A sweltering strip of low-lying, tropical land, some 300km long and 50km wide, Guatemala’s Pacific coast is usually known as La Costa Sur. Featureless yet fertile, the coastal plain is a land of vast fincas, dull commerce-driven towns and ramshackle seaside resorts. The main attraction should be the coastline, though as the sand is black and the ocean has a dangerous undertow this region is not a big draw for travellers. But if you’re yearning for some ocean air, and pick your spot carefully, the coast does have a couple of attractive beaches and some intriguing attractions dotted along the Pacific highway.
It’s certainly not a resort, but the little seaside settlement of Monterrico has an unspoilt charm and is well worth a visit. Here you’ll find a superb beach (a magnet for sea turtles) and a rich network of mangrove wetlands to explore. In the far west, and the twin villages of Tilapa and Tilapita also offer sweeping sands, no crowds and relatively safe swimming.
Several ancient Mesoamerican cultures once flourished in the region, leaving some important archeological remains. The one site in the area that comes close to ranking with those elsewhere in the country is Takalik Abaj, outside Retalhuleu, which displays both Maya and Olmec heritage.
Steadily the Pacific coast is gaining a reputation as a world-class sport-fishing location – offshore waters have stupendous numbers of sailfish, tarpon, tuna and marlin. Iztapa and Puerto Quetzal are the main bases for excursions. The region also has a couple of world-class theme parks on the Pacific slope that represent a huge draw for families.
It’s generally held that sophisticated Olmec influence – emerging first in Mexico and spread along the coast – shaped both Ocós and Iztapa cultures, which thrived here after 1500 BC. These were small, village-based societies that developed considerable skills in the working of stone and pottery.
Between 400 and 900 AD, parts of the coastal plain were overrun by the Pipil, who migrated south from Mexico, bringing new architectural styles and artistic skills. They established settlements with compact ceremonial centres and rubble-filled pyramids and traded cacao. The first Spaniards to set foot in Guatemala did so on the Pacific coast. In colonial times indigo and cacao were cultivated and cattle ranches established, but the inhospitable climate and accompanying diseases took their toll, and for the most part the region remained a miserable backwater. It was only after independence that commercial agriculture began to dominate. By the early twentieth century, the area was important enough to justify the construction of two railways to the coast and a line to the Mexican border.
Today the coastal strip is the country’s most intensely farmed region, with entire villages effectively owned by vast fincas. There’s a little domestic tourism but in general it’s agribusiness – palm oil, bananas and sugar on the coast and coffee on the Pacific slope – that dominates the local economy.
Heading east of the border you pass a succession of dull, incessantly hot, purely commercial towns. Retalhuleu is slightly more attractive than most, close to which are the intriguing Maya-Olmec ruins of Takalik Abaj. North of Retalhuleu you’re within easy reach of the terrific theme parks of Parque Acuático Xocomil and Parque Xetulul.
The archeological site of Takalik Abaj has cast fresh light on the development of early Maya civilization, particularly the influence of Olmec culture. The city presided over trade routes along the Pacific littoral, controlling the movement of jade, cacao and obsidian. An unlooted Maya royal grave was uncovered in 2002, and excavations are ongoing. First settled around 1800 BC, early ceremonial buildings and monuments were executed in Olmec style between 800 and 400 BC, including the characteristic pot-bellied humans with swollen eyelids. But by the late Preclassic period, Maya-style carvings of standing rulers were beginning to replace Olmec art. Later in the Classic era some of the Maya World’s most exquisite jade masks were created here – they now reside in Guatemala City’s Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología.
On the main road to Quetzaltenango, Parque Acuático Xocomil is a superb theme park landscaped into the foothills of the highlands. It’s a vast complex containing 1.2km of water slides, wave pools and artificial rivers amidst grounds replete with Maya temples and copious greenery.
Neighbouring Parque Acuático Xocomil, Parque Xetulul is divided into different zones, with the Plaza Chapina having re-creations of famous Guatemalan buildings, the Plaza España showcasing a galleon, and Plaza Francia boasting replicas of Parisian structures such as the Gare de France. The park has some terrific rides, including the thrilling La Avalancha rollercoaster and, like its sister complex, is clean, well run and extremely popular with Guatemalan families.
Heading east from Escuintla you skirt a Guatemalan safari park and then the coastal highway passes TAXISCO, from where you can access La Avellana, which has boats to Monterrico. Beyond here, lonely side roads lead to isolated beaches, including Las Lisas.
East along the speedy Carretera al Pacífico past Mazatenango you’ll soon approach SANTA LUCÍA COTZUMALGUAPA, an uninspiring Pacific town a short distance north of the highway. The only reason to visit the area is to take in some (minor) nearby Pipil and Maya archeological sites, scattered in the surrounding cane fields, and the colossal Olmec carved figures at nearby La Democracia or the surf at Sipacate to the south. Getting to them is not easy unless you rent a taxi however.
The low-key village of SIPACATE is located inside the Parque Natural Sipacate-Naranjo, a mangrove coastal reserve. The black sand beach here is separated from the village by the black waters of the Canal de Chiquimulilla; boats ferry a steady stream of passengers to the waves. The best surf here is about 5km to the east on the empty sands of neighbouring Paredón beach, where a great new hotel has kick-started a Guatemalan surf scene. Waves average two metres and are most consistent between December and April, though conditions are usually tough for beginners. There are surf reports posted on the Paredón Surf House website.
Most travellers arriving in Guatemala’s extreme west forgo the beaches in these parts and head straight from the border to Quetzaltenango or Guatemala City. But for total relaxation, a day or two in tranquil Tilapita will be time well spent.
South of Tecún Umán, a paved road paralleling the border passes endless palm-oil and banana plantations to the humble little village of TILAPA. The dark-sand beach here has a relatively gently shelving profile compared with many places on this coast, so the undertow is less fierce and it’s easier for children to paddle in safety. Lifeguards are only posted on weekends though.
On the other side of an estuary from Tilapa is the even tinier, and more agreeable, beach settlement of TILAPITA. Here there’s a real opportunity to get away from it all and enjoy a superb stretch of clean, dark sand and the ocean (with not too much undertow). Just next to the El Pacífico hotel is a small turtle hatchery, with protected enclosures where eggs are buried until they hatch, and some information boards (the Olive Ridley turtle is the main visitor here).
Most of Guatemala’s Pacific coastline is affected by a strong undertow, which occurs when big waves break on a shore with a steep profile. Because there’s nowhere for the water to escape, it retreats backwards under the next breaking wave, creating a downward force close to the shore. Unless you’re very confident in the ocean, it’s best not to mess around if the surf is big. By not getting out of your depth, you can use your feet to jump up into the oncoming waves and let their force push you toward the shore. If you do get caught in an undertow, don’t panic, as the downward force only lasts a second or two and you’ll soon surface. Catch a breath, duck under the next breaker, and then work your way steadily back to shore.
Ladino culture dominates on the Pacific coast so fiestas here tend to be more along the lines of fairs, with parades, amusement rides, fireworks, sporting events and heavy drinking.
Taxisco, events include bullfighting
Colomba, events include bullfighting
Coatepeque, main day 15th
Puerto San José, main day 19th
Chiquimulilla, main day 3rd
Coatepeque, in honour of Santiago Apóstol
Champerico, main day 6th
Iztapa, main day 24th
Retalhuleu, main day 8th
Escuintla, main day 8th