Some days at the office, as every member of the work force knows, are better than others. As a travel writer, the world is my office, and this was definitely one of the better days.
Upon arrival at the airport in Guatemala City, I was whisked off to lunch at the colorful La Esquina, a combination bistro and marketplace in the city’s vibrant Zone 4 neighborhood. A veritable riot of color and design, La Esquina has been described by one patron as “coolly chaotic.” This unique spot is a homage to both the distinctive cuisine of Guatemala and to the country’s rich folk art tradition.
After a leisurely lunch, I hopped aboard a helicopter for the 25-minute flight to my destination — Casa Palopo, a Relais & Chateaux property situated on the shore of Lake Atitlan.
Skimming over the lush green canopy of the jungle below, I was reminded of a jigsaw puzzle — that splash of yellow in the right corner was soon recognizable as a clump of jacaranda trees bursting with blossoms; on the left, that blob of silvery blue morphed into a graceful waterfall spilling its way down a mountain ravine.
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But the best was yet to come. From the window, I got my first look at Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro, the three 10,000-foot volcanic peaks rising out of 1,000-foot deep Lake Atitlan, described by English novelist Aldous Huxley as “the most beautiful lake in the world.”
The dormant volcanoes are frequently obscured by a halo of low hanging clouds, but when skies are clear, the view is one that even a postcard or a painting could never duplicate.
By the time we landed on the property’s windswept helipad at the lake’s edge, I was smitten. Afterward, comfortably relaxing on my suite’s balcony and enjoying the 10-minute foot massage offered to every guest upon arrival, I was enchanted. And that evening, as I sipped a cocktail at the Villa Palopo’s infinity pool and watched the sunset paint stripes of tangerine, magenta and lilac across the sky, I was head-over-heels in love.
The nine-room Casa Palopo (seven in the main building and two in the hilltop villa), ensconced in a secluded spot above the lake, is the vision of owner Claudia Bosch, who has devoted seven years to turning what was first a private residence and then a boutique hotel into a world-class property.
In what would make a great movie plot, she checked into the boutique hotel in 2010 as a guest and left as its new owner. Soon after, she began working her magic.
From the rooms with their intense mix of colors (mine was deep sapphire) and fabrics, local textiles and art to the central terrace which serves as a gathering spot for pre- and post-dinner drinks, Casa Palopo feels more like a beautifully appointed home than a hotel.
Guests have access to the lake by way of steeply carved stairs, and the staff can arrange a kayak for paddling or boat tours to any of the 12 Mayan towns surrounding the lake. There are no TVs (who needs them?), but there is a well-stocked library, a cozy, candlelit bar, and a living room where the décor features an original Botero painting.
One of the most unusual activities Casa Palopo offers is the Mayan Shaman Ceremony. Tomas, the local shaman, takes guests on a journey of Mayan spiritual rituals. The outdoor ceremony centers on the four points of the Mayan cross, representing the sacred elements — earth, sky, water and air — with guests offering chants and prayers for each.
Even while honoring the past, it seems one can’t entirely disconnect from the present. At one point, Tomas interrupted the ceremony to answer a call on his cell phone.
All great hotels need a great restaurant, and at 6.8 Palopo (with both indoor and outdoor tables), Chef Mario Miralles is a passionate proponent of locally grown and sourced products and a devotee of his country’s proud culinary heritage.
Dinner one evening featured a Guatemalan salad composed of lettuce, grilled corn, tortilla chips, tomato, Spanish onion, black beans and cilantro dressing; Pepian steak with corn risotto and local vegetables and de leche ice cream coated with caramelized popcorn powder.
For breakfast, it was huevos rancheros accompanied by black beans, plantains, and the luscious avocados that I couldn’t get enough of. Ditto the Guatemalan coffee which managed to be both robust and smooth.
Casa Palopo guests should opt to take a boat ride to explore a few of the 12 Mayan towns which surround the lake. Each town specializes in a different activity — pottery making, textile production, yoga — that can translate into a tourism boon.
I visited Santiago, the largest and most commercial of the lake towns, and found the best way to navigate its winding, narrow streets was by tuc-tuc, a motorcycle converted into a mini taxi, which can be hired for under $4.
Continuing on to San Juan La Laguna, I watched an exhibition of weaving and later stopped for lunch at El Artisano, which proved to be quite a find. Lunch was in a tropical courtyard reminiscent of New Orleans’ French Quarter; the menu was a smorgasbord of Guatemalan specialties, and background music came in the form of Verdi’s opera “Otello.”
The next day’s excursion was to the opposite side of the lake to visit the town of Santa Catarina Palopo, where a community-based art project, Pintando Santa Caterina Palopo, is in full swing.
Similar to one begun in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums), the project is designed to provide both jobs and civic pride for this town of 4,000 people. Community leaders are working with Guatemalan designers to turn some 800 public buildings and private houses into a massive art project through vivid painting and murals. The really fun part is to watch the town’s citizens — ranging in age from 9 to 90, paint brushes in hand, having a go at it.
A bit further afield but definitely worth a visit are two of Guatemala’s most fascinating destinations — Antigua and Chichicastenango.
The former, about a two-hour drive from Casa Palopo, was the first capital city in Central America, and is a treasure trove of history and culture, whose cobblestoned streets are filled with churches, convents, monasteries, and other examples of colonial architecture.
The latter, about an hour from the hotel, is known for its huge Indian market held every Thursday and Sunday. Beginning in the village plaza and wending its way up to the steps of the church, it offers everything from fruits and vegetables at the food stalls to colorful displays of native crafts that will have you on sensory overload. (On a previous visit, I picked up a hand-painted mask for $5.)
A word of warning: take a jacket — even in summer it can be cool here as ChiChi is at an elevation of 6,500 feet.
Back at Casa Palopo, shed the jacket; put on the swimsuit and take a dip in the hotel pool, or if you are adventurous, the lake. The word Atitlan comes from a Mayan word meaning “the place where the rainbow gets its colors.”
You may or may not see a rainbow during your visit, but you’ll definitely feel you’ve discovered your pot of gold.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.