A Guatemala Trip Report: Our family of four had a blast!
The jungle here in Guatemala belies the hidden Mayan culture we are about to encounter. As the kids swim in the pool at our small hotel on the site of Tikal National Park I know they cannot comprehend what is right around the corner. No way. They complain about having to hike in. Par for the course. Then we come out onto the main plaza area in Tikal where they see pyramids and monkeys and things they have no words for – we all stop to soak it in. We are standing on this sacred spot looking into the past. Reminds me of the first time I saw the Grand Canyon – it was almost incomprehensible how large it was. Then our guide tells my boys they can climb around on the site and they immediately start exploring. Guatemala is truly a land of amazement and a perfect family travel experience!
Guatemala has a special place in my heart. My husband and I traveled to Guatemala in 1990. We took time off from college and spent 3 months learning Spanish and traveling around this amazing country. The indigenous culture, Spanish, vibrant colors, mountains, and the warmth of the people in this Central American country had left me dreaming of the day I would return. Since then I have always wanted to go back. I finally got the chance and took my kids – ages 10 & 12 – for 2 1/2 weeks.
Guatemala is not luxury travel. Though you can travel luxuriously. We used TripAdvisor to locate hotels that were family-friendly and retained a feeling of the local culture. A few years earlier we traveled to Costa Rica and we wanted something a little rougher, but not without any amenities. We organized most of our travel ahead of time, but left room for flexibility.
Guatemala is not insular. You can really get a sense of the culture through food, experiences, and observation. We chose to travel close to the ground and spend time observing [and participating in] the local customs and events whenever possible. It seemed we were always stumbling onto something new like on New Year’s day when the people in Antigua lit off literally streets full of firecrackers. Smoke filling the streets. People cheering. Believe me, we would never do this in the US!
Guatemala is not tame – there are adventures of all kinds to be had. We found ourselves traveling to some of the hot spots in this country since we had under three weeks. Our family spent time in Antigua, Chichicastenango Market, Tikal, and the Pacific Ocean site of Paredon Surf House. I would add Lago Atitlan and Livingston as must see family spots in Guatemala but we didn’t make it because of our schedule and choosing to travel more slowly! So to add to surfing some of the things you can find to do in Guatemala as a family are sailing, horse back riding and zip lining.
Here are the places we spent time in during our trip:
Antigua – We spent at least a week here on and off. The town is a World Heritage site which was the capital of Guatemala at one time. The buildings are spectacular and the fact you can get a great cup of coffee was helpful! The kids loved wandering the cobblestone streets, eating lunch overlooking the plaza or in an amazing internal courtyard, touring a coffee cooperative, and experiencing the most amazing New Years party throughout the streets of Antigua – ever! If you were dropped in Antigua on New Year Eve you would think this was a town of Pyromaniacs – this makes for happy boys.
Chichcastenango – This was our first stop. A little overwhelming for the kids as their introduction to Guatemala so I would head there again, but later in our trip. The market in Chichicastenango is amazing. It is the real deal. It is not intended for Gringo Tourists – people are selling day to day goods as well as masks. The best part was the fact that we happened upon a religious ceremony that includes ornate processions, and men hanging upside down from ropes on a pole 3 stories high. Captivating for all of us!
Tikal – The most amazing Mayan ruins rising out of the jungle! We stayed at a hotel on the site of Tikal National Park. A splurge. But it was amazing to be right in the park. A walk through Tikal is nothing like it would be in USA. You can climb all around and on these Mayan ruins so it was a full body experience and with 10 & 12 year olds they really appreciated being let loose. I highly recommend Tikal for any family!
Paredon Surf House – This is a little known location on the coast of Guatemala. Our family full of culture and loved every minute, but we wanted to satiate our surfing desires so we did some research and found Paradon Surf House in the town of El Paredon about 2 hours from Guatemala City. It was an amazing, tranquil, out of the way location right on the water with a pool, food available onsite [so no stressing about buying ahead and making it], and surf lessons available all day long. Perfect! Beside surfing along the black sand beaches was that there were people from all over the world staying in this small surf house that held maybe 30 people max. The kids got up and surfed the first day and then didn’t want to stop!
Getting Up Close & Personal – The thing we appreciated most is how close to the culture and people we got in Guatemala as tourists. It was the coffee tour that is burned in my mind – just our family with a coffee farmer & interpreter. We ended the tour at this farmer’s house where the kids got to separate the dried coffee by using a bike powered machine he clearly created, roast the coffee over a fire, meet the kids of this family, and drink coffee. They still talk about the “best coffee ever!”
Safety – We always felt safe traveling in Guatemala. With kids we decided to avoid the local bus service known as “Chicken Buses” which was bitter sweet because we traveled in relatively more comfort than we had in our previous visit, but we had some of our best experiences on these buses sitting next to chickens. We were careful with food and simply explained to the kids about not drinking water from an unknown source and washing regularly. It was easy and no one got sick!
The kids thoroughly enjoyed our Guatemalan adventure. They have asked that on our next vacation we stay in one place longer. What they described would fall into the arena of “All Inclusive” but I don’t think this is what they mean since they have never experienced anything of the sort. Will a more tame trip be in our future? I doubt it.