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Lake Atitlán. Three hours from Antigua, redefines "high-strung."
World on the Cheap
Antigua: Gateway to Guatemala
Swim a caldera. Then hike one 12,000-foot [3,658-meter] peak and bike another.

• Safety
• Where to Go
• How to Go
• Lodging and Dining

Sitting at the confluence of three tectonic plates, Guatemala is defined by its dynamic geology. More than 30 volcanoes—including 13,845-foot [4,220-meter] Tajumulco, the highest in Central America—pepper the country's southwestern highlands, where stunningly blue Lake Atitlán fills 50 square miles [130 square kilometers] of a collapsed volcanic caldera.

Though it was only in 1996 that Guatemala ended a devastating 36-year civil war, it has already earned a well-entrenched spot on the "gringo trail." Many travelers base themselves in the colonial city of Antigua, where mountain biking, hiking, and rafting trips are easy to set up, and trails lead to volcanic peaks.

All prices in U.S. dollars

While there's little risk of terrorism in Guatemala, the country has seen violent crime against foreigners in recent years. For many outings, travelers can arrange a police escort through the Tourist Protection Office (+011 502 331 1333, extension 241). Consider reserving one when volcano climbing near Antigua, or use a guide.

Where to Go
Quieter and more picturesque than the capital, Guatemala City, Antigua is the first destination for many visitors.

Framed by three 12,000-plus-foot [3,658-plus-meter] volcanoes—Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango—and filled with 18th-century architecture, Antigua is home to most of the country's best outfitters. Old Town Outfitters (+011 502 832 4243; www.bikeguatemala.com), for example, offers rock climbing trips ($35), bike rentals ($15 per day), and a full-day singletrack ride on the flanks of 12,356-foot [3,766-meter] Agua ($35).

For a longer excursion, travel to Lake Atitlán, which is ringed by Maya villages and volcanoes of its own. Instead of staying in touristy Panajachel, stop in tiny Santa Cruz La Laguna. Take long hikes, then dive in Atitlán with ATI Divers (two-tank dive, $45; four-day PADI open-water certification, $175; contact through the Iguana Perdida Hotel [see Lodging and Dining]).

How to Go
In spring, airfares to Guatemala City from U.S. cities can be found for less than $500. Try the Web or consolidators Exito Latin American Travel (800 655 4053 [U.S. and Canada only]; www.exitotravel.com) and Latin America Discount Air (+1 213 383 8918; www.latindiscountair.com). There is a $30 airport tax.

Shuttle buses ($10) leave six times daily from the Guatemala City airport for Antigua. From Antigua, "chicken" buses (converted school buses; $3), comfortable "Pullman" buses ($4), and tourist minibuses ($10) make the three-hour run to Panajachel on Lake Atitlán, where you can catch a boat ($2) to nearby Santa Cruz.

Lodging and Dining
Most small hotels charge $4 to $15 for a double; a luxurious option is Antigua's Hotel Aurora ($50, including breakfast; +011 502 832 0217; haurora@conexion.com.gt). Santa Cruz's Iguana Perdida (+011 502 762 2621; santacruz@guate.net) has lake-view cabanas and communal dinners for $10. Cuisine ranges from the international—bagels, pad thai—in big-city restaurants to the beans, eggs, corn tortillas, and fried plantains served everywhere else. The prices are only $3 to $5 for any of these options. Splurge on the dining room in Antigua's Posada Don Rodrigo (+011 502 832 0291), where you can feast on traditional fare for $10.

—McKenzie Funk

Photograph by Frans Lemmens/Getty Images

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(Bus and boat, four travel days)
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Total $1,120

Related Web Sites

Guatemala: Country Facts and Maps
Get the basics from the National Geographic Atlas of the World online.

Colossal Cave in 360°
Explore Guatemala's Chiquibul, Central America's longest cave, via panoramic interior views and more.

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March 2002:
In the Magazine | Excerpts | Afghan Warlord | Colossal Cave | Property-Rights Forum | Antigua Travel Guide Gear Guide: Wool | Gear Guide: Daypacks

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