Moon Guatemala (Moon Handbooks) - Al Argueta (2015)
The Western Highlands
Chichicastenango’s bustling market.
Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.
S Iximché: Conveniently situated close to the Pan-American Highway about an hour outside of Guatemala City, the ruins of the former capital of the Kaqchikel kingdom are the most easily accessible of all the highland Mayan sites (click here).
S Chichicastenango’s Market: Don’t miss the chaos of this colorful Sunday and Thursday market at the center of a K’iche’ town (click here).
S Acul: With pastoral scenery and Swiss ambience, Acul makes an excellent hike from Nebaj (click here).
S Laguna Chicabal: Mayan rituals still take place at this enchanting, bowl-shaped crater lake, which offers a worthy day hike (click here).
Most visitors to Guatemala daydream about the Western Highlands. The region is home to quaint and colorful mountain villages, highland lakes, pine forests, and the majority of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples.
Although other parts of Central America offer attractions similar to those found elsewhere in Guatemala, nowhere else in the region are age-old traditions, exquisite Mayan culture, and a history both proud and painful so remarkably evident and incredibly alive. From the Indian markets in Chichicastenango and the Mayan practices of the costumbristas (shamans carrying out traditional Mayan rituals) in the hills just outside of town to the all-day November 1 horse races of Todos Santos, the region is steeped in rich culture.
In the Western Highlands, you’ll find the ruined cities of the highland Mayan tribes encountered by Pedro de Alvarado and the Spanish when they arrived in 1524. The sites are still places of pilgrimage for the modern-day descendants of the various linguistic groups populating this part of the country. Traversing the pine tree-peppered mountain scenery, you’ll also come across the region’s spectacular volcanic chain, which runs like a spine heading west from Antigua all the way to the Mexican border. The water-filled caldera of an extinct volcano forms the basis for one of the country’s most outrageously beautiful natural attractions, the singular Lake Atitlán. In addition to water-based recreational activities, unlike any other lake in Central America, it offers the opportunity to observe and interact with the fascinating highland Mayan people inhabiting the dozen or so villages along its lakeshores. Farther west is Guatemala’s second-largest city, Quetzaltenango, which has become a popular place for Spanish-language study as well as a hub of NGO activity in the aftermath of the civil war. It boasts some outstanding nearby natural attractions of its own and the cosmopolitan feel of a European city.
Throughout the highlands, you’ll encounter the after-effects of Guatemala’s bloody civil war, which affected this region more than any other. But, like a brilliant springtime flower emerging through fertile soil from winter’s icy chill, the highlands and its people are fast changing and rising from the ashes of the armed conflict. There’s a new feeling in the air. Where once there was fear and apprehension (and rightfully so) on the part of its Mayan inhabitants, there is now curiosity and a desire to build a new future while holding on to the culture that is their inheritance. You are a big part of this, as your presence in these parts is a catalyst to substantial progress along the lines of sustainable development with tourism at the forefront. There are many community-based tourism projects in this area, and your visit helps provide needed income but also positive interaction with the outside world.
It is so refreshing, years later, to be able to travel to areas that were once bombed out and cleared of vegetation but are now green and vibrant again. This painful legacy intertwined with optimism is most evident in the Ixil Triangle, which stands poised to become a mecca for cultural and ecotourism, overseen by and to the benefit of, its Ixil inhabitants. Despite having suffered some of the most horrendous atrocities during the civil war, still they smile, a testament to their fortitude. Farther west toward the Mexican border, the department of Huehuetenango boasts fascinating Mayan villages of its own in addition to some seldom-visited natural attractions along the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes mountain chain. It’s only a matter of time before visitors to Guatemala put this vast wilderness on the map.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
The Western Highlands are home to many of Guatemala’s main attractions, and there is plenty here worth seeing. Although distances on a map may be short, the rugged mountain terrain means getting to places that look close on a map will often take longer than expected because of twisting mountain roads, some of which are not even paved. You could easily spend several weeks here or longer, as attested to by the sizable expat population living on the shores of Lake Atitlán. But, since most folks tend to be on a tighter schedule, you’ll probably end up choosing among the many wonderful attractions.
The region is traversed in several parts by the Pan-American Highway, meaning that if you’re on a limited schedule, you should stick to areas near this paved main road. Along this road, coming up from Guatemala City or Antigua, you may want to spend an hour or so at the ruins of Iximché, the former Kaqchikel capital, which also served as the first capital of Guatemala when the Spanish set up shop here after the conquest. If you have only a few days, you should certainly not miss a visit to Lake Atitlán, staying either in the large tourist and services hub of Panajachel or taking a boat across the lake to the village of your choice. Each has its own characteristics and tends to attract a certain crowd.
After the lake, you can continue along the Pan-American Highway to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second-largest city, where you can take in area villages or natural attractions, including the fantastic crater lake atop Chicabal Volcano. It’s also a great place to sign up for a week (or more) of Spanish lessons if you have the time. If you can work it into your schedule, plan on visiting the market (Sundays and Thursdays) in the K’iche’ town of Chichicastenango, which is easily accessible from Quetzaltenango and Panajachel. If you have more time, head north from Chichicastenango into the hills of Quiché department to the Ixil Triangle. You certainly won’t be disappointed.
If you have still more time, consider heading west to Huehuetenango from the branch road in the town of Sacapulas (Quiché department) or east to Cobán and the Verapaces via a spectacularly scenic, and equally rugged, dirt road.
Chimaltenango Department and Vicinity
Although its namesake departmental capital is a collection of houses, bus depots, and businesses lining the side of the Pan-American Highway, the rest of the Chimaltenango department is nonetheless a worthy destination. Along the road traversing the region’s highland plateaus, you’ll find plenty of pine-studded landscapes, agricultural fields, and even some Mayan ruins of note.
The departmental capital of Chimaltenango is a major transit point between Guatemala City/Antigua and the highlands. You may find yourself changing buses here if you’re heading up from Antigua going east to Guatemala City or west to the highlands, including Chichicastenango, Lake Atitlán, Quetzaltenango, and Huehuetenango. There’s little else to keep you in this busy commercial town and transportation hub.
TECPÁN TO LOS ENCUENTROS
A much more pleasant alternative to the noise and pollution of Chimaltenango is a stretch of the Pan-American Highway (CA-1) heading through the Western Highlands from the town of Tecpán, about an hour from Guatemala City, all the way west to the Los Encuentros Junction, from where a turnoff leads to a vertiginous drop down the sides of an extinct volcanic caldera to out-of-this-world Lake Atitlán. Another road leads north from Los Encuentros to the department of El Quiché, with its colorful markets and highland villages. Along the road from Tecpán to Los Encuentros, you’ll find some interesting Mayan ruins and good eats, should you need to stop for sustenance or simply want a break from the drive to enjoy the wonderful sylvan settings.
The town of Tecpán proper is about half a kilometer from the main highway via a signed turnoff, though few people actually go into the town unless they’re en route to the ruins of Iximché. You’ll find plenty of roadside restaurants along this stretch of the highway, many with nearly identical menus. Some of these, such as S Katok (Km. 87.5, tel. 7840-3387, www.ahumadoskatok.com, 7am-10pm daily, $8-20) and Kape Paulino’s (Km. 87.5, tel. 7840-3806, www.kapepaulinos.com, $8-20), are perennial favorites with Guatemalans and usually very busy, serving a variety of grilled steaks, chicken, Guatemalan dishes, and cured meats in a log cabin atmosphere.
At a turnoff from the main highway at Km. 90.5 heading to the village of Santa Apolonia, El Pedregal (tel. 7840-3055, $8-12) has pleasant grounds in a country setting away from the noise of the busy Pan-American Highway. It also makes a great place for kids, with ducks, cows, and other farm animals for them to enjoy. Delicious home-cooked meals including steaks, sandwiches, fresh bread, and cakes are served in a lovely covered patio fronting the gardens. The food here is homemade and tastes like it. It’s worth getting off the main highway, just about one kilometer or so away. There is beer, but no wine. La Cabaña de Don Robert (Km. 93.5 Carretera Interamericana, tel. 7858-2181, $8-15) is another Guatemalan favorite, serving typical Guatemalan dishes in a wooden cabana surrounded by well-manicured gardens. Farther along the road at Km. 102, Restaurant Chichoy (tel. 5219-7092, also at Km. 78 in the village of Chirijuyú) is another good choice, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was originally started by a cooperative of widows from the civil war.
farm-to-table at El Pedregal, near Tecpán
The nicest place to stay in the Tecpán area is undoubtedly S Casa Xara (tel. 2333-3926, www.casaxara.com, $17-30 pp). Set amidst the sprawling grounds of Molino Helvetia (an old flour mill), there are two lodging options to choose from. The larger Casa El Molino ($300, $200 for 10 people or $60 per room) is set in the original house and sleeps 17 guests. A creek runs behind the original house, and there’s a network of small trails leading into the forest just past an old wooden chapel. Up the hill is newer Casa Xara ($275), which sleeps 9. The most recent addition, the smaller Casa del Bosque, is also my favorite part of the complex. Its more secluded hillside location overlooks the grounds of the old flour mill and has a lovely private patio where you can take in the view. All three houses are made of wood (a rarity in highland Guatemala) and are charmingly decorated with lovely old knickknacks. It’s wonderfully peaceful here, though it can get cold at night. Space heaters are provided, and the two larger houses have fireplaces. It makes a phenomenal weekend getaway. Food can be ordered from nearby El Pedregal restaurant and friendly manager Lucy Haase is on-site to cater to your wishes.
Faced with the increasingly belligerent expansionist aims of their K’iche’ rivals, the Kaqchikel moved their capital from present-day Chichicastenango to the more easily defended site of Iximché, surrounded on three sides by ravines, sometime around AD 1470. Like many other Mayan sites, it bore strong influence from present-day Mexico, an influence evident in its Nahua name, Cuauhtemallan, a derivative of which eventually gave the country its modern-day name meaning “land of many trees.” Societal organization here was based on lineages, with evidence of bitter rivalry between different lineages including ritual cannibalism and human sacrifice. The new capital had been established for only about 50 years before the arrival of the Spanish, who would enlist the Kaqchikel as allies in their quest to conquer the K’iche’ and other Mayan peoples of the Western Highlands.
After the highlands were fully conquered, the Spanish established the first capital of Guatemala here on July 25, 1524. Alvarado, however, began demanding excessive tribute and the Kaqchikel soon revolted, eventually fleeing the town after Alvarado finally burned it to the ground. From the surrounding countryside (demonstrating a remarkable symmetry to the country’s more recent history), the Kaqchikel launched a guerrilla war against the Spanish that lasted until 1530.
Iximché (various transport, 10 minutes from Tecpán, 8am-5pm daily, $3.50) is the most easily accessible of Guatemala’s highland Mayan ceremonial sites and makes an interesting stop for those with an interest in Mayan culture and history because of the differences it exhibits from the lowland Mayan sites of Petén, which date to much earlier times. Like many remoter highland counterparts (Mixco Viejo, K’umarcaaj, and Zaculeu), it was built on an isolated bluff surrounded and protected by ravines. Its smaller structures also exhibit much more of a Mexican influence, attesting to the population of the Guatemalan highlands by Toltec groups coming from the area near present-day Veracruz.
In March 2007, Iximché made a convenient stopover for President George W. Bush, the first lady, Laura Bush, and their Guatemalan hosts Oscar and Wendy Berger on their way back to Guatemala City from a visit to a nearby vegetable farming cooperative. They received a red carpet welcome of sorts, entering the ruins’ main plaza on a specially made alfombra similar to the ones created for Antigua’s Holy Week processions. They were also treated to a marimba band, an exhibition of the Mayan ball game, and a traditional dance performed by local children. In an impromptu display rarely seen in international protocol, Presidents Bush and Berger even attempted to play some ball of their own before members of the Secret Service rushed them on to the next order of business.
Of the ruined temple pyramids, only a few features stand out. The small altar at the base of Temple II, on Plaza A, has faint traces of murals. Other features include two ball courts and Plaza B, which housed royals. The museum has some interpretive displays predominantly on Pedro de Alvarado and the Kaqchikel uprisings. There’s also a 1:200 scale model of Iximché based on an 1882 map created by Alfred Maudslay. To get here, turn off the main highway to Tecpán. From the town center there are buses, minibuses, and taxis heading out to the ruins, less than 10 minutes away.
The road diverting to El Quiché department is found at this junction and, about one kilometer farther down, is the turnoff for the road to Lake Atitlán. The Pan-American Highway (also known as the Interamericana) continues west to Quetzaltenango and Huehuetenango through lovely alpine scenery.
along the road to Panajachel from Los Encuentros
From Los Encuentros, the road descends through beautiful agricultural fields tended by Maya, many of whom still wear traditional dress. After passing the departmental capital of Sololá, the road becomes steeper, descending to the Lake Atitlán shoreline with gorgeous views of the large, crescent moon-shaped lake bounded by three volcanoes on its southern shore. You’ll also pass a waterfall or two along the way. For centuries the beauty of Lake Atitlán has captivated travelers, including Aldous Huxley, who compared it to Italy’s Lake Como “with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes.” Words cannot begin to describe the magic felt when seeing the lake for the first time, its waters shimmering in the afternoon light. Lake Como, as beautiful as it is, doesn’t have volcanoes, tropical vegetation, and Mayan villages lining its shores.
Lake Atitlán’s origins can be traced back 85,000 years to a volcanic eruption that created the collapsed caldera the lake now fills, also spreading ash over a 1,600-kilometer radius. The lake was created when drainage to the Pacific Ocean was blocked after the emergence of the more recent Tolimán and Atitlán Volcanoes. A third volcano, San Pedro, which is just about 3,000 meters (9,908 feet) high, is somewhat lower than the other two but still offers a challenging climb on a path straight up its slopes.
spectacular Lake Atitlán
The lake covers about 130 square kilometers. Its maximum depth is more than 320 meters, though there are cyclical rises and falls in lake levels, leading to speculation that periodic seismic activity may block a drainage area somewhere. The lake has been rising steadily over the past few years. You’ll see the remains of several buildings now partially submerged in many areas along the shoreline. Lake Atitlán has begun exhibiting signs of eutrophication, with a green gulag of cyanobacteria making its first widespread appearance on the water’s surface in October 2009. A legacy of Hurricane Stan was the destruction of a wastewater treatment plant that was never rebuilt. Adding to the raw sewage streaming into the lake from the towns and villages on its shores are phosphates from agricultural fertilizers. The race to save Atitlán is on, with numerous grassroots organizations working hand-in-hand with government agencies to clean up algal blooms and cease the indiscriminate pollution of the lake’s waters. Lake Atitlán is surrounded by a number of small villages, each with its own distinct feel. Across the lake, only San Pedro La Laguna rivals Panajachel in popularity with tourists. The other villages remain fairly quiet, though tourism has become a significant presence in almost all of them. Santiago Atitlán, though one of the larger towns, remains very much traditional.
The lake’s main tourist town has always been Panajachel, once a requisite stop along the “Gringo Trail,” as it was known in the 1960s, the path of American and European backpackers making their way down to South America. There are nice views across the lake from “Pana,” as it’s often referred to by locals, though in recent years several of the outlying villages have started receiving their own fair share of visitors. Many foreigners like the more peaceful atmosphere of the other villages surrounding the lake. As one expatriate living in San Pedro put it, “Twenty minutes in Panajachel is enough for me.” Still, Pana is worth at least a night’s stay if you like shopping its jam-packed stalls. Pana’s main street is Calle Principal. Most buses coming in to town stop at the intersection of Calle Principal and Calle Santander, which leads directly to the lakeshore. Santander is lined with a plethora of banks, shops, restaurants, hotels, and other tourist services. You’ll find that many of these don’t use street addresses. The town hall, church, market, and a few other restaurants and hotels are found a half kilometer northeast along Calle Principal from the Calle Santander junction. East of Calle Santander and running parallel is Calle Rancho Grande, which also has some accommodations. Running roughly between the two along the lakeshore is Calle del Lago.
Museo Lacustre Atitlán (Atitlán Lake Museum, inside Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo, Calle Santander, tel. 7762-2326, 8am-6pm Sun.-Fri., 8am-7pm Sat., $5 for nonguests) has well-displayed exhibits on the geological history of Lake Atitlán and its creation, along with sub-aquatic Mayan archaeology, including ceremonial urns and incense burners, mostly from Late Preclassic and Classic times. The museum has gained an added element of relevance with a 2014 documentary produced by National Geographic detailing the discovery and unearthing of a Mayan city submerged beneath the lake, known as Samabaj.
Casa Cakchiquel (Calle 14 de febrero, tel. 7762-0969, email@example.com, 10am-6pm daily, free) is an arts and cultural center housed in a former hotel that once played home to Che Guevara. There are rotating exhibits on issues from women’s rights to Mayan heritage and a permanent exhibit of historical photos of the lake and Panajachel. It makes a nice introduction to the local culture. A gift shop sells unique crafts made from recycled materials.
Just outside of town 200 meters past Hotel Atitlán, Reserva Natural Atitlán (tel. 7762-2565, www.atitlanreserva.com, 8am-5pm daily, $8 adults, $4.50 children under 12) is a wonderful nature preserve on the grounds of a former coffee farm. On offer are myriad attractions including a visitors center, a zipline between trees in the forest canopy, a butterfly farm, a lakeside beach, and well-designed nature trails with hanging bridges leading to waterfalls, where you can spot monkeys and coatis (pizotes) along the way. Spacious and attractive accommodations are available for up to six people with decks overlooking the surrounding forests. Rates vary from $81 to $93 d. You can also camp here for $8.50 per adult and $6 per child.
Reserva Natural Atitlán
Pana is a popular weekend playground for folks from Guatemala City, and things are usually hopping on Friday and Saturday nights. There’s a smattering of bars and dance places along Calle de los Arboles, which breaks off from Calle Principal just past its junction with Calle Santander. It’s hard to beat the lively bohemian atmosphere at Circus Bar (Avenida Los Arboles, tel. 7762-2056, www.circusbar.com.gt, noon-midnight daily), popular with locals and foreigners alike. There are circus posters adorning the walls, a wide selection of drinks, and tasty food. Its pizzas are highly recommended. There’s live music 8pm-11pm nightly. Across the street and under the same ownership is Chapiteau, a lively dance club open until 1am. El Aleph is also along this corridor and worth checking out.
As you head back toward Calle Santander, on Calle Principal is Rumba, a dance club frequented by a younger crowd for its Latin pop and merengue beats. On Calle Santander, Pana Rock Café (tel. 7762-2194, www.panarockcafe.com, 8am-1am Wed.-Sun., 4pm-1am Tues.) serves Tex-Mex food, including delicious burritos, has live music daily, and a lively happy hour. There’s also wireless Internet. On the lakeshore at the end of Calle Santander is Sunset Café (tel. 7762-0003, 11am-midnight daily), which makes a good place to watch the sunset and have a beer. The view is better than the food, unfortunately.
Pana is one of Guatemala’s best places to shop for handicrafts; several shops line Calle Santander. Stalls also line the street jam-packed with goods from wall to wall. Street sellers expect you to bargain. Start at about half the asking price and work your way up from there. There are some nice, though somewhat pricier, shops in the small Centro Comercial Siquín on Calle Santander across the street from El Bistro. For fair trade goods made by a local women’s cooperative, check out Thirteen Threads (Casa Cakchiquel, Calle 15 de febrero, tel. 7762-6245).
The lake and mountainous surroundings afford a variety of recreational opportunities. Panajachel’s public beach is not, at the moment, suitable for swimming pending the rebuilding of a water-treatment plant destroyed by Hurricane Stan in 2005. Some of the beaches in neighboring towns make much better places for swimming, though much of this depends on the presence of the lake’s recently exhibited algal growth. Keep in mind the waters of this highland mountain lake tend to be a bit chilly. They also tend to get a bit rough in the afternoon because of the presence of a wind phenomenon known as the Xocomil. If you stop to look closely, you’ll see it blowing across the lake, turning the glassy-smooth surface choppy in a matter of minutes.
Los Elementos Adventure Center (in neighboring Santa Cruz La Laguna, tel. 5359-8328, www.kayakguatemala.com) offers multiday, round-the-lake kayaking trips that cover 50 miles of paddling in 5 days, along with a climb of San Pedro Volcano, among other activities. Trips begin and end in neighboring Santa Cruz La Laguna. Also in neighboring Santa Cruz, Ati Divers (Iguana Perdida hotel, Santa Cruz La Laguna, tel. 5706-4117, www.atidivers.com) offers some interesting (and somewhat advanced) dives in Atitlán’s high altitude conditions. For paragliding, check out Realworld Paragliding (Centro Comercial San Rafael, Local #10, tel. 5634-5699, www.realworldparagliding.jimdo.com). It’s a wonderful adrenaline rush with the added bonus of some great views high above the lake. A one-hour trip goes for about $95.
