Lake or Ruins or Something Else
December 20, 2010 10:13 PM   Subscribe

Need advice for a fast and furious trip to Guatemala

I've suddenly found myself with a week of free time between New Year's and the start of a new contract. After searching online for a couple of days, not sure where I was wanting to go, I think I've settled on Guatemala for five nights and six days (1/2-1/7). I also think I've settled on staying in Antigua for the first two nights. But after that, I'm not sure. I don't want to run myself ragged, and I'm not interested in planning too much. Would you recommend Lake Atitlan or Tikal for the next two nights, before returning to Antigua? I'm leaning toward Lake Atitlan because the lake sounds better than ruins (I love kayaking), but I'm open to suggestions.

I'd also love to hear about other destinations, and sight, hotel and food recommendations. Also, I don't know if it's important, but I'm a fairly experienced solo traveler. I don't know Spanish, though.
posted by lunalaguna to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The trip to Tikal will, unfortunately, leave you ragged. Most people make that trip in 1 day, perhaps 2 days if I recall. There is a very bumpy plane ride and some long bus rides involved. It was exhausting for me and my boyfriend, but it was also amazing once we were actually at Tikal.

Personally, I thought the Lake Atitlan area was kind of awful. It reminded me of places like Myrtle Beach during college spring break or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. YMMV, of course.

I say skip the long and painful van ride to the market at Chichicastenango. I love crafts, but it isn't worth it in my opinion.

The city of Antigua is interesting and for the most part quite beautiful. It is probably your best bet for relaxing and being a tourist. If you want to get off the beaten path a bit, I recommend exploring small towns in the highlands. Ask a taxi driver to take you to some cemeteries in nearby towns. They are usually full of colorfully painted graves and plastic flowers. They are one of the most vivid memories I have of Guatemala. Find a procession or parade and observe it. There were many in Antigua when I was there.

Have a great time! I miss it there so much more than I expected to.
posted by pinetree at 11:00 PM on December 20, 2010

Love Guatemala! Half of my second novel takes place there -- in Antigua, Atitlan, Chichi, Flores & Tikal :)

I absolutely adore Lake Atitlan. It's stunning. Sure, Panajachel can be touristy, but you can opt for San Pedro La Laguna or Santiago across the lake for a more low-key, local vibe. pinetree's right about Tikal being pretty far and intense to cram into the time you have, though the ruins are incredible. If you do decide on Tikal, it's worth staying a night at one of the basic hotels in the park so you can greet the sunrise from across the highest temple. Bring a flashlight!
posted by changeling at 12:39 AM on December 21, 2010

I also want to add that I definitely find the Chichicastenango market worth it for a day trip from Atitlan or Antigua, as long as crowds don't make you crazy. It's arguably the best handicrafts market in Central America, massive sheer colorful chaos and impossibly inexpensive prices. Make sure to wear your haggling hat.
posted by changeling at 12:44 AM on December 21, 2010

The only place in the country I have visited is Tikal - but I still recommend it to you for several reasons:
1. The ruins are particularly beautiful and fascinating: I would say that if you see just one major Mayan site then Tikal should be it (they are best seen as the sun comes up IMHO).
2. They are beautiful partly because they are in amazing jungle: the experience is as much about this as it is the ruins themselves.
3. Getting anywhere overland in Guatemala is slow and arduous - so I would aim to travel probably to just one or two places and spend more time enjoying them.
4. You can kayak near Tikal on lake Itza
5. I hear that the taking a day or two to hike out to the ruins at El Mirador is well worth it - certainly if you are somebody who likes to get off the beaten track.
posted by rongorongo at 12:49 AM on December 21, 2010

Hubby and I went to Guatemala for two weeks last year. Hands down the best trip ever. Personally, I think two nights of a five night trip in Antigua is too much. Antigua is beautiful and quaint, but is VERY touristy. If you want to hang out with a bunch of other travelers in coffee shops and bars, then it's the place for you. But if you want to get off the beaten path, I'd go elsewhere.

If you're positive you will make it to Tikal another time, then you might skip it, but I really believe that it shouldn't be missed. In addition to staying at the park (which we really wish we did), you can stay in Flores, which is a quiant (and yes, somewhat touristy) town on Lake Petén Itzá, which Rongo mentioned. If you decide to take the Flores/Tikal option, I'd recommend stopping in Semuc Champey.

Of course Atitlan is pretty amazing as well, especially if you explore the various towns around the lake. Also, don't let the stories of machete-wielding banditos scare you from taking a hike - just go in a group and don't bring anything you wouldn't want to give up. We took a hike from La Iguana Perdido in Santa Cruz to cliff-diving spot - WOW!

Have fun! Excellent choice - You'll definitely want go back when you have more time!
posted by jshort at 4:58 AM on December 21, 2010

Further to jshort's suggestions, on the other side of Lake Petén Itzá from Flores is an area called El Remate. We stayed in a lakefront cabin over there (the place we stayed was called El Gringo Perdido) and it was close enough to town to drive in a couple minutes but far enough to feel private.
posted by JaredSeth at 7:12 AM on December 21, 2010

Guatemala City is not very safe, and can be skipped, with 1 exception. You can visit Safe Passage, and see the amazing work they do with the people who live at, and scavenge from, the Guatemala City dump.

Antigua is beautiful. We had a lovely rooftop dinner, I forget the name of the restaurant, and one of the active volcanoes obliged us with a show of fire and lava. Tikal was amazing because of the ruins, and also because I had never experienced jungle before. At night when the generators are shut off, it's very dark.
posted by theora55 at 2:34 PM on December 21, 2010

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