Guatemala: Top Seven Places to Visit on a Family Vacation
This past March and April, we took our family to Guatemala on a family vacation. Our itinerary included a well-rounded yet diverse mix of day trips and activities, including sight seeing, cultural diversity, outdoor adventures, and entertainment. Out of all of the places we visited in the country, these seven top my list.
Formerly the capital city of Guatemala, Antigua has become quite the tourist destination, especially for people wanting to learn Spanish. People from all over visit this quaint city to see the cobblestone streets, brightly painted doors, and architecture. But, what Antigua is most well known for is its Easter celebration, including an 8-hour procession, ending in a Catholic midnight mass. I loved being able to immerse my kids in the Latin traditions and show them the differences between how two cultures celebrate the same holiday.
We drove a lot on our trip, often weaving through slums and shanty towns (see Safe Passage below). These opened our eyes to the poverty that exists in the world and started a profound dialog between me and my husband and our children about what we could do to help. In addition to the poverty, we made sure to go to some nice places as well. One such place was a movie theater called Cinepolis VIP. And even though the cost was only $8, they aren't kidding when they say VIP!
We went to see How to Train a Dragon in English with Spanish sub-titles. Immediately after sitting down in our leather recliner, a server came to give us a menu and came back moments later to take our order. You could get the traditional popcorn, nachos, and soft drinks or enjoy sushi, Italian, and other specialty items. There was even a wine list! (Note the flip flops in the pic below. Now that's what I call classy!)
Escipulas is a town with a beautiful white catholic church with a black Jesus inside. The church was on many people's recommended must-see list, so we made sure to stop there. The town was full of people, coming out to celebrate Semana Santa, so much of what we saw was like other towns: alfombras, street vendors, and lots of religion in the air. What was different was the setting. The town was nestled in a valley surrounded by lush mountains. From the valley floor, you had beautiful mountain views. And from the mountainside, you looked town over a quaint and colorful town with a pristine white church right in the middle.
I absolutely love ancient ruins. Imaging the thriving cities that used to be there excites me. We visited several such places, but our first was in Guatemala called Quirigua. It is special to me, because it was the first time my boys had ever been to such a place. An off-duty tour guide walked us through the grounds, explaining every detail. We climbed every steep step, played in the courtyards, and snapped pics by ornately carved stones. I was impressed at how well everything was protected and it was fun to see the excavation work going on. I wonder what new treasures they'll find!
Rio Dulce (Livingston)
The most beautiful day of our trip was spent on a 2 1/2-hour motor boat ride to the island city of Livingston on the Rio Dulce, heading toward the Caribbean Sea. We weaved our way through nature—bird sanctuaries, canyons, and secret coves with lily pads. I loved that this area seemed untouched. There were no large resorts or the commercialism you find in many beautiful locations like this. Its pristine beauty was breath taking!
The day before we returned from Guatemala, we toured an organization called Safe Passage—a school and women's facility for those living around and working in the Guatemala City garbage dump. I loved being able to have serious dialog with my children about the poverty that exists in this world and what we can do to help. This organization is one that is truly making a difference in the lives of many.
The Children's Museum
One of our goals for the trip was to expose our children to Guatemalan culture and language. The best way we could think to do this was to arrange a play date with a Guatemalan child our kids' age who only spoke Spanish. Who says we need to speak the same language to get along?
Since my parents go to church with the locals in Guatemala, they know many families and are close with one that just happened to have an 8-year-old boy—the age right in between my two boys.
We picked up Jared one afternoon and took him, along with our two boys, to the Children's Museum in downtown Guatemala City. It was one of the highlights of all of our trip. Each interactive exhibit was assigned a guide, whose job it was to explain the science and math behind the activity and lead the kids through it. The kids enjoyed making gigantic bubbles, identifying the big and little dippers, making paper, obeying traffic signs and rules, and more.
One of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip was when we climbed Volcano Pacaya. This required a lot of preparation. We had to buy the right equipment ahead of time; arrange for guides and horses; and prepare back packs with food, water, and proper clothing.
We started our ascent right before sunset and returned home just after midnight. The most important part of the trip involved preparing ourselves and the kids mentally for the climb, which was hard to do considering we had no idea what we were about to encounter. Four key things made all the difference:
- Telling them that horseback riding was awesome and not scary.
- Instilling in them a sense of trust in the guides along with an importance for listening and heeding their direction.
- Preparing them for the challenging journey.
- Focusing on the end in mind—the hot lava we'd see when we got to the top and the marshmallows we'd roast over it.
Next time you think about where to take your family on vacay, consider Central America. It took us only 5 hours to get there, gave our kids a really shift in perspective from their daily life, and brought us closer together as a family while having the time of our lives.
Note: We weren't able to visit three places that were highly recommended—Tikal (ancient ruins), the beach (for turtle and whale watching), and Xetulul (an amusement and water park). We'll save those for our next visit!