Few countries wear the past on their collective sleeves quite the way Guatemala does. Devout Catholicism, a strong indigenous tradition, and a palpitating sense of history combine to pack the calendar with religious festivals. (The introductory pages to Guatemala City's telephone directory list them all. Take a look if you're in the capital.) Antigua's Holy Week processions, Chichicastenango's Santo Tomás celebrations, and various communities' Day of the Dead observances draw visitors from around the world. Other celebrations, while no less fervent, are purely local affairs, open to outside observers willing to maintain a certain unobtrusive distance. Part Christian, part Mayan, the observances, with their clanging bells, wafting incense, and impassioned chanting, are difficult to separate into their component parts.
Guatemalans will tell you that their careful pronunciation and lack of accent make for Latin America's purest Spanish. With more than 200 schools to choose from, a lower cost of living than in Spain, Mexico, or Costa Rica, and a geographic proximity to the United States, you have an ideal Spanish-study locale.
Morning might begin with you and your instructor, one-on-one—that's the structure for most beginning courses here—over a cup of coffee out on the school's patio, tackling conjugations with a few props to aid you. Bid farewell and move on to a café for the afternoon, notebook in hand to review your day's lessons. Evening means dinner with your host family and a chance to practice what you've learned. It's all about immersing yourself in the language.
There's no need to specify which lake—or lago in Spanish—is being discussed. It's the shimmering blue Atitlán, billed as "the most beautiful lake in the world." British writer Aldous Huxley said so, and you'll likely agree. Ringed by three volcanoes, the lake provides what is arguably Guatemala's best-known postcard view.
Friendly old Panajachel, Guatemala's consummate, original expatriate hangout, sits on Atitlán's northeast shore. Ringing the rest of the lake are a dozen other villages whose names read like a litany of the saints—Peter, John, Mark, Catherine, Anthony, James, Luke—and are reachable via cross-lake ferries and water taxis. All retain their Mayan character, some more successfully than others, and different styles of indigenous dress are seen in each community. You may linger here longer than you intended, meeting fellow travelers, swapping stories, and getting advice.
A Colonial City
It's said that you can't throw a stone in Antigua without hitting an old church, convent, monastery, or palace (or the ruins of one). The Western Hemisphere's best preserved colonial city is Guatemala's top tourist attraction for a reason. Not only will Antigua's many sights transport you back to colonial times; your hotel, the restaurant where you linger over dinner, the shop where you pick out souvenirs, and the bank where you change money are all housed in structures from that era, too. (Or maybe they really are newly constructed, but strict building codes mean you can't always tell the difference.) If you're like most visitors, you won't want to be transported back to the modern world when it's time to leave.
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