Just because you no longer carry a backpack doesn't mean you can't have an adventure!
Pack your suitcase, call your travel agent and book a flight to Guatemala for a journey of adventure and fresh new experiences. If your "must-do list" includes learning a new language, climbing a volcano, exploring noise-filled colourful markets or visiting Mayan pre-Columbian ruins, Guatemala is your destination. Quoted as being the land of eternal sunshine, it has become popular with more than just young backpackers. Retirees from all over the world are finding this Central American location an eventful place to visit or even retire. If you are looking for all-inclusive beach resorts, amusement parks or well-manicured golf courses, make other arrangements. But, if you are a bit of an adventurer and are looking for the extraordinary versus the ordinary, take a chance on this emerging tourist destination.
Many travellers stop in Guatemala to study Spanish at one of the hundreds of language schools that can be found throughout the country. The most popular location is the city of Antigua, with international travellers on every corner and over 75 schools to choose from. It's definitely not a typical Guatemalan city, but its crumbling ruins covered in vivid bougainvillea, the three volcanoes that overlook it, very comfortable accommodation and great restaurants make it a stop that should be part of every tour.
The low cost and a friend's recommendation brought Gloria Forbes, a university professor from Saskatoon to Quetzaltenango (Xela) to study Spanish at one of their reliable schools. Living in an area less populated by foreign tourists, Gloria was forced to use the words she learned daily in the classroom to mix with the friendly locals. San Pedro La Laguna and Panajachel are also popular for people wishing to spend time exploring Lago de Atitlán (Lake Atitlan) and attend one of their language schools. Walking through the town centre in Panajachel and looking into the open-air cafés and bars reveals that tourists of every age enjoy a good meal and great company.
Chichicastenango market originally sold the basics to locals, but it has expanded to become one of the most popular tourist shopping areas in all of Guatemala. Thursdays and Sundays bring busloads of foreigners into town looking for the traditional distinctive rich-coloured Mayan textiles that include clothing, linens, wall hangings and blankets. If you want to buy a chicken, you can find one here too. They have it all!
Thirty-five volcanoes are spread throughout Guatemala with four currently active. Many can be explored by climbing and stumbling up over the lava rock, which crumbles under foot with each step. A day trip to Pacaya, one of the active volcanoes, is 25 km from Antigua and includes the opportunity of looking down into the hot smoking crater.
A short flight from Guatemala City is one of the most fascinating Mayan archaeological sites in Central America. Situated in a rainforest, the sounds of howling monkeys can be heard from the hotels located in the Tikal National Park. If you are one of the lucky few that is able to enter the park to watch the sunrise, you will feel the magic that surrounds the ruins.
"It was definitely a culture shock and nothing like I expected," said my husband Barry, a first-time visitor to Guatemala.
"Although we only visited Antigua, Panajachel and Chichicastenango, at no time did I feel unsafe, but I was wary in the crowded market town of Chichicastenango and was watchful when wandering the streets."
Panajachel on Lago de Atitlán was a favourite stop, says Barry, because it was possible for him to become completely immersed in the culture of the local villages that surround the lake.
"Foreigners can be both good and bad for any country," says Gloria about whether she would recommend Guatemala to her friends. She hesitated and then responded with a "yes." She spoke of not wanting the country to lose its appeal and charm, but knows the locals need the tourist dollars. Many foreign retirees have chosen to live in Xela because it is quieter than the more popular Antigua. Their pensions from home stretch further here and the climate is milder than Canada's.
As with travelling in any foreign country, visitors to Guatemala should be cautious. With proper planning and an open mind, there are endless new experiences for every level of adventure.
How to get there:
Continental Airlines, Delta Airlines and Mexicana are just a few of the international airlines that fly into Guatemala City from where travellers disperse to destinations throughout the country.
Shuttles are cheap and will take you everywhere! There are private cars with drivers, taxis, tour buses and, of course, the all-famous "chicken buses."
Tourist vans and tour operators - In almost every tourist location, there are tour operators that can arrange transportation or tickets for any activity or attraction. Do some comparison shopping and don't forget to barter. It's expected.
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