Guatemala Highlands and Copan HondurasAuthor: lynncarol (More Trip Reviews by lynncarol)
Date of Trip: January 2010
Flying into Guatemala, the cloud-cover broke and we had our first glimpse of the country: So many mountains and so few roads! This was definitely going to be an adventure for my husband, Lynn, and myself. Guatemala City International Airport was a pleasant surprise: practically brand new and sparkling clean. (Bathroom attendants immediately pounced on errant water spots left on the sink).
After clearing customs, we selected one of the waiting taxis to drive us to our time-share accommodation in Antigua. Our driver seemed nice, but was he really taking us where we wanted to go? (There were dire warnings in our guidebook about utilizing airport cabbies who might overcharge, or worse, even rob tourists)! Traffic getting out of the city was horrible, and weren't we spending an awfully long time on the road? Finally, a sign to Antigua appeared. (Apparently, the drive from Guatemala City to Antigua takes, even in the best of circumstances, almost forty-five minutes).
Our time-share condominium was located within the Soleil Resort but our driver seemed uncertain as to the exact location of the place and stopped several times for directions. When he ultimately delivered us safely to our destination, we were very relieved (and the cabbie got a nice tip for his efforts). Fortunately, everyone at the front desk spoke English. An older, frazzled-looking American couple was simultaneously checking in: Their taxi from the airport had been involved in a traffic accident! Based on our preliminary experience with Guatemalan drivers, this came as no surprise. (Note to self: Walk whenever possible).
The grounds of The Soleil were lovely with two pools and a tennis court set amidst a profusion of manicured greenery, tile-work, fountains and Spanish arches. We accessed our building via an open-air passageway covered in an unfamiliar, yet beautiful flowering vine. But alas, once inside the condo the illusion was shattered: Stained rugs, shabby furniture and cracked bathroom floors. Oh well, at least the three rooms were spacious, our bed was comfortable and all plumbing worked. Fortunately, the dilapidated state of our time-share didn't extend to the main public rooms and our chicken dinner eaten in their dining room was delicious.
With an altitude of 5029 ft., Antigua is known as the 'city of eternal spring' and evenings get quite chilly. It was then we noticed the absence of any heat or cooling mechanisms in our rooms. Good thing I brought some sweaters (which, except for one day in the jungles of Tikal, I rarely took off the entire time in Guatemala). Meanwhile Lynn, who hates to be hot was in his element.
In the 17th century, Antigua was the original capital of Spanish Mesoamerica (currently Mexico and Central America). Rimmed by three volcanoes it boasted cathedrals, convents and monasteries, as well as lofty government buildings and grandiose private homes, reflective of the immense wealth generated from Spanish conquests. After a huge earthquake in 1773 destroyed much of the city, the capital was moved to Guatemala City. Not until the mid twentieth century was Antigua declared a National Monument and eventually, a World Heritage Site.
Since then, much effort has been expended by the Guatemalan government to make the city a big tourist mecca and Antigua has morphed into a charming blend of ruins, restorations, restaurants and shops accessed along cobblestone streets. The ‘old city' is less than ten blocks in any direction from the central plaza and well within walking distance of our resort. Clutching our map, we were off to explore. In addition to ‘seeing the sights' there were several other objectives to accomplish.
1) We intended to eat two out of three meals a day in our condo, and needed to purchase groceries.
2) Traveler checks must be exchanged for local currency. Good news: One bank, conveniently located along the main plaza, remained open on Sunday. Bad news: It had a plethora of customers awaiting service. Over an hour poor Lynn stood in line.
I, on the other hand, had a nice interlude: Ensconced on a shady park bench, enjoying the surrounding Spanish architecture, a delightful central fountain and a band of musicians with their haunting Mayan music. Women in colorful native outfits would occasionally try to sell me some textiles but were never offended when rebuffed.
Lunch was at the popular Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo where tables were set amidst the hotel's verdant central courtyard. Guests were permitted to ascend to a roof-top terrace which provided a spectacular overlook with Volcano de Agua looming above the city. Now that we enjoyed!
