This week host Kelly Regan is joined by Eliot Greenspan, the author of Frommer's Guatemala. Greenspan reveals what he loves about the Central American country and its culture, and gives listeners his top reasons to visit along with tips on suggested itineraries. Hear advice about great food, colonial towns and major cities, boat trips and excursions to stunning natural attractions, such as a seven-tiered waterfall.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

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  • Where to Eat (Guatemala City): Tamarindos, Jakes, Cacao.
  • What to Do (Tikal): Guided tours, pyramid at sunset.
  • What to See: Semuc Champey, Kan'Ba, Los Siete Altares, .
  • Livingston: First go to Rio Dulce and take a boat.


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Kelly Regan: Hi and welcome to the podcast, the latest in our continuing conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, Editorial Director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host.

My guest today is Elliott Greenspan, who covers many, many Latin and South American destinations for Frommer's. He is the author of our new book, "Frommer's Guatemala," which is on sale now, and he is here to talk about Guatemala as one of Latin America's hottest and most affordable destinations. Elliott, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Elliott Greenspan: My pleasure, Kelly. Nice to talk to you.
Kelly: Let's start with the basics. I was reading through your book. One thing was really clear as I was going through the book, and that is that you really love this country. I know it is probably hard to capture in just a few sentences, but for people who might not be familiar with Guatemala, can you tell us what makes the country such a memorable travel destination? I understand that there is a popular circuit to follow that you call the Holy Trinity of Tikal, Antigua and Lake Atitlan, but tell us a little bit about what makes Guatemala so memorable.
Elliott: Well, I have been traveling to Guatemala since the early 1990s, and throughout Latin America and mostly Central America. What sets Guatemala apart is really its indigenous culture and the arts and textiles of the indigenous culture. Until you go there it is hard to imagine such wealth and beauty of colors that is woven into the fabric that they wear, and just the fabric of their everyday life.
Kelly: Can you give an example? I know that textiles are actually very famous, but can you describe what it is like to be kind of walking around and to be experiencing that, experiencing the colors, and how do they manifest other than in the textiles and in the clothing?
Elliott: The fact is that rainbow wealth of color is there everywhere; because this is what folks still wear pretty much as their daily dress throughout much of Guatemala, and especially the highlands and more remote districts. Then, on top of that, you have an unbelievable natural beauty, Lake Atitlan which is just a stunning, stunning setting; deep rainforests, beautiful colonial structures that are amazingly well-preserved or just stoically in ruins from the many earthquakes that have hit Guatemala over the centuries.
Kelly: Antigua is a pretty colonial city, right? It dates back to the colonial times?
Elliott: Absolutely, and one of the true colonial gems on the planet alongside Cartagena de los Indios or Havana. A stunning colonial city with many native churches, convents, monasteries, cobblestone streets, very uneven sidewalks. One of my thoughts in Antigua was like, "Oh my God, I don't know if I could tell my parents to come here." You've really got to watch your step, and definitely leave your high heels at home.
Kelly: I think you mention in the book, when you are talking about itineraries or suggested ways to see the country that you actually go right to Antigua when you land in Guatemala, right? That should be, really, your first stop?
Elliott: I think what I try to advise in the book that has typically been the advice given over the years, because Antigua is only about 40 minutes from the airport. What has happened in the past five to ten years is that Guatemala City is truly emerging as a very interesting and safe and fun-to-visit metropolitan city, with fabulous restaurants, good museums, great shops and galleries, and so I am starting to split on that.
Kelly: Oh, OK.
Elliott: Yeah, the traditional old-time advice was just to go straight to Antigua, but Guatemala City is really emerging as one of the best metropolitan cities in Central America for sure.
Kelly: Oh, wow. Well what is your favorite thing to do in Guatemala City when you are there?
Elliott: I'm giving myself away, but I like to eat. There are some fabulous restaurants, truly, and truly some wonderful Guatemalan chefs that are working in cutting-edge ways, using local ingredients and modern techniques, another sort of cliche of fusion cuisine. There are two restaurants that stand out, one called Tamarindos and another called Jake's. Then, for very traditional Guatemalan fare, but taken from all the different regions of Guatemala, is another excellent restaurant called Cacao.
Kelly: OK, Cacao.
Elliott: All three of them are in Guatemala City.
Kelly: What is the food like? Can you describe, like, is traditional Guatemalan cuisine? What kinds of dishes are typical to the kind of national cuisine?
Elliott: Things are very regional. Rice and beans, and corn tamales form the basis of the cooking across the nation, but the real interesting elements of the cuisine are when you get into regional cooking. For example, in Eastern Highlands, they have a dish called cacique, which comes from one of the Mayan languages, which is a full meal of a turkey-based soup that comes with some spicy chili, some yucca, and some potatoes. It is usually accompanied by empanadas, sort of a cornmeal pastry.
Kelly: Uh huh.
Elliott: In the Western Highlands you have Pepian, which is similar to the Mexican mole, which is a chicken dish in a pumpkin seed and tomato sauce, and the pumpkin seeds are ground up into a thick paste, delicious and quite tasty. Then out on the Caribbean coast, where you have a Caribbean, black and Garifuna influence, you have papado, which is a delicious, spicy fish and seafood stew done in coconut milk.
Kelly: Oh, OK. Oh, that does sound good. I did want to talk about the Garifuna and the Caribbean coast, but before we get to that I wanted to kind of jump to a quick conversation about the Mayan ruins, because there are so many wonderful ruin sites in Guatemala. You say in the book that Tikal is the most impressive of the Maya ceremonial cities. I think that the great pyramid at Tikal was the pyramid in the Reebok commercial way back when, that the guy was running up the steps to the top of the pyramid.

