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Experience Adventure And Culture In The Depths Of Guatemala

Our water taxi, with an arrowhead hull the color of a cool morning sky and rows of matching plastic seats, pulls away from the dock at a crawl. The driver stands in the back, looking over the covering that makes us duck as we find a place in the shade. He cuts the engines and looks almost like he's sniffing the wind.

“We left too late,” says Paula, a local who has joined us for the trip.

Here, on Lake Atitlán in the remote Guatemalan countryside, there's a regular wind that the Mayas call Xocomil. If it comes from the south, up from the ocean, legend says it will gently sweep the sin away from the towns that dot the shores.

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But if it comes from the north, cold and whipped off the mountain peaks, it carries the souls of the recently deceased. On those days, Xocomil shrieks through the valleys. The lake will become as churned as a crowded bath, waves crashing like hand claps, threatening to capsize the tippy flat-bottom boats favored by the locals. Like clockwork, Xocomil begins daily at 3 o'clock. It's 10 after 3 p.m.

Paula asks the driver if the winds are coming from the north today. He turns off to his left, then to his right. He seems to inspect the clouds, balls of cotton floating over volcanoes that rise like majestic pyramids.

“The lake can be tranquil, like it is now, and then all of a sudden the Xocomil arrives,” the driver says, ominously. “But,” and he pauses, seeming to sniff at the air again, “not today.”

With that, the driver floors the accelerator and our water taxi blasts from the shoreline, leaving the charming town of San Juan La Laguna and the mountains behind it, looking like a tropical version of Switzerland.

We also leave behind the only worrying moment on our weeklong trip to Guatemala. With a bloody civil war years behind it now, this Central American country still maintains a reputation in the States as a place of unrest and unsafe streets. It's largely not true.



Instead, Guatemala is a place less traveled, less explored, full of treasures. Many of the foreigners we met were Europeans, with Americans still unaware of this place's intense beauty, warm people and charming colonial towns.

It isn't always easy to find your way in this country, but for those who shun cruise ship itineraries for vacations full of adventure, here's where to find it.

Antigua

On Sunday afternoons in Antigua, Guatemala's most charming town, it seems every single person from the nearby countryside has come in for the day. For our group of four travelers, this is our first stop in the country and our inaugural look of the captivating traditional Mayan clothing: shirt, fabric belt, and pants or skirt, all sewn from differing and unmatched patterns and colors. It's common to see one woman wearing a veritable rainbow: her blouse stitched with gold animal prints and a rich blue that symbolizes water; her belt dotted with silver sparkles and green for the forest-covered mountains; and her skirt dramatically striped and red, for the blood of her ancestors.

It's the outfit not just worn by street vendors, who sell salted mango and the tart jocote fruit that tastes like someone combined an apple and an orange. You'll find it on mothers with babies slung over their backs in fabric hammocks, on shopkeepers, and even sometimes on the drivers of two-seat taxis that are nothing more than a rickshaw hastily welded to a motorcycle.

Antigua was once the colonial capital of Guatemala. But when the Spaniards moved it to Guatemala City in 1773, Antigua became a sleepy, almost forgotten village of streets with rough cobblestones, gaps between them sometimes as wide as a truck tire. That changed in the '50s, when backpackers and hostel-bound tourists discovered the place's charm, still full of aging and colorful colonial buildings in the shadow of active volcanoes that beckon hikers.

Walking under the city's famed street-wide arch and past the fountain in Plaza Mayor, it's rare to make eye contact with a local who doesn't offer a greeting and a wide smile. This is an unbelievably friendly country, and when asked about it, the locals will explain with pride that they want us to feel welcome, as if they've invited us in for the warm corn drinks they serve in the cool weather.

And in much of the country, with altitudes at least as high as the city of Denver, it's almost always chilly, which is why they call this place the Land of Eternal Spring. As we set out for dinner at the French restaurant Bistrot Cinq— with escargot to start, followed by the local trout almandine—the evening temperature has dropped into the 50s. The streets are quiet, now that the day-trippers have left for the countryside, and we can hear little more than the sound of dishes clanking from kitchen windows.

We stay that night in Villa Las Pilas, which like other traditional Guatemalan homes, is set up like a little compound, with walls along the street. Open-air common areas face into a central courtyard full of bougainvillea, a fountain and small patches of grass. A lap pool stretches out in front of the main suite, bigger than your average loft, and the living areas are full of comfy couches spread out in front of fireplaces.

