CITY GUIDE: Isla de Flores, Guatemala

The moment you arrive on the quaint, blossoming Isla de Flores, one thing is clear: life is lived on the water.

Plant-laden restaurants and cafes affront the tranquil Lake Petén Itzá, offering prime seating for watercolor sunset shows. During the day, lanchas (public transport boats), canoes and jet skis zip around the glistening expanse; beaches and docks are well frequented. And at night, it’s not uncommon to see kayakers linger beneath the moonlight, taking advantage of the round-the-clock stillness.

But if at first Isla de Flores strikes you as only a mindless aquatic draw for vacationers, think again. The tiny island, only 45 minutes from the grand historic Parque Tikal, is a mine of Mayan culture itself, built atop the ancient city of Nojpetén — the last independent Mayan state.

Live Inspired: my love letter to Guatemala

Brought to you by John Reamer and Associates

I’m writing this on Monday, on a bus bound for the Belize border, and in about an hour or so, I will leave Guatemala behind after about three and a half months in your clutch.

In a way, it feels as though I am leaving home. What a wild journey it has been.

I showed up to your border in August, thinking I might spend a week or two with you before continuing south through Central America.

That joke was most certainly on me.

Instead, I fell in love with your architecture, your culture, your landscapes; your passion and patience, your intelligence, your liberal smiles.

I swam in your lakes, I shopped in your markets, I walked up your hills, I fell in love with your people. And I found I couldn’t leave.

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. 

Still, they walk: perspectives on the migrant caravan, from Guatemala

Over the months I’ve traveled throughout Guatemala, I’ve met many friends here, and occasionally, as we’ve discussed the U.S. in conversation, I’ve asked them a question:

Quieres ir allí, algún día?

Do you want to go there, someday?

Though no one I’ve met has voluntarily spoken a single bad word about the U.S., the answer, to this direct question, usually involves a shy shrug, perhaps a bowed head.

A friend I met recently here in Cobán replied with this:

“I don’t think I’m wanted there.”

Another friend, in Guatemala City responded, shaking his head:

“I can’t put myself through that.”

I could predict the answer, but each time, it breaks my heart over again.

It makes me think of the caravan of migrants currently making its way through Mexico and toward the U.S. border — the group of a few thousand young men, mothers and babies from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that has so captured the nation and become something of a political prop heading into tomorrow’s midterm elections.

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.

Live Inspired: 4 days in charming, complicated Guatemala City

• Brought to you by John Reamer and Associates •

If the universe had done its work properly, I would have been utterly terrified by the time I stepped foot in Guatemala City.

Long before I arrived a week ago, I had gotten snippets of what to expect. The highlights were these:

Danger. Robberies. Crime. Stabbings. Death.

Don’t walk anywhere, I was repeatedly told, by Guatemalans and other travelers — even during the day. And then when I entered my intended address into the U.S. State Department’s citizen travel database, the information the government sent me reinforced those warnings.

“Violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common,” part of the State Department’s dispatch read. “Do not use public ATMs. Request security escorts. Do not display signs of wealth. Do not hail taxis.  Avoid walking at night. Avoid driving at night.”

OK, try not to be alive at night, got it. If you’re alive you’re already dead.

What should I really expect? I wasn’t totally sure. I’d never been in a city where I was told not to walk anywhere during the day. Could it really be that bad?

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: