Guatemala is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable places on earth. Slightly smaller than the state of Tennessee, its mountainous topography ranges from sea level to soaring volcanic peaks over 13,000 feet high; its climate zones include steamy tropical jungles, rain-shadow desert valleys, cool cloud forests, and chilly alpine plateaus; and it is home to an amazing diversity of Maya, Mestizo, European and Caribbean traditions. The Highland Maya, comprising roughly half Guatemala's population and speaking some 20 or so different languages, have maintained a rich and colorful culture that gives Guatemala its basic character. So much to see, so much to leave you marvelling, so much to make you want to return to Guatemala again and again. We have been exploring Guatemala since 1969-- and each year we learn new secrets.
Every year since 1987 we have led a very special trip to Guatemala, and the first year of the new millennium is no exception! Rutahsa's Guatemala-2001 Adventure will take place June 1 - 15. World-famous highlights include colonial Antigua Guatemala, the colorful indigenous market of Chichicastenango, glorious Lake Atitlán, and the mysteries of jungle-enshrouded Tikal ruins. But Rutahsa Adventures will get you off the beaten track and on the back roads to see the real Guatemala in the remote Maya town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, at the misty crater lake Chicabal where ancient rites are still practiced, and other sights seldom witnessed by outsiders.
Here's our proposed itinerary:
Fri., June 1: Fly from the U.S. to Guatemala City; you will be picked up at the airport and driven 45 km to Antigua Guatemala to settle in at the Posada de don Rodrigo, a colonial home converted into a delightful hotel, with flowery patios, a good restaurant, and a daily marimba concert.
Antigua, now a UN World Heritage site, was, in its heyday, the third largest city in the new world, with a population of 60,000, topped only by Lima and Mexico City. Antigua served over two centuries as capital of Spain's colonial territory known as the Kingdom of Goathemala, and as such was replete with splendid public buildings, such as the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. Then, in 1773, a series of powerful temblors turned many of the great colonial churches, convents, colleges, government palaces and private mansions into rubble.
Antigua today is a colonial-style city, full of historic buildings, some restored, others still standing as massive romantic ruins. For a good introduction to Antigua's history and lots of photos of its monumental architecture, visit our website on Antigua, using the link at the end of this trip description.
You will find Antigua's historic sites fascinating to explore, the variety of shops and places to eat endless, the climate at around 5000 feet above sea level highly agreeable, and the overall ambience delightful.
Sat., June 2: All day exploring Antigua. Any excursion participants unable to arrive in Guatemala on Friday June 1 may join the group today.
Sun., June 3: Today we board our private bus and motor down past the soaring volcanic cones of Agua, Acatenango and Fuego on a brand new road to the Pacific coastal plain. We are on our way to Lake Atitlán via the coastal route, seldom taken by foreigners. This will give us a glimpse of the hot country where agriculture is king-- vast fields of sugar cane, citronella tree plantations, cattle, etc.-- without really subjecting us to the oppressive heat of this region. Soon we rise back up the flank of the Pacific volcanic chain, into cooler climes, passing through huge coffee fincas to crest out on the rim of the basin that holds stunning Lake Atitlán.
A bit of bumpy road brings us to Santiago Atitlán, a Tz'utujil Maya town on the south side of the lake. This town is a favorite goal of day-trippers who cross the lake by boat from Panajachel, arrive mid-day, spend a couple of hours buying from the justly famous artisans, and admiring the unique indigenous costume of Santiago. By arriving via the back door and after these tourists have left we will find a Tz'utujil town little changed from its traditional ways. We will stay at the Posada Santiago, a charming hotel of unusual stone architecture, bungalows and lovely gardens.
Mon., June 4: Women in Santiago still weave on the backstrap loom, and some still wear the famous "halo" headwrap made famous by the 25 centavo coin. We have the morning to prowl about Santiago's narrow streets, visit the ancient Catholic church, and perhaps to visit the shrine of the cult of Maximón, to learn something of Santiago's tragic experiences during La Violencia in the 1980s, and, of course, to make some purchases from the artisans' shops lining the main street. Then, after a bit of lunch, we'll take the 2 PM boat across the gorgeous and dramatic lake to the main lake town of Panajachel. We don't have to worry with our luggage, it will be in the bus sent around the lake to await us at the docks.
