Leave Old Man Winter and the stateside rush and pressures of the Christmas season behind you by joining this special relaxing end-of-the-year excursion to beautiful Guatemala, the "Land of Eternal Springtime".
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 60% of Guatemala's population and speaking some 20 different languages, have maintained a rich and colorful culture that gives Guatemala its basic character. So much to see, so much to leave you marveling, 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 summer excursion to Guatemala, and the first year of the new millennium was no exception-- we had a great trip in June. But now we want to offer a trip in the U.S. wintertime: Rutahsa's end-of-the-year Guatemala Adventure will take place Dec. 27 - Jan. 12. World-famous highlights include colonial Antigua Guatemala, the colorful indigenous market of Chichicastenango, glorious Lake Atitlán, and the mysteries of the Classic Maya ceremonial center of Copán (Honduras). But Rutahsa Adventures will also get you off the beaten track and on the back roads to see the real Guatemala in the remote Ixil Maya town of Nebaj, at the misty crater lake of Chicabal where ancient rites are still practiced, and to other sites seldom visited by outsiders.
The itinerary covers the best of Guatemala, but maintains a relaxed pace, with two nights (or longer) at every hotel save one. Here it is:
Thurs. Dec. 27: After flying 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, surpassed 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 seemingly endless, the climate at around 5000 feet above sea level highly agreeable, and the overall ambience delightful.
Fri., Dec. 28: Morning: an introductory tour of Antigua's most important colonial buildings, guided by Elizabeth Bell, author of one of the best-selling Antigua guidebooks. Afternoon: free time to explore more romantic ruins, visit the jade shops, museums, market, etc. Any excursion participants unable to arrive in Guatemala on Dec. 27th may join the group today. Second night at the Posada de Don Rodrigo.
Sat., Dec. 29: 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 winding road brings us to Santiago Atitlán, a Tz'utujiil 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'utujiil town remarkably little changed from its traditional ways. We will stay at the Posada Santiago, a charming hotel of unusual stone architecture, unique bungalows, lovely gardens and excellent cuisine.
Sun., Dec. 30: 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 all day to prowl about Santiago's narrow streets, visit the ancient Catholic church, perhaps to visit the shrine of the cult of Maximón, and to visit the Peace Park to learn something of Santiago's tragic experiences during La Violencia in the 1980s. Some may wish to swim off the Posada Santiago's private dock for guests. And, of course, there's shopping to be done at the artisans' shops lining the main street.
Mon., Dec. 31: After time for a leisurely breakfast we'll take a boat across gorgeous and dramatic Atitlán to the main lakeside town of Panajachel. We don't have to hassle with our luggage on the boat as it will be in the bus sent around the lake to await us at the docks.
Boarding our bus in "Pana", 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 west along the Panamerican Highway towards Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second most important city. En route we will pass by the K'iche' Maya town of Nahualá, where many of the men still wear the wool kilt traditional to this village. On beyond Nahualá we pass a windy, treeless area 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 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 checking into the Bonifaz you have two choices: 1) Eat lunch in the Bonifaz' excellent restaurant, then spend the afternoon roaming about Xela's main square area, discovering its neoclassical buildings, marketplace, museums, and an internet cafe where ex-pats like to gather, all conveniently close at hand to the Bonifaz. Or, 2) Grab your swimming suit and hop back on the bus for an hour-long drive to Fuentes Georginas, a hot springs spa where we can have a late lunch and soak in relaxing 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. Tough to decide which option to pick, but our personal favorite here at Rutahsa is the second choice!
It's New Year's Eve and you can expect some goings-on at the central square right in front of our hotel. Guatemalans love their noisy bombas, and you might consider bringing earplugs for when you decide to turn in for some shut-eye this night. A special New Year's Eve supper will be held for us at the Bonifaz (included in the excursion package).
Tues., Jan. 1: Happy New Year! And welcome to 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. Actually, we'll pile into the back of a pick-up truck and be carried up the first three kilometers of steep dirt road, passing through the outskirts of San Martín where we will see native costume, including, if we are lucky, the very distinctive traditional men's outfit.
From the end of our bouncy pick-up ride, 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. Although the Maya New Year's Day does not coincide with the Gregorian calendar, it may well be that something special will be going on here today...we'll find out.
Back to Xela for a second night at the Pensión Bonifaz and supper at one of the good restaurants of this pleasant city.
Weds., Jan. 2: This morning we drive along the Pan American highway to Chichicastenango, where we will take up lodging 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 Thursday market, but you can start your souvenir shopping tonight if you like.
Thurs., Jan. 3: 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, replete with 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 1 p.m. we'll load up and start out for the mountain town of Nebaj.
Nebaj is the principal town in the "Ixil Triangle", the area where the Ixil Maya live (the towns of Cotzal and Chajul being the other two points in the triangle). This town region was especially hard hit by the army and the guerrillas (mostly the former, but the latter are not without blame) during the early 1980s. Fortunately, peace has returned to this beautiful area and its resilient people. We will stay in the Hotel Ixil Annex, a fairly basic place, but relatively new, clean, and quite adequate.
Nebaj is justly famous for its beautiful traje (traditional dress), which won an international native costume contest some years ago. The women's costume is particularly striking.
Fri., Jan. 4: Today we have planned a hike of several hours through verdant mountain scenery, winding up at the town of Chajul (where a costume totally different from that of Nebaj is worn). Those who do not wish to hike can spend the day in Nebaj, and/or ride the bus to Chajul to meet the hikers. Second night at the Hotel Ixil Annex.
