Thanks everyone for your help in planning what turned out to be a fantastic trip. Here's my report on how it went:
My family of five, including kids 12, 10 and 7, spent the first 3 nights in Antigua at the Casa Santo Domingo. The hotel is gorgeous, and it was great to have that pool for the kids, but I do not think I would stay there next time. The staff seemed a little ... mystified, particularly in comparison to the amazing service we had at the other spots we stayed in. We did a self-guided walking tour the first day, starting at the Cerro de la cruz and ending at the main plaza. I enjoyed visiting the ruins of the Capuchin convent the most- it was so peaceful. We had an excellent dinner at Bistro Cinq. The next day we were meant to climb Pacaya, but it erupted, so went hopped on the shuttle to the Finca Filadelphia and went mule riding. It was nice to be outside, and probably about what the kids could manage at that point, but I wouldn't rush back next time. I would have preferred to walk around Antigua some more- I suspect that town has multiple layers and that we only scratched the surface. We enjoyed visiting Nim Pot, the museums at CSD (the glass museum, especially), and sitting at a cafe on Fifth Avenue watching life go by. I also loved the textiles at Colibri, though they are not cheap.
We took the afternoon Avianca flight to Flores on our fourth day. In hindsight, I should have booked Peten at the beginning of our trip or the end so that we could eliminate a transfer back and forth to the airport, but I think there was some reason why I could not do this ... Oh yes- CSD would not allow me to change our reservation, even though it was made six months in advance! In any case, I think Avianca/Taca might be preferable to Tag, simply because it leaves from the International side of Aurora, and the planes looked bigger, which is a consideration if you- like me- dislike bumping around in the air.
Peten was out favourite part of the trip. We stayed at Nitun, which I have reviewed separately. I am so glad we did. We spent a full day at Tikal with a guide called Manuel (Monkey Tours) who did a great job- finishing with sunset on Temple 4. Tikal was not busy at all, particularly in the afternoon, before the sunset crew materialized. It was my fourth time at Tikal and it is still magical. We ate in El Remate on the way back to Nitun- a place called Las Orchuedias (sp?). It was pretty darn good for the jungle, though not as good as Lorena's cooking at Nitun. The next day we went to Yaxha with Bernie- lovely and even more tranquil than Tikal. On our final day in Peten we went to Ixpanpajul to zipline, using their free shuttle from Flores. The place is gorgeous, but they could not be less organized. They wanted us to wait for an hour and a half before ziplining because they didn't have enough guides, which we would have done if they could have suggested something else for us to do, or if we could have left the site and come back. But apparently we didn't have enough time to do the canopy bridge walk, and we could not horse back ride because there were no guides available for that either. So why did we make a reservation?! The woman behind the counter just pointed at some hammocks and told us to wait there. Finally a zipline guide materialized and brought us to the course, but I had to be a bit of a pushy guest for it to happen. Anyhow, it was fun (we were with a big group of Chapines having an awesome time and joking around with the kids), though for adults the canopy walk might even be of more interest. Just be prepared for some incompetence on the part of the staff.
We left Nitun reluctantly and transferred to the Lake, collecting my parents in Antigua en route. We rented a gorgeous house (Casa Colibri- review coming) in Santa Catarina Palopo, which I think is a fantastic base on the lake. It is much more tranquil than Pana, but close enough to get to the dock and grocery stores without requiring a lancha. We visited the market at Chichi the following day. We used a guide (Daniel, the concierge of Casa Colibri), which was actually kind of useful, because the market is overwhelming.We would have been fine without one, though.I know people go back and forth about whether it's worth it to visit Chichi on market day. I am glad we went- just for the sensory experience. The next day, my husband, daughter and I climbed Volcan San Pedro. I am a reasonably active 43-year old (I run a few times a week and practice Ashtanga yoga 3-4X a week) and it just about killed me. Was even worse for my poor husband. We were very glad we climbed it though, because it is true cloud forest up on top, and exquisitely beautiful. Expect to hobble around for days after!
We spent two days touring the lake on a private lancha, which cost $150 US a day. Highlights were San Juan Laguna, playing with kids in Jaibalito (a tiny, tiny village!), wandering through the local's market at San Lucas Toluman, admiring the gardens and ceramics in San Antonio Palopo. Villages I will probably not bother visiting next time are San Pedro and San Marcos. I would have liked a little more time in Santiago- the church there is very interesting, and we managed to miss the peace park with its murals depicting scenes from the war. We saw Maximon, though, which drove my very liberal catholic father to drinking vodka at lunch!
Other highlights on the Lake- visitng the Atitlan Nature Reserve, followed by lunch at the paradisiacal Hotel Atitlan, which is walking distance from the reserve.
On our last night, we observed the procession for the 2nd friday of Lent in Santa Catarina (except my dad, natch!). I do wish there was as much emphasis on education as there is on religion in this part of the world, however, from a detached point of view it was very beautiful.
Final thoughts- it might be worth taking Ducurol- we all got stomach bugs. There is a mild antibiotic they sell on the Lake whose name I will try to dig up if anyone is interested- locals recommend it for stomach issues and it's sold over the counter. It works. I felt safe the entire time (INGUAT (tourist police) was in evidence the entire trip, including on Volcan San Pedro), and would consider renting a car for our next visit. Although roads in the city can be a bit harry, the highways are great.
I was happy to have read up on Guatemala's recent history before visiting (Kinzer's "Bitter Fruit" and Wilkinson's "Silence on the Mountain", as well as having some background in Mesoamerican prehistory from university. In enriched our experience a lot. I was also happy to have met some people who were willing to freely discuss Guatemala's challenges- very different from when I visited in the 90s. I should also mention that I speak Spanish fluently and that our experience would have been different were I not able to translate for my family- with a few significant exceptions, we did not encounter english speakers.