Cultural Immersion Guatemala: 7-Day Itinerary
History and nature lovers will delight in the endless sights of ancient Maya sites, rainforests and active volcanoes in this country where the landscape is stunning everywhere you look. The artistic heritage is also incredibly rich, from paintings to weaving and poetry – and honestly the culture doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Most of the hotels in Guatemala are small and privately owned, offering travelers a more intimate experience.
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Where to stay
High above Lake Atitlan, this boutique proeprty is the passion project of the owner and displays her extensive local art collection.
San Rafael Hotel
A warm and welcoming home in Antigua with brick and fireplaces, and an exceptional gallery attached.
La Lancha Lodge
The basic rooms fit perfectly into the wooded lakeside location where howler monkeys greet you.
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Day 1: Lake Atitlán
Stay at Casa Palopó
Casa Palopó is a unique and exclusive hotel located near the village of Santa Catarina Palopó, on the shores of Lake Atitlán. Possibly the best luxury hotel in Guatemala, it offers stunning decorations in every room and suite, large common areas both inside and out so guests can always have their privacy, a top restaurant with international and local cuisine and a beautiful infinity pool looking out to the lake and surrounding volcanoes.
Take in the view
With its sparkling waters watched over by three majestic, dormant volcanoes, Lake Atitlán is Guatemala's highland jewel. Surrounded by Mayan villages, the lake's timeless beauty is only equaled by the exquisitely embroidered clothing worn by the local Tzʼutujil and the Kaqchiquel Maya people.
Explore the villages
Each lakeside village has its own character. Take your pick between the ceramic arts of San Antonio Palopo, San Juan's natural dyes and handwoven textiles, San Pedro's backpacker vibe, San Marcos' yoga and wellness centers, Santiago Atitlán's busy markets and shops and Panajachel's hectic-eclectic mix of shops, hotels and restaurants.
Shop at Maya Traditions Foundation
As a nonprofit social enterprise, Maya Traditions Foundation is dedicated to facilitating access to national and international markets for Maya backstrap weaver artisans and their families in the highlands of Guatemala.
In Panajachel, a center hosts weaving and dying workshops, along with a small store and medicinal gardens. It’s a little more expensive than what you will see in the markets, but the quality is better and shopping there supports great works.
Day 2: Lake Atitlán
The shimmering lake is not just beautiful. You can kayak and canoe, swim, fish, watch birds, ride horses, hike the San Pedro volcano, scuba dive – or, of course, just swing in a hammock. On the water, you may encounter local fishermen who are usually happy to share a glimpse of their daily life.
Hike the Cerro de Oro
At the mysterious Cerro de Oro (Hill of Gold), take a strenuous 1.5 hour hike through the namesake village, known for its creativity in turning plastic waste into recycled art.
The trek culminates at the summit (5,368 feet), a location where you'll be rewarded with impressive views of the lake and its volcanic backdrop. For those who don’t want to opt for the hike, you can also take an easier climb or remain at the shore for a scenic hike along the waterfront.
Lunch in Santiago
Once you return to the dock, hitch a ride in the back of a pickup and rumble off to Santiago for lunch and a visit with Guatemala's favorite Indigenous saint, Maximón.
Afterward, hop aboard a boat and cruise to San Juan to visit weaving co-ops, medicinal herb gardens and art naïf painters. Go on foot or squeeze into a tuc-tuc and ride like the locals.
Dine at Chapiteau Circus Bar
Chapiteau Circus Bar is an old school pizza parlor in a funky concrete space with circus posters up all around. Enjoy a fun night in a great atmosphere before heading back to the hotel.
Day 3: Chichicastenango
See the locals
On the way to Chichicastenango, you’ll pass through the central highland region and see the local Maya people in their traditional dress going about their daily lives: working in the fields, collecting firewood, travelling between markets and selling their wares.
Head to the market
Explore the famous market. Start with the local area to admire the displays of fruit, vegetables and everyday items. Then head to the craft section where you’ll find an endless variety of beautiful textile, wooden and ceramic crafts.
Visit St. Thomas Church
Local Maya people come to this famous church to perform Maya rituals within the Catholic church – demonstrating the interesting way the two faiths have combined in recent times.
You can also hike up the hill to the Pascual Abaj ritual site to see if any local shamans are performing rituals and/or to the cemetery on the outskirts of town.
Day 4: Lake Atitlán to Antigua
Stay at the San Rafael Hotel
The San Rafael is housed in a traditional colonial home with brick, stone and stucco construction and features two courtyards, antique tile roofs and three water features (including a dramatic wall fountain).
Besides the furnished patio where you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast while gazing over the garden, guests will appreciate the elegant and lofty sitting and dining room. It’s the perfect space in which to sip a glass of wine, sit before a roaring fire or catch up on emails (if you must).
Entering through the gates of the San Rafael, visitors enjoy a sweeping view of the first courtyard with its two fountains and richly varied plantings: Italian cypresses, ficus trees and the colorful blossoms of native plants.
