If it weren't for the headstones, you might think it was a quaint city park, with families enjoying picnics and children running around playing games and flying kites.
But this was the Day of the Dead in Guatemala, when locals visit the resting place of their relatives and decorate the sites with flowers and ears of corn and place treats the deceased had enjoyed in life, such as beer, soda or cigarettes.
I had stopped in the tiny hamlet of Sampango to get a glimpse of traditional Guatemalan culture while on my way to one of the country's tourist treasures, Lake Atitlan.
Arriving in Guatemala City Oct. 31, I immediately headed to the town of Antigua, an easy 45-minute trip. Antigua, a Unesco World Heritage site and Guatemala's top tourist destination, retains its colonial charm with cobblestone streets, timeworn churches and beautiful monasteries and convents.
My host for the weekend was the Casa Palopo hotel, which maintains a guesthouse in Antigua in addition to its main facility several hours away on Lake Atitlan. The one-story house in Antigua is just blocks from the city center and comprises three guestrooms, a library, a kitchen, a bar and a dining room, all of which open up to a central courtyard with a well-manicured lawn and a narrow swimming pool. There is also a small, upstairs terrace that affords great views of the volcanoes: The evening I was there, you could just make out smoke rising from one of their craters.
From Antigua, along with other media and Casa Palopo staff, we headed toward Lake Atitlan, briefly stopping in Sampango to observe Day of the Dead rituals at the cemetery and attend the town's annual kite festival. After a two-hour drive over steep and winding roads, passing through dense patches of fog, we were treated to a spectacular view of the lake far below us. Atitlan is a crater lake, approximately 1,000 feet deep and ringed by three large volcanoes and steep hills.
On the shore of the lake, Casa Palopo conforms to the pitch and contours of the hillside on which it is built; the driveway is impossibly steep, and to go from one building to the next you may have to go up, down and around.
Lake Atitlan itself is the main attraction here, and the hotel is built for maximum appreciation: All the room balconies as well as the restaurant and patio have excellent lake views.
The main hotel building consists of seven guestrooms (including the master suite and a junior suite), a bar and restaurant, a comfortable terrace and narrow pool. The hotel recently opened a small boutique spa, where guests can arrange for massages and other treatments. Up a long, steep set of stairs from the main hotel is the villa, a two-story house with one suite on each level. If rented as a single unit, the villa comes with its own kitchen, infinity pool and hot tub as well as an outdoor patio area with fireplace.
The hotel's decor is an eclectic mix of international and local art that ranges from an old wooden confession booth to carved statues from Asia and a large original painting by renowned Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Hotel owner Claudia Bosch says that whenever she travels she brings back art for the hotel.
"We've made it our home, so it's really sharing who we are," she said. "Staying here is like coming to someone's house."
Originally a private home, Casa Palopo opened as a hotel in 2000, and Bosch purchased it in 2010. The hotel has a very low-key feel. It does have wireless Internet, but no TVs, which Bosch said was intentional.
"The idea of going to Casa Palopo is to disconnect from the world, go back to the basics: read a book or just enjoy each other's company," she said.
The hotel makes a great base to explore the 12 towns around the lake, each of which has its own distinct charm.
Visitors can arrange guided boat tours of the lake and surrounding towns, hike to the nearby volcanoes or rent kayaks to explore the lake one paddle stroke at a time. After a day of exploration, the hotel's restaurant, 6.8 Palopo, offers excellent international cuisine with a local touch; the black bean soup is particularly good.
Casa Palopo will arrange for transport from Guatemala City, about a three-hour drive, for $124 each way for up to three people. Those with more flexibility in their budget may splurge on a helicopter trip, a 45-minute flight from the airport to the hotel's helipad affording visitors a unique view of the Guatemalan landscapes, flying over a patchwork of farms, small towns and narrow canyons. Flights are $1,125 each way for up to five passengers.
Room rates begin at $140; rates for the Antigua guesthouse start at $690 per night. Visit www.casapalopo.com.