Retalhuleu serves as an excellent gateway to the following attractions. Alternately, you can visit any of these as a day trip out of Quetzaltenango, or as part of a route connecting Quetzaltenango to the Pacific beaches or Guatemala City.
Ruins of Takalik Abaj
This remarkable and often neglected Maya site dates from the pre-Classic period. Its name translates to "Standing Stone" in the modern K'iche dialect, and is often referred to as Abaj Takalik. So far, more than 85 structures built around some dozen different plazas have been discovered. Takalik Abaj contains a wealth of carved stone sculptures and monuments, many showing clear influence of the Mexican Olmec tribes combined with prototypical and archaic Maya traits. It's even speculated that Olmec and Maya peoples may have coexisted at this site. Takalik Abaj thrived as a ceremonial and trade center from the 8th century B.C. through the 2nd century A.D., with close ties to Kaminaljuyú (present day Guatemala City). There are various well-preserved stelae here, as well as anthropomorphic carved stones. Be sure to check out the unique barrigón, or "fat-bellied," sculptures. One of the more remarkable finds at Takalik Abaj is the unlooted grave of an early Maya king who was buried in full regalia. There's also an early ball court, which is built in an uncommon "T" shape. However, the ball court has been reburied to protect it from the elements.
Takalik Abaj also contains a minizoo of sorts, with allegedly rescued and rehabilitating animals either found wounded or saved from poor living conditions, although I'm not sure I find their current digs all that appealing.
The archaeological site is open daily from 7am to 5pm, and admission is Q50 ($6.65/£3.35). A guide is included with the price of admission and will accompany your group no matter what size. These guides are volunteers, and I recommend you leave a little tip of about Q7.50 to Q15 ($1-$2/50p-£1) per person, even if he speaks only rudimentary English. All of the signage here is in Spanish only.
It's possible, yet complicated, to get to Takalik Abaj by public transportation. Your best bet is to either sign on for a guided tour or hire a taxi. Any hotel in town (or in Quetzaltenango, for that matter), can arrange a half-day tour for around Q113 to Q225 ($15-$30/£7.50-£15). The folks at Takalik Maya Lodge offer a day tour that visits the archaeological site and their coffee plantation, and also includes lunch, for Q225 ($30/£15) per person. If you're driving, head west out of Reu on CA-2 toward the Mexican border to the town of El Astinal. From here there are signs directly to the site.
The IRTRA provides vacation access and service to Guatemalan workers, and also runs two of the country's biggest theme parks -- Xocomil and Xetulul -- the first a water-themed park, the latter similar to Disney's Epcot Center. If you're traveling with children and the theme parks are your primary destination, you might want to stay at either La Ranchería, which has spacious, spread-out bungalows, or the Palajuno, which continues the Epcot-like theme with units taking their design and decor from various tropical countries around the world. Both of these can be booked directly through IRTRA (tel. 502/2423-9000; www.irtra.org.gt). Both theme parks, as well as the IRTRA hotels, are located about 12km (7 1/2 miles) north of Retalhuleu, on the road to Quetzaltenango.
The Coastal Highway & Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa
As you drive from Retalhuleu toward Guatemala City or the Pacific beaches, you'll pass by the town of Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa. While there's not much in town, there are a couple of interesting archaeological sites nearby, and one very good museum just outside of town. Perhaps feeling the pressure of Reu's naming itself "The Capital of the World," Santa Lucía calls itself "The World Capital of Happiness." However, Santa Lucía may have more of a leg to stand on. My Guatemalan friends say the town will throw a party at the drop of a hat, and quite often you'll find marimba bands playing at night in the town's central plaza.
If you decide to stay in Santa Lucía, your first choice should be the Hotel Santiaguito (tel. 502/7882-5435). Located on the old Carretera al Pacifico at Km 90.4, this miniresort has a popular restaurant, spacious modern rooms, and a large, refreshing pool.
Note: Several years ago a beltway, or circumvalación, was built to bypass the town of Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa. If you want to visit any of the sites listed below or the hotel mentioned above, you'll want to get off the coastal highway and head toward the center of town.
Big Trees -- If you're driving along the road between Retalhuleu and Escuintla, keep an eye out for the many giant ceiba trees that dot the roadside, particularly around Santa Lucía. Revered by the ancient Maya, these towering trees have long, broad, and smooth trunks, and some of the specimens you'll see along this highway are more than 200 years old.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.