“IN ANTIGUA, EVERYTHING happens behind the walls.”
I am told this by the guide who takes me on a walking tour through the center of the old town, where the streets are lined with baroque buildings and the ruins of several impressive colonial churches. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala, the city was destroyed and rebuilt twice, following earthquakes in 1717 and 1751. After a third hit in 1773, a royal decree was issued requiring all residents to move to safer ground. They largely complied, abandoning the former capital city and founding what is now Guatemala City.
The years of disuse that followed left an extraordinarily well-preserved example of Spanish colonial architecture and Latin American city planning, and Antigua was one of the first cities to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, it stands as a living museum, where even painting the aforementioned walls, in a limited palette of historically accurate colors, requires approval from UNESCO.
“But anytime you have a chance,” my guide tells me, “peek inside the open doors you see. What’s behind the gates will surprise you.”
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Villa Bokéh lies behind one of those walls, on the edge of the city but just a short walk from the historical center. And just as my guide told me, the simplicity of the long white wall, punctuated only by a small plaque announcing the name of the property, belies the expansiveness of what lies within. After passing through the heavy wooden gates, I drive down a cobbled passageway roofed over with the hanging vines of flor de jade, their waxy blossoms a fluorescent shade of turquoise I have only previously seen in dyed flowers — except these are real.
Recently converted from a private home, the expansive villa sits on six acres of gardens, the largest of any hotel in Antigua. The gardens feature numerous fountains, and a pond substantial enough to be traversed by a bridge and several wooden rowboats, offered to guests for leisurely (albeit very manicured) exploration. The property’s previous residents were artists, and alongside the meandering pond, the grounds include endless varieties of plants and nearly 100 mature trees. Much of the flora is native to Guatemala, but some plants were carried back as seeds from travels around the world.
The entire property has been renovated with respect for the original owners and their love of art. Each of the nine rooms is individually decorated with a mix of modern furniture and carefully curated antiques; each also features unique artwork. Alongside photographs, paintings, and installations, vintage huipil, some dating back 100 years, are framed on the walls, the intricate handcraft of the Indigenous women who created them elevated to its rightful place as art. A number of rooms feature woven wall coverings, and all feature locally produced textiles in an array of colors and patterns. Several of the top-floor rooms are built with lofts to accommodate families, and all rooms open up to an outdoor space, be it a private garden, a balcony, or several.
As a first-time visitor, the climate of Guatemala is more temperate than I’d expected. “It’s always spring here,” I’m told, due to the elevation. I visit in the actual, not figurative, spring, and although the days are warmed by the nearly equatorial sun, the nights have a chill. Keeping this in mind, many of the rooms at Villa Bokéh have fireplaces, usable during three seasons.
Until Villa Bokéh opened in 2021, Guatemala had only one Relais & Châteaux property. Casa Palopó, also converted from a private home and overlooking Lake Atitlán, was the first venture of Grupo Alta, a small hospitality group headed by Claudia Bosch. Villa Bokéh is the second. Like its sister property, Villa Bokéh’s restaurant, set within an open glass pavilion, is open to the public; its chef, Marcos Sáenz, is a Guatemalan native who trained at the Michelin-starred Mugaritz in San Sebastián. His menu offers a variety of dishes, ranging from the traditional Guatemalan to the decidedly not: the most popular brunch dish, I’m told, is the bagel platter, which arrives as a tower with bagels stacked on a dowel. I see this Instagram-ready order on several of the tables around me. As a New Yorker, I have a rule not to even attempt to eat bagels anywhere else, so I can’t vouch for their quality, but the avocado toast I order is incredibly fresh and delicious.
Antigua is an hour’s drive from Guatemala City without traffic (though I am told there is always traffic —so much so, in fact, that helicopter travel is a regular mode of transportation for those who have the means to access it). Whether they arrived by car or helicopter I don’t know, but on the Sunday morning of my visit, the restaurant was lively with multigenerational families who had made the trip from the capital for brunch and a stroll through the gardens.
The gardens are unquestionably the heart of the property. As beautiful as the rooms are, I could have sat in the gardens all day. They were alive with all kinds of life: birds and flowers and the gentle bustle of a good cafe. Upon my arrival, the staff sat me facing the fountain and the massive Volcán de Agua, the one that is said to have caused the earthquakes that destroyed the city so many times. Dormant now, it is still a sight, its peak dusty with wispy cirrus clouds. I was served a sweet lemonade flavored with bougainvillea, the cut-glass goblet rimmed with sugar and topped with a floating flower blossom. Later, I had a traditional Guatemalan tea there, served in a hand-carved, tiered stand featuring eight kinds of savory and sweet bites, all made with corn, including empanadas and a sweet corn flan.
In the garden, the tables around the pond are covered by large umbrellas sporting midcentury tassels, and surrounded by sets of modern chairs with wishbone lines, interspersed with the odd heavy, painted-wood antique chair. The table settings include handmade ceramics and intricate placemats created by local Indigenous women using traditional materials and techniques. Around me the garden was vibrant with birds, chirping and bouncing between the trees. The garden scene at Villa Bokéh seemed to encapsulate something of Guatemala to me: the marriage of traditional and modern design, the layering of Indigenous and European culture, and the incredible handcrafts, all set within the lushness of the tropical climate.
Skye Parrott is the executive editor of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor in chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.