The waters of Lake Atitlán have been stocked with largemouth bass since 1958 thanks to the efforts of tourism promoters at now-absconded Pan American Airways. These same largemouth bass were also largely responsible for the extinction of the rare Atitlán pied-billed grebe, which disappeared in the late 1980s as their young increasingly fell prey to the large fish. In any case, you can try your hand at catching one of these elusive bass. Most of the fish caught are in the five-pound range, though there are supposedly 20-pound fish here. The lake’s 1,550-meter (5,100-foot) maximum depth further complicates matters, as the bigger fish tend to hang out at greater depths except during the annual spring spawn. Your best chance of landing “the big one” is between March and May, before and after the spawn. If you’re interested in learning more about Lake Atitlán largemouth bass fishing, email the Atitlán Bass Club at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mario’s Rooms (Calle Santander, tel. 7762-1313, www.mariosroomsatitlan.com, $10-15 d) is the long-running budget favorite with basic but attractive clean rooms with shared bath. Rooms with private bathroom are just slightly more. Well-situated on a quiet side street near the lake and Calle Santander, S Hotel Utz-Jay (5a Calle 2-50 Zona 2, tel. 7762-0217, www.hotelutzjay.com, $35 d) has comfortable rooms housed in lovely adobe garden cottages decorated with traditional Guatemalan fabrics and equipped with fans and private hot-water bathrooms. There are good breakfasts (price not included) and the friendly, knowledgeable owners speak English, French, and Spanish. You can also enjoy a traditional Mayan sauna, or chuj, here. Internet access is available, and you can rent mountain bikes for getting around or go mountain biking along the lake on an organized trip.
S Rancho Grande Inn (Calle Rancho Grande, tel. 7762-2255, www.ranchograndeinn.com, $80-90 d) dates to the 1940s and has 12 attractive rooms, suites, and cabins housed in faux-thatched-roof villas fronting a well-manicured lawn and tropical gardens. There’s a nice kidney-shaped swimming pool with a partial wooden deck. Rates include a deliciously filling breakfast featuring pancakes, eggs, beans, and good, strong coffee to put some pep in your morning step. Hotel Cacique Inn (Calle El Chalí 3-82, tel. 7762-1205, www.caciqueinn.com, $75 d) fills up with vacationing Guatemalans during holidays and weekends. It has 34 rooms built around a garden swimming pool; rooms feature Guatemalan blankets, weavings, and fireplaces. Hotel Regis (Calle Santander 3-47, tel. 7762-1152, www.regisatitlan.com, $65 d) is set away from the street and has 25 comfortable rooms housed in a neocolonial building. The main attraction here is a hot spring set in the garden out back. Hotel Dos Mundos (Calle Santander, tel. 7762-2078, www.hoteldosmundos.com, $60 d) has comfortable rooms with tile floors and Guatemalan bedspreads set away from the street near a garden swimming pool. There’s a recommended Italian restaurant on the premises as well as a streetside café and bar on Calle Santander.
Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo (at the lakeside end of Calle Santander, tel. 7762-2326, www.posadadedonrodrigo.com, $130 d) has rooms in two separate areas, one of which is more modern and is worth the extra splurge for the splendid lake views. The rooms are comfortable and well furnished. The restaurant/bar serves excellent Guatemalan and international dishes in a pleasant dining room with views to the lake and the swimming pool below. The resort-style Porta Hotel del Lago (tel. 7762-1555, www.portahotels.com, $112 d) is housed in a modern five-story building overlooking the public beach. The recently renovated rooms have all the usual amenities, and there’s a somewhat stark outdoor pool area.
Outside of town on a lovely and quiet lakeside plot, S Hotel Atitlán (tel. 7762-1441, www.hotelatitlan.com, $120-190 d) does a wonderful job of combining old-school charm with modern amenities in its well-furnished, tastefully decorated rooms featuring tile floors, antiques, and colorful textiles. All rooms have balconies with gorgeous lake views. There are extensive tropical gardens, an attractive swimming pool, and boat docks. The hotel’s restaurant is a favorite with well-to-do Guatemalans.
For morning coffee, your best bet is Café Loco (Calle Santander, near Pana Rock, 9am-8pm Tues.-Sun., 4pm-8pm Mon.). Another great option is Cross Roads Café (0-27 Calle del Campanario, www.crossroadscafepana.com, 9am-1pm and 2:30pm-6pm Tues.-Sun.).
In a pleasant garden patio decorated with Asian-style spherical paper lamps, S Deli Jasmín (Calle Santander, close to the lakeshore, tel. 7762-2585, 7am-6pm Wed.-Mon.) serves delicious all-day breakfasts, including bagels and English muffins in addition to healthy fare such as tofu and vegetarian dishes. It sells teas, jams, whole wheat bread, and cookies for you to take away. Farther up Calle Santander and under the same management is Deli Llama de Fuego (tel. 7762-2586, 7am-10pm Thurs.-Tues.), with much the same menu and surroundings. Another good place for breakfast is El Patio (tel. 7762-2041, 8am-9:30pm daily), set in a sunny patio right next to the street about halfway down Calle Santander.
El Bistro (Calle Santander, closer to the lakeshore, tel. 7762-0508, 7am-10pm daily, $5-10) is a pleasant, shady café and bar serving steak, pasta dishes, and sandwiches in the $5-10 range. Try the fettuccine with spicy tomato sauce. For American-style deli sandwiches and imported items you might miss from home, check out Pana Super (Calle Principal, next to Casablanca, tel. 7762-0852, 8am-8pm Mon.-Sat., 8am-5pm Sun.). The meats and cheeses are imported, and the breads are baked fresh daily.
S Circus Bar (Avenida Los Arboles, tel. 7762-2056, www.circusbar.com.gt, noon-midnight daily, $8-15) has the best pizza in town as well as excellent pasta and seafood. There’s a relaxed vibe and colorful decor that conveys the feeling of being under the big top. For authentic Italian food, head to Restaurante La Lanterna (inside Hotel Dos Mundos, Calle Santander, tel. 7762-2078, www.hoteldosmundos.com/restaurant.htm), where there’s excellent homemade pasta and a nice assortment of Italian wines. The large dining room has one of Panajachel’s most pleasant atmospheres, and the service is impeccable.
For scrumptious Pan-Asian cuisine, check out Las Chinitas (Calle Santander, tel. 7762-2612, 8am-10pm daily), where you can savor Malaysian curries and Thai dishes, among other offerings, at moderate prices. It’s a busy spot for dinner.
Halfway down Calle Santander, S Guajimbo’s (tel. 7762-0063, 7am-10pm Fri.-Wed., $7-15) serves South American-style parrilladas (barbecued meats) including steaks, chicken, and sausage. There are also vegetarian dishes and good breakfasts. On Calle Principal, close to the intersection with Calle de los Arboles, Atlantis Café Bar (tel. 7762-1015) serves a good mix of international dishes, including decent burgers, pasta, pizza, and sandwiches along with a wide range of cocktails from its elegant wooden bar. The decor is eclectic and there are also some good desserts.
Duck, escargot, lamb chops, and Wiener schnitzel are on the menu at Chez Alex (halfway down Calle Santander, tel. 7762-0172, noon-3pm and 6pm-10pm daily) in a tasteful atmosphere with prices in the $10-12 range. Casablanca (at the intersection of Calle Principal and Calle Santander, tel. 7762-1015, www.panajachel.com/casablanca.htm, 11am-11pm daily, $8-22) serves delicious pastas, chicken, meat, and seafood dishes accompanied by Chilean wines in a sophisticated atmosphere. The dining room at the S Hotel Atitlán (tel. 7762-1441, www.hotelatitlan.com, 6:30am-10pm daily, $7-20) makes a fine place for a splurge, surrounded by pleasant gardens overlooking the lake and fabulous views. Patrons enjoy free use of the swimming pool, and there are Guatemalan and international dishes on the menu. There is a Sunday breakfast buffet for around $15. There are a number of eateries on Calle del Lago with similar seafood- and meat-based menus and outrageous decor, none of which I can bring myself to recommend.
Information and Services
The INGUAT information office (Calle Santander, tel. 7762-1392, 9am-5pm daily) has basic hotel information, transportation schedules, and friendly staff who can answer your questions. The main post office is on the corner of Calle Santander and Calle 15 de Febrero. DHL is in Edificio Rincón Sai at the northern end of Calle Santander. Telgua (7am-midnight) is halfway down Calle Santander near the junction with Calle 15 de Febrero.
About halfway down Calle Santander, Banco Industrial has a Visa ATM and can cash U.S. dollars and travelers checks. There’s a MasterCard ATM outside Banco Agromercantil on the corner of Calle Principal and Calle Santander. Banco del Comercio is on Calle Principal, also near the intersection with Santander. It has an ATM that accepts both Visa and MasterCard.
With Lake Atitlán’s future at stake, it has become more important to choose environmentally friendly coin laundromats, where the detergents used are biodegradable. To that end, I highly recommend Il Bucato (Comercial El Dorado, at the junction of Santander and Calle Principal, 9am-6:30pm Mon.-Sat.), where you can wash up to 5 pounds for $4. They will also wash 6-12 pounds of laundry for you for $6. All the detergents used are nontoxic; hypoallergenic detergent is also available. Other options include Lavandería Viajero (Calle Santander, Edificio Rincón Sai, 8am-7pm); it charges about $0.50 per pound. Lavandería Automático (Calle de los Arboles 0-15, 7:30am-6:30pm Mon.-Sat.) charges $4 for a full load.
Boats are the preferred method for getting around Lake Atitlán.
Panamedic Centro Clínico Familiar (Calle Principal 0-72, tel. 7762-2174) has round-the-clock emergency medical attention. Doctors Francisco and Zulma Ordoñez both speak English. For an ambulance, dial 7762-4121.
There are a number of travel agencies along Calle Santander that can book airline tickets, shuttles, and onward transport to other parts of Guatemala. Among the recommended agencies are Atitrans (Edificio Rincón Sai, tel. 7762-0146 or 7762-0152, www.atitranspanajachel.com) and Servicios Turísticos Atitlán (Comerciales Buenaventura, Calle 15 de febrero 2-81, tel. 7762-2075 or 5698-0030, www.transportatitlan.com).
Getting There and Around
Buses stop at the junction of Calle Santander and Calle Principal both leaving and arriving in Panajachel. Direct buses leave for Antigua ($5, 2.5 hours) at 10:45am daily except Sunday. You can also take a Guatemala City-bound bus ($4, 3.5 hours) and change at Chimaltenango. There are 10 daily buses to Guatemala City between 5am and 2:30pm. Six buses leave daily to Quetzaltenango ($4, 2.5 hours), and there are eight daily buses to Chichicastenango ($3, 1.5 hours).
The convenience and, most of all, safety of shuttle buses cannot be overstated. In the course of researching and writing this guide, it seemed that not a week went by without newspapers reporting some sort of incident aboard Guatemala’s second-class buses, including armed robberies turning into shoot-outs between passengers and would-be thieves or tragic accidents on twisting mountain roads. That said, there are frequent shuttle buses to Antigua, Chichicastenango (on market days), Quetzaltenango, and Guatemala City. Recommended shuttle agencies include Atitrans (Edificio Rincón Sai, tel. 7762-0146 or 7762-0152, www.atitranspanajachel.com) and Servicios Turísticos Atitlán (Comerciales Buenaventura, Calle 15 de febrero 2-81, tel. 7762-2075 or 5698-0030, www.transportatitlan.com).
There are two different boat docks for getting around to the surrounding villages. The first of these, Tzanjuyú, is at the end of Calle del Embarcadero and is for boats to Santa Cruz (15 minutes), Jaibalito (25 minutes), Tzununá (30 minutes), and San Marcos (40 minutes). Some boats continue to San Pedro, across the lake (just under an hour, with stops), but there are also direct boats from Pana taking about 20 minutes. All of the aforementioned routes are serviced by small, fast lanchas. The second boat dock is at the end of Calle Rancho Grande and is for ferry (one hour) and lancha service (25 minutes) to Santiago Atitlán. Expect to pay anywhere between $1.50 and $3 for the ride. Locals pay less than visitors. Ask around for the time of the last boat back to Pana from the outlying villages. Some may be as early as 7:30pm. Lake tours ($12, full day) from Pana visiting San Pedro and Santiago also leave from the second pier and can be booked at any travel agency.
Tuk-tuks can get you anywhere in town for about $0.75. For longer trips to surrounding villages, such as Santa Catarina Palopó, expect to pay about $4 for the 20-minute ride.
SANTA CATARINA PALOPÓ
Five kilometers east of Panajachel is the quaint lakeside village of Santa Catarina Palopó, a collection of adobe houses with tin and thatched roofs built into the surrounding hillsides. The streets near the church and the road leading to the lakeside are excellent places to pick up some of the colorful textiles and handicrafts produced here. Many of the villagers still sport the traditional attire.
As elsewhere on Lake Atitlán, many well-to-do Guatemalans (and increasingly, foreigners) have bought property and built houses on the slopes just outside of town.
Accommodations and Food
Santa Catarina is the site of a few moderate to high-end hotels offering some of the lake’s best accommodations. On the road between Panajachel and Santa Catarina, and under the same ownership as Antigua’s Mesón Panza Verde, Casa B’alam Ya (tel. 7832-2925, www.panzaverde.com/villasbalamya, $150-350 d) encompasses four villas with one or two bedrooms and amenities such as a hot tub, spacious kitchen, and decks fronting the lake. There are kayaks for guests’ use. You can arrange for a local chef to cook your meals or have the kitchen stocked with everything you need to cook your own. Just off the street leading from town to the lakeshore, the 36-room Villa Santa Catarina (tel. 7762-1291 or 7762-2827, www.villasdeguatemala.com, $68-104 d) has attractive rooms and junior suites with gorgeous lake views, tile floors, TV, hot-water private bathrooms, telephones, and some rooms with ceiling fans. There are lovely antique furnishings throughout the property, a swimming pool, and Restaurante Las Playas (7am-10pm daily, $5-10), serving Guatemalan and international dishes in an attractive dining room overlooking the swimming pool. Along the road leading out of town toward neighboring San Antonio Palopó, Tzam Poc Resort (tel. 7762-2680, www.atitlanresort.com, $85-170 d) has accommodations varying from standard and deluxe rooms in Mediterranean-style, thatched-roof villas to an entire, fully furnished villa for $400-1,000 per night. The beautiful rooms are nicely decorated. The resort’s centerpiece is an exquisite infinity-edge swimming pool overlooking the lake below. There are tropical gardens throughout and some outrageous lake views. Other amenities include a tropical lounge, sauna, and solarium. S La Casa Colibri (Km 6.7 Via Rural a San Antonio Palopó, Entrada a Tzampoc Casa #4, tel. 5353-5823, www.lacasacolibri.com, $395-595 per night) is also among the area’s fabulous villa offerings. The five-bedroom property is built in Mediterranean style with lovely tropical touches that include thatch-roof terraces, bamboo accent walls, and typical Guatemalan decor. Rooms have big wooden beds and awe-inspiring views of the lake and volcanoes. Amenities include a wooden-decked swimming pool, plenty of sun-lit patio space, a hammock deck, wireless Internet, flat-screen TVs, and a DVD player. A private chef is available at additional cost, though the room rate includes a light breakfast. For budget accommodations check out Orion’s Garden (email@example.com, $35 d), where there are simple but attractive lakefront cabins and plenty of outdoor activities to keep you busy. It’s near the main dock.
The most splendid of Santa Catarina’s lakeside accommodations is S Casa Palopó (Km. 6.8 Carretera a San Antonio Palopó, tel. 7762-2270, www.casapalopo.com, $140-447 d), with rooms housed in a beautiful colonial-style villa featuring floor-to-ceiling windows with magnificent lake views. The rooms and common areas are loaded with antiques, brightly painted walls, exquisite furnishings, and wonderful extras such as Italian cotton sheets and L’Occitane bathroom products. There’s also a wooden-decked swimming pool overlooking the lake. Farther up the hill is the even more alluring Villa Palopó, decorated with a tasteful mix of African tribal relics and Indonesian hardwood furnishings. There are hardwood floors and phenomenal lake views from each of the two suites ($206-447 d). You can rent the whole villa for $803-1,368, depending on the season. The villa has its own lap pool, also overlooking the lake, and butler service.
a suite at Casa Palopó in Santa Catarina Palopó
Casa Palopó’s restaurant, 6.8 Palopó, is a bit on the expensive side ($15-30 for a typical meal), but the food is certainly some of the best you’ll find on the shores of Lake Atitlán, with spectacular lake views from an airy terrace. If you’re not staying there, it makes a great place to stop for a drink and watch the sunset or enjoy a romantic candlelit dinner.
SANTA CRUZ LA LAGUNA
West of Panajachel and accessible only by boat is the quiet village of Santa Cruz La Laguna, more commonly referred to simply as “Santa Cruz.” There are a number of good accommodations here with a range of prices for every budget. It’s understandably extremely popular with the backpacker crowd.
Housed inside the Iguana Perdida lodge, ATI Divers (www.atidivers.com) is a PADI-certified scuba diving operation offering Altitude Specialty certifications for $90, fun dives for $35, or PADI open-water certifications for $240. Due to altitudinal pressure changes and the lake’s location at just over 1,500 meters above sea level, you’ll have to spend at least one night at lake altitude before your first dive to avoid decompression sickness. The lake offers a unique diving experience, including the chance to see underwater volcanic rock formations and a fault line where you can see and feel hot volcanic mud.
Los Elementos Adventure Center (tel. 5359-8328, www.kayakguatemala.com) provides myriad recreational options, including volcano climbs, a round-the-lake kayak trip, cliff jumping, and rock climbing using local guides. Proceeds from Los Elementos support nonprofit Amigos de Santa Cruz, focused on improving the nutrition and education of the local Maya. For utter relaxation and wonderful lakeside massages, check out their Los Elementos Day Spa (tel. 4095-3751).
Locally guided tours are also offered by Tours Atitlan (tel. 5355-8849, www.tours-atitlan.com). Owned by a young Mayan couple, tours encompass the lake area and even involve treks to such far-away locales as the Ixil Triangle.
Options for exploring on your own include hikes up the hill to the village proper (20 minutes) to see the town church in addition to hiking along a trail skirting the lakeshore to the neighboring village of Jaibalito (45 minutes) or San Marcos (three hours).
Accommodations and Food
The first property you’ll come across, on the outskirts of town, is S La Fortuna at Atitlán (Patsisotz Bay, between Santa Cruz and Panajachel, tel. 5203-1033, www.lafortunaatitlan.com, $79-123 d). It’s also one of my new favorites thanks to its friendly Canadian ownership and wonderful design elements dripping with Asian influences (attesting to the owners’ extensive travels on that continent). There are smaller petite bungalows and larger suites. All rooms have nice outdoor patios and outdoor showers, along with a loft that varies in size. The larger suites come with outdoor soaking tubs, bathrobes, and a selection of fruits and nuts in the room. The property does a fine job of being ecofriendly, incorporating would-be waste products into its design. Nice extras include an outdoor hot tub overlooking the lake, a wine cellar, and a cozy bar/dining area. It’s all set on the grounds of a former coffee farm which is now a rather large private nature preserve. They grow their own coffee, and the food served is absolutely delicious.
Santa Cruz’s original lakeside hotel, El Arca de Noé (tel. 4683-9015 or 5376-2849, www.hotelarcadenoeatitlan.com, $21-45 d) is still going strong. The delightful lodge has 10 rooms, half of them with private bathrooms. Three of the rooms are lovely stone-and-wood cottages. All of the rooms are rustic but nicely decorated with Guatemalan fabrics. Delicious breakfasts and lunches are served à la carte. Guests are treated to delicious meals consisting of Guatemalan and European specialties for around $10 (dinner), served family-style. The lodge is solar-powered.
Right next door is one of Guatemala’s quintessential backpacker hideaways, La Iguana Perdida (tel. 5706-4117 or 7762-2621, www.laiguanaperdida.com, from $6 pp in dorms to $43 d with private bath), which has recently added some very attractive private rooms for those of us who have gotten just a bit older. There are three dormitories with a total of 22 beds and rooms with or without private bathrooms. Electricity was finally installed after years of making do without it, and I am happy to report that now hot showers and Internet access are available. Still, the electricity can be spotty, as in many lakeside communities, and kerosene lamps are on hand to provide agreeable ambient lighting after dark. Breakfast and lunch are served 8am-3pm, featuring delicious sandwiches, salads, crepes, and other yummy dishes prepared by a staff of indigenous women. Dinner is a family-style affair and is a three-course spread, including soup and homemade bread, a main course, and dessert. Vegetarian options are always available. The dinner atmosphere is lively, and it makes a great place to meet fellow travelers. The crowd is decidedly young. In addition to scuba diving, there are Spanish lessons available for $160 per week with dorm accommodations (upgrades available), kayak and snorkeling equipment for rent, waterskiing, yoga, spa services, and tons of board games. On Saturdays, there’s a fun dress-up barbecue party where you can eat chicken or veggie burgers and jam to a guitar and drums. If you get bored here, you should probably check your pulse.
La Fortuna at Atitlán in Santa Cruz La Laguna
Farther along the lakeshore heading back east toward Panajachel is La Casa Rosa (tel. 5803-2531, www.atitlanlacasarosa.com, $26-55 d), with modern, clean, and comfortable rooms with shared or private hot-water baths in addition to two suites housed in bungalows. An apartment with kitchen is available for rent for $250 per week. There are homemade jams and bread in addition to Guatemalan, international, and vegetarian dishes served in the main floor dining room. A wonderful more recent addition is that of a beautiful, airy wooden deck lounge overlooking the lake.
