Guatemala


Guatemala destinations

about Central America’s most diverse country captivates travelers with its extraordinary landscapes and a civilization-spanning culture that reaches back centuries.

Land of the Maya

The dizzying pyramids of Tikal are Guatemala's most famous tourist drawcard. And what's not to love about this mighty monument to Central America's greatest civilization? But those who stop to ask whatever happened to the Maya are sometimes surprised by the simple answer: nothing. Maya culture continues to evolve today.The Maya villages in the highlands, where locals still wear traditional dress, are the most visible indicators of this centuries-old culture. But look closely when you're visiting an archaeological site and you'll see altars with modern offerings to ancient spirits.

Colonial Influences

The Spanish left behind plenty of footprints from their colonial conquest of Guatemala, the most visible being the frequently stunning architecture. The best are dotted around Antigua, the old capital, with its neat plazas and crumbling ruins. From the grandiose coffee-boom buildings of Quetzaltenango, to Guatemala City’s stately cathedral, to the churches and municipal buildings clustering around central squares in even the smallest towns, Guatemala bears the marks of its European encounters in vivid brick and tile.

Natural Highs

With barely 2% of its landmass urbanized, it’s not surprising that Guatemala offers some superb natural scenery. National parks are few but impressive, particularly in the Petén region, and the lush canyons of the Río Dulce make for an unforgettable boat ride. The natural beauty of the volcano-ringed Lago de Atitlán has been captivating travelers for centuries, and you can get high in the Cuchumatanes mountains or below ground in the cave-riddled Verapaces. The swimming hole that launched a thousand postcards, Semuc Champey, has to be seen to be believed, and you can dip your toes in both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Adventure Awaits

Active souls tend to find their agenda very full once they get to Guatemala. Stunning trekking routes through the jungles and up volcanoes, world-class white-water rafting, miles of caves to explore, and what seems like a zipline strung between every two trees in the country are just the beginning. Like to take things up a notch? How about paragliding around the high-altitude Lago de Atitlán? Or scuba diving in the same place? You might even luck onto some good swell on the surfer-friendly Pacific coast. Or you could just find a hammock and languidly consider your options. Your call.

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Antigua's beguiling beauty starts to seduce the moment you arrive. Once capital of Guatemala, its streetscapes of pastel facades unfold beneath the gaze of three volcanoes, and beautifully restored colonial buildings sit next to picturesque ruins in park-like surroundings. The city's World Heritage–listed status means that even fast-food chains have to hide themselves behind traditional building facades.

While Antigua's churches, plazas and markets throb with activity, the town is also a global hot spot with a laid-back vibe, thanks to the dozens of Spanish-language schools that operate here. Outside the city, Maya communities, coffee plantations and volcanoes offer ample opportunities for exploration.

Through the course of its history, this city has suffered earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions and virtual abandonment. But in recent decades it has re-emerged with a vengeance, buoyed by the pride of its inhabitants. It's no wonder Antigua remains Guatemala's most visited destination.

Sights

The spirit of Hermano Pedro, Antigua's most venerated Christian, looms large more than three centuries after his death. The saint's tomb, inside Iglesia de San Francisco, overflows with devotional plaques, amulets and tokens from the faithful offering gratitude for his miraculous healing powers. Antigua's only public hospital was dubbed in his honor and carries on his mission of providing health services to those unable to afford them.

Born on Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1627, Pedro de Bethancourt labored as a shepherd until he hung up his staff at the age of 24 and made for Guatemala to help the poor, though the arduous journey left Pedro himself impoverished. Further hardship awaited when he flunked his studies at the Franciscan seminary in Antigua. Undaunted, he took to picking up dying Maya off the streets and treating them during the plagues of the 1600s. He had found his true calling, and a few years later he built a hospital devoted to healing the indigent, then built homeless shelters and schools for poor students.

His efforts gave rise to a new religious order, the Bethlehemites, which took on his mantle after his death in 1667. To this day, flocks of devotees visit his tomb, a phenomenon the Vatican recognized when Pope John Paul II canonized the good brother in 2002, making him Guatemala's only officially authorized saint.

