ANTIGUA, Guatemala (Money Magazine) -
Stuffed from lunch, my wife and I sat for an extra-long while at our restaurant table, holding hands by a tropical garden in a Spanish colonial mansion more than two centuries old. The birdies peeped. The fountain gurgled. The check arrived. Two bottled waters, two beers, a heaping platter of grilled vegetables drizzled with olive oil, a sampler of grilled meats (chicken, steak, pork chop, sausages), bread pudding, coffee, tax, tip... 25 bucks. And this, I reminded myself, was one of the expensive joints.
Welcome to Guatemala, a nowhere else on earth combination of natural and man-made beauty at prices that border on -- como se dice en espanol? -- un-frickin-believable. Guatemala City is five hours from New York City on Central America's Grupo Taca airline and three hours from Miami on American. Skip the sprawling, skanky capital and stay instead in nearby Antigua, arguably the most picture-perfect colonial city in the Americas. Three volcanoes ring this tourist-friendly town of intricately cobblestoned streets, fashionably restored haciendas and magnificently crumbling 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century ruins that have become urban parks bursting with bougainvillea. It's a constant Kodak moment, especially during Holy Week, when Easter worshippers make their way through the streets atop carpets of flowers.
Hotels and B&Bs abound, from the five-star Casa Santo Domingo ($115 a night for a standard room; 502-832-0140) to the charming, kid-friendly Hotel Aurora ($50; 502-832-0217) to the name-says-it-all Hotel Backpacker's Place ($6; 502-832-5023).
Visitors can easily spend several days wandering the 60-square-block central city and its many craft and textile shops, cafes, restaurants, churches and museums, as well as those ruins, which date back to when Antigua was imperial Spain's headquarters in Central America, before an earthquake destroyed most of the place in 1773 and the capital was moved to Guatemala City. (These days, the Spanish conquest continues each weekend, when Guatemala's wealthiest families arrive from the capital in their Range Rovers to fill Antigua's hotels and nightclubs.)
Antigua also makes a smart base for visiting the rest of the country and its spectacular sights, like the Mayan temples of Tikal, its tallest pyramid rising 20 stories above the lowland jungle. The ruins are best reached by plane through tours that can be arranged by one of Antigua's numerous travel agencies, such as Vision Travel (502-832-3293). Cost: $225 per person for two days and a night in a modest hotel near the archaeological site.
The 800-year-old highland market village of Chichicastenango is another must-see. Its twice- a-week market (Sundays and Thursdays) attracts tens of thousands of Maya from the region, haggling over every necessity imaginable: food, clothing, housewares, livestock, bootleg Hollywood videos. The standout hotel is the Mayan Inn, a 1930s lodge that feels like Ernest Hemingway meets Frida Kahlo ($90; 502-756-1176). Arrive the evening before market day so you can rise at misty dawn for the Mayan religious ceremonies -- and experience the humbling sight of thousands of peddlers trudging up the steep hillsides with huge loads of goods on their backs.
South of Chichi is the head-spinning beauty of Lake Atitlan, a 30-mile-round volcanic lake that rivals Italy's Lake Como for world's-prettiest honors. This being the Third World, some lakeside spots are prettier than others; try Hotel Atitlan, just outside the hippie-dippie tourist town of Panajachel on what used to be a coffee plantation ($95; 502-762-1416). Rooms on the second floor offer fabulous, sweeping views of lake, volcanoes and the hotel's incongruously formal gardens. Next door is a private nature reserve with waterfall that makes for an easy morning's outing. The swinging rope bridges high above the forest floor seem straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Most enchanting is the park's butterfly preserve, a netted "room" in the forest that's filled with fluttering flashes of color. The average lifespan of a butterfly is two to three weeks, says a sign. Two to three weeks, I thought: Time enough for the perfect vacation.