You might stumble upon a few private villas as you make your way farther east a few hundred meters to the lovely, American-owned S Villa Sumaya (tel. 4026-1390 or 4026-1455, www.villasumaya.com, $70-145 d). There are 19 beautiful rooms, all named after jungle animals and decorated with elements of Mayan and Asian style. Some are housed in a thatched-roof complex; others are farther up the hill in separate cabins. All of the spacious rooms have private hot-water bathrooms, warm Guatemalan wool blankets, and patios with furniture and lovely hammocks. The rooms up the hill have mosquito netting and larger bathrooms with tubs, one of which is impressively built into the side of the mountain with lava rock adorning the semi-outdoor shower. There’s an impressive, hardwood-floor and thatched-roof yoga center, which is often booked months in advance by groups from the United States. Other amenities include a massage parlor, library, and two hot tubs. The restaurant here is correspondingly excellent, consisting of vegetarian selections as well as fish, meat, and chicken dishes prepared by two talented chefs. Delicious baked goods are also produced daily. Breakfast and lunch are à la carte. Dinner is a set menu served family-style. The outdoor café is housed in a pretty wooden patio overlooking the lake.
S Laguna Lodge (tel. 7823-2529, www.lagunalodgeatitlan.com, $240-370 d), is also in this neck of the woods, built in ecofriendly style on the lakeshore on its very own 100-acre nature preserve. The beautiful though somewhat dark suites feature Guatemalan hardwoods and adobe walls, along with solar-heated showers and low-flow toilets. The Zotz Restaurant and Lava Bar have phenomenal lake views and feature a delightful array of vegetarian dishes ($35 set menu). A trail winds through the property’s nature preserve and includes a lookout high atop a steep hill. There are several common areas at the lodge where you can laze the day away in a hammock or read a book. You can also enjoy a relaxing dip in a hot tub or sweat away your cares in a Mayan sauna. It was named one of the Top 25 Eco-lodges in the World by National Geographic Traveler in 2013.
From the main dock in Santa Cruz, heading west to Jaibalito, it’s 400 meters to the private dock of S Islaverde Hotel (tel. 5760-2648 or 7823-5952, www.islaverdeatitlan.com, $43-55 d), with 11 comfortable, wooden A-frame cabins with wonderful lake views and shared or private bath. Two larger cabins ($75-125) with six beds apiece can accommodate families or groups. There are pretty gardens with plumeria flowers, a beautiful wooden deck, a restaurant, a lounge with books and games to keep you entertained in addition to a sauna, hot tub, and meditation and massage platform. All of the food served at the lodge is fresh and well prepared. The expanded beach includes a sitting area. The property is the culmination of 12 years of travel by a young Spanish and British couple, who have put many of the ideas found along the road into this splendid place they see less like a hotel and more like a garden of delights. It’s all beautifully decorated, and there are plenty of places to hang out and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere.
Santa Cruz is reached exclusively by boat. Boats leave from the Tzanjuyú dock at the end of Calle del Embarcadero in Panajachel. For the intrepid, there’s a footpath from the departmental capital of Sololá.
West along the shoreline from Santa Cruz is the village of Jaibalito, which is even smaller than Santa Cruz and also accessible only by boat or foot trail. A number of lodges have sprouted here in recent years, taking advantage of the remote location to offer a comfortable stay in a quiet environment.
Accommodations and Food
Wildly popular, S La Casa del Mundo (tel. 5218-5332, www.lacasadelmundo.com, $37-83 d) is a charming inn built into the side of a rocky cliff. There are rooms with shared or private bathrooms, all housed in wonderful stone cottages with outrageous lake views and decorated with tasteful Guatemalan accents. There’s excellent swimming in a rocky cove where the water is an exquisite shade of emerald. There are kayaks for rent ($4-7), and mountain biking can be arranged via Antigua-based Old Town Outfitters with at least two days’ notice. The trail to Santa Cruz or San Marcos passes right outside the lodge’s back door. Meals are served at set times in a small dining room on the ground floor of the main house. Dinner is served family-style and costs $13. The service here is excellent, and the Guatemalan American owners are very friendly. In the village proper and away from the lake, Vulcano Lodge (tel. 5744-0620, www.vulcanolodge.com, $45-90 d, including continental breakfast) is a Norwegian-owned lodge with five guest rooms, all smartly decorated and featuring private baths. The largest is a family-size villa, which sleeps five and has a living room, kitchen, and a nice big terrace with lake views. The restaurant serves tasty meals for breakfast and lunch, with dinner ($13 for four courses) served family-style. Many of the fresh ingredients, including bananas, avocados, and limes, come right from the on-site garden plot. Jaibalito’s budget accommodations are at Posada Jaibalito (tel. 5192-4334, www.posadajaibalito.com, dorms $4.50 pp with use of kitchen, $12 d with private bath and kitchen), offering basic but pleasant rooms located in the heart of the village.
For utterly delectable food, refreshing cocktails, and killer lake views from its infinity-edge swimming pool, head to S Club Ven Acá (tel. 5122-6047, www.clubvenaca.com, 11am-5pm Wed.-Sun., $5-15). The fun staff will keep you entertained and fill your belly with delicious fish tacos, burgers, salads, barbecue sandwiches, and steaks. Try the signature beverage, the Jaibalito Mojito, made with basil instead of mint leaves. The pool has a swim-up bar.
West along the shore, the next village is Tzununá, home to the agreeable Lomas de Tzununá (tel. 5201-8272 or 5206-6215, www.lomasdetzununa.com, $90 d including breakfast and tax), high atop a steep hill. You can call the lodge for a pickup from the hotel’s pier or make the 100-meter trek up the slope. Run by a Belgian Uruguayan couple who discovered Guatemala while working with the United Nations, the lodge features 10 lovely stone-and-wood bungalows with tile floors and lake views greatly enhanced by their sheer height above the water. Amenities include Internet, a lap pool, library, board games, and a crafts shop. Meals are served alfresco on a wooden patio with superb lake views. Just the views of the volcanoes reflected in the placid swimming pool high above the lake are worth the price of admission. A more recent addition is Maya Moon Lodge (tel. 5533-2433, www.mayamoonlodgeatitlan.com, $12 pp to $70 d), which makes a great place to stay for those wanting seclusion in a scenic setting at a very affordable price. It’s still a work in progress (there was construction taking place next to the restaurant during my visit), but it’s shaping up to be a lovely property. The staff and owners are friendly and fun. The small on-site restaurant overlooks the water.
There are lovely lake views from Maya Moon Lodge in Tzununá.
Tzununá is also home to Atitlán Organics (www.atitlanorganics.com), a large working organic farm. Its 2.2 acres are a fascinating study into the loss of precious topsoil in the Atitlán basin (and much of highland Guatemala) through outmoded corn-based agriculture, and the methods available for the recovery of fertile, arable land using sustainable practices. Weekly tours of the farm are available on Friday mornings (prior notice required) for $13 per person. It includes a waterfall hike and farm-to-table lunch. Surplus food is sold at the farm’s weekly market activities in Santa Cruz, San Marcos, and Jaibalito. Atitlán Organics also offers workshops aimed at educating travelers in aspects of permaculture and sustainable living.
SAN MARCOS LA LAGUNA
San Marcos is a unique lake town in that it harbors a strangely esoteric vibe, aided by its prominence as Guatemala’s New Age center. It’s about a three-hour walk from Santa Cruz and two hours from San Pedro. Most visitors arrive at a boat dock beside Posada Schumann, though boats stop first at the main dock a few hundred meters east. A road runs beside the lodge into town, which together with a parallel street 100 meters west, form the main pedestrian arteries. When I first started coming to San Marcos, it was a dusty, makeshift, hybrid Maya-gringo village, complete with dirt paths. Nowadays, the main path into town from the Posada Schumann dock has been paved, and the whole place feels a lot cleaner and better organized.
Sights and Recreation
Among the spiritually inclined attractions is Las Pirámides (tel. 5202-4168 or 5205-7302, www.laspiramidesdelka.com), offering a variety of New Age alternative psychology courses, including a one-month “moon course” beginning with the full moon and culminating in a full week of fasting and silence. With completion of the moon course there’s further study, including a three-month sun course, featuring elements of Kabbalah, tarot reading, and lucid dreaming. Nonstudents can join in on hatha yoga sessions, classes on metaphysics, and meditation techniques. Sessions range $5-13. To get here, follow the path up the hill past Posada Schumann and then turn left along the signed pathway. It’s about 200 meters on your left.
Back toward Posada Schumann is San Marcos Holistic Cottage (www.sanmholisticcottage.com, 10am-5pm Mon.-Sat.), offering a wide assortment of massages and holistic therapies. There are training courses in Reiki, shiatsu, massage, reflexology, and Bach flower remedies. English, Spanish, German, and French are spoken. A typical treatment costs $33.
It’s not recommended, but you can hike from San Marcos east to Tzununá and Jaibalito. Check on the safety situation with local sources, as hiker robberies between here and Tzununá have been frequent in the past. Going west to Santa Clara La Laguna is a safer bet. If you do go, leave your valuables behind. Until recently, the waters here were excellent for swimming, when the lake was nice and clean. In the aftermath of Atitlán’s recent cyanobacteria algal blooms, you may be hard-pressed to find a decent place to swim.
Kayaks are available for rent next door to the Lush Apartments and cost $4 per hour. The owners of Tul y Sol restaurant (tel. 5293-7997) can arrange paragliding.
Posada Schumann (tel. 5202-2216, $15-50 d) is the first place you’ll come across if, like most people, you arrive into town at its dock. Most of the comfortable, well-furnished, and tastefully decorated rooms are housed in quaint stone-and-mortar cottages. An excellent value, room number 12 is a deluxe second-floor wooden bungalow ($25-36 d, depending on season) with its own deck. Numbers 8 and 10 have awesome volcano and lake views. The restaurant overlooking the well-tended gardens serves sandwiches, smoothies, and Guatemalan fare for breakfast and lunch, though the service can be slow.
West along the lakeshore past Las Pirámides, S Lush Apartments (Formerly Aaculaax, tel. 4818-4258, www.lushatitlan.com, $15-65 d standard rooms, $100-150 d suites) is a work of art constructed out of recycled building materials, including glass, carved pumice stones, and colorful papier-mâché. Each of the rooms is unique, though all have private bathrooms with composting toilets and lovely terraces. There are five budget rooms costing $15 per person available on a first-come, first-served basis. The rooms are literally built around the rocks of the surrounding hillsides, which are prominently displayed in the architecture of some of the suites. The glasswork in evidence throughout the property is simply delicious, as is the lush landscaping. There’s a small on-site store for basic sundries, laundry service, and a lending library.
The footpath continues farther west to Hotel Jinava (tel. 5299-3311 or 5248-3052, www.hoteljinava.com, $22-40 d), on the edge of town right on the lake in a quiet bay with its own beach. The five rooms are housed in Spanish-style whitewashed, tiled-roof villas with private terraces and have private or shared bathroom and attractive decor with tile floors and colorful textiles. The restaurant serves decent meals, including Thai, Indian, Mexican, Greek, Italian, and Guatemalan dishes. There’s also a full bar.
Up the path from Posada Schumann into the main part of town is Posada del Bosque Encantado (tel. 5208-5334, www.hotelposadaencantado.com, $20 d), with rooms housed in a charming adobe structure and surrounded by tranquil gardens. The rooms have Guatemalan furnishings and vaulted ceilings; some have an extra bed on a second floor loft.
In the heart of the tourist area is Hotel y Restaurante Paco Real (tel. 4688-3715, www.pacorealatitlan.com, $17-25 d), with simple but comfortable rooms and shared or private bath. The wooden, thatched-roof cabanas include Guatemalan furnishings and woven reed floor mats in a peaceful garden setting. There’s a restaurant and bar on the premises where the highlights include Mexican dishes, seafood, and curried pineapple chicken. The town’s newest accommodations are by the lakeshore near the town’s easternmost dock. El Dragon (tel. 4147-7787, www.eldragonhotel.com) has comfortable rooms with attractive Guatemalan decor at a reasonable price.
Among the decent eats in San Marcos is S Fe (tel. 3009-5537, 7:30am-midnight daily, $8-20), where you can feast on curries, pastas, meat, and fish dishes in a pleasant garden atmosphere accented with Guatemalan textiles. Enjoying a wonderful lakeside location west of Posada Schumann is French-owned Tul y Sol (tel. 5293-7997, www.eltulysolatitlan.jimdo.com, all meals daily) offering decent sandwiches served on thick slices of bread, grilled fish, and pasta. Try the homemade chocolate truffles for dessert. Up the path toward town from Posada Schumann, Il Giardino (tel. 7804-0186, 4pm-midnight Thurs.-Sun., $4-13) serves deliciously fresh, mostly vegetarian fare in a tranquil garden setting. Another good vegan/vegetarian option has moved up the hill from its former lakeside location. Moonfish Cafe (Calle Principal, tel. 5382-6312, 7:30am-8pm daily) serves large portions of tasty, locally grown organic food. I like their falafel.
the main street up from the dock at San Marcos La Laguna
Heading into the town center from the lakeshore and crossing the main road through town, you’ll find S Blind Lemon’s (tel. 5502-4450, www.blindlemons.com, 11am-10pm Mon.-Sat., $5-15), inspired by blues musician Lemon Jefferson and housed in a pleasant colonial-style courtyard. Tasty burgers, pizzas, steaks, chicken, and pasta are on the menu. There’s live blues on Fridays starting at 8pm (or whenever friendly owner Carlos wants to play for you), and movies are shown on a big screen some nights. Also in this part of town (known as Barrio 3) is S The Mojito House (tel. 4069-2468, www.themojitohouse.com, 5pm-midnight Tues.-Sat., $5-15), where you’ll find its namesake cocktail and tasty menu items that include goat cheese Waldorf salad, mango cilantro chicken, and fire-grilled filet mignon. The owners are in the process of building a green house and organic garden to supply not only their needs but also those of the local community.
On the lakeshore next to the soccer field, El Dragon (tel. 4147-7787, www.eldragonhotel.com) is a popular gathering place for its location and tasty food. You can hang out and enjoy drinks on the property’s small sandy beach or have a meal on the covered patio overlooking the lake. The key lime pie is a town favorite.
Information and Services
Casa Verde Tours (tel. 5837-9092 or 7721-8344, www.casaverdetours.com), of San Pedro fame, also has an office in San Marcos and can arrange transport and local hikes. They are located at the top of the hill along the trail that leads straight into town from Posada Schumann. Another option is the newly formed Jóvenes Mayas (tel. 5787-7728), composed of local community guides offering English/Spanish guided hikes to local waterfalls, San Pedro, and the Pakachelaj forest reserve. They are on the path into town from Posada Schumann, near Posada del Bosque Encantado.
There are no banks or ATMs in San Marcos.
SAN JUAN LA LAGUNA
Serene San Juan La Laguna is a relative latecomer to the tourism scene and makes a good stop if you’d like to see a fairly sizable lakeside village that remains largely untouched by international tourism. It’s accessible by boat or via a road that branches off from the Pan-American Highway, subsequently twisting and turning down the surrounding mountainside. If you’d like to stay here, Uxlabil Ecohotel (tel. 2366-9555, www.uxlabil.com, $48-72 d) has comfortable, tastefully rustic rooms housed in a large building overlooking the lake. There’s a large dock for swimming among plentiful grass reeds dotting the lakeshore here as well as a sauna, whirlpool tub, kayaks for rent, and horseback riding available on request. A newer budget option is Pa Muelle (next to the municipal market, tel. 4141-0820, firstname.lastname@example.org, $13 d) with simple but attractive and clean rooms in a motel-style property with lake views. It’s locally owned and operated.
If wine and cheese is your bag (like mine), you’ll love El Artesano Wine & Cheese Restaurant (tel. 4555-4773, Tues.-Fri. lunch only). Owned by a Guatemalan couple with Swiss roots, the restaurant serves a curated collection of artisanal cheeses gathered from local farms throughout the Guatemalan highlands. The cheeses are served with cured meats, nuts, and dried fruits and paired with a fine selection of wines. As is often the case in Guatemala, you’ll find it’s a hidden gem in a very unlikely location. It’s up the street from the main dock. Make the first right and follow the signs for about five minutes to this culinary oasis. Tuk-tuk drivers all know where it is.
SAN PEDRO LA LAGUNA
On the lake’s southwest corner and accessible by frequent boats or road, San Pedro is second in popularity only to Panajachel and has a hip international atmosphere. The place has grown by leaps and bounds, from a once-scruffy village to a rather pleasant lakeside town with a solid international presence. You’ll see signs in English, Spanish, French, and even Hebrew as you walk along the paths winding through town. The atmosphere in San Pedro embraces a simpler state of being, and you’ll have no trouble slowing down to the local pace of life amidst the serene tropical foliage.
The town flanks the northern slopes of San Pedro Volcano, a popular climb for which the town is ideally suited as a base. It has increasingly become home to a number of language schools, some of dubious quality, collectively offering some of Guatemala’s least expensive tuition rates. While it was originally a backpacker Shangri-La, there have been recent additions to the hotel infrastructure, making for suitable accommodations to house the non-backpacker crowd.
The bulk of the tourist hotels and services are between two docks, on the southeast and northwest sides of town, and in the areas adjacent to them. The first one serves boats to/from Panajachel and the rest of the lake towns; the other is for boats to Santiago Atitlán. They are about one kilometer apart. The area between them is known as El Otro Lado (The Other Side). Street numbers and names are not generally in use here. From the Santiago dock, go up about 50 meters and turn right on the footpath known as 7th Avenue to get to El Otro Lado and continue to the Panajachel boat dock. From the latter dock, go up one block and turn left to get to the other side of town. Numerous hand-painted signs will direct you almost anywhere you want to go. As you go up the hill, further from the lakeshore and the area between the two docks, San Pedro gets decidedly more Maya and looks like many other Guatemalan highland towns.
San Pedro Volcano
The volcano became a national park in 2006, so it is hoped that, as was the case with Pacaya Volcano, its newly protected status will result in greater police presence and an end to the robberies that frequently happen near the summit. For now, check with locals before heading up the volcano. Under no circumstances should you attempt this hike alone. Always go with a local guide. There is a visitors center at the trailhead, which is just off the road to Santiago. The hike is fairly strenuous, as the trail runs straight up the mountain with very little in the way of switchbacks. It takes about 4-5 hours to reach the summit, which is still very much covered in thick cloud forest. There’s a small gap in the trees at the top from which there are views of Santiago and the lake. Start your hike early in the day to avoid the midday heat and the clouds that typically gather at the summit of the lake’s volcanoes in the afternoon.
the quaint streets of San Pedro La Laguna
Activities include horseback riding and hikes up a mountain known locally as “Indian Nose,” as its shape resembles the profile of a Mayan nose like those depicted on stelae. Horseback riding is available from Rancho Moisés (next to Zoola hotel, tel. 5967-3235). Tornado’s Excursions (Calle del Embarcadero, tel. 5633-3424) also does tours on horseback.
Walking to other villages from here makes sense from a logistical perspective, though too-frequent reports of robberies along the trails prevent me from recommending this as a viable activity. If you do decide to go on any of the hikes, bring only that which you wouldn’t mind losing.
You can swim from either of the docks (watch out for boat traffic) or anywhere along the lakeshore, though recent pollution concerns have made a dip in the lake much less appealing. Your best bet to beat the heat is The Deep End Bar & Pool (next to the Santiago boat dock, tel. 5304-7357, www.thedeependbar.com, 11am-dusk daily), where it costs $2.50 to swim (children $1.25) in a pleasant, clean swimming pool surrounded by tropical plants and mural art. A lively bar keeps things hopping. There’s a weekly bocce ball tournament and southern-style barbecue on Saturdays starting at 1pm and costing about $8.
If you like your water bathtub-warm, you have at least two options for soaking in hot tubs. Both places feature concrete tubs filled with water that is solar-heated in black plastic tubing and pumped into reservoirs of various sizes. (You’ll need to call ahead or visit with at least one hour’s prior notice so they can draw the bath.) It costs $7 for one person, but you can split the cost with others sharing the same pool. The first of these, Solar Pools (7a Avenida 2-22, Zona 2, tel. 5770-5119, solarpools.blogspot.com, 8am-11pm daily), is on the main strip of El Otro Lado. Of the two, Solar Pools holds the slight edge in landscaping, and it has an adjacent snack bar, Tzan Saqarib’al, serving light fare. You can reserve by phone. Closer to the lakeshore and a short walk down a side path is Los Termales (8:30am-11:45pm daily), the town’s self-proclaimed original hot tub operation. Its biggest draw is the sylvan lakeside setting. They prefer that you pre-book your tub in person.
