calle Principal, tel. 5619-8200, www.proyectolinguisticomonterrico.com), where 20 hours of one-on-one instruction per week cost $100. Accommodations with a local family are available for $70 per week for room and board.
There are two ways to get to Monterrico. The first of these is via the 25-kilometer road from Puerto Viejo (Iztapa). The other option is via the town of Taxisco, from which you continue south for 17 kilometers to La Avellana. At La Avellana you make a ferry crossing ($7 per vehicle), traveling for about 20 minutes through the mangrove swamps. Most people seem to prefer the route via Iztapa, as the road is smooth and fast and there are some new, enticing accommodations options along the way. Buses leave from Guatemala City’s Zona 4 bus terminal every 30 minutes for Taxisco on their way to Chiquimulilla between 5am and 6pm. Connecting buses make the trip down to La Avellana. Transportes Cubanita leaves the Zona 4 bus terminal directly for La Avellana at 10:30am, 12:30pm, and 2:30pm. There are five buses a day from Puerto Viejo (Iztapa) to Monterrico leaving at 8am, 10am, noon, 1:30pm, and 4pm. As always, there’s the occasional pickup truck heading this way. There are now also direct buses from Guatemala City ($5) and La Antigua ($6) a few times daily.
Increasingly popular are daily shuttle buses from Antigua costing about $20 and departing at 8am. The return trip departs Monterrico at 4pm. Any of the Antigua travel agencies can book it for you.