Has anybody been to Guatemala?

So I’m leaving in a couple of weeks for a two week sojourn to Guatemala. I will be flying into Flores and taking a bus to Tikal, were I will spend a few days exploring the Mayan ruins a la Indiana Jones. From there I am going to Guatemala City for a day. Everyone says to avoid Guate City, but I have heard that there are two or three good museums in the capital. Then I will head to Chichicastenango for what is supposed to be one of the best Mayan highland markets in the nation. After the market, I am going to explore Lago de Atitlan, a highland lake on par with Crater Lake here. It is said to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Finally, I am going to spend a week in Antigua, a colonial town surrounded by three volcanoes (of which one is active). While there I will attend one of the Spanish language schools in town in an effort to hone my Spanish.

My question to you, fellow Dopers, is one in the nature of advice. Based on my planned itinerary, what suggestions would you have for me? Specifically, I am interested in that “little-known-not-to-be-missed” sight, or conversely the “are-you-mad-don’t-go-there” attraction. What should (or shouldn’t) I bring on the trip. If it matters, I am a solo traveler (I had a buddy that was supposed to go with me, but he bailed). This doesn’t bother me except for Guatemala City, which is supposed to have the highest crime rate in Central America. But even here, I read conflicting reports. Some would have you think you take your life in your hands if you leave your hotel. Others say it’s no worse than any other big city and if you use common sense (which I do), you’ll be fine.

All in all though, I am really excited about my first trip to Central America and am looking forward to the experience. Thanks for your advice.


Went to a friend’s wedding in Antigua last year. Had a very nice time, although it was just the weekend. We stayed in a nice (5 star) hotel that used to be a monastery, and has it’s own on site museum. We also did a group mountain bike tour that was fairly easy but hard enough to get a decent work out. This took us into some of the surrounding smaller villages and even onto a working macadamia plantation. That was also very interesting. Maybe the most memorable part was the small church where we first stopped to catch a rest. I peaked inside and there was a mass going on. Normal enough, but what was interesting was that it was a group of inside, maybe 30, all on their knees with their arms outstretched, praying and moving across the floor in a sort of kneeling shuffle. I was raised Catholic and never saw anything like that before.

My trip some years back was all-highlands, so no comment on Flores/Tikal.

Guate City: Abominable traffic and air quality (Like Mexico, it’s located in a “bowl”, high in the mountains, so when the inversion rolls in, all the exhaust of low-oxygen combustion stays there.) High crime, yes, but common sense does help a lot – when I visited in '00 I used public transport and felt about as safe as in… I dunno, East Baltimore, maybe (yeah, dammning with faint praise…). But I made sure I only got on and off the bus at places where I was certain where I was – my hotel, the National Palace, the Market. Still it was disturbing at first to see fatigue-clad private security squads with shotguns and Uzis standing guard in front of many businesses in the evenings, and a few even in the day.

Guate gave me the impression that for a capital city, it did not capitalize on it very much. An air of lowered quality of life and of course the inevitable urban-third-world poverty you run into. A lot of what should have been attractive “showcase” old-city streets had a serious air of decay. I guess making your old inner city an attraction is a luxury. (That there was a state of war from the 70s to the mid-90s did not help; that democracy does not necessarily mean leaders are any less corrupt than under dictators does not help either).

The highlands are another story – Atitlán: Gorgeous highland lake, surrounded by FIVE volcanoes. Given the local nickname “Gringotenango” due to the high number of Aldous Huxley readers who have wandered in over the years.

Chichicastenango – the market is something else all right. wow. Do haggle, it’s expected and honorable. Also, in front of the square is St. Thomas’ Church, and a very cool example of spiritual syncretism. It was built by the Spanish on where there used to be a native shrine, and the Indians have pretty much continued to use it as that, basically just adding the Catholic saints to their pantheon, holding their rites on the steps (outsiders should not use the front steps). You’ll smell copal resin, the native incense. Authentic native “high places” are within a short distance.

Antigua – Impressive. The city was wrecked by a series of quakes in the 1770s and became “frozen in time” when the capital moved to “New” Guatemala – but you can still tell a grand city with what’s left. The cathedral, as it stands now, is just the front hall of the original cathedral, that’s in ruins. Within a short distance of Antigua is Ciudad Vieja, the original-original capital, from which they moved when a quake made a volcano’s crater lake empty itself down the slope (it also continued to function as a lesser city)

BTW the highlands are pervaded by the scent of burnt firewood. I worry about the lifespan of the forest if the country folk don’t get access to another energy source.

The Guatemalans – the best part of it. Such lovely folk, truly a people who deserve far better than what they got so far.