Excursiones Big Foot (tel. 7721-8202), on the main drag as you come up the hill from the Panajachel dock and turn left, is San Pedro’s most reliable outfitter and has been in operation since 1995. It offers trips to San Pedro Volcano with knowledgeable guides and security for $14, including park admission. Big Foot can also guide you to Indian Nose with a four-person minimum for $5 pp. Casa Verde Tours (tel. 5837-9092 or 7721-8344, www.casaverdetours.com) just down the street from the Panajachel boat dock, is another recommended outfitter. They also have a variety of daily shuttle departures. Tornado’s Excursions (Calle del Embarcadero, tel. 5633-3424) rounds out the list of possibilities.
San Pedro is a lively town harboring several bars where the party goes on until about 1am.
Lake Atitlán as seen from San Pedro La Laguna
Just to the left of the dock and directly above Nick’s Place, D’Noz is a lively bar with good food, including baguettes and croissants, where movies are shown nightly. In the center of town between the two docks, the ever-popular Buddha Bar, housed in a three-level building with a cool Asian atmosphere, has pool tables and dartboards on the first floor. The town’s neighborhood bar is El Barrio (7th Ave., 5pm-1am daily) in the heart of the tourist zone. They have $2 mojitos all day every day. Right in the heart of the tourist area is Fe’s Sky Café, a second-floor patio bar with happy hour from 5pm-7pm.
For budget accommodations, your best bet is Fe (tel. 5461-6625, www.hostelfe.com, $8 pp or $20 d including breakfast), where there are dorm beds and private rooms in a centric location overlooking the lakeshore near the Panajachel dock. It’s a self-proclaimed party hostel and makes no apologies. Among the entertainment options is a dry season booze cruise on the lake Wednesday afternoons for $7.
Also on the list of the town’s hip locales is Zoola (tel. 5847-4857 or 5534-3111, email@example.com, $6 dorms, $15 d with private bath), found along the trail heading into El Otro Lado. It has eight rooms, half with private bathroom, and dorm beds. There is a movie lounge, book exchange, purified water from its own well, and a massage room, but the crowning achievement is the beautiful canvas-roof hammock lounge with comfortable pillows on woven floor mats. A heated swimming pool next to the lake is the latest addition. Hotel Sak’cari (7a Avenida 2-12 Zona 2, tel. 7721-8096, www.hotel-sakcari.com, $16 d) feels a bit like a motel, though the rooms on the second floor have nice lake views with hammocks out front. All rooms have a private bathroom. Furnished apartments were recently added to the mix. They’ve also added a swimming pool and a grassy area with hammocks.
The nicest place in town is S Mikaso Hotel (tel. 7721-8232, www.mikasohotel.com, $8 pp in dorm, $25-45 d) with 11 rooms and a dormitory housed in an attractive Spanish neocolonial-style building fronting the lakeshore. Rooms have tile bathrooms, ceiling fans, tile floors, and tasteful decor. The rooftop restaurant here is also quite smart, serving Mediterranean food and yummy brick oven pizza. It’s open 7am-10pm and has a pleasant patio overlooking San Pedro Volcano and the lake. The hotel also has a hot tub for guests’ use.
As you come up from the Panajachel boat dock, the first place worth mentioning is one block on the left as you head up the street into town. Alegre Pub and Restaurant (tel. 7721-8100, 5pm-1am Mon., 9am-1am Tues.-Sat., 9am-11pm Sun.) serves authentic pub grub, including Indian curry, Cajun fare, chili, baked potatoes, and fish ’n’ chips. There’s a nice rooftop patio area to take in the view of the street below.
Up the street from the Panajachel dock, if you make the first right, the first place of note is Fe (tel. 5273-6688, 7am-11pm daily, www.hostelfe.com, $4-7), popular for its wonderful wooden deck fronting the lake and a varied menu that includes wood-fired pizzas. Across the street, The Fifth Dimension (tel. 4965-2438, 10am-4:30pm Tues.-Sat., 6pm-10:30pm Sun., $3-9) is a vegetarian restaurant serving delicious smoothies, veggie burgers, homemade ginger ale, and flat bread pizzas. I’ll pass on the vegemite, though. It’s set on a pleasant patio overlooking the lake. Sunday is movie night.
There are a number of good eateries in the part of town inland between the two docks known as El Otro Lado. Among them is The Buddha (tel. 4466-3721, www.thebuddhaguatemala.com, noon-1am daily, $5-10), housed in a three-level building with a pool table and darts on the first floor, a dining area and chill-out lounge on the second floor, and a rooftop terrace bar. The restaurant serves authentic Asian and Guatemalan fusion cuisine with a variety of rice, noodle, and curry dishes, sushi, soups, wraps, and tasty desserts at reasonable prices. There’s a hookah water pipe smoking lounge.
San Pedro isn’t without a decent chip shop to satisfy British palates. Deep Blue Fish & Chips (tel. 5984-0216, $4-6) serves up the real deal. Down the street, The Clover (7th Ave., tel. 4155-6654, 8:30am-midnight daily, $4-7) is a restaurant and bar on a nice patio overlooking the lake serving savory sandwiches and Pan-Asian inspired dishes such as scrumptious mango curry.
Ventana Blue (7th Avenue 1-21 Zona 2, tel. 5284-2406 or 4050-0500, 6pm-10pm Tues.-Sun.) features a small outdoor dining room painted in red hues and prides itself on creative Asian/Guatemalan cuisine. There are only a handful of tables in this tiny hidden gem, so get there early or call ahead. Café La Puerta (tel. 5098-1272, www.cafelapuerta.com) was once on the lakeside but has now moved uphill and attached itself to San Pedro Spanish School. The service seems to have gone with the move, though it’s good for light meals if you can flag someone down. By contrast, the service at S Blue Parrot Bar & Grill (tel. 4106-5307, open seasonally 8am-10pm daily, $4-8) is phenomenal. They’ll take good care of you while you imbibe well-crafted cocktails and North American favorites like mouthwatering biscuits with sausage, gravy, and eggs, tasty burgers, Philly cheesesteaks, nachos, and mozzarella sticks. You know; the healthy stuff. Its owners are the brains behind San Pedro’s wildly successful Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ (noon-4pm Sun. at Café Chuasinayi, down the street from Mikaso Hotel). The weekly feast includes healthy favorites like baby back and spare ribs, bacon-wrapped steaks, mac & cheese, and potato salad. Get there early!
Information and Services
There’s a Banrural (with ATM) in the heart of town, reached by heading straight up the street from the Panajachel dock for about a kilometer. You’ll pass the town market on your right, two blocks before the bank, which will be on your left. From the Santiago dock, head up the street and turn left at the market. There’s also an ATM just off the Panajachel dock.
For Internet and phone calls, Casa Verde Tours (tel. 5837-9092 or 7721-8344, www.casaverdetours.com) is your all-in-one stop for going online, laundry, international calls, and full-service travel agency including shuttle buses to Antigua, Guatemala City, and Xela. Recommended language schools include the following: Casa Rosario (Canton Sanjay, tel. 7613-6401, www.casarosario.com) and Corazón Maya (first left up the street from Santiago dock, tel. 7721-8160, corazonmaya.com). In the El Otro Lado sector between the two docks are Mayab’ Spanish School (tel. 5979-7994, www.mayabspanishschool.com) and San Pedro Spanish School (tel. 5966-2072, www.sanpedrospanishschool.org).
There are boats every half hour to Santiago (30 minutes, $2.50) from the dock at the northwest part of town starting at 6am. Lanchas also leave throughout the day for the lakeshore villages of San Marcos ($1.50), Jaibalito ($2), Santa Cruz ($2.50), and Panajachel ($3). All leave from the dock on the southeast side of town. The last boat going in either direction usually leaves around 5pm.
There are buses to Quetzaltenango ($3, 2.5 hours) leaving from in front of the church in the main part of town at 4:30am, 5am, 5:30am, 6am, 7am, 8am, 10:30am, and 11am Monday through Saturday. On Sundays these buses leave at 5am, 5:30am, 6am, 8am, and 11am. There are buses to Guatemala City from San Pedro departing Monday through Saturday at 3:30am, 4am, 5am, 5:30am, 6am, 8am, and 10am. Afternoon buses depart at noon and 2pm on the same days. Sunday departures for Guatemala City are at 6am and 7am and noon, 1, and 2pm. There are frequent pickups to the villages as far as the road goes to San Marcos and in the other direction to Santiago. Shuttle vans ($25) leave from San Pedro (Casa Verde) at 9am daily for Antigua and Xela.
Shuttle buses to Antigua and Xela depart multiple times daily and can be booked through any of the travel agencies in town.
Santiago Atitlán is a more traditional sort of place and has a very different feel from San Pedro. It’s spectacularly set in an inlet with gorgeous views of San Pedro Volcano just across this small body of water. Atitlán and Tolimán Volcanoes rise behind it. I personally think its setting is the most spectacular of all the Lake Atitlán villages. It is the main enclave of Guatemala’s Tz’utujil-speaking Maya, whose wonderful painting and handicrafts can be seen along the main street coming up from the boat dock, which is lined with art galleries and craft shops. On display is a very distinct form of painting depicting various elements of indigenous life such as agricultural harvests and festivals.
women doing laundry in Santiago Atitlán
Santiago suffered greatly during the civil war, as the area was a hotbed of activity for ORPA guerrillas, who established themselves in this strategic area between the highlands and the Pacific Coast. The Guatemalan military established a base here and began systematically searching for guerrilla sympathizers, killing hundreds. As the civil war waned, the military’s presence became increasingly unnecessary, as was the case throughout much of Guatemala, and villagers became increasingly resentful of its presence. The massacre of 12 unarmed villagers (including three children) in 1990 unleashed a flood of local and international pressure to close the military garrison. A petition presented to the Guatemalan government asking for the base’s closure was soon granted.
More recently, Santiago made world headlines in October 2005 after a number of devastating mudslides in the wake of Hurricane Stan left close to 1,000 victims. The neighboring village of Panabaj was completely wiped out by the mudslides, and the scars can still be seen on the mountainside. Many international organizations are still working in the area, and Santiago has become a popular center for volunteer activities in the tragedy’s aftermath.
Another Santiago curiosity is the presence of a highland Mayan deity known as Maximón, housed in the home of a different member of the local cofradía, or Catholic brotherhood, every year. The effigy is a wooden figure clad in colorful silk scarves and a Stetson hat, smoking a big cigar and receiving offerings of moonshine, cigarettes, and rum. Local village children will offer you their services to go see the idol, which you can photograph for a fee. It is not surprisingly a sore point between the Catholic syncretists and the increasingly prominent Evangelical Christian churches, which have won over many of Santiago’s residents.
You will probably be approached by innocent-looking children as soon as you arrive from the boat dock offering any of a number of services, including a guided trip to see Maximón or assistance in finding accommodations. You have the right to politely refuse, but you might be surprised at the colorful language they can resort to (in English) if they’re unhappy with you for not hiring their services or if you fail to provide an adequate tip. Internationally recognized finger gestures are also not out of the realm of possibility. As Guatemala becomes more popular with visitors, however, the desperate drive to secure tourist dollars seems less urgent as market conditions have finally seemed to establish critical mass. My latest visit seemed wonderfully absent of locals hawking their services.
Santiago’s colorful market really gets going on Fridays and Sundays, when the town’s streets are filled with vendors and Mayan women dressed in the town’s spectacular purple costume. The men wear interesting striped shorts, though it seems in fewer numbers every year. Standing prominently in the central plaza, the Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol was built between 1572 and 1581. Inside lining the walls are wooden saints dressed in clothes made by local women and renewed yearly. At the far end of the church are three sacred colonial altarpieces refurbished with more Mayan-inspired motifs by two local brothers between 1976 and 1981. The altarpieces represent the three volcanoes in the vicinity of Santiago, which are believed to protect the village. Local creation myths distinguish them as the first dry land to emerge from the early seas. The wooden pulpit has interesting carvings, including corn and animal figures. The town’s newest attraction is the Museo Cojoyla (9am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-1pm Sat., free), a block up the street from the main dock, on the left, with displays on Santiago’s artful legacy of traditional backstrap weaving.
Atitlán and Tolimán Volcanoes are tempting climbs from town but unfortunately have been the scene of robberies, a problem that unfortunately seems endemic in the Lake Atitlán area. Check with the local lodges on the security situation and for reliable guides who might be able to take you there, should you wish to venture on the path less traveled.
Accommodations and Food
Santiago’s nicest accommodations are at the charming S Posada de Santiago (tel. 7721-7366 or 5784-9111, www.posadadesantiago.com, $50-115 d) with a variety of room types in comfortable stone cabins featuring tasteful Guatemalan decor. It has adjusted well to the recent influx of missionaries and volunteer groups, offering rooms for 4-5 people at budget prices. The lodge is run by Dave and Susie Glanville, a gracious American couple who have lived in Santiago for years. Ironically, the hotel originally opened just weeks before the installation of the defunct local military garrison. It was closed for 10 years and did not reopen until June of 1991. If you’re interested in the hotel’s interesting history be sure to ask for Dave’s “Smart Aleck Interview,” which should answer most of your questions. The restaurant here is one of the lake’s finest. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served at set times throughout the day. Dinner costs $8-21 and includes Cajun, Asian, and continental cuisine. All of the sauces, breads, pastries, and ice cream served here are homemade, and the Glanvilles grow, process, and roast their own coffee. Activities include fishing or kayaking on the lake, Thai or deep tissue massages, lounging by the pool in a hammock overlooking the lake, and swimming. There is wireless Internet in the lodge.
Posada de Santiago in Santiago Atitlán
Just outside of town, your backup plan is to stay at Hotel and Restaurant Bambú (Carretera San Lucas Tolimán, Km. 16, tel. 7721-7331, www.ecobambu.com, $55-65 d) with two bungalows, eight rooms, and a villa housed in pretty thatched-roof stone cottages with fantastic lake and volcano views fronting beautifully landscaped grounds. The rooms are cheerful and bright with beautiful Guatemalan furnishings. There are a very nice swimming pool, a private dock, and kayaks available for rent at $5 an hour. The restaurant serves tasty international and Spanish cuisine. Be sure to take a taxi or tuk-tuk if you decide to go into town at night, as robberies have been reported on the isolated paths from the hotel into town after dark.
For lake fish, snacks, sandwiches, and light fare, a good choice is Restaurante El Pescador (two blocks up the street from the dock, tel. 7721-7147, www.elpescadoratitlan.com, 8am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 9am-4pm Sun.).
There’s a Banrural right on the plaza where you can exchange dollars and travelers checks.
Ferry service ($2.50) departs Santiago for Panajachel at 6am, 7am, and 11:45am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, 2pm, and 4:30pm. The ferry crossing takes about an hour, and there is also faster lancha service. There are also frequent boats to San Pedro from here. There are seven daily buses leaving from the central plaza for Cocales and Guatemala City between 3am and 3pm.
SAN LUCAS TOLIMÁN AND VICINITY
San Lucas is probably the least attractive of the lakeside villages, though the adjacent area is as gorgeous as the rest of the lake. It makes a good place to get away from it all. If you’re looking for comfortable accommodations to host your escape, you might want to check out Hotel Tolimán (6a Avenida 1-26, tel. 7722-0033, www.hoteltoliman.com, $50-95 d) on a sprawling lakeside ranch run by a wonderful Guatemalan couple. The 22 comfortable rooms, including some splendid suites, all have a private bathroom and a 17th-century hacienda ambience enhanced by numerous decorative touches that include delightful furniture and antiques. Hotel amenities include a swimming pool, wireless Internet, and a restaurant.
Just a few kilometers along Ruta Nacional 11, leading from San Lucas to the coastal town of Cocales, this is a gem of a place to stay. S Los Tarrales (Km. 164.2 RN-11, tel. 5919-8882 or 2478-4606, www.tarrales.com, $62-98 d) is a private reserve on the southern slopes of Atitlán Volcano named after the abundant bamboo trees that grow here. Altitudes range 700-3,000 meters (2,300-9,800 feet), providing for a wonderfully diverse array of ecosystems. Several locals are employed by the reserve, working on its coffee farm or in the ecotourism business, and the lodge runs a school for local children. Activities include hiking and bird-watching with naturalist guides, climbing Atitlán Volcano, mountain biking, canoeing, horseback riding, and visits to the working coffee farm. Accommodations include shared-bath rooms, beautiful rooms with private bathroom, or wonderful tree house cabins. Excellent, home-cooked meals are served ($10-12) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner including fresh salads, vegetarian and meat dishes, and bread from the on-site bakery. Buses heading to Cocales pass right by the entrance to the reserve, which is 15 minutes from San Lucas and about 45 minutes from Santiago.
Between San Lucas Tolimán and San Antonio Palopó, Tosa La Laguna (tel. 5198-3234, www.tosaspa.com, $175-295 d, including three vegetarian meals daily) bills itself as an all-inclusive, adults-only, holistic spa and retreat center. Its remote location (a 10-minute boat ride from San Lucas Tolimán) certainly helps in this regard. Readers have written in to rave about the wonderful accommodations and friendly staff found at this peaceful lakeside oasis. The hillside complex houses comfortable casitas painted in vivid hues and even a dome-shaped suite. You can also visit here on a day spa package.
SAN ANTONIO PALOPÓ
Our round-the-lake circle is completed at the quiet village of San Antonio Palopó. It hasn’t been greatly exploited by tourism (unlike its sister town Santa Catarina Palopó) and makes a great place to get away. Among the limited but quite lovely accommodations options is Atitlan Villas (Bahía Kachiman, tel. 3019-9822 or 2378-6921, atitlanvillas.com, $150-450 d). The modern rooms have anywhere from one to four bedrooms; all feature balconies with fabulous lake views. There’s also a swimming pool. Please note that there is no parking on-site. You’ll need to park your car in town with one of several reputable car parks the hotel can recommend and then take a boat (furnished by the lodge) to the property. It’s a 10-minute ride.
At Chichi, tourism became voyeurism. There was always so much going on—the crowded, noisy market, the rituals on the steps of Santo Tomás, a ceremonial dance outside El Calvario chapel, the explosion of firecrackers in the morning, a procession—that it was easy to think it all a show put on for the tourists’ benefit. But in Chichi it was not a show. The “spectacle” was part of daily life for the Indians, ritual that must be performed in spite of, not because of, the tourists.
—Stephen Connely Benz, Guatemalan Journey
Chichicastenango (Chichi, for short) will provide you with an opportunity to take in a unique highland market experience. There are certainly other, more authentic markets in highland Guatemala, at least one of which is larger, but Chichi’s popular Sunday and Thursday market is unique in that it includes allowances for the very strong foreign presence here. It is the only highland market where you’ll see large tour buses packed with camera-toting tourists negotiating the hairpin, dizzying mountain switchbacks along the road from Antigua and Guatemala City. The road to Chichi diverts from the Pan-American Highway at the Los Encuentros Junction, along Km. 127.5.
The market, and Chichi’s status as a bona fide tourist attraction, got their start in the 1930s when enterprising Alfred S. Clark opened the Mayan Inn and started busing folks in from the capital for a look at an authentic highland Mayan village. Chichicastenango, originally known as Chaviar, was an important Kaqchikel trading town long before the arrival of the Spanish. The Kaqchikel went to war with their K’iche’ rivals based in K’umarcaaj (near present-day Santa Cruz del Quiché, 20 miles north) in the 15th century, moving their capital to the more easily defended site of Iximché. Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado would play the K’iche’-Kaqchikel rivalry to his advantage, using the latter as allies in his final push against the K’iche’, who comprised the only real opposition to Spanish conquest. Chichicastenango got its name, meaning “place of the nettles,” from Alvarado’s Nahuatl-speaking Mexican allies after the town’s reestablishment here after the defeat of the K’iche’ capital in 1524.
Today, Chichi is still very much a K’iche’ town with strong adherence to the old ways. Its traditional fiesta, the Fiesta de Santo Tomás, takes place December 14-21. There are plenty of loud fireworks, traditional dances, moonshine, and the fascinating palo volador ritual in which men spin from ropes attached to a 20-meter pole.
S Chichicastenango’s Market
If you’re a big fan of outdoor markets, you’ll certainly enjoy this one. In addition to the crowds of vendors and potential buyers, you’ll find a dizzying array of good-quality weavings, pottery, fabrics, gourds, and masks, to name just a few. On the stairs of the adjacent church of Santo Tomás, you’ll see Mayans waving incense burners, filling the air with the pungent smell of corozo palm and adding an additional aura of mystique to this chaotic market that is a feast for the senses. There are certainly more authentic indigenous highland markets, but what makes Chichi unique is its accommodation of visitors’ needs and desires for traditional handicrafts into a twice-weekly event (Sunday and Thursday) that would otherwise continue undeterred for the benefit of the locals it has always catered to.
Most of the better handicrafts are found in the central part of the plaza, but be prepared to rummage through piles of lesser-quality stuff, which is readily in abundance. In addition to the main part of the plaza, there are stalls peddling tourist-oriented trinkets along the streets to the north of it. The streets to the south and the centro comercial on the plaza’s north side are home to the everyday items villagers come to market for, including fruits and vegetables, clothing, spices, household items, and baked goods. As in all of Guatemala’s markets, haggling is in order. The best time to get a good deal on anything that might have caught your fancy is after 3pm, when the market starts to wind down. You can often score substantial price reductions simply by walking away and feigning disinterest. It’s all a very complex game. For fair trade goods, visit En Mi Salsa (5a Avenida 5-24 Zona 1, local 21, www.enmisalsa.com, 1pm-5pm Wed., 9am-5pm Thurs./Sun., 10am-5pm Sat.) where you’ll find export-quality handmade goods.
