Monday, September 5, 2011

First stop: ANTIGUA!

I'm planning to return to Guatemala in July, 2012. The weeks of July 8th and 15th I'll be leading a group of educators and others for 2 weeks of Spanish immersion study.

Here's what this 1st post is about:

Beginning the weekend of July 21st I'm planning to meet interested Beca sponsors for a week of culture and adventure in Guatemala. Try to purchase flights that arrive in Guatemala City (GUA airport) on Saturday the 21st, though early in the day the 22nd would work. The plan is to stay in Antigua for a few nights, then head to Lake Atitlán the morning of Tuesday the 24th for 5 nights before returning to Antigua on Sunday, July 29th; flights home any time the 30th would be best, or later if you want some time to travel on your own.

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 hotel reservations also if you're interested in staying at a common hotel with other group members.

Most of the names of hotels and tour operators below are 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 (this doesn't work with some of them, not sure why).

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, $38-66/night, depending on the room.
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; depending on when people are flying in and the number flying in at once, I might be waiting with the driver.

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. 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 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. This might be a better choice for some as it has more variety in terms of room configuration. Here's what the Moon Handbook has to say about Posada La Merced:

Posada La Merced
(7a Avenida Norte #43, tel. 7832-3197, $20–25 d) is another good choice offering nicely decorated, furnished rooms with private or shared hot-water bathroom. It features a courtyard where you can help yourself to purified drinking water, baggage storage, and a communal kitchen. Candles add a nice touch in the evening.
Fernando's Kaffee is a terrific coffee and breakfast place on the corner between those 2 hotels.
There are lots of great eating and lodging options at all price points in Antigua in case you want a more upscale experience or something cheaper; there are links for searching below and in the links list on the right.

Antigua is a United Nations World Heritage Site. The streets are lined with interesting architecture and lots of cultural color.
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,
volcano hikes,
and cooking classes.
Here is a new option - chocolate making 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 July 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 July the sun rises around 5:30am and sets around 6:20pm.

Here are some links to adventure providers in Antigua:
Filadelfia Coffee Finca and Adventure Tours (includes a zipline and paintball)

You can search for other hotels by looking in a guidebook (Moon Handbook and Rough Guide are both excellent) and by using Guatemala Story and Trip Advisor. You can also search for lodging, restaurant, and tour reviews and forum threads using the latter.

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) and you're looking at the group of thumbnail photos, there's a slideshow link above on the right. The sets specific to our 2011 travels are here.



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.

Hotel Mikaso is on the lake in San Pedro a short walk from my beloved Cooperativa Spanish School. It has a terrace, a restaurant, a hot tub, a pool table, a common kitchen, and a variety of room configurations (1-4 or 5 per room) with rates from $18-$49. I think all or at least most of us will want to stay there to have a common base. Here's the review from the Moon Handbook for Guatemala:
The nicest place in San Pedro is Mikaso Hotel (tel. 5973-3129,, $8 p/p in dorm, $25–45 d) with 11 rooms and a dormitory housed in an attractive Spanish neocolonial-style building fronting the lakeshore. Rooms have tile bathrooms, ceiling fans, tile floors, and tasteful decor. The rooftop restaurant here is also quite smart, serving Mediterranean Spanish food, including delicious bocadillos (sandwiches), and open 7 a.m.–10 p.m. Movies are shown three times a week on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday nights.
Here are 2 other good value options if anyone wants to stay in a different spot or spend less per night. Hotel El Amanecer Sak'cari is a few blocks away. It has simple, clean rooms and a garden overlooking the lake for $19-32/double. Here's the Moon Handbook summary:

Hotelito El Amanecer Sak'cari (7a Avenida 2-12 Zona 2, tel. 7721-8096, $26 d) feels a bit like a motel, though the rooms on the second floor have nice lake views with hammocks out front. All rooms have a private bathroom.

Tepepul Kaan is up off the lake in a quiet neighborhood a bit further away and charges about $10 each for clean, funky rooms.

Many of us will focus on the cultural aspects of Lake Atitlán but I've included outdoor options here so there's something for everyone and because the natural environment is beautiful, too; these vary in expense and degree of difficulty. Some can be done without a tour provider and I have friends who can help us set up others. Also, Atitlán Adventures has been recommended to me.

Panajachel Reserve offers a beautiful waterfall plus canopy bridges and monkeys. We'll stop in Panajachel coming and going and if the weather cooperates, some of us will take a quick hike.

San Pedro volcano and the hike to La Nariz de Indio (Indian's Nose, top peak in the photo below) are both popular options - challenging hikes rewarded by gorgeous views.

There are options for ziplining,
horseback riding,
and kayaking on the lake, easy and popular.
San Pedro also has a nice pool.
I'll set up cultural activities for anyone who is interested.
These might include salsa dance lessons,

weaving demonstrations,
cooking classes,
Maya spiritual ceremonies,

visits to art galleries,
and visits to other villages for shopping and cultural experiences.

Here is Maximón, patron saint of tobacco and alcohol who moves to a new home every year in the village of Santiago Atitlán.
The Beca Project will be my main focus in San Pedro. The staff of the Cooperativa Spanish School (below) has helped me establish this project and will help us celebrate with the students and their families.
Visiting some of the students in their homes is a powerful, memorable experience and will be a highlight for many of us. 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.
I would also like to visit the students at their school.
On Saturday, July 28th we'll throw a big party to celebrate with the students and their families. The 2011 event had more than 120 people and the 2012 one will be bigger still. The Cooperativa staff will prepare and serve the meal.
In 2011 some of the parents helped the kids put on a wonderful cultural presentation which included traditional songs and dances....
....and a touching and sometimes hilarious play about the courtship and marriage rituals in San Pedro.

It was hard for me to say goodbye to these wonderful people and I can't wait to head back next summer! You can see the photo sets and links specific to our 2011 trip here - more photos of the town and lake, visits to the families, and the Beca celebration.
We may decide to leave Saturday afternoon and spend the night in Panajachel, across the lake from San Pedro. The shopping is fantastic there - likely the best in Guatemala - and we'll stay at one of my favorite budget hotels anywhere, Mario's Rooms.

Sunday morning (July 29th) we'll head back to Antigua or Guatemala City with a side trip to the world famous market in Chichicastenango.

Our week together finished, some will head home and others will take off on their own adventures to other parts of Guatemala (Tikal, shown below) or the towns, caves, and beaches in the neighboring countries of Belize and Honduras. I'm happy to help with your planning.

I'll be flying out the evening of Sunday, July 29th. You could plan your flight for after 6pm Sunday or anytime Monday and I'll help you arrange lodging in Antigua (if your flight isn't too early) or Guatemala City near the airport.