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Finding the Past in Guatemala

The moment I feel the wheels of the airport transport van leave the paved road and jounce over rough cobblestones, I know I’m entering a different kind of place. A peek out the window confirms this, as I gaze up narrow lanes striped with multicolored houses plastered in a palette of blue, green, gold and rose pink set against the backdrop of a mist-topped volcano. “Do you think they check with their neighbors before they paint to make sure they choose a color that goes with everyone else’s?” my vanmate wonders aloud, tipping off an animated conversation about which color we’d choose.

We round the corner and Antigua’s Parque Central opens up before us, surrounded by columned arcades, blooming jacarandas and the dramatic Baroque façade of the Catedral de Santiago. It is immediately clear why the entire city of Antigua Guatemala has been preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Laid out just as it was in the 16th century, when it was considered a model of Renaissance town planning, the city formerly known as Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala was almost deserted after a series of earthquakes in 1773, at which time the government moved the capital to Guatemala City. The result: a perfectly preserved example of Spanish colonial architecture dotted with the ruins of monasteries, convents and churches seemingly frozen in time.

The first stop for most visitors is Arco de Santa Catalina, the bright yellow arch and clock tower instantly familiar from postcards and Instagram shots. Built as a passageway connecting a monastery and school, it’s now the centerpiece of a popular pedestrian thoroughfare lined with artsy shops and galleries. At the other end is Iglesia de la Merced, its bright yellow and white façade adorned with intricate Moorish-style arabesques.

Among other important sights are the Convento de las Capuchinas, with its tiny nuns’ cells, and the Church of San Francisco, with its shrine to the humble saint Hermano Pedro. Behind it, the dramatic ruins of its monastery have become a serene garden popular with picnickers. Many visitors miss the cluster of craft museums hidden within the gardens of the nearby Casa Santo Domingo monastery, now a luxe hotel.

I finish my time in Antigua with a visit to the hectic, mazelike Mercado Central, a warren of stalls selling produce, meat, cheese, flowers and every type of household good imaginable, including brilliant paper flower wreaths and rainbow-colored devotional candles that turned out to make perfect gifts.

The next morning, it’s off to Lake Atitlán, one of the most popular destinations in Guatemala. Formed within the caldera of a massive exploded volcano, Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America—so deep that its waters stay inky blue even in the bright sunlight. Even the name is evocative, translating from a Mayan dialect as the “place where the rainbow gets its colors.” The shoreline, punctuated by a trio of towering volcanoes, is so steep and jagged that the picturesque villages scattered along it are best reached by boat.

Thanks to all of these unusual characteristics, Atitlán long has had a mystical quality, drawing wellness seekers to yoga retreats, shaman healings and the like. I, personally, am much more interested in the living Maya culture around me. As soon as the van lets us out in Panajachel, the scruffy town that is Atitlán’s tourist hub, I jump straight on a lancha and cross the lake to San Juan La Laguna, known for its weaving and crafts.

Handed down from generation to generation since pre-Columbian times, the Mayan tradition of backstrap weaving has been revitalized by women’s weaving cooperatives. At one such studio, our teacher shows us how to clean and spin cotton and demonstrates how dyes are made from ground plants and even insects. By the end, we have a deep respect for the intricate process, which requires weeks to make a single scarf.

For the next few days I explore, making the rigorous climb up Volcano San Pedro, visiting the Saturday market in Santiago and trekking to the top of the mountain known as the Mayan Face to watch the sun rise over the lake. And yet, every day my list of must-dos grows longer rather than shorter. On my last night, dipping freshly made corn tortillas into the Guatemalan salsa known as chirmol and surveying my unfinished list, I realize why so many visitors return to Guatemala again and again—and promise I’ll be one of them.

Where to Stay

If you’ve ever wanted to sleep in a 17th-century Spanish villa, Antigua is the place to do it; choices include boutique hotel El Convento and guesthouse Villa Las Pilas. For a relaxing and immersive stay near Lake Atitlán, choose Casa Palopó, perched directly above the lake in the colorful village of Santa Catarina Palopó.

Where to Eat

In Antigua, lively new food hall La Esquina houses a juice bar and vendors selling everything from artisanal doughnuts to pollo rostizado. Find traditional dishes such as pepián, a slow-cooked stew spiced with pumpkin seeds, at Antigua’s Rincon Tipico and Panajachel’s Jose Pingüino’s, but the best is at 6.8 Palopó, prepared by renowned chef (and cooking show star) Eduardo “Guayo” González. 

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