The dates are open for now, but I'd hope for 2 weeks or (better still!) 2 and a half, to allow for 2 Spanish school weeks with a bit of exploring on each end.
TO MY BELOVEDS (and any others) CONSIDERING THIS ADVENTURE:
In the months before we travel, I'll ask about your interests and make arrangements for activities and transportation accordingly; these will vary since we'll have different budgets and different ideas about what sounds like fun. I'll make all the arrangements so that part should be slick as a whistle for the rest of you. Whether I travel with you on the flights coming and going depends on your time frame since I'm likely to stay longer.
Most of the names of hotels and tour operators below are live links you can click on to check out the websites. You can click on a photo to enlarge it; click on the black to return to the blog.
If your flight arrives late or your flight home leaves early, you might consider a night near the airport in Guatemala City. Here are 2 places I can recommend, 1 budget and 1 midrange; both are just a few minutes from the airport and prices include airport shuttles and breakfast.
Dos Lunas, $15/night per person Villa Toscana, $35-50/night/double
If you're not staying near the airport in Guatemala, I'll arrange transportation from the airport to your hotel in Antigua, about 45 miles away. The driver will wait for you as you exit the airport with a sign bearing your name (or a recognizable group name), even if your flight is delayed.
My favorite Antigua hotel is Casa Cristina - secure, great location, cute (though smallish) rooms, free purified water and internet, and friendly, helpful owners, $25-40/double, depending on the room, rooms for 3 or 4 available. I'll meet you there if I don't ride along with the shuttle driver to the airport. Here's the Moon Handbook write-up about this hotel:
The excellent value Casa Cristina (Callejón Camposeco #3A, between 6a and 7a Avenida, tel. 7832-0623, $22–37 d) has beautifully decorated, colorful rooms with wrought-iron accents, Guatemalan bedspreads, tile floors, and private hot-water bathroom. Pricier “standard plus” rooms have cable TV, while deluxe rooms also have gorgeous volcano views and minifridge. Room rates include unlimited use of wireless Internet, purified drinking water, coffee, and tea.
This is the view of the lovely La Merced church from the rooftop terrace
and here's a closer view of La Merced.
Another hotel I've enjoyed is just around the corner, Posada La Merced, similar general description but with more rooms and courtyard areas at a slightly higher cost.
There's a nice coffee house/breakfast place on the corner between the hotels called Fernando's Kaffee.
There are lots of ruins to explore,
fascinating markets and stores,
and some excellent museums.
If we have enough time we could choose from a range of tours and adventures including coffee fincas,
and bike tours of Antigua and the surrounding villages and countryside,
and cooking classes.
We're likely to only choose to stay a few nights in Antigua so I would suggest 2 or 3 ruins sites, a hike to the viewpoint above town, and a chocolate making class at the ChocoMuseo. Chocolate has a huge significance in Maya history - there was a time when its trade value was higher than gold.
Antigua's altitude is about 5000 feet and weather is springlike year round. Daytime temperatures are usually in the 70's with night temps in the 60's. A summer visit is during the rainy season (they call it winter) so expect mornings to be gorgeous and for it to rain sometimes in the afternoons/evenings. That close to the equator the days are a similar length year round; in the summer the sun rises around 5:30am and sets around 6:20pm.
Next stop will be LAKE ATITLÁN, considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
Author, humanist, and philosopher Aldous Huxley said, "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissably picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing."
Weather on the lake is similar to Antigua's - gorgeous mornings, temperatures averaging in the 70's, occasional rain in the afternoons or evenings. Sometimes the breeze picks up in the afternoons and makes lake crossings a bit choppier.
In addition to the natural beauty, Lake Atitlán's shoreline is dotted with villages.
Each has it's own unique customs and traditional dress - a visit to this part of the world feels like a step back in time. We'll stay in San Pedro La Laguna.
The focus of our time in San Pedro will be Spanish language classes at the Cooperativa Spanish School. Here's a photo of some of the teachers:
They recently completed a brand new school with individual study areas in a garden setting and a beautiful new office structure.
Most students study 4 hours per day Monday through Friday, either in the morning or in the afternoon; the school provides activities in the evenings, including culturally significant movies, lectures, dinners, and salsa lessons.
