Women Travelers - In and Around Antigua Guatemala
As a woman now living in Antigua Guatemala, I can offer general advice about visiting the country and specific counsel on staying in and around Antigua Guatemala. I'm pleased to share with you any information, advice or insights I might have about this astonishingly beautiful and compelling part of the world.
When approaching new travel destinations, women usually have five main concerns: what to see; where to stay; safety issues; language challenges; and cost.
Let's look first at the safety issues for a woman traveling in Guatemala. I'll say something obvious first. Like anywhere a traveler might find herself, there are rules that can't be trifled with. Like, don't wander around by yourself alone at night looking lost and perplexed (this is a no brainer). And don't get overly refreshed in a bar and strike up fast relationships with strangers. (Think twice. Do you really want to wake up next to Ramone? Exactly.)
In general, you are safe in most tourist destinations in Guatemala. Having said that, you need to be forewarned when arriving here. More than likely you will first set down in the capital, Guatemala City, a sprawling metropolis of some 1.3 million people. It can be a rough town and it is not recommended that women walk around at night alone. Zona 10 is near the airport and this is where the major hotels and embassies are located. Its pretty safe during the daytime, but you're better off to stay inside once nightfall descends.
You will likely be taken a little aback at the sight of armed security folks with pump shot guns in front of banks, government buildings, many of the stores and other businesses. Though Guatemala City has many interesting cultural and historical landmarks and museums, I would not recommend a long stay.
The best thing to do is land in Guatemala City and take a taxi from the airport and head immediately to Antigua Guatemala. The standard trip price is $30 US and the airport taxis generally abide honorably with this rate. Still, make sure you establish the price before handing over your luggage and installing yourself in the cab.
Even if you don't speak Spanish you can still get around quite easily as an English-only speaker. In Antigua Guatemala, for example, there are many people who speak excellent English and just as many who speak enough to help you along.
If you do find yourself in a situation where English meets Spanish, the international rules apply. Learn to say "please, excuse me and thank you" and you'll do well for a start. There is no need to speak loudly and s-l-o-w-l-y in English. You'll get a better reception if you try a few words in Spanish. The general rule applies in Guatemala as it does in other parts of the world: exercise humility, gratitude and show that you are making an effort by speaking a word or so in Spanish. Guatemalans in general have a very hospitable and accommodating nature and I have found that I can generally make myself understood on a basic level in any given situation. As well, almost all travel booking and tourist operator services have English-speaking staff as do most hotel front desk employees.
COST OF TRAVELING IN GUATEMALA
However you like to travel, four-star hotel or hostel accommodation, Guatemala is generally a great deal cheaper than North America or European destinations. To give you an idea, a restaurant meal for two in a version of an American steak house, including wine and tip, comes to about one-third of what it would cost anywhere in the US or Canada. More modest establishments offering Guatemalan cuisine are even cheaper. A lovely lunch of tortillas, chicken or beef stew with rice and seasonal vegetables can come in at the less than the price of a big latte in your home town.
There is a wide variety of accommodation in Guatemala. If, for example, you wanted to stay in the centre of town in Antigua Guatemala, you can find hotels that range from $25 to $300 a night. Even the lower priced rooms are clean and comfortable, almost all of them with en suite bathrooms.
Travel costs range in price, from 40 cents for a 10-kilometer ride on a chicken bus to a few hundred dollars to fly to Maya ruins. In the main, the "gray hound-like" buses, whether traveling short or long distances, are about a quater of the costs of similar distances in North America.
IN AND AROUND ANTIGUA GUATEMALA - WHAT TO SEE, SAMPLE ITINERARY
Antigua Guatemala is a much more relaxed and gentler place for tourists than the nearby capital. It's charms are obvious upon arrival. This is a Spanish colonial town, first established in the mid 16th century. There are many remnants and fine restorations of its former glory days as the capital of the mighty new world Spanish empire.
A first-time visitor would do well to use Antigua Guatemala as a base from which to take day trips or longer junkets to the surrounding areas of interest.
The following provides:
Itinerary building blocks through a list of the eight main attractions and must-sees in and around Antigua Guatemala.
A sample itinerary, which you can use as a model for building your own schedule according to your interests and duration of vacation time.
