One of Central America’s most scenic road trips: Antigua to Atitlan

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Guatemala is not as popular as Mexico among tourists headed into Central America, but it’s slowly gaining fame for its vibrant cultural opportunities, interesting historical significance, and breathtaking scenery. Many who visit take the opportunity to use local transportation - hopping on the Guatemalan buses and wandering the countryside adventurously, or booking a tour through the numerous companies that can be found in Guatemala City and Antigua. But there is another way to get around Guatemala on your own terms. Whether you’re with a couple of friends or on vacation with the family, renting your own vehicle is always a great transportation option. Guatemala can be compared in size to Tennessee. To see the entire country, you need only take day trips from a central city. To start with, you might consider driving from Antigua to Lago de Atitlan, one of Guatemala’s most scenic road trips.

One of Central America’s most scenic road trips: Antigua to Atitlan

 

Antigua

Begin in Antigua, just an hour’s drive from the international airport in Guatemala City (commonly known simply as Guate among locals and expats). Antigua is considered to be Guatemala’s most historic and tourist friendly city, for good reason! Once the capitol of Guatemala, the colorful adobe walls of the colonial town lie at the feet of Volcan Pacaya, a massive dormant volcano. If you have the time and energy for it, consider hiking to the top to enjoy the fabulous view of its active sister, Volcan Fuego. Standing at 3,763 meters elevation, this majestic volcano spits ash and smoke into the sky off and on throughout the day. It’s an impressive sight that has drawn more than a few photographers to the area.

One of Central America’s most scenic road trips: Antigua to Atitlan

 

Antigua is worth spending a few days in. Though it’s considerably more expensive than rural Guatemala, the beauty and historical significance of Antigua makes it a site worth exploring. Take the time to view the famous Santa Catalina Arch, built in the 17th century to allow nuns to cross the street from the church to the school without being seen by passersby. There are several churches in the area worth wandering through. The Saint Joseph Cathedral and the San Francisco Cathedral are particularly beautiful. The architecture is so delicate and so detailed that the churches are often compared to wonderfully decorated wedding cakes. With white details and statuary on a pastel yellow background, it’s not hard to see the resemblance. 

One of Central America’s most scenic road trips: Antigua to Atitlan

Santa Catalina Arch

 

Pack some water bottles, a few packages of Chikys (a chocolate covered cookie common in Central and South America), a map, and an English-Spanish dictionary, and get ready to hit the road! It’s possible to drive from Antigua to Lago de Atitlan in around three hours. GPS, Google Maps, and Apple Maps will tell you that the drive is possible in 1 1/2 hours, but due to road conditions on the latter part of the drive, it is difficult if not impossible to make it in that time unless you have years of experience driving in Central America. Most of the drive is spent on the Carr. Interamericana, otherwise known as the Inter-American Highway. Part of the Pan-American Highway, this strip will be the best driving conditions you will experience during your stay in Guatemala. 

Keep in mind that road rules, guidelines, and safety measures vary widely from culture to culture. Driving in Guatemala can be intense for travelers new to the Central American lifestyle. Buses race past at breakneck speeds, veering around corners precariously; cars and trucks that would not pass inspection in a first-world country pass you, loaded to the limit with passengers and livestock; it is not uncommon for dogs, people, and cows to cross even the busiest highways without warning. It’s best if the driver has had previous experience driving in Central America and is at ease with the situation. If you are relaxed and alert, it’s quite safe. Plus, driving your own car is the best and most comfortable way to explore Guatemala on your own terms. 

Since you’re not in a rush, enjoy the freedom to stop along the road wherever you feel like it. Along the way, you’ll see a number of small roadside shops selling fresh fruit, handmade pottery, carvings (both intricate and somewhat rudimentary), beautiful paintings of the countryside, and more. I particularly enjoy shopping for used local textiles. It’s said that color was invented in Guatemala, and nowhere is that more evident than in the local tejidos. Blankets are full of vibrant color, as are the long heavy skirts and embroidered shirts that highland women and men alike wear. You can easily purchase them from a roadside vendor, used or new. 

 

Chichicastenango

Between Antigua and Lago de Atitlan there aren’t many large attractions to stop at. However, if you want to make your road trip a bit longer, consider driving to Chichicastenango, spending the night, and making your way to Lago de Atitlan the next day. Chichicastenango is home to Guatemala’s biggest local market. Every Thursday and Sunday, indigenous Mayan highlanders flock to the city to set up their stalls and buy what they need. From beautiful local crafts to incredible food, this market truly does have it all. If you look in the right places, you can even find authentic Mayan artifacts and silver pieces. 