The Popol Vuh
Believed to have been written by an unknown Mayan scribe in the 1560s, the Popol Vuh (Council Book), was found in the church archives in Chichicastenango early in the 18th century by parish priest Francisco Ximénez. Amazingly, it survived the burning and destruction most Mayan writings fell prey to at the hands of the Spanish and lives on as an important document recording K’iche’ histories and legends. Ximénez painstakingly transcribed the document into Latin and then translated it into Spanish. This is now the only surviving copy of the Mayan text and resides in Chicago’s Newberry Library.
The Popol Vuh contains the K’iche’ peoples’ creation myths as well as their history before the arrival of the Spanish. Although there are some striking similarities with Christian writings, including the Old Testament, scholars believe these are coincidences rather than evidence of overt Christian influence—this despite the fact that the text was written about 40 years after the conquest. It mentions Christianity only at its beginning and its end, framing the narration (as opposed to the events themselves) of the Popol Vuh as taking place within the context of the Christian era, for better or worse.
The book describes the moment of creation as having been spurred instantly by the words of the gods themselves describing the moments preceding creation with, “Whatever might be is simply not there: only murmurs, ripples, in the dark, in the night.” It also describes how the gods attempt to create humans to give meaning to creation and have beings that can speak, praise, and keep the passing of time, first forming them out of earth and mud, which soon dissolves. The second version of humankind, the text relates, was created out of wood, but these beings were dull and could not speak in words. The gods decide to annihilate them by sending a flood and other devastations, including the revolt of the beings’ own possessions, which turn and destroy their owners. The book explains that the remains of this previous version of humankind are the monkeys and humanlike creatures we see today. The gods finally create humankind using corn, which is not surprising given its importance as a Mayan subsistence crop to this day.
Other similarities shared with the Bible’s book of Genesis include the explanation of astronomical features, including the Big Dipper, the assertion that woman was created after man, and the conclusion that man at one point had come too close to being like the divine, resulting in a confusion of languages to disperse humankind into different linguistic groups. The Popol Vuh is not without its own tales of heroics, the most prominent being the myth of the Hero Twins, who journey into the underworld (known as Xibalba), ruled by seven lords, and endure great hardships.
In addition to the interesting metaphysical speculation provided throughout the text, another fascinating feature of the Popol Vuh is that it may have served as a book of divination, with some hidden meaning if read in a certain way that allowed the reader to predict future events—hence its being referred to as the “Council Book.” In a more literal sense, it also tells quite matter-of-factly of the impending difficulties that will arrive with the coming of “enemies, hidden behind mountains and hills,” a possible allusion to the civil war and its atrocities. Despite the hardships, the book concludes that, “Our people will never be scattered. Our destiny will triumph over the ill-fated days which are coming at a time unknown. We will always be secure in the land we have occupied.”
Iglesia Santo Tomás
The town’s oft-photographed church dates to 1540 and is the site of syncretic Catholic-Mayan rituals both inside and out. On the steps, you’ll find chuchkajaues—indigenous people at prayer, swinging incense-laden censers (usually just metal cans punctured with holes) and reciting incantations. Take care to enter the church through the side door to the right, as the main entrance is reserved for religious officials and chuchkajaues. Inside you’ll find an astounding number of lit candles lining the church floor along with pine boughs and offerings of liquor bottles wrapped in corn husks, flowers, and maize kernels in remembrance of departed relatives, some of whom are buried beneath the church floor. Photography is strictly prohibited inside the church.
Found beside the church is a monastery, where the Popol Vuh Mayan book was found among church archives by Spanish priest Francisco Ximénez in the early 18th century.
On the west side of the plaza is Capilla del Calvario, another whitewashed church somewhat like a miniature version of Santo Tomás and with much the same feel. There is a glass-encased Christ statue inside, which is paraded through town during Holy Week processions.
The small Museo Rossbach (5a Avenida 4-47 Zona 1, 8am-noon and 2pm-5pm Tues., Wed., Fri., Sat., 8am-4pm Thurs., 8am-2pm Sun., $0.75) harbors a collection of jade objects, including necklaces and figurines in addition to historical objects such as ceremonial masks, obsidian spearheads, and incense burners. It’s named after Hugo Rossbach, a German who served as the town’s Catholic priest for many years until his death in 1944.
On a hill just outside of town is this Mayan shrine dedicated to the earth god Huyup Tak’ah (Mountain Plain) where worshippers gather frequently to perform ceremonies. The idol is a blackened pre-Columbian sculpture standing about a meter tall and lined with stones, candles, and sacrificial offerings of booze. It has been around for centuries. Ceremonies performed by a Mayan shaman usually involve much incense, liquor-drinking, chanting, and offerings of candles, flowers, and maybe even a sacrificial chicken. If you happen to stumble upon one of these ceremonies during your visit, be sure to keep your distance and refrain from taking photographs. You can always ask for permission, but don’t be surprised if the answer is a firm “no.” To get to the shrine, walk down 5a Avenida from the main plaza turning right onto 9a Calle. At the bottom of the hill found along this street, head left onto a path through the signposted morerías (mask workshops) found there. The path continues uphill from there to the hilltop site. It’s best to go in a group and earlier in the day, as robberies of tourists along this route are not infrequent.
candles for sale in Chichicastenango
In the heart of town, S Hotel Santo Tomás (7a Avenida 5-32 Zona 1, tel. 5865-6453, www.hotelsantotomas.com.gt, $100 d) is a lovely colonial-style hotel with rooms centered around a graceful courtyard fountain complete with squawking macaws. There are a pool, hot tub, gift shop, a lively bar, and restaurant. A longtime favorite with travelers to Chichicastenango is the Mayan Inn (8a Calle “A” 1-91 Zona 1, tel. 2412-4753, www.mayaninn.com.gt, $100 d), established by Alfred S. Clark, founder of Clark Tours, in 1932. The 30 rooms are beautifully decorated with antique furnishings and have fireplaces. Most of the bathrooms have tubs. Each room has its own attendant dressed in traditional village costume, as there are no locks on the doors from the outside. Rest assured, you can lock yourself in at night. There’s a good restaurant here. The market is literally at your doorstep.
Tziguan Tinamit (5a Avenida 5-67 Zona 1, tel. 7756-1144, 7am-10pm daily) serves a variety of light meals and has particularly tasty baked goods. La Villa de los Cofrades (Corredor Centro Comercial Santo Tomas, tel. 5510-6657, 9am-10pm Wed.-Sun.) serves tasty light meals, coffee, and crepes. There are delicious, large set-menu lunches and dinners for $5-7. Restaurante Las Brasas (6a Calle 4-52, Comercial Girón, tel. 7756-2226, 7am-9pm daily, $4-9) is a good-value steak house also serving decent breakfasts. Beside El Calvario church, S Casa San Juan (6a Calle 7-30 Zona 1, tel. 7756-2086, 9:30am-9:30pm Tues.-Sun., $8-13) serves creatively prepared sandwiches and Guatemalan food in a stylish environment that includes wrought-iron chairs and artwork. The town’s most stylish eateries are at the restaurants housed inside the Mayan Inn and Hotel Santo Tomás, where a three-course meal runs in the vicinity of $15. The waiters at both places wear elaborate traditional costumes, though the food at Hotel Santo Tomás outshines that of its closest competitor, albeit slightly.
a cocktail at Casa San Juan in Chichicastenango
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
For post, you’ll find Correos on 7a Avenida between 8a and 9a Calles.
Conveniently, Chichi’s banks stay open on Sundays. Among the options are Banco Industrial (6a Calle 6-05 Zona 1, 10am-2pm Mon., 10am-5pm Wed. and Fri., 9am-5pm Thurs. and Sun., 10am-3pm Sat.) with a VISA/Plus ATM. Banrural (6a Calle east of 5a Avenida, 9am-5pm Sun.-Fri., 9am-1pm Sat.) has a MasterCard/Cirrus ATM.
Chichi lacks a bus terminal, though bus arrivals and departures are centered around 5a Avenida and 5a Calle. There are buses to Guatemala City leaving every 30 minutes between 4am and 5pm (three hours, $2), eight daily buses to Panajachel (1.5 hours, $1.50) between 5am and 2pm, and seven daily buses to Quetzaltenango (three hours, $1.75). Alternatively, you can take any of the above to the Los Encuentros Junction and change there for connecting service. If you’re heading north, there are frequent buses to the departmental capital of Santa Cruz del Quiché leaving every 30 minutes.
Adrenalina Tours (www.adrenalinatours.com), with offices in Quetzaltenango and Antigua, offers shuttle service from Chichi to Panajachel, Antigua, Quetzaltenango, and Guatemala City on market days. Atitlan Tours (tel. 5786-0227, www.atitlantour.com) offers shuttles on market days between Chichi and Panajachel, Guatemala City, and Antigua.
The Ixil Triangle
North of Chichicastenango, beyond the departmental capital of Quiché via a newly paved road, is the Ixil Triangle. The name was given to the area comprising the somewhat remote villages of Santa María Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal, and San Gaspar Chajul. The scenery here is spectacular, as are the weavings made by its Ixil-speaking inhabitants. Set in the foothills of the lush Cuchumatanes, the area was the scene of heavy fighting during the country’s civil war. Its inhabitants suffered greatly during the violence, undoubtedly more than any other region in Guatemala. Peace has returned, but the region remains remote, drawing visitors with its colorful traditional Mayan culture, some of the country’s best hiking, and breathtaking scenery.
The area populated by the Ixil-speaking peoples shows signs of having been inhabited since the latter part of the Classic period, between the 6th and 9th centuries AD, including various stelae, pyramids, and monuments unearthed in this region. The Ixil didn’t come under Spanish authority until 1530, having managed to successfully repel earlier invasions from their fortresses in Nebaj and Chajul with help from their neighbors and allies in Uspantán. When the Spanish did finally conquer the region, they burnt Nebaj to the ground and enslaved its people. After Spanish priests felt confident they had secured the souls of the newly conquered peoples, the region fell into a period of neglect until Dominican friars arrived on the scene in the 19th century seeking to convert the remaining outlying mountain villages. Guatemala’s burgeoning coffee trade and its insatiable need for cheap labor had become fully established by this time, and the region’s inhabitants were soon conscripted to work on the coastal plantations using debt peonage, among other tactics.
By the mid-20th century several wealthy families had firmly established themselves in the lower elevations of the Ixil region, owning huge cattle, coffee, cacao, and sugar plantations. Among the local landowning families, the Brol and Arenas families were notoriously cruel masters and the subject of eventual retribution during the civil war. The Brols owned thousands of acres as far as Uspantán, employing as many as 4,000 resident and seasonal workers at their Finca San Francisco in the northern lowlands near Cotzal. Many of its workers were held captive to debt peonage.
The Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, or EGP, moved into the region in 1972, crossing the border from Mexico and finding in the Ixil a populace willing to cooperate with them in the hopes of being finally liberated from the tyranny of the landowning elite. The swift acceptance of the EGP in the hearts and minds of the Ixil was further aided by weak government and military presence throughout the region. Eventually, the Guatemalan military moved into the region and began indiscriminately executing and “disappearing” suspected guerrilla sympathizers.
Although the EGP quickly displayed the ability to enlist thousands of peasants to its cause, the ideological momentum was not matched with a logistical capacity to arm or supply its followers. Villagers were soon caught in the middle of a scorched-earth campaign, with entire villages being massacred and destroyed, the guerrillas being largely unable to protect their followers.
An amnesty was declared under the subsequent government of Efraín Ríos Montt in 1982, bringing in thousands of refugees who had fled to the hinterlands trying to escape from the military. Between 1982 and 1984, 42,000 peasants turned themselves in. Other policies included the establishment of local Civil Defense Patrols, known as PACs, aimed at curtailing the influence of the guerrillas among the local population, and the rounding up of displaced citizens into so-called “model villages” closely guarded by the military.
By the time democratic rule finally returned to Guatemala in 1986, the guerrillas had been pushed back to the northern reaches of the El Quiché department. There were occasional skirmishes until the signing of the 1996 peace accords. Almost all the smaller villages and hamlets of the Ixil Triangle and neighboring Ixcán were destroyed during the 1970s and ‘80s, with 25,000 Ixil murdered or displaced during the atrocities.
pastoral scene in the Quiché highlands
Nebaj is the largest of the three villages and has grown substantially through the last few years since the end of the civil war. I still have pleasant memories of my first visit to this enchanting town, at the ripe old age of 18, riding on the roof rack of a crowded chicken bus on twisting mountain (dirt) roads. The location of this hamlet, nestled in a valley among the Cuchumatanes mountain chain, is superb, and you’ll surely remember the first time you see its quaint houses and whitewashed church coming into view from the mountains above. As elsewhere, the town is centered round the plaza with the church and government offices built around it. A peek inside Nebaj’s church reveals a multitude of small crosses as a memorial to civil war victims.
During the worst of the violence Nebaj was pretty much off-limits, with military checkpoints in Santa Cruz del Quiché, Sacapulas, and along the road north keeping close tabs on the activities of sojourners to these parts. Today it’s become increasingly popular with foreign volunteers working with one of many NGOs helping out with postwar reconstruction and community development projects throughout the area. Despite its violent history, the region is remarkably safe, with reports of tourist robberies in these parts being virtually unheard of.
The women of Nebaj wear one of the most colorful and beautiful of Guatemala’s indigenous costumes; they’re imbued with animal and bird motifs and worn with an elaborate headdress adorned with purple, yellow, and green pom-poms. You can pick up colorful weavings with these motifs from several stalls along the plaza and at some of the local restaurants.
The opportunities for hikes around Nebaj are virtually limitless. Two of the nicest hikes are to the villages of Acul and Cocop. One of the easiest hikes is along green pastures and meadows to some nearby waterfalls known as Las Cataratas, about 20 meters (60 feet) high. There are also several sites that are sacred to the Maya where you might witness ceremonies, though their locations are not well known and it’s best to go with a guide. There are several multiday hikes offered by a number of outfitters that afford you the opportunity to really get off the beaten path. These include a fantastic three-day hike over the Cuchumatanes mountain range to the village of Todos Santos, hikes across highland plateaus dotted with meadows and lagoons, and two- or three-day treks to the remote villages of Xeo and Cotzal.
Another nearby attraction of sorts is an old military landing strip still pockmarked with bomb holes that was a settlement for displaced war victims. Found four kilometers west of town, it’s also known by its Ixil name Ak’txumb’al, meaning “New Mentality,” certainly as a way of adding insult to injury by its military creators.
Because of the remoteness of most of the locales mentioned here, as well as the chance to contribute directly to the well-being of local inhabitants, guides are strongly recommended. Among the local outfitters is Guías Ixiles (3a Calle Zona 1, tel. 5311-9100, www.nebaj.com/ixilguides.htm), housed inside El Descanso, which offers hikes to all of the above-mentioned locales. A share of the proceeds goes to finance community projects. Next door, Pablo’s Tours (tel. 5416-8674) offers hikes to nearby waterfalls, a river cave near a magnificently pristine blue river, horseback riding ($5 per hour), and multiday hiking from Nebaj to Todos Santos. Quetzaltenango-based Quetzaltrekkers (Diagonal 12 8-43 Zona 1, inside Casa Argentinas, Quetzaltenango, tel. 7765-5895, www.quetzaltrekkers.com) is another recommended outfitter for the Nebaj-Todos Santos trek, with proceeds being donated to fund projects benefiting Quetzaltenango’s street children. The six-day trip ($150) leaves from Quetzaltenango, though it might be possible to meet up with a group if you already happen to be in Nebaj. Trips leave every other Wednesday.
If you prefer to hike without a guide, pick up a copy of the very useful Trekking en la Región Ixil guide ($2) from Guías Ixiles.
Nebaj’s busy market is one block east of the church and sells basic items mostly of interest to local residents. It’s substantially busier on Thursdays and Sundays, when merchants come from out of town peddling cheap developed-nation goods. For weaving and handicrafts, there are several stalls near the church. Another good spot is the Centro Cultural Ixil y Mercado de Artesanías (3a Avenida Zona 1, right off the park), where you can shop for handicrafts in a pretty neocolonial courtyard.
Nebaj’s hostel is MediaLuna MedioSol (tel. 5749-7450, $5 pp in dorms or $7 pp in private room), half a block from El Descanso on 3a Calle, with several amenities, including wireless Internet, a comfortable DVD lounge, a dartboard, table tennis, and a Mayan sauna in addition to basic, clean rooms. Guests have use of the kitchen. Hotel Turansa (corner of 5a Calle and 6a Avenida, tel. 7755-8487, $18 d) has a secured parking lot around which are centered 16 clean rooms with private hot-water bathroom and cable TV. The nicest place in town is S Hotel Villa Nebaj (Avenida 15 de Septiembre 2-37 Zona 1, just north of the plaza, tel. 7756-0005 or 7755-8115, www.hotelvillanebaj.com, $30 d), where the comfortable rooms have big wooden beds with Nebaj quilts, private hot-water bathroom, cable TV, and tile floors. There’s also plenty of parking. My other favorite option is S Hotel Santa María (Calle Real, two blocks from the park, tel. 4212-7927 or 4664-6094, www.hotelsantamarianebaj.com, $26 d), built in neocolonial style and harboring comfortable, clean rooms set round a small courtyard. The friendly innkeepers provide home-cooked meals for their guests and there is parking.
Local specialties in Nebaj include boxboles, an Ixil dish of steamed corn dough served with lemon and either tomato or peanut sauce.
On the way out of town toward Chajul and Cotzal and one block from the courthouse, La Quinta de los Reyes (tel. 7755-8098 or 4067-7624, $5-8) serves hearty, all-you-can-eat, buffet-style meals, including Guatemalan and international fare, as well as dessert and a drink. For passable Guatemalan dishes and views overlooking the central plaza head to Café Restaurante Maya Ixil (tel. 7755-8168). It’s also a good place for breakfast.
Nebaj’s main gathering spot is S El Descanso (3a Calle Zona 1, tel. 5847-4747, 6:30am-10pm daily, $5-10) where there are good Guatemalan dishes, sandwiches, nachos, and pastries. There is seating upstairs on a covered patio as well as a bar/lounge with comfy couches on the lower level. Movies are sometimes shown here, and they serve boxboles on Thursdays. They also have free wireless Internet. For decent pizza, there’s Pizza del César (2a Avenida 4-05 Zona 1, tel. 7755-8095). Just off the square is Popi’s (5a Avenida 3-35 Zona 1, tel. 5906-5780), serving tasty baked goods.
Information and Services
Nebaj’s de facto tourist information office is El Descanso (3a Calle Zona 1, tel. 5847-4747, 6:30am-10pm daily). It also serves as an all-in-one travel clearinghouse and services center providing Internet access ($1.50 per hour). Guías Ixiles is also based here, and they run the very informative website www.nebaj.com. The post office is at 5a Avenida 4-37, one block north of the central plaza.
For money, Banrural, on the north side of the plaza, has an ATM.
Established by the same folks who began El Descanso, Nebaj Language School (www.nebaj.com/nls.html) offers 20 hours of one-on-one teaching per week for $165, including homestay with a local family (includes two meals a day), two guided treks, and discounted Internet and food at El Descanso.
Bus schedules in Nebaj, as in most small rural towns, are somewhat elastic. The bus depot is two blocks southeast of the plaza. There are several daily buses and minivans to the departmental capital of Santa Cruz del Quiché, with the last bus leaving sometime around 5pm. All of these stop in Sacapulas along the way. There are frequent buses and minivans to neighboring Chajul, Cotzal, and Acul.
Originally established as one of the “model villages” under the authoritarian hand of Efraín Ríos Montt, Acul is starting to come into its own. It features friendly folk and a spectacular Swiss-like mountain setting enhanced by the presence of quaint dairy farms. There are fairly frequent buses and pickups heading out this way from Nebaj, though it seems most gringos prefer to walk out this way through the lovely countryside.
The hike from Nebaj to Acul takes about two hours and is fantastically scenic. The first half is a steep ascent to the top of a hill, then downhill into Acul. It’s a fairly easy hike, aside from the hill climb.
If you’d like to stay in town, there’s Posada Doña Magdalena (tel. 5782-0891, dorm $4 pp, private double room $7 pp). All of the simple rooms share a bathroom. The hostel is run by a friendly Nebajense woman who lived in Las Vegas and speaks English, Spanish, and Ixil. Meals here are served family-style. There are textiles for sale as well as a Mayan sauna, or temascal, out back.
