The colonial history of Guatemala began with the arrival of conquistador Pedro de Alvarado in 1524. It ended with declaration of independence in 1821. It is a rare destination, rewarding the most experienced traveller with new delights. From its geography, its people, its ancient culture, it is a beautiful and multi-faceted country, emerging from 36 years of civil war. It is home to at least 24 ethnic groups, each with its own language, customs and traditions.
Guatemala's topography is grand with 30 volcanoes spread throughout its highlands, some puffing smoke and fire. At least three ring Lake Atitlán, which has been called one of the world's most majestic spots, just an hour's drive from Guatemala City.
The lake, occupying an extinguished crater, is a massive 26km long and 28km wide with a maximum depth of 320 metres.
Panajachel is the largest port on the lake. Known as "Pana", it was a hang-out for hippies in the 1960s and '70s and was a pretty relaxed place to be until civil war broke out in the late '70s. It became unpleasant and dangerous and people moved on, but tourism is now booming again and several lakeside villages have sprung up. It is advisable to travel by boat rather than vehicle. Roads aren't very good and there are still bandits in the area.
Many cultures mingle on its dusty streets. Kaqchiquel and Tz'utujil Maya from nearby villages sell colourful handicrafts and long-haired hippies are still in evidence.
Architecturally the area has virtually nothing to offer as it had a haphazard development but once you reach the shore of the lake everything else disappears into oblivion. Its crystal waters and surrounding fertile hills are loomed over by the volcanoes and the area has a different appearance every time you visit.
Early in the day Lake Atitlán is placid and beautiful and the best time for swimming. By noon the Xocomil, a south-easterly wind, usually rises, ruffling the waters, sometimes quite violently.
Across the lake from Panajachel to the south, beside an inlet squeezed between the towering Tolimán and San Pedro volcanoes, lies Santiago Atitlán. It is the second-most visited settlement and its people, known as atitecos, cling to a traditional Tz'utuzil Maya lifestyle. Women weave and wear huipiles embroidered with brilliantly coloured birds and flowers.
The town maintains ceremonies and rituals of the syncretic traditions and practices of Mayan Catholicism which was introduced some 500 years ago but still pays reverence to the highland deity Mayan spiritual life. Maximón, a blend of Mayan god and conquistador is highly revered. People take candles, beer and rum as offerings and say if you make a wish three times, it will be granted. The real one, which is well-dressed and usually has a lit cigar in its mouth, is kept in the roof of the house of Maximón and comes out for catholic and Mayan ceremonies. A life-sized copy changes location as different families care for it. Tourists who want to visit Maximón just need to ask around town and will be pointed to its most recent location.
Chichicastenango is a pretty town with narrow cobbled streets and red-tiled roofs and when enveloped in mist, the town has a magical feel. An hour north of Panajachel, Chichi is known for its Thursday and Sunday markets which have been attracting Mayan traders and their wares from the Highlands for hundreds of years, as well as plenty of bargain-hunting tourists. The town takes on a more worldly and commercial atmosphere on those days when one of Central America's most spectacular markets is up and running.
Chichi's citizens, Masheños, adhere to pre-Christian beliefs and ceremonies, and on Sundays religious brotherhoods often hold processions in and around the church of Santo Tomás which dates from 1540. Incense is burnt and prayer leaders swing censers and chant magic words. Pine branches, flowers, maize and bottles of alcohol are strewn on the floor of the church as offerings to ancestors buried beneath the floor.
The three-storey Hotel Atitlán is a 62-room Spanish colonial-hacienda-style luxury getaway in San Buenaventura Valley. Aldous Huxley called the lake the most beautiful in the world and each room has a view of it. The hotel's ornate gardens have colourful exotic birds, hand-carved wooden furniture and beautiful ceramic tiles.
Each room is individually decorated and has a balcony. The six suites have a wood-burning fireplace. The restaurant is chic but relaxed, decorated in tones of terra-cotta, burgundy and teal. It also has an open fire, huge windows and a cosy adjacent bar with thatched roof. There are cobblestone pathways meandering through manicured gardens, a pool, spa and butterfly reserve.
The Atitlán Nature Reserve is a short walk from the hotel. It has a butterfly garden, herb gardens, suspension bridges, spider monkeys wild in the trees and a visitor centre.