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Activities

From Spanish courses to volcano hikes to cookery classes, Antigua has any number of activities to fill your days, and a seemingly endless number of schools and tour agencies offering to sell you their services. Take your time to visit their offices and choose what's right for you.

Volcano Ascents

All three volcanoes overlooking Antigua – Agua, Acatenango and Fuego – are tempting challenges, but after Fuego's deadly 2018 eruption, hikes here are likely to be curtailed for some time. In many ways the twin-peaked Acatenango (3975m) is the most exhilarating summit. For an active-volcano experience many people take tours to Pacaya (2552m), 25km southeast of Antigua (a 1½-hour drive).

The strenuous hike up Volcán Acatenango traverses four ecosystems to reach the summit. Typical agency prices are around Q1100, including lunch and 5am transport to the trailhead in the village of La Soledad. Overnight hikes are another option, camping just below the treeline, then ascending to the summit the following morning (Q1300 per person with two people).

Ascents of Volcán Agua (3766m) take off from the village of Santa María de Jesús (Q3.50 from Antigua bus terminal) on the volcano's northeast slopes. You can hire INGUAT-authorized guides (one day/overnight Q200/250 per person, plus park entry fee of Q40) from the tourist office just off Santa María's Parque Central. Don't attempt this without a guide, as assaults on the slopes have been known to take place, so take trusted advice before climbing.

Most agencies run seven-hour Pacaya trips daily for Q90 (leaving Antigua at 6am and 2pm), but food and drinks are not included, nor is the Q50 admission to the Pacaya protected area. It takes about 1½ hours to make the steep ascent to the simmering black cone. (If you're out of breath, you can rent horses on the way up.) From the summit there are stupendous views northwest to Agua and northeast to Lago de Atitlán. The descent is quicker as you slide down the powdery slope.

Sleeping

With around 150 hotels, posadas (guesthouses) and hostels, Antigua has a wide range of accommodations to suit any traveler's style or budget, including some of the best places in the country. Some of Antigua's midrange hotels allow you to wallow in colonial charm for a moderate outlay of cash.

Room rates vary: midweek stays can often be 20% cheaper than Friday and Saturday nights (hostels tend to be the exception to this rule). Prices double during Semana Santa and demand surges – book as far ahead as you possibly can.

Eating

Antigua has possibly the widest range of eating options in Guatemala. All major international cuisines are represented here, as well as plenty of good local and Central American food, at all price points.

On Saturday and Sunday, tables are set up in front of Convento La Merced, serving, among other snacks, chicken salad sandwiches, rellenitos (mashed plantian balls), enchiladas (pastry with spiced meat), tamales and their Guatemalan variant chuchitos laced with hot sauce and pickled cabbage, along with bowls of atol blanco (a corn-based hot beverage). Talk about comfort food!

A quick word about taxes: most formal restaurants don't include VAT and service charges on their menus, but happily add them to the bill. This can add more than 20% to what you might have expected, so be prepared.

Drinking & Nightlife

The bar scene jumps, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings when the hordes roll in from Guatemala City for some Antigua-style revelry. Besides the watering holes, the restaurants Fridas and Bistrot Cinq are at least as popular for the cocktails as the cuisine. Start drinking early and save: cuba libres and mojitos are half price between 5pm and 8pm at many bars.

Entertainment

Many bars and restaurants have live music, especially at weekends.

Café No Sé, Angie Angie, the Rainbow Café and Mesón Panza Verde host regular folk, rock and jazz performances.

Shopping

Woven and leather goods, ironwork, paintings and jade jewelry are some of the items to look for in Antigua's various shops and markets. For beautiful típico fabrics, first get educated at the Casa del Tejido Antiguo, then have a look around Nim Po't or the big handicrafts markets near the bus terminal and next to Iglesia El Carmen.

Orientation

Antigua's focal point is the broad Parque Central; few places in town are more than 15 minutes' walk from here. Compass points are added to the numbered Calles and Avs, indicating whether an address is norte (north), sur (south), poniente (west) or oriente (east) of Parque Central.

Three volcanoes provide easy reference points: Volcán Agua is south of the city and visible from most points within it; Volcán Fuego and Volcán Acatenango rise to the southwest (Acatenango is the more northerly of the two).

