Just Back: Guatemala

Hope Smith is seen here at Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Hope Smith, founder of Born to Travel, spent time in Guatemala with Maya Trails in December 2020, visiting famous locations such as Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Tikal, as well as exploring far off-the-beaten-path sights such as Semuc Champey and Rio Dulce. Here she shares some of the highlights from her trip.

It had been nearly 30 years since I last visited Guatemala and I was excited to get back. Would the sights be as wonderful as I remembered them? The culture as colorful? Would the ‘Land of Eternal Spring’ delight me once again? Would I feel comfortable with the COVID protocols in the country? All were answered with a joyful yes! 

On arrival, I was met by my Maya Trails guide, Juan Carlos. I know Jimmy Rogers, the owner of Maya Trails, from the luxury travel shows “Emotions” and “Remote Latin America.” Our long-standing relationship meant I knew I would be working with one of the best operators in the country and that I could expect incredible service before and during what would undoubtedly be a memorable trip.

Meeting the locals in Guatemala

I felt incredibly safe during my travels. From the moment I landed, protocols were enforced throughout the country, both by Maya Trails and every establishment, market, and sight that I visited. Even when we stopped to buy fresh tortillas on the side of the road, vendors were masked, and hand sanitizer was available. Mask wearing was mandatory, and these procedures fade into the background as they become routine. It was good to feel that the travel was safe, both for me and the people of Guatemala.

I chose Guatemala because I thought it would be uncrowded at the time, and I was right. Most of the places I visited, I was the only tourist. This gave me an incredibly exclusive experience. Luxury to me isn’t just about thread count and amenities, it’s also the bliss of exclusivity. There has never been a time like now for travel.

The view from the terrace of Casa Palopo over Lake Atitlan.

In Lake Atitlan, I stayed at the Relais & Châteaux property Casa Palopo. The boutique hotel is perched above the lake and has absolutely breathtaking views and incredible cuisine. The quiet moments I spent taking in the volcanic views from the terrace with my morning coffee will stay with me forever. The boutique, 16-room hotel was the perfect, luxurious base to explore the area, known for its charming villages, galleries, textiles and cooperatives. This area offers community-based tourism at its best.

Antigua was beautiful as ever with its gorgeous architecture, stunning setting and vibrant streets. I chose another intimate spot as my base — Posada del Angel. There is plenty to keep travelers engaged in Antigua, and it’s worth taking the time to slow down and explore. Maya Trails has some fun adventures in the area for their travelers. I love to hike, so Maya Trails suggested I climb nearby Volcan Pacaya, one of three active volcanoes in Guatemala. It was definitely a highlight. My guide and I had the trail to ourselves — except the companionship of a sweet local dog. You can also do an evening hike with Maya Trails where you can cook pizza or roast marshmallows over the lava!

Street scene in Antigua, Guatemala.

The ancient Mayan city of Tikal was another highlight of my trip. We were early birds visiting the ruins, and as I entered the Great Plaza, I realized that yet again, we were the only ones there. In the quiet, I gazed upon the pyramids and felt as though I might have been the first person ever to see them. It was almost a spiritual experience. 

I recommend staying outside of the park at either La Lancha or Las Lagunas. Just plan for an early departure to get to Tikal when it opens. If you stay at The Jungle Lodge, located at the gate of the National Park, note that it does not offer in-room Wi-Fi (though it is available in the restaurant) and it shuts power down around 9 p.m. It does, however, give you exclusive access to a sunrise or sunset tour of Tikal.

A room inside La Lancha, a Francis Ford Coppola hotel.

Travel during COVID may occasionally take a bit more patience, but the rewards are more than worth it. Having these incredible natural and historic sights to myself was a privilege I never imagined. While I traveled solo, I was never alone. I was always accompanied by my guide, and I always had the chance to connect with Guatemala’s warm and wonderful people. Traveling solo also let me set the pace — to slow down, take time to breathe, to sit and to really enjoy my surroundings.

The dock at La Lancha, a Francis Ford Coppola hotel.

I have to say a special gracias to the people of Guatemala for reminding me how much you have to offer. Also, to every one of my Maya Trails guides and drivers who kept me safe and laughing every day on the road. Every protocol and beyond is taken in Guatemala — kudos to them for a job well done!

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