Short trip to Guatemala: Tikal or Lake Atitlan? Or both?
September 17, 2015 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Hi! I am traveling to Guatemala City for work and will have three (well, maybe 2.75) days to myself. I definitely want to visit Antigua. I'm worried that cramming in expeditions to Lake Atitlan AND Tikal on the other two days will keep me busier than I'd like to be...but I also don't want to regret not seeing such amazing places. (I have bad travel FOMO.)

I'd thought to skip Tikal because I have visited Palenque, but I understand Tikal is on a different order of magnitude, so now I'm having doubts about that choice. The cost of getting to Tikal is an issue, but a surmountable one.

Help me, hive mind!
posted by elizeh to Travel & Transportation around Guatemala (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
With that little time, I wouldn't recommend trying to do both Tikal and Lake Atitlan. Antigua was quaint, but I wouldn't consider it a "must see" like Tikal and Atitlan.

Tikal is absolutely amazing. I haven't been to Palenque or other Maya cities so I can't tell you how it compares. We stayed in Flores before/after and took a day trip to Tikal. Try to get the sunrise tour if you go. Not sure what you'd do at Tikal for several days, but we did enjoy our time in Flores. It was quaint and relaxing, similar to Antigua.

Lake Atitlan is also pretty awesome. We spent several days more there than we planned because we had such a great time. There are lots of villages to visit, each with their own personality. Getting to and around the lake was easy.

You'll have to decide which based on what you're hoping to get out of the side trip and how likely you are to go back to Guatemala. But trying to do both in less than 3 days would be crazy.
posted by jshort at 7:58 AM on September 17, 2015

I was in your position in June, and I went to Tikal based on epicnesst of Ruins (include a scene from Star Wars). The area around is less exciting than Antigua
posted by aggienfo at 8:01 AM on September 17, 2015

When I went to Guatemala in 2010 our group had this same conundrum and we chose Atitlán because we had prefaced our Guatemala trip with a jaunt to Copán in Honduras. I love love loved Atitlán because it made me feel like all the ancient civilization/culture things we had seen in Copán were being modern and lived, you know? I have heard that Tikal is amazing and I am kind of sad to have missed it, but I would not have given up the chance to see that Maximón shrine for the world.
posted by chainsofreedom at 8:05 AM on September 17, 2015

Atitlan is really, really worth seeing. As is Tikal. It would be hard to do both in three days, however, given how far north Tikal is. Antigua is sort of like the Colonial Williamsburg of Guatemala -- more a theme park for Gallo-swilling European backpackers than a real town. You could skip Antigua and be fine.
posted by killdevil at 8:09 AM on September 17, 2015

While I love Antigua, I would not want to breeze through in the little amount of time you have. You will feel like a tourist and will not even scratch the surface of the town. It will be like going to Disneyland.

You could technically go to Atitlan and spend a night in Panajachel, then take buses to Flores, spend a night there, and see Tikal the next day (I'm thinking out loud here, as it were). That's a lot of travel time eating up your 2.75 days, and it seems inefficient, given that you're coming from Guatemala City, and a trip from Atitlan to Tikal would take you back through the capital and out again.

Tikal is awesome and you should go some time. But there's not much else to do around there (that I'm aware of).

I think I would either:

1. Go to Atitlan, spend a night in Panajachel & a night in another town.

2. Go to Tikal, but don't use up all your 2.75 days. Spend the rest of it checking out Guatemala City - the relief map, the Museo de Martires, etc.
posted by univac at 9:07 AM on September 17, 2015

I concur with the developing consensus: it would be damn difficult to see both Lake Atitlan and Tikal properly in the short time you have. In terms of logistics, Atitlan is a hell of a lot easier to get to (from either Antigua or Guatemala City) than is Tikal. The shuttle ride we took to Tikal was loooooong. And apart from spending a few hours at Tikal, there isn't as much to see/do around there.

The primary joy (well, for me) of Lake Atitlan was that it facilitates relaxation and an easy-going way to spend time in incredibly beautiful surroundings. I wouldn't think it worth it if you are going to be on the road a long time to get there, only to stay 1 night and then turn back around. You'd have to stay at least 2-3 nights to get the full effect.
posted by Halo in reverse at 9:15 AM on September 17, 2015

And if you go to Atitlan, the towns to see/visit are San Pedro and San Marcos. We didn't enjoy Panajachel as much.

This blog offers a good summary of the different villages.
posted by Halo in reverse at 9:19 AM on September 17, 2015

Tikal is more impressive as a single site than Palenque and certainly than Atitlan. Agree that the area around Atitlan is pretty (and visiting Tikal is more difficult and expensive) , but I was very impressed by Tikal.
posted by vunder at 9:54 AM on September 17, 2015

Tikal is incredible but I just don't see how you'd fit it in.

When we went a bunch of years back, we came in over the border from the Cayo District in Belize and stayed overnight at Hotel Gringo Perdido in the town of El Remate on Lago Peten. It was the off season so we had the entire place to ourselves. We left for the ruins at the crack of dawn, spent the entire day touring the site and still could have used another couple hours.

For the record, we both thought that Tikal was much more impressive than Chichen Itza in Mexico.
posted by JaredSeth at 10:05 AM on September 17, 2015

I'm going to go against the grain and, not exactly recommend that you see both Tikal and Atitlan in three days, but at least say that it's doable if you're starting out from Guatemala City and aren't on a super-tight budget. Several airlines have short, twice-daily flights from Guate to Flores - you'd land by 7:00am, spend the day touring the incredible ruins, and then catch a 6:30pm or 8:00pm flight back to the city. Honestly, if you aren't a Mayan culture or ancient ruins buff you probably don't need more than a day at Tikal (incredible though it is!) and I've known lots of people who found this schedule to be perfect.

Spend the night in Guatemala City (if you take the 6:30pm flight you'll be back in time to enjoy a nice dinner at one of the city's many delicious restaurants). Get to bed early, get picked up at your hotel by the 6:00am shuttle and make it into Pana around 9:00am. Atitlan is the kind of place where you can spend a day or weeks without getting tired of it, but 1.75 days is enough to meander through a couple towns, see a fabric co-op or do a short hike, and have a drink or two overlooking the lake.
posted by exutima at 2:42 PM on September 17, 2015

Atitlan is a hell of a lot easier to get to (from either Antigua or Guatemala City) than is Tikal. The shuttle ride we took to Tikal was loooooong.

This is an important point. Bus travel in Guatemala is often entertaining and occasionally amazing, but a lot of the time it's what a friend of mine calls "Type 2 Fun" — a fascinating experience, wonderful to think back on, but at least mildly unpleasant while you're actually doing it.

The ratio of Actual Fun to Type 2 Fun gets better if you're taking short hops on a relaxed schedule (like the trip to Atitlan), and worse if you're doing long hauls through rural areas with limited time (like you'd do en route to Tikal). Taking tourist shuttles rather than local busses is more comfortable, but actually still not awesome — you're still basically sitting on your ass in an old van bumping your way down a bad road in the rain, and you don't get the awesome cheap road food or the people-watching you'd get on a local bus.

Unless you're a huge Maya history buff, Atitlan will probably be a better use of your time. You'll get there quickly and have some time to visit a couple of towns. (Take a boat! They're delightful!)

Also, seconding univac's comment that there's a ton to do in Guatemala City, and it's a fascinating place to spend time. It sounds like you'll be there for a while for work anyway, but try to get out to see some of the excellent museums while you're there.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:43 PM on September 17, 2015

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