Guatemala: Exploring the Rich Heritage of Antigua and Lake Atitlan
Welcome to the heart of Central America, where ancient traditions meet breathtaking landscapes. Antigua, Guatemala, and Lake Atitlan together create a magical journey that blends colonial charm with natural splendor. Over the next seven days, I invite you to immerse yourself in the vibrant culture, explore historical sites, and unwind by the serene shores of Lake Atitlan.
Fly to Guatemala’s La Aurora International Airport (Airport Code: GUA). There are several airlines that fly direct to GUA from LA (Delta and Avianca). Upon landing, skip Guatemala City because there is not much to see in this city, even my Guatemalan friends would admit this. Guatamala City is safe and very clean, but the beauty of the country is outside the city.
From the airport, you can arrange for a private service from your hotel, take a taxi or uber to head to Antigua, which is roughly 15 miles from the airport, or a beautiful 45 to 60 minute car ride. A private car costs about USD $60 to $70, and about USD$40 for uber. My friend Charlie Revolorio is a travel guide and can help you book a seemless ride – you can reach him on Whatsapp at +502-5559-8986. He is very kind, honest and amazing.
Side tip while you’re at the airport- buy a simm card for your phone. They can do it quick and cheap!
Day 1-2: Antigua – Colonial Marvels and Culinary Delights
Start your adventure in Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture.
I stayed at the Hotel Meson de Maria (http://hotelmesondemaria.com/esp/) which is a mansion or a noble ancestral home turned into a hotel. I loved this hotel and it was fairly inexpensive ($80/night for the regular room). If you have more budget, stay at the room that has a balcony or has a window that overlooks the outdoors. The location of this hotel couldn’t be more perfect.
There other more fabulous hotels in the area. The key in picking a hotel is to make sure you’re in the town and NOT OUTSIDE OF THE OLD TOWN. I cannot stress this enough.
Spend your first day wandering through cobbled streets lined with pastel-hued buildings. Don’t miss the iconic Santa Catalina Arch, a symbol of Antigua’s rich history. Visit the Central Plaza, Parque Central, surrounded by the stunning Antigua Cathedral and the Palace of the Captains General.
In the evenings, explore the local culinary scene. Antigua boasts a diverse array of restaurants, from traditional Guatemalan fare to international cuisine. Savor a cup of world-renowned Guatemalan coffee in one of the charming cafes, and treat your taste buds to local specialties like Pepián or Kak’ik.
Day 3-4: Antigua – Cultural Immersion Dive deeper into Antigua’s cultural treasures on day three. Visit the Santo Domingo Monastery, home to the Jade Maya exhibit and a stunning courtyard. Explore the Casa Popenoe and the La Merced Church, each showcasing unique architectural details.
If you want to know more about the rich history of the town, please call Charlie for a very fascinating walking tour of the town. He can take you to secret spots as well!
Take a coffee tour to discover the journey from bean to cup, learning about Guatemala’s coffee-making traditions. (This was incredible!)
In the evening, join a traditional dance performance or catch live music at one of the local venues. You can arrange this coffee tour from little travel shops in the town. The hotel can also make a recommendation.
When dining, ask for authentic restaurants from a local and read reviews. There are so many restaurants in town that try to be too westernized (avoid those).
This may sound silly- but check out the local Starbucks and McDonald’s. They are probably the most beautiful Starbucks you have ever been to. Don’t worry, they serve Guatemalan coffee.
Antigua’s Starbucks isn’t your typical chain outlet in West Hollywood. As you step inside, the air is infused with the warm aroma of freshly brewed Guatemalan coffee beans. The interior design pays homage to the city’s colonial heritage, featuring intricate wooden accents and vibrant textiles that mirror the traditional Mayan craftsmanship found in the local markets.
One of the highlights of the Starbucks in Antigua is its charming outdoor patio adorned with terracotta tiles. Surrounded by lush greenery and colorful bougainvillea, the patio offers a tranquil escape from the bustling streets. It’s an ideal spot to sip your favorite Starbucks beverage while soaking in the colonial architecture and absorbing the vibrant energy of Antigua.
Me at Starbucks waiting for my order. The leaves protect me from the sun. LOL.
Day 5-7: Lake Atitlan – Tranquil Bliss and Indigenous Culture
On day five, embark on a scenic journey to Lake Atitlan, one of the most picturesque lakes in the world.
From Antigua, you can take a public shuttle to Lake Atitlan for 2.5 hours (Panajachel is the main town there). The shuttle costs about $22 per person. Or you can hire a private driver like I did and pay USD$100. I heard that the shuttle service is pretty safe.
Surrounded by volcanoes and indigenous villages, the lake offers a serene escape. Stay in one of the lakeside towns like Panajachel, San Pedro, San Marcos, Santa Cruz or Santa Catarina. You can get to Santa Catarina by car or tuktuk (motorized vehicle for 3-4), and take a short ferry ride to San Pedro, Santa Cruz and San Marcos.
Charlie (left, my tour guide and friend) and Miguel, a new friend I met there from Colombia. Amazing guys!
I met Julie from New York when I offered to take her photos. Gaby is Charlie’s best friend. Great group!
There are many small hotels by the lake which are very charming and fairly inexpensive. I stayed at Villa Santa Catarina and it was absolutely peaceful and gorgeous. The only downside are – 1) There are no restaurants outside the hotel (but many street food vendors) 2) You have to take a tuktuk to get to a ferry. HOWEVER, the upside is, it is very tranquil and peaceful because it is off the beaten path. To book this hotel: https://www.villasdeguatemala.com/es/villa-santa-catarina (Rates go for $85 to $100 and it includes a delicious breakfast).
Airbnb has incredible Conde Nast-worthy lake houses that will make you the envy of your social circle. The best part? Many are under $150 for a 1 bedroom with a view of the 3 glorious volcanoes and the lake. (There are even gems for $50/night).
Days six and seven are dedicated to exploring the beauty of Lake Atitlan. Take a boat tour to visit the charming villages of Santiago Atitlan, San Marcos, and Santa Cruz. Engage with the indigenous Mayan communities, known for their vibrant textiles and handicrafts.
For adventure seekers, consider hiking one of the surrounding volcanoes for panoramic views of the lake and its surroundings. There are so many hiking trails for all levels. We managed to hike several hills and the view was absolutely incredible.
Wind down your week with yoga by the lake or a relaxing spa day. Have a cerveza or two from any of the beautiful cantinas. I hired a local masseuse for only $35. I also had a foot massage at a local spa for $28.
The lake is so peaceful, I can stay here for a week and not get bored. (With $40 massages, yoga and delicious fruit salad – I am a happy camper).
A week split between the historical wonders of Antigua and the tranquil beauty of Lake Atitlan provides a perfect balance of culture, history, and natural splendor. As you bid farewell to this enchanting region, take with you not just memories of picturesque landscapes but a deep appreciation for the rich tapestry of Guatemala’s cultural heritage.