Waking early in Antigua, I could see through my hotel bedroom window the impressive volcanoes of Agua, Fuego and Acatenango in the distance. Antigua was originally the capital of Guatemala, but after a major earthquake in 1773 the decision was made to relocate the capital to a safer location which has now become Guatemala City. I was up early to prepare for a morning’s volcano hike, not to one of the three above but Pacaya, an active volcan whose last major eruption was back in May 2010. I could have taken the easy option of a horseback ride, but I chose to walk.
Last time I was here, I walked the trail late in the day and so was able to see the red lava flows, but we were early this time and had no such luck! Back in Antigua the following day, I visited the city’s impressive Cathedral which was originally built in 1541. By 1743 the cathedral was one of the largest in Central America, but in 1773 a devastating earthquake seriously damaged much of the building. I also explored La Merced Monastery, which has now been fully restored. The vibrant yellow paint and the intricate white carvings there are amazing.
There was time too for a short ride out to San Miguel Escobar to visit a coffee collective (De La Gente), which links the farmers with the buyers directly. This cuts out the middlemen and ensures that more of the profit goes to the people who really need it. It was sad to say goodbye to Antigua, but my next port of call was Lake Atitlan, renowned as one of the most beautiful in the world.
Here, in the shadow of towering volcanoes, I visited the lakeside villages of San Juan and Santiago.San Juan is famous for its textiles/art and also for the fact that women in the community have more of a say than in most other towns where the spirit of machismo is still very strong. Santiago’s claim to fame is its peoples’ fierce resistance against the Spanish conquistadores and then the Guatemalan army during the civil war a few decades ago. I returned to Antigua via the colourful Indian market at Chichicastenango - a good place for those presents to take home - before flying up to Flores in the Petén to explore the spectacular Mayan sites of Tikal and Uaxactun.
The temples of Tikal in their jungle setting are still as impressive as when I first set eyes on them some twenty years ago. Those at Uaxactun may be less striking, but as far fewer people visit the site, you can enjoy it in relative peace and tranquillity and also picture better how things might have been thousands of years ago! For culture and for color, Guatemala is a wonderful place to visit. Not least because the country’s indigenous peoples make up around 40% of the population (more than any other Central American country), and so traditions of language and of colourful dress still endure in this least ‘latin’ of all Central and South American countries.
View our vacations to Guatemala.