Panajachel, sometimes known as "Gringotenango", is an example of what uncontrolled tourism can do to a town, and a far cry from the native village it once was. Yet it is an interesting town, with lots of excellent textiles and crafts of all kinds, from all over Guatemala, available at bargain prices. And you should definitely bargain!
Our hotel in "Pana" will again be the Posada de don Rodrigo, a new sister hotel to the one in Antigua. A special attraction to the Posada is the brand new and exceptionally well-done Museum of the Lake, telling the volcanic history of the lake's birth and featuring pre-Columbian artefacts recently brought up from the lake bottom by divers.
Tues., June 5: This morning we will drive a winding road up out of the Atitlán caldera basin, stopping for photogenic vistas along the way, onto the central volcanic plateau, and head towards Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second most important city. En route we will visit the K'iche' Maya town of Nahualá, where many of the men still wear the wool kilt traditional to this village. Just past Nahualá we pass a windy, treeless spot called "Alaska", at an elevation over 10,000 ft!
Quetzaltenango-- traditionally known as Xelajú (pronounced "Shay-lah-hoo!"), or just "Xela" for short-- is situated at an elevation of over 7700 ft, in the shadow of the cone of Volcán Santa María. Here we will check into the Pensión Bonifaz, an elegant old hotel with a European flavor. The Bonifaz has an excellent restaurant, full amenities, including an indoor swimming pool. For a preview of the Bonifaz, visit their webpage, then use your "back" button to return to this trip description: Pensión Bonifaz.
After lunch there are two options: 1) Roam about Xela discovering its distinctive neo-classical architecture, its art and history museums and market, and an internet cafe where ex-pats like to gather, all conveniently close at hand to the Bonifaz. Or, 2) Go on an hour-long drive to Fuentes Georginas, a hot springs spa where we can swim and relax in sulphurous thermal waters while surrounded by Eden-like cloud forest vegetation. En route to the spa we will pass through some of the most amazing Indian agricultural lands where checkerboards of meticulously hand-tilled plots climb breath-taking slopes to form stunningly picturesque mosaics. Oh my, save us from hard choices!
Weds. June 6: Another hard choice: If you visited the hot springs yesterday, you may want to get to know Xela today. But that will be at the expense of missing another marvelous experience: we will drive over to the nearby town of San Martín Sacatepéquez and hike up to the sacred crater lake Laguna Chicabal. In San Martín we will see native costume, including, if we are lucky, the very distinctive traditional men's outfit.
The lake is reached by a hike of less than an hour along a steep 4WD road up the forested flanks of an extinct volcano, then down into the old crater to the lake, which is almost perpetually mist-enshrouded. An easy shoreside trail circumnavigates the lake, taking us through lush tropical vegetation, ever-changing, mystical and ethereal scenes, and passing by a series of shrines where traditional religious practices known as costumbre are still performed on special days.
Back to Xela for a second night at the Pensión Bonifaz and supper at one of the good restaurants of this pleasant city.
Thurs., June 7: Today we drive along the Pan American highway to Huehuetenango ("Huehue" for short, pronounced "Way-way"), capital of the department of the same name. Just outside of Huehue lie the partially restored ruins of Zaculeu, a Mexican-Mayan site that was occupied by the Mam Maya at the time of the arrival of the Conquistadores. The site was beseiged and conquered by the Spaniards in 1525. We can see pyramids and temple remains that reflect Mexican influence on the original Maya culture. There is a restored ballcourt where the sacred, but deadly, Mesoamerican ball game was played. And a special feature not seen by anyone except those who know just where to look: a pre-Columbian handprint preserved in original plaster remaining on one of the ruined buildings.
Our home for the night is the old-fashioned Hotel Zaculeu, in the center of Huehue, in easy walking distance of places to eat and the wonderful, big old city market.
Fri., June 8: More decisions! The hale and hearty today will ride in the back of a pick-up to ascend a steep mountain road to the town of San Juan Atitán to start a 4 hour hike across the mountains to a more remote town, Todos Santos Cuchumatán. The traje (traditional clothing) of San Juan is very worth seeing, and the hike is through beautiful country, but the elevations are around 8000 to 10,000 feet, so you need to be in good shape for this one.
Those who elect to skip the hike will travel to Todos Santos in the bus on a spectacular road that crests out over 11,000 ft above sea level in the Altos Cuchumatanes mountains, before descending some 3000 feet into Todos Santos.
