The best place in the world is 'pretty crap'? Huh?

"THIS is the best place in the entire world." So read the opening comment in the hotel's book - a big call, you'd have to agree. There are many great places in this world and selecting a definitive "best" is the sort of work you should probably set aside for long bus trips in the company of livestock.

Still, I could see what the author was getting at. Staring out at Lake Atitlan from the terracotta-tiled balcony at La Casa del Mundo, watching the occasional ferry chug past the soaring volcanoes in the distance, you could easily let yourself believe that this really was the best place in the world.

The whole package is stunning. The lake is a huge expanse of blue water hemmed by sheer cliffs and those volcanoes, stand shoulder to shoulder like prop forwards packing into a scrum. The hotel - the name of which means "House of the World" - hangs from the mountainside, its white Spanish-style arches shimmering above the lapping waves.

Dinner is eaten by candlelight around a long communal table, the volcanoes gradually fading from view in the windows as travellers from around the globe swap war stories over the Guatemalan cuisine.

Away from the hotel it's just as amazing, the surrounding villages full of winding cobbled roads, open markets and local inhabitants who sit around the squares trading yarns and admiring each others' multi-coloured leg-wear.

Best place in the world? Maybe not. But it'd have to be close. So that's why I told my friend Lizzie to go there when she was in Guatemala recently.

Whatever you do, I said, don't miss Lake Atitlan. It's incredible.

She set off a month ago and I finally got an email from her last week: "Went to Lake Atitlan like you said. It was pretty crap, so we moved on."

Huh? The best place in the world was "pretty crap"? How is that even possible? Was the weather bad? Did she get robbed?

After a few more emails, I found out what happened. Working on a strict budget, she hadn't been able to stay at La Casa del Mundo but instead hung out at a hostel in one of the other lakeside villages, a place called San Marcos La Laguna. I passed through San Marcos and it's no normal town; thanks to the location's mystical properties (or some savvy marketing), it's a haven for more "alternative" travellers.

OK, fine, there are more hippies there than at a Nimbin tofu factory. It's paradise for those of a cosmic bent. Lizzie, I kid you not, overheard the following conversation between her fellow hostel guests:

"Hey, do you have any sage? I need to clean my crystals."

"I don't but you know you can clean them with the intent of your aura, right?"

Lizzie put up with vegan food and lucid dreaming lessons for two days before jumping on the next chicken bus back to Antigua. Lake Atitlan, to her, was a bunch of spaced-out travellers and a dirty dorm room. Nothing to write home about. That's the trouble with travel: it's so subjective. It's also hugely dependent on the people you share the journey with and the strangers you meet along the way.

Lake Atitlan was one of the best places in the world to me; to Lizzie, one of the worst. It makes you realise you can never definitively say a place is "good" or "bad", the same way you can never definitively say people from a certain country are "friendly" or "unfriendly".

You can take your own experiences and extrapolate from that but it could still be completely different to someone else's take on a country.

I've met people who hate Barcelona. Actual, real people. It's scummy, dirty and they had their pockets picked.

But I love the place. Then again, I like cities with a dark edge and no one tried to rob me while I was there, so I've come away with the belief that it's one of my favourite places on the planet.

On the flip side, I've had people rave on about what warm, lovely people they met in Russia. Huh? I could barely get a Russian to crack a smile, let alone crack open a bottle of vodka and pass it around. Russia, for me, was a fairly cold place full of fairly cold people but I'm willing to believe that that's not the case for everyone.

I found Jaipur, in India, to be a hellhole. I've frequently caught myself telling people that the Rajasthani city is "just full of dodgy people trying to scam you into buying stuff". Don't go there.

But then I really think about my time there and realise that, yeah, some dodgy guy there did try to scam me into buying stuff. But was the city really "full" of people like that? Probably not.

Jaipur's never going to be proclaimed in any hotel guestbook to be the "best place in the world". But it's not the worst, either.

Have you ever loved a place that your friends or family hated? Post a comment below.

Read Ben Groundwater's column on Sundays in the Sun-Herald.