Last week our family took a 5-day trip to Guatemala, and I know this corner of the internet has been pretty quiet for some time, but my memories and the photos are just too good to not share. If Guatemala is a country that’s been on your radar, or you’re scoping out locations for your next attempt at easing your wanderlust, read on for details and some sights.
But first, when I told people our family was heading to Guatemala, I got a good number of responses that were like, “Whooooa! Guatemala!” Followed by a few people clarifying with, “You and Jordan and the kids?” And a few other people asking, “Why Guatemala?”
And so if any of those questions crossed your mind too, here’s how this trip came about…
Guatemala had not been on my radar/list of places to visit before just two months ago (silly of me; no shade to Guatemala). At the beginning of the year, I was talking to a friend about our previous times spent in Mexico City, as she considered visiting there with her family. I threw out some other potential places they could visit, and my friend mentioned she’d also heard great things about visiting Guatemala.
“Interesting,” I thought. And then just went about my business.
A few weeks later, Jordan suggested we take a trip during the boys’ upcoming mid-winter break from school. And he will tell you that I can be exhausted, falling asleep on the couch at 9:30 p.m., but the moment he suggests a potential trip, I pop up and stay up ’til 1:00 a.m. looking at destinations, searching flights, and building AirBnB wishlists.
And so I went to work, thinking about places that would be good for a family trip. Jordan’s request was that we choose a place in a somewhat similar time zone to New York, in hopes the boys’ sleep wouldn’t be too messed up (a wise request from already sleep-deprived parents). That had me looking at a bunch of places in the Caribbean, Central America, and parts of South America. We thought about revisiting Mexico City too, since we love it so much. Then, I remembered some beautiful photos I’d recently seen shared by The Hambrick Family taken in Guatemala.
Two mentions of Guatemala in a couple weeks’ time had me thinking that other people clearly knew something that I didn’t know. And after researching more about things to do and see in the different regions of the country, our flights were booked.
We flew from JFK to Guatemala City Aurora International Airport, arriving in the afternoon. The flight was direct and right around 4.5 hours from NYC. From there, we took an Uber to our AirBnB in Antigua, which is about an hour’s drive from Guatemala City, when there’s no traffic.
Antigua is a former capitol of Guatemala and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a stop for a lot of tourists, because of the charm of its cobblestone streets, Spanish Baroque-inspired architecture, and fascinating ruins. In some ways, it feels a bit like a town that’s been frozen in time.
Now, before we get into the photos from around Antigua, let’s have a moment of appreciation for the darling gem of an AirBnB that we called home for two nights. The woodwork, interior courtyard (which is a common feature of many of the buildings in Antigua), and Spanish tiles had me in love. Jameson, of course, noticed that the tiles on the roof were just like Casita’s tiles from the movie Encanto. :-) And in case you were wondering, that whole movie and soundtrack live rent-free in my mind.
Our first day in Antigua left us just enough time to have a quick dinner at Maxán and then turn in for the night, which was important, because we had big plans for the next day.
We got up and out, starting our day with breakfast at Café Sol. We had delicious coffee (and this is basically everywhere, because it’s Guatemala!), and I had one of the prettiest dishes of my life. An oat pancake with yogurt, fresh fruit, and honey situation.
After breakfast, we hired a driver to take us to Volcan Pacaya — one of Guatemala’s 37 volcanoes. Pacaya is about an hour’s drive from Antigua. It costs 50 Quetzals per adult to enter the park where the volcano is located, and a guide is required if you’re going to hike up. All of the guides charge 200 Quetzals, and there are options to rent horses (200 Quetzals each) or walking sticks (10 Quetzals) — both of which were clutch for us.
I had read a lot about this hike, as I tried to determine if it was something the kids (ages 6 and 3) would be able to do. It’s 3 miles roundtrip, but there seemed to be mixed accounts about how rigorous it is, as well as the temperature. After doing the hike for myself, the varied experiences seem due to a few things: 1) there are multiple paths up, 2) there have been changes made to the path up, due to past eruptions, and 3) the ground was much hotter after the previous eruption that happened eight months ago. In our case, it was very steep, and much of it was sandy/ash/soft dirt, which added another layer of complexity.
I should also note that all of my comments about the difficulty of this hike aren’t at all based on my personal experience, but on watching Jordan hike up the volcano as I rode a horse with Josiah (ha!). Josiah refused to ride the horse on his own, so while I had planned to hike, I had to ride up with him. And as I saw the sweat on Jordan’s brow as he hiked up, I was reminded of the grace of God in my life. He knows what we need, better than we do. :-)
Being on the volcano kind of felt like being on Mars. The ground looked like mud, but actually was hard lava rock. It was also amazing to see the remnant of the most recent eruption. And as you hike Volcan Pacaya, you have amazing views of other volcanoes across the vista, including Volcan Fuego, which goes off every 10-15 minutes! It was so cool to see the smoke coming out of the top. I must have said, “This is SO beautiful,” at least 20 times.
You can’t hike to the very top of Volcan Pacaya, but we did get to a place with cracks in the ground, and our guide gave us marshmallows to roast over the escaping heat. The boys were in heaven.
The nice thing about the Pacaya experience is that you can do it in about 5-6 hours, including the transport from Antigua there and back.
We made it back to Antigua to shower the dust off ourselves and then headed to a chocolate-making class at ChocoMuseo. They have multiple class offerings, but the mini-workshop was perfect for our tight schedule and the short attention spans of a couple people in our group. We learned all about the process of chocolate making, from it starting out as fruit on the tree and how it ends up as a chocolate bar. And then we each got to make our own bars, using ingredients like sea salt, coffee grounds, cinnamon, chili powder, coconut, dried fruit, and sprinkles–the last being Jameson’s obvious choice!
