Thanks to the suggestions and advice we received here as well as on other forums, my wife and I decided to visit Guatemala. Below is our report on the trip, so other members could benefit from our experience.
We arrived to Guatemala City late in the evening and decided to take the $30 taxi ride to Antigua. The driver wanted, in local currency Q. 200, which was a better deal for us ($30 =Q. 228.60 at the time). Thanks to the fact that we got some money at the airport ATM we were able to save a bit.
Antigua is a charming, touristic city, which feels like a ghost town after 9pm. We had reservations at Hotel Posada San Pedro (has 2 locations) on 3rd Av. Sur. The total rate for two per night was $35 (or Q. 280, a worse deal).
The hotel was not extraordinary, but was relatively clean. No breakfast included, but a beautiful view of the volcano (from the second floor).
The following day was dedicated to plan our trip with a local Travel Agent - a practice we successfully used in Peru. Since we also reserved two days accommodations (ahead of time) for Lake Atitlan, our planning started for after returning to Antigua.
We picked Aviatur Travel Agency, owned by Luis Fernando Jimenez - Fernando for short. (5a Avenida Norte #34 - phone 502-7832-5989, cell 502-5960-7344 or 502-5679-4844, email: firstname.lastname@example.org). While not very experienced in planning a complex trip the way we wanted, he did a good job and was very conscientious and on top of things. (No matter with whom you deal, put EVERYTHING in writing - avoids misunderstandings)
Where did we visit and our impressions:
A must. A beautiful lake surrounded by three volcanos, with interesting towns on it’s shores. We reserved two nights at La Casa del Mundo 502-5218-5332 ( http://lacasadelmundo.com/) - a hotel on the mountain (unique setting). Great views, good and fresh food, well managed hotel, reasonable rates. Best rooms? 12, 13 as well as 11. A lot of climbing...
The biggest town on the lake. That is where you arrive and find the boat to La Casa del Mundo and other destinations. Make sure you go to the public dock, where a ride to La Casa del Mundo should be Q. 10 but could go up to Q. 20. If you end up in Playa Publica, they will try to talk you into taking a private boat for Q. 150 to Q. 175. Not a good deal...
Otherwise Panajachel is a typical touristic town - restaurants, hotels and shopping.
An hour away, a very interesting town with a huge arts and crafts market on Sundays and Thursdays. Make sure you negotiate tough, as the merchants will go up to 40% or 50% off the asking price.
Copan Ruins, Honduras
While it’s actually in Honduras, it has a very important Mayan ruins. Very interesting site, cute town and nice people. Make reservations for dinner at Carnitas Nia Lola (tel 504-651-4196). Great food and fun place. We stayed at Hotel Plaza Copan (http://www.sailing-diving-guatemala.com/hotels/index-copan.htm) . Very pleasant, at the center of town.
My wife loved it, I was not impressed. Some ruins, but a beautiful park. Worth stopping en route, but not a destination on it’s own.
The town itself is not very appealing. We stayed at Hacienda Tijax - Jungle Eco Lodge (www.tijax.com)
Get an air conditioned cabin, if it’s in you budget. Don’t panic if you find a scorpion in your room - they are NOT poisonous... Take the Jungle Tour, which includes a tree canopy walk.
The main attraction is a the Rio Dulce river ride to Livingston. This was a most beautiful and charming river ride - highly recommended. Make sure on the way back you stop at Restaurante Viajero (may be misspelled) for lunch. It’s literally on the river, not better than decent food but a great experience.
This is a charming small town (no ATMs). Good restaurants, but mediocre hotels, We stayed at Villa del Lago. Try other hotels.
A small “town” in the Tikal ruins park. For us it was the “main event”. Those ruins are in the middle of the forest, spread over a large area. Be ready for a lot of walking. Make sure to climb on Mundo Perdido pyramid to see the sunset and/or Temple 4 for the 5:30 am Sunrise.
We stayed in Hotel Tikal Inn (http://www.enjoyguatemala.com/hotels/hoteltikalinn.htm ) which also organized the tour and transportation. Very charming Inn, but have dinner at Comedor Tikal, a restaurant run by locals. Clean, good food and inexpensive.
We flew on TAG airlines from Flores back to Guatemala City. Smaller plane, but cheaper than other airlines. The hotel we stayed at Hotel San Carlos ( http://hsancarlos.com/ ) has a free airport pickup and drop off for their guests. Also good food, free Internet and is in a safe neighborhood. We didn’t have to much time to tour the city, so no comments here. Just keep in mind that certain sections are dangerous, so check where the hotel you reserve is located.
All in all, we had a great trip, highly recommended destination.
A few comments and tips:
Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Guatemala City are in the mountains (about 1500 meters high) and are chilly in the evenings. Copan, Rio Dulce, Flores and Tikal are pretty warm in the evenings and very hot during the day.
When arriving, get some money from the Airport ATM - gives you the option to pay with local currency. Using ATM to get local currency is the best way in Guatemala, better than Travelers checks or charge cards. Keep in mind that your bank imposes daily limits on ATM withdrawals. The machines you use locally may have daily limits of their own.
Credit cards are effectively useless in Guatemala, as the merchants add a 5% to 10% fee to the price. In many places they are not even accepted.
When offered the option, compare the US$ price to the local currency price. Many times it’s cheaper one way or the other.
If possible, do not use the website reservations - call the establishment or use a local Travel Agency. Most of the time it’s cheaper.
We found that Lonely Planet’s Guatemala tour guide is accurate, most useful and is recommended.
When approaching a dock, bus station or any other public place of this kind, do not let the “chasers” on the way sell you the service you are searching for or approaching. Get there first, and talk to the officials. You will get a better price/deal that way.
At the ruins and other similar attractions, get an official tour guide. You will have a better experience and learn more.
Many merchants and people of Mayan decent you will meet, speak primarily one of the 22 Mayan languages. Their Spanish may be a secondary language and limited. Make sure they understand you... Although my wife speaks fluent Spanish, we experienced some confusion at times.
“Chicken buses” are fun experience. Use it once if desired, but do not depend on it for major travel. Used tourist shuttles or Pullman buses when possible .
Keep many Q.5 notes (about $0.65) for tips along the way. Helps when you have luggage and many other occasions.
In Guatemala’s restaurants, the tax is included, but the customary 10% tip is not.
Bring Tylenol, Aspirin, anti- diarrhea etc. medications from home. Less hassle when needed.
Just in case you may be using your credit cards, notify your bank/card company of you upcoming trip prior to departure. Due to security reasons you may have problems using those cards if you fail to advise them ahead of time.
I tried to squeeze a 12 day tour here, which is a “mission impossible”, but I hope the info above would be of help to some. Please post any questions you have and I’ll try to reply.
Reuven, New York