In Todos Santos we will be in a truly Indian town, even more so than in Santiago Atitlán. Here almost all the men, as well as the women, wear traje. We will get a good glimpse into the daily lives of the Mam Maya, eat their food, and enjoy their colorful costumes. Note: this is not a town with first class tourist facilities! Our hotel in Todos Santos will be very basic: shared bathrooms, but with the luxury of hot water, and, more to the point, safe food.
Sat., June 9: We have the morning in Todos Santos. Those who didn't do the hike over the mountain may want to climb the hill just outside town to see the pre-Columbian mound site and the old crosses made famous by early anthropologist Maud Oakes in her book "The Two Crosses of Todos Santos". But before noon we need to start down the road to Chichicastenango.
For about three hours we'll be traveling on gravel back roads, with lots of scenery, and passing through Aguacatán where the women wear what may be the most beautiful headwrap in all Guatemala, eventually picking up pavement again at Sacapulas. If time permits we'll take a rest break in this interesting if dusty little town; there's a cemetery here that will knock your eyes out!
From Sacapulas we still have an hour and a half drive to Chichi, where we will quit our road dust in the luxury of the Mayan Inn, a famous hostelry for over 60 years. With no two rooms alike, all furnished with valuable antiques, staying in the Mayan is like staying in a museum! To learn more about the Mayan Inn, visit their website: Mayan Inn, but don't fail to use your "back" button to return to this itinerary.
For supper you can sample the excellent food at the Mayan, or go out on the town to find a restaurant and see the preparations for tomorrow's market going on all about the town center. We've come to Chichi for the Sunday market, but you can start your souvenir shopping tonight if you like.
Sun., June 10: You may be startled awake by explosions around 6 AM, thinking a revolution is in progress, but it is only a typical market day in Chichi, and the people do love their bombas along with all the other noises, smells and color. This is without question the most colorful native market in all the Americas, with native vendors coming long distances from all over Guatemala to sell their varied wares. See Rutahsa's website on Chichi's market by clicking here: Market day at Chichi.
After taking pictures and haggling for blankets, wall hangings, native blouses, men's shirts, ceramics, carved wooden masks, and all kinds of other crafts, antiques, and souvenirs, you'll be ready for lunch and then just to sit a while and watch the scenery roll by, so around 3 p.m. we'll head up and start out for Antigua as our Guatemala adventure begins to come full circle.
Once again back in Antigua, this time we'll settle in at the Posada Belén, a 17th-century convent, church and hospital that has undergone various reincarnations throughout its long history. Today part of the convent houses a hotel run by nuns, while another section continues to function as a convent. The sprawling complex has spacious grounds with gardens, and, unlike the Posada de Don Rodrigo, is located near the edge of town, quieter, but still within easy walking distance of the central plaza. Within the peaceful convent walls we can properly reflect about the many wonders seen --so far-- on this excursion, where we have been, who we have met, and what we have learned.
Mon., June 11: A hard choice today: There is so much to see and do in Antigua, that it's hard to leave it; some will choose to spend another full day here, and who can blame them? But for the hearty, today is the day we climb active Volcán Pacaya. This is a completely non-technical climb, but it is a real huffer-puffer. We hike for about 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours to reach the peak at about 8550 ft (it changes from year to year because of the constant activity which alternately builds it up and blows it away!). A stupendous view along the Pacific volcanic chain is just one of the rewards for those who make the climb.
Over the years, we have seen Pacaya in quiet steam eruptions, explosively blasting bombs and ash skyward, and with glowing red streams of lava oozing down its flanks. We may get to peer into the fuming crater, or, if the volcano is in a strombolian phase, we will time our trip to see the fireworks at night. To see Pacaya in many different states of activity, visit our Pacaya webpage. Whatever it is doing, Pacaya is always exciting, and getting there is certainly breathtaking (both figuratively and literally!). This is an all day trip, and a hot shower at the end of the day to remove the ash that's worked its way into your clothing and your pores will sure feel fine. Second night at the Posada Belén; the contrast between Pacaya's barren peak full of primal energy and the tranquility of the convent gardens could hardly be more striking!
