When you hear of Guatemala, what do you think of? For many Americans, it’s a complete blank. It’s just another country south of Mexico and Belize. Perhaps coffee and Mayan ruins buried deep beneath dense jungles come to mind. Or illegal immigration, poverty, and street gangs – if you read too many newspapers. All of these are true, to some extent, but what may come as an utter shock is the concept of Guatemala as a luxury travel destination.
This was a subject of discussion with a fellow traveler I met recently in Belize at a luxury beach resort on Ambergris Caye. When I mentioned Guatemala, Belize’s nextdoor neighbor, curiosity lit up in his eyes. While in Houston boarding the flight to Belize, he’d noticed the jam-packed boarding area for a flight to Guatemala City next to his departure gate. “I guess it’s because there’s probably only one flight down there per day,” he mused. I informed him there are actually 3 or 4 nonstop flights per day from Houston, depending on the season, and a nonstop flight from New York/Newark, on United Airlines alone. Utter surprise descended upon his face. When I waxed nostalgic about the country’s volcanoes, colonial towns, vibrant capital, amazing coffee, colorful Maya culture, and internationally-known rum brand, Zacapa Centenario, he seemed genuinely interested in checking it out.
Although Guatemala and its high-end hospitality options have received coverage from luxury travel websites such as www.luxurylatinamerica.com, it still lacks the luster (at least in the collective consciousness) of Latin American luxury travel and eco-darlings like Costa Rica and Belize. It comes as a genuine surprise to American travelers that just 2.5 hours from Houston or Miami lies a unique, little-explored cultural travel destination with luxurious options. That’s starting to change, thankfully. On a recent visit to the country to photograph Guatemala City’s hip new Hyatt Centric hotel, my assistants and client were pleased (and admittedly surprised) by the Guatemalan capital’s cosmopolitan atmosphere and luxurious offerings.
The same happened when I traveled with a British writer from Conde Nast Traveller UK a few years ago. In her writings, she described the Guatemalan capital as a place that’s both very smooth and somewhat rough at the same time, which is true. Guatemala has the unfortunate distinction of harboring one of the world’s most inequitable distributions of land and wealth ownership. It’s a virtual pineapple-upside-down cake where the wealthiest 20% of the population control almost 54% of the country’s income. Guatemala City is a modern capital where a multitude of high-rises harboring banks, offices, and luxury hotels dot the urban landscape. Just a few miles away, and sometimes separated only by the city’s broken geography of deep ravines scarring the landscape, lie the shacks and shanties of the city’s less fortunate residents.
In the overwhelming absence of foreign investment, most notably from the U.S., the country’s elites have taken it upon themselves to provide the luxurious condos, hotels, and office buildings that would be otherwise absent from the landscape. The out-picturing of Guatemala’s wealth ownership can literally be seen in its capital’s skyline, an urban landscape which is largely absent in neighboring Central American capitals (including San José, Costa Rica) and altogether nonexistent in Belize and Nicaragua. I ponder all this while contemplating the city’s skyline from the rooftop swimming pool crowning the beautiful steel-and-glass building housing the Hyatt Centric. It’s part of a larger complex that includes office towers and a shopping mall complete with a T.G.I. Friday’s and P.F. Chang’s. It will eventually harbor luxury condos. In Guatemala, a traditional submission to American geopolitical hegemony often translates into an emulation of American consumption patterns.
This particular Hyatt Centric, like most American-based businesses’ presence in Guatemala, is operated under a franchise agreement. I met the hotel’s owner, the affable Fernando Paiz, through mutual friends a few years ago. The Paiz family is well known in Guatemala as the owners of the country’s best-known grocery store chain. The family eventually sold the company to Walmart, which now operates the namesake grocery stores (and Walmart-branded superstores) throughout the country.
There’s a lot of Fernando Paiz’s personality and love for Guatemala here. It almost feels like visiting his home on the outskirts of the capital. There are phenomenal Maya relics, all lovingly restored, decorating the lobby areas. The colorful throw pillows in the lobby’s many seating areas are a nod to the country’s rich Maya textile heritage. A Technicolor thread sculpture opposite the front desk evokes Mayan Guatemala’s iconic backstrap loom. There are even traditional Guatemalan wooden carved slingshots adorning the walls of the meeting room pre-function area. I saw a similar collection in Paiz’s home and was kindly gifted one of these beautiful pieces by my friend Gio, who has been restoring antique art pieces for Paiz’s collection. Traditional Guatemalan wooden masks adorn Zamat, the gourmet, farm-to-table restaurant, and the guest rooms feature reprints of vintage Pan American Airways posters commissioned to artist Paul Lawler in 1938. This was back in the country’s aviation heyday when Pan Am operated a hub from Guatemala City to service neighboring backwater Central American capitals.
One of these posters depicts a Spanish colonial church surrounded by indigenous Maya and flanked by the country’s landmark Agua Volcano. To me, Agua has always symbolized Guatemala City and neighboring Antigua Guatemala, much like the Eiffel Tower symbolizes Paris or Mount Fuji Japan. “Perfectly conical volcanoes, like those drawn by Hokusai,” contemplated the Conde Nast Traveller writer. It’s one of the first things you notice when flying in to Guatemala on a clear day.
My final stop on this trip to Guatemala is Kuxtal, a luxury villa about 25 minutes from Antigua Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Agua Volcano overlooks the villa’s infinity edge swimming pool. It’s the perfect place to decompress after a successful, but always challenging, commercial photo shoot. The villa is part of a larger complex known as La Reunion Antigua Golf Resort & Residences. The complex harbors a fabulous luxury hotel built on the grounds of a Pete Dye-designed golf course with views of four volcanoes. The peaceful atmosphere is interrupted only by the occasional rumble of active Fuego Volcano, behind the property, or the afternoon thunderstorm that inevitably rolls in most every afternoon during Guatemala’s six-month rainy season. For now, it’s quiet here, and I am able to enjoy the villa’s beautiful architecture accented with local hardwoods, along with the phenomenal views of Agua from the pool.
Eventually word may reach American travelers about the country’s luxurious offerings. Indeed maybe it already has. It seems harder to get a First Class upgrade on flights out of Guatemala City these days. It already has a cult following with anglers due to the excellent fishing on the Pacific Coast. And they like to fly in First Class. But that, and Guatemala’s other luxury offerings, are material for another story.
By Al Alguerta