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Guatemala Trip Report (Brief commentary, actually)

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."

Posted by
284 posts

Really insightful description of your Guatemala experience. As one of my travel goals is to visit all the Central American countries, I only have Guatemala and El Salvador left on my list, so this info was very helpful for a future trip.

Posted by
1133 posts

I really liked your TR and appreciate your insight to the country. I’ve not been but my daughter had a great time at Lake Atitlan.

Posted by
256 posts

Thanks so much for your wonderfully descriptive trip report! I had never heard of Lake Atitlan, but had to google it based on someone calling it the most beautiful lake in the world. Wow! A caldera lake surrounded by not one but several volcanic mountains? Gorgeous! I saw this article online when I googled it, and it looks like a beautiful place to visit.

I'll be goigling Antigua as well, to learn more about its colonial past.

So, I'm curious, in your opinion, safety wise, would you recommend such a trip for a single woman traveler? It sounds, based on your description, as well as the articles advice, that as long as the necessary precautions are taken, a trip to these destinations would be quite safely achievable.

Posted by
150 posts

Pete: I hope you reach your goal. Over the years I’ve seen all five of the former “Federation” countries — the ones that had united for about 15 years, up to 1838, and then kept trying unsuccessfully, over 20 times, to reunite. Belize, a British territory, and Panama, long part of Colombia, were not part of that group.

Linda: I’m not surprised you daughter liked Lake Atitlan. It’s been 40 years since I saw the lake — it was less visited then — buy mt recollection is that it fully lived up to the better photos one still sees on the internet today. I don’t know whether it has changed much (Panajachel, the main “base” town on the shore, probably has), but people do still keep going there.

justsweetjs: Good to see you here! As you know, I’m not totally qualified to answer to the prospects of a first-time trip to Guatemala for solo female travellers, but as they’re bound to be of some concern, I feel confident that among the main tourist destinations — Antigua; Lake Atitlan; and for those who choose to see Guatemala City, Zone 10 — there should be no problem. From all I’ve heard and read, I’m sure lots of women do that route on their own (one of them was on my shuttle to Xela). And in fact there are now several good tourist transportation options. Two companies with good reputations are Monte Verde (which I took from Xela to Antigua) and Adrenalina (which I haven’t used yet, but I’ve heard good things about them). It’s easy to make reservations with both on your iPhone (as long as you don’t lose it!).