The Local Perspective: Antigua, Lake Atitlán & Tikal
There’s no shortage of information on Guatemala’s top tourist destinations. Books and blog posts abound on Antigua, Lake Atitlán, and the Tikal area and can certainly help you create the bones of a good trip. But if it’s curated advice on the best of what to do, see, and try that you want—and from the perspective of someone who lives and breathes the destination where you’re heading—nothing beats the word of a local. For this reason, we reached out to three Viaventure friends in Antigua, Lake Atitlán, and El Petén to get the lowdown on what the locals are up to. Read on to discover what to do, buy, and eat—and where to meet a crocodile named Corroncha.
John Rexer, owner of Café No Sé
Current home: Antigua
Guatemala movie pick: The award-winning Puro Mula is a must-see. Some young and very talented Guatemalan filmmakers produced it. It’s pure genius.
Number of tortillas per meal: 0. Can’t stand them.
A New York-native, John moved to Antigua a decade ago and has run Café No Sé—an eclectic bar with a great mix of food, music, and mezcal—ever since. “Antigua is about the people you meet,” he says. “You get to know the soul of the city by getting to know those who live here—the good, the bad, and the beautiful.”
You have friends visiting who want to see the real Antigua. Where do you take them? We’d go to the market to experience the mad juxtaposition of items and the swirling beauty of the place. We’d buy fruit, vegetables, a water gun, and some goldfish. Why not? I’d also suggest they have dinner and spend a night at Meson Panza Verde. It’s a great boutique hotel with old world charm and characters that seem to come straight out of a Graham Greene novel. Lastly, I’d have them visit one of the local schools, whether it’s an NGO like Niños de Guatemala or the Antigua International School. At either, they’d get to meet extraordinary locals and foreigners working together to make Guatemala a better place.
Any local spots you’d recommend that travelers won’t read about in their guidebook? There is a wonderful little shop called Doña Gavi, just behind the cathedral. The tiny place is a work of art, and Gavi, who is always dressed in white, is ever-radiant. You’ll find white hammocks, white handmade clothing, mosquito netting, hand-bottled remedies, and exotic homemade ice cream. Go!
Which Antigua ruins are your favorites? All of the ruins are worth seeing, though I’d suggest that instead of just “seeing the ruins,” you pick one or two and spend time taking them in slowly. Bring a book and read the afternoon away—they’re quiet, especially in the low season and on weekdays. I have a particular fondness for the San Francisco ruins.
What’s your favorite way to while away a Saturday afternoon? Eating ceviche from Hugo’s Ceviche truck on 2nd Avenida Sur near the Tanque de la Unión and drinking several micheladas.
What is Antigua’s best time of year? I love the rainy season. At the height of it, the rain comes down up to three times a day. The streets fill with water and everyone dashes for cover in a bar or restaurant to wait for sun’s return. It’s lush, and the countryside bursts with green. It’s also the time for lushes which is good for the bar business.
What is your favorite Antigua adventure? If drinking till 5:00 a.m. isn’t considered an adventure, then I recommend climbing the volcano Acatenango. Do it in a small group and at your own pace. An overnight trip is worth every minute. The sunset and the view of nearby Fuego volcano are beyond compare.
Any tips for how to best explore Antigua? Get off of Calle del Arco (5th Avenida) and roam about. Poke your head in every door. It’s amazing what you’ll find in places just off the main square. Make sure you also get to a few of the places with rooftop decks. Part of Antigua’s beauty can only be seen from above. Both Panza Verde and Sky Cafe have great rooftops.
What is Antigua’s most underrated experience? The lost day. The one where you do nothing but wander the town and picture its many pasts. The lazy day where you stop and look at the bougainvillea crawling over the buildings and have nothing planned.
Best cup of coffee? Tostaduría Antigua (on the corner of 6th Avenida and 7th Calle). You can buy coffee by the pound or sit and have a cup. They roast their own beans and make each cup individually using a coffee sock. It’s nothing pretentious, just two tables and great coffee.
A great night out in Antigua entails….drinking Ilegal Mezcal in Café No Sé and listening to Mercedes Escobar sing.
Any Café No Sé news to share? We’re planning a ten-year anniversary party. My guess is we’ll do it in October sometime. The idea is to invite down all of the musicians who have played in the bar over the years and have a two- or three-day-long festival. We’ll see if it comes to pass.
Gabriela de la Bastide, Viaventure guide
Current home: Panajachel, Sololá
Guatemala movie pick: The documentary Engineering an Empire–The Maya: Death Empire.
Number of tortillas per meal: Oops, none. I never got accustomed to them.
Originally from Venezuela, Gabriela has lived in Guatemala on and off for 35 years. “The first decade, I mostly just came to vacation in Panajachel. After that, I made the move more permanent, and I’ve now worked as a guide for six years. I’ve always been involved in the field of tourism, whether directly or indirectly. For awhile, I was a buyer of traditional handicrafts for an export company; I also taught English to local hotel staff. It’s Guatemala’s natural beauty, history, and massive amount of culture that have kept me here all these years.”
What’s your favorite spot around Lake Atitlán? I love being on a boat in the middle of the lake. The majestic views and the volcanoes are awe-inspiring, and you feel like you’re one with nature.
When is the best time to vist? Either November or December; the weather is spectacular and the sunset views are the best.
