Guatemala & Mexico: Meanderings in Mayan country

This article appears on page 46 of the August 2010 issue.
The view of Lake Atitlán, surrounded by volcanoes, is breathtaking.

by Ann Cabot, Austin, TX

For our Christmas break of 2009, my family of three adults spent two glorious weeks shuttling between colonial towns and Mayan ruins in Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico.

Making arrangements

The trip planning began with a detailed wish list of destinations. After contacting several agents via the Internet, we settled on Duende Tours (Cozumel, Mexico; US phone, 512/961-7024) because they could arrange both the Guatemala and Mexico segments of our trip. Our contact was Chantal Willigers, who worked with us to arrange every desired activity. The final product, which cost $925 per person, was exactly what we had hoped for.

Beginning in Antigua

Arriving from Houston, we were met at the Guatemala City airport by the first of many minivan colectivos (which can be classified somewhere between the public “chicken” bus and a private vehicle) and driven 45 minutes to Antigua, nestled in the hills of southern Guatemala. We spent a grand first evening enjoying the Christmas lights and special music in the central plaza.

The ceremonial town of San Juan Chamula.

From Trip Advisor, we had recommendations for three restaurants. Café Condesa (Portal del Comercio 4), on the plaza, was so good that we never tried the others. Prices ran $2-$7.

The cool weather perfectly complemented the fresh basil-and-tomato soup, homemade jalapeño cornbread and chocolate caliente (hot chocolate) made from delicious local cocoa.

Several ATMs were nearby, so obtaining quetzales was easy. (We found no ATM at the airport.)

The balcony of our second-floor room at Hotel Palacio Chico (single $39, double $55) had a direct view of the surrounding volcanoes. Volcán Pacaya was spouting gray smoke — an exciting welcome to Guatemala.

The next day, Sunday, we were taken to an enormous market in the little town of Chichicastenango. In pouring rain, we shopped the stalls of colorful fabrics, then visited Iglesia de Santo Tomas.

To our great delight, the celebration of Saint Thomas, the church’s patron saint, was in full swing and we witnessed a beautiful processional with carved figures and fresh flowers accented by firecrackers. Our driver served as our guide, which was an unexpected bonus.

Lake Atitlán

We continued to Panajachel in the afternoon (shuttle, $45 per person) and checked in at Hotel Playa Linda (single or double, $64), located on the shore of Lake Atitlán. My sleep that night was fitful, as the rain persisted.

Luckily, the next day dawned dry and cloudy, so off we went in a boat hired just for us ($50 per person). With Chantal’s help, we had selected three villages to visit around the lake: Santiago, San Juan and San Marcos.

A textile market, a plaza full of avocados, and time to stroll and shop were highlights of our Santiago stop. The other two villages were smaller but also scenic.

Visiting the town centers involved steep walks uphill, as Lake Atitlán is surrounded by volcanic spires. The entire setting was spectacular!

Onward to Chiapas

The next day’s colectivo was a full-size bus instead of a minivan because our destination was a bit farther away. We were headed to Mexico!

Rainforests surround the Mayan ruins at Palenque.

We began a tradition of midday picnics, consisting of fresh tortillas, avocados, string cheese and dried figs. We did this partly for fun and partly because meals in transit were not readily available.

The mountain drive north and west to San Cristóbal de las Casas took a full day because of the many speed bumps in the roadway.

At 6,700 feet, San Cristóbal is cold at night, and that night was no exception. Christmas lights on the central plaza warmed the scene, however. We donned long johns, gloves and wool scarves and joined the holiday activities.

The brightly decorated pedestrian streets were filled with Mexican tourists and Mayan peddlers. Each street was lined with interesting shops, and nearby ATMs provided pesos.

Our hotel, Hotel Posada El Paraíso (single $50, double $65), was located two blocks from San Cristóbal’s central plaza and main cathedral and offered a warm retreat at the end of a fun evening.

The next day we enjoyed visiting the Museo del Ambar de Chiapas, an amber museum; the Museo de la Medicina Maya, a Mayan medicine museum, and the Instituto de las Artesanías, for Chiapas crafts.

We also ate three delicious vegetarian meals and received an invitation for Christmas Eve dinner from La Casa del Pan (Real de Guadalupe 55). By this time, we all loved San Cristóbal!

Mayan villages

On the day before Christmas, we visited two villages in the surrounding hills outside of San Cristóbal to learn more about the culture of the Maya descendents in Mexico. We particularly enjoyed San Juan Chamula, a ceremonial town for practitioners of the local religion, which has roots in Mayan customs and Spanish Catholicism. We witnessed religious leaders arriving at the market accompanied by followers and musicians.

The center of San Cristóbal is its plaza and cathedral.

The village’s church was decorated with candles, fresh flowers, colored lights and balloons. Fresh pine needles covered the floor.

Families sat on benches or in groups on the floor, lighting candles and talking or chanting. It was a magical setting and was especially poignant during the holiday season.

From San Cristóbal we colectivo-ed to Palenque to see the first of several Mayan ruins. We spent an entire day at these sites, not the normal two hours that folks who take day trips from San Cristóbal do. There are enough excavated buildings for a day’s exploration as well as great picnic settings.

Our guide ($45 per person for four hours), who accompanied us on the steep climbs, was excellent.

Another overnight in Palenque, then we were off to Mexico’s border with Guatemala, where we stayed in the very simple cabins (single $25, double $29) at Lacandón Maya jungle village. The village consisted of community houses, a small grocery store, cabins (equipped with baths and sporadic hot water), a small waterfall and banana trees.

There were guided hikes into the rainforest surrounding the village, but we did not stay long enough to participate, though our stay there was very refreshing.

Return to Guatemala

In the morning we headed back to Guatemala via a glorious boat ride downriver. Our destination was a muddy riverbank where a bus was waiting. Eventually, about 25 of us boarded the (perhaps ex-chicken) bus and were driven to the Immigration post. The officials were very friendly, welcoming the three of us back to Guatemala.

Two hours later we arrived in Flores, an island town near the ruins of Tikal.

A late-evening walk didn’t turn up any interesting sights or an ATM, so we retired early, anticipating our 5 a.m. pickup. Right on time yet another minibus colectivo arrived at our hotel doorstep.

Our guide for three hours ($25 per person) found some rare rhinoceros beetles on a tree and also showed us the route that maximized the number of Tikal’s sites of interest with the least amount of steps.

Coming to an end in Antigua

The shops in San Cristóbal de las Casas are unique, including this one for Day of the Dead crafts.

We flew back to Guatemala City, but, due to a last-minute flight schedule change by TACA, our shuttle to Antigua was not waiting at the airport. Not a problem! We hired the first colectivo driver who approached us ($2 per person) and, together with four young European travelers, returned to Antigua.

This was the first time we had arranged to visit the same town twice on a trip, and we all agreed that it was a brilliant idea. It was relaxing to return to a familiar hotel, know our restaurant choices and have time to see the lesser-known sights.

For shopping, we followed Lonely Planet’s suggestion and visited the shop Nim Po’t, which was all we needed to find fabulous textiles. The traditional dress of each village in the area was highlighted along the walls.

The staff was knowledgeable about the fabrics, and instructional signs educated us about the region and the natural materials used.

Our last meal in Guatemala was at our favorite restaurant on the plaza, Café Condesa. We took servings of tres leches cake back to the hotel and leisurely packed for our return home.

In the morning, our last colectivo arrived right on time, and Volcán Pacaya was still puffing gray clouds.