Field notes from Guatemala

From Lake Atitlán to Antigua

Maddie – from our London team – spent a week exploring Guatemala earlier this year. Below are some tales and photographs from her travels around the volcano-edged shores of Lago de Atitlán and the colourful colonial city of Antigua.

As well as a chance for Maddie to do what she does best – travel, that is – this was also an essential bit of research; a chance for us to ensure the trips we plan are encompassing the very best hotels and experiences a place has to offer. Maddie’s was a trip that sparked something. It left an indelible mark (in the best possible way). That’s why we do what we do.

Casa Palopó Guatemala

The arrival

The roads in Guatemala are full of surprises, and seem to become increasingly twisted and winding the longer you spend in the car. But the drive’s (overly) generous helping of veering and swaying was more than worth it. Not only for what awaited at its end, but for the chance to observe along the way. Farmers pulling huge orange carrots from soil, lazily grazing goats, local ladies walking with their babies wrapped in colourful slings and kids weaving in and out of roadside tiendas amid afternoon playtime. I loved watching a whole different world go by outside the window.

Arriving eventually at Casa Palopó almost felt like coming home. But to a very different house in a much, much more enchanting setting. Greeted with a cold towel and delicious hibiscus cocktail, I was already the happiest of happy travellers.

Being shown to my room (Casa Palopó’s gorgeous Santa Clara suite) I had to pinch myself. I think I actually did a little dance once I was alone. In one direction, a king-sized bed framed in auburn wood, set against a lavender sponge-painted wall and adorned with hand-woven throw pillows. In the other, the widest balcony with sweeping views across Lake Atitlán and the three volcanoes that stand on its shores. Behind, a sliding door through to an ensuite, complete with a huge freestanding bathtub. Don’t mind if I do.

Guatemala shaman blessing experience
Guatemala travel

Blessings and breakfasts

Climbing one-hundred steps to a platform nestled in the hillside above the property, we were greeted by local shaman Tomás at the top. In a metal firepit, an assortment of flowers, candles, feathers, herbs, sweets and other offerings were piled, arranged in circles. They represented everyday life; their various shapes, colours, sizes all reflective of its similar diversity.

To begin the evening’s ceremony, the shaman explained the significance of the here and now, of being in the present moment. There are specific days to wish for things in Mayan culture. That day, he told us, was one of them. Conducted in his own of the twenty-two different ancient Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, the shaman guided us through the setting of intentions and the connection of different energies to the earth, and to the sacred fire. The energy of happiness and of kindness, the energy of our words, our smiles, our bodies, our health, our ancestors. We shared what we are thankful for and tossed into the fire something we wished to let go of. We also shared our birthdays and were told a little about our own energies. Mine is ‘la energía de la mariposa’ – the energy of the butterfly – which is the same as the energy of our hands. The shaman explained it’s important that I learn to use my hands with intention, to bring clarity to my mind. I thought this was actually very true for me. Cooking, writing, drawing, knitting – something practical – are my favourite ways to unwind. The ceremony came to its conclusion with a blessing that called for us to awaken and feel the joy of being alive. There’s no doubt it all felt purposeful, even transformative in some way. I’d like very much if all my trips from now on began with one of these blessings.

Waking up early the next morning to the songs of native birds, little did I know the feast I was in for at breakfast – served on the terrace. Warm coffee, chilled juice, fresh fruit sprinkled with bee pollen, and a traditional Guatemalan breakfast of scrambled eggs, tomato salsa, black beans, fried plantain, avocado, and chorizo sausage. It was totally delicious, much-needed fuel for a busy day ahead.

Guatemala travel
Guatemala textiles

Boat trips to beautiful places

On the way down to the jetty, we spotted two very tiny bird chicks that had fallen from their nest, perched on a wooden beam of the shelter we were stood under. On an impromptu rescue mission, our guide Reginaldo clambered atop someone’s shoulders and used a leaf to prop the chicks back up, safely home again. Conservation complete, we then embarked on a short boat trip across Lake Atitlán to the town of San Juan La Laguna.

It was Mother’s Day that Tuesday, so the town was full of families out celebrating, beautifully bright in their traditional handwoven garments. A sense that you’re bearing witness to a place simply going about its day-to-day life can be hard to come by when travelling sometimes. But I really felt that here.

Every road was framed from above by hanging items of every colour, shape and size – hats, dolls, musical instruments, tassels, lampshades, animal masks – to name a few. It put the decoration of all the rest of the world’s streets to shame. Certainly, infinitely better and far more creative than any of the Christmas lights that annually line London’s Oxford Street.

One of my favourite parts of visiting here was a presentation from a young local woman about weaving traditional Guatemalan textiles. Growing up surrounded by trimmings and rolls of fabric (my Dad’s trade is textiles), this was right up my street. The process – which begins with removing the seeds from cotton fibres by hand, and ends with weaving spun and dyed yarns together using a backstrap loom – is incredibly intricate and laborious. To make just one single skein of thread takes up to a week. Somebody asked if there was a reason why machines haven’t replaced many stages of producing Guatemalan textiles, as they have in most other parts of the world. I thought the answer was quite beautiful. That this craft – taught by mothers to their daughters, passed down over centuries – is so much a part of the women who devote their lives to it, that to do so would fracture their souls; change them somehow. It’s neither speed nor efficiency that matters, but careful dedication to custom and the observance of artistic tradition. How rare that this still exists somewhere. I’m grateful I got to learn about it.