After visiting the cathedral and doing some window-shopping, we headed to the grocery store. Everything, of course, was labeled in Spanish and it was crowded with shoppers. Locally grown avocados were definitely on our list & they were scrumptious. Other food-stuffs seemed rather limited with the exception of numerous bottles of shoe-polish. I was puzzled until recalling all the shoe-shine boys circulating within the plaza. (Our tennis shoes must have been a source of frustration for these young entrepreneurs).
Monday started out with a bang...literally! We were getting dressed around 9:30 in the morning, when buildings started to shake: Our first earthquake! (A 6.3 on the Richter scale, we later learned). Heavy wrought iron light fixtures overhead began to sway. Instead of fear, my over-riding thought was, "This Guatemala trip is my idea. Lynn will kill me if we get squished". Fortunately, all movement stopped within 45 seconds and Lynn seemed excited, rather than upset, about the event. While we tourists reacted somewhat anxiously, locals appeared unconcerned. (One exception: a Canadian visitor told us the caged parrot in the resort's dining room suddenly became quite agitated moments before the quake hit).
After all the excitement, we took the shuttle into town and spent several hours exploring a different section of the city. Lunch was at El Sereno, a former home for the Royal Mercedarian Order and one of Antigua's best restaurants with its lovely patio, romantic cave and rooftop vistas. (Guatemalan currency, the quetzal, was currently worth only one eighth of a US dollar, allowing us to enjoy great meals for very reasonable sums). The food was absolutely delicious, but sadly, we were their only customers. Tourism in Guatemala has really suffered from poor global economy, rising crime rates in the cities and swine-flu concerns.
Next on the agenda: A visit to the Convento La Merced, ruins of a 16th century convent boasting an enormous central courtyard with a star-shaped pool surrounding a beautiful octagonal fountain. Vivid pink bougainvillea spilled over ancient walls, and the surrounding brick ramparts provided exceptional vistas of the city. In the distance, puffs of smoke rose from Volcano Fuego. We had the whole place to ourselves and loved it!
Very early Tuesday morning (at 4:00 a.m.!)the shuttle arrived to take us to Guatemala City's domestic airport. Our destination: the Mayan ruins of Tikal. (Getting there involved either a 45 minute flight or a nine-hour bus trip... No contest)! TAGA airline reminded us how air travel used to be: no security lines, a solicitous stewardess and lots of food!
Upon landing in the town of Flores, we were hustled into a minibus for the hour drive to Tikal. Our English-speaking guide was very informative and added immensely to the experience. Tikal, is one of the largest Mayan ruins ever uncovered... and a primary reason for our trip to Guatemala. (The Mexican Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum which entranced us years ago had merely ‘whetted our appetite" for more). Civilization at Tikal reached its zenith around 250 A.D and ended abruptly approximately 600 years later. Situated within 222 square miles of jungles in the province of Peten, only six square miles of Tikal have been mapped and excavated, revealing over 3000 constructions.
The place was amazing and, suffice it to say, my first glimpse of the main plaza literally took my breath away! Built of limestone, there are six main temples (or pyramids) with the tallest (Temple IV) reaching 231 ft. in height. Some we could climb while others utilized wooden steps constructed alongside the temples for summit access. From the upper ledge of Temple IV, all the major pyramids were visible, rising above a vast canopy of trees. Excavated attractions included ball courts, altars, stelae with hieroglyphics, and numerous other ancient edifices.
Expecting throngs of tourists, I was stunned to see how few visitors roamed the grounds. Spider monkeys peered down from trees while several kaotymundis (strange-looking critters related to the raccoon family) hopefully looked for hand-outs. There was even some time to explore on our own. Still, with so much to see, the 4 1/2 hours in Tikal (including lunch onsite) passed too quickly. Eventually our group was transferred back to Flores in time to catch the 5:00 flight for Guatemala City.
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