Guatemala in 90 Hours

Lake Atitlan (photo by  Jack Houston)

Lake Atitlan (photo by Jack Houston)

Turning a short visit into a long-lasting memory

Volcanoes. Lakes. Archeology and architecture. History and culture. Ziplines. Coffee plantations. UNESCO World Heritage sites. Plus, of course, shopping. Guatemala has all these attractions for tourism. But what about the tourist who has only a few days and less than $300? Yes, with planning and time management, that tourist can have a comprehensive Guatemala experience.

As an example, a well-established tour company recently offered a four-night package that begins on Friday night at a four-star hotel near the airport in Guatemala City. After included airport pick-up, travelers are on their own for the day. Depending on arrival time, they might opt for a visit to the historic center or artisans’ market or maybe just recoup at the hotel pool.

The package includes a sumptuous buffet breakfast before Saturday 9 a.m. departure for La Antigua, with commentary along the way for a group of about 10. First stop is a hotel-museum where the guide points out the old and the new, revealing restoration of the Dominican monastery established in the 16th century. By this time cameras are out clicking at burial places, colonial kitchen facilities, fountain and gardens.

A short walk leads to a workshop for a talk on the discovery of jade in Guatemala. After a shot of coffee and a few minutes to shop, the walk continues, toward Volcano Agua with a brief history along the way about the founding of the town in 1542. There’s a visit to the tomb of Santo Hermano Pedro, Central America’s first and to-date only saint, at the San Francisco Church, and the cameras keep clicking.

The van is waiting for a drive across town—without stops to ensure staying on schedule—past Central Park, the Cathedral and Palace of the Captains General, then on to the La Merced Church. Following must-take photos of the baroque façade, there’s a visit inside to see the 17th century Jesús Nazareno image viewed in procession by thousands every Good Friday, a look at the monastery fountain, the largest in Central America, and then it’s up to the terrace for a birds’ eye view of the town.

Almost gratefully, the group boards the van for Chichicastenango, glad for time to check photos and process images in their heads before a lunch break at Tecpán—where some hardcore shoppers escape and forfeit food for shopping.

After comfortable and quick check-in at the Chichicastenango inn, conveniently located near the Santo Tomás Church and market, each one does his own thing: wander through the gardens and the town, visit the church, people-watch with coffee…or get a head start on shopping. After choosing a simple or not-so-simple dinner, tired travelers cozy-up by stone fireplaces in rooms furnished with antiques and stocked with wood and candles, reviewing a full day, a full camera and fast-filling-up shopping bags before snuggling under welcome woolen blankets for the night.

Waiters in typical dress serve Sunday breakfast. The market is beginning to bustle, and flower-filled steps of the church lure visitors inside to incense-scented ceremony. But the van leaves at 11, so there’s no time to dawdle. Following a flurry of sights, smells and sounds, satisfied shoppers head for Panajachel, enjoying lush highland scenery along the way.

With wise planning the van bypasses the shopping and heads straight for a launch to take the 10 to the lakeside village of Santa Catarina, where they experience distinctive blue-and-green crafts and clothing. A terrace lunch refuels, with time to absorb the beauty of Lake Atitlán before returning to Guatemala City.

Early evening arrival back at the hotel offers time to reorganize, choose among many close-by dinner options and reflect on another full day, getting a grip on the fact that arrival here was only one night ago, and there’s only one day left with this package. That day is free to spend as each traveler chooses.

Some leave early for an optional one-day trip to Tikal and back. Some choose to climb active Volcano Pacaya and are picked up after that bountiful buffet breakfast. Yet others get a cab to Constitution Square to spend the day freestyle, visiting the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace and the old Post Office, stopping for lunch in a historic hotel. Other options include the zoo, the Ethnic or History and Archeology Museum or a guided tour of the city. Of course there’s the market, or one might choose to spend the day soaking up the sun poolside at the hotel. Whatever the choice, the day—and the tour—is over all too soon.

One last evening and night, one last buffet breakfast and then it’s off to the airport. It was for sure a whirlwind tour. There’s much more to enjoy in Guatemala, and certainly any of the sites in this sample tour deserve more time. But when time and budget are limited, yes, it is possible to get a pretty good idea about what Guatemala has to offer and whet the appetite for a return visit.

photos by Jack Houston

One comment

  • Robert Novak

    Joy, thank you for the great story, sounds like a very nice place to visit and see old friends.

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