Another useful Antigua landmark is the Arco de Santa Catalina, an arch spanning 5a Av Norte, 2½ blocks north of Parque Central, on the way to La Merced church.

Travel with Children

With gaudily painted buses roving around town, rainbow candles burning in the churches and gigantic volcanoes in the background, Antigua holds an innate magic that appeals to children. Within most of the monastic complexes are parklike expanses where kids can run around amid the ruined walls and fountains. The craft shop Nim Po't overflows with colorful kites and tiny replicas of those buses to look at, while the market holds many novel sights, sounds and smells.

At the Choco Museo, you can make your own chocolate confections, while the amazing stuffed crepes and juices at Luna de Miel make a great lunchtime stop. For fresh air, take the kids up to Cerro de la Cruz for mesmerizing views of the town and surrounding volcanoes; sign up with Ravenscroft Riding Stables for a bit of horseback riding; take a family-friendly bike adventure with Ox Expeditions; or consider a trip to Earth Lodge, a kid-friendly retreat with a playground, fanciful cabins and plenty of hiking trails.

LGBT Travellers

Antigua has a veneer of cosmopolitanism and tolerance beyond that of other similar-size Guatemalan cities. There are Pride events here every June, and the nightlife scene embraces every persuasion. Particularly LGBT-friendly spaces include the restaurant-bar Fridas, which hosts a queer dance party with DJs on the final Saturday of each month (upstairs), and the dance club Las Vibras de la Casbah.

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Depending on who you talk to, Guatemala City (or Guate as it's also known) is either big, dirty, dangerous and utterly forgettable, or big, dirty, dangerous and utterly fascinating. Either way, there's no doubt there's an energy here unlike anywhere else in Guatemala. It's a place where dilapidated buses belch fumes next to BMWs and Hummers, and where skyscrapers drop shadows on shantytowns.

Guate is busy reinventing itself as a people-friendly city. Downtown Zona 1, for years a no-go zone of abandoned buildings and crime hot spots, is leading the way with the pedestrianized 6a Calle attracting bars, cafes and restaurants.

Many travelers skip the city altogether, preferring to make Antigua their base. Still, you may want, or need, to get acquainted with the capital, because this is the hub of the country, home to the best museums and galleries, transport hubs and other traveler services.

Sights

It's been a long time since anybody called Guatemala City the Paris of anywhere, which makes it all the more remarkable to find a replica of the Eiffel Tower straddling a busy downtown intersection. The Torre del Reformador, originally named the 'Torre Conmemorativa del 19 del Julio,' was completed in 1935 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of former president and reformer Justo Rufino Barrios.

Zona 1

The main sights in Zona 1 are grouped around Parque Central. Back in the day, standard colonial urban planning required every town in the New World to have a large plaza for military exercises and ceremonies: on the north side of the plaza was usually the palacio de gobierno (colonial government headquarters); on another side, preferably the east, would be a church or cathedral; and the remaining sides of the square would feature additional civic buildings or the imposing mansions of wealthy citizens. Guatemala City's Parque Central is a classic example of the plan.

Parque Central and the adjoining Parque Centenario are never empty during daylight hours, with shoeshine kids, ice-cream vendors and sometimes open-air political meetings and concerts adding to the general bustle.

Zona 10

Two of the country's best museums are housed in large, modern buildings at the Universidad Francisco Marroquín, 1km east of Av La Reforma.

Zona 13

The attractions here in the city's southern reaches are all ranged along 5a Calle in the Finca Aurora area, northwest of the airport. While here you can also drop into the Mercado de Artesanías.

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Sleeping

For budget and many midrange hotels, make a beeline for Zona 1. If you have just flown in or are about to fly out, there are a number of convenient guesthouses near the airport. Top-end hotels are mostly located around Zona 10.

Zona 1

Many of the city's cheaper lodgings are clustered in the area between 6a and 9a Avs and 14a and 17a Calles, 10 to 15 minutes' walk south from Parque Central. Keep street noise in mind as you look for a room. Note that this area can be dicey at night, and some of the hotels are used to hourly visits by customers.

Zona 13

The middle-class residential area around the airport in Zona 13 is filling up with guesthouses catering to arriving and departing travelers. All the room rates include breakfast and airport transfers (call from the airport on arrival). There are no restaurants out here, but hotel staff have the complete lowdown on fast-food home-delivery options.

