When we booked our trip to Guatemala we weren't quite sure what to expect. Then again, that's how we like to travel... jumping into the unknown, then embracing whatever adventure might come our way. We went to the capital city of Antigua and Lake Atitlan, one of the most underrated travel destinations. Guatemala has been plagued by safety concerns, which is unfortunate because its majestic beauty will actually surround you and make you feel quite safe. Guatemala is certainly not the typical family vacation destination, but it is one of my favorite vacations and quite honestly the most unique and enriching.
The Streets of Antigua
We flew into Guatemala City, but hired a shuttle service to pick us up at the airport and take us straight to Antigua, which is just a short hour drive away. Antigua is a very popular tourist destination and quite safe. I felt completely comfortable walking through the city by myself and with my camera hanging around my neck. Antigua is a city known for its beautiful churches, ancient ruins, coffee and chocolate makers. You'll find many distractions just weaving your way through the eclectic mix of shops and cobblestone streets. There are Mayan women selling handmade wares on the street corners and in front of many of the churches, where they know the tourists will visit. Taking photos is okay, but be sure you buy something from these women in exchange for the photo. Every time I started taking photos I gave my kids money to buy something, needless to say, my kids brought home a lot of little souvenirs from Guatemala.
There is also a very large artisan market that you can get lost in, literally -- there are no windows and there is only one way in and one way out. It's a colorful maze packed with vendors selling blankets, handbags, dolls, ceramics, clothing, beaded jewelry and more. Every vendor's booth looks exactly the same and you should feel free to negotiate. Finding our way out of the sea of vendors when we were done shopping was an activity in itself.
Be sure to take the time to watch the talented artists painting the iconic streets and buildings of Antigua. Watching them beautifully capture what is standing right in front of you makes you feel like you are walking around inside a piece of art. Around Antigua there are plenty of restaurants and shops to explore, but when you pass by a window with someone making chocolate, know that you are welcome to step inside to watch. But leaving without buying some chocolate would be a sin.
Guatemala is known for it's many active volcanoes and the closest volcano to Antigua is Volcano de Aqua, and it can be seen from a variety of angles when walking around the streets of Antigua. We were lucky enough to see if from the rooftop of the Hotel La Posada De Don Rodrigo where we had lunch one afternoon. From the restaurant, you can venture out into the garden where you will find the stairs that will lead you up to the rooftop. This is one of the perks of traveling with kids -- they tend to make you explore a little bit more than you would on your own. Had it not been for my kids curiosity, we might have missed the stairs completely and never got to see this spectacular view.
Taking the kids to Guatemala provided so many learning opportunities, and not just for the kids either. As someone who lives on coffee, I was shocked to learn that coffee beans start as a red, berry-like fruit and the seed found inside is the actual coffee bean. There are several coffee plantation tours where you will learn the history of coffee, how it's grown and the coffee roasting process. And you certainly cannot go to Guatemala without having a cup of Guatemalan coffee. Sugar and bananas are two of the other top exported products in Guatemala. The currency of Guatemala is called Quetzals, which we also learned is the national bird of Guatemala. As you can imagine, the kids were fascinated with the Quetzals.
While in Antigua we stayed at Casa Santa Domingo, an old monastery that has been transformed into a five-star hotel and museum. It's by far one of the most enchanting places I've ever stayed. When we arrived late at night it was dimly lit, mostly by candlelight. As we were lead down a long hall with exposed brick, statues and ancient artifacts, our kids thought we were staying in a castle and being taken down to the dungeon. Each of the rooms have their own unique characteristics, but with all of the modern amenities and ours had an actual wood burning fireplace. The beautiful gardens, fountains, cultural artifacts and ancient ruins at Casa Santo Domingo make this not only a great hotel but one of the most popular sights to see in Antigua.
We hired a driver to take us from Antigua to Lake Atitlan and it took about four hours on a fully-paved highway. Once we started our descent down into the main village of Panajachel, the view was jaw-droppingly beautiful. I thought we had just discovered a lost city. After driving through the narrow streets with vendors spilling their goods out into the street and tuk tuks whizzing by, we made it to the main dock where we met our Lake Atitlan Travel Guide and he loaded our suitcases onto his boat.
Lake Atitlan is like finding a hidden treasure that you just want to keep all to yourself. It's one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and the deepest lake in Central America. It's surrounded by three active volcanoes, Volcanoes Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro which all helped to form the lake. The only way around Lake Atitlan is by boat and water taxis -- this was by far one of the highlights of the trip for our kids.
The lake has a natural cycle that causes it to rise and fall, and the lake has recently risen a almost 12 feet in the last few years. All of the original docks to access the villages are literally underwater. Our hotel's main entrance was fully submerged and we could see the top of the original arched entrance just below the water. They had to rebuild a new temporary entrance on higher ground and as we made our way onto the dock, our tour guide shrugged his shoulders and told us very casually, "The water will come back down eventually!"
We stayed at Casa Rosa, a small rustic hotel with bungalows right on the lakefront in the town of Santa Cruz. You will not find any large chain hotels or luxury developments here. Sure there are some luxury lodges, but for the most part accommodations on the lake are pretty basic and do not come with a lot of amenities.
The Villages of Lake Atitlan
There are seven main villages around lake Atitlan, each with their own distinct personality and vibe. We took a boat tour around the lake that stopped at a few of the villages and my favorite was the arts and crafts village known as San Juan. It is filled with galleries and painters selling their colorful artwork and small shops filled with other artisan crafts. The women in Guatemala still wear the traditional clothing and all of the blouses, skirts and belts vary in color and style. I was told that certain designs and symbols are said to represent the different villages.
It was there we stopped into a textile shop to watch a demonstration of a woman using a traditional Maya treadle loom to weave a scarf. The color of these scarves are made from naturally dyed cotton using a mix of fruits, vegetables and plants, which are grown in the garden right outside this shop. My daughter picked out a beautiful scarf that's cotton was dyed with blueberries and beets.
From the colorful streets of Antigua to the docks of Lake Atitlan, I am still in awe of the vibrant Mayan culture and beauty of Guatemala. Sometimes not knowing too much about where you're going can lead to so much discovery and unexpected experiences. The entire time we were in Guatemala I was never concerned for our safety and it was one of the most memorable trips we've had as a family.