8 Antigua, Guatemala
By Sheila Glaser
The city of Antigua is a colonialist dream. Surrounded by volcanoes, it seems airlifted from 16th-century Spain to a misty, tropical setting up above the world. No high-rises mar its skyline, no modern buildings disturb its pastel harmonies. And it has survived one of the dirtiest guerrilla wars in Latin American history seemingly without a mark. Founded in 1543 and rebuilt after several earthquakes, Antigua was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. Many hotels are converted mansions, with rooms arranged around a central courtyard and uninterrupted views across red-tiled rooftops to the mountains beyond. Despite the prettiness, there's no Disney effect. In part, that's because the churches, such as the bright yellow La Merced, with its pilasters of curling white plaster, are still in use, and not just during the city's famed Holy Week processions. The ruins of the numerous convents—Santa Clara, Recolección—are spookily spectacular, with palms growing from former nuns' cells, bougainvillea draping across crumbled refectories, walls melting into the hillsides. You don't have to be an anthropologist to appreciate Antigua's mix of Catholic and Mayan ritual or the sartorial inventiveness of the Indians, who come into town in huipils, jeans, and cowboy hats. Mostly they sell food (spicy shrimp ceviche from painted carts; tacos from makeshift stalls), but also leather trinkets, blankets, and combs decorated with brightly painted birds. Better Guatemalan crafts can be found at the popular market in Chichicastenango, 67 miles away (get there as early as 5 a.m.). You may end up with a traditional weaving whose pattern wasn't invented last week.
Jungle-fringed Tikal, one of the largest surviving Mayan temple com-plexes. Allow at least two days. Flights leave Guatemala City at dawn.
Side Trip: Water World
Three hours from Antigua, Lake Atitlán is like a Mayan Lake Como. The crystal-gazing hippies who called it home in the 1970's are still hanging around, but the laid-back atmosphere owes more to the beauty of the volcanic landscape than to those seeking another path. Up a steep flight of steps, La Casa del Mundo (011-502/218-5352; firstname.lastname@example.org; doubles from $33), between Jaibalito and Santa Cruz, has rooms with views so spectacular you won't mind the psycho resident parrot.
There are nonstop flights to Guatemala City from Newark, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles, but don't overnight there: tourist buses make the 45-minute trip to Antigua every 15 minutes. Crime against tourists is rare, except in remote highland areas, on some volcano treks (always check with your hotel), and on the highways at night. Travel during the day to be safe.
WHERE TO STAY
Mesón Panza Verde Spanish colonial antiques, Guatemalan textiles, and French wrought-iron beds adorn the 12 rooms. The restaurant serves French-Mayan food. Doubles from $75, Dinner for two $40; 5 Avda. 19 S.; 011-502/832-1745; www.panzaverde.com
Posada del Ángel The lap pool, library, and seven rooms—each individually decorated, with fireplaces and Guatemalan textiles—were enough to keep Bill Clinton happy when he stayed here in 1999. Doubles from $150, including breakfast; 24A Avda. 4A S.; 800/934-0065 or 011-502/832-5303; www.posadadelangel.com
WHERE TO EAT
La Fonda de la Calle Real Tourists and Guatemalan families come here for the caldo real (chicken soup with herbs)—a meal in itself. Dinner for two $24; 5 Avda. 5 N.; 011-502/832-2696
El Asador de Don Martín Grilled steaks and typical Guatemalan dishes—duck stew with tomatoes and cilantro, tortilla soup—in an intimate, candlelit room. Dinner for two $14; 27 Avda. 4 N.; 011-502/832-1063
Frida's The Mexican dishes are authentic and spicy, and the mojitos aren't bad either. Dinner for two $20; 29 Avda. 5 N.; 011-502/832-0504