When I explained to people that we were going to Guatemala for our holiday vacation I was met with blank stares. And widening eyes. And the inevitable question, “ why?” Well, we wanted culture. And adventure. And warm temperatures. And history. So … Hola, Guatemala! From ancient Mayan ruins to volcanoes you can hike, from colorful colonial cities to lakeside splendor and amazing food, Guatemala has something for everyone. The Central American stunner is luring travelers eager to experience the beauty and diversity of the country and the warmth of the people. We hit three very different parts of Guatemala — Lake Atitlan, Antigua and Flores — and each had its own (spectacular) vibe. Read on for my favorite, must-visit spots that should be a part of any Guatemalan vacation.
— Holly Parmelee


ANTIGUA


A UNESCO World Heritage site, this beautiful, charming city is nestled in a mountain valley surrounded by forest and volcanoes. The brightly painted Spanish colonial architecture is remarkably preserved and the city is filled with art galleries, historic churches, museums, restaurants and traditional markets. 

WHERE TO STAY

Posado del Angel
4a Ave Sur #24A, Antigua
+1 502 7832 0260
This elegant, colonial inn offers 7 romantic suites with wood burning fireplaces in a great location close to the main square. This is where Bill Clinton stayed when he visited Guatemala.

Meson Panza Verde
5a Ave Sur #19, Antigua
+1 305 7955 8282
Gorgeous, candlelit ambience with a lush garden and fountain in the courtyard. The beautiful rooftop lounge areas - where you can have coffee or cocktails – have crazy good views of the volcanoes. The nine rooms all have cozy fireplaces and some offer terraces and patios.

Casa Santo Domingo
3a Calle Oriente #28A, Antigua
+1 502 7820 1220
If you’re looking for a larger, resort-style hotel this is the place. Casa Santo Domingo has 130 rooms, a pool, spa, two restaurants and a bar.

WHERE TO EAT (+ DRINK)

Café No Sé 
1a Ave Sur, Antigua
+1 502 7832 0563

Coolest, funkiest, candlelit bar (it is DARK) that serves mezcal. The Bohemian vibe makes you feel like you’re hanging with poets, writers and revolutionaries — but sadly they’re probably just other tourists. But it’s so dark you can pretend.

Café Sky 
1a Ave Sur #15, Antigua
+1 502 7832 7300
Great, casual spot for lunch where you can enjoy the panoramic view of the city and volcanoes. Or just hang all day at their rooftop bar with and befriend fellow travelers.

El Sabor Del Tiempo 
5 Ave Y Tercera Calle Poniente, Antigua
Italian restaurant and wine bar located in an old pharmacy. The old medicine racks now display bottles of wine and the candlelit atmosphere is romantic and chic. Windows open to the street so it’s a fun place to people watch.

Los Tres Tiempos
5 Ave Norte 31, Antigua
+1 502 7832 5161
Amazing Guatemalan food in a contemporary setting located right next to the Santa Catalina Arch. Great view (you can eat in the garden or on the roof) and fun atmosphere. 

Meson Panza Verde 
5a Ave Sur #19, Antigua
+1 305 7955 8282
Considered to be one of the best restaurants in Antigua. Romantic, elegant and they have live music (that is not annoying) most nights.

Por Que No?
2a Ave Sur Casa 9, Antigua
+1 502 4324 5407
Tiny, bohemian bar and café’ that is definitely worth a visit if only to climb the rope to get to the upper level of the pub. 

Tartine’s
4a Calle Oriente, Antigua  
+1 502 788 2460

Charming French café’ with an outdoor roof terrace overlooking the ruins of a Cathedral. The views are stunning so try and sit outside to enjoy them. Amazing steak frites, roast chicken and chocolate mousse.

WHAT TO DO

Explore! Put on your walking shoes and get lost. There are tons of churches, museums, art galleries and markets to see. When you’re tired, settle in at one of the many rooftop bars and laze the day away.

Church of San Francisco
Calle Oriente #7, Antigua
There are many beautiful churches and cathedrals in Antigua, but this was our favorite. The ruins and gardens alongside the church are stunning. Central America’s first saint is entombed here and Guatemalans flock to his tomb to pray for miracles. 

La Merced Church and Cloisters
Corner of 1a Cale Poniente & 6a Ave Norte 
The distinctive yellow and white façade of this famous church is stunning. Head to the top level of the cloisters for amazing views over the city.

De La Gente Coffee Farm Tour 
To arrange a tour, email info@dlgcoffee.org
I almost cancelled this and it ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. De La Gente is a nonprofit organization that works to support small, independent coffee producers. We met a local farmer who took us to his coffee fields to pick, wash and roast the beans over an open fire. We then ground the roasted beans by hand with a grindstone and sampled the brew with the farmer’s wife and family. The coffee fields were beautiful and it was really cool to see the small town (with zero tourists) and home that the farmer lives in. 

Hike to the active Pacaya Volcano
It takes about 6 hours but you’ll be rewarded with marshmallows that you get to toast in the volcano’s lava. Worth it for the photo-op alone!

WHAT TO BUY

Hilosophy 
5a Ave Norte #33, Antigua
+1 502 7832 5067
Gorgeous textile shop near the arch on 5th Avenue. Handmade rugs, hammocks, tablecloths and napkins. Their designs are fresh, contemporary and less traditional than the other textile stores.

