THE BEST OF GUATEMALA – PART 1:
GUATEMALA CITY, LAKE ATITLÁN, LA ANTIGUA
A year ago, a group of us had a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity — seeing the best of Guatemala. None of us could have guessed that this would be our last trip of 2020, but shortly after returning home, we were on quarantine due to Covid-19.
A dream destination, no other part of the world offers so much in so small an area: the splendor of the colonial influence; breathtaking mountains and lake scenery; the thriving and colorful culture of the indigenous peoples with their markets and unique lifestyle; and the awe-inspiring ruins of the mysterious lost Maya civilization.
DAY 1: COCKTAILS AND DINNER IN GUATEMALA CITY
Our host Ana Cristina Alvarado is based in New York but keeps a residence in Guatemala. She invited some of her dear friends as her guests to explore and enjoy the country through her eyes. With over 200 close relatives living between Guatemala and El Salvador, she is deeply tied to the cities of her childhood and considers Guatemala her second home.
To show us the country’s rich history, Ana Cristina spent four months crafting a diverse and brilliant itinerary with exemplary logistical planning and attention to detail. What made it extra special was being introduced to her friends and family, which afforded us special access to the country and invitations to private homes.
Our first night in Guatemala, we enjoyed cocktails at Ana Cristina’s home, then we were off to a welcome dinner at the home of Stephanie Botrán Giordani and Victor Ramón Giordani. WOW! We were told to dress up, but none of us was prepared for such a spectacular event.
Our attractive young hosts greeted us warmly at the front door of their magnificent contemporary home, surrounded by gracious gardens and water features. We entered to find that the entire house was filled with a breathtaking profusion of pure yellow tulips imported from Holland. It was magical—a fantastic start to our trip!
Before dinner, we enjoyed a special rum tasting arranged by Rum Zacapa’s Master Blender, the legendary Lorena Vasquez. Then we dined on an exquisite feast of seared scallops, Caribbean lobster, filet of sole, and lollipop lamb chops followed by a cheese and dessert table and after-dinner drinks on the patio.
My male dinner partners made the meal particularly enjoyable because both were sophisticated and handsome and taught me about Guatemala’s history and customs.
DAY 2: LAKE ATITLÁN
Early in the morning on Day 2, we helicoptered to the Lake Atitlán region, allowing us a bird’s- eye view of Guatemala City, the countryside, and the beautiful lake. We spent two leisurely days touring the area and luxuriating in the colorful Casa Palopó Relais & Châteaux Hotel, decompressing after the hectic packing and traveling.
CRUISING ON LAKE ATITLÁN
Upon landing at Lake Atitlan, hotelier Maria Rivera greeted us and guided us onto her boat. We cruised on Lake Atitlán amid towering volcanos, sampled a buffet of local cuisine, and leisurely enjoyed each other’s company. What a perfect way to unwind after a day of traveling!
VIEWS OF LAKE ATITLÁN
The volcano-fringed Lake Atitlán, the deepest in Central America, is considered one of the most majestic in the world. Often compared to Northern California’s Lake Tahoe for its beauty and the color of the water, it’s a great spot for travel adventures such as kayaking, scuba diving, hiking, mountain biking, and wildlife spotting.
Located in the Sierra Madre mountains, the lake developed in a volcanic basin within the last 10,000 years. The volcano, which last erupted in 1853, remains active. The three surrounding volcanoes—San Pedro, Atitlán, and Tolimán—all soar above 9,000 feet, creating a dramatic vista.
OUR HOTEL – CASA PALOPÓ
Later, we checked into Casa Palopó, a Relais & Châteaux hotel, our quarters for the next few days. A former estate, the hotel has preserved the intimate atmosphere of a private residence with authentic local décor.
From the infinity pool or the terraces, or through the large bay windows of our hotel, we enjoyed a panoramic view of Lake Atitlán and the three volcanoes.
LUNCH AT HOTEL CASA PALOPÓ
During our two beautiful days at Lake Atitlán, we enjoyed al fresco lunches on the hotel terrace, with stunning lake views and the same ideal weather we would experience throughout the trip—there wasn’t one day of rain!
A GUATEMALAN BUFFET DINNER
Guatemalan Harris Whitbeck invited us to dinner at his home overlooking Lake Atitlán. Harris is a journalist covering Latin America for Al Jazeera and CGTN.
As Harris owns several restaurants, we enjoyed a beautifully presented buffet of the best and freshest local dishes. He suggested pairing the meal with a cold tequila—my first, but certainly not my last, as it was delicious.
DAY 3: SANTA CATARINA PALOPÓ AT LAKE ATITLÁN
The next morning, Harris Whitbeck graciously led us on an insider’s tour of today’s inhabited Maya villages. The local Maya people fish in the waters of Lake Atitlán in dugout canoes called cayucos, cultivate a variety of agricultural crops, and create handwoven textiles (they’re known for the vibrant huipiles [traditional garment] in hues of purple, blue, turquoise, red, and white).
