Friday, March 8, 2013

Guatemala’s Lomas de Tzununá: Tranquil Inn Boasts Volcano Views

When it comes to hotels, it's tempting to think that there’s not much new under the sun. Chain hotels are everywhere and a Hilton in Chicago looks pretty much like a Hilton in Paris. Or Calcutta. Or Cancun.

At the same time that the large hotel chains appear to be expanding, the number of small, independent hotels also appears to be increasing. While I can’t back up this observation with data, I’ve never seen so many options for small, independently owned lodgings.

One of my favorite small hotels perches on the lip of a collapsed, ancient volcano in Guatemala. Lomas de Tzununá, owned by a friendly Belgian-Argentinian couple, consists of simply-furnished, modestly-priced cabins that boast million dollar views of Lake Atitlán and distant volcanoes.

Getting to Lomas takes a bit of doing (which is probably why it hasn’t been bought out by Radisson or Marriott.) First there’s the two and a half hour drive via shuttle or private taxi from Antigua or Guatemala City, a 30 minute ride on one of the rustic boats that serve as ferries on Lake Atitlán, and finally—and most significantly—a climb up a steep set of stairs (350, to be precise) carved into the side of the collapsed crater.

Moments after the boat drops you and your luggage at the hotel’s sleepy dock, porters who have raced down the stairs snatch your luggage and fly back up the stairs with it. So your sole, but not insignificant task is to drag your own body up the 350 steps. No escalator, elevator, or litter, but once you’ve made it to the top you’ve earned (at least) one of the hotel’s tasty fresh juices, a beer, or a cocktail mixed by the owner.

Once you’ve conquered the stairs and begun to attempt to absorb expansive views of the deep blue, mirror-like lake, and volcanoes Toliman, Atitlán, and San Pedro, you might decide to venture no further than the steeply sloping grounds of the hotel.

On some days, staying at the aerie-like hotel is enough for me. Breakfast is served on a terrace with the same stunning views, homemade bread and pastries, fresh squeezed juice and steaming, rich coffee. For someone normally surrounded by the clatter and hurly burly of city living, I revel in the tranquility of the place. Hummingbirds chirp, their wings whirring as they check out bougainvillea and other brightly colored tropical flowers that surround the restaurant terrace. With no cars, roads, or airports nearby, there are no sounds other than the birds and breeze. I might get too hot at the pool, or become sore from sitting too long on the terrace, but I never tire of the view.

Evenings are equally relaxed and charmed. With each passing year there are more lights shining from villages across the lake, but the Atitlán sky remains crammed with stars. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see glowing lava spilling out of distant Volcan Fuego far across the lake. The restaurant has tasty meals, including black bass pulled from the clear waters of the lake and local chicken. On many nights, the Belgian owner plays classical guitar which is the perfect complement to the bright stars, candlelight and stillness.

If the tranquility, views, warm sun and beverages don’t make you feel happily comatose, order a masseuse who will walk a mountain path from a distant village and provide a bargain priced massage in your room. 

When your private balcony, the restaurant terrace and the pool seem too small a universe, descend the steep crater-side to the dock, wave for a passing boat and head to a nearby village. One of the nearest is Panajachel which offers restaurants, a tourist market and crowds of gringos. Chichicastenango—with its extensive market and unique hybrid of Catholic-Mayan colonial churches (built atop Mayan temples)—is about an hour away from Panajachel.

Other nearby villages include San Marcos, San Pedro and Santiago, home to Maximon (the bizarre booze and cigarette loving folk saint of Guatemala). The voyage to any of these villages is worth the experience. In addition to views of crystalline skies and the cobalt waters of the lake, you’ll share the boats with Mayans dressed in elaborately patterned, handcrafted clothing. A favorite, anachronistic experience is seeing a traditionally attired Mayan with a basket of chickens headed home from the market while chatting on her cell phone. (For more insights into nearby villages, check out the advice of an acquaintance here.)

The views, culture and scenery at Lake Atitlán rival that of North Americans’ favorite winter destinations of Florida, Arizona and California. But Atitlán is less expensive and its tropical highland weather is reliably warm and comfortable.

Sure, it takes a bit of doing to get to Lomas, but once there you’ll find a hotel that’s off the grid and truly unique. You won’t get frequent guest points, but who needs them when you’ve got that million dollar view?

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