Once you've looked at the sample itinerary, there are longer descriptions provided in this post which outline in more detail the attractions and must-sees.
EIGHT MAIN ATTRACTIONS AND MUST-SEES IN AND AROUND ANTIGUA GUATEMALA
Antigua Guatemala - guided walking tour or do-it-yourself
Pacaya - spectacular live volcano
Market Day - Chichicastenango, the most famous market in Guatemala
Lake Atitlan - the most beautiful lake in the world
Tikal - Mayan ruins in a national park
Coffee Plantations - tour "fincas" to see how coffee is grown, harvested and processed
Pacific Beach - Monterrico, Guatemala or in the Liberdad area of El Salvador
Day Tours - Mayan villages - do it yourself by local buses (chicken buses) or take a guided tour
SAMPLE ITINERARY FOR VISITING IN AND AROUND ANTIGUA GUATEMALA
Arrive in Antigua, stay two or three days and walk around the Spanish colonial town at your leisure; take a half-day guided tour so you know what you are looking at and learn more about the town's rich history.
DAY TRIPS TO PUEBLOS
Then start to take a day trips to Maya pueblos, using Antigua Guatemala as a base; get on a chicken bus (local buses, which provide inexpensive transit) and head off to local Maya pueblos (it's easy and fun to go by bus on your own or you can go with a package guided tour); we can recommend a few good pueblos 30 to 60 minutes outside of town which are interesting and not flocked with tourists.
PACIFIC BEACH DAYS
Next, a few days on a Pacific beach; Monterrico is a black lava-based beach and is about an hour by car or an hour and-a-half by bus from Antigua Guatemala; Monterrico is a beach town with lots of hotels and other tourist amenities; Monterrico is popular with Guatemalan families as well as gringos. El Salvador beaches, around the Liberdad area, also provide a Pacific beach experience and can be reached by taxi (about $100 US each way) or local bus in three to four hours from Antigua Guatemala.
Next, a longer trip -- one and half to three days to see the Maya ruins at Tikal; there are packages that include a hotel stay near Tikal, a guided tour of the site and meals etc; this is a chance to see spectacular remnants of an ancient and very advanced and complex society.
Next, a trip to Pacaya, live volcano with flowing lava, smoke, everything; guided tour -- you can go for half, full-day or two-day package that includes spa experiences, meals, etc.
Next, a trip to Lake Atitlan. Suggest two to three-day stay. You can stay in Panjachel (the main town) and take day trips to the pueblos around the lake or you can stay in a hotel across the lake at any number of beautiful spots and take the water taxis to the pueblos. We can fill you in on the smaller places to go around the lake when you get here. There is nowhere at Lake Atitlan that is not beautiful.
LAST LOOK AT ANTIGUA GUATEMALA
Next, round out your stay with a day or so in Antigua -- restaurants, more walking, last-minute shopping before heading home.
Hope this sample itinerary helps you in making your plans. A lot of the planning can be done when you get down here. The following is a longer description of the must-see attractions.
EIGHT MAJOR ATTRACTIONS AND MUST-SEES - MORE DETAILED DESCRIPTIONS
When you pull into town, from no matter from which direction, you will want to get walking and exploring this charming cobblestone Spanish colonial town. Your instincts will guide your feet as you will likely start in the very heart of Antigua, Parque Central. Get a feel for the place by strolling in any direction from the park. You will be struck by the authentically restored and well preserved Spanish architecture, dating back to the 18th century with a few 16th century models too. Moorish touches are everywhere as they are integral to the Spanish tradition brought here. Personally, when I first set foot here, I just walked and walked, discovering on my own the earthquake-ravaged El Carmen Church, built in the latter 16th century. The arch on fifth avenue is magnificent in daylight or night illumination as is La Merced, a butter-coloured convent, built in the 18th century and now lovingly restored to at least most of its former glory. These are only a few highlights.
If you do want a guided walking tour, they run all day and it's best to deal with an official and well-trained guide. These can be arranged at the small storefronts that face the central park or through INGUAT, located in the Palace of the Captains-General, just across from the northeast side of the park.
Price ranges from $10 (which does not include entrance fees at the sites) and $20 (all inclusive).