Sat., Jan. 5: The morning will be spent enjoying more mountain panoramas and dizzying roads as we travel from Nebaj to the coffee town of Cobán, capital of the Department of Alta Verapaz.
In Cobán we'll stay at La Posada, an inn of colonial charm and some of the best food in all Guatemala. After lunch here we'll take a short walk to Finca Margarita for a tour of a coffee plantation, seeing how coffee is grown and processed, and sampling of their products, of course.
Sun., Jan. 6: Cobán area. Things to do include visiting an orchid nursery (thousands of plants, hundreds of species), visiting an excellent private museum of Maya artifacts, going to a nearby park for a swim in a lovely natural swimming hole, and, of course, visiting the local marketplace if you've not seen enough of markets! We'll decide what to do according to the group's druthers when we're there. Second night at La Posada.
Mon., Jan. 7: Today we have a fairly long drive, but all on good roads, from Cobán to Copán! Hard to tell from the names whether you're coming or going, but Copán is actually a country away! We'll cross the international border to reach the town of Copán Ruinas 12 kilometers inside the Rep. of Honduras. The border crossing is rather bucolic-- something like a scene out of a movie about banana republics! And the town of Copán Ruinas is also rural, but with an interesting overlay of international activity. It is a thoroughly charming small town of cobbled streets and very friendly people. Our hotel, the Marina Copán is delightful, complete with pool and swim-up bar. In addition to the Marina's restaurant there are several good eateries in town, plus internet cafes and shops with wood carvings, lovely pottery, and other items.
Tues., Jan. 8: All day at Copán. Copán ruins are magnificent. Whereas most Classic Maya cities were built of limestone (which slowly dissolves away in the tropical rains), Copán was built of weather-resisting volcanic tuffs. For this reason the stone carvings are exceptionally well-preserved. And stelae of Copán's once-powerful kings, altars, glyph panels, wall friezes, and other carvings are everywhere. Copán is called the "Paris of the Maya" for its abundance of sculptural art. In addition to temples, pyramids and courtyards, Copán features a very elegant ballcourt, where a deadly serious ritual ballgame was played. Your excursion package includes your entry to the partially restored ruins of the thousand-year-old Maya ceremonial center, the tunnels under the ruins (revealing the intact Maya temple known as "Rosalila"), the wonderful Museum of Sculpture with its full-scale replica of "Rosalila"), and the small but important Old Copán Museum on the city square. You'll need all day to see it all. Second night at the Marina Copán.
Weds., Jan. 9: Back to Antigua today, as our Guatemala odyssey comes full circle. En route we'll stop at an obsidian outcrop where you can see (and sample) the raw material from which the Maya made knives, spear points and other items of trade. You can collect some pretty souvenirs here, but be careful: this black volcanic glass can give you a nasty cut if you handle it carelessly.
Once again back in Antigua, this time we'll settle in at the Quinta de las Flores, located on the edge of Antigua, quieter than our original hotel, but still within easy walking distance of the central plaza. Within the meticulously manicured, peaceful gardens we can properly reflect about the many wonders seen --so far-- on this excursion, where we have been, whom we have met, and what we have learned. The Quinta has a small restaurant exclusively for its guests, and, of course, Antigua is loaded with many eateries.
Thurs., Jan. 10: 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 1 1/2 to 2 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 can be 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 Quinta de las Flores; the contrast between Pacaya's barren peak full of primal energy and the tranquility of the Quinta's gardens could hardly be more striking!
Fri., Jan. 11: 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 Quinta de las Flores.
Sat., Jan. 12: All good things must come to an end, and today is the day you head to La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City to wing your way back home, carrying lots of photos and treasured crafts, addresses of your traveling-companions-become-friends, and a million memories. Shuttle service will be provided at the appropriate time for your particular flight schedule.
HOWEVER, IT DOESN'T HAVE TO END JUST YET...
For travelers with a little extra time and a yen to see another world-class archeological site that is very different from Copán, both in the nature of its ruins and its setting, Rutahsa Adventures has organized the following two-day trip extension to Tikal National Park.
Sat., Jan. 12: 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. But most spectacular of all are the soaring skyscraper-like pyramid/temples...if Copán was the "Paris" of the Maya, Tikal was surely the "New York City"!
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. One of our lucky travelers in June 2001 got a good look at a jaguar sprawled out on a trail; he and the great spotted cat stared at each other for about 10 seconds, until the cat got up and ambled off, with our amazed (and intrepid!) adventurer following behind taking pictures!
Tikal is really a wonderful site, but it is hot! Fortunately, the Jungle Lodge has a pool!
Sun., Jan. 13: 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 Quinta de las Flores. 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!
Mon., Jan. 14: 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!
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. For excellent prices on air fares to Guatemala, Rutahsa Adventures gladly recommends Solar Tours at 1-800-388-7652; ask for Patricia at extension 558, and tell her you are going on Rutahsa Adventures Dec. trip to her homeland. Also, MENA Travel at 1-800-536-6362; ask for John and tell him Rutahsa Adventures sent you.
A minimum of 8 travelers is necessary to make this trip go; a maximum of 16 will be allowed. Thanks to a wonderful review by Frommer's, our June 2001 trip sold out, so interested parties are advised to make their reservations early.
If you'd like to see what Frommer's said about our most recent Guatemala adventure, click here: Frommer's reviews Rutahsa Adventures Guatemala excursion.
To make an enquiry about Rutahsa's Guatemala New Years 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 Nov. 1, 2001. After Nov. 1 there will be a cancellation penalty of $175 if cancellation is made before Dec. 1. In the event of cancellation after Dec. 1 the full deposit is subject to retention.
Thanks for visiting!