Last month, we related to you readers the first half of the whirlwind adventure Jon experienced during his trip to Guatemala. He charmed us with stories of the amazing Mayan outdoor market spaces in Chichicastanengo, made us want to put on our dancing shoes with his tales of the lively nightlife scene in Quetzaltanengo, and succeeded in making us downright envious with his descriptions of gorgeous Lake Atitlán. This month, we’re moving on to the second half of his trip, where he explored some very different parts of Guatemala, and truly engulfed himself in the country’s vibrant culture.
Last we heard from Jon, he was basking on the shores of beautiful Lake Atitlán, enjoying a few days of peace and tranquility, which were certainly earned after his lively explorations through Chichi and Quetzaltenango. He still had more to explore, however, and so with some effort he tore himself away from the comforts of his lounge chair and moved on to his next destination: Antigua.
Antigua is a city located in the central highlands of Guatemala that has a rich cultural background and an interesting history. Considered the capital of Central America from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, Antigua was a bustling, wealthy city that served as a cultural, religious, and political center for the entire surrounding region. After a series of earthquakes, which devastated Antigua, Spanish authorities abandoned the city and ordered the relocation of the capital to present day Guatemala City. Regulations prohibiting the repair and construction of new buildings were issued as an incentive to convince people to relocate to the new capital. However, many residents remained behind anyway.
Because of this unique history, Antigua’s original eighteenth century Baroque architecture has largely been preserved. Consequently, visiting the city is a unique opportunity to see living traces of eighteenth century Spanish life, a very special cultural experience that recently earned Antigua the recognition of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Jon was very impressed by the sheer beauty of Antigua’s architecture. He had the opportunity to explore countless ruins, and really delve into the colonial atmosphere of the town, an experience that he describes as very special indeed. How many times in life does one get the opportunity to walk around a town filled with buildings perfectly preserved from the eighteenth century? Not many, and Jon took advantage of the experience, visiting countless ruins and touring up and down the cobblestone streets, soaking in the sights along the way.
Even Jon’s hotel was incredible for its authenticity. Built on the ruins of a preserved Dominican convent, the Casa Santa Domingo is a five star hotel that serves as much as an archeological site as it does a place to stay for the night. The hotel has multiple museums that Jon spent hours exploring. He recommends the hotel highly as a place that is not only incredibly interesting to explore, but comfortable to stay in.
Perhaps Jon’s favorite part about his stay in Antigua, however, was completely separate from its gorgeous architecture. He had the opportunity to visit Antigua during its Semana Santa (Holy Week) festival. This festival is something Antigua is famous for around the world – to put it lightly, it’s not something to miss out on. In celebration of Lent, different parishes around the city take turns sponsoring a procession through the cobblestone streets. The floats in the parade are incredibly elaborate, and the procession’s path is decorated with beautiful carpets made of flowers, colored sawdust, and pine needles. Crowds fill the streets to catch a glimpse of the procession, and the whole city comes alive, with everyone coming together to celebrate. Jon describes the experience as very fun and lively, and recommends Holy Week as a great time of the year to make a pit stop in Antigua.
Jon’s next destination would prove to be just as incredible but with a very different feel to it: Copan, an ancient Mayan archaeological site.
Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of Guatemala is the fact that its culture is steeped in a rich Mayan history. The Maya civilization ruled and prospered in Guatemala for thousands of years, leaving a unique cultural impression on the country and its surrounding regions that lasts to this day. They also left behind many interesting artifacts and archaeological sites that draw in people from around the world with their historical splendor.
Perhaps one of the most accessible Mayan archaeological sites can be found at Copán, located just outside of the Guatemalan border in Honduras. Thought to have been “the Athens of the Mayan world” during its time, where art and astronomy once flourished, Copán is now known for its intricately carved monuments and high-relief stelae. Jon explored the site at length, an experience that is unbeatable for anyone the least bit interested in history. The experience is both fun and educational – Jon learned a lot about ancient Mayan civilization from his visit to the ruins.
After soaking up the historical significance of Copán, Jon headed for his next destinations, two places perfect to relax and enjoy some of Guatemala’s beautiful beaches: Livingston and Puerto Barrios.
Livingston is a port town that is located on the coast of Guatemala where the Río Dulce meets the Gulf of Honduras. It is renowned for a unique mix of Garifuna, Mayan, and Afro-Caribbean culture, which Jon describes as being very different than the rest of Guatemalan culture he experienced.
Livingston is well known for its rhythmic music, seafood, and displaced African culture. It is also known for its native medicines – if you want to pick up a love potion or a few hexes, this is the place to do it. Jon describes the beach of Livingston as a perfect place to sit back, unwind, and sample some delicious Guatemalan rum while taking in the sights.
After a short stay, Jon transferred to Puerto Barrios, located on the Amatique Bay, which has a very similar, ultra-Caribbean feel to it. A little bit bigger than Livingston, Puerto Barrios offers a great place to sightsee and go souvenir shopping. It’s popular on the backpacking circuit, and has a friendly, mellow feel to it. It was a perfect spot for Jon to relax a bit, before continuing onto his next, final destination: the massive Mayan ruins of Tikal.
During its time, Tikal was one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya civilization and remains today one of the largest Maya archaeological sites in the world. Jon’s visit to Tikal left him stunned by the historical significance and sheer beauty of the ruins, and gave him a deeper understanding of Guatemalan culture.
Tikal is perhaps the most impressive archaeological site in Guatemala, mostly due to the incredible height of its buildings. Its architecture is built from limestone, and contains the remains of Mayan palaces, temples, pyramids, residences, and even a building theorized to have been a jail. To say the least, it’s huge – Jon says he wishes he had spent three or four days exploring each of the buildings in depth.
Like Copán, Tikal is an unforgettable sight. Jon recommends Tikal as a place everyone should go to at some point in their lives. Similar to seeing the Egyptian pyramids, the massive ruins of Tikal inspire a deep appreciation for history and culture that can’t be found elsewhere. Seeing Tikal was one of Jon’s favorite parts of his trip, and was a great final destination spot for him to go before he returned to Guatemala City to catch his return flight home.