Getaway to Guatemala

By Alona Abbady Martinez

Peer out the window and you’ll notice the brief flight from Miami to Guatemala City is a colorful one. Traveling over the Gulf of Mexico, brilliant shades of blues and turquoise foreshadow the explosion of colors that await ahead, just one of the many glorious details a vacation to this compact Central American country dubbed the “Land of Eternal Spring” brings.

The end goal for ultimate luxury, tranquility, and complete revitalization awaits at Casa Palopó, a private home-turned-hotel with a breathtaking view of Lake Atitlán and its majestic three volcanoes. The drive is long from the airport, so it’s smart to break up the trip with an overnight stay at nearby Antigua, a Spanish colonial town built in the 16th century. 

Antigua, which in Spanish translates to “ancient” is set in the Guatemalan highlands. Founded in 1542, it served as the country’s capital until an earthquake destroyed it in 1773. The city was rebuilt and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the churches and colonial architecture that grace the historic center, a walkable nine blocks. There’s an unspoken camaraderie and pride that is complemented by the impeccably clean streets brimming with locals walking hand in hand admiring the pastel colored buildings with the same awe and bewilderment of a first-time visitor. As is the architecture of all traditional Spanish pueblos, Antigua has a central square, aptly called “Parque Central,” which serves as the heartbeat of the town. You’ll find plenty of benches that let you sit under the shade of towering jacaranda trees to watch the world go by. Octogenarians gather to gossip as mothers buy ice cream for their kids. The mermaid sculptures that are the centerpiece of the fountain are replicas of the 1738 originals, drawing attention for their strategically placed water spouts. 

The charm of the town is infectious, offering multiple Instagrammable spots, beginning with El Arco de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Arch), a buttercream-colored remnant of a 17th century nunnery directly opposite of the Iglesia de La Merced, built in 1548. Head to the public lavaderos at Tanque de la Unión, Pilas de Santa Clara where, on Wednesdays, local women gather to hand-wash their clothes while the Volcan de Agua looks on. 

When hunger strikes, don’t miss the recently opened Mercadito La Esquina, deemed the first food hall in Central America. Mimicking a local market, the bright, colorful space revels in Guatemalan personality. There are six different food stations to explore. Start with La Tipica, which true to its name, provides a sampling of traditional Guatemalan cuisine, rooted in the tortilla. The tortilla con queso chancol (fresh white cheese) comes with a side of chiltepe mayonnaise, a spice-lover’s dream come true. Bacha, braised pork ribs from the northern eastern city of Lanquín, come bathed in tomato sauce and are melt-off-the bone good. Las Sirenas offers all kinds of beverages but it’s the pepitazo you’ll want to try. Similar to horchata (a milk-based rice drink) but with the inclusion of sunflower seeds, this non-alcoholic beverage is both refreshing and nourishing. Save a spot for dessert at Las Capuchinas and be sure to order a donita de rosa de Jamaica, flavored with hibiscus flowers. Not only is it a visual beauty (a vibrant magenta) but the flavor, a tease between tart and sweet and the extra light texture, will surely set the bar for future doughnuts.

Spend the day walking and exploring the myriad of artisanal shops for everything from hand woven table runners, blouses, to wooden tecolotes, or owls, a symbol of good fortune in Mayan culture. When sleep beckons, head to Villa Las Pilas, a three-bedroom property with a lush garden courtyard, communal library, living room, and dining area. Once a private home, this quiet gem is filled with handcrafted antique furniture, art pieces, and family heirlooms all against a backdrop of richly colored walls. There’s a heated lap pool for those wanting a dip at the end of the day, and the stay includes breakfast, served by Pascualito, the attentive butler who will feel like part of your family by the end of your stay. Order the “Chapín” (the endearing nickname for Guatemalan), a traditional serving of eggs, frijoles volteados (“turned” black beans), fried plantains, and fresh white cheese, accompanied by a stack of freshly made warm tortillas. 

Try not to doze during the two-hour drive from Antigua to Casa Palopó or you’ll miss the colorful mountain villages engaged in a precarious arm wrestle between old and new. Grandmothers dressed in embroidered huipiles (the traditional Mayan garb) expertly balance baskets filled with clothing three times their weight while children in crisp, heavily starched navy school uniforms head to school sporting backpacks emblazoned with images of Captain Marvel. All along the ride you’ll spot multiple dusty kiosks crammed with local goods framed by large, rusted Pepsi signs, a reminder of the far reach of American pop culture. Returning to the airport at the end of your stay, weather permitting, will be a hassle-free and scenic 30-minute helicopter ride (departing from Casa Palopó’s own helipad).