One of Central America’s most scenic road trips: Antigua to Atitlan

 

If you do plan to visit Chichicastenango, do not try to drive from Antigua to Chichicastenango, visit the market, and then drive on to Lago de Atitlan. This is especially true if it’s your first time in the area. It is not recommended that you attempt to drive during the night, due to road conditions. The road down to Lago de Atitlan from the mountain ridge is very steep and poorly maintained. It’s best tackled during the day. Instead, spend the night in Chichicastenango and drive on to the lake the next day. 

 

Lago de Atitlan

Lago de Atitlan is becoming more and more famous for its beauty and its incredible cultural aspects. Nestled between three volcanoes, at an altitude of 5,125 ft., this lake is truly unique. It happens to be the deepest lake in Central America, drawing divers from all over the world. There’s a lot to do and see, so be sure to spend a few days at one of the gorgeous hotels and eco-lodges that can be found around the lake. 

One of Central America’s most scenic road trips: Antigua to Atitlan

 

One of the great things about Lago de Atitlan and the towns that sit along the waterside is the wide range of activities available, whether you have a large budget or a backpacker’s budget to work with. Go swimming in the lake, or kayak from town to town for just a few dollars an hour. Don’t miss out on exhilarating adventures like cliff diving, waterskiing, horse rides through scenic coffee plantations, or scaling a volcano! If you’re here to relax, sit back and enjoy a break from the world at the spa, learn to paint traditional market scenes, or participate in a yoga class. There’s something for everyone at Lago de Atitlan - it’s just a matter of finding the town that suits you best!

Since you’re driving in, spend the night in Panajachel, one of the largest towns on the lake. Hotels are readily available, as are places to park your car. If possible, try not to leave your vehicle on the street overnight, as there is a chance of robbery. During the day, the best way to explore the lake is by boat. Head down to the docks, and there you’ll find the public launchas, which will take you anywhere on the lake. The cheapest way to travel is by public boat, but you can easily rent a private boat at the docks. Public fare varies depending on the town you stop in. Expect to pay 20 - 30 Guatemalan Quetzales (about 3.25 USD) each for the public boat. 

The towns you’ll wish to tour will depend largely on your interests. Most popular among travelers are the towns of Panajachel, Santiago, and San Pedro. 

•    Panajachel is very large, with a great marketplace. It’s usually the first town that visitors enter, and is also the best place to go if you need car service, English-speaking help, or a base point from which to take day trips. 

•    San Pedro, on the other side of the lake, is well-known for its nightlife and party atmosphere. Because of this, it tends to draw in young backpackers and anyone looking to experiment with alcohol and drugs. However, there is another side to the lovely town of San Pedro. From here, you can book quite a few incredible excursions. If you want to hike Volcan San Pedro, this is the place to go. If you’re interested in kayaking or cliff diving, San Pedro is the place to be. And if you’re just looking for some really incredible dining experiences, San Pedro will not disappoint.

•    Santiago is the largest city on the lake, but for all its size, it still resembles a quaint town. This town is famous for its historical and cultural significance. The church there is quite beautiful and worth visiting, though it has a tragic past. During the genocide in Guatemala not fifty years ago, the church served as a place of refuge for the indigenous families in the area. At one point, an American missionary named Stanley Rother gave his life in order to protect those families from the military. His heart is interred in the church. 

•    Santiago is also home to a local deity, Maximon. Carved of wood, Maximon resides in a different local house each year. Locals travel from miles around to see him and to receive his blessing. Last year, he could be found within walking distance of the market. One of the biggest markets on the lake, the Santiago market is a huge draw for tourists and expats alike. You’ll find yourself rubbing shoulders with locals, seasoned travelers, and young backpackers there. 

 

The trip from Antigua to Lago de Atitlan is one of the most scenic of all road trips you can take through Guatemala. When you finish, you’ll have made memories and had experiences that will stay with you for a lifetime. You’ll have seen old colonial towns, erupting volcanoes, and bustling markets. You’ll have wandered through crumbling cathedrals, bartered with roadside vendors, and explored the beautiful Lago de Atitlan. Best of all, you’ll have stories to tell and pictures to show friends and family back home. Not everyone goes on a road trip through Guatemala, you know. From Antigua to Lago de Atitlan and back again, it’ll be the adventure of a lifetime! 

One of Central America’s most scenic road trips: Antigua to Atitlan

 

 

 

About Hannah Miller: I’m a seventeen year old girl, with a serious case of wanderlust. Over the past few years I’ve traveled to over twenty-four countries, on five different continents, using bikes, buses, trains, planes, and of course, my own two feet. Wherever I go, a video camera and three instruments follow. I’m trying to change the world, one step at a time. By the end of my life I want to have visited every country in the world, and do it all through travel writing. In my opinion, there’s no better school than the big world around us, and no better way to learn about the planet I live on than to see it myself! My greatest fear: to reach the end of my days only to be filled with regret for the adventures I never had. Find me at http://www.edventuregirl.com/

All photos courtesy flickr cc: Pedro Szekely, first photo adapted by Wandering Educators

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