Among the local dairy farms is Hacienda San Antonio (tel. 5702-1907, www.quesochancol.com), started in 1938 by Italian immigrant José Azzari, who died in 1999. The finca is a pleasant working farm run by Azzari’s sons and grandsons and producing some delicious cheeses made using centuries-old methods brought over from the old country. They’re happy to show you around and you’re welcome to stay in the charming wooden cabanas featuring tile floors, simple but pleasing decorative touches, and shared ($13 pp) or private hot-water bathroom ($20 pp). One of the rooms upstairs has a deck with gorgeous views of the surrounding farmland. Activities include guided nature hikes and horseback riding in the surrounding countryside. Just next door along the road into town is S Hacienda Mil Amores (tel. 5704-4817 or 5774-5086, $50 d), also owned by members of the Azzari family. The four lovely, spacious tile-roofed cottages are a step above its neighbor’s and are built of stone or wood. Each of the rooms is different and has elaborate tree-trunk or terra-cotta floors and private bathroom, some with chimney. The property has several connections with well-known tour operators and has no trouble filling its rooms, so book well in advance if you wish to stay here. This is also a working farm where you can buy cheeses. Kids will love the opportunity to see farm animals and even milk cows if they’re so inclined. Other activities include hikes to neighboring villages and horseback riding. Meals are served family-style in the main farmhouse, which is beautifully decorated with orchids grown on-site and has wonderful views of the surrounding pasturelands from a pleasant wooden deck.
Hacienda Mil Amores in Acul
SAN JUAN COTZAL
Cotzal was the Ixil Triangle’s largest town until the road to Nebaj was built in the 1940s. It’s now rather small, though its setting is (as everywhere else in these parts) gorgeous, surrounded by the imposing Cuchumatanes mountain chain. There’s little to see in the town itself, though the weavings here are some of Guatemala’s finest. Market days are Wednesdays and Saturdays. The Iglesia San Juan fronts a pretty plaza that has been remodeled and festooned with flowers and benches. The church’s interior is not nearly as elaborate as that of neighboring Chajul, but its Christ statue curiously holds a staff with an Israeli flag. Jesus was a Jewish carpenter, after all.
Cotzal has been enhanced as of late by a community tourism project. Tejidos Cotzal (just behind the marketplace, tel. 4621-9725, www.tejidoscotzal.org) is a cooperative of 30 local weavers who retain traditional methods of weaving using natural dyes and backstrap looms. There are two-day guided tours to the weavers’ homes, offering a wonderful opportunity to get out and meet the people who create these singular works of art. The trip costs $13 per person, with a minimum of two people, and can be combined with a visit to nearby waterfalls.
The paving of the road to Cotzal has opened it up to tourism, and there is now at least one decent hotel in town. El Maguey (tel. 7765-6199, $12 d), two blocks north of the plaza, has clean, basic rooms with TV and shared bathrooms. The hotel’s eatery offers good set menus for about $2.50. Enterprising weavers may also offer you a place to stay.
Chimel and Santa Avelina Waterfalls
Some pretty waterfalls out this way make a good day hike, 10 and 12 kilometers from town. You can take pickups or minibuses to the villages of Chichel and Santa Avelina, from where it’s a much shorter walk to the falls. The first waterfall, near Chichel, is Chimel, which cascades down a rocky cliff into a small river. There are some tables and benches in the surrounding grassy hillside beneath the falls, and it makes a pleasant place for a picnic. You can drive part of the way on a rugged dirt road, but you’ll find yourself hiking the last half mile or so to the falls through beautiful pastureland.
The second waterfall is reached by going a further two kilometers along the main road out of Cotzal to the village of Santa Avelina. The town is built on a hillside, and if you go to the base of this hillside via the main road, you’ll find the small Tienda Lux on the outskirts of town. You walk straight uphill from here on a very steep trail, turning left onto a smaller footpath, which eventually traverses cornfields for about 20 minutes to the falls. The water tumbles over a rock that is pitched just over the edge of the cliff and produces quite a bit of spray. There’s a small tile-roofed changing room by the pool at the base of the falls and a friendly caretaker who will collect a $1 admission price. You can ask any of the locals how to get here and they can point you in the general direction.
About 15 kilometers northeast of Nebaj, Chajul is a picturesque collection of quaint adobe houses with tiled roofs. Of the three Ixil Triangle towns, it certainly has the most traditional feel, though the paved road to Nebaj has many traditionalists fearing the end is near for one of the country’s most pleasantly isolated villages. In any case, it still offers spectacular weavings you’ll undoubtedly see everywhere. Market days are Tuesdays and Fridays, though on any given day sellers will most certainly find you to offer their wares in brilliant hues of red and blue embroidered with animals and plants.
The main attraction here is the town’s church, Iglesia de San Gaspar Los Reyes, one of Guatemala’s most ornate, with wooden doors containing finely carved depictions of animals. Inside, an elaborate goldleaf altar guarded by two figures dressed in traditional garb surrounds its Cristo de Golgotha statue. Check out the cool wool red coats, which are now rarely seen on the town’s male inhabitants. The church is a major pilgrimage site on the second Friday of Lent.
Chajul’s plaza was also the site of a grisly public execution of EGP guerrillas carried out by the Guatemalan military in retaliation for the 1979 murder of landowner Enrique Brol, an event which is narrated in Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú’s autobiography. While the basic facts of the army’s extrajudicial murders have not come into question, Menchú’s testimony certainly has. An investigation by author David Stoll has since revealed Menchú may not have been there at all and is also at odds with her claims that the prisoners were burned alive, claiming instead that they were mowed down with machine guns. The research and evidence supporting his claims and questioning much of Menchú’s autobiography are presented in his book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans.
Chajul’s ornate church
There’s not much in the way of accommodations in Chajul, though there is now at least one decent place to stay. Posada Vetz K’aol (tel. 7765-6114, $10 pp) lies about 300 meters south of the plaza down a dirt road turnoff from the main street. It’s a bit hard to find, but any tuk-tuk driver can take you there for less than $1. Formerly housing a clinic, the building has large, clean rooms with bunk beds and wool blankets. There’s also a pleasant sitting room with a fireplace and TV. Tasty meals cooked by the lodge’s caretaker are available upon request.
You’ll find a few simple eateries just off the plaza, the best of which is Las Gemelitas, two blocks downhill from the church. As in Cotzal, you will likely be approached by locals offering food and shelter in their homes.
There’s a Banrural on the plaza for changing cash dollars.
Huehuetenango and Vicinity
Affectionately called “Huehue” (WAY-way) by locals, this somewhat busy coffee-trading town sits in a valley overlooking the glaciated peaks of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. Because of its location in the mountain chain’s rain shadow, the town and surrounding areas are somewhat drier than the Quiché highlands to the east, which lie on the mountain chain’s windward side. The departmental capital is busy with travelers heading to or from the western border with Mexico as well as with coffee farmers and traders heading to or from nearby farms. Since first coming here at the age of three, I watched the town grow up into a somewhat disorganized agglomeration of trade and commerce, though there has been a remarkable improvement in the level of its services. It makes a great jumping-off point for deeper explorations of the very diverse department of Huehuetenango and even includes a worthwhile site of its own, this being the ruins of Zaculeu just outside of town.
Rivers run through the department of Huehuetenango.
Access to Huehue is mainly via the Pan-American Highway, with the turnoff into town at Km. 264, from where it’s another three kilometers to its center via a boulevard. A recently paved road now also leads east to Sacapulas, passing the town of Aguacatán (and wonderful mountain views) along the way.
As always, the town is centered on the parque central, which is actually one of Guatemala’s prettiest. At its center is a colonial fountain along with well-tended gardens and even a relief map of the department of Huehuetenango. On the plaza’s southern end, facing 5a Avenida, is its neoclassical church, the Catedral Templo de la Inmaculada Concepción. It dates to 1874. The town’s Municipalidad (City Hall) is on the west side of the plaza and curiously topped with an oyster-shaped band shell. On the park’s eastern side, in early 20th-century architecture and notable for its clock tower, is the building housing Gobernación Departamental, the regional seat of government.
Zaculeu (8am-6pm daily, $3.50) was the principal Mam ceremonial site. Dating to the Early Classic period (AD 400-700), it shows signs of having been occupied for more than 1,000 years until it was conquered by Gonzalo de Alvarado, brother of Guatemala’s other infamous conquistador, in October 1525. It was starvation that eventually did the local population in, as Alvarado and his troops simply staked out the fortified city (surrounded by ravines) for two months, cutting off rescue attempts from neighboring Mam villages with the help of the Spanish cavalry and 2,000 Mexica and K’iche’ allies.
More than any of the other highland Mayan sites such as K’umarcaaj and Iximché, Zaculeu somehow manages to evoke the feel of the city as it might have looked in its heyday, thanks to a 1950s restoration project covering the restored temples in graying white plaster. At the same time, the temples lack the bright coloring they most certainly would have had and similarly lack any of their decorative details. The highest of its temple pyramids, Structure I, rises to about 12 meters. Another somewhat impressive structure is Structure 13, on the southeast corner of the main plaza. The site also has an interesting I-shaped ball court. There’s an on-site museum with some interesting displays on the siege of the city as well as burial pieces found beneath Structure I.
Snacks and refreshments are available from a couple of simple eateries across from the main entrance to the park.
To get here, you can hire a cab from the central plaza for about $6, which includes about an hour at the ruins. Otherwise, there are frequent, cheap local buses heading out this way from 2a Calle and 7a Avenida near Hotel San Luis de la Sierra.
Half a block north of the plaza, Hotel Zaculeu (5a Avenida 1-14 Zona 1, tel. 7764-1086, www.hotelzaculeu.com, $28-35 d) has attractive ground-floor rooms with tile floors beside a garden courtyard. The top-floor rooms in a newer section have been upgraded with carpeting, accent lighting on the walls, and other pleasant decorative touches. All rooms have cable TV, great beds, and private hot-water bathroom. There’s a dining room serving breakfast and dinner. Hotel Casa Blanca (7a Avenida 3-41 Zona 1, tel. 7769-0777, $37 d) has personal sentimental value, as it was once my grandfather’s home and office. All mushiness aside, there’s plenty here to recommend it, including attractive rooms in the original house (with plenty of character) or beside the back patio (more modern and spacious). All 15 rooms have hot-water private bathroom, phone, and cable TV. There are two restaurants, each fronting one of the house’s two patios. The town’s newest option lies right beside the Interamerican highway, so you don’t even need to go into town if you’re passing through and just need a place to stay. S Hotel Fuente Real (tel. 4708-1514, www.fuenterealhotel.com, $46 d) is built in neocolonial motel style and has comfortably stylish rooms with plasma TVs, cable, and wireless Internet. The nicer rooms have hardwood floors and minifridges.
Conveniently situated along the Interamerican highway adjacent to Hotel Fuente Real, S Al Pomodoro Ristorante (Km. 265.5 Carretera Interamericana, tel. 7768-1781, $8-20) serves scrumptious Italian dishes from an open-air kitchen. The spacious dining room is eclectically decorated and there’s a full bar. A second location is in town at 4a Calle 8-40 Zona 1. You’ll find tasty baked goods and good iced coffee at Pastelería Monte Alto (Corner 4a Avenida and 2a Calle, Zona 1, tel. 7764-9227). Mi Tierra Café (4a Calle 6-46 Zona 1, tel. 7764-1473, 7am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 2pm-9pm Sun.) is a friendly little restaurant that is ever-popular with locals, serving tasty nachos, pizza, and fajitas in addition to delicious breakfasts, including delectable croissant sandwiches. Try the “muffin ranchero,” essentially a salsa-bathed egg sandwich with fried tortillas instead of bread. The strong coffee is locally grown and extraordinary. For steaks, seafood, and even some Chinese fare, check out Restaurante Las Brasas (corner of 2a Calle and 4a Avenida, tel. 7764-2339, 10am-11pm daily, $4-15). There’s even duck on the menu. Domino’s Pizza is at the corner of 7a Avenida and 5a Calle. Just down the street is one of the best places in town, S Hotel Casa Blanca (7a Avenida 3-41 Zona 1, tel. 7769-0777, 6am-10pm, $7-13), where you can dine alfresco in the backyard garden or inside facing the house’s original courtyard. On the menu are steaks, grilled chicken, good soups, and salads as well as sandwiches.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
The central post office is at 2a Calle 3-54 Zona 1 just east of the plaza. Telgua has pay phones and international calling right next door.
The ATM at G&T Banco Continental on the north side of the plaza fronting 2a Calle works with both Visa and MasterCard. Banco Industrial (6a Avenida 1-26 Zona 1) has a Visa/Plus ATM. Both banks can change cash dollars and travelers checks.
The bus terminal is about two kilometers southwest of the city center, halfway along the boulevard leading out to the Pan-American Highway. There are frequent buses to many outlying towns and villages, most notably:
✵ La Mesilla (Mexican border) (two hours, $2): 20 daily buses 6am-6pm.
✵ Nentón (three hours, $2): six daily buses between 3:30am and 1pm.
✵ Sacapulas, Quiché (1.5 hours, $2): at 11:30am and 12:45pm.
✵ Todos Santos Cuchumatán (two hours, $2): leaving at 4:30am, 5am, 12:45pm, 1:30pm, 2:45pm, and 3:45pm. There may be others.
Frequent second-class bus departures also include Guatemala City (20 daily buses until 4pm, five hours, $5) and Quetzaltenango (16 daily buses until 2:30pm, two hours, $1.75).
Pullman bus service to Guatemala City is available via Transportes Los Halcones (10a Avenida 9-12 Zona 1, tel. 7765-7986, www.transportesloshalcones.com, $5) at 4:30am, 7am, and 2pm. Transportes Zaculeu Futura (3a Avenida 5-25 Zona 1, tel. 7764-1535) has departures at 6am and 3pm. Transportes Velásquez, operating from the main terminal, is another option, with buses every half hour or so between 8:30am and 3:30pm.
The road winds its way out of the departmental capital up the vertiginous face of the Cuchumatanes, with the superimposed quilt pattern of corn- and wheat fields upon the countryside transitioning to one of grasses and hearty maguey plants at about 2,700 meters (9,000 feet). At the top of the rise is a lookout point, Mirador Dieguez Olaverri, also known as El Mirador or La Cumbre (The Summit), from where there are views of Huehuetenango and Guatemala’s impressive volcanic chain to the south.
A recent addition on par with the wonderful views is that of Café del Cielo (tel. 5316-6300, http://turismoruralguatemala.com/cafe-del-cielo, 8am-5pm daily, $5-7). Run by the same friendly folks who own nearby Unicornio Azul, the café serves excellent Huehuetenango coffees, pastries, chocolates, paninis, meat, fish, and pasta dishes. There are artisanal lamb sausages to-go and indoor/outdoor seating.
From the lookout, the road continues along the 3,300-meter (11,000-foot) Paquix plateau, characterized by smooth, rounded hills with scant vegetation that conjure images of the Peruvian Andes or Alaska. Windblown grasses, black granite rocks, sturdy maguey plants, and herds of sheep pepper the surrounding countryside with the occasional adobe house occupied by ruddy Maya more closely resembling their South American Inca relatives. The recent introduction of llamas to these areas adds further similarity.
About one kilometer north from the lookout, a dirt-road turnoff heads east to the village of Chancol and the Unicornio Azul equestrian center. Back along the main (paved) road another nine kilometers or so is the Paquix Junction, with its westbound turnoff heading to the village of Todos Santos Cuchumatán. Its northbound turnoff leads to the villages of San Juan Ixcoy, Soloma, Santa Eulalia, San Mateo Ixtatán, and, eventually, Barillas.
Not so much a hotel as a professionally run equestrian center, S Unicornio Azul (tel. 5205-9328, www.unicornioazul.com, $33 d) enjoys a spectacular location on the grassy plateau atop the rugged Cuchumatanes from where you can embark on horseback rides as short as one hour to as long as several days throughout the sprawling countryside. About 25 kilometers northeast of Huehuetenango, the operation consists of 11 well-cared-for horses, stables, and wonderful accommodations meticulously managed by its French Guatemalan owners. Prices for rides range from $80 for one day to $970 for nine days, though they vary depending on the number of riders in a group. The accommodations here are rustically beautiful, consisting of five rooms housed in two separate tiled-roof houses. All of the rooms are distinctly decorated and furnished with unique touches such as gorgeous lamps fashioned from Honduran Lenca pottery. At night, gas lamps provide wonderful ambience, though there is electricity for showers and cooking. Room rates include breakfast and one hour of horseback riding. Lunch and dinner are served family-style and cost $7 each. If you’re not keen on riding, there are also mountain bikes for exploring the rugged roads and trails all around.
TODOS SANTOS CUCHUMATÁN
Todos Santos sits on the dry western slopes of the Cuchumatanes. Remote and largely retaining its traditions, it is a fine place to take in Mayan culture, do some hiking, and shop for unique weavings. It is one of only a few places in the highlands where you’ll still see men wearing traditional attire, consisting of bright red pants with thin white stripes paired with a zany striped shirt featuring oversize, elaborately embroidered collars. The costume also includes a straw hat with a wide, blue, grommeted ribbon. The women wear equally stunning purple huipiles and embroider many items with the town’s signature designs. Contributing to the remarkable preservation of local customs and dress is the intense local pride of Todos Santos’s Mam-speaking residents, who stand a full head taller than most other Maya.
the church in Todos Santos
The village first gained notoriety after social scientist and world traveler Maud Oakes spent two years here starting in 1945 and wrote two books about her experiences, The Two Crosses of Todos Santos and Beyond the Windy Place. The local Mam hold four local mountain peaks sacred, and some of her neighbors reputedly believed the foreign-born female shaman to be the guardian of one of these.
The main market day here is Saturday. Don’t be surprised to find inebriated men (mostly) stumbling through the streets or passed out on the sidewalk, an unfortunately common sight throughout the highlands. As in the Ixil Triangle, the population here suffered greatly during the civil war. The army marched on the town in 1982 in the days following a brief occupation by EGP guerrillas, carrying out the torture, disappearance, and murder of suspected guerrilla sympathizers. Many villagers fled to the hillsides to wait out the troubles or went north to Mexico.
Todos Santos certainly remains very poor. Many of its residents have traditionally made ends meet by traveling to the Pacific lowlands to work in the annual harvests. Many Todosanteros now have family in the United States, a fact that becomes readily apparent as you walk the town’s streets and see new construction funded with dollars sent from abroad by expatriate relatives. Despite its remoteness, it’s not uncommon to see groups of villagers in their distinctive attire at Guatemala City’s international airport waiting on the arrival of a returning family member. Statistics show Huehuetenango sends more of its inhabitants abroad than any other of Guatemala’s departments.
As always, you should be careful not to photograph Mayan people (especially children) without permission, nor should you show undue interest. It can be tough at times, because Mayan children (and Maya in general) can provide some wonderful opportunities for portraiture. In 2000, a Japanese tourist and the Guatemalan tour bus driver who tried to protect him were lynched in Todos Santos by an angry mob after the tourist tried to photograph a child. The incident was certainly an isolated one and was attributed to a rumor about satanists who were supposedly in the area snatching local children at the time. If anything, it serves as a grim reminder that the old photographer’s rule contending that it’s easier to apologize (for taking a candid photo) than to ask permission doesn’t really apply in Guatemala.
Museo Balam (tel. 5787-3598, firstname.lastname@example.org, 6am-6pm, $1) is to the left 150 meters off the main street one block from the park. Run by a friendly local family, it features marimbas, costumes for traditional village dances, and old leather sandals, bags, plows, and saddles, affording a glimpse into the town’s history and traditions.
Todos Santos is one of very few places in Guatemala that still largely adheres to the 260-day Mayan calendar known as the Tzolkin. There are frequent rituals, including animal sacrifices, performed at a small Mayan site just above town known either as Cumanchúm or Tojcunenchén. The ruins look out onto the 3,650-meter (12,000-foot) Chemal peak (also known as “La Torre” for the radio mast atop it), which is the highest nonvolcanic peak in Central America. To reach the summit, hike or take a bus east to the neighboring village of La Ventosa, from where a trail leads past adobe houses through sylvan settings to the top, a journey of about 1.5 hours. Your reward on a clear day is a breathtaking view of Guatemala’s volcanic chain from Tacaná on the Mexican border all the way east to Agua and Acatenango, near Antigua.
Todos Santos is well known for its annual November 1 horse races capping off weeklong festivities that include plenty of drinking, dancing, and general merriment.
highland scene on the road to Todos Santos
Housed in the Hotel Casa Familiar, Artesanía Todosantera (tel. 7783-0656) is a local weavers’ cooperative displaying a fine array of handicrafts at reasonable prices. The gift shop is stocked with some of the region’s most wonderful weavings and is almost an obligatory stop for anyone passing through.
There are numerous opportunities for hikes. If you want a guide or printed information to make the most of your walk, head to either of the town’s two language schools. One of the most popular walks is to the site of Las Letras, the town’s equivalent of the “Hollywood” sign overlooking California’s famous neighborhood. The Todos Santos version is a series of white painted rocks above town, with an arrangement that might be illegible depending on when they were last reassembled. It’s about a two-hour hike round-trip. From there, you can continue another five hours to the villages of Tuicoy and Tzichim. La Puerta del Cielo is another amazing lookout point accessible via a detour from Tuicoy. A five-hour trek from Todos Santos is the village of San Juan Atitán, up the ridge looming over the village and down into a valley, crossing streams and verdant forests along the way.