Precious Hands
5a Ave Sur #11, Antigua
+1 502 7832 3450
This store employs Guatemalan and Mayan artisans to create traditional, handmade products according to fair trade principles. We bought beautiful cloth cocktail napkins, colorful placemats bags, and worry dolls. 

Nim P’ot
5a Ave Norte #29, Antigua
+1 502 7832 2681
A sprawling handicraft warehouse right by the Arch. They allow artisans to sell their goods on consignment and they have the largest retail Mayan textile collection in Antigua.

Nativo’s
5a Ave Sur #25b, Antigua
+1 502 7832 6556

A great selection of shawls, sashes, ponchos and home décor in traditional design


LAKE ATITLAN 


Lake Atitlan is hands down one of the dreamiest places I’ve ever been. When describing Lake Atitlan, the writer Aldous Huxley said it was “Lake Como with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.”

WHERE TO STAY 

Casa Polopo 
Santa Caterina Polopo
+1 502 7762 2270
Perched high above spectacular Lake Atitlan, Casa Polopo is the only Relais & Chateaux hotel in Guatemala. The lakeside hotel is homey yet elegant with killer views of the water and surrounding volcanoes. There are 7 guestrooms in the main house and a separate 3-bedroom villa with private infinity pool set above the hotel. Casa Polopo offers a very convenient helipad if you want to splurge and avoid the 3-4 hour drive from Guatemala City.

Hotel Atitlan
Finca San Buenaventura, Panajachel
+1 502 2334 0641
Hotel Atitlan has 61 rooms and suites overlooking gardens and the lake. This hotel is more like a small resort with a pool, jacuzzi, restaurant, bar, and conference room.

La Fortuna at Atitlan
Patzisotz Bay between Panajacheland Santa Cruz
+1 502 5203 1033
We spied this small hotel (which can only be reached by boat) while kayaking. It looked like Robinson Crusoe had set up shop and we were all intrigued. It is a genuine Eco-Hotel and is 100% off-grid solar powered. The 5 thatched roof bungalows are simple but luxurious with beautiful linens and mosquito netting. If you’re looking for a quiet, romantic, desert island kind of experience, La Fortuna is it.

WHERE TO EAT
After the long drive from Guatemala City we had no interest in leaving our beautiful hotel to eat anywhere else. The food at Casa Polopo is fab and probably the best in the area. If you do feel like eating out head to Circus Bar in the buzzy, nearby village of Panajachel.

WHAT TO DO
Enjoy the lake life! You can kayak, hike, fish and boat. Explore the many native villages that dot the lake. Each one offers a different feel. If you can, hire a boat and guide to take you to the different villages so you can learn about the local history. 

Try to coordinate your visit Lake Atitlan to hit the weekly market in the indigenous town of Chichicastenango which has been in existence since the 1500’s!

WHAT TO BUY
The villages are known for natural dyes and handwoven textiles, wooden and ceramic crafts.


FLORES


The main reason people come to this area of Guatemala is to explore Tikal, but the area offers so much more including tons of lake, jungle and rainforest activities. While on a boat trip we spotted howler monkeys, lizards, all kinds of birds.


WHERE TO STAY 

Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel
Carretera a San Miguel, Flores
+1 502 7790 0300
Las Lagunas is a beautiful waterfront hotel on over 300 acres of lagoon and jungle. Most of the rooms jut out over the water and give the feel of an overwater bungalow. Spa, hiking, kayaking, biking, boat tours to Monkey Island – this resort is a nature lover’s dream. You can hike or take an ATV to the animal sanctuary on site where you can see jaguars, ocelots, tigrillos, vultures, and a tapir. Service and food were great and the staff is exceptional. Especially Elmer who remembered all 6 of our names every time we sat down for a meal.

La Lancha
Lake Peten Itza, Peten 
+1 502 3311 2027

Francis Ford Coppola’s 10-room lodge is tucked into the rainforest high above beautiful Lake Peten Itza. There are lots of steps up and down at this hotel so you need to be in decent shape! La Lancha offers tons of outdoor activities like hiking, biking, paddle boarding and canoeing but if you just feel like kicking back there is nothing better than sipping a cocktail on the dock by the lake.

WHAT TO DO

Most people come to this area to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal. There are six major temples and over 3000 buildings of which only 20% have been excavated. Go early before it gets too hot.


 A FEW TIPS ON GUATEMALA


Wear flat shoes. Seriously. The streets – especially in Antigua – are all cobblestone. And there are hills everywhere. People are also very casual so no need for heels.

Bring layers! The temperature changes quickly and gets cool at night.

The driving is not for the faint of heart. There is lots of traffic, speedbumps (SO many!), and winding roads. Bring Dramamine if you’re susceptible to car sickness.

PLAN YOUR TRIP
You can fly into Guatemala City (GUA) non-stop from several US cities including Newark, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. Belize is very close to Tikal so consider that as an option to fly in or out of. Antigua is about a 1 hour drive from Guatemala City and Lake Atitlan is 3-4 hours by car. Casa Polopo has a helipad if you want to spring for the quick and easy option!

No jet lag as Guatemala is in the Central Standard time zone.

We had a guide during our trip which I would highly recommend. We learned so much about the history, religion and culture of the area from him.

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