Surrounded by rich green foliage, Escuintla should be a tropical idyll where people swing languidly in hammocks and concoct pungent meals of readily available exotic fruits and vegetables. In fact, it's a hot, shabby commercial and industrial city that's integral to the Pacific Slope's economy, but not at all important to travelers, except for making bus connections.
The coastal area around Monterrico is a totally different Guatemala. Life here is steeped with a sultry, tropical flavor, with rustic wooden-slat and thatched-roof architecture and awesome volcanoes that shimmer in the hinterland. It's fast becoming popular with foreigners as a beach break from Antigua or Guatemala City.
Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa
Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa, though benign enough, is unexciting. The region, though, is an important stop for anyone interested in archaeology. In the fields and fincas (plantations or farms) near the town stand great stone heads carved with grotesque faces and fine relief scenes, the product of the enigmatic Pipil culture that flourished here from about AD 500 to 700.
About 12km east of Puerto San José is Iztapa, Guatemala's first Pacific port, used by none other than Pedro de Alvarado in the 16th century. When Puerto San José was built in 1853, Iztapa's reign as the port of the capital city came to an end, and it relaxed into a tropical torpor from which it has yet to emerge. There's not much to do in town.
Lago de Amatitlán
Lago de Amatitlán is a placid lake backed by a looming volcano and situated a mere 25km south of Guatemala City, making it a good day trip. After suffering years of serious neglect, the lake is slowly being rejuvenated, thanks mainly to local community groups who hope to see it once again function as a tourist attraction.
La Democracia, a nondescript Pacific Slope town 10km south of Siquinalá, is hot day and night, rainy season and dry season. During the late Preclassic period (300 BC to AD 250), this area, like Takalik Abaj to the northwest, was home to a culture showing influence from southern Mexico.
Set on a hill and surrounded by lush coffee plantations, Coatepeque is a brash and chaotic commercial center, noisy and humid at all times. If you read the papers, the name Coatepeque should be familiar. A major stopover on the Colombia–Mexico drugs 'n' guns route, this town probably has more gang-related activity than any other outside of Guatemala City.
Built as a shipping point for coffee during the boom of the late 19th century, Champerico, 38km southwest of Retalhuleu, is a tawdry, sweltering, dilapidated place that sees few tourists. Nevertheless, it's one of the easiest ocean beaches to reach on a day trip from Quetzaltenango, and heat-starved students still try their luck here.
A bridge across the Río Suchiate connects El Carmen with Talismán (Mexico). The border is open 24 hours daily. This border is generally far more hassle-free than Tecún Umán, but offers far fewer options for easy onward travel. There are few services at El Carmen, and those are very basic.
Ciudad Tecún Umán
This is the preferable and busier of the two Pacific Slope border crossings into Mexico, having better transport connections with other places in Guatemala. A bridge links Ciudad Tecún Umán with Mexico's Ciudad Hidalgo. The town has all the trademarks of a seedy border outpost. Banks here change US dollars and traveler's checks.
Chiquimulilla & the El Salvador Border
Surfers found in this part of Guatemala will likely be heading to or returning from La Libertad in El Salvador. Most people shoot straight through Escuintla and Taxisco to Chiquimulilla and on to the Salvadoran border at Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado–La Hachadura, from where it is about 110km along the coast of El Salvador to La Libertad.
Tulate is a beach town that has yet to make it onto the radar of most travelers. The great thing about this beach is that, unlike others along the coast, the water gets deep very gradually, making it a great place to swim and just hang around and have some fun. The waves rarely get big enough to surf, but bodysurfers should be able to get a ride any time of the year.