Painting the town (literally)

After trying our hands at making traditional corn tortillas back at Casa Palopó (and devouring them for lunch), we travelled to the neighbouring village to visit a local project: Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó. With the goal of developing a sustainable community through tourism, it paints the exteriors of local homes in colours and traditional patterns that represent the community, passed down through generations. Choosing the design with which their homes will be adorned, the town’s own residents are actively involved.

Armed with fluorescent paint shades and brushes, we set to work – turning a family’s home into a work of art, saying hello to locals who passed through as we painted. Let’s just say I felt relieved knowing that any accidental spills or splodges would later be fixed by one of the project’s professional painters. But it was a brilliant experience to see right into the heart of the town.

Back at Casa Palopó, we enjoyed afternoon tea – Guatemala style. Perfectly portioned bites on tiered cake stands, decorated with passion flowers so beautiful they almost didn’t look real. Needless to say, we were so full we couldn’t manage dinner afterwards. Huge thanks to Chef Manuel for such a treat (in the highly unlikely event he’s reading this).

Villa Bokéh Guatemala

A new city and secret cocktails

They say all good things must come to an end. And so, our time at Casa Palopó did. But the next adventure to its sister hotel Villa Bokéh in the city of Antigua was – of course – just as completely and utterly lovely.

Villa Bokéh is a colonial-style hacienda located just outside the centre of Antigua. Luxury, boutique – and a gem if ever there was one. Each of the sixteen rooms are themed with a colour, and full of incredibly stylish touches crafted by local artisans. I stayed in ‘Rosada’, a spacious junior suite painted a subtle shade of pink – and flooded with this beautiful warm light from its four huge windows. It was far too chic, and I was far too excited that it was mine for the next two nights. I still need those pink armchairs in my house.

We were fortunate enough to be accompanied by experts and knowledgeable guides for our entire journey – truly seeing Guatemala through the eyes of its locals. And Nickol was in-the-know about every cool and trendy spot in the city. Before dinner outside at Santo Spirito (known for its delicious Italian-style small plates), we stopped at Ulew – a hidden cocktail bar. Speakeasy style. There’s no menu here, which is all part of the fun. Tell its owner, Mario, what flavours, spirits, or classic drinks you enjoy – and he’ll create you a personalised cocktail. Served, of course, in what must be some of the craziest vessels on planet Earth. Have you ever sipped from a ceramic wooden-look cuboid inscribed with ‘Frankie’s Tiki Boom Las Vegas’, topped with yellow flowers and a cup made of ice filled with passion fruit? Well, I have. Highly recommend it.

Returning to Villa Bokéh later that evening, my life got about as luxurious as it possibly ever might. I ordered from the hotel’s extensive pillow menu: a lengthy list of dreamy lavender-scented goodness, designed to help guests drift off into restful sleep. Room service, but for bedding – delivered straight to your door. Brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that I was thoroughly disappointed such a menu was not sitting on my bedside table when I returned home.

Guatemala market

Taking tours and textile workshops

The first morning in Antigua was spent on a private walking tour around the city with our guide, Julio, learning the history behind its cobbled streets, pastel painted facades, and bustling plazas. Lots of churches, too. The iconic yellow Santa Catalina arch that frames the Volcán de Agua behind it. It was like stepping into a photograph I’ve seen countless times. Before my trip I’d imagined myself there. And now I really was, right there beneath it. It felt strangely familiar.

My highlight was when Julio took us to see what, to him, was the hallmark of ‘the real Antigua’. Off the beaten track, towards the hum of market day. I’m acutely aware that I sound like a broken record, but it was the colour – once again – which caught my attention. It’s possible my eyes saw every shade under the sun. Local ladies sporting bright handwoven clothing, selling fresh fruits and vegetables beneath the cover of rainbow-hued umbrellas. Buzzing is the only word to describe the atmosphere. An average Thursday trip to buy groceries for Antigua’s residents. For me? A morning I’ll never forget.

Beside the market, I didn’t anticipate that its car park, of all places, would be just as exciting. Most Guatemalan buses begin their lives as US school buses, before being driven south to be repurposed as ‘camionetas’. A lick of suitably colourful paint, patterns, and branded with a new nickname – and you’d truly never know. Like thriving, vibrant party buses, but for everyday comings and goings. I only wish we’d had time to hop on one.

But the afternoon held other, fashion-forward things, as we made the trip to Luna Zorro’s atelier, set in the surrounds of a 150-year-old coffee farm. Established by American designer Molly Berry to preserve and champion Mayan culture, it’s a creative community that supports local artisans and their products. Their shop is divine, too, if you’re heading in that direction. Beautiful one-of-a-kind garments and the loveliest hand-made homeware. If I’d known (and been considerably richer), I’d have brought along an extra suitcase so I could buy the lot. One day, perhaps.

After lunch on-site at Mercado 24, we got started with our plant dye workshop, turning plain cotton aprons into unique works of art – using all things natural. Onion skins, crushed bugs, spices, herbs. Flower power and other raw, essential stuff. Bundled and boiling, the only challenge was the suspense, waiting to see how they’d turn out after an hour bubbling in a cauldron of water. Emerging as bright yellow and pink tie dye masterpieces (if I do say so myself), the aprons were transformed. Plants are seriously cool.


The departure

Six months down the line, the short time I spent in Guatemala is still very much at the forefront of my mind. You don’t forget colour and culture like that, and I hope I’ll be back there again before too long.

The furthest afield I’d ever travelled alone at that time, it was a reminder of the total joy that can come with stepping out of your comfort zone – and embracing exploring further and wider. It sparked something, anyway.

I’ll stop getting sentimental now, but my point is this: if Guatemala isn’t already on your bucket list, put it on there. Right now. At the very top.