PACAYA - Awesome Live Volcano
There are two ways to appreciate the volatility and beauty of the Pacaya Volcano. You can sit on a terrace in some bars and restaurants in Antigua Guatemala and watch the red lava ribbon make its way down the volcano slope. It's most dramatic at night. Or you can go to Pacaya on a guided or unguided tour. Both are great experiences. Pacaya is only a 90 minute drive from the centre of Antigua and there are a variety of excursion packages from which to choose. You can choose an all-day trip, which includes a hike up the volcano to watch the lava and steam flow first-hand, then a stop over at a lunch place and, for the ultra package, a rest at a spa to enjoy sitting in the hot springs. Price depends on how elaborate you want to make your trip. Just about everyone we know opted for the simple half-day package and they were pretty pleased with the experience. Whether a full day or half, be prepared for a 6:30 a.m. start. You'll get back to Antigua about 1 p.m. if you choose a half day. Or you if you're out all day you'll get back around 6 p.m.day. Be warned though. The climb up the volcano slope is a bit of a hike. While you don't need to be an Olympic athlete, you do need to be in reasonably good shape for the climb.
Half day packages start at $30; full day packages are around $60. Be prepared to pay extra for an English speaking guide and about 50 Q ($6.00 US) to get into Pacaya National Park. These excursions can be arranged through any number of local operators.
PANAJACHEL - LAKE ATITLAN
Many have called Lake Atitlan the most beautiful lake in the world. When you get there you will see this is no idle boast. Go for the colours alone, but go. It's only a 2 1/2 hour ride from Antigua Guatemala. The ride provides a real insight into the variety of landscapes and climate zones in that part of the country. From your van window you will see everything from jungle vegetation to parched landscapes and finally, the majesty of Lake Atitlan.
First stop is Panajachel, a town that has a lot to offer in and of itself. But if you are only going for the day, it's best to buy a package that includes transport to and from the lake and a boat ride to two or three Maya towns that ring the lake.
If you opt to go by van without the boat trip included in the package, you will find yourself negotiating with people in Panajachel stopping you to offer overpriced boat rides and you don't want to waste your time on haggling when you could be cruising across the lake.
Once on the lake you will be struck by its colours, landscape and the solemn and eerie presence of three extinct volcanoes. It might remind you of Greece in once second and a Norwegian Fjord the next. It's a mysterious and magical place.
A typical day trip would find your boat docking at San Marcos, San Pedro and Santiago. Each of these Mayan towns have gringo establishments close to the water, e.g., restaurants, bars, trinket vendors. In any case, each affords a different view of lake and, though a bit touristy, each provides a breathtaking aspect of the lake and its surroundings.
Back in Panajachel you will find street stalls on the main street leading to the lake. Every conceivable Guatemalan souvenir is on offer here. If you do stop to shop, make sure to haggle with the vendors. They expect that and its part of the fun.
Day trips, including transport and boat ride costs range from $30 to $40. There are many local tour operators in Antigua Guatemala who offer this service and are easily found when you get there.
TIKAL - Ancient Mayan Ruins
Tikal, an ancient Maya ruin dating back to the 4th century BC, is not to be missed. It was once the capital of one of the most powerful Mayan kingdoms, but was abandoned around the 10th century AD. Everyone who goes says it's worth the effort. It's a bit of a trek to get there since it's about 325 kilometers from Antigua Guatemala. There are one and two-day excursions on offer, each with the option of flying to Flores or taking the bus the whole way.
In our view, the best deal is to take the all-bus route, but take the two-day package, which includes a hotel stay. The one-day bus trip is a bit wearying, with the bus leaving at 6 p.m. and arriving in Tikal around 6 a.m. and then a four hour walking tour of Tikal and park surroundings. Then back on the bus, retuning to Antigua Guatemala at 6 a.m. The cost is approximately $180 US. For about $30 more you can take the two-day package which includes a hotel stay and more leisurely pace for the return. Otherwise the package that includes bus, hotel and flight, which you catch at Flores airport, can be done over one or two days at a cost of about $320 for one day and about $425 for two days. We think the two-day all-bus excursion is the best deal.