Eating

For cheap eats head to Zona 1 – there are little comedores around the Mercado Central, and the cheapest of all are inside the market, on the lower floor. Zonas 10 and 14 have the lion's share of upscale restaurants, with a good selection of international cuisines.

American fast-food chains are sprinkled liberally throughout Zona 1 and across the city. Pollo Campero is Guatemala's KFC clone.

Zona 1

Cheap eats are easy to find in Zona 1 – dozens of restaurants and fast-food shops are strung along, and just off, 6a Av between 8a and 15a Calles.

Coffee culture is just beginning to hit Zona 1, and a number of cool little cafes have sprung up where you can enjoy good coffee, sandwiches and snacks. Even the older, more venerable cafes are able to pump out a drinkable espresso or cappuccino.

Zona 10

Zona 10's upmarket ambience is matched by its range of restaurant choices – prices are higher here, but you're bound to find more variety on the menus and more comfortable surroundings.

Drinking & Nightlife

Zona 1 has a clutch of good drinking places, including some Latin music and dance venues, all advantageously within half a block of each other just south of Parque Central.

Zona 10 has a few electronic dance clubs, but many of these have now moved further south to the outskirts of town. Check flyers around town for special nights.

Gay Venues

The gay and lesbian scene in Guatemala City is not comparable to San Francisco (not by a long shot), but there are several places worthy of mention.

Entertainment

Guatemala City is home to nearly half the country's population, so it's no surprise that there are entertainment options to spare. The city's various cultural centers are the place to catch music and art shows, and there's live music most nights in the bars around Parque Central, and in the park itself most Sundays.

Shopping

For fashion boutiques, electronics and other goods, head for large shopping malls such as Centro Comercial Los Próceres or Oakland Mall in and around Zona 10. Zona 1's 6a Av is a fun window-shopping experience – half the city seemingly turns out to check out the shops, eat ice cream and just cruise the pedestrian mall.

Orientation

Guatemala City is quite spread out, with the airport to the south, the two major bus terminals to the southwest and northeast, the majority of interesting sights in the downtown Zona 1, and museums and higher-end accommodations clustered around Zona 10. None of these are really within walking distance of each other, but taxis are plentiful and cheap, and two relatively safe bus networks connect various parts of the city.

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Quetzaltenango is Guatemala's second city. It has a great atmosphere – not too big, not too small, enough foreigners to support a good range of hotels and restaurants, but not so many that it loses its national flavor. The Guatemalan 'layering' effect is at work in the city center – once the Spanish moved out, the Germans moved in and their architecture gives the zone a somber, even Gothic, feel.

The city's name might be a mouthful, but locals kindly shorten it to Xela (shell-ah), an abbreviation of the original K'iche' Maya name, Xelajú.

Xela is popular with travelers with time to settle in to a place and work on their Spanish. It also functions as a base for a range of spectacular hikes through the surrounding countryside – the ascent to the summit of Volcán Tajumulco (Central America's highest point) and the three-day trek to Lago de Atitlán, to name a couple.

Activities

Volcano Ascents & Hikes

There are many exciting walks and climbs to be done from Xela. Volcán Tajumulco (4220m), 50km northwest, is the highest point in Central America, and is a challenging one-day trek from the city or two days with a night camping on the mountain. This includes about five hours of walking up from the starting point, Tuhichan (2½ hours by bus from Xela).

With early starts, Volcán Santa María (3772m), towering to the south of the city, and the highly active Santiaguito (2488m), on Santa María's southwest flank, can both be done in long mornings from Xela, though their tough, slippery trails are recommended only for seasoned hikers. You start walking to both at the village of Llanos del Pinal, 5km south of Xela (Q5 by bus), from where it's four to five hours up to the summit of Santa María. Getting too close to Santiaguito is dangerous, so people usually just look at it from a point about 1½ hours' walk from Llanos del Pinal.

Popular non-volcano hikes include the three-day walk from Xela to Lago de Atitlán, and the six-day hike from Nebaj to Todos Santos Cuchumatán.

