Guatemala becoming tourism hot spot for young travelers

Adventurous travelers seeking beauty and budget thrills should look no further than Guatemala, a friendly country that remains largely unexplored by many Americans, but can be reached in as little as six hours from many cities in the U.S.

Guatemala’s cash economy

After a quick and easy process, we were set to embark into a new country — and learned lessons pretty quickly. We brought cash because Guatemala is a cash-reliant economy, particularly outside of its capital city. The airport provides several opportunities to exchange dollars for quetzales, with $1 worth about 8 quetzales, as of mid-April. It’s best to fork over the added exchange fee there and avoid the inconvenience of hunting for a bank like we did later.

More than 3 million people reside in the city’s urban area, which is made up of 21 zones — some of which tourists are advised against visiting. We stayed one night in Zone 4, which a travel blog calls “the upcoming hipster area.” Zones 9 and 10 come highly recommended, too. We felt safe and relaxed in the neighborhood around our Airbnb — a unit in a modern apartment complex, with its own private patio.

Our plans for that first day were ambitious: see the National Palace of Culture, stop by the city’s market and eat dinner at steakhouse Hacienda Real Zona 10. Instead, we took in the sunset views on the rooftop of restaurant Los Tres Tiempos in the city’s historical district, cocktails and croquetas de pache — mozzarella croquettes made of Guatemalan potato dough — in hand, before turning in. But if you’re short on time or not a big city person, then you can skip visiting the capital like most tourists do.

2 nights in Antigua

The next morning started with the one-hour drive west to the colonial city of Antigua. Visitors have several options for transportation. Uber is available, and we used it for a short ride in Guatemala City, but I’d read enough mixed reviews for me to largely opt against it. The bravest — and stingiest — of travelers sometimes ride the chicken buses: decorated buses that serve as public transportation. However, I’d also seen a litany of online grievances, as the buses can often run unreliably and feel crowded, with the risk of pickpockets.

Instead, we used private cars and shared shuttle services to travel from town to town, which are affordable by American standards. Viator Travel served as a trusty resource for finding highly-reviewed drivers, who often arrived early and provided a smooth ride.

Our two nights in Antigua left us wishing for more time. There, activities abound — sightseeing at the famous Santa Catalina Arch and Central Park, bartering at the massive Mercado Central and eating so many piping-hot tortillas. My go-to breakfast for days in a row: plantains, refried beans, farmer’s cheese and eggs soaked in salsa, scooped into tortillas and washed down with that famous Guatemalan coffee.

Antigua is the place to buy souvenirs. I scored a Mayan cookbook, plus trinkets for my family like handmade worry dolls: tiny dolls that you tuck under your pillow to whisk away your stresses as you dream. It’s also the spot for nightlife, with several dozen bars and restaurants concentrated in a walkable area that’s both spotless and safe.

Speaking of walking, follow our lead and bring a duffle or weekend bag, instead of a suitcase. Otherwise, navigating the cobblestone roads can quickly turn into the bane of your existence. And wear comfortable sneakers. We walked almost 9 miles one day, but that’s the best way to find hole-in-the-wall joints like restaurant Cafeteria La Concepcion, which is where I tried the traditional dish of pepián de pollo, a Guatemalan chicken stew.

Depending on the timing of your trip, you could also experience a local festival. I was delighted to realize that we visited ahead of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, with Guatemala considered a deeply Christian country. Street vendors sell cheap delicacies, such as empanadas de leche, or sweet cream empanadas. Antigua residents wake up every Sunday during Lent and create alfombras — intricately designed “carpets” made of flower petals and sawdust dyed in every color — on the streets before the evening’s religious procession. Then, just hours later, the temporary creations are stepped on and swept up.

From Antigua, you can admire the surrounding peaks of towering volcanoes, and tour operators like OX Expeditions take hikers on excursions to Pacaya, Acatenango and Agua volcanoes. We signed up for an easy sunset hike up to Pacaya and its lava fields. The other two are known as longer, more intense endeavors. I would strongly advise any hiking hopefuls to cough up the money and join a group because robberies of solo tourists are common along the trails.

Picturesque Lake Atitlán

Lake Atitlán is often referred to as “the Lake Como of Latin America,” referencing the Italian lake in the Alps’ foothills. It’s also held sacred by the nation’s Mayan population — Guatemala’s largest Indigenous group. Outside of Guatemala City, Native people in their traditional garb are a common sight. A Mayan woman typically wears a corte (skirt), huipil (blouse) and faja (belt), and you come across shops selling the clothing in different colors and patterns.

Upon arriving at the lake, you’re typically dropped off in Panajachel — one of almost a dozen towns and villages sitting on the water’s edge.

Nicknamed Pana, the town is accessible by car, but several of the most popular destinations can only be reached by boat. Before departing Pana for other lakeside locations, stock up on sunscreen, beer or any other desirable products because the small stores in the remote villages offer limited stock.

Public and private lanchas, or boats, float at the main dock to ferry locals and tourists across the lake. Beeline for the cheap public option, which costs 10 to 25 quetzales, or you could be swindled by a private captain into paying hundreds of quetzales for your own boat. It’s a longer wait as the water taxi loads up on passengers, but it’s worthwhile for your wallet.

The lake is a place to relax, swim and hop from village to village, which is exactly what my partner and I did on our last day of vacation. Boats are ever reliable on the lake, and you can flag one down at the nearest dock. But I wanted to try out a tuk-tuk — a doorless, three-wheeled vehicle, manned by a driver, who can transport you between towns. I highly recommend the very Guatemalan experience.

Our favorite village: San Juan La Laguna, which bursts with art, restaurants and merchants. Our least favorite: San Marcos La Laguna — a hippie haven, known for its yoga retreats and meditation centers. However, it felt very gentrified to me.

We didn’t get the chance to visit Santa Catarina Palopó, where the houses are painted in eye-popping colors. Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve has a prime spot for cliff jumping into the lake, which I’d add to my list for when we return.

And that’s “when,” not “if,” because I’d happily fly back to Guatemala for a much longer trip in the future. Not only did I feel welcome and safe during my travels, but I also experienced an adventure that I won’t soon forget.