Custom Itinerary - Guatemala on a Six-Month Vacation - My Family Travels

Q. Diane W-L of Washington asks for ideas for a home base, as well as a culture and history-focused travel itinerary for a 6-month trip to Guatemala, where she will travel as a single mom with adventurous 11- and 12-year-old children.

A.  Spending a half year in Guatemala means that you will want to establish a comfortable homebase for your children, and will have plenty of time to get to know this friendly, fascinating country. There are a few things to do to prepare for such a long trip. 

Regarding entry requirements, please check out the U.S. Dept of State page about Guatemala:  The entry/exit requirements section notes that U.S. Citizens must present a passport (we don’t know your family’s nationality), but no visa is required for stays of less than 90 days. However, for a longer stay, you will need to apply in the country for a separate visa extension.

Think about basing yourself in a popular city like La Antigua, and studying Spanish as there are many language schools and many foreigners already living there. Your kids are old enough to appreciate language classes and the schools can help you with homestays (a very cheap housing option) or with furnished apartments.

Another smaller town that foreigners like is Panajachel, on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Atitlan is about 100 miles from Guatemala City and easy to get to by bus. The area is known for its scenic beauty but also watersports and fishing, so if you don’t want to spend a lot of time, it’s certainly a good place for a weekend.  There are many Mayan archeological sites (and more being discovered) Although you can rent a car to drive around, it’s not particularly recommended because the roads are not very good (periodic flooding) and the local drivers are not very attentive (at least by our standards of rules of the road).

We have just learned that the road from Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan is being repaved and expanded to be ready for the winter holiday season, a busy time when many ex-pats and tourists visit the country.  The part under renovation begins about  2 hours from Guatemala City and continues through the Antiplano, ending near the city of Panajachel.  While this may cause you traffic if you make the journey now, if you wait till after New Years your trip will be easier.

This road is called by the tourist office, “The Route to the Country Side” because it traverses some of the most popular tourist attractions and lots of scenery and cultural attractions that span centuries of rich Maya traditions. Keep in mind that 2012 is a huge year in the Mayan Cosmovision (their sacred calendar based on the stars and planets), and many travelers interested in the culture will be descending on the country in the coming months.

That makes the region’s small towns, where the Maya heritage is kept very much alive, the focus of government and commercial development, though it is still quite interesting and in most parts, very authentic.  The Altiplano region is also home to some of Guatemala’s most stunning natural beauty including Lake Atitlán, and numerous volcanoes.

According to our colleagues at the Guatemala tourist office, some of Panajachel’s main attractions are:

•             Museo Lacustre Atitlán – This museum displays the geology behind the formation of the lake and has exhibits tracing the history of the region back to pre-colonial times.

•             Reserva Natural Atiltán  – A nature reserve with trails that loop through a small river canyon, an herb garden, a  butterfly atrium, and enclosures of monkeys and coatimundis.

•            Shopping in Calle Santander and at the main market (mostly fruits, vegetables and animals, every Thursday) in the old town, next to the Catholic Church
•             Visits to the nearby towns of San Juan La Laguna, Santiago de Atitlán, Santa Catarina Palopó and Sololá which all have highly developed arts, crafts and textile tradition

•             Outdoor activities around the lake include boating, fishing, paragliding, scuba diving, swimming, and two-wheel touring

Your family will also definitely want to visit Tikal, one of the world’s greatest Mayan archaeological sites, located in the northern part of the country near the Belize border.  This UNESCO World Heritage site is quite large — more than 3,000 structures extending over 6 square miles and including palaces, temples, ceremonial platforms, ball courts, terraces, plazas, avenues and steam baths.

If your kids are like ones we know, they will enjoy their visit most if you can hire a guide on-site to tell them stories of Mayan culture, the types of ritual sacrifices made there, and the history of this fascinating tribe and their religious beliefs.  There are licensed guides at the site, as well as many tour companies that can provide transportation and a guide. Plan to spend at least two nights, so you can be there early and late in the day, when the crowds will lessen.

Many visitors like the small town of Flores located on the shores of Lake Peten Itza. It is about 30 minutes drive from the entrance of Tikal National Park and is a good base for exploration.
As you requested, there will be many opportunities for your children to have fun, outdoor, eco-adventures and see wildlife; all can easily be arranged in the larger cities.  You have also asked about getting around and items such as bug spray. As noted, the public transportation is usually safe but slow, and the roads are not very good. You may prefer to have a car and driver or join a group tour (cheapest option) for some of your family’s sightseeing.  Bug spray, sun block and other necessities can be purchased without a problem around the country.

And, lucky for you, the cuisine has become one of the most sophisticated in central America, with noted chefs from the city and countryside studying abroad and returning home to start many popular and inexpensive (by international standards) restaurants.

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