GETTING THERE: Plenty of airlines fly from Washington to Guatemala, at prices ranging from the low $300s when the fare wars flare up to more than $500 in the high season of November through March (Easter week is a huge holiday time in Guatemala). Now, among the lowest fares for November, are $476 on American (through Miami from either Reagan National or BWI), $483 on US Airways (National through Charlotte, N.C.) and $472 for Taca's dreamy nonstop from Dulles (alternates on some days with a connecting flight at San Salvador).
TIKAL: Most visitors go to Tikal National Park on a flying package deal from Guatemala City (www.tikalpark.com, 415-762-3996). Just about every storefront travel agency offers the one-, two- or three-day excursions that include the 40-minute hop to Flores, van transfer to the ruins and a hotel room if you're staying overnight. I've seen day-trip specials as low as $100. If you sleep over, the extra cost will depend on your hotel.
The Jungle Lodge is within the gates of the park, an easy walk to the ruins, although when I was last there it didn't have electricity after about 8 p.m. ($202 for two people in high season, includes Tikal guide, lunch and breakfast. Book through a local travel agent or www.tikalpark.com).
In Flores, Francis Ford Coppola's new La Lancha eco-lodge (800-746-3743, www.lalancha.com) is offering "work-in-progress rates" of more than a third off full price. A lakeside bungalow at his rustic inn on Lake Peten Itza goes for $150 double until mid-December.
ANTIGUA: Getting to Antigua is as simple as jumping in an airport taxi for the 40-minute, $25 drive (depending on Guatemala City traffic). Once there, the colonial enclave makes an infinitely better base of operations than the chaotic capital. Antigua boasts plenty of galleries, antiques shops, bars and restaurants to keep you happy for days, but its greatest appeal is the amazing stock of breathtaking small hotels built from and amid centuries-old colonial architecture. Here are some of my favorites:
* The Convento de Santa Catalina (011-502-7832-3080, www.convento.com), a former convent, is good for families with its big, bed-filled rooms around a huge central courtyard. Perfectly located under the Antigua arch and near shopping and dining, but a little noisy on weekend nights. Rooms start at about $85 a night.
* Meson Panza Verde (011-502-7832-1745, www.panzaverde.com) is a design buff's dream, with rich fabrics draped throughout a setting of old stone floors and ancient domes. Also boasts one of Antigua's best dining rooms and one of its most active art galleries. Rates for three small rooms begin at $75, $130 for larger rooms with fireplaces.
* Starting at $155 a night (steep by Guatemalan standards), the 125-room Casa Santo Domingo (011-502-7820-1220, www.casasantodomingo.com.gt) is good for a splurge or an expense account. But even if you don't stay here, make time to drop by this converted monastery that features a ruined cathedral in its garden.
LAKE ATITLAN: It takes about 21/2 hours to get to the lake from Antigua (and my trip two weeks ago was right on time, in spite of flood-damaged roads). Any travel agency in Antigua can book you on one of the regularly scheduled tourist shuttles for about $10 a person. Once at the lake, after you've done your bar-hopping and artisania shopping in Panajachel, make time to spend a night somewhere along the serene north shore, where villages and hotels are reachable only by boat.
There are some entrancing small hotels here, every one with views to die for. Casa del Mundo (011-502-5218-5332, www.lacasadelmundo.com), perched on a cliff in the village of Jaibalito, is the most popular lakeside hotel thanks to great views, hearty meals and a rave from Lonely Planet. Rooms begin at about $50 double.
Another dramatic cliff-clinging hotel, Lomas de Tzununa (011-502-5206-6215, www.lomasdetzununa.com), recently opened a few boat stops down the shore. They've even managed to squeeze an open-air dining room and a swimming pool up there. Rooms are $70 per night double.
Farther along in San Marcos, the yoga and metaphysical capital of Lake Atitlan, the main hotel is Posada Schuman (011-502-5202-2216), a simple and clean base for a day or two of massages and meditation in a garden setting. Rooms are $35 a night double, including breakfast.
INFORMATION: Guatemalan Institute of Tourism, 888-464-8281, www.visitguatemala.com.
-- Steve Hendrix