With its humming hostels and boutique hotels catering to adventurous travelers, Antigua also has a hipster vibe, most evident in the new food-hall-style spot La Esquina, with separate stations serving up trendy tacos and barbecued meats. You'll see the clientele later at dusty expat dives and the juice bar with a VW bus crammed into a storefront and a hotel with an old prop plane in the courtyard.

The next morning we head to the hills just outside town, where a helicopter swoops in to pick us up for our next destination. Antigua exudes charm, but next we will find a place that feels like Europe, reinvented by the Mayas.

Lake Atitlán

As we fly north, the Guatemalan farm country splays out beneath us, like a patchwork quilt of vegetables and fruits and grains. Giant fissures where rivers flow beneath old growth trees cut through the countryside. On the horizon, hills and then volcanoes beyond, rise until clouds devour the peaks.

Finally, between the razor edges of dormant volcanoes, we spot the water. We follow the view inward, tracing the line of a valley until Lake Atitlán spreads out below us. It formed before the start of time from a colossal volcanic eruption, which left behind a caldera that filled with spring water, now so deep nobody has reached the bottom. The Spanish named the towns along its banks for the 12 apostles, and it's clear why they gave this place such spiritual names. Think Lake Como, with little towns looking as if they were transported from the Alps, pastel-painted cities clinging to mountainsides that fall into the water.

We land at the grass helipad above Casa Palopó, a hotel that every experienced traveler should add to their lifetime wish list, among those spots in the Maldives or Fiji that you've always wanted to visit. The Spanish-mission-style property spreads out among separate villas and private rooms, all with balconies that look out to the lake and a trio of volcanoes. The owner, Claudia Bosch, is part of a family that owns Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan fast-food fried chicken shop empire. She outfitted the place full of original artworks, colonial charm and a comfortable warmth that'll immediately make you feel at home. Her chef, Eduardo González, is the country's version of Emeril Lagasse or maybe Rachael Ray, with a cooking show dedicated to the country's traditional cuisine. For dinner, he serves us pasta tossed with a nutty, creamy sauce named pepian, and he keeps bringing out plates full of traditional desserts, like a candied squash called chilacayote. At night, the lights from the villages along the lake fill the horizon with what looks like a Milky Way, twinkling along the calm waters reflecting a nearly full moon.

The next morning, we take the water taxi across to San Juan, where the streets are well traveled by college kids and budget-wise Europeans who come for immersive Spanish schools. It's also a village known for co-ops; inside Ixoq Ajkeem, a shack made of what appears to be found wood, 40 women have banded together to sell fabrics woven with tools invented millennia ago and dyed with insects, bark and flowers.

Casa Palopó’s rooms look out on Lake Atitlán and a view that feels transported from a European fjord.

We find our way down alley-wide streets of cobblestones to Cafe El Artesano, a restaurant that would seem at home in Basque country or Tuscany, full of mountain views and charming table setups in between potted flowers and under pergolas. The specialty—actually the only menu items—is boards of charcuterie, near countless cured meats and cheeses served with warm bread and carafes of wine. If they had hammocks to nap, we might never have left.

Which is maybe why we were a tad late to catch the water taxi before the start of the afternoon winds. Luckily for us, though, the Xocomil came down relatively gently from the south that afternoon, whisking away the sins of the lake and giving us nothing more than an occasional whitecap on our way back to Casa PalopĂł.

Another helicopter ride awaited us the next morning, and then we were off to our third Guatemalan adventure, this one even more a journey into the past.

Petén

The town of Flores, in the hot Yucatán Peninsula state of Petén, juts up from the country's third-largest lake below us as we arrive by air, making a dramatic circle above it. When the Spanish arrived here in the 15th century, Flores was a spiritual Mayan city, with 13 temples built from ancient rock on the hilly island city, a place of prayer and perhaps human sacrifice.

The Spanish demolished all of it, using the rock for cobblestone streets and constructing colonial-style buildings, some still standing today. But as we enter Flores that afternoon, the scorching sun reveals a shabby town that has suffered from a mysteriously rising lake, which has devoured the once-charming promenade that used to encircle the city. Left behind are honky-tonks, T-shirt shops and a hilltop church that offers a cool break from the devouring heat.

Our true respite, though, comes that evening as we head to Las Lagunas, another boutique hotel that should also be added to everyone's someday list. The property occupies what's essentially a nature preserve, a natural swampland and wide lake full of egrets and cormorants and lazy crocs that drift by just past the reeds. Islands in the center of the water hold wild monkeys that can be fed by hand for those who drift up on the hotel's boat. You'll see all that nature from cabins built on stilts above the water, with interiors full of comforts like plush beds and jet-lined showers and a hot tub on the porch. It's all connected by wooden walkways to an open-air main building, with a resort-like fine dining restaurant and infinity pool covered by an old-grown oak. At night come the crickets, bullfrogs, and then, above it all, the howler monkeys, who let loose an imagination-churning growl louder than that of a lion. We will maybe never be deeper in a swamp and yet also so surrounded by comforts.

