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Last month, PeaceJam held its first conference for the year in conjunction with Points for Peace. With help and generous donations from you, our readers, we were able to fly PeaceJam staffers to Guatemala City for the conference. I was completely in awe of the experience, and each time I attend a PeaceJam conference, I become an even bigger believer in the power that it has to change the lives of children. This conference featured the teachings of Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Guatemalan presidential candidate Rigoberta Menchú Tum, and I was totally blown away by how inspiring she is.
I didn’t know a lot about Guatemala before I went, but I did have some stereotypes in my head. However, after being there for three days, I was blown away by the beautiful Central American country — and let me tell you, three days are not enough. Here are five things that surprised me about Guatemala and why I consider myself a big fan of the country now:
1. It’s Stunningly Beautiful
From volcanoes to beautiful Lake Atitlán to one of the oldest towns in Latin America, Antigua, there was never a moment when I wasn’t gawking at the beauty of Guatemala. The country is just absolutely stunning, from the jungles to the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t get the chance to hike up a volcano, but that’s definitely one of the things I want to do on my next trip.
There’s also a lot of interesting and beautiful Mayan culture. In fact, it’s actually called the Heart of the Mayan World, and with good reason. Next time I go back, Tikal National Park is on my list of places to go because of its history and beauty. Even though I didn’t get to see nearly all I would have liked to, I was blown away by the sheer natural beauty of the country — for those who love nature (or a great Instagram picture), it’s a must-visit destination.
2. It’s Really Easy to Get to
Contrary to popular belief, Guatemala is actually pretty easy to get to. I flew nonstop from Miami (MIA), and it’s almost like time travel because it’s a two-hour flight and a two-hour time change. One of the best parts about flying to Guatemala City (GUA) from MIA is that you can redeem 7,500 British Airways Avios for a one-way flight — a pretty great deal.
You can fly nonstop to Guatemala City (GUA) from Dallas (DFW) and Miami (MIA) on American; Los Angeles (LAX) and MIA on Avianca; Atlanta (ATL), LAX and New York-JFK on Delta; Fort Lauderdale (FLL) on Spirit; and Houston (IAH), Newark (EWR) and Washington-Dulles (IAD) on United. Although be aware, on my way from GUA to MIA, which was catered by Guatemala, the meal was horrific — the worst food I’ve ever had on an airplane.
3. Safety is a Concern, But Not as Bad as You May Have Heard
I have to say, safety was a huge concern of mine when I knew I was going to be going to Guatemala. The country has had its share of violence, but generally not toward tourists. That being said, and as with everywhere you go, you do need to practice common sense — and don’t go out in areas you don’t know late at night. I always felt very safe, but I was always very careful. Plus, I was traveling with a Nobel laureate who had her own security, but I also decided to get my own. We found a driver who was armed, which made me feel extra safe when traveling through the countryside. The driver I hired was through a company called Grupo Golán and included a 4×4 SUV with up to 12 hours of driver/security guard per day for four days for a total of $1,850. If you’re at all concerned about safety, this is a great route to take. You can also book and research security options via the State Department.
In general, I ran into a lot of TPG readers in Guatemala, and on social media, everyone who’s spent a good amount of time in the country has felt very safe. I think it’s kind of like when I went to Brazil for the first time — you have to be careful, but I don’t think it was as bad as it was made out to be. Don’t let safety concerns deter you from visiting this amazing country.
4. There Are Great Hotels
During the short time I was in Guatemala, I stayed at two hotels and was very impressed with both of them. There aren’t a lot of points hotels, but there is a Westin in Guatemala City, the Westin Camino Real, Guatemala, where the PeaceJam staffers stayed. They loved it and said it was in a great area and highly recommend it to anyone visiting the city in the future. It’s an SPG Category 3 property, requiring 7,000 Starpoints for a free night, however, Starwood was generous enough to donate the stay for the PeaceJam staffers — thank you, Starwood!
My first stop was in Lake Atitlán, which is famous for its beautiful views — and it did not disappoint. While in Lake Atitlán, I stayed at Hotel Atitlán. Although the bedding and the rooms themselves weren’t that fancy, the resort itself was beautiful. Outside, you’ll find beautiful gardens with a gorgeous backdrop of Lake Atitlán. It’s so beautiful that people who aren’t staying at the property actually pay to go on tours of the gardens and absolutely stunning views of the lake.
From there, I continued to Antigua, which was equally as beautiful, with its famed cobblestone streets and architecture. I stayed at the Casa Santo Domingo, which I absolutely loved. It’s in an old monastery and has some really unique charm and character to it. It kind of reminded me of the Argos cave hotel in Cappadocia, which I stayed at last summer. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend staying here for a truly authentic Guatemalan experience.
5. The Food Is Out of Control Good
Lastly, and arguably the best part of the whole trip — the food was out of control and very single meal was so, so good. Everything from the fresh-baked tortillas to the fresh ingredients, I truly did not have a bad meal in Guatemala. For breakfast every day, the chilaquiles were awesome, and I also really liked the tamales. In Antigua, I ate at a great restaurant called Los Tres Tiempos, which I highly recommend. Its menu featured common Guatemalan food (like yuca and tamales) with a modern twist and great sauces to go along with the food. As for drinks, I really liked the local beer, which is called Gallo, as well as Micheladas that I found throughout Antigua and Lake Atitlán.
In general, I think the food here is much better than the food in Costa Rica, which I think is kind of bland. Guatemala definitely has it going on food-wise, so be prepared for a culinary delight when you’re traveling to this Central American country.
Overall, I highly recommend Guatemala. I had some reservations about visiting the country, but after three days there I can say that I already can’t wait to go back — three days were nowhere near enough time to spend exploring the country. Everything from its natural beauty to the delicious food I had for every meal while I was there completely changed any preconceived notions I had about Guatemala. If visiting Guatemala’s not already on your travel radar, it should be because it’s truly an amazing place.
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