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.
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 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.
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 Golden Coconut, a large tent to the right as you exit the welcome center, sells a variety of cold beverages, including popular Guatemalan beer Gallo and -- of course -- coconuts, which are cracked open so you can drink their water with a straw. For a small extra charge, you can have 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.