Shaken and still stirring

Rhymer Rigby discovers colonial Antigua and neighbouring Lake Atitlan are red-hot attractions.

Antigua is a great place in which to wake up. We'd arrived in the middle of the night after 20 hours of planes, stopovers and cabs with two small children. But when I stumbled, jet-lagged, onto our balcony, it was all worth it.

The red-tiled roofs of a beautifully preserved Spanish colonial city, punctuated by flowering trees and church bell towers, stretched to the base of a giant conical volcano. And it was warm and sunny, and pleasantly so, as Antigua's altitude cools the steam-bath heat of the tropics.

This Guatemalan town is cute and knows it, but it's none the worse for this. Paradoxically, the city owes its remarkable state of preservation to the destructive power of the spectacular volcanoes around it.

The Spanish built the town in 1543 as their third Central American capital, when it went by the name of La muy Noble y muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala.

For centuries it was Central America's most powerful city, to which the grand civic buildings and elegant private houses bear witness.

But the area was geologically active and, after a particularly destructive earthquake in 1773, Antigua was evacuated and the capital moved to Guatemala City. Antigua was never really abandoned but its relegation meant that, the odd earthquake notwithstanding, it retained its 18th-century charm while Guatemala City became an unlovely and unsafe urban sprawl.

Antigua's geological instability has also resulted in an extraordinary vernacular architecture. Buildings, although recognisably Spanish in design, are low and massive. Single-storey walls are about one metre thick and columns, barely three metres high, have the same diameter as those holding up the portico at the British Museum.

The town's churches are often better appreciated from outside; they've been shaken by earthquakes so many times they tend to be rather plain within. Many humbler buildings such as restaurants and hotels have beautiful, shady courtyards in which to escape the midday sun.

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The fabric of the city is the attraction and it's best seen on foot. Nevertheless, by day three, we felt we needed to stretch our legs a little more, so we booked a day trip to one of the area's several volcanoes, Pacaya.

In years past, you could walk right up to streams of red-hot lava, but last year's eruption changed that. Although we couldn't see molten rock, it was gratifyingly volcanic: we watched smoke belch and rumble from a crater that looked like an entrance to the underworld, walked across a blackened landscape where the ground was warm to the touch and sweated in a cave dubbed "the natural sauna".

After four days in Antigua, we headed to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala's geological show-stopper. We passed pretty scenery on the way, but nothing prepares you for the lake. As a scenic set-piece, it is astonishing. When he visited the area in 1933, Aldous Huxley wrote: "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlan is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing." He wasn't exaggerating.

To appreciate the lake you need to get out of its biggest town, Panajachel. We picked up a water taxi at the docks and headed to Santa Cruz, which is everything a lakeside hamlet should be.

Here, stretched along the shoreline, are perhaps a dozen hotels, all small and charming, with manicured gardens running down to the lake.

Atitlan's famed clarity means the swimming is great. There's also a bit of a hippie vibe. Quite a few foreigners discovered Atitlan in the 1960s and '70s and our hotel was also a yoga retreat.

Our lakeside routine involved a fruity breakfast, a little swimming and perhaps a walk along the wooded shoreline. If we found this too taxing, we'd soak in a hot tub; in volcanic Guatemala, this is something of a national obsession.

The scenery is stunning and occasionally surprising. Walking along the lake shore at sunset one day, I could see what looked like a bushfire. A local man told me, no, it was volcanic steam, or smoke, venting. Hardly surprising: although the last major eruption was in the 19th century, the area remains active and the lake is not only watched over by three volcanoes, the basin itself is a volcanic caldera.

We'd intended to stay only three days at Atitlan but found it so relaxing we extended to nearly a week. You probably could spend seven days doing nothing other than looking at the views but there are plenty of other activities. We hiked in the mountains around the lake and hailed water taxis to visit villages that dot the shores.

I climbed Volcan San Pedro, walking through coffee plantations and cloud forest to enjoy a bird's-eye view of the lake. Had we stayed longer, we could have scuba-dived and parasailed. But, eventually, my wife told me we really had to leave.

As I carried our luggage to the jetty, I suggested that we might extend our stay. But she was adamant. It was time to go - and I daresay she was right. Lake Atitlan is already too much of a good thing. And you don't want to have too much of a good thing.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

American Airlines has a fare to Guatemala City from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2865 low-season return, including tax. Sydney passengers fly Qantas non-stop to Dallas (about 15hr), then American to Guatemala City (3hr); Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney to connect. Australians do not need a visa but the US transit requires travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Staying there

Casa del Parque, Antigua, is a friendly, good-value hotel with a swimming pool and hot tub and is a minute's walk from the central square. Double rooms cost from $US80 ($75.65) a night; see hotelcasadelparque.com

Posada del Angel, Antigua, is where Bill Clinton stayed when he visited in 1999. It's small, exclusive and immaculately decorated in a style that retains much of the building's original charm. It's expensive by Guatemalan standards but still great value. Rooms cost from $US210; see posadadelangel.com.

Villa Sumaya, on the shores of Lake Atitlan, has a swimming pool, hot tub, sauna and spa treatments. The food is fantastic, much of it home grown. From $US80 a night; see villasumaya.com

Eating there

La Esquina, Antigua, serves authentic Guatemalan food but with a haute cuisine twist. 6a Calle Poniente No.7-5a Avenue Sur.

Casa Escobar, Antigua, does an excellent steak, along with a good wine list. 6a Avenida Norte No. 3.

Sunset Cafe, Panajachel, has a superb location and, as its name suggests, some of the best views of Atitlan's extraordinary sunsets. On the corner of Calle Santander and Calle del Lago.

Tips

Most visitors skip Guatemala City as it has high levels of crime and poverty and less to offer in the way of attractions.

Panajachel is not a great place to stay either, but that's because it's scruffy, rather than dangerous. You want to be out on the lake.

Water taxis run on Lake Atitlan from 7am and are used by visitors and locals.

More information

See visitguatemala.com.

- The Telegraph, London

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