What is Lake Atitlán’s most underrated destination? Samabaj, the newly discovered Maya site under Lake Atitlán, near Cerro de Oro. Take a boat over the site to offer reverence and then visit the small but impressive museum that’s dedicated to it at the Posada de Don Rodrigo in Panajachel.
What’s the local souvenir to score? Any of the hand-woven, naturally dyed products from the women artisans of San Juan La Laguna, especially from the prize-winning weaver of the town, Socorro. Also be sure to stop by the San Juan artist gallery called Xocomil. Pick up a work of art made by Angelina, one of the few female Tz’utujil primitivist, naïf painters.
Where’s the best place to take photos? I’d recommend the town of Santa Catarina Palopó, especially from the hotel Casa Palopó, where the view is spectacular. The top of San Pedro volcano offers a true bird’s-eye-view of the lake, as does the lookout that you pass heading from the town of Sololá to the lake. There are great photo opps in the market of Sololá, too; lots of vibrant produce and traditional dress.
Where’s your favorite place to relax? The Casa Palopó hotel or the town of San Marcos, where you can jump off rocks into the lake to swim.
What are some of your favorite things to do in the Lake Atitlán area? I love the hike from the town of Santa Cruz to the town of San Marcos. It’s a rocky route that runs along the lake; you pass through small towns, pretty forests, and have great views of the volcanoes and boats crossing the water. I also enjoy kayaking near Cerro de Oro.
Which town on the lake is your favorite? San Juan La Laguna. I think it’s the cleanest town in Guatemala. Plus, the people are lovely, there are innovative associations and cooperatives where everyone really works together, and the handicrafts are beautiful.
Lorena Castillo, owner of Ni’tun Ecolodge
Current home: The Lake Petén Itzá area; a 10-minute boat ride from the town of Flores
Guatemala music pick: Malacates Trébol Shop, Bohemia Suburbana, and El Tambor de la Tribu. In that order.
Number of tortillas per meal: Two. They have to be small and preferably tortillas negritas.
Originally from Guatemala City, Lorena has lived in El Petén since 1993 and has always loved nature and adventure. “I studied animal science and was also influenced by my grandfather who ran a timber farm in a cloud forest and by my father who is a former-hunter-turned-environmentalist. I moved to El Petén because I wanted to live in a more holistic, peaceful place,” she says. Ni’tun Ecolodge opened in 1995 and shares 14 hectares (35 acres) of jungle with an incredible assortment of wildlife.
Where is your go-to spot in the Petén region? The Naachtún Dos Lagunas Protected Biotope in the very northern part of the department. I love it because it’s secluded and because I “know” the three-meter-long (10-foot) crocodile, Corroncha, who lives there. She’s been the leader of the lagoon for years. I’ve also seen marvelous birds, wild boar, deer, and small cats. There’s no trace of humans; instead it’s just silence, wilderness, and beauty. And getting there alone is an adventure. From Ni’tun, it can take as little as five hours or up to two days, depending on the rain and mud.
What’s the local souvenir to score? At the Cool Beans café in Flores, you can find beautiful serving spoons made from remnants of various types of wood that have been exported from the area; they’re designed by a local women’s cooperative. The town of El Remate has lots of wood-carved items, too. In Flores, be sure to also look for cericote conserves (cericote is a fruit that grows on a tree of the same name) and ramón cookies made from the highly nutritious seed of the ramón tree. These seeds were used during the time of the ancient Maya, and the cookies are delicious.
When is the best time of year to visit? It depends on the guest. My favorite months are November through January (November in particular as the sunsets are so pretty). The weather is nice, it’s cooler, and it’s perfect for hiking. February, March, and April are very hot—temperatures can reach up to 50°C (120°F)—but it’s dry and a good time to camp or visit secluded Maya sites. If you like birding, come in April to see migratory species. For other birds and wildlife, December and January are good months. May and June are when you spot the most baby animals, especially hummingbirds.
Where’s a good spot for photos? I think the Yaxhá archaeological site is the best place to take photos. It’s a beautiful setting with ruins and incredible birds, plus the sunset over the lagoon is unbeatable.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Petén? I love to swim in Lake Petén Itzá—though walks through the jungles of Tikal or Yaxhá, or the deep in the forests near El Mirador, are always truly magical.
What is the most underrated experience in Petén? Swimming in Lake Petén Itzá. I don’t think many people realize that it’s great. The water is never cold, it’s very peaceful, and you can watch the birds fly overhead. I like to kayak here, too.
Which ruins are your favorites? I love El Mirador and the Río Azul ruins, both of which are in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. It’s magical to be able to observe the reserve from the top of an ancient Maya building and to see these imposing structures surpass the treetops.
What are your favorite local or traditional eats? Pescado blanco (white fish) cooked en papillote (wrapped in paper and baked in the oven)—not fried as many people prepare it. When done well, it’s truly something special. Chaya, which is like chard, is really good, too, especially in crepes.
Where is your favorite place to eat? Definitely Ni’tun. I pride myself on being a chef and even offer cooking classes to guests. We use ingredients from El Petén and Guatemala but recipes from all over the world.
Any newsworthy Ni’tun events to share? Yes! I’m excited to say that I recently helped create two new private reserves: One at Ni’tun and one next to Ni’tun, both of which will go a long way towards local conservation. I’m also now on Guatemala’s board of National Private Reserves and am hoping to help strengthen the ties between El Petén and the rest of Guatemala to promote more conservation. The more we dedicate to educational programs and wildlife research, the more successful we’ll be at preserving our wild lands and stopping the destruction of the forest.