You mentioned that you like to travel around. How long did you stay there?
We flew to Tikal [National Park in northern Guatemala] from Guatemala City the next day and stayed outside the park. We met our guide, Melvin, at the hotel. After a great day and a half of birding and seeing Tikal, we went to a lesser-known ruin called Yaxha.
After Tikal, we flew back the capital and went to the highlands. There we arrived at Panajachel [the main city of the region] on Lake Atitlan, and took an open boat across this beautiful lake, surrounded by volcanoes that are no longer active. On the other side of the lake, we arrived at the village of Santiago Atitlan, where we stayed for a few days at a wonderful inn called Posada de Santiago. The rooms are in small bungalows in a lovely garden behind the main lodge where the meals were served. Surrounding the lake are 13 Mayan villages. Normally we get out on the water and visit the village, but this last time the lake was very rough so we drove. We checked out the markets, did a horseback ride up through the fincas [farms and ranches] and a hike through the coffee fincas. Probably the best coffee anywhere. Higher above the plantations is vegetation [similar to] a tropical rain forest.
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Where else did you visit?
On the way back to Antigua, we stopped in Chichicastenango [about 85 miles northwest of Guatemala City] where on Sundays they have one of the great markets in the world. The Mayan Inn, where we stayed, is memorable, especially for the guys who light the fire in your room before you got to bed and in the [morning] before you get up.
What about the beaches?
I've actually not gone to the beaches there. I've been to beaches in Panama but not there. I'd like to sometime.
How's the food?
For the most part, not great. In Antigua there's good international restaurants, but around the rest of the country it's very much beans and rice — very simple food — not fantastic.
What do you like to bring back with you?
[Laughs] We have trunkloads of stuff. My wife loves textiles, and it's impossible to go down there and not buy it. The wool is beautiful. You used to be able to find some pre-Columbian pieces, but they're not allowing it out of the country anymore. Years ago, we found pots and things like that but not anymore.
What's your most memorable moment?
The first time I was in the town of Chichicastenango, about 45 years ago. You wake up and people are coming down from the hills … this unbelievable mass of humanity selling their wares. And then there's the incense burning in the churches with the Indian sacrifices. And there's that wonderful traditional hotel [the Mayan Inn] where we've stayed.
How often do you travel?
Well, I'm about to retire in June, so hopefully a lot more. But [up until now] I'd say about one international trip a year, in addition to a place in Colorado that we go to ski and we have a place in Lake Chautauqua [in New York] that we go to in the summertime. We have a cottage [in Chautauqua] that's been in my wife's family for four generations. Hopefully, once I retire, we'll spend more time up there.
What is an item you won't travel without?
A flashlight. If you're in rural areas, like we were at these ruins at Palenque in Ssuthern Mexico, at night it is just pitch black. You just can't believe how dark it is. And [also handy] if the power goes out …. So a little portable flashlight goes a long way.
What's next on your bucket list?
Now that we've got lots of time coming up, we'd love to spend time in Southeast Asia. Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam are all places I'd love to see. And for that matter, southeastern China. I've never been to that part of the world at all. Also Greece. My wife has never been there.
If you go
Guatemala is arguably Central America's best-kept travel secret, often overlooked by Americans. Less than 2 percent urbanized, it is a visual natural wonder with verdant mountains, volcanic canyon-shoots, pristine lakes and uninhabited beaches. Culturally, the Mayan people still populate the historic villages, rich with their colorful handcrafts, textiles and traditional dishes, often cooking open-air. Info: visitguatemala.com
United, American and Delta airlines all offer flights from BWI-Marshall Airport through Atlanta, Miami or Houston, into Guatemala City, beginning at about $580 round-trip. Once there, MICA President Fred Lazarus often hires a guide through Martsam Travel (martsam.com) in the city of Antigua. If you prefer to be in the driver's seat, it is advisable to rent a 4x4, as many roads are still unpaved.
In the scenic city of Antigua, Lazarus lodges at the charming Posada del Angel (posadadelangel.com). In Tikal, you'll hear the chattering monkeys in the morning if you stay in a thatched roof bungalow right inside the park at the rustic Hotel Tikal Inn, from $125. (tikalinnsunrise.com). By Lake Atitlan, Lazarus recommends Posada de Santiago whose stone-cottages have a private garden and hammock. Also included in the room rate ($60-85) is use of mountain bikes, canoes, hot tub and pool (posadadesantiago.com)
Tikal National Park. More jungle than park, the wondrous destination is one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, encompassing the largest tropical rain forest in Central America. (tikalpark.com)
Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America, is surrounded by stunning flora, fauna and authentic Mayan towns and villages. (atitlan.com)
Antigua. The circa1520s city of Antigua, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, served as Guatemala's capital for three centuries. Tucked away between three volcanoes, Antigua's well-preserved cobblestone streets, plazas with fountains and terracotta roofs make for picturesque photo ops. Combine that with warm, welcoming locals and one of Central America's best market-bazaars, and you'll surely want to stay for a week's worth of siestas. (aroundantigua.com)