Guatemala, late August - early September 2023
Intending my comments for this forum’s target audience, mainly Europe-bound tourists, I’ll argue that for those in that audience who are interested in expanding their travels beyond Europe, the city of Antigua, Guatemala, could be a good place to start a Latin American experience. This city is a clear tourist destination, and the presence of tourists during my visit was unavoidable. Yet it was a relatively mild presence, nothing at all close to the horrifying tourist hordes I saw in those terrifying travel-news photos from Europe this past summer. Antigua has adapted nicely to the tourists it gets — it’s still a charming, well-kept Spanish-colonial town, and still very Guatemalan. The extinct “Water Volcano” — Volcan Agua — makes for a spectacular sight as it looms over the town from the south. (The volcano is so-called because when it last blew, in 1541, the first effect was a flood from the water expelled from the crater lake that had formed over a long period of dormancy.) One advantage of Antigua is that it’s easily reached from Guatemala City’s international airport by shuttle or taxi — it’s only a 28-mile trip, though it may sometimes seem like a rather long 28 miles.
My recent trip did not cover either of Guatemala’s two other most popular destinations, the grand Mayan ruins at Tikal, or Lake Atitlan and the several traditional villages around its shores, but together, both will complete a good, introductory Guatemala trip that begins in Antigua. While Tikal usually requires a plane ride from Guatemala City, Lake Atitlan (which I have seen, though a long time ago) is another easy road trip further along from Antigua, and there are now enough reliable shuttle agencies in Antigua to make it unnecessary to worry about those infamous “chicken buses.” The German scientist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt called Atitlan the most beautiful lake in the world; and though I haven’t seen all the world’s beautiful lakes — and I don’t think von Humboldt had either — I’m sure Atitlan is a least a great candidate for the title.
My next stop, after Antigua, was the less-visited city of Quetzaltenango — also known by its Mam Mayan name of Xela (“Shayla”) — in the mountains to the west. The large historic center has the same overall Spanish-American look as Antigua, though it is not preserved as well as Antigua, or kept up as “prettily” (and in the absence of major tourism there probably is little motive for such upkeep), but it was interesting enough for a “flaneur” like me, who seeks authentic places off the tourist trail. At 7600 feet, Xela has a great climate— note that you may need a light coat at night. Excursions to more traditional towns and villages in the western highlands are available from here.
Finally, my stay in huge, sprawling Guatemala City was confined mainly to the historic center, or “Zone 1.” Note that in most Central American capitals, “historic center” doesn’t quite mean what it does in European cities. Most tourists who stay in Guatemala City at all (rather than head straight to Antigua) prefer the more familiar, “upscale” neighborhood of Zone 10, on the south side of the city; and I suppose I can’t blame them. Nevertheless, I found Guatemala City’s Zone 1 to be a normal, busy sort of urban center; and though my personal experience may not prove anything, I also found it to be safer, at least by day and early evening, than many people seem to think it is. I don’t think I would wander around the area late at night, but I would say the same for many city centers in the US.
Generally, Central America may not be for everyone, but independent, curious, more adventurous travellers (and you don’t really have to be all that adventurous) who haven’t yet considered it, may want to. In several visits over the years, I've found it to be safer and more rewarding than one might think from all that exaggerated "bad press."