Most of the town’s accommodations can be found in a cluster up the hill about a block from the plaza. Only a few have phones to contact for reservations. A virtual Todos Santos institution, S Hotel Casa Familiar (tel. 7783-0656 or 5737-0112, $26 d) is a longtime favorite with travelers. Run by a local family, it has been remodeled to provide upgraded accommodations for visitors. Some of the new rooms have private bathrooms and patios; all have tasteful Maya-inspired decor. There is also a pleasant garden dining area. You can arrange guided hikes from here as well as reading lessons. Movies are shown daily at 4pm.
All Saints’ Day in Todos Santos
If you’re in Todos Santos around November 1 (All Saints’ Day) and love a good party, you won’t want to miss the three-day annual town festival, at the center of which is a series of horse races. There’s plenty of drinking, dancing, and marimba music during this time. The race begins with costumed riders galloping from one end of the 600-yard course, drinking aguardiente upon their arrival at the course’s other extreme before heading back once again. The back-and-forth pattern is a competition of survival of the fittest; riders struggle to hang on as the race (and drunken stupor) reach a crescendo. Traditionally, the riders hit the horses with live chickens, though in recent years they have used whips. The races sometimes continue well into the afternoon.
By the end of the day, most people are lying passed out in the streets or in bars (if they’re lucky) in a drunken spectacle rivaled in few places in Guatemala. There are always a few drunken brawls and some folks who wind up in the town jail. The next day is Day of the Dead, and the festivities transition to the local cemetery, where families visit departed relatives, marking their gravestones with candles and flowers. There’s also more music and dance as part of the final day of celebration.
Another good choice is Hotelito Todos Santos (tel. 7783-0603 or 5327-9313, $12-17 d), also recently upgraded, with comfortable rooms with shared or private bath and typical Guatemalan decor. There’s a pleasant living room area where guests like to congregate. It also has a dining room serving basic meals. Next door is the bare-bones Hotel Mam (tel. 5192-1794, $5 pp). All of the rooms are on a shared-bath basis. Turning right up the hill at the end of this same street, you’ll find Hotel El Viajero (tel. 7783-0705 or 5789-3175, $4 pp), with basic rooms, one with private bath. The kitchen is available for use for about $1 a day and there’s a nice view from the rooftop.
There are a few decent places for food along the main street heading out from the plaza toward the main road and Huehuetenango. Among these is Restaurante Cuchumatlán, serving pizzas ($8 for a large pie), curry dishes, and fruit smoothies. It also has a book exchange. The patio dining area at Casa Familiar (tel. 7783-0656, $3-7) is also a good place to grab a bite to eat.
Information and Services
For your banking needs, Banrural is on the trapezoidal plaza at the center of town. The post office and police are also here.
Todos Santos’s two language schools charge about $130 per week for 4-5 hours of instruction per day plus homestay with a local family. Living conditions are very basic and most host families speak Mam, with a select few opportunities for homestay with Spanish-speaking families. Both schools also offer instruction in the local Mayan dialect. The two schools are Academia Hispano Maya (opposite Hotelito Todos Santos, www.hispanomaya.org) and Nuevo Amanecer (150 meters west of the plaza, email@example.com).
There are seven daily buses to Huehuetenango (2.5 hours) that leave from the plaza, the last one leaving at 4:30pm.
WEST TO MEXICO
Heading northwest from Huehuetenango, the Pan-American Highway leads to La Mesilla border and, beyond that, Mexico. Border formalities here are pretty straightforward, though the Mexican border crossing lies four kilometers away on the other side at Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, for which you’ll need to take a collective taxi ($1) if you’re not in your own car. There are basic services here, including banks, a post office, police station, and ubiquitous money changers.
Nentón to Gracias a Dios
A few kilometers east of La Mesilla along the Pan-American Highway, a turnoff branches north down a newly paved road to the town of Nentón and continues to a new border crossing at Gracias a Dios. Border formalities at Gracias a Dios are fairly straightforward, and the friendly immigration agents might grant you a day pass to cross into Mexico to see the spectacular Lagunas de Montebello, a national park with pristine emerald lagoons surrounded by luxuriant forests.
Along the road from Nentón to Gracias a Dios, you could stop to admire El Cimarrón, a cavernous, 300-meter-deep limestone sinkhole harboring a forest at its base that has only recently been descended and explored. From the main road about three kilometers from the village of La Trinidad, 35 kilometers north of Nentón, a network of trails leads through surrounding farmland and cattle pastures to the sinkhole. It’s about a 30-minute walk from the road.
From La Trinidad, a dirt road leads east to the village of Yalambojoch, where you can grab a pickup heading east to San Mateo Ixtatán. It also serves as a transit point for visits to the wonderful Laguna Yolnajab, also known as Laguna Brava, five kilometers north of here. There are many returned refugees from Mexico living in these parts, and you should be aware that the activities of foreign mining companies here and in other parts of northern Huehuetenango have locals a bit on edge. (Even the local tourism committee in Yalambojoch was not exactly welcoming on a recent visit.) Exercise due caution. Better yet, go with the fun, friendly, and quite knowledgeable folks at Guatemala City-based Expedición Extrema (tel. 5655-3916 or 3003-2866, firstname.lastname@example.org). They utilize the tourism services of the friendlier village of Aguacate, also close to the lagoon. Another option is to visit the lagoon via Mexico, just across the border. There is better road access and the northern part of the lagoon you’ll have access to has some beautiful cenotes.
With help from local outfitter Unicornio Azul, a tourism initiative in the community of Chaculá began hosting visits to area attractions in 2009. Visitors stay at Posada Rural Finca Chaculá (tel. 5205-9328, www.turismochacula.com, $40 d), a revamped old farmhouse where there are basic but clean, comfortable accommodations. The posada runs trips to El Cimarrón and other nearby attractions, including the Cenotes de Candelaria, caves with interesting pictographs, and pristine Río Lagartero (also known as Río Azul), which is a dazzlingly exotic hue of blue.
Posada Rural Finca Chaculá
Quetzaltenango (Xela) and Vicinity
Head southeast from Huehuetenango on the Pan-American Highway, some 80 kilometers toward Guatemala City, to the highland city of Quetzaltenango. The country’s second-largest city is the main population center of the country’s K’iche’ Maya and an increasingly popular destination with language school students and NGO workers. Its original K’iche’ name is Xelajú, still widely in use today, though in its abbreviated form, Xela. Set in a sprawling valley dominated by the near-perfect cone of 3,772-meter (12,375-foot) Santa María Volcano and the adjacent (active) Santiaguito, the city has a population of about 300,000. It sits at a rather high altitude of 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) and can be correspondingly chilly.
Xela is very cosmopolitan and has all the feel of a European highland city. It is considerably safe for a city of its size and has a lively cultural scene peppered by the presence of an ever-increasing number of foreign visitors. There are also good hotels and restaurants, along with interesting day trips to neighboring highland Mayan villages that still adhere strictly to the old ways. Nearby natural attractions include a wonderful crater lake, climbs to the surrounding volcanoes, and soaking in warm hot springs. If you really start to long for the warmer climates, the sweltering Pacific coastal lowlands are just about an hour away and beaches lie not much farther.
Quetzaltenango was originally a Mam-speaking Mayan town before coming under the influence of the K’iche’-speaking Maya of K’umarcaaj during their 14th-century expansionist wars. K’iche’ leader Tecún Umán was defeated by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado in 1524 at a site known as Llanos del Pinal, southwest of town at the base of Santa María Volcano. The town became quite prosperous during the 19th-century coffee boom. Its newfound prosperity, coupled with the abatement of Spanish power in the aftermath of independence, contributed to strong separatist sentiments shared with highland areas to the west. Guatemala City would bring the renegade region back into the fold in the latter part of the century, though Quetzaltenango remains a strong focal point for regional identity.
Like other Guatemalan population centers, it is no stranger to earthquakes, having been rocked by an earthquake and a volcanic eruption courtesy of Santa María Volcano in 1902. It was subsequently rebuilt, largely in neoclassical style. Its strategic location at a crossroads for trade and transport between the highlands and agriculturally rich Pacific slope have continued to ensure the city’s prosperity despite any setbacks along the way. A regional railway once connected Xela to the Pacific slope, but natural disasters and political manipulation from Guatemala City made the railway, known as the Ferrocarril de los Altos, extremely short-lived.
Quetzaltenango lies a few kilometers south of the Cuatro Caminos Junction, found along the Pan-American Highway. Its Zona 1 downtown core houses most of its important monuments, as well as the bulk of its tourist services, and is laid out in the standard grid pattern. Avenidas run roughly north-south and calles run east-west. Zona 2 covers an area to the northeast, while Zona 3 sprawls to the north and northwest. You’ll find the city’s bus station at this end of town.
Like the rest of Guatemala’s important urban centers, Xela is built around a central park. The city’s sprawling Parque Centroamérica is lined with government offices, museums, and a shopping arcade, among other buildings, and is itself splendidly shaded by trees and adorned by neoclassical monuments and flower beds. It gives the city a decidedly European feel, enhanced by the presence of several Greek columns, and is a fine place for people-watching or enjoying the warm afternoon sun amid the surrounding buzz of activity. An artisans’ market is held here the first Sunday of every month.
Xela’s Parque Centroamérica
At the western end of the park, between 12 and 13 Avenidas, is Pasaje Enríquez, a pedestrian thoroughfare and commercial arcade originally built to house fine shops but now home to several good bars and restaurants. One of these, Salón Tecún, is on the second floor, from which there are wonderful views of the plaza below. On the park’s southern end is the Casa de la Cultura, housing the Museo de Historia Natural (Natural History Museum, 8am-noon and 2pm-6pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-1pm Sat., $1). The museum is an odd collection of taxidermy and rooms dedicated to the Liberal Revolution of 1871 which, together with the Museo de la Marimba Jesús Castillo (also housed here), were collectively christened “Museum of the Kitchen Sink” by this guide’s previous author for its antique dealer’s garage sale feel. I have to concur, and unless you have a rainy afternoon with nothing else to do, you’re probably better off skipping this one.
On the eastern end of the park is the original facade of Iglesia Catedral del Espíritu Santo, which dates to 1535 and was constructed by Bishop Francisco Marroquín. The facade is all that remains of the original church, as a new church was erected behind it in 1899 and was very heavily damaged in the earthquake of 1902. The current cathedral building is the latest reconstruction. The neighboring Municipalidad (City Hall) was likewise reconstructed after the 1902 earthquake in grand neoclassical style.
Outside the City Center (Zona 3)
The legacy of maniacal dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera’s quest to emulate all things European, the neoclassical Templo Minerva is a monument to the Greek goddess of wisdom. It stands at the corner of Calle Minerva and Calle Rodolfo Robles. The temple looks over the city’s bus terminal and busy market. Farther along, in Parque Minerva proper, is the Parque Zoológico Minerva (9am-5pm Tues.-Sun., free), where there’s an unimpressive collection of animals housed in cages. Buses to this part of town leave from Pasaje Enríquez at 13 Avenida and 4a Calle Zona 1.
Formerly the Zona Militar 1715, the old building that once served as the train terminal for the defunct Ferrocarril de los Altos is now the city’s train museum though it’s not really anything to write home about. Also housed in this complex is the Museo Ixkik’ del Traje Maya (4a Calle and 19 Avenida Zona 3, tel. 7761-6472, www.museoixkik.org, 9am-1pm and 3pm-6pm Mon.-Fri., $1), with a collection of indigenous costumes.
Beer drinkers will want to try Cabro, an excellent local brew sold widely in Xela. As for watering holes, the ever-popular Salón Tecún (Pasaje Enríquez, on the west side of Parque Centroamérica, tel. 7761-2832 or 5630-2411, $5-20) is one of Xela’s main gathering spots, with a great location, lively atmosphere, and funky decor. There’s also outdoor seating fronting the attractive Pasaje Enríquez pedestrian thoroughfare. You can wash down your drink with menu items that include pizzas, pastas, and vegetarian dishes.
Gargolas (4a Calle 12-49 Zona 1, Pasaje Enriquez, 5pm-1am daily) has a hip atmosphere and plays good music. You can drink at the bar or step into the stylish lounge areas to enjoy your evening under baroque, cathedral-like columns. A chill coffee bar also serving wine and cocktails is La Pequeña Fonda (15 Avenida 7-43 Zona 1, 3pm-10pm daily). There’s live music some nights. The bar inside Pensión Bonifaz (4a Calle 10-50 Zona 1, tel. 7765-1111) is the place to go for high-brow socializing.
The town’s local nightlife hot spots seem to change constantly, so you might be better off asking around. The city’s so-called Zona Viva is centered between 12 and 15 Avenidas from 1a to 6a Calle in Zona 1. A walk around this part of town will surely yield some fun bar-hopping results. That said, La Parranda (14 Avenida 4-41 Zona 1, www.laparrandadisco.com, 8pm-1am Wed.-Sat.) is a solid choice for dancing. For salsa and merengue dancing, check out La Rumba (at the corner of 13 Avenida and 7a Calle Zona 1, 6pm-1am Mon.-Sat.).
There are sometimes cultural performances at the elegant Teatro Municipal (1a Calle between 14 Avenida and 14 Avenida “A”), which dates from 1908.
Blue Angel Video Café (7a Calle 15-79 Zona 1, 1pm-11pm Mon.-Sat., 3pm-10pm Sun., $1.30 for movie) shows two movies nightly starting at 8pm and serves vegetarian fare and smoothies. For the latest releases, head to Cines Pradera Xela (Avenida Las Américas y 7a Calle Zona 3, www.circuitoalba.com.gt, $5) inside its namesake shopping mall. Cinépolis (www.cinepolis.com.gt) was slated to open a new cinema at Utz Ulew Mall (19 Avenida 2-40 Zona 3) in early 2016.
Compared to Panajachel and Antigua, Xela is not a big shopping destination. A standout in this regard is Trama Textiles (3a Calle 10-56 Zona 1, tel. 7765-8564, www.tramatextiles.org), a women’s association that works with 17 cooperatives representing 400 women from five of Guatemala’s highland regions. It sells high-quality products that are prewashed, preshrunk, and completely colorfast. There are scarves, purses, table runners, and some truly exquisite pillowcases for sale. Another good option is Y’abal Handicrafts (12 Avenida 3-35 Zona 1, tel. 4198-3615, www.yabal-handicrafts.com). For all your import shopping needs, Pradera Xela Shopping Mall (10am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 11am-8pm Sun.) is on Avenida Las Américas between 7a and 8a Calles Zona 3, outside the city center. Under construction at the time of writing was the gargantuan Utz Ulew Mall (19 Avenida 2-40 Zona 3, tel. 7930-4482, www.utzulewmall.com).
North and South Bookstore (8a Calle and 15 Avenida 13-77 Zona 1, tel. 7761-0589, 9:30am-6pm Mon.-Fri., 9:30am-5pm Sat.) sells a good selection of books in English with subjects including Guatemalan politics and history, travel guides, birding manuals, maps, Spanish textbooks, and dictionaries. Vrisa Bookshop (15 Avenida 3-64 Zona 1, tel. 7761-3237, 9am-7pm Mon.-Sat.) sells mostly used books with some new titles, mostly in English. El Libro Abierto (15 Avenida “A” 1-56 Zona 1, tel. 7761-5195, 9:30am-5:30pm Mon.-Fri., 11am-5pm Sat.) has a wide selection of books in English and Spanish.
Accessible from Xela are a variety of volcano hikes, including Tajumulco Volcano, which is Central America’s highest volcano, in the neighboring department of San Marcos. Closer to Xela is Santa María Volcano, affording excellent views all the way to Lake Atitlán as well as over its active, much smaller neighbor Santiaguito Volcano.
It is very easy to get lost on these peaks so a guide is strongly recommended. (Hikers have gotten lost on the slopes of Volcán Santa María.) Several local companies offer trips. Highly recommended for volcano climbs as well as excellent tours to area attractions is Adrenalina Tours (13 Avenida and 4a Calle Zona 1, Pasaje Enríquez, tel. 7761-4509 or 7767-2474, www.adrenalinatours.com). Trips leave with a minimum of two people and include Santa María Volcano ($25-45 pp), Chicabal Lagoon ($25-50), the Santiaguito Volcano lookout ($25-50), Tajumulco Volcano ($50), and a rockin’ three-day hike to Lake Atitlán ($85). Adrenalina Tours can also book plane tickets and Tikal tours. The company operates shuttle bus service to Antigua, Guatemala City, Panajachel, the Mexican border, and Chichicastenango.
Monte Verde Tours (13 Avenida 8-34 Zona 1, tel. 7761-6105, www.monte-verdetours.com) offers guided hikes to all of the Xela area volcanoes as well as to Laguna Chicabal and multiday treks from Xela to Lake Atitlán ($85). Farther afield, they run treks from Nebaj to Todos Santos Cuchumatán (4 days, $120).
With excellent guides and proceeds that go directly to fund projects that benefit Xela’s street children, Quetzaltrekkers (Diagonal 12 8-43 Zona 1, inside Casa Argentina, tel. 7765-5895, www.quetzaltrekkers.com) is highly recommended for its two-day volcano trips to Santiaguito and Tajumulco ($65), three-day treks to Lake Atitlán ($100), and a wonderful six-day highland trek between the villages of Nebaj and Todos Santos ($175). You can look at a calendar with scheduled trips on their website.
Other reliable options include Altiplano’s (12 Avenida 3-35 Zona 1, tel. 7766-9614, www.altiplanos.com.gt) and Icaro Tours (6a Calle 14-55 Zona 1, tel. 7761-4342, www.icarotours.com). Upcoming trips are prominently displayed on their websites, taking some of the legwork out of trying to get a group together if you are traveling alone.
The Cerro Quemado, near Xela, offers good rock climbing on its 45-meter (150-foot) rock faces known locally as “La Muela.” Routes include traditional climbs as well as sport climbing and are rated 5.07 to 5.13. Antigua-based Old Town Outfitters (5a Avenida Sur #12C, Antigua, tel. 5339-0440, www.adventureguatemala.com) does a two-day trip, leaving from Antigua and staying overnight in a Xela hotel. Locally based Quetzaltrekkers (Diagonal 12 8-43 Zona 1, inside Casa Argentina, tel. 7765-5895, www.quetzaltrekkers.com) does a day trip for $39-46 pp including gear, transport, food, water, and guides.
Climbing Santa María Volcano
Santa María is one of the most popular volcano climbs from Xela, with spectacular views from its 3,772-meter summit. The trailhead is at the end of a paved road in the village of Llanos del Pinal. To get there, take one of the hourly pickups leaving from Xela’s Cementerio General (General Cemetery) at 20 Avenida and 4a Calle 7am-5pm. Heading out of Llanos del Pinal, the road soon turns into a trail up the steep volcanic slopes, with painted arrows leading the way along this initial section of the footpath. About two hours from the starting point, you reach a flat grassy area known as “La Mesa,” where the trail diverts to the right and then switchbacks up the mountainside through pine forests. This part of the climb is somewhat steeper, with the summit about three hours from this point. A few hundred meters from the summit, you’ll see the end of the tree line and the summit itself, providing a much-needed mental boost for the end of your climb.
Santa María and Santiaguito Volcanoes
The best time to arrive at the summit is at sunrise, affording opportunities to take in the magnificent views before clouds start to roll in. From there, you can look southwest into the smoking crater of 2,500-meter Santiaguito Volcano, which has been belching out smoke and ash since its birth in 1902. To the east you’ll see the cones of San Pedro, Tolimán, Atitlán, Acatenango, Agua, and Fuego. If you look west, you’ll see the two highest volcanoes in Central America, Tajumulco and Tacaná, on the Mexican border.
Santa María’s last major eruption took place October 24-25, 1902, when it coughed up 10 cubic kilometers of ash into the stratosphere, covering much of the Pacific Coast and destroying a large section of the volcano’s south face. Ash from the eruption is reported to have reached as far north as California.
The safety situation on the volcanoes in Xela’s vicinity is markedly better than on those around Lake Atitlán, though robberies are by no means unheard of. It’s best to go with a guide. If after climbing Santa María and peering down into smoking Santiaguito you itch for more volcanic adventures, you’ll be happy to know several outfitters run trips to the challenging, ashy slopes of this smaller active volcano.
An excellent choice for budget travelers, Hostal Don Diego (6a Calle 15-12 Zona 1, tel. 5308-3616 and 5308-1489, www.hostaldondiegoxela.com, $8 pp dorm, $17 d) has clean rooms and a choice of twin- or queen size-beds in private rooms, some with wood paneling. Casa Argentina (Diagonal 12 8-43 Zona 1, tel. 7761-2470, $4 pp in dorms, $5 pp shared-bath room to $13 d with private bath) is a budget hotel with 27 rooms. Some have cable TV, and there are always tea, coffee, and purified water available. Guests have use of the kitchen. Quetzaltrekkers is housed here.
S Casa Doña Mercedes (6a Calle and 14 Avenida 13-42 Zona 1, tel. 5687-3305, www.hostalcasadonamercedes.com.gt, $23-37 d) has excellent-value rooms with tile floors, wood ceilings, Guatemalan bedspreads gracing the firm beds, and spotless shared bathroom. It’s well located.
