When sailing on a Panama Canal cruise (full transit or Pacific coast), you might see a port of call for Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. Don’t be alarmed. There is a plethora of options for this particular stop along your voyage. You can step back into ancient history with a day trip to Tikal, one of the most important cities of the Mayan empire. I highly recommend this trip but, due to its distance from the port and the strenuous nature of hiking in the ancient and remote city, most people opt for a visit to nearby Antigua.
One of the truly hidden gems of Central America, the city of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, should definitely be on your list of must-see places. Founded in the mid-16th century, Antigua was once the seat of power for the Spanish crown in all of Central America, covering an area that encompassed (Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Belize, and Mexico’s southern-most state, Chiapas). The history comes alive as many of the historic buildings have been fully restored and can be enjoyed in all of their architectural beauty.
Antigua is known for its elaborate celebration of Holy Week or Semana Santa. There are numerous processions where intricate designs on sawdust “carpets” for the procession. The hotels nearby are usually all sold out well in advance for this week. If you are interested in seeing this incredible cultural display that blends the Mayan symbols of the indigenous people with the Roman Catholic rituals brought by the Spanish when colonizing the area, I would recommend you plan ahead at least 6 to 8 months.
For those seeking the memento or trinket from their time in Antigua, my suggestion is to venture to 5a Avenida Norte and pop into Nim P'ot, a warehouse-like emporium crammed with colorful handicrafts and goods at rock bottom prices. The textiles, carvings, toys, paintings and coffee beans are all good buys.
For the more adventurous, Antigua has impressive volcanoes—two active, two dormant—and tours are frequently offered. These trips offer some good, intermediate-level to strenuous hiking and some spectacular views but require extreme caution. The Agua volcano looms dormant and picturesque immediately to Antigua's south, but two other local volcanoes, Fuego and Pacaya, remain active and alive. Fuego can be seen belching out smoke in the distance from anywhere in town, but Pacaya, closer to Guatemala City, is the real draw. It's about 16 miles southeast of Antigua. The excursion to Pacaya includes a strenuous, three-hour hiking tour of the volcano itself. The journey is well worth the effort, as local guides walk you over still-cooling, day-old lava formations to within inches of hot, churning magma. Check with a reliable source regarding volcanic activity before setting out. (Check the weather, too: You don't want to be caught on the mountain during a storm.) Though you may have the opportunity to see an active volcano, including lava flows, be well aware of the risks involved.
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