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Sleeping

With a continual influx of foreign volunteers and language students, Xela counts numerous long-stay options. Some guesthouses offer furnished apartments and most language institutes can set up homestays with local families. Local rentals are listed in the classified section of the publication XelaWho.

Eating

Quetzaltenango has an excellent selection of places to eat in all price ranges. Cheapest are the food stalls on the lower level of the central market, where snacks and main-course plates are sold for Q10 or less. Most restaurants are just a few minutes' walk from Parque Centro América.

Drinking & Nightlife

Coffee and hot chocolate fuel much of Xela's day-to-day life, and there are plenty of places to grab a cup.

Xela's Zona Viva revolves around the Teatro Municipal, with discos and clubs popping up along 1a and 2a Calles and up 14 Av.

Entertainment

Parque Centro América is a popular place for an evening stroll.

The music scene is particularly strong in Xela. Many of the town's restaurants, cafes and bars double as performance venues between Wednesday and Saturday – to see what's on, pick up a copy of XelaWho.

Orientation

The heart of Xela is the oblong Parque Centro América, graced with neoclassical monuments and surrounded by the city's important buildings. Most accommodations are within a few blocks of this plaza.

The main bus station is the labyrinthine Terminal Minerva, on the western outskirts and next to one of the principal markets.

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Surrounded by valleys with mountains serrating the horizons, Chichicastenango can seem isolated in time and space from the rest of Guatemala. When its narrow cobbled streets and red-tiled roofs are enveloped in mist, it's downright magical. The crowds of crafts vendors and tour groups who flock in for the huge Thursday and Sunday markets lend it a much worldlier, more commercial atmosphere, but Chichi retains its mystery. Masheños (citizens of Chichicastenango) are famous for their adherence to pre-Christian beliefs and ceremonies, and the town's various cofradías (religious brotherhoods) hold processions in observance of their saints around the church of Santo Tomás.

Sights

Take a close look at the mural running alongside the wall of the town hall on the east side of the plaza. It's dedicated to the victims of the civil war and tells the story using symbology from the Popol Vuh.

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Sleeping

If you want to secure a room the night before the Thursday or Sunday market, it's a good idea to call or arrive early the day before.

Eating

There are plenty of restaurants living by the twice-weekly influx of local and foreign visitors.

Chichicastenango Street Food

The real food action in Chichicastenango is in the central plaza, where attentive abuelitas (grandmas) ladle chicken soup, beef stew, tamales and chiles rellenos from huge pots as their daughters and granddaughters minister to the throngs of country folk sitting at long tables covered with oilcloth. What are called tamales here are made of rice and laced with sauce. Sliced watermelon and papaya can be had at other stalls. On non-market evenings, you'll find enchiladas and pupusas in front of the cathedral, served with atole de plátano, a warm plantain beverage spiked with cinnamon.

Drinking & Nightlife

Evening activity is mostly a matter of wandering the stalls ringing the main square, though you can have a beer or cocktails at either of the two elegant hotels.

Shopping

The twice-weekly market is one of the best places for souvenir shopping in Guatemala.

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Spreading onto a peninsula at the base of the volcano of the same name, San Pedro remains among the most visited of the lakeside villages – due as much to its reasonably priced accommodations and global social scene as to its spectacular setting. It's a backpacker haven – travelers tend to dig in here for a spell, in pursuit of (in no particular order) drinking, fire-twirling, African drumming, Spanish classes, volcano hiking, hot-tub soaking, partying and hammock swinging.

While this scene unfolds around the lakefront, up the hill San Pedro follows more traditional rhythms. Clad in indigenous outfits, the predominantly Tz'utujil pedranos (as the locals are called) congregate around the market zone. You'll see coffee being picked on the volcano's slopes and spread out to dry on wide platforms at the beginning of the dry season.

Activities

Ascending Volcán San Pedro

Looming above the village, Volcán San Pedro (3020m) almost demands to be climbed by anyone with an adventurous spirit and a reasonable level of fitness. It is the most accessible of the three volcanoes in the zone and, classified as a municipal ecological park, it's regularly patrolled by tourism police.

Guides (required) take you up from San Pedro for around Q130, including entrance fee. Start your climb at dawn.