Arriving from the helipad above Casa PalopĂł allows a view of the Mission-style property and the lake waiting below.

The next morning we depart early, headed north to a place called Tikal. It was once the capital of the Mayas, the New York City of ancient Mesopotamia. Some have estimated its population was once larger than Fort Lauderdale, perhaps 120,000 people. It suffered from overpopulation, and a severe drought forced them to largely abandon it in the 9th century. The jungle took over, and by the time it was rediscovered by German explorers in 1853, it sat under a dense forest full of primates, jaguars and toucans.

We find a place still largely uncovered, the once grand plazas buried under feet of soil and banyan trees. Ancient pyramids hide under hills covered in brambles and undergrowth. We keep walking, though, and begin to see parts of the uncovered city. We walk first into a complex of ancient buildings, limestone bricks stacked up to make apartment buildings that now house bats and swarms of swallows that will blast out in unison as you begin to explore the depths.

The path takes us further into the ancient city, and there above the trees we can make out the first signs of the pyramids. They rise up here and there, steep and foreboding, in varying states of jungle. We climb up their stone steps as if on ladders, hand-over-hand, until we reach the tops, 20 stories high, which would put it among Boca Raton's tallest buildings. As we rest, we realize the way down will be dizzying.

On the top, there's a commanding view. Not just over the treetops, where occasionally we can see the gray towers of the temples ascending. But we're also high enough to ponder the breadth of it. We wonder how Spaniards failed to find this place, and what they would have done with it if they had. Somebody brings up why so few travelers from the States make this trip—we've met just one American, a Florida State student from Miami, in the entire park. We talk about Flores, getting swallowed by the lake, possibly because of overpopulation, maybe someday disappearing like Tikal once did, history repeating itself.

And from up here, we also reach a vantage point over this place, Guatemala, spread out as an untamed jungle that meets rolling hills in the distance, a country still largely waiting to be explored.

Surrounded by a nature preserve, the spa and luxurious cottages of Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel ought to be on everyone’s list of grand hotels to visit.

Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel, Petén

Head down a dirt road into a nature preserve to reach Las Lagunas, a series of cabins on stilts, sticking out into lush wetlands. From the balconies of the villas, flocks of birds and crocodiles can be spotted, and the eerie sound of howler monkeys will fill the silence at night. For sunset, relax on a boat cruise of the lake, highlighted with a trip to feed the monkeys that occupy two islands. Take dinner in the newly built main resort building, by poolside, or in a romantic boathouse filled with candles at the end of a dock. At night, rooms exude comfort, from plush beds to Jacuzzis on the deck; from $315, laslagunashotel.com

Casa Palopó, Lake Atitlán

The feel of this boutique hotel is decidedly Spanish mission, and the views from the balconies in the villas are downright stunning. Every room offers vistas of Lake Atitlán and the volcanoes beyond it. A short walk to the village of Santa Catarina Palopó allows for an up-close look at an art project to paint colorful Mayan symbols on homes and businesses. For dinner, the hotel's executive chef, Eduardo González, combines classic Guatemalan flavors into modern dishes that would seem at home in Miami or Paris. The lake offers much to explore, but be sure to leave downtime at this boutique with elegant comforts; from $315 and $1,600 for a five-bedroom villa in season, casapalopo.com

Villa Las Pilas, Antigua

In the center of Antigua, next to one of its most popular parks, this villa feels like living as a Guatemalan for the night, in a traditional home spread across multiple common areas, with three bedrooms and a formal dining room. A rooftop lounge allows for views of the often-puffing volcano, and the cool courtyard is a calm respite from the bustling village; from $300, jacadatravel.com

La Esquina, AntiguaBistrot Cinq, Antigua

Former Miami chef Robbin Haas has opened a pair of restaurants in the colonial city of Antigua, including this French bistro that shines with fresh ingredients and a deep wine list; bistrocinq.com

Cafe El Artesano, San Juan La Laguna

Chef and owner H. Dietrich Gantenbein cooked in restaurants around the globe until his daughter asked one day why he never cooked for her. So he moved his family to the remote city of San Juan La Laguna and opened a five-table spot only for those with reservations. Plates holding a couple dozen cheeses and meats cost about $20 each, but there's no leaving before trying the daily desserts; cafeelartesano.com