What advice do you have about the best way to see Tikal? I know you say that it is great to see the pyramid around sunset; do you recommend taking a tour, or is it just as good to go by yourself and experience it?

Elliott: It depends on how much time you have, and whether or not it's your first or second time there. For a first-time visitor, I would say it's essential to go on a guided tour. My first time there, which I doubt anybody else is going to be able to experience, I got picked up hitchhiking by one of the archaeologists on the site, who took me and let me in, and I spent about five days there and had full run of the place.
Kelly: Wow!
Elliott: Especially at night, when it was around the full moon and the causeways were lit up as if by streetlights, and I could just wander the old streets of Tikal, hours on end, just basically by myself. Now, most people will not get that experience, and so a guide does come in extremely handy.
Kelly: And is it relatively easy to arrange for the guides when you get there?
Elliott: Absolutely easy. Tikal is, if not the top tourist destination in Guatemala, one of the top tourist destinations. Tours are offered from Guatemala City, from Antigua, from all the other destinations in Guatemala, to Tikal. If you go by your own to the gateway cities, which are Flores and Santa Elena, two side-by-side cities, it's also very easy to set up tours from there.
Kelly: And it does sound like, from what you're saying, that that's going to give you the background and just enhance the experience of seeing these ruins that are so old.
Elliott: Right. Also, Tikal is massive. There are something like 3,000 known structures in Tikal.
Kelly: Wow.
Elliott: At least ten major pyramids that have been excavated and spread out over many acres. It's truly a city.
Kelly: I think the more guidance you can get to take you around the city itself, I think would be helpful. You also mention, not far from Tikal are the ruins of, and I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing this correctly: Yaxha?
Elliott: Pretty close; that's pretty good, Yaxha.
Kelly: Yaxha, which was the setting for the eleventh season of "Survivor." Do you have a sense of how being featured in the show has changed the scene there? Do you feel like it's now becoming more overrun with tourists, so they're doing more excavation, or did the show kind of come and go without much of a blip?
Elliott: It definitely put it on the map. It's also very far from being overrun. It would be hard to overrun a place that remote. And thanks to the show, yes, excavation is ongoing, and doing some good work. Not only in Yaxha, but also at another site very close by called Yaxha, which I think would be other tribe in that show.
Kelly: Oh, OK. So it does sound like that would be a nice alternative, if somebody were looking for something that were maybe a little smaller-scale or not quite as popular as Tikal.
Elliott: Right. I don't know that it's an alternative as much as an addendum, because if you only have one shot, I still recommend seeing Tikal, just for the imposing nature of the site.
Kelly: Yeah. That makes sense; I think that makes a lot of sense. Let's go back to what you were talking about, what you alluded to before. Guatemala has a very tiny strip of Caribbean coastline, and there's a town there called Livingston, which was originally settled by the Garifuna, who trace their roots back to both West African slaves and indigenous Caribbean people. Can you talk a little bit about the Garifuna and how their influence is realized in Livingston?
