It has been four months and I am still daydreaming about my visit to Guatemala this past April. If you had a chance to read my article in our summer print issue, “Finding a Treasure Trove of History, Culture, Luxury and Charm in Guatemala,” you will know that I was simply blown away during my trip with my host Bella Guatemala Travel. The Central American country which borders Belize, El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras, has a lot more to offer than meets the eye. It’s a melting pot of cultures rooted in the ancient Maya people that is memorialized by architecture and iconography and hieroglyphic writing.
Over a course of 10 days we were pretty much on the go the entire time, but when we had time to take in the sights on our own, two places in particular stand out in my head. I call these my “Guatemalan happy places.” Let me tell you where and why.
SERENITY BY THE WATER: LAKE ATITLAN
Surrounded by three volcanoes and 12 lakeside communities, Lake Atitlan has been quickly becoming a tourist destination for foreign visitors and fellow Guatemalans alike. Its peaceful atmosphere and still blue waters remind me of Lake Tahoe here in California. Similar efforts to keep the lake free of pollutants is an environmental fight that is all too familiar.
For the next three nights, we would lay our heads down at a charming boutique hotel known as Hotel Atitlan. The hotel’s name is a natural fit given its location and the property, a former coffee plantation, is encapsulated by botanical gardens, singing birds and nature. Bella Guatemala Travel’s founder Elsie YiDonoy says her family used to come here when she was young, so naturally, I see why it was on the trip’s itinerary.
The 60 rooms offer breathtaking views that can be enjoyed on your private balcony while dining outside at the charming restaurant or during an afternoon dip in the pool. A gift shop off the lobby ensures you won’t forget to take a little memento home.
Just 10 minutes away by car, or if you really want to be like the locals, jump in a tut tut (small three-wheel vehicle) and head over to Panajachel for shopping, happy hour or a night out. The town was invaded in the 1960s by hippies who clearly left their mark. Strike up a conversation with a stranger and sooner or later you will find someone who was so taken in by the laid-back style of living there that they never left. If you’re planning to grab a few souvenirs for family and friends, Panajachel is the place to do it as you walk down the street with vendor after vendor vying for your attention and money for hand-crafted goods.
Other communities were just a boat ride away. A short walk to the hotel’s dock and soon we were boarding a small boat, first heading over to the largest community, Santiago Atitlan, and then to San Juan La Laguna to visit at a co-op for Maya women weavers. These co-ops help women support their families and gain valuable entrepreneur skills. Knowing that, I was all too eager to support the weavers.
Be sure to plan your visits by boat earlier in the day as the water can get a little choppy and make for a nail-biting ride on the way back.
Another short ride away is the Reserva Natural Atitlán. You don’t have to be a nature enthusiast to appreciate the beauty that makes this reserve one of the top places to visit. Be sure to wear hiking or other athletic shoes as you hike the trails, walk across the hanging bridges and zip line across the waterfalls. The Butterfly Geodome will have you surrounded by thousands of monarch butterflies and other species that are eventually released into the wild. If you look carefully in a corner, you’ll see a rescued owl who watches over his winged flock with a vigilant eye.
The hotel restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, which is a blessing and a curse. If true relaxation is what you are looking for, you may soon trade in your desire to explore for a lounge chair, a good book and a glass of wine… or bottle.
JUNGLE FEVER – LAS LAGUNAS BOUTIQUE HOTEL, MUSEUM & SPA
Yes, I have jungle fever and I am not talking about the kind in Spike Lee’s movie. I was given a heads up about Las Laguna Boutique Hotel, Museum & Spa, but it wasn’t until the gates opened and we were heading up to the hotel did I finally get a clue. The welcome drink upon arriving in the lobby just sealed the deal.
Located in the city of Petén, it is situated on 300 acres within a private reserve, the boutique hotel provides all of the luxurious comforts and amenities one would come to expect. 19 rooms equipped with their own open decks and Jacuzzis is just the beginning of what is in store. Whether you wake up to an amazing sunrise or celebrate the evening early with the sunset, there is not one bad view in sight.
General manager Lara de Muller has been at the property since it opened in October 2012. A native of Guatemala, she says, “When I came here and I saw the property, I fell in love immediately and I was so amazed that it was in Guatemala because when I left, you couldn’t find things like this.” Muller was working in Belize when the opening of Las Lagunas was announced. She now describes it as a place to enjoy nature and relax.
Visitors from all over the world rave about the property that Forbes magazine calls, “Your Private Lakeside Retreat.” The tagline, “Luxury by Nature,” sums it up in three words as you ditch your significant other (or bring him or her along) for a well-deserved massage, facial treatment or mani-pedi at the spa that just opened earlier this year. And don’t let the day go by without sipping a drink as you lean over with just your head and arms exposed while in the infinity pool. Nothing makes the statement, “I am on vacation,” more than when you tell the staff, “One more please,” as they notice your empty glass and want to ensure your time in the pool or lounging is uninterrupted by having to get it yourself.
As you wake up in the morning, don’t be alarmed by the sounds of howler monkeys heard in the distance. If you want to see what the noise is all about, be sure to take the Monkey Island Tour so you can watch them in their natural habitat while they are fed each morning.
Buckle up as you ride through the grounds on 4×4 bikes. If you want to slow it down, check out the native species on a hike or watch the variety of exotic birds as they go about their daily routines.
History is all around in Guatemala and you can get another lesson at the newly opened museum on the property. Displaying some of the owner’s personal collection, walk back in time with pieces that include masks, statues and jewelry. Some are said to date back as far as 400 B.C.
As you relax in your suite with a private dining deck, the question you’ll ask yourself each day is, “Do I dine at the restaurant or order room service.” Don’t think the answer will be an easy one as you gaze out into the lagoon, watch the birds play and become hypnotized by the sounds of nature that make you forget where you are.
Lastly, love is in the air at Las Lagunas, so you can go with your girls or your boys if you want, but if you’re really looking to make memories that will last a lifetime, I would recommend spending your time here with that special someone. You’ll thank me later.
To get a taste of both or either one of my “Guatemala happy places,” visit Hotel Atitlan at www.hotelatitlan.com for rates and availability. It is located about 1.5 hours from Guatemala City. You can also follow the property on Facebook. To get to Las Lagunas in Petén, take a 45-minute flight from Guatemala City. To book your stay, visit www.laslagunashotel.com. You can also follow the property on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Photo credit: V. Sheree Publishing