Get a first glimpse of Antigua
With painstakingly restored Spanish colonial architecture, manicured parks, stylish hotels, superb international cuisine and a horizon shaped by three spectacular volcanoes, Antigua is an idyllic destination.
Nestled in a mountain valley and surrounded by evergreen forests, the city retains the aura of the 17th century capital it was, while blending modern amenities that make it an internationally appealing getaway. Walking along cobblestone streets, you'll find high-end art galleries, fascinating museums, luxurious shops with international treasures and traditional markets packed to the rafters with locally made textiles and woodcrafts. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, with its architecture, culture and unique setting, Antigua, quite simply, is the most charming city in all the Americas.
Dine at Tartines
Tartines is a longtime favorite for its lovely staff and casual atmosphere. The Italian menu features paninis, calamari and other everyday classics. The restaurant is upstairs from a small bakery, and offers both an indoor and outdoor area. The deck looks onto a volcano offering a beautiful view.
Day 5: Antigua
Hike Cerro de la Cruz
Begin your day with a hike to Cerro de la Cruz. From Cierro, admire the views looking south over town, toward Volcán Agua. The prominent cross at the head of the lookout point is devoted to the city's patron saint.
Take a food tour
Travel back to town to explore Antigua and the everyday cuisine locals love. A feast for the senses awaits, as it combines the robust flavors of Antigua's street food with this colonial city's colorful traditions, culture and history. Shoes and appetite ready, take a walking tour along charming cobblestone streets lined with brightly painted Spanish colonial architecture, stopping to learn about the history of some of Antigua's most picturesque sights. One of the best in Guatemala, the thriving market showcases rows of tasty and exotic fruits, vegetables, seeds, beans, grains, spices, meats and fish.
Dine at Los Tres Tiempos
Located just under the arch on 5th Avenue, Los Tres Tiempos features a modern design aesthetic with traditional accents, such as blue upholstered chairs with traditional Guatemalan weaving accents. The food is mostly Guatemalan fare, served in a small indoor area or a lovely courtyard.
A note from Leslie
Los Tres Tiempos refers to how tortillas are made - which means a lot of restaurants in Guatemala are called Los Tres Tiempos.
Day 6: Antigua
Check out the coffee in San Miguel Escobar
Take a short ride to the town of San Miguel Escobar, just outside of Antigua for a guided tour of De La Gente (DLG), a nonprofit organization working to support small independent coffee producers and promote environmentally responsible agriculture in Guatemala.
Work side by side with coffee farmers as you help pick, pulp, ferment, wash, dry, thresh, sort or grade the coffee (depending on the season). Roast the coffee over an open fire and grind it by hand on a grindstone before sampling the brew.
Later, you can enjoy a simple, traditional lunch prepared and served in a family home before returning to Antigua for the afternoon.
Dine at Welton
Come to Welten for a classic and fancy dining experience in Antigua. There’s a lovely pool in the middle of the restaurant, views of the volcano and all the waiters wear tuxedos. Take a peek in the gift shop before enjoying the Italian cuisine along the somewhat cheesy yet fantastic electronic keyboard player.
A note from Leslie
Coffee season runs from November to March.
Day 7: Flores and Tikal
Stay at La Lancha Lodge
Sleep soundly in the heart of the rainforest at La Lancha Lodge, a boutique hotel owned by Francis Ford Coppola. Standing high above the shore of Lago Petén Itza, the hotel’s ten casitas offer a warm and cozy interior with views of the lake and Guatemala’s stunning greenery. Hang out with howler monkeys and parakeets as you enjoy this luxurious jewel in some of the most beautiful nature in the world.
Located on Lake Petén Itzá, the quiet island town of Flores (originally Tayasal) was the last Maya stronghold to fall to the Spaniards. Today, it's a quaint, walkable town with red-tile roofs, colonial-style architecture and cobblestone streets. Dugout canoes, kayaks, and lanchas (small motorized boats) line its shores. The island is just a few blocks wide but offers a well-rounded selection of shops and restaurants.
Most visitors come to Flores to see Tikal archaeological park, but this region boasts other impressive Maya sites too – Uaxactún, Yaxhá, Ceibal and Aguateca – as well as several fascinating parks and reserves.
Dine at La Lancha
The town is very small, so your best bet is to eat at the hotel restaurant, which serves excellent European fare.
Day 8: Tikal
Tikal National Park
Some 3,000 ancient structures rise from the rainforest floor in this impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site. You will also experience the sights and sounds of tropical birds and animals, including howler and spider monkeys, that all live in the jungle canopy.
Follow in the footsteps of Maya royalty and commoners as you go through such sites as the majestic Great Plaza and its Temple of the Jaguar (144 feet), Temple of the Masks (125 feet), the Acropolis and much more.
On a more modern note, be sure to climb Temple 4 to see the rebel stronghold from the original Star Wars.
If you have spare time, you can also explore the museum at the visitor center before returning to La Lancha.
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