Utter the word “Guatemala” in New Zealand and nine times out of 10 the famous line from television soap Shortland Street, “You’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata,” comes up. Even those who weren’t born when the line was first delivered in 1992, know it. Well, Dr Ropata may not be in Guatemala now, but increasing numbers of tourists are, including those seeking authentic experiences with a minimal environmental footprint.
This Central American country is rich in natural wonders and culture, and at its heart is Antigua (just under 50 kilometres from sprawling Guatemala City) bursting with history, charm and breathtaking views from almost any vantage point.
And none more so than from Earth Lodge, located 20 minutes and 6000 feet into the mountains above Antigua, with panoramic views of the volcanoes – Pacaya, Fuego and Agua – that encircle the city. When Briana Havey and Drew Shankman established the Lodge 11 years ago, they toyed with the idea of calling it “Best View on Earth”. All of its rooms have spectacular outlooks. The tree houses of the mountain lodge (up in the oak trees) are extremely popular and on weekends they book out three to four months in advance.
January to March is the best time to visit Earth Lodge, as the weather is great and the views super clear. It’s a beautiful place in which to relax, enjoy nature and look upon one of the most impressive views in Guatemala from the comfort of a reclining chair or hammock.
The Lodge is also famous for its home-cooked and mostly vegetarian meals and family-style dinners (you can visit for lunch or dinner) where guests sit together and eat the same meal. It gives people a chance to interact and share travel tips and stories.
Havey (an American) and Shankman (a Canadian) met in a bar in Honduras and over the years have made a great team, as well as a difference in the community with Earth Lodge. Havey was a bar manager before setting up Earth Lodge with Shankman, a chef and former television presenter. Shankman has also created the Earth Lodge Cookbook of 55 tasty veggie recipes including signature dishes moussaka, veggie burgers, beer bread and hot sauce.
Earth Lodge is also an avocado farm, so fresh guacamole is plentiful, especially from January through to July. They also grow their own greens, including herbs and lettuce in a permaculture garden. The rest of the produce is bought from local farmers.
The eco-friendly Lodge uses all of its food scraps as compost or animal food, recycles all cans, bottles and plastic, offers free water refills for guests with their own water bottles, and uses grey water to grow bananas. It also supports nearby El Hato school, about one kilometre from the Lodge, by raising money for school supplies and buying food for its breakfast programme.
Transport is provided to and from Antigua and Guatemala City airport. One thing to note is that it’s located at the bottom of a 300 metre hill, so packing accordingly and wearing appropriate footwear for the descent is recommended.
Good food is easy to find in Antigua, which has a sophisticated culinary scene as well as a rich history. It become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Its cobbled streets and pastel coloured buildings (remnants of the Spanish occupation) are an enchanting visual feast, as well as its many ruins. Antigua was once the epicentre of power in Central America, and during the 17th and 18th centuries little expense was spared on the city’s architecture. At its peak, Antigua had no fewer than 38 churches, many of which were destroyed in the devastating earthquake of July 29, 1973, and again in 1976. The roofless ruins behind Catedral de Santiago are the remnants of a quake in 1773 and you can’t help but wonder at its strength; huge pillars are strewn below massive stone archways, with vegetation sprouting from cracks in the walls.
Another highlight is church/monastery Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Merced. Its yellow façade, decorated with plaster filigree, is beautiful. Inside the monastery ruins is what is believed to be the largest fountain in Hispanic America. Measuring 27 metres in diameter, it’s shaped as a giant water lily (traditionally a symbol of power for Maya lords).
Also not to be missed is the outdoor Art Museum Santo Domingo del Cerro, a sprawling sculpture park that is home to the works of many local artists, including Efrain Recinos (known as the ‘Picasso of Guatemala’). On the grounds of the park and located at the top of a hill, white tablecloth restaurant, El Tenedor del Cerro, affords wonderful views over the city.
Another great place to enjoy outstanding views and good food is Cerro San Cristobal organic farm and slow food garden-to-table restaurant, which offers dining on an outdoor terrace beside its garden, which overlooks Antigua. Located 15 minutes from the city’s Central Park (there’s a regular shuttle service) with live music daily, it’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon soaking up the views and ambience.
Or, head out in the evening to enjoy a drink atop Café Sky and you might even see lava flow from Pacaya volcano, which is in a near constant state of eruption.
Antigua’s location, nestled between the mountains, means the city has a comfortable climate, with temperatures ranging between 25-28°C year round.
There are several day-trip hiking options to the different active volcanoes if you’re feeling, well, active. (Don’t be surprised if you feel the odd earth tremor.)
It’s also easy and quick to walk anywhere in the city. Like most cities in Guatemala, Antigua has numbered avenues going north (norte) to south (sur) and number (calles) from east (poniente) to west (oriente).
In Antigua, Volcan Agua is always to the south and the Cerro de la Cruz is always north, so it’s easy to orientate yourself.
Other attractions include many of Antigua’s Spanish Schools, as well as volunteer opportunities.
The only catch about visiting the dreamy and bustling city of Antigua is that once you get there, you won’t want to leave.
More top Antigua eateries
· Rainbow Café 7a Av Sur 8. Located in the city centre, it serves amazing salads and all-day breakfasts. Entry through a second-hand book store.
· Porque No? Café 2a Avenida Sur. Super-friendly and cosy, run by Carlos and Carolina. Diners can perch at the bar beside the busy kitchen and enjoy a drink with a quesadilla, or climb a ladder to dine on the upper mezzanine level. Atmosphere plus.
· Sky Café 1A Avenida Sur. This rooftop bar has one of the best views of the city and its volcanoes, particularly Volcan Agua.