CITY GUIDE: Cobán, Guatemala

Coban, Guatemala — there’s a good chance most people you know who have trekked to the country haven’t spent much time, if any, there.

Unlike the areas surrounding Lake Atitlán and Antigua, Coban really has no tourism infrastructure and therefore lacks the coffee shops/sightseeing guides/English speakers that you can find in those other places.

In fact, when travelers do pass through, it’s almost always with the intention of getting to Semuc Champey, a breathtaking natural limestone feature creating stepped pools and waterfalls in the Cahabón River.

That’s why I showed up in late October, and it’s a worthy reason.

But as I found, over two weeks in town, there is much to love about Cobán itself — from its stellar coffee sourced from the surrounding hills to its massive commercial district full of vibrant markets to the beautiful national park within walking distance of the center. 

CITY GUIDE: 8 places to go in Guatemala City

At the moment, Guatemala City isn’t oft spoken of as a tourist destination — almost entirely due to its reputation of widespread, violent crime.

But as it boasts the country’s largest airport and is positioned as the hub of travel from the U.S., you just might find yourself there anyway, if you’re looking to explore the other bounty Guatemala has to offer.

If that’s the case, don’t panic: there are areas within the city that can be accessed without great risk if you exercise basic precautions and don’t wander off the beaten path. And what you find there — cobblestone streets, vine-draped facades and hip bars in the super trendy Zona 4 and vibrant markets and parks in the culture-filled Zona 1 core — just might inspire you to stay a day or two longer. It did, me.

CITY GUIDE: Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua: if you’re not well-versed in Central America, perhaps the name instantly takes you to the Caribbean rather than the Guatemalan highlands town where here crumbling ruins, 360-degree mountain views and new-wave coffee shops meet.

But while Antigua Guatemala — meaning “old Guatemala” — might not be on many bucket lists, the beautifully preserved Spanish Baroque architecture, labyrinth of stunning courtyards and wine bars and bounty of hilltop treasures have a way of making one wonder why it isn’t.

The area, in great part, is famous for its access to the surrounding volcanoes, and overnight hikes are available for reasonable fees. Choose to stay in the city, however, and travelers will be treated to vibrant markets, a diverse food and drinking scene and compelling art in a town adorned by its picturesque signature arch, elaborate churches and knobby cobblestone streets. 

What to see, eat and do when you go:

GALLERY: Antigua, Guatemala

Scenes from around Antigua, Guatemala, an astounding blend of old (magnificent churches, heritages traditions, crumbling ruins) and new (craft cocktails, modern art and design). Surrounded on all sides by volcanoes and hills, the views don’t stop. Read more on what Antigua has to offer in my city guide.

GALLERY: Panajachel, Guatemala

Scenes from around Panajachel, Guatemala, one of many villages set on Lago de Atitlán, a  crater lake surrounded by mountains and volcanos, and referred to by many famous travelers as of the most beautiful views in the world.

Read more on Panajachel and its surrounding watery paradise, here.

Falling in love with Lago de Atitlán in Panajachel

A handful of tins held still-fresh flowers against the little makeshift houses. Some of the colorful, stacked mausoleums boasted new, glossy coats of paint. But now, as the sun dipped lower, the graveyard was empty except for swallows passing overhead, called by the approaching evening to the watery grasses beyond.

I walked past the dusty memorials, an above-ground maze set against the backdrop of the Sierra Madre mountain range, and down the sloping path that bordered it. 

Then there she was: the tremendous Lake Atitlán, always there but ever in a different state — often peaceful, often vengeful and sometimes, at sunset, impassioned.

I was on the edges of Panajachel, one of the many towns lucky enough to perch along Lago de Atitlán, a translucent crater lake surrounded by hills and volcanos in Guatemala’s highlands. 

The shores of the town, now a center for tourist trade, offer rows of lakeside restaurants, built predominantly for white faces and heavier wallets, jutting out over the cerulean water. A short boat ride away, magnificent castle-like resorts built into the cliffs are stocked with every luxury.

But the real beauty of Pana, as its called locally, is that the best its star attraction is free to anyone craving it — the wealthy tourist, the poorer local, even the dead, who are graciously permitted to continue in the afterlife atop the dirt, in sight of perhaps one of the world’s most enchanting views.