Tues., June 12: An easy day in Antigua. Explore more ruins. Visit any of several museums. Visit the jade shops, or an indigenous women's co-op selling fine weavings, or shop in the city marketplace or the new artesan's market. Try to figure out where and what kind of food to eat: plato típico, Italian, Chinese, vegetarian, or other... Or just relax in the central park and get your shoes shined. In the afternoon we will visit the Casa Popenoe, a restored colonial mansion outfitted with period pieces. Certainly lots to do here. Third night at the Posada Belén.
Weds., June 13: Up real early today to go into Guatemala City to the airport to take an in-country flight across the Chuacús Mtns. north across the Petén lowlands to the town of Flores. From here the Jungle Lodge will provide bus transportation and an introductory lecture on the countryside and Tikal Ruins as you motor an hour to the park. Once in Tikal National Park, you'll have a guided tour to the great Plaza Mayor, flanked by the soaring temple-pyramids of Temple I and Temple II, then return to the Jungle Lodge for lunch. After lunch you can return to the sprawling archeological complex on your own to prowl amid crumbling, jungle-encrusted temples, palaces, causeways, pyramids, and numerous ruined edifices of unknown purposes. Our trip to Tikal has been timed for mid-week, the better to enjoy the jungle ambience and splendor of the ruins without the weekend crowds.
In addition to the amazing ruins of a once populous Classic Maya city, Tikal is also a wonderful site for its lowland tropical jungle, its brilliant birds and other wildlife. You'll see parrots, toucans, toucanettes, hummingbirds, oropendula, the beautiful ocellated turkey, and many other avian inhabitants of the jungle. And you'll almost certainly see foxes, guatuza (agouti), pisotes (coatimundi), and spider monkeys. You might see howler monkeys, deer, peccary, small alligators in the water hole near the hotel, or other jungle beasts. Tikal is really a wonderful site, but it is hot! Fortunately, the Jungle Lodge has a pool!
Thurs., June 14: Get up early today and enter the ruins before breakfast to take advantage of the cool morning air; maybe you can watch sunrise from Temple IV, an awesome experience. You've got the morning to explore the ruins further and to visit the archeological museum. Then, after lunch, board the bus and return to Flores to fly back to Guatemala City. Here you'll shuttle back to Antigua to spend a final quiet evening at the Posada Belén. You may need some extra time to pack away your treasured purchases, or perhaps to run out to a store for that one last item you want!
Fri., June 15: Shuttle in to the airport and fly away home. But don't expect this to be your last visit to Guatemala-- This was your introduction, and you will want to come back!
THREE-DAY EXTENSION TO COPÁN RUINS, HONDURAS!
For travelers with a little extra time and a yen to see another spectacular archeological site, very different from Tikal, Rutahsa Adventures has organized the following trip extension to Copán, Honduras. Also note you get to cut another notch on your passport, adding seals from the Republic of Honduras!
Fri., June 15: The extension begins at your hotel in Antigua, where you will be picked up by a van or minibus and driven to Honduras. The route takes you to the northeast, along the Motagua Valley, passing through (surprise, surprise) an area of intermontane desert, then, continuing eastward towards the Caribbean, you get into some real steamy tropical lowland environment to reach the Classic Maya site of Quiriguá. Here you will have an hour-long, self-guided visit. This site, though small, is important as it contains the tallest of all Maya stelae, and also features strangely carved zoomorphic boulders not found at other Maya sites. Its king, Cauac-Sky, defeated the king 18-Rabbit of Copán, and initiated a decline in the fortunes of that more powerful Mayan state.
From Quiriguá you continue on to Copán, passing through pine-forested mountains, crossing a very sleepy border checkpoint (looks like something out of a movie about banana republics), into Honduras. The customs check here is fairly simple, and costs about $4 per person; you'll find the process of working yourself along from one little office to another entertaining enough if you go at it with the right attitude. The rural town of Copán Ruinas lies just 12 km away inside Guatemala's sister republic.
In spite of the flux of international travelers, being home to a number of ex-pats, and several really fine hotels, Copán has retained a wonderful small town friendly ambience. It is a great little town to walk about in the cool of the evening, and has a small, but interesting selection of restaurants. Your hotel is Copán's finest, the Marina Copán, complete with swimming pool, restaurant, bar, and a wonderful pet margay named Siria. She is a beautiful cat, and playful, but be a little cautious as her play can be a tad vigorous at times...she is a jungle cat!
