From horses to volcanic s’mores — Why your family should visit Guatemala
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Guatemala is a beautiful country dotted with charming colonial towns, active volcanoes, amazing food and ancient Mayan ruins — a perfect vacation for solo travelers, couples or families.
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Getting to Guatemala City
When I saw a flight deal to Guatemala City (GUA) on Volaris last year from Los Angeles (LAX), I bought tickets immediately, even though hadn’t done much research on the country. I’m glad I purchased those tickets because Guatemala exceeded our expectations.
If you’re traveling to Guatemala City from the U.S., you can depart from the following cities:
- Atlanta (ATL) via Delta
- Chicago (ORD) via American Airlines
- Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) via American Airlines
- Fort Lauderdale (FLL) via Spirit
- Houston (IAH) via Spirit and United Airlines
- Los Angeles (LAX) via Avianca, Delta and Volaris
- Miami (MIA) via American Airlines
- Newark (EWR) via United Airlines
- Orlando (MCO) via Spirit
- Washington, D.C. (IAD) via United Airlines
Recent fare sales included $121 round-trip flights to Guatemala City from ATL, DFW, IAH and ORD.
Related: 5 reasons why I love Guatemala
Where to stay
Depending on where you stay in Guatemala, you may not find points hotels but you’ll find plenty of affordable lodgings. If you stay in Guatemala City, there are several points hotels from which to choose, including:
- The Westin Camino Real, Guatemala: 17,500 Marriott Bonvoy points per night on standard dates
- AC Hotel by Marriott Guatemala City: 12,500 Marriott Bonvoy points per night on standard dates
- Courtyard by Marriott Guatemala City: 12,500 Marriott Bonvoy points per night on standard dates
- InterContinental Real Guatemala: 25,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night
- Holiday Inn Guatemala: 20,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night
- Hyatt Centric Guatemala City: from 8,000 World of Hyatt points per night
- Hilton Guatemala City: 25,000 to 40,000 Hilton Honors points per night
- Hilton Garden Inn Guatemala City: 10,000 Hilton Honors points per night
It’s easy to get around Guatemala. When we landed at Guatemala City Airport, I checked Uber and saw that there were plenty of cars available. When we stepped out of the airport, there were plenty of taxis as well.
When traveling between cities, the easiest way to get around is via private shuttle minibuses that operate on the main tourist routes. If you’re on a budget, you can take a “chicken bus.” However, this may not be the best option when traveling with kids because the buses are packed with as many people as possible, hence the nickname. You can recognize these buses by the colorful paint jobs on their sides. (More on these buses later.)
Once you’re out of Guatemala City and in smaller cities like Antigua (an 80-minute drive from Guatemala City) or Panajachel (three hours from Guatemala City) on the north shore of Lake Atitlan, you can easily find three-wheeled tuk-tuks that offer an affordable way to get around.
If you visit Lake Atitlan and want to get from one small village town to another, the fastest way may be via boat.
We traveled around Guatemala for eight days, and at no point did I or my 6-year-old feel unsafe in any of the towns we visited. We took the “chicken bus,” walked to dinner in the evenings, rode three-wheeled tuk-tuks and just blended in with the locals.
The Guatemalans we met were friendly and when we had questions, there was always someone we could ask for help.
Things to do
On this trip, we visited Guatemala City, Panajachel, San Lucas Toliman and Antigua. Here are a few ways to spend your vacation time with kids:
Take a cooking class
Guatemalan food is some of the best I have had. We enjoyed every meal we ate, especially the one we helped cook. I found a cooking class in Antigua that allows children to participate and it was awesome. You can find out where to take a cooking class in Guatemala with an easy Google search.
Ride the “chicken bus”
I was curious about trying out the “chicken bus” and we took it from Guatemala City to Panajachel. The ride took 3.5 hours. It was a bumpy ride, but my son loved it.
At each stop, vendors hop on the bus to sell food and drinks so you don’t even have to worry about stepping off the bus to get food. The bus makes several stops, so prepare for that. However, it’s such a great way to get a feel for Guatemalan culture.
Roast marshmallows on an active volcano
My son is obsessed with volcanoes and lava, so this was one of his favorite things to do on the trip. The volcano tour departs from Antigua as it’s the closest city to volcanoes, Pacaya and Acatenango.
We visited Pacaya because it’s an easier hike to do with kids. We rode horses some of the way up and down as the hike is pretty tedious. Be sure to pack water. Roasting marshmallows on an active volcano was the best part of this excursion. Marshmallows are provided by the tour leaders, so you don’t need to pack those.
Stay with a family
I wanted my son to experience what life with a local family was like, so I reached out to a local school and they arranged for us to stay with a family for two nights. They provided us a room and cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner and we all sat together for meals.
We had to try new foods and learn about Guatemalan eating habits that are entirely different from ours in America. We practiced our Spanish and they practiced their English; it was a win-win for us all. The family was so sweet and charming and we will keep in touch with them and hopefully visit them next time we’re in Guatemala.
Zipline over Lake Atitlan
While in Panajachel, we visited the Atitlan Nature Reserve and went on an extreme ziplining adventure. They have regular lines if you prefer that. The hike to the extreme lines takes much longer. However, the view is absolutely worth it. Pack the right shoes and prepare to sweat.
Make your own chocolate bar
Guatemala is well known for chocolate so when we were in Antigua, visiting the chocolate museum (ChocoMuseo) was a must. They offer classes daily and we signed up for a short chocolate-making class. The instructor was amazing at explaining the process, and customizing our own chocolate bar was really fun.
Brush up on your Spanish
We took a Spanish lesson while in Panajachel and it was so much fun. It’s much easier and faster to learn Spanish when you’re surrounded by Spanish speakers. By the end of my class, I had mastered several terms and the proper way to say certain things. My son and I were in separate classes.
Visit the villages around Lake Atitlan
Once you get to Lake Atitlan, there are plenty of small towns around the lake that you can visit. We visited San Lucas Toliman and Santa Catarina Palopó. San Lucas Toliman was absolutely beautiful, quiet and peaceful. The base to visit these villages is Panajachel and you can catch a boat right at the lake to take you to any nearby village.
Explore Tikal National Park
Tikal National Park located in the jungles of Guatemala is known as one of the most powerful Mayan ruins. It’s a bit harder to get to Tikal so people don’t visit it as often. We initially planned to visit Tikal National Park but we didn’t have enough time in our itinerary. Plan to be in Guatemala for longer than a week, if you want to visit. You can take a bus, which takes more than eight hours, or a short flight from Guatemala City.
Spend a day in Guatemala City
Guatemala City is as busy as any major city. It reminded me of Los Angeles with the rush-hour traffic we experienced. There is a beautiful zoo, a children’s museum and plenty of modern malls. I recommend spending at least one day there, but keep the traffic in mind when planning your day.
Guatemala exceeded our expectations by far. We’re already planning to go back soon and will stay longer so that we can just enjoy our time there.
Featured image by The Mom Trotter
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