We were hungry, we were tired, it was pushing 8 p.m., and now we were crawling along a dirt road through a Guatemalan forest in an SUV, slamming into potholes the size of steamer trunks.
Finally, we swerved off the road. “Welcome to your new home,” our driver announced.
Before us rose a giant, peaked, open-air pavilion with a thatched roof. Dozens of tiny candles twinkled in the warm night, illuminating tables set for dinner and stone stairs snaking down the mountain to bungalows. As we sank into a couch near the bar, gratefully accepting cool washcloths and glasses of mixed pineapple, orange and hibiscus juice, we could dimly make out the huge lake below the pavilion, a view framed by lazy palms and an orange tree.
It looked as perfect as a movie set. That was no accident.
La Lancha is one of three small hotels in Central America owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola. (The other two are in Belize.) Situated on the banks of Guatemala’s second-largest lake, Peten Itza, La Lancha is the smallest and simplest, with just 10 bungalows — though it’s one of Guatemala’s most exquisite boutique hotels. It’s said to be Coppola’s favorite.
My 14-year-old niece Megan and I traveled to this part of northern Guatemala last August for the same reason most tourists do: to see the Mayan ruins at Tikal, a major pre-Columbian political and military center. Although many foreigners day-trip from Guatemala City, an hour’s plane ride away, we decided to linger awhile. I loved the idea of a nature retreat — a place of no TV, of birdsong in the morning, of monkeys swinging through the trees. A jungle getaway, but with a decent wine list, thanks to Coppola’s California winery.
Coppola started building his hotels after falling in love with the jungle in the Philippines, where he had filmed “Apocalypse Now” in the late 1970s. At his Guatemalan hotel, we felt as if we were immersed in the tropical forest — complete with a daily wake-up call from howler monkeys. But it was nature with a movie director’s touch: Hillside paths were lined with carved tree-branch banisters, a lovely swimming pool was tucked into a scenic overlook, rolled-up umbrellas appeared at our casita before each evening’s downpour.
After checking in on our first night, we settled into a dinner table overlooking the darkened lake. A cool glass of Coppola Pinot Grigio took the edge off the humid night. But if the wine list was pure Napa, the cuisine paid homage to Guatemala. My fish was from the lake, expertly grilled with garlic butter and served with a cilantro sauce and beans and rice. Megan ordered a traditional Mayan dish known as kakik, a turkey stew flavored with achiote and coriander. “Delicious,” she pronounced. (For the less adventurous, the restaurant also offers a good steak.)
Our room, too, combined Guatemalan heritage with a California sense of chic. Colorful woven blankets covered the crisp sheets on the queen-size bed and the pullout couch in our bungalow, and embroidered peasant blouses (“huipiles”) hung like tapestries on the pristine white walls. But the room also featured air-conditioning, bathrobes and an espresso machine. The hotel does its best to be green, with organic bath products provided in large containers in the marble-floored shower and with stoppered glass bottles in the room regularly filled with drinking water. (Fresh cookies made with locally grown nuts also appeared daily.) Everything was spotlessly clean. For Megan, the best feature of the cabin was its covered deck, where she spent late afternoons lounging in the hammock and looking out at the tranquil blue waters of Peten Itza.
The lake isn’t nearly as famous as Atitlan, a volcano-ringed body of water in southern Guatemala. But we found it mesmerizing, its water turning from green to turquoise to pale blue as the day wore on, with lightning zapping its far shore during evening rainstorms. The water was strikingly clear, perfect for swimming, and we spent one morning quietly paddling along several miles of shoreline in one of the hotel’s two canoes, provided free to guests. There is no real beach, though — just a dock — and most days we recovered from our morning hikes by lazing on chaise longues near the pool.
The hotel is not for the faint of feet. It was 98 steps up the hill from our bungalow to the restaurant in the pavilion, and another 200 steps from our casita down to the lake. This all suited Megan just fine — she was in training for the high school track team. As for me, I was happy to have an excuse to work off the hotel’s thick, homemade tortillas. The hotel staff skipped up and down the steps like ancient Spartan foot-runners, in one case hauling a massage table to our bungalow. (There’s no spa, but a masseuse is on call.)
About the only complaint I noticed in La Lancha’s guest registry was about the cost of its excursions. And they are indeed pricey for Central America. On our first full day, we traveled with a guide and a few other guests across the lake in a small wooden motorboat, or “lancha,” to the town of Flores, with its pretty, Spanish-colonial-era pastel houses. The trip ran us $80 per person, including a tour of Flores and a hike in the nearby Ixpanpajul nature reserve, where we swayed on remarkable wood-and-metal footbridges that stretched hundreds of feet between the treetops, as birds flitted by at eye level.
The highlight of our stay, of course, was visiting the Tikal ruins. The park was as impressive for its towering gray Mayan pyramids as for the wildlife in the surrounding jungle — spider monkeys, toucans, parakeets and raccoonlike animals known as coati. It was $135 each for the trip, which included transportation in an SUV, a four-hour private tour, and breakfast and lunch.
Most costs at La Lancha, though, weren’t that high for such a well-tended boutique hotel. Our lake-view room, during the low season, was just $199 per night (plus the 22 percent tourism tax). In addition, we got a $100 credit for staying four nights. This year, rates start at $149 for the rain forest casitas and $259 for the ones with lake views, though they are higher during the winter holidays and in the peak season of Jan. 1 to April 30, when there is less rain. A glass of wine was about $10, which seemed reasonable for a remote area of Guatemala, where the wine selection is not exactly plentiful. (The hotel wine list consisted of a dozen Coppola offerings, including red, white and sparkling.)
The hotel charged about $50 for the hour-long ride to the airport, a princely sum in Guatemala. But I paid it because I didn’t want to trust my fate to a taxi and I couldn’t imagine renting a car and wending my way along dirt roads in the dark, even though I speak Spanish. (The State Department rates the threat of violent crime in Guatemala as “critical,” though it notes that U.S. tourists generally aren’t targeted.)
The hotel occupancy was quite low in August — maybe because it’s not well known or because the season of heavy rains was approaching. On our last night, we were the only guests at La Lancha. Megan and I joked about it being “our” hotel — with a helpful employee occasionally popping up to take a drink order or to offer a towel as we emerged from the pool. “Maybe we’re characters in a secret movie,” Megan ventured. If so, it was a movie with a happy ending.
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El Remate, Guatemala
The boutique hotel is near Guatemala’s second-largest lake, Peten Itza, and a 90-minute drive from the Mayan ruins at Tikal. Rates vary from $149-$445. Cost includes free WiFi and a continental breakfast.