Puerto Quetzal -- a Guatemalan port that serves as the jumping-off point for Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the nearest town of interest, some 90 minutes away -- doesn't seem like much at first, but it can be a great option for anyone who needs a break from the hustle and bustle of the usual stops on a Panama Canal or South America itinerary.
Antigua is a lovely Spanish colonial city, easily walkable and quite charming. There are several churches to peek into, museums to browse, cafes to grab a bite at, and, if you're there in late winter you'll catch the gorgeous jacarandas in bloom. If you choose to stay in port instead of taking the long ride to Antigua, prepare for a slow-paced and pleasant day of shopping for colorful, reasonably priced trinkets; there's not much else to do.
Depending on where you dock, the view from your ship will either be industrial with tankers and cargo ships in your line of site, or scenic, with an adorable marina situated in front of the welcome center. You'll find shops and restaurants at the welcome center. Beyond that, as the maitre d' on our sailing slightly overstated, "it's Jurassic Park."
Despite its prefabricated nature and rows upon rows of vendors selling baubles and cheap mementos, the Jurassic Park-ness is precisely what makes Puerto Quetzal feel less forced and less commercial than some other ports.
Puerto Quetzal has room for two cruise ships at the Marina Pez Vela: one at the cruise terminal and one at the cargo pier.
If you're at the cruise terminal, all you need do is walk off your ship, and you'll pass over an open-grate bridge as you make your way to a small visitors' center, which offers local information, shore tour sign-ups, a desk that sells postcards and stamps, and performances by local musicians. Just outside, you'll find a compilation of wooden signs that serve as a directory to various areas like shops, restrooms and restaurants. Cruisers docked at the cargo pier will need to take a courtesy shuttle to the passenger terminal. The shuttle runs every 10 minutes or so.
Persistent locals can try your patience if you just want to stroll around the shops inside the visitors' center to browse without buying. They'll use high-pressure sales tactics, but a firm "no, thank you" or no, gracias usually does the trick. Also beware that prices are rarely posted on items; it's a sign that haggling is fair game. Never accept the initial price a salesperson quotes you, unless the prices are clearly marked on items from the start. If you can withstand the pressure to buy immediately, don't feel bad about checking prices elsewhere before making a purchase. Sales tactics are much less fierce in Antigua, where street vendors might follow you for a bit but will take no for an answer and vendors inside the Old Cinema Market barely try to sell you at all.
The best (and most affordable) way to do get around is by booking a shore excursion. You'll also find local guides selling excursions at the visitors' center. Taxis are available, but because Antigua is 90 minutes away, they can be pricey.
The official monetary unit in Guatemala is the quetzal (named after the country's official bird), but American dollars can be used throughout Puerto Quetzal, as well as in Antigua. Be sure to have small bills available, as change might not be given back to you in U.S. currency. Also be sure that your dollars are free from even the slightest rips or tears, or they might be refused by shop owners. Credit cards are not generally accepted. If you run low on cash, an ATM is available at the welcome center.
Spanish is the primary language spoken throughout Guatemala, but most folks working in the port speak at least some English. It's still a good idea to study up on common phrases and numbers, download a translation app to your smartphone or carry a phrasebook. In Antigua, restaurant waitstaff speak some English, but most others do not.
Guatemalan cuisine is derived, in large part, from dishes the Mayans used to eat. Most feature some variation of rice, corn or beans. Soups with chicken, beef and seafood are also popular, and flavoring is often done with chilies.
Restauranta Pez Vela: The only restaurant in Puerto Quetzal, this little open-air venue, on the path just past the Wi-Fi zone and behind the marina, is a great place to stop for a cold beer and some grub. What you'll find on the menu is a mix of fresh fish, seafood, chicken and beef in the form of sandwiches, soups and more. There's also an entire page dedicated to various types of ceviche (spiced fish cooked with onions and lemon juice), and you can choose from sides like rice and beans or French fries. Prices are reasonable, and the menu is in both Spanish and English. (Km 112, Monday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo: Located along one of the main streets in Antigua (Calle del Arco, or Arch Street), the restaurant located within this picturesque hotel is a quiet place to stop for a delicious bite to eat; ask for a table overlooking the lovely courtyard. The restaurant serves a combination of international dishes along with Guatemalan specialties, including freshly baked soft tortillas. (Calle del Arco No.17, Daily 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Most vendors sell beautiful hand-woven blankets and hammocks at reasonable prices. Also keep an eye out for handmade scarves, tablecloths, placemats and jewelry.
The Guatemalan beer Gallo is very popular and -- of course -- coconuts, which are cracked open so you can drink their water with a straw. Try coconut with some some rum added; it makes for some exceptional warm-weather refreshment. You'll also find Gallo in restaurants and cafes throughout Antigua, as well as Arabica coffee, considered by the locals to be the best in Central America.