The ascent is through fields of maize, beans and squash, followed by primary cloud forest. It's a three- to -four-hour climb and two hours back down; take water, snacks, a hat and sunblock.

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Sleeping

San Pedro does not lack for accommodations, particularly at the budget end of the spectrum. Most hotels charge a slight premium for rooms with a lake view. Deals are there to be had for long stays or during low season, along with rooms and houses to rent – ask around.

Eating

There are plenty of places to get your grub lakeside.

Drinking & Nightlife

San Pedro has something of a hard-partying reputation, and while authorities have regular clean-ups of backpacker excesses, there are still plenty of bars. Many pedranos steer well clear and prefer to spend their evenings shouting the Lord's praises at evangelical congregations.

Orientation

San Pedro has two docks, about 1km apart. The one on the southeast side of town serves boats going to/from Santiago Atitlán; the other, on the northwest side, serves Panajachel. From each dock, streets run ahead to meet outside the market in the town center, a few hundred meters uphill.

Most of the tourism activity is in the lower part of town, between and on either side of the two docks.

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The busiest and most built-up lakeside town, Panajachel ('Pana') is the gateway to Lago de Atitlán for most travelers. Strolling the main street, Calle Santander – crammed with travel agencies, handicraft hawkers and rowdy bars, dodging noisy tuk-tuks all the way – you may be forgiven for supposing this paradise lost.

Heading to the lake, though, gives a better idea of why Pana attracts so many visitors. Aside from the astounding volcano panorama, the town's excellent transportation connections, copious accommodations, varied restaurants and thumping nightlife make it a favorite destination for weekending Guatemalans.

Pana is an unexpectedly cosmopolitan crossroads in an otherwise remote and rural vicinity. This makes for a convenient transition into the Atitlán universe – but to truly experience the beauty of the lake, most travelers venture onward soon after arrival.

Activities

Cycling, Hiking & Paddleboarding

Lago de Atitlán is a cycling and hiking wonderland, spreading across hill and dale. But before setting out for any hike or ride, make inquiries about safety with Proatur, and keep asking as you go. Volcán San Pedro climbs with numerous operators in town cost around Q700 per person, including boat transportation, taxi to the trailhead, entry fees and guide. Paddleboards are available for rent from Pana Surf.

Paragliding

'Too much of a good thing' is how Aldous Huxley described Lago de Atitlán in his 1934 travel work Beyond the Mexique Bay. That applies well to the experience of soaring over Lago de Atitlán with parachute-like wings, enjoying a falcon's view of the lake's rippling expanse and the villages that tumble down from green hills to its shores. The lake has become a center for paragliding enthusiasts and several operators provide tandem flights, with passengers seated in a canvas chair attached to the flyer's harness so they're free to take photos or simply gaze in amazement at the panorama below.

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Sleeping

Budget travelers will rejoice at the profusion of family-run hospedajes (guesthouses). They're simple but cheap. The pricier ones offer generous discounts for longer stays.

Midrange lodgings are busiest on weekends. From Sunday to Thursday you may get a discount; likewise if you're planning on staying for longer than four days. Many establishments raise rates during July, August, Semana Santa and the Christmas–New Year holidays.

Eating

There are plenty of restaurants lining Calle Santander, which swell in the late afternoon and evening with taco stalls and other cheap street eats.

Near the south end of Calle del Lago, there is an agglomeration of thatched-roof restaurants crowding the lakefront. All serve the local specialties of lake mojarra and black bass.

Drinking & Nightlife

Panajachel's miniature Zona Viva (party zone) focuses on Av Los Árboles. Especially at weekends, it seems as if every other restaurant on Calle Santander has live music.

Shopping

Calle Santander is lined with booths, stores and complexes that sell (among other things) traditional Maya clothing, colorful blankets, leather goods and wood carvings. Otherwise, head for the traditional market building in the town center, which is busiest on Sundays when every square meter of ground alongside is occupied by vendors in indigenous garb.

Orientation

Most buses stop at the intersection of Calle Principal and Calle Santander, the main road to the lake with a plethora of lodgings and other tourist-oriented businesses. Calle Principal continues 400m to 500m northeast to the town center, where you'll find the daily market (busiest on Sunday and Thursday), church, town hall and a further smattering of places to sleep and eat.

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