Sololá, the fairy tale town with a tidy white church, is the closest town to Casa Palopó, which sits perched on the mountain overlooking glorious Lake Atitlán. The flooded remnants of a massive volcanic crater, Atitlán means “between the waters” in the Nahuatl language. It is surrounded by twelve villages, most of which remain steeped in ancient Mayan traditions. Three volcanoes, the Atitlán, San Pedro, and Tolimán surround the serene turquoise lake that formed after an eruption 84,000 years ago. 

Casa Palopó was a private residence before turning into a boutique hotel and is the only property in Guatemala to become an official member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group. The hotel is exquisitely detailed with a combination of local artifacts, antiques, and an impressive art collection, including a remarkable Botero painting gracing the living room. Brilliant blue walls (coined “Palopó blue”) embellish the relaxed outdoor patio offering unobstructed lake views. Candles, tropical flowers, and books abound, setting the scene for guests to slow down, relax, and connect with a vacation pace of life. Rooms equally promote this ethos by offering plush Italian bedding, private balconies, and a careful balance of colonial elegance and pampered luxury, which includes bathroom products from L’Occitane. There are no televisions in the rooms, there’s no need—the best entertainment is the symphony of nature. Or you could just look out: every room boasts its very own breathtaking lakeview, which turns golden come sundown. 

Meals at Casa Palopó are equally stellar. Chef Eduardo Gonzalez, a local celebrity with his own food show, is dedicated to providing the finest Guatemalan cuisine while supporting local farms. Starters include kak ik soup, a traditional soup with shredded turkey, balls of fried dough, and chopped cilantro, roasted corn risotto, or ricotta cheese and chayote squash ravioli. Main courses like salmon trout, served with chltepe, roasted coriander seed, and cilantro sauce over mashed sweet potatoes or duck magret with a reduction of suchiles (a local fruit typically used for juice) reconfirm Chef Gonzalez’s knack for incorporating Guatemalan ingredients into his elevated cuisine.

One could leave it at that: a transcendental relaxing adult getaway (no children under 13 are allowed) replete with fine food, spa treatments, extraordinary vistas, and an attentive staff. But there is so much exploring that beckons around Lake Atitlán that venturing out to visit nearby lake towns (accessible by colorful boats with endearing names like “Juanita”) is a must. Program your departure in the morning hours, when the lake is clear and smooth like glass. In the afternoon, the Xocomil winds pick up, making for a choppy ride. 

Santiago, the largest of the twelve villages, is a good start. At the dock you’ll be greeted by friendly guías, offering a tour via tuk-tuk, the staple form of transportation on the steep, narrow roads of the town. The first stop will be to visit the home of the Maya spirit Maximón (mah-shee-mohn). He changes house every year, as decided by the community’s tightly-knit cofradías (brotherhoods) who host him and can be found praying, drinking, and chanting with his adorned image day and night. There’s also the town’s church, built in 1537, a tribute to the melding of Catholic and Mayan beliefs.

Santiago is steeped in a traditional Tz’utujil Maya lifestyle, with women weaving and wearing tocoyal, a “hair belt” that is wrapped around her head looking very much like a thick brimmed hat. A visit to Ixoq Ajkeem, a women’s weaving co-op, will not only offer an explanation and demonstration of how these weavers work, but provides the opportunity for visitors to aid their families by directly purchasing their products onsite.

Perhaps the most surprising find in Santiago is “El Artesano”—a charming hillside cafe offering homemade cheeses and charcuterie along with an impressive selection of wines. It’s reservations-only and a worthy stop. Owner H. Dietrich Gantenbein (Guatemalan with Swiss heritage) will personally deliver and recite the 25-plus items of homemade goodness showcased on each platter.

Guatemala is a quiet country often overlooked in the minds of travelers, perhaps marred by its turbulent history from years past. What it offers today is priceless and worthy of the simple trip from South Florida: an opportunity to explore a rich and colorful ancient history graced by hospitable people, exquisite cuisine, and luxurious boutique hotels. 

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