We meandered through Santa Catarina Palopó, one of the many small, colorful villages on the shores of Lake Atitlán. Visiting there, observing indigenous villagers in traditional multicolored native dress go about their daily business, gave us a remarkable opportunity to observe the deep and lingering influence of the Maya culture.
PINTANDO EL CAMBIO PROJECT
Along the way, Harris introduced us to community projects he had founded to promote socioeconomic development and cultural empowerment through the installation of public art and murals in rural Guatemala. The hope is to encourage people to remain in these villages instead of decamping to the cities in search of work.
One village project Harris founded is Pintando el Cambio (“Painting the Change”), the goal of which is to “make the town happier” by painting the village houses in colorful hues and designs, with each family selecting their own. This not only provides jobs for the villagers with minimal startup costs but also unites them to beautify their community. By 2019, over 850 houses had been painted.
HELICOPTER FLIGHT TO LA ANTIGUA
In the afternoon, we boarded helicopters on the hotel grounds for a flight to La Antigua, a colonial gem of a city—a tourist favorite and a popular wedding destination (I would love to get married there!). Since the former colonial capital is a UNESCO World Heritage Center, its architectural and cultural legacy is protected.
HOTEL CASA SANTO DOMINGO IN LA ANTIGUA
Staying at the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo was very special thanks in part to its historical significance. It was built on the site of La Antigua’s most important convent, destroyed in the 1773 earthquake. It is centrally located amid cobblestone streets lined with elegant, brightly painted stucco houses and myriad colonial convents, monasteries, churches, ruins—and, of course, the cathedral.
Fortunately, the hotel developers were sensitive to the history of the area. They not only preserved the integrity of the property but also made it accessible to the public and incorporated a museum displaying colonial art, silver vaults, historic artifacts, and antiques.
VISIT TO A WEAVING STUDIO AND DINNER AT “VILLA BOKEH”
U.S. expat Mitch Denburg hosted us on our first night in Antiqua. When he first arrived in Guatemala many years ago, the quality and tradition of weaving so impressed him that he was inspired to launch the Mitchell Denburg Collection, which produces hand-crafted local textiles for an international clientele. (Read more about the collection in Architectural Digest.)
We began the evening in Mitch’s studio and then enjoyed a typical homestyle Guatemalan dinner at his home, “Villa Bokeh.” Afterward, we sipped drinks around a fire as he entertained us with stories of his vintage photograph collection and life in La Antigua.
DAY 4: LA ANTIGUA COLONIAL CITY
On Day 4, we met historian Elisabeth Bell, an American who has lived in La Antigua for many years and is involved in the city’s restoration efforts. She led us on a private walking tour of La Antigua, once the most important city in Central America.
The city has many splendid colonial-era buildings of ornate Spanish Baroque architecture. Though many have been beautifully restored, others remain damaged after the devastating earthquakes of 1773 and 1976. La Antigua has stunning monasteries inhabited by more than 30 monastic orders, as well as convents, numerous churches, a cathedral, and beautiful plazas and gardens.
Wandering the streets of La Antigua, among the world’s best-preserved colonial cities, a visitor might feel transported back to 1543, when the city was founded. We strolled the cobbled streets to the Central Plaza, El Carmen Church, Calle del Arco, La Merced Church, the Church and Convent of Capuchinas, as well as the parks, plazas, fountains, and majestic ruins whose restoration efforts are spearheaded by locals.
I was fascinated to learn that the city is built on a grid influenced by Italian cities and that every building facade is painted in white or in one of the 12 historic colors approved for this UNESCO World Heritage Center.
LUNCH IN THE PRIVATE HOME “LA CASA AMARILLA”
Ana Cristina arranged for us to visit the homes of friends living in La Antigua, a wonderful chance to get an authentic, non-tourist look behind the city walls and into tranquil courtyard homes sequestered from the noise and clatter of the street life.
We were privileged to be luncheon guests of a charming couple at their home, “La Casa Amarilla” (the yellow house). We entered through the property’s gates into a park-like setting with beautiful flower gardens, pools, and views of a former chapel in the background.
VISITS TO MORE PRIVATE HOMES
What an opportunity it was to be invited by Ana Cristina’s friends to visit their homes, and to see these renovated historic courtyard homes.
I came away impressed by how cosmopolitan and interesting La Antigua is, and what a wonderful feeling of community its residents share. I understand why so many from around the world choose to have a home in Antigua: its history, climate, and beauty add up to a fascinating lifestyle.
Coming up in Part 2: We enjoy our last days in historic La Antigua—including a visit to a coffee plantation—before heading to the jungle to visit the fabled Maya ruins and then to Lake Izabal and Rio Dulce.
Photos by Jeanne Lawrence, Ana Isabel Carrera, Mitchell Denburg Collection, and prominent photographer Clark Winter.