Elliott: I would love to, actually, because the Garifuna are also in Belize, which is another book I write for Frommer's, and they are one of the most fascinating people on the planet, in my mind. What happened was, in the 1500s and 1600s, they escaped slavery in the Caribbean islands, predominantly St. Vincent and other islands around St. Vincent, mixed with the local Caribe Indian population and lived for generations like that. Fought a battle against, I'm pretty sure the British, but might be the French or Dutch, who instead of massacring them, thought a worse punishment would be to ship them off in a boat to the totally barren eastern coast of Central America, the Caribbean coast of Central America. And left them there in the 1600s, and they continued to live virtually with no contact with any other civilization for the next two or three hundred years.
Kelly: Wow.
Elliott: Maintaining their language and religion and traditions, which were a very syncretic blend of that Caribe Indian with various West African tribes. So their music and dance and language are very related to the West African music, dance and languages, and totally unique.
Kelly: Great. And it sounds, from what you were saying before, that the cuisine is also very singular, as well.
Elliott: Right. They use coconut milk, more spices than you'll find in other places around Guatemala.
Kelly: If people want to go to Livingston, what are the kinds of things that you would recommend that they do when they're there?
Elliott: Livingston is one of those places where the cliche of "getting there is more than half the fun" is true. The best way to get to Livingston is to first go to Rio Dulce, which is a small river, lagoon-side community about two hours by boat away from Livingston. You get on the boat that will take you on a beautiful trip through some rainforests, with wonderful bird-watching, places where hot springs, volcanic hot springs, actually erupt into the river and you can jump off the boat and swim in a little undefined hot spring area on the southern river.
Kelly: Wow! Yeah!
Elliott: There's this limestone, white-walled canyon that you pass through at a certain point. If you're lucky, you'll see a manatee. It's a beautiful trip and well-worth doing. Then, once you're in Livingston, aside from hanging out in town and having your hair braided...

[Kelly laughs]

...the prominent activity is a hike to a seven-tiered waterfall called Los Siete Altares, or The Seven Altars. This is a very pretty jungle waterfall, or a series of waterfalls. The highest one of which, or the furthest one in, which is about a 25 to 30 minute hike, if I remember correctly, was actually used in one of the very early Tarzan movies, as a set.

Kelly: Oh, wow! You mean the old ones, the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies?
Elliott: Yeah, I'm not exactly sure if it was Johnny Weissmuller or one of the other actors, but yes, the very old black-and-white Tarzan movies, I think in the late 40s or early 50s.
Kelly: Wow, that's incredible. It sounds like a fantastic adventure to go on, to just take this hike and to get to these waterfalls. You do recommend a number of other outdoor adventures in the book, mountain biking and deep-sea fishing, and even climbing some active volcanoes.

Another one that I wanted to ask you more about was something that you call "The Cave Adventures," in particular a place called Kan'Ba. It sounds like you had a really fantastic time there. What exactly did you do?

Elliott: OK, yes, I did have a wonderful time. It was one of the most exciting adventure tour opportunities I have had. Kan'Ba is a river cave system that is right near another one of Guatemala's great attractions, called Semuc Champey. I'll talk about Kan'Ba first, and then we'll go to Semuc, which is equally stunning and worth visiting.

You start the tour of Kan'Ba by walking into this opening with a river flowing out of it, being handed a candle. Your guide has a candle, and the three or four people you are with have candles. You start walking into this cave in a river that goes anywhere from your ankle or knee depth to over your head.

