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  • Writer's pictureCharles Harned

Travel: Guatemala

From time to time I like to take a break from posting about writing or plans I have for upcoming novels and instead focus on another topic that's near and dear to my heart: travel.

Travel often goes hand in hand with reading and writing. I love books that take me to unique and unusual locations, and have had the good fortune to visit some really cool places in Europe and South America. At the beginning of April I flew down to Antigua, Guatemala to stay with a friend who was living down there between jobs. I didn't have much prior knowledge of Guatemala, and suspect many reading this will be in the same boat. So, I'm going to run through the trip day by day with some Guatemalan culture and history thrown in. At the end I'll include some books set in the region that are worth checking out.

Day One

Flew from Charlotte to Atlanta to Guatemala City. Guatemala City is by far the largest city in Guatemala (2.5 million metro population) and from little I saw looked like a modern, crowded Latin American city. Traffic in the city was bad and it took my taxi almost two hours to reach Antigua (25 miles away).

Immediately upon arriving at my companion's lodgings we hopped on a bus and traveled west three and a half hours to Lake Atitlan. Guatemalan roads I encountered ranged from poor to great but were mostly comparable with American highways. For a relatively small country, Guatemala is packed with volcanoes (some currently active). Lake Atitlan is a vacation destination for Guatemalans and foreigners alike and sits in a caldera amid three massive volcanoes. Reaching it involves ascending the mountainous rim and then carefully winding your way into the basin thousands of feet below. Resort towns dot the edges of the lake.

We reached San Marcos before sundown and ate at a little comedor (literally a tiny restaurant on the porch of someone's house) on the main drag. San Marcos is known for hippie culture and backpacking and there were plenty of that type wandering about and enjoying the many vegan restaurants and courtyard bars. The night ended with drinks in the yard of our Airbnb overlooking the lake.

Day Two

Referring to the towns around Lake Atitlan as "resort towns" requires some further explanation. You won't find high rise hotels and pools. There is still plenty of poverty (it wasn't uncommon to seem locals with a pile of cinder blocks and rebar adding another story onto their homes). But there was also no shortage of lakefront bars and restaurants with perfect views of the sparkling, blue water.

We took a water taxi across the lake to San Pedro for 50 Q (around $7). Situated on a steep hillside, we ate lunch overlooking the lake and wandered around. The towns around Lake Atitlan are full of stray dogs, and there were horseback tours and lots of chickens. San Pedro was characterized by tightly packed buildings strung along narrow streets. A more populous town than San Marcos and with less of a nature vibe, I was taken aback by the colorful signage everywhere and the chaos of power lines hanging over the streets.

By the time we made it back to San Marcos evening was imminent. We revisited a very aesthetic bar owned by a native Londoner and then had massive burritos at a comedor a few doors down. The main road in San Marcos ran directly from the center of town to the lake and was lined with restaurants. By the time we returned to our Airbnb the moon hovered over the lake in such a way that it really did feel like paradise.

Day Three

The return trip from the lake put us in Antigua around lunchtime. I had chosen a fortuitous time to make my trip to Guatemala. Antigua was in the throes of Holy Week with Easter Sunday being the day I was set to fly home. In a normal year Antigua plays host to around a million visitors over this long weekend. Covid and Guatemala's elevated risk status put a damper on the festivities, but it was still a sight to behold.

We stayed where my companion had been living, a big house on Calle de los Pasos with rooms surrounding a grassy courtyard with orange trees that belonged to an elderly woman whose late husband had been the ambassador to Japan. Three stratovolcanoes border Antigua. One had been so active of late that the airport in Guatemala City had been shuttered not long before my arrival, and all hikes to its peak were canceled. It erupted frequently during my visit, and I managed to catch a glimpse of lava shooting skyward on my last night.

