PUERTO QUETZAL, Guatemala – After two days at sea, including a driving overnight thunderstorm with unbelievable lightning, we arrive at this Central American country famous for its Mayan heritage, coffee, sugar cane and volcanoes.
“Quetzal” refers to the famous, vibrantly-colored Central American bird of the same name, the national bird of Guatemala and also the name of its currency. This is our first time to experience Guatemala, which plays hosts to over 100 cruise ship visits yearly. To make the most of it, we’ve booked a “Best Of” all-day tour centered around the historic city of Antigua.
We found business was booming for the shore excursion teams, as there were three ships in port — our ship, Carnival Miracle, along with ships from Crystal and Holland America. It seemed like passengers from all three descended on Antigua at the same time, creating something of a tourist jam on its cobblestone streets.
Our tour started by making the 90-minute drive to Antigua. Located in the country’s Central Highlands, our guide told us we’ll be going from sea level to an elevation of 5,000 feet on both paved and dirt roads, so don’t be surprised if your ears “pop.”
The first thing to notice are the volcanoes which rise out of the lush green countryside. Guatemala has at least 37 volcanoes, three of them active. One — Fuego — had a major eruption in 2018 that killed over 160 people and left hundreds more missing. We saw the results first hand as work to rebuild the road through the area is still ongoing.
One quick side note: Our bus driver stopped the bus to check on why the A/C was weak. He and his assistant discovered a belt needed replacing. They quickly pulled a new one from the overhead, changed it out and we were on our way — and cool — in under 10 minutes. Impressive!
Our first stop was the Cultural Center, where you can learn about the history of the region and its Mayan traditions, which are still strongly held by its people. We loved the cooler clime the higher elevation provided — so refreshing! Because Antigua, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, can’t accommodate large buses, tour groups are loaded onto smaller ones for the trip into the city’s center.
Established in the 1500s, the city retains its Spanish architecture in the churches and buildings that line the central square. We will spend the next three hours walking its cobblestone streets and learning about its past, including a stop at the Jade Museum, where you watch workers as they turn the precious green stone into jewelry. The ancient Mayans assigned a religious importance to jade that to them made it more valuable than gold.
As we found in Cartagena, be ready to be surrounded by street vendors selling all manner of flutes, dolls, blankets and jewelry. You can’t help but admire their colorful attire.
The highlight of the tour was lunch at Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. Built on the grounds of a monastery established in the 1500s, it’s a magnificent merger of old and new. An earthquake struck the site in 1773, and what remained has been preserved and turned into a 5-star hotel and restaurant, along with museums and factories that make chocolate and candles. We literally could have spent the whole day here, touring its beautiful grounds and fountains.
Too soon it was time to make the walk back to the departure point. As we walked, we had to be mindful of the many motorbikes and so-called “chicken buses” that serve the city. Our guide told us they were yellow school buses from the States, brought here to be colorfully re-outfitted for passenger service — and some of those passengers could be chickens. (Think about the bus from the movie, “Romancing the Stone.”)
While the skies got threatening at lunch, the rain held off until we were back on the bus, thankfully. Then it poured.
As a parting memento, our tour guide gave each of us a Guatemalan “Worry Doll.” As the legend has it, “whenever you have a problem, take a Worry Doll, tell her your worries and put it underneath your pillow. The next morning the problem is gone!”
I think I’ll try that when I get our bill at the end of this two-week cruise.
Ahead of us are two more days at sea as we move ahead at full speed to reach Cabo San Lucas, our last stop of the cruise and over 1,500 nautical miles from where we started. But who’s counting?
Story and photos courtesy of Gerry Barker.
-One of the volcanoes we passed on the way to Antigua.
-A main thoroughfare in Antigua.