text/photos by Tanya Hughes
Guatemala is a magical place. I came here the first time on a brief holiday that started on the Caribbean coast of Mexico and took me through Belize and finally into Guatemala. I was impressed with Tikal and Petén, but I immediately fell in love with La Antigua Guatemala.
The unique energy that has captured so many hearts called to me once I had returned to Canada, and in less than two years I left my career and my Vancouver home to return here.
Now with more time to explore, I based myself in Antigua and then headed out. First stop, Monterrico. If you haven’t been to the Pacific coast of Guatemala, pack your bags. Armed with my favorite book, I planned a two-night stay that turned into seven days.
The volcanic black-sand beach stretches out for miles of beauty and tranquility. If you want real peace and quiet, this is the place—during the week, that is. Weekends light up with tourists and Guatemalans alike, sun seekers looking for their own brand of stress relief, and there is nothing quiet about it.
Combined with what may be the most beautiful sunsets I have seen anywhere, there really is something for everyone in Monterrico. Just don’t use your favorite shirt as a hammock pillow and then leave it there when your shuttle arrives!
Next stop, Lake Atitlán. I did not have time to visit the lake during my first trip to Guatemala, and based on recommendations from friends, I headed for San Marcos.
Arriving at night and without a hotel reservation, I wandered to several places only to find everything booked. Some children happily walked me to a few places in hopes of receiving a tip, and I finally found a beautiful lakefront room. It was well out of my backpacker budget range, but I had to shake my head when I realized that I had paid more for a parking space at the last U.S. hotel where I stayed.
Off to explore after a tranquil morning coffee on my patio, I discovered that this tiny town houses unique holistic and spiritual centers, offering crystal aura cleanings, massages, yoga and spiritual classes ranging from a day to three months. San Marcos also has what ended up as my favorite restaurant in Guatemala so far.
Not to forget the lake itself, where for under Q20 you can hit the water to visit neighboring towns for more exploration and totally different vibes. Horseback riding, kayaking and some of the best markets in Guatemala are easily within reach.
If you’re just into relaxing, ask in San Marcos where to get one of Brad’s famous tequila concoctions that are guaranteed to bring you to another level of consciousness in no time.
Quetzaltenango was a different experience altogether. This fast-paced city is also centered around a central park but has a very different feel than its sister city, Antigua. First off, bring a jacket. Bask in the hot sun by day and settle into one of the happening nightspots to keep warm at night. If you’re the adventurous and athletic type, I suggest trying the overnight full moon volcano hike. Just be sure to bundle up.
With a sigh of comfort and relief, I returned to my Antigua apartment. I loved my expedition but Antigua truly is my favorite place in Guatemala.
Every day is a new adventure, finding yet another ancient ruin, or a great restaurant set in beautiful gardens hidden behind a tiny wooden doorway. There is no shortage of unexpected treasures and beauty. People from all over the world and all walks of life are drawn here. If this is your first visit, I’m sure it won’t be your last.