MARKET DAYS - CHICHI and More
Many of the larger Mayan towns have market days one or two times a week. If you are in Antigua Guatemala, don't miss the huge market, La Bodegona, which is near the bus terminal just off the Alameda Santa Lucia. Bursting with colour, Mayan chocolate and flowers and food of all descriptions, this is a bustling and authentic marketplace that attracts local Guatemalans and tourists alike.
The market at Solola, about a 15-minute drive from Panajachel is a wonder too. It's a crowded and authentic market, with very few souvenirs. It's packed with serious-minded shoppers, most of them Maya and hardly a gringo in sight. It's worth going just for the trip from Panajachel via El Pickup (yes it's a pick up truck). It takes you for a breathtaking ride with a view of Lake Atitlan as the truck ascends and you hang onto the steel poles inserted into the truck for just that purpose. Cost of a one-way ride is 3Q (about 40 cents).
Of all the markets located in Antigua Guatemala's environs, Chichicastenango is the most popular and for good reason. It's about a 3 hour bus ride from Antigua Guatemala with market days on Thursdays and Sundays.
Affectionately known as Chichi, this Maya town is famous for its market. It's teeming with local produce and, be warned, a lot of Guatemalan souvenirs everywhere. Some items are authentic and handmade while others are mass produced by machine. Haggling is encouraged and expected so don't go for the first price offered. Even if you don't feel like shopping, the experience of entering this sprawling patchwork coloured market is a treat. It's not just for tourists, but rather a regional market where much real commerce and staple shopping is done by people who live there and nearby.
The main market plaza is right beside Santo Tomas church, a 400-year-old building, built on the platform of an ancient Maya temple. Often you can see the devoted going on their hands and knees up the stairs of the church while bearing swaying cans of incense.
It's easy to arrange a bus trip to Chichi when you get to Antigua Guatemala and prices are around the $30 range.
DAY TOURS - Antigua Guatemala surrounding pueblos
The perfect half-day tour outside of Antigua Guatemala is the one that includes a six-village tour. Here the shuttle will take you through mountainous roads and into verdant valleys with stops in Mayan villages. Included on the trip are: San Juan del Obispo, which features one of the first Catholic churches in Guatemala; San Pedro Las Huertas, nestled at the foot of the Fuego Volcano; Cuidad Vieja, site of the regional capital (established 1527) until destroyed by volcano-induced mudslide (that's why the capital was moved to Antigua); San Antonio Aguas, famous for its outstanding textiles; and Santiago Zamora, featuring a successful women's co-op, which is of special interest to those with a communitarian outlook. Cost of the half-day trip is in the $30 range. There are also one-day bike tours of the nearby Amogolonga Valley. Price of the bike trip varies, but it's usual in the $40 to $60 range. Or Villa de Antigua can offer advice on how to get to less visited, but no less interesting pueblos off the beaten track. These can a be self-directed, safe and fun journeys via chicken bus (local buses that charge an average of 40 cents to take you from one pueblo to the next).
PACIFIC BEACH - Monterrico/El Salvador
A special day trip is the bus ride and day's stay on the Pacific side. Monterrico is renowned for its black volcanic beach sand. There's an undertow so if you do go for a dip, stay close to shore. Pleasant restaurants and bars offer views of the Pacific. A day tour includes the bus ride and lunch, which makes for the perfect day-away. Return shuttle buses charge about $18, leaving around 8 a.m. and returning to Antigua Guatemala around 3 p.m. Or you can stay for a few days in one of the many holiday hotels in this beach town.
El Salvador's Liberdad beach area is also a popular destination for beach lovers. Located only three to four hours by road (taxi at $100 each way or inexpensive bus fare) from Antigua, it offers a variety of hotels at various prices ranges, restaurants, bars, shopping night life as well as the beach experience.
Coffee Plantations - Tours
Antigua Guatemala is surrounded by coffee plantations, or "fincas" as they are called in Spanish. You can visit the large plantations that are big enough to be major suppliers to Starbucks and other international brands or you can visit the family-owned fincas where the owners sell their coffee at the local markets. You can even go to coffee fincas where you husk, sort and roast your own bag of coffee to take away as a souvenir of your time in Guatemala. Some of the larger plantations are set up to provide "cuppings," which are tastings for coffee from different zones and bean varieties. Half-day tours start at $30.
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Women Travelers - In and Around Antigua Guatemala