We finished the day with tacos and guacamole at nearby Ta’Cool Taco Shop, and dinner came with this view.
We spent our final morning in Antigua having breakfast at Doña Luisa Xicotencatl and doing our own version of a little walking tour around Antigua.
Our first stop was to take in the ruins of the original Antigua Guatemala Catedral (which you enter from 5a Calle Oriente).
The site and architecture are beautiful to behold, and the boys loved running around the different sections. They also loved a resident cat who the guides told us lives there all the time. (Not a bad choice for a home, if you ask me.)
Photo credit: Jameson, as Josiah climbs random things in the background.
From the cathedral, we walked through Parque Central, which always seemed to be filled with people and energy.
And then we headed north to El Arco de Santa Catalina, which is probably the most recognizable landmark from Antigua. There were plenty of families posing for photos under the arch, hoping to get the volcano in the background.
We went past the ruins of El Carmen church and then meandered our way back to our AirBnB. I could have happily kept walking and touring, but I’m learning to respect the limits of my family — whether that’s the kids getting tired or Jordan just wanting to chill.
Once Jordan and the boys were settled in the AirBnB, I went back out to do a little more exploring. I was hoping to visit some of the shops I’d read about online, but sadly, most had closed their brick and mortar locations over the course of the pandemic.
But I gladly snapped some final pics before heading home and out of town.
After checking out of our AirBnB, we hired a driver to take us to our next destination — Lake Atitlán. There are several towns that surround the lake, each with their different vibe and all with amazing views of the lake, which is surrounded by volcanoes.
The main tourist town, and general first stop for visitors to the lake, is Panajachel. From there, many people will take a ferry to whichever town they plan to visit. I opted to have us stay in Panajachel for the simplicity. I tried to imagine me telling Jordan after the 2.5 hr drive from Antigua to Panajachel that we then had to gather the kids and our luggage onto a ferry for an additional 30 min ride (not including wait times), and then whatever walk to a hotel. That felt way more suitable for adults traveling with minimal bags than the situation we found ourselves in.
My research led me to Hotel Atitlán, which is a few minutes outside of the main street area of Panajachel. To be honest, Jordan and I haven’t taken a lot of trips where it’s been us and the boys together in one hotel room. We tend to opt for AirBnBs mainly so we can spread out with separate rooms and living space for when they go to bed. So I had no idea how we’d all fare in a room together for multiple days. But after seeing the photos of Hotel Atitlán online, my conclusion was that even if my family was acting crazy, I was going to look at these jaw-dropping views and all would be right in the world.
Plus, they had a beautiful pool, which I knew was all we needed to keep the kids happy. Before our trip, Jameson kept telling people he was going to Guatemala and was going to “climb a volcano and sit in a hot tub!” #thiskid
They pretty much jumped in as soon as they got there.
After eating breakfast, we walked around the grounds of the hotel, which are filled with beautiful gardens, pathways, and seating areas. There are also several macaws, which the boys loved spotting in the trees. We would also sometimes hear them saying, “Hola!”
The hotel offered private boat transfers to the various lake towns. We opted to visit San Juan, which is a 25-min ride by boat, and was the town our driver said was his favorite. Taking in the lake and volcanoes from the water was a total vibe that we all loved.
When we landed in San Juan, a woman named Dora (pictured below) introduced us to various shops run by a cooperative of 30 families. She taught us about the dying and weaving process, and pointed out shops selling coffee, honey, and art. I was particularly amazed to learn that making one scarf with varied colored threads requires someone to weave eight hours a day for two weeks.
Jameson got a bracelet and was totally feeling himself.
After a couple hours and eating lunch, we got on the boat to head back the hotel, and surprise — the boys made a beeline for the pool.
On our last full day in Guatemala, the kids spent a couple hours in the pool, and then we departed to make our way back to Guatemala City. Our flight home wasn’t until the afternoon on following day, but driving 3 hrs from Panajachel to Guatemala City and trying to add a flight on top of that seemed like it would be miserable for the kids, and maybe for us adults too.
We broke up the trip from Panajachel to Guatemala City with a stop at Hobbitenango. It’s an easy 25-min trip from Antigua, but we didn’t have time to fit it in to our two days there.
And what is Hobbitenango? It’s part eco-park, part eating outpost, and part hotel, all perched high in the mountains. Oh, and also, all modeled after the homeland of the Hobbits from The Lord of The Rings. Suuuuper random, yes, I know. But it really is a great way to spend about three hours. You pay an entrance fee to access the area, stay as long as you like, and enjoy all of the attractions and stellar views.
I had to lure the boys away from a trampoline they had discovered to come take this photo, and it’s one of my favorites of our trip. All the joy, togetherness, and beauty in the backdrop.
There were so many good things about this trip, and there were simultaneously hard things about this trip. Flight delays in both directions. Our suitcase with the boys’ clothes inside didn’t arrive with us. The strap on my camera bag snapped on our first outing, and the display screen on my dslr broke when my camera hit the beautiful ancient cobblestone street. (I spent the trip snapping photos and praying I’d made good choices for my settings.) There were some early morning wakings. There were potty mishaps. There were tantrums. There was even car trouble on our trip from Panajachel to Guatemala City.
I say all of this, because the photos can tell a picture-perfect story, but life and travel and raising a family is far more a tension of joy and pain, of delights and disappointments, of beauty and hard.
And for those wondering if we were terrified to have our kids on the giant hand, rest assured we weren’t hanging off a cliff. There was a landing 10 ft beneath us. It’s all about the angles :-)
Additional Trip-Planning Resources for Guatemala
What other questions do you have about Guatemala?