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GUATEMALA, CENTRAL AMERICA TRAVEL & ACCOMMODATION GUIDE

Temple of the Grand Jaguar on the Great Plaza, Tikal, El Peten, Guatemala
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TRAVEL GUIDE TO GUATEMALA, CENTRAL AMERICA:
Belize - Costa Rica - El Salvador - Guatemala - Honduras - Nicaragua - Panama
Learning Spanish in Xela, Guatemala
 
Guatemala and ecotourismGuatemala and the introduction of ecotourism
With all that green and lovely nature in the country, it only makes sense for Guatemala to look to the ecotourism industry, not only to protect its environment but also to attract more visitors each year... read more

Tikal - Alternative Visits to The Famous Mayan Ruins in Guatemala

Anyone visiting the Classic Mayan ruins of Tikal will be impressed. Rising out of the dense jungle, the looming temples demonstrate the might of the ancient Mayans and demand respect from visitors, even thousands of years after their construction.
If you're looking for alternative ways to be introduced to Tikal beyond a standard visit, you could try any of the following suggestions.

From A Galaxy Far, Far Away
Tikal was featured in the first Star Wars movie in 1977. If you keep a careful eye on things, you'll see a spaceship landing on the rebel planet of Yavin IV in dense jungle with impressive ancient towers rising out of the tree canopy that look a lot like...Tikal. To get the same view on the site, climb up to the top of Temple IV and look out over Temples I and II.

As a bird watcher
Tikal has an incredible array of bird-life, and even if you aren't a budding ornithologist you'll be impressed by the 410 species of bird that have been found on the site. Humans aren't the only tourists, with the North American Songbird paying a visit to Tikal to escape the cold winter months back at home. If birds aren't your thing, you could always stay alert for the wide range of other fauna, including howler monkeys, toucans, spider monkeys, falcons, coatis and (if you are very lucky) the occasional jaguar or cougar.

Iglesia De La Merced at Sunset, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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At full moon or at sunrise
If you can manage it, you can visit by 'unofficial' access to the site out of normal hours, either through tour operators or by trying independently. The noises of the jungle at night or the strange calls of the howler monkeys in early morning bring a strange ethereal feel to Tikal and you'll probably have the site to yourself. You certainly wont need to worry about the relentless attacks of mosquitoes that you get during the peak times for the site, and sunburn will not be a concern either. It probably wont be cheap, but you'll see a side of Tikal that few people have been lucky enough to experience.

As a conspiracy theorist
The Winter Solstice is at the end of the Mayan calendar, on December 4th. According to the Ancient Maya, their calendar finishes in the year 2012. At Mayan New Year, crowds of foreign and Guatemalan believers in Mayan religion and legend flood the steep steps and lofty platforms of Temple VI to welcome the new year in their colourful robes, counting down each year to what many people interpret as the end of the world. If you believe it or not, it's certainly an impressive spectacle.

In a time machine
Its not the most likely trip you'll ever take, but if you can get your hands on one you'll be able to visit the amazing milestones in the history of Tikal and the Maya. Choose from any point, from the first constructions raised on site in the 4th Century BC through the classic period between 200 and 900AD when the site flourished to its abandonment in the 10th Century AD, probably due to overpopulation and agrarian failure. It would certainly be an impressive time to show up, as Tikal was so important in the Classic Mayan Civilization that the collapse of the Mayan Empire shortly followed. The next stop could be the 'discovery' of Tikal hundreds of years later, bushwhacking through the jungle with tree-gum collector Abrosio Tut to stumble across the overgrown pyramids. You could pick any incredible historical period; after all, you've got a time machine!

For those unable to move freely through time, you can still get a sense of the rich history of Tikal through the guided tours that run all year round. As excavations have been conducted on the site since 1956, you'll have plenty of information on hand.

However you decide to discover this ancient jewel of the Mayan civilization, don't make it a missed opportunity. Guatemala is a country full of historical treasures and breath-taking landscapes that, incredibly, has managed to avoid mass tourism.

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Gary Sargent is the Managing Director of the tour companies Escaped to Peru and Escaped to Latin America and has lived in South America for over 10 years. Gary is passionate about life here, the people, customs and places. To learn more or to book your next adventure please visit www.escapedtoperu.com  
Learning Spanish in Xela, Guatemala  by Alex

Learning Spanish in Guatemala is popular and some places are well-known for it. But if you want to remain fairly off-the-trail, Xela is the place to go. 

A large chunk of Guatemala’s tourism revenue comes from teaching Spanish to travellers. It’s not like it’s the only Spanish-speaking country on the continent, but a number of factors make it a number one choice. 

XelaTo start with, the Gutemaltekas speak slowly and clearly. Anyone who has been to Cuba will appreciate the importance of this – you aren’t going to learn Spanish if you don’t understand a single word muttered through lazy lips at machine-gun speed, half of the letters chewed into a uniform blob on their way out.  Secondly, Guatemala is on the way: for anyone (and especially North Americans) going down the continent this is a good time to learn a few phrases – at the beginning of the trail. Third, the Guatemalan culture is heavily indigenous, so it makes it an interesting place to stop for a week and get to know it. And last, but not least, Guatemala is much cheaper than most of Latin America, making it a competitive proposition. 