Sat., June 16: Your bilingual (Spanish/English) Copán guide picks you up at the Hotel Marina at 8 AM for a 5-hour guided tour of Copán Ruins, just one kilometer out of town. Hint: apply sunblock, carry a water bottle, and wear a hat. Carry insect repellent just in case.
Copán is very different from Tikal. If huge, sprawling Tikal with its skyscraper pyramid/temples can be likened to New York City, then Copán is the Paris of the Maya realm. Here art dominates. The ruins are built of a volcanic tuff that was relatively soft and easy to carve when first quarried, then case-hardened under weathering conditions. Thus the temples were profusely decorated with carved sculpture, which is much better preserved here than in sites where limestone was the building material. In addition to temples and courts, Copán features a well-preserved and restored ballcourt, where ritual ballgames were played to the death. And it is famous for its intricate stelae carved in the round, many of which depict the once-powerful king 18-Rabbit.
A few years ago, archeologists tunneling beneath the ruins discovered a complete Mayan temple buried intact. For an additional entry fee of $12, you can enter a tunnel and see portions of this original temple called "Rosalila".
At the end of your guided tour you can have a light lunch in the cafe at the opposite end of the parking lot from the park headquarters. After lunch you should visit the new Museum of Sculpture (ticket $5, must be purchased at the main park headquarters). This museum is well worthwhile, not only for its sculpture, but for its dramatic cave-like entry that brings you face-to-face with a full scale replica of Rosalila, in all its bright red-painted glory.
From the ruins it is an easy 1-kilometer walk back to town, with some stelae and altars to be seen en route.
In Copán town, on the main square, is the Old Copán Museum, which is quite different from the Museum of Sculpture in what it offers: burials, skulls with jade inlays in their teeth, ceramics, obsidian artifacts, and fabulous flint eccentrics discovered in Rosalila. Don't miss this small but extremely worthwhile museum. Entry is $2.
Second night at the Hotel Marina Copán. Enjoy the pool after a long day and a lot of sun.
Sun., June 17: Morning free time. Visit the Old Copán Museum today if you didn't yesterday (but better check Saturday to make sure what the Sunday hours are!). Hike up to the old fort on the hill above the Marina. Shop for souvenirs in the various shops in town (Honduras offers good wood cavings; and some of the shops carry some gorgeous ceramics from El Salvador). Play with Siria. You could even go for a horseback ride, but you'll have to arrange this Saturday; and don't fail to get back to the hotel in time for the return trip.
Midday: You are picked up at the Marina for the return trip to Antigua.
Upon arrival in Antigua you will be taken to the Quinta de las Flores (just a half block from the Posada Belén, the convent where we stayed earlier), for your final night in Antigua in a wonderful hotel with the most delightful gardens imaginable. You won't want to leave!
Mon., June 18 Today you take a shuttle to the Guatemala City airport to
catch your flight back to the U.S.
COST OF THE EXCURSION:
NOTE: Trip prices DO NOT include US-Guatemala-US air fare. Travelers are responsible for arranging their own air travel to and from Guatemala; however Rutahsa Adventures gladly recommends MENA Travel, for discounted air fares to Guatemala (and other Latin American destinations). 1-800-536-6362; ask for John and tell him Rutahsa Adventures sent you. We also recommend Solar Tours, at 1-800-388-7652; ask for Patricia at extension 558; Patricia is familiar with our Guatemala trip and is very very helpful.
A minimum of 8 travelers is necessary to make this trip go; a maximum of 16 will be allowed. The 1999 trip sold out and interested parties are advised to make their reservations early.
To make an enquiry about Rutahsa's Guatemala-2001 Excursion, e-mail Dr. Ric Finch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To make a reservation, request a trip application blank or send a check made out to Rutahsa Adventures, Inc., for the amount of $350, to 299 Allen Hollow Rd., Cookeville, TN 38501. Once your trip application blank has been received and your deposit accepted by Rutahsa Adventures, Inc., you will be guaranteed a space on this excursion. Your deposit will be fully refunded if for any reason the trip is canceled. If you decide to cancel your reservation, your deposit will be fully refunded provided cancellation is made before Feb. 1, 2001. After Feb. 1 there will be a cancellation penalty of $175 if cancellation is made before May 1. In the event of cancellation after May 1 the full deposit is subject to retention.
Thanks for visiting!