I just got back from my week and a half trip to Guatemala and wanted to share a little bit of it here since this forum was so helpful in my planning. Less a trip report and more some highlights and musings.
I spent a week and a half at the Don Pedro de Alvarado spanish school in Antigua and stayed with a host family for the entirety of the time. I arranged for private pick up and transport from the airport, even though it was a bit more expensive because I was very, very, very nervous about this trip and wanted to make the initial entry as easy as possible. I spoke absolutely no Spanish prior to my arrival so I was also nervous about communication. I will say that from the moment I arrived I was stuck by how warm, welcoming and open the culture and the people are. The very first person I met, Eric, my cabdriver, immediately made me feel comfortable by engaging my in conversation even over our language barrier. He told me he would teach my some Spanish on our car ride, and did. He introduced me to my host family who embraced me warmly upon my arrival, the administration at the school was constantly checking in to make sure everything ok, my teacher at the school was open and welcoming and the people I met in Antigua were friendly and patient with my very basic Spanish skills. Although Antigua is a charming little city in it's on right, it was without a doubt the people who made me feel that this was a destination I look forward to returning to, hopefully frequently in the future.
I had initially planned to visit Lago Atitlan over the weekend, but I arrived in Guatemala on a Wendesday afternoon and didn't feel up for uprooting myself already on Friday, so spent the entire time in Antigua instead. Just under two weeks was far more than enough time to see the highlights of Antigua in extreme detail and then some. I sent my days in Spanish classes until noon, and then had lunch with my host family until shortly after 1, and used the afternoon to explore or attend school activities. Had I not been studying Spanish and staying with a family, this would have been far too much time for my in Antigua, but because I really wanted to settle in and fall into a rhythm it worked out really nicely.
By far my favorite restaurant of the trip, and I tried a few, was La Fonda de la Calle Real. There are several locations, but the one I dined at had a lovely street view, wonderful staff, and I had a plate of meats full of interesting flavors.
There were a few tourist destinations and experiences that really stood out to me. I am not much of a people watcher, but found myself several times sitting in the park watching the world go around and all of the sudden an hour had gone by. The setting is lovely and there are so many different slices of life the walk by in an afternoon. The ruins behind the Cathedral are immense and beautiful and haunting. Even better, unlike many places I have toured, I pretty much had them to myself and was free to wander with out having to listen to other people's conversations or be distracted by hoards of tourists. I found this was the case often in Antigua. The other sight that I am really happy I took the time to check out, and almost didn't, is the ruined courtyard and balcony of La Merced. The balcony offered my favorite view of the city (more interesting in my opinion than that of Cerro de la Cruz) and again, I more or less had the entire place to myself.
I took a chocolate workshop at the Chocolate Museum, which was fun, but less hands on than I really thought. There were several young teenagers in my workshop that seemed to enjoy it more than I did. I also took a city tour one afternoon with Elizabeth Bell's company that I had read so much about. I had read really positive things about her tour, but almost as soon as I got to Antigua I had people who had taken her tour telling me that she was very informative, but not very pleasant, in fact I think "snarky" was a term that came up several times. Because of that I was somewhat relieved when i couldn't make her tour personally, but instead took a tour with her associate Roberto. Roberto was informative, patient , knowledgeable and excited about the history of the city. It was a particular treat for me that I was the only one scheduled on the tour and therefore had him as my own personal tour guide for the afternoon!
Before I went there were a few things that I was scanning posts for to calm my nerves, so just wanted to speak a smidge about those. Much is talked about in terms of safety on this board, and while I was a little concerned, I am relatively street smart and figured that would carry me through fine, and it did. I felt very, very safe in Guatemala during the day with one exception which I will mention in a moment. Additionally, in the busy parts of the city, I felt fine in the evening also, however my home stay was on a very quiet street, a short walk from the park, and I did not feel comfortable walking there by myself after dark (and dark comes quite early!). I twice had someone walk me home, and on one night, when I had them only walk me to the corner, as soon as they left I had someone heckling me a bit. Grant it, the heckling was a mild, repetitive "Where are you going". Here in NY I would have rolled me eyes and kept walking without a thought, but in a foreign country, on a quiet street when you don't really have the language skills or confidence, it was uncomfortable. I had a similar moment when I went to explore the mercado, took a wrong turn and got hopelessly turned around and ended up by the football fields. I was the only female around, apparently the only foreigner around, and again had some mildly aggressive young men taking notice and commenting. At home, I wouldn't have thought twice about it, but when you're already slightly uncomfortable it's unsettling. That said, I never felt unsafe so to speak so much as a little uncomfortable once or twice, but again, I am a solo female traveller, and both times were a slightly less than ordinary experience.
One last thing, I highly recommend signing up for a week or several in a Spanish school if it's something being considered. I had less interest in learning Spanish than I did having an activity during the day, and it was pretty much the highlight of the trip. My teacher was so great and the school community and activities really made the trip stand out for me. I learning how to salsa dance and make tortillas and met people from all corners of the world. I have heard people mentioned that they prefer the Antiguena Spanish Academy because of their reputation for interactive host families, but I had a student from the Antiguena academy staying in my home stay with me, and there was another student at my school who had the same situation, and my homestay was not particularly interactive, so I think it maybe luck of the draw. I thought Don Pedro de Alvarado was outstanding though and it far exceeded my expectations.
That turned out much longer than I intended, but far shorter than it could have been. I intend on returning next summer for a longer period of time and intend to explore more of the country. Thank you all again for your pre-trip help.