ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA - My Guatemala is a seductive beauty whose Spanish charm, dramatic landscapes, lovely coastline and relaxed lifestyle are enchanting more and more visitors.
And many visitors gather in the colonial city of Antigua — the name means “ancient” — which is nestled among three volcanoes, one of which is still active, and sits 1,800 metres above sea level. The narrow streets of the city, which once served as the capital of all Central America, are paved with bricks and lined with handsome colonial houses painted in pastel colours.
Antigua’s patios are crowded with expats, many of them American retirees. People gather in the restaurants and bars ringing the Parque Central to sip wine and watch travellers photograph local landmarks such as the famed Santa Catalina Arch.
Churches and cathedrals abound in Guatemala, and Antigua is the religious epicentre. Each year, especially during Easter, elaborate celebrations draw thousands of visitors.
Often called the “jewel of Central America,” Guatemala has two gorgeous coastlines — the Pacific and the Caribbean — as well as many lovely lakes, the most famous being Lake Atitlan. The lake rests between volcanoes, and appears to be floating in the sky.
In the Mayan language, Atitlan means “the place where the rainbow gets its colours.” If anything, Lake Atitlan is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Guatemala, in Mayan, translates as “land of trees,” and there is certainly an abundance of species, plus flora and fauna that can’t be matched anywhere else in Central America.
The national bird is the quetzal and is unique to Guatemala. It inhabits the country’s northern cloud forest around Alta Verapaz and is a rare sighting.
Guatemala boasts one of the largest treasures of Mayan culture — Tikal National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site that offers a wonderful glimpse in pre-Columbian civilization. There are majestic pyramids deep within the thick jungle. Other Mayan ruins include Quiriguá, Iximché, Yaxhá and Zaculeu.
Left: Old gates welcome new visitors. Right: Ancient Inca traditions remains alive.
Guatemala City is the nation’s capital, with a population of four million people and a lifestyle that’s big, bold and beautiful. It can also be bad, and crime is a problem, but it’s one of Latin America’s most vibrant cities with great restaurants, energetic nightlife and some remarkable museums.
It has been inhabited since pre-Mayan times and displays many architectural styles — from neo-classical to colonial — and has become one of the most important business hubs in Latin America.
Wide boulevards and dramatic plazas abound, including the Plaza Centenaria, where Central American independence was declared in 1821. Surrounding the plaza are many important buildings, including the country’s original National Palace which has been converted into a museum, the beautiful Metropolitan Cathedral and famous bars like El Portalito, where Che Guevara and Fidel Castro drank and plotted revolution.
Guatemalans are very proud of their city and heritage and love interacting with visitors. You must have a tostada or atol de elote — a Mayan milkshake — while shopping in the Central Market in the city’s historic area.
Guatemala may not be a place that’s high on your travel wish list, but once you get here, you won’t want to leave.