Kelly: Oh, God!
Elliott: At points you are swimming up this river with a candle held in your mouth, and the only light you have is maybe three or four candles.
Kelly: Wow! And that wasn't scary at all?
Elliott: Luckily I don't suffer too much from claustrophobia or fear of the dark, but some people certainly have a difficult time with it. You can apparently hike for miles and miles up this cave. The day I was there was in the rainy season, or at the tail end of the rainy season, and the river was rushing too hard for us to go much more than about a half a mile into the caves.
Kelly: Great.
Elliott: But in the drier season you can go for several miles in.
Kelly: You were swimming through the cave. You hike all the way in and then do you swim back out again?
Elliott: You just retrace your steps, yeah, and swim your way back out. There are certain points where there are waterfalls inside the caves, this river that you are following has several waterfalls, so there are points where you can bathe underneath the waterfall or inside a waterfall pool. There are other places where you have to scramble up and climb the waterfall to continue on through the cave system. There is one natural slide area where you get to take a little slide down the floor of the cave into a pool below.
Kelly: Oh, that's cool!
Elliott: It's hard to describe it in words. When I visited about, I guess, a year and a half ago, the first time I was there, it had just opened and this cave system sits right near the entrance to Semuc Champey, which a lot of Guatemala's promotional material claims to be the most beautiful natural spot in Guatemala, and it may just be.
Kelly: Really?
Elliott: Semuc Champey is a very unique natural formation that basically sits in a very narrow gorge in a rainforest that, during some earthquakes hundreds of thousands of years ago, the land fell over a very big, raging river, and encased the river, which bored a tunnel through this earthquaked land, and over time, the land on top of the river developed into a series of pools and waterfalls.
Kelly: Oh, wow!
Elliott: The closest thing it looks like is the very famous waterfalls in Jamaica.
Kelly: Ocho Rios, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Elliott: Right, it looks a little bit like that: a series of stepped waterfalls with large pools. Some pools are big enough to hold 50 to 100 people swimming; but there are never that many people, because this is a very isolated part of Guatemala.
Kelly: Right, right, but it sounds pretty spectacular, the opportunity to experience this.
Elliott: It is truly beautiful, and because of the lay of the land there are some trails where you get to see this formation from up above, and there are also trails where you get to see the river entering and exiting this tunnel. It is hard to describe this on the phone, but the sheer power and force of that river entering the tunnel and coming out is astounding.
Kelly: Oh, wow. Do you have to be concerned about, possibly, if you are doing this kind of water exploring or swimming, do you have to be concerned about getting swept away?
Elliott: Yes, you should be careful, and you should definitely watch your step; and you should be aware that liability laws in Guatemala are probably nothing like you would expect them to be if you are accustomed to liability laws in the United States.
Kelly: Right, right, right. So, "visitor beware, " is the thing to take away from that I guess.
Elliott: Any adventure tourism, you really have to know your own limits and stay within your limits, and be prepared to take responsibility for your actions. The tour operators and the guides definitely have a responsibility, but in Latin America, in Central America, you really, know your limits and make sure you feel safe before you sign on for something.
Kelly: Right, I would agree with that. Yeah, and I mean, I think that is good advice no matter where you are going, or even what you are doing. It could be something as simple as hiking through a national park, but you just want to make sure that you are not doing something that you might end up regretting later.

I think that is probably all we have time for today. One last thing I wanted to ask you quickly is, for listeners who might be really inspired by what you are saying and really want to get on the next plane and go to Guatemala, what is the best way to get there from the U.S.? I imagine there are direct flights that you can take.

Elliott: There are definitely direct flights, and it depends on where you are. The major gateway cities are Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, and Atlanta with Delta. Pretty much all the major airlines fly direct or with one connection to Guatemala, and leave from most of the major gateway cities.
Kelly: OK, OK. Well that sounds pretty easy, actually.

I have been talking with Elliott Greenspan, who is the author of our new book, "Frommer's Guatemala, " which is on sale right now. Elliott also covers Cuba, Costa Rica, Belize, Venezuela and Ecuador for Frommer's, so we keep you pretty busy, Elliott. I really enjoyed our conversation. Thanks so much for being here and talking with us today.

Elliott: My pleasure.


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