S Hotel Modelo (14 Avenida “A” 2-31 Zona 1, tel. 7761-2529, www.hotelmodelo1892.com, $45 d) is a well-situated, excellent-value hotel in an old colonial home run by a friendly Guatemalan family. The nicest rooms are in a section fronting the street and opening to a pleasant garden courtyard. All have private bathroom, hardwood floors and ceilings, cable TV, charming antique furniture, warm wool blankets to ward off the chill, and pleasantly hot showers. There’s free wireless Internet, and the restaurant here serves good breakfasts. Hotel Casa Florencia (12 Avenida 3-61 Zona 1, tel. 7761-2326, $32 d) has nice, carpeted rooms with private bath, cable TV, wood paneling, tungsten reading lights, and nice extras such as shampoo and soap. The friendly innkeeper, Celeste, keeps it spotless. It’s also really well situated with plenty of restaurants nearby.
A gorgeous flower garden and rock waterfall set the mood as you enter Xela’s most wonderfully atmospheric hotel, S Casa Mañen B&B (9a Avenida 4-11 Zona 1, tel. 7765-0786, www.comeseeit.com, $50-100 d), with nine tastefully decorated rooms featuring exquisite furnishings, wool blankets and throw rugs, terra-cotta floors, cable TV, and private bathroom. There’s a rooftop terrace bar with wonderful city views. The delicious breakfast is served in a pleasant dining room looking out to the peaceful garden courtyard.
The haunt of Guatemala’s oligarchy on visits to Xela, S Pensión Bonifaz (4a Calle 10-50 Zona 1, tel. 7723-1100, www.pensionbonifaz.com.gt, $65-100 d) is a beautiful old hotel. It has spacious, well-decorated rooms with private bathrooms, desks, and cable TV. There are a restaurant, small gift shop, and a heated swimming pool in a pretty garden courtyard under an opaque ceiling letting in just enough sunlight. There’s wireless Internet on the first floor, and the rooms just above it (numbers 123-130) get a signal. More modern rooms are housed in a newer section, but those in the original building harbor all the charm. Be aware the rooms are spread out over five floors and there is no elevator. The parking garage connects to the fourth floor.
Cafés and Light Meals
S Café Baviera (5a Calle 13-14 Zona 1, tel. 7761-5018, 7am-10am daily, $4-10) is a breakfast spot with a decidedly German atmosphere chock-full of antiques where you can enjoy scrumptious pastries, sandwiches, crepes, and shakes in addition to some of the best coffee in town. Café La Luna (8a Avenida 4-11 Zona 1, tel. 7761-2242 or 5174-6769, 9:30am-9pm Mon.-Fri., 4pm-9pm Sat.-Sun.) is wonderfully decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques, including old signs, gas lamps, cash registers, and even pre-Columbian artifacts. Menu options include great coffee, snacks, and desserts, and there are daily specials of various Guatemalan dishes, including delicious enchiladas on Sundays. Try the scrumptious chocolate cake.
Around the corner and under the same ownership is Bajo La Luna (tel. 7763-0125, 7pm-11pm Tues.-Sat.), a cozy wine cellar with a charming old-world feel where there’s a good mix of bottled wines ranging in price $9-50. There are also various cheeses on offer. With wonderful views of Parque Centroamérica from its second-floor terrace, El Balcón del Enríquez (12 Avenida 4-40 Zona 1, tel. 7765-2296, all meals daily) is a good place to start the day or wind it down with a cup of coffee or cocktail while people-watching over the plaza below. There are good sandwiches, breakfasts, and pastries. For a quaint coffee-bar atmosphere, check out El Cuartito (13 Avenida 7-09 Zona 1, 11am-11pm Wed.-Mon.), serving organically grown fair trade coffee, tea, and chocolate beverages in addition to tempting cookies and baked goods. There are books and board games to keep you entertained, free wireless Internet, and live music some nights. You’ll find tasty pizzas, salads, crepes, and pastas at Sabe Delis (14 Avenida “A” 3-38 Zona 1, tel. 7761-2635). The atmosphere is warm and cozy.
El Árabe (4a Calle 12-22 Zona 1, tel. 7761-7889, noon-midnight daily, $4-10) serves delicious Middle Eastern fare, including fresh hummus and tasty falafel. It’s conveniently situated just off the plaza and can also be a lively place at night.
Still going strong, S El Sabor de la India (15 Avenida 3-64 Zona 1, tel. 7765-2555, noon-10pm Tues.-Sun., $4-12) serves delicious vegetarian and nonvegetarian Indian dishes in generous portions. For mouthwateringly delicious Chinese food, head to Sublime Café (23 Avenida 1-87 Zona 1, tel. 4162-7380, $4-12). I love the dim sum sampler, which is a selection of eight dishes including noodles, wontons, pork buns, and egg rolls.
lunch at El Sabor de la India in Xela
Xela boasts an excellent Tex-Mex restaurant in Dos Tejanos (4a Calle 12-33, Pasaje Enríquez, tel. 7765-4360, 7am-11pm daily), where you can dig into authentic Texas barbecue ribs, chicken, and brisket.
For authentic Italian food in a wonderful old-world family atmosphere, head to S Restaurante Cardinali (14 Avenida 3-25 Zona 1, tel. 7761-0922, 11:30am-10pm daily, $9). There’s a large wine selection. Giuseppe’s Gourmet Pizza (15 Avenida 3-68 Zona 1, Edificio Santa Rita Segundo Nivel, tel. 7761-2521 or 7761-9439, 11am-9:30pm) has fairly decent hand-tossed pizza and pastas.
The dining room at the upscale Pensión Bonifaz (4a Calle 10-50 Zona 1, tel. 7723-1100, all meals daily) is a good place for a splurge with a variety of Guatemalan and international dishes served in a classy atmosphere frequented by the city’s elite. Royal Paris (14 Avenida “A” 3-06 Zona 1, tel. 7761-1942, noon-11pm Tues.-Sun., 6pm-11pm Mon., $5-15) is a very popular, highly authentic French bistro with dishes that include crepes, baked camembert, and onion soup, as well as meat, chicken, fish, and pasta that you can enjoy accompanied by excellent wines. There’s live music on Friday and Saturday nights, and French or Italian movies are shown on Tuesdays at 8pm. Housed in a charming century-old mansion, S Tertulianos (14 Avenida 5-26 Zona 3, tel. 7767-4202, www.tertulianos.com.gt, 7am-10pm Mon.-Sat., 7am-5pm Sun., $6-15) serves a varied menu that includes meats, seafood, pasta and various types of fondue. Its quaint wine cellar is best reserved for a romantic dinner.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
The INGUAT tourism information center (7a Calle 11-35 Zona 1, tel. 7761-4931, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri.) is on the southern end of Parque Centroamérica next to Casa de la Cultura, though you might have better luck getting information from local travel agencies such as Adrenalina Tours just a few steps away in Pasaje Enríquez.
Useful websites with some helpful information include www.xelapages.com, www.xelapages.net, www.xelawho.com, and Spanish-language www.xelaenlinea.com.
The main post office is at 4a Calle 15-07 Zona 1. Couriers include DHL (4a Calle 23-27 Zona 3, Centro Comercial Plaza La Villa, tel. 2339-8400 ext. 7520). Some travelers have complained of incorrect import duties for packages shipped to Guatemala via DHL.
There are several banks, some with ATMs, on Parque Centroamérica, including Banco de Occidente, on the north end of the park, where you can change cash dollars and travelers checks. Banco Industrial, on the east side of the plaza, has a Visa ATM, while Banrural, on its west side, has both a Visa and MasterCard ATM.
Lavandería Pilas (7a Avenida 5-48 Zona 1, tel. 7767-4608, 8am-6pm Mon.-Sat.) charges $3 for a four-kilogram load, washed and dried.
Private hospitals include Hospital Privado Quetzaltenango (Calle Rodolfo Robles 25-31 Zona 3, tel. 7761-4381/82), Hospital La Democracia (13 Avenida 6-51 Zona 3, tel. 7763-6760/62), and Hospital San Rafael (9a Calle 10-41 Zona 1, tel. 7761-4414 or 7761-2956), with 24-hour emergency service.
For the firefighters (bomberos), dial 122 or 7761-2002. For the Red Cross (Cruz Roja), dial 125 or 7761-2746. The Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police) can be reached at 120, 110, 7765-4991, or 7765-4992. The number for the Municipal Police (Policía Municipal) is 7761-5805.
Xela has become increasingly popular as a place to learn Spanish, even rivaling Antigua, and the days when Xela hosted few foreigners are long gone. Still, it’s a much larger city than any other in Guatemala, save the capital, and affords an opportunity for the foreign population to more easily blend into their surroundings, providing an adequate Spanish-language immersion experience. Schools in Xela were charging between $150 and $225 per week for 25 hours of instruction and room and board with a local host family at the time of writing. Xela also tends to attract a rather humane crowd and so there are plenty of operations that allow you to combine your language instruction with some time working with charitable organizations. The following schools are recommended for their consistently good marks on student evaluations. If you’re a college student, you may be able to get college credit with several of these language schools. Ultimately, you’ll have to check the schools out to see which one works best for you. This is just one of the many things to consider when visiting potential schools. Rates go up between June and August, when college students come down in droves. Useful websites for checking out schools include www.123teachme.com and www.guatemala365.com.
Proyecto Lingüistico Quetzalteco de Español (5a Calle 2-40 Zona 1, tel. 7765-2140, www.plqe.org) is an extremely popular school often booked months in advance. Students have the opportunity to volunteer with the school’s Luis Cardoza y Aragon Popular Culture Center, next door, providing art, music, and computer skill instruction to underprivileged local children. There are also opportunities to work in reforestation projects and meet with human rights workers, former guerrilla combatants, and union leaders. Celas Maya (6a Calle 14-55 Zona 1, tel. 7765-8205, www.celasmaya.edu.gt) is another fairly popular school and set around a pleasant garden courtyard. There’s an adjacent Internet café.
Run by a cooperative of experienced teachers who are very active in social projects, Centro de Estudios de Español Pop Wuj (1a Calle 17-72 Zona 1, tel. 7761-8286, www.pop-wuj.org) is another highly recommended school. Escuela de Español Sakribal (6a Calle 7-42 Zona 1, tel. 7763-0717, www.sakribal.com), a school founded and run by women, has a project benefiting civil war widows and orphans. Inepas (15 Avenida 4-59 Zona 1, tel. 7765-1308, www.inepas.org) combines quality language instruction with a widely recognized service-learning program.
In business for more than 30 years, Escuela de Español ICA (19 Avenida 1-47 Zona 1, tel. 7763-1871, www.guatemalaspanish.com) runs social welfare projects that include a medical clinic, adult literacy education, and reforestation. Juan Sisay Spanish School (15 Avenida 8-38 Zona 1, tel. 7765-1318 or 7765-5343, www.juansisayspanishschool.org) is named after a self-taught indigenous primitivista painter who was massacred in his home village on the shores of Lake Atitlán in 1989. It’s run by a teachers’ collective involved in numerous social projects. Ulew Tinimit (4a Calle 15-23 Zona 1, tel. 7763-0516, www.spanishguatemala.org) is a good setup, allowing plenty of one-on-one instruction time with your individual teacher. Also recommended is Madre Tierra Spanish School (13 Avenida 8-34, Zona 1, tel. 7761-6105 or 5296-1275, www.madre-tierra.org/english).
There are several volunteer opportunities available in and around Xela, as there’s plenty of work to be done in Guatemala’s impoverished Western Highlands. Any of the town’s language schools can help you get plugged in to volunteer projects. A particularly helpful organization for volunteer opportunities is EntreMundos (El Espacio, 6a Calle 7-31 Zona 1, tel. 5606-9070 or 7761-2179, www.entremundos.org), which publishes a widely available free publication (EntreMundos) and has several resources on its website, including a database with contact information and descriptions for more than 150 NGOs in Xela and vicinity.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Xela’s airport terminal was upgraded a few years back as part of a Guatemalan governmental plan to revamp several domestic airports. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether scheduled flights will ever get off the ground.
Xela is a transportation hub for many buses heading to and from highland destinations. Upon arriving in town, you can avoid ending up at the Minerva bus terminal, which is well outside the city center, by getting off at a stop at 7a Avenida and 7a Calle. You’ll see a giant monument to the marimba with a Mayan woman atop it at a traffic circle on Avenida de la Independencia. Most buses stop here, and you can grab a taxi or minibus to the city center. If you do end up at the terminal, you can grab a taxi or bus into town from the south side of 4a Calle. Look for the bus labeled “Parque.” As elsewhere, Pullman, or first-class buses, leave from their own stations throughout town. Second-class bus routes include the following:
✵ To Antigua: Take any bus heading to Chimaltenango (including first-class buses to Guatemala City) and change buses there.
✵ To Chichicastenango: 10 daily buses, 2.5 hours, $1.50.
✵ To Guatemala City: Frequent buses from 3am-4:30pm, $5.
✵ To Huehuetenango: Buses every 30 minutes 5am-5:30pm, 1.5 hours, $1.
✵ To La Mesilla (Mexican border): Six daily buses, 3.5 hours, $2.
✵ To Panajachel: Buses at 5am, 6am, 8am, 10am, noon, and 3pm, 2.5 hours, $2.
✵ To Retalhuleu: Every 30 minutes 4:30am-6pm, one hour, $1. The bus will most likely read “Reu.”
✵ To San Pedro La Laguna (Lake Atitlán): Six daily buses, 2.25 hours, $2.
✵ To Tecún Umán (Mexican border): Buses leave hourly 5am-2pm, 3.5 hours, $2.50.
✵ To Zunil: Every 30 minutes 7am-7pm, 30 minutes, $0.35.
First-class bus lines with service to Guatemala City include the following: Líneas Américas (7a Avenida 3-33 Zona 2, tel. 7761-2063), with six daily buses; Transportes Alamo (14 Avenida 5-15 Zona 3, tel. 7761-7117), six daily buses; Transportes Galgos (21 Calle 0-14 Zona 1, tel. 7761-2248), seven daily; and the ultraluxe, nonstop service of Línea Dorada (5a Calle 12-44 Zona 3, tel. 7767-5198 or 7761-4509), with departures at 4pm.
There are also a number of companies running shuttle buses to destinations that include Guatemala City, Antigua, Panajachel, the Mexican border, Chichicastenango, and Huehuetenango. Adrenalina Tours (13 Avenida and 4a Calle Zona 1, Pasaje Enríquez, tel. 7761-4509 or 7767-2474, www.adrenalinatours.com) is recommended for dependable shuttle-bus service, as is Monte Verde Tours (13 Avenida 8-34 Zona 1, tel. 7761-6105, www.monte-verdetours.com).
Adrenalina Tours (13 Avenida and 4a Calle Zona 1, Pasaje Enríquez, tel. 7761-4509 or 7767-2474, www.adrenalinatours.com) rents vehicles, as does Tabarini (9a Calle 9-21 Zona 1, tel. 7763-0418, www.tabarini.com).
For bike rentals, head to Vrisa Bookshop (15 Avenida 3-64 Zona 1, tel. 7761-3237, 9am-7pm Mon.-Sat., $6/14/27 for daily/weekly/monthly rentals). Monte Verde Tours (13 Avenida 8-34, Zona 1, tel. 7761-6105, www.monte-verdetours.com) rents bicycles for $10 a week and offers guided bike trips ($20) to San Andrés Xecul, Zunil, and the Fuentes Georginas hot springs.
The towns and villages surrounding Quetzaltenango make for some interesting day trips. Found nearby are the Santa María and Santiaguito Volcanoes, hot springs, Indian markets, colorful churches, and an exquisite crater lake.
About 15 kilometers southeast of Xela is the spectacularly set town of Zunil. You’ll see the white Iglesia de Santa Catarina gleaming from a distance as it towers above the tiled- and tin-roofed houses around it. Lovely mountains flank its surroundings. Zunil is one of a handful of towns in Guatemala where there is still strong adherence to the worship of the Maximón idol, as in Santiago Atitlán. The idol’s location is rotated yearly, but it’s easy to find out its whereabouts from any local resident, assuming the local children don’t first intercept you and offer their guiding services for a small tip. It’s known locally as San Simón and, unlike elsewhere, visitors here can actually pour liquor offerings down the effigy’s throat. You’ll probably be charged around $1 to see it, more if you want to take photographs. Zunil’s annual fiesta takes place on November 25.
About half a kilometer south of town is S Las Cumbres (tel. 5399-0029 or 5304-2102, www.lascumbres.com.gt, 7am-7pm daily), a superb establishment harboring steam baths, beautiful accommodations housed in quaint red-tiled-roof cottages with mountain views, and a restaurant (all meals daily) serving mostly Guatemalan dishes but also sandwiches and wine. Its 11 rooms range $33-50 d and have nice wooden furnishings with warm wool blankets, private bathrooms, cable TV, CD player, and plenty of rustic charm. Some have their own in-room hot tubs. If you don’t want to stay but just want a steam bath, you can have a private sauna for $5. Room rates include sauna access. There are also a squash court, pool table, and a small gym.
A popular day trip from Xela with locals as well as visitors, the Fuentes Georginas hot springs (office in Xela at 5a Calle 14-08 Zona 1, tel. 5704-2959 or 7761-6547, www.lasfuentesgeorginas.com, 8am-6:30pm Mon.-Sat., 7am-5pm Sun., $7) were hit hard by Hurricanes Mitch and Stan but it was 2010’s Agatha that dealt them the final blow. The first of these wiped out a Hellenic statue that once gazed upon the pools. The site reopened in March 2011 and is again up and running, though the large main pool now has water so hot it’s better suited for cooking lobster than for soaking. A medium-sized and small pool offer slightly more comfortable water temperatures. In addition to the wonderfully warm thermal pools you can enjoy a fairly decent restaurant serving cocktails overlooking the emerald-green waters surrounded by tropical ferns and flowers. There are also sheltered picnic areas with barbecue pits for which you’ll need to bring your own fuel. Trails lead to the Zunil and Santo Tomás Volcanoes with guides available at the restaurant for about $15. The hikes require about 3-5 hours one-way. There are accommodations available ($40 d), but they are very basic and not recommendable.
To get here, you can first take a bus to Zunil leaving frequently from Xela’s Minerva bus terminal and then take a pickup the rest of the way (eight kilometers) to the hot springs. You can also walk from Zunil in about two hours. Head out from the plaza going uphill to the Cantel road (about 60 meters), turning right, and then going downhill to where you’ll see a sign for the hot springs indicating their distance eight kilometers away. The easy way to get here is to book a trip through any of the local guide companies, including Adrenalina Tours, which runs transfers to the site at 8am and 2pm for $16. Fuentes Georginas also shuttles visitors from its office in Xela for $16 departing at 9am and 2:30pm. The price includes entry fee.
S Laguna Chicabal
From the nearby village of San Martín Sacatepéquez, 15 kilometers west of Xela, it’s a two-hour hike to the magical Laguna Chicabal (www.lagunadechicabal.com), ringed by lush cloud forest in a spectacular volcanic crater at an altitude of 2,700 meters (8,900 feet). The lagoon can be reached by taking the signed path on the side of the road from where the bus drops you off heading into town. From there you’ll go uphill through fields, cresting and descending a hill. You’ll soon see the rangers’ station, where you pay a $2 park entrance fee. If you’ve driven out this way, parking costs an additional $1.30. There’s a rustic visitors center here where you can get food. There are also some very basic bungalows with a (cold-water) shared bathroom. Bring your own sleeping bag if you’re thinking of staying here. You can camp on the shore of the lagoon for $1.30, though most folks end up camping at the visitors center.
Laguna Chicabal is a beautiful crater lake.
From the visitors center it’s about 45 minutes to an hour, uphill, to a wonderful lookout point where you might catch a glimpse of the fantastic crater lake ringed by verdant cloud forest. Most of the time, however, the clouds have the view completely socked in. Opposite of the lagoon lookout is another lookout toward Santa María and Santiaguito Volcanoes; both have covered observation platforms. From the lookout, a trail of stairs descends to the lakeshore and the gorgeous lagoon, which is caressed by wisps of cloud just barely glancing the waters’ surface. You’ll soon realize why it’s considered sacred by modern-day Maya and a central element of their creation myths. An annual event includes 40 continuous days of prayers for rain and healing, ending on May 3. During the last few days culminating on this date, the lagoon is essentially off-limits to outsiders so as to allow the ceremonies to proceed undisturbed. Bathing in the lagoon’s waters is strictly off-limits at all times and, as always, you should be careful to respect the native culture by not photographing any ceremonies that might be in progress throughout the year. You’ll find the locals extremely friendly and willing to answer your questions if you put forth the effort to inquire amicably. As always, a smile goes a long way.
San Andrés Xecul
A road branches off to the west from a crossroads between Salcajá and the Pan-American Highway junction at Cuatro Caminos leading to San Andrés Xecul, home to a stunning Technicolor dream of a church festooned with vines, saints, and assorted other characters. It’s easily one of Guatemala’s most photographed churches, and certainly one of its most bizarre. It’s certainly worth a look.
fishing in Iztapa