Aside from popularity manufactured by Holy Week, Antigua is a Guatemalan destination and the country's most expensive city (which still isn't saying a ton...things were relatively cheap compared to a typical American city). From an architectural standpoint there was nothing modern about it. Cobbled streets that were difficult to walk on, ancient sidewalks, and colorful Spanish colonial buildings with some of the best courtyards I've ever seen graced Antigua at every turn.

It needs to be said that Antigua has an amazing restaurant scene. Truly a culinary hidden gem. Food from every ethnicity I could imagine to go along with many familiar fast food chains (Taco Bell was a guilty pleasure on one occasion) and street vendors selling homemade tortas and meats and deep-friend snacks. We hiked up to a scenic lookout called Cerro de La Cruz that afternoon and later had dinner and gelato at a small Italian restaurant called Sobremesa off the Parque Central. (Guatemalans love pizza and Italian food in general).

Day Four

Thursday was passed visiting churches and taking in the sights. Iglesia de la Merced is Antigua's flagship cathedral. Lines were long to visit just about any church due to our timing, but we managed to take in the picturesque yellow façade before making it inside. Outside, a life size diorama of Jesus's sentencing was complete with a replica of Judas being hung from a nearby tree.

The street vendors were out in full force around Merced. We ducked the central part of town and visited the massive market on the outskirts of Antigua. Like the congested tunnels of a rabbit warren within a massive, low-ceilinged building I couldn't make heads or tails of, there was everything for sale from shoes and clothing to blankets to raw fish and red meat that smelled as if it had been sitting out since early that morning. This was truly a place where anything that one sought was available at a reasonable price. We avoided the dining options here and instead found one of the many rooftop bars that wasn't overcrowded with visitors.

Day Five

Good Friday came with all the pageantry I probably should have expected but wasn't quite prepared for. Parque Central played host to a live band and a full recreation of Christ's sentencing complete with Roman soldiers and a costumed tribunal, Pontius Pilate, and weeping women booming their lines (in Spanish) from a government building's balcony that overlooked the square. We did our best to blend with the milling crowd before going in search of lunch. A plato typico (chicken, steak, or pork along with a starch, vegetables, and avocado) at a local comedor that doubled as a dry cleaner was one of the best meals I had all trip. Seemingly everywhere had their own version of homemade hot sauce.

Day Six

We saved perhaps the best for last, blocking off Saturday for an all-day ATV excursion that took us up winding roads into the mountains surrounding Antigua. One leg involved leaving our ATVs behind and riding in the bed of a truck up a steep precipice where Hobbitenango (Hobbit Town) lay waiting. A lush paradise of green grass and huts that could have been pulled from a New Zealand countryside, I had no idea something like this could exist in Latin America.

The final leg took us to a scenic restaurant atop another mountain where I managed to catch a glimpse of Fuego erupting in the distance. ATVs proved a great method for traveling around the Guatemalan countryside, and by the time we returned to Antigua it was well after nightfall. Plans for getting dinner at a renowned pizza restaurant called Por Que No? (a tiny nook of a place with seats for maybe ten including the bar) were put on the backburner and we walked back to Calle de los Pasos. I watched Grown Ups 2 (another guilty pleasure) before falling asleep.

Day Seven

There was time for a quick bite to eat and one last traipse around Antigua on Easter Sunday before my Uber arrived to take me back to Guatemala City. While this was the main event everything had been leading up to, the streets were oddly deserted. Perhaps everyone was in church, or had gone back to their respective hometowns to take in Mass there. The airport was easy to navigate and although my flight was delayed two hours I made it home with reasonable ease.

To sum up the slice of Guatemala I experienced, it was a beautiful, mountainous region with a distinctly Latin feel. Soaring highs of modernization and carefully restored architecture mixed with the crushing lows of extreme poverty at times. The people were extraordinarily nice and friendly, and there was no semblance of danger at any time during my visit.

Check out these books about Guatemala!

Guatemala is a country worth visiting. I would return in a heartbeat, and highly recommend others to give it and the entire Latin American region a try. Beautiful weather, good food, and friendly people...what more do you need?

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- Charles Harned

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