As a result, you get quite a motley crowd of students. Maybe not so much top-end travellers, but definitely a lot of backpackers eager to stock up on “Donde esta…?” and “Cuanto cuesta…?” for the long journey ahead, as well as a lot of the more adventurous North American High who might not be up for roaming around the continent, but at least they will get out of the US / Canada into a native culture to spend a month somewhere different while learning the language. You normally pay for a week’s course, quite a few hours a day one-to-one with a teacher, although that can modified to your needs.

Once in Guatemala, you will usually be directed to one of the two places.

Lake Atitlan, GuatemalaLake Atitlan is a very scenic mountanous landscape with volcanoes and postcard indigigenous people. A string of villages along the bank of the lake lets you adjust the level of spirituality according to your habitual marijuana dosage. This place is the Guatemalan equivalent of a stereotypical backpacker beach village. Antigua, on the other hand, is somewhat of Guatemalan Cuzco (but, in my opinion, not as nice), an area with Irish bars and cosmopolitan restaurants cordoned off from the rest of Guatemala for the safety of the tourists and, in places, paved to accommodate travellers’ high heels. 

Everyone says they visit Antigua because it has the volcanoes around it. I am sorry but I don’t buy it. People go to Antigua because everyone else goes there. Central America has volcanoes all over the place. By the way – very important – there is a village in Guatemala where turtles lay eggs, I read it in the Lonely Planet.

Most people are happy with those two in terms of Spanish classes. And then there are grumpy buggers like me who start kicking when they are herded to developed locations. But I didn’t know of any other options, and I didn’t want to end up in some total tomb somewhere. Luckily, I was given a tip, which I am now spreading with this article.

Personally, I decided to avoid Antigua in the very beginning, lest I bump into the Lord of the Underworld.   But Lake Atitlan was highly recommended. It was pretty and all but after a couple of days up in smoke with Bob Marley (again…) me and Luke, the guy I met there, began planning our escape from the Lonely Planet trail. The furthest we could think of at the time was El Salvador but since it was a bit of a mystery Luke decided to brush up on his Spanish. His Atitlan allowance was now spent, though, so it would have to be Antigua.

No way in hell. I told Luke I’d see him there in a few days, in brief transit and he’d better be finished by then.

After a few-day trip through the mountains I caught the chicken bus to Guatemala City, which was going through Antigua. Chicken buses. Oh yeah.  Don’t be fooled - the guy who is driving is not the one in control of the vehicle. It is the other guy - the primate who jumps around the roof at full speed, shouts "Guatemala, Guatemala ciudad, Guatemala, GuateGuateGuateee!!!!!!!!" like there’s an imminent danger of GuateGuate, hangs out of the door and tells the driver what to do (a bit like an F1 team). And everyone else on the road: all roads are one lane each way and the general road ethics is to speed overtake on the oncoming lane regardless of tight mountain turns, and when something is coming your way, the bus pushes other cars to the side to come back into the right lane, at full speed. Whether it works out or not is largely a matter of chance. The guy is the original backseat driver, and he actually does backseat drive, only he doesn’t have a seat and instead macholy hangs out of the bus fully at 45 degrees. Which is why all vehicles in CA have "Jesus is my guide" on the windscreen (phew, I thought he had forsaken us...) apart from one truck I saw that simply had "I am different" all across the front. Packed is not the word. It’s just a sea of bodies. Yet someone always insists on getting from one end of the bus to another. A necessary criterium to exercise that right is an oversized basket, or at least a big stinking sack of potatoes. 

Once in Antigua I heard the terrible news: Luke failed to get signed up and was only starting. I did want to go to El Salvador with Luke, though, and I was beginning to think that my Spanish could do with some classes too, so with a heavy heart I decided to stay and look for classes in the morning.

Later at night I was drowning my sorrows in Guinness, at the local command & control unit of the Irish Empire. This is when God heard my pain. He sent me a bunch of jolly Americans who were awfully nice to spill the beans about Xela. 

Next morning, carefully avoiding to dirty anyone’s designer fashion with my backpack, I walked to the bus station and caught a GuateGuate!!!!! to Xela. 

Quetzaltenango, aka Xela, is the second largest city of Guatemala, I think. As soon as I got off the locals began looking at me with curiosity, like what the hell is he doing here? Good sign. I like Xela a lot. It’s a big city but it had this warm sunny vibe on the streets by day, really mellow and totally authentic. The people just went about their business, but courteous and nice. A little too dark by night though. 

It turned out Xela is the underdog for Spanish classes in Guatemala. Staying here is a real cultural submersion, schools are numerous and the number of foreigners is just about perfect – not too many to invade and enough to have a drink with if you fancy. The prices were lower than in Antigua – 100 bucks for a week (6-7 hours a day, one-to-one) with a very good school and about half of that with private teachers or less established schools.

