Planning Your Time
The Western Highlands are home to many of Guatemala’s main attractions and there is plenty here worth seeing. Although distances on a map may be short, the rugged mountain terrain means getting to places that look close on a map will often take longer than expected because of twisting mountain roads, some of which are not even paved.
You could easily spend several weeks here or longer, as attested to by the sizeable expat population living on the shores of Lake Atitlán. But, since most folks tend to be on a tighter schedule you’ll probably end up choosing among the many wonderful attractions.
The region is traversed in several parts by the Pan-American Highway, meaning that if you’re on a limited schedule, you should stick to areas near this paved main road. Along this road, coming up from Guatemala City or Antigua, you may want to spend an hour or so at the ruins of Iximché, the former Kaqchikel capital, which also served as the first capital of Guatemala when the Spanish set up shop here after the conquest. If you have only a few days, you should certainly not miss a visit to Panajachel and Lake Atitlán, staying either in the large tourist and services hub of Panajachel or taking a boat across the lake to the village of your choice. Each has its own characteristics and tends to attract a certain crowd.
After the lake, you can continue along the Pan-American Highway to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second-largest city, where you can take in area villages or natural attractions, including Laguna Chicabal, the fantastic crater lake atop Chicabal Volcano. It’s also a great place to sign up for a week (or more) of Spanish lessons at one one of the area language schools if you have the time. If you can work it in to your schedule, plan on visiting the Chichicastenango Market (Sundays and Thursdays) in the K’iche’ town of Chichicastenango, which is easily accessible from Quetzaltenango and Panajachel. If you have more time, head north from Chichicastenango into the hills of Quiché department to the Ixil Triangle. You certainly won’t be disappointed.
If you have still more time, consider heading west to Huehuetenango from the branch road in the town of Sacapulas (Quiché department) or east to Cobán and Las Verapaces via a spectacularly scenic, and equally rugged, dirt road.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com