Although homestays will likely be the way to go for language and cultural immersion, here are links to a few good value hotels in San Pedro:
Here are some photos from my home stays in San Pedro - they'll give you an idea of the people and surroundings:
Making tortillas with Alejandra in 2007,
hanging out with Julissa in 2009,
with Rosa and Felipe and their brood in 2010,
with nephew Stuart and our hosts last summer,
and playing "Pass the Pigs" with María and Felix in March.
Although we'll focus on learning Spanish and on the cultural aspects of Lake Atitlán, I've included some outdoor activities here because the natural environment is beautiful, too; these vary in expense and difficulty. Some can be done without a tour provider and I have friends who can help us set up others. Each Saturday the school offers a low cost activity option like guided hiking, kayaking, ziplining, or visits to other villages.
Panajachel Reserve offers a beautiful waterfall plus canopy bridges and monkeys. We'll stop in Panajachel coming and going and if the weather cooperates we'll have the opportunity to hike there.
San Pedro volcano and the hike to La Nariz de Indio (Indian Nose, top peak in the photo below) are both popular options - challenging hikes rewarded by gorgeous views. Here's a blog post about my hike last summer to the top of La Nariz de Indio.
There are options for ziplining,
horse back riding (note: the horses are scrawny),
and kayaking on the lake - easy, inexpensive, and popular.
San Pedro also has a nice pool.
I'll set up cultural activities for anyone who is interested. These might include weaving demonstrations,
visits to art galleries,
and visits to other villages for shopping and cultural experiences.
If you're interested in volunteering or donating supplies, we can look into the options in Antigua and San Pedro La Laguna before we travel.
Beca Project will be another focus for me in San Pedro. The staff of the Cooperativa Spanish School helped me establish this project in 2009 and our 4th crop of students started class in January 2013.
Visiting some of the students in their homes is a powerful, memorable experience and might be a highlight for you. Homes are humble and construction materials vary; cinder block, mud or adobe bricks, corrugated metal roofing, corn stalks, and/or plastic sheeting are used. Most have dirt floors and lack running water. The families are friendly and welcoming.
We'll need the Beca Project's main advisor in San Pedro, Mynor (below), to lead the way and serve as translator. The native language in the community is Tz'utujil, a Maya language. The Beca kids learn Spanish in school but the parents - who had limited access to education for financial reasons - rarely do. There are only a few streets big enough for cars in San Pedro; most of the families live on narrow alleys and footpaths like the one shown here.
Most years I throw a big party to celebrate with the students and their families. The 2012 event had more than 200 in attendance. The Cooperativa staff prepares and serves the meal.
Some years the kids put on wonderful cultural presentations which included traditional songs, dances, and cultural plays.
It is always hard for me to say goodbye to these wonderful people and I can't wait to head back next summer!
When we leave San Pedro, we may decide to spend the night in Panajachel, across the lake from San Pedro. The shopping is fantastic there, likely the best in Guatemala.
If we do that, we'll stay at one of my favorite budget hotels anywhere, Mario's Rooms.
Then we'll head back to Antigua or Guatemala City, maybe with a side trip to the world famous market in Chichicastenango
and/or the small but historically important Iximché Maya site.
If you have a few more days (or decide to study less and travel more), we could spend them exploring the villages around Antigua or we could consider spending a few nights in northern Guatemala to visit the world class Maya ruins at Tikal. I have an archaeologist/naturalist friend, Roxy Ortiz, who would be happy to show us around. Tikal is a quick flight (spendy) or an overnight bus trip each way.
Another option is to visit the Copán Maya site in western Honduras which is actually closer to Antigua and Guatemala City than Tikal is.
There are additional links to the upper right including travel forums (always search 1st before asking a question) and my photo collections on Flickr; check out the blog, travelogue, and review links on the main page of each collection if you're interested. If you click on a set (most collections have 3 to 6 sets, some a dozen or more) and you're looking at the rows of photos, there's a slideshow link above on the right that looks like a rectangle behind a rectangle with a small arrow in it (to the left of the speech bubble).
Keep me posted and let me know if you have questions. HAPPY TRAILS!