I had been recommended a school, and I was already a day late for that week, so I was just going to go with that one, although I got a bit freaked out by the fact it had a school bell for lunch etc. My assigned teacher was an easy-going and giggly young lady. The beauty of having such a private on-to-one is that you can call the shots if you know what your language needs. She tried to drag me through the thorns of the grammar but, with so little time, I wanted it more conversational. She would keep trying to get me talking on the-book-is-on-the-table kind of topics like family, my country, my hobbies. I kept diverting it to sex, drugs and tips on catching Cuatemalan women: since I was in school in the middle of a backpacking trip, I did have to at least keep myself entertained. Piously perplexed at first, she eventually surrendered and even showed a cute curiosity for those topics. Which was much more merciful than Luke's fate: his teacher was a feisty evangelist and she would not let the conversation stray away from the Lord.

I stayed in a nearby hostel Argentina, where most travelers tend to stay. There was a bizarre neighborhood watch arrangement: at 9 o’clock a group of 10-14 youths would come out in balaclavas and ski masks, with baseball bats and all other kinds of close-quarter combat melee weaponry, and…well...keep the neighborhood safe, very actively. One of the guys in the hostel wasn’t aware of it and had to take a lengthy detour on his way home one night when he saw them outside the hostel. Too right, you’re not gonna think they are security, are you?

Word of warning if you think those guys look cool: don’t take photos! Many Guatemaltekas believe that photos steal your spirit, and you really don’t want to be informed of this by a bunch of youths in ski-masks and with baseball bats.

There are a few nice mellow bars to go to for a drink at night, and salsa nights for foreigners. While you are learning to speak you may as well learn to walk, again not very expensive and salsa teachers are abundant. You can’t take your guns to the bars though, unfortunately, as the signs in the venues tell you, so people have to resort to breaking bottles over each other’s heads.

Walking around the tombstone shops of Xela one afternoon (there are lots of them, business must be good…) I met Sary on the central Plaza. She is a sweetest little thing and I wish I had met her before signing-up. She has her own school, at lower price, complete with accommodation, breakfast and an art gallery. Us and her friend went for some salsa and had a fantastic night. Her site appears to be down right now, but if you do go to Xela to learn Spanish do try to sign up with her, she’s such a sweetie. I hope the webmaster won’t mind: www.learn2speakspanish.com

All in all I was happy with this turn of events. Go to Atitlan if you want peace of mind, “peace” in the pipe, tranquility, lake, mountains and an international village. Go to Antigua if you want an international hangout with all amenities. But if you’d rather not stop cultural immersion and / or don’t want to get sucked into an over-developed location just because you can’t say “Cuanto cuesta…?”, Xela is the answer.

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Alex is the webmaster of Valencia Travel Online - an independent resource on travelling in Valencia, Spain
GUATEMALA CITY HOTELS
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Grand Tikal Futura Hotel Guatemala City
This spa property is located in Guatemala City, close to Kaminaljuyu and La Aurora Zoo. Grand Tikal Futura Hotel has a health club, an outdoor pool, an indoor pool, a spa tub, and a sauna. The onsite spa at this 3.5-star property offers massage and treatment rooms and beauty services. Business amenities include a business center, wireless Internet access, meeting rooms for small groups, and business services. Grand Tikal Futura Hotel has a restaurant, a bar/lounge, and a poolside bar. 24-hour room service is available. Event facilities consist of a ballroom, exhibit space, conference rooms, and banquet facilities. Amenities featured in guestrooms include air conditioning, minibars, and CD players. 
Howard Johnson Inn Guatemala City
In Guatemala City's Zona Viva neighborhood, this motel is close to Torre del Reformador  and Francisco Marroquin University. This 3.0-star Guatemala City property features a hair salon. Business amenities at this 3.0-star property include a business center, complimentary wireless Internet access, meeting rooms for small groups, and business services. Howard Johnson Guatemala City has a restaurant. Guests are served a complimentary breakfast each morning. This 3.0-star property provides a complimentary airport shuttle. Howard Johnson Guatemala City features 56 guestrooms in a 4-story property. Guestrooms have cable television with premium TV channels and HBO.
Radisson Hotel Guatemala City
Conveniently situated near the airport in the Zona Viva  neighborhood of Guatemala City, this property is close to El Obelisco and Francisco Marroquin University. Radisson Hotel Guatemala City has a spa tub, a sauna, and a fitness facility. This 3.5-star Guatemala City property features beauty services. Business amenities include a business center, wireless Internet access, meeting rooms for small groups, and audio-visual equipment. Radisson Hotel Guatemala City has a restaurant and a bar/lounge. Room service is available during limited hours. Amenities featured in guestrooms include DVD players, air conditioning, and coffee/tea makers. In addition, amenities available on request include wake-up calls. 
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