Guatemala can be what is may be the best thing while travelling: surprising you for the best, feeling you with good memories about an interesting and beautiful place you will never forget..
If Guatemala is only a part of your trip around Central America, it can be the real pearl of your trip. And it’s not that Guatemala doesn’t have competition. The fact that Guatemala lacks of beautiful beaches in like countries Bordering her such as Mexico or Belize, evens up with its natural inner beauty of stunning rain forests, jungles, waterfalls, lakes, volcanoes, green valleys and mountains, ancient history, wild life and authentic way of living.
Although Spanish is the most spoken language as in all Latin America, most Guatemalan’s are native Indians, who live in authentic villages, following the Traditional Mayan culture, wearing Traditional clothes, making in it a heaven to culture lovers, especially the ones who are fascinated by the Mayan culture.
What better time to explore Guatemala than 2012, when it is said, that that Mayan’s predict the world will be over?
Guatemala was my first stop on my 6 months trip around Central America as a backpacker going solo. I loved it. I loved the locals, the other backpackers that fill this country and the amazing nature and adventures travelling in this country waits. Guatemala is a great destination for backpacking on a budget. It’s cheap, it’s not big, it’s filled with other backpackers to meet, and it has plenty of stuff to do.I stayed there for about a month.
Here is my travel report, written in the same order as I was travelling there.:
First travel tip – If you are getting to Guatemala by plane landing in Guatemala City International airport, as soon as you leave the airport door, get on a shuttle bus to the city of Antigua, the travellers capital of Guatemala. Like most country capitals in this area (not like San Jose in Costa Rica), Guatemala City is dangerous, dirty, and there is nothing much to do there. Right outside the airport’s door, you will see among the crowd of people, shuttle drivers waiting for tourists like you to fill there shuttle with, and take them in the 1.5 hour drive to where they know you are headed, Antigua.
Transportation in Guatemala (or – “The Chicken bus extreme”)
If you are heading to Guatemala, you probably already heard about it.
The Chicken buses actually make the local bus system, and they are old American school buses painted in all kind of colors, making each bus a bit different then the other. Usually two guys operate this way of transportation, one sells the tickets and puts your backpack on the top of the bus, and the second operator is the driver. This buses are usually full with locals (and sometimes there livestock, thus the name), and playing loud music the whole way long (local folk music at most) and they are not air conditioned equipped. Some travellers are worried about taking the chicken bus, because of the above reasons. If you are worried about your bag being not at your sight, you can get an extra seat to put your bag on. The second option of transportation is taking the more expensive tourist shuttles when available, or the more expensive local transportation which are regular buses with air conditioners. If you ask me, one travel tip would be to go local all the way, enjoy the experience and save a few Quetzals (the local currency) in the process.
This is Guatemala’s tourist central, where most travellers will start their trip around Guatemala from here.
Antigua is a nice looking colonial town, with picturestic colorful houses streets, lively squares and markets, full of cheap to expensive hostels and great places to hang out and meet other travellers. A lot of people get stuck here for a while, enjoying the atmosphere, while some take Spanish lessons. I got stuck there too, but from a whole different reason.
What to do ?
As a tourist town, Antigua has a few attractions, like a visit to the coffee plantations close by to town, or some strolling at it’s nice streets, town squares and markets, hopping from one internet café to another..
One bar and restaurant place is actually owned by a far relative of mine. It is called, café 2000 on avendia 6. I’m not sure if it’s still operating, but till recently I knew it did. The place offers big screen movie nights and sports.
Antigua’s biggest attraction is a day trip to Pacaya.
Pacaya is an active volcano just outside of Antigua, where you will get the chance to walk on hot rocks and watch the streaming lava. The hike up and down takes a whole day and it’s kind of rough if you’re not in good shape, but it’s totally worth it. If you get tired you can take a horse up, or rent a walking stick from one of the kids that sell them from the volcano foothills villages.
Where to stay?
I don’t remember the name of the hostel I stayed in, but Antigua is filled with accommodation options, ranking from the 4$ a night one I stayed in to expensive hotels. If you’re backpacking and trying to save your money, try to find one with a kitchen so you can make your own meals. There are lots of them in Antigua.
To be honest, I find Antigua to be a bit boring. Except the Pacaya day trip, there is nothing much to do day or night (everything gets closed around 1 am), but It’s a great anchor spot to start your trip and meet fellow travellers. If I didn’t have to, I would have stayed there not more than 2-3 days, because if you really want a place to get stuck at, doing pretty much everything you can do in Antigua (like studying Spanish), at one of the villages in the magnificent Lake of Atitlan..
Lago de Atitlan – San Pedro de la Laguna
What a beautiful lake. ‘Atitlan Lake’ is Central America deepest lake, with volcanoes reflecting on its stunning blue water, it’s a view you can’t get enough from. Many of its “gringo” visitors have made the surrounding authentic farmers villages their home, building hostels, restaurants and bars, making this lake atourist central world famous, as it should. I planned to stay there for 3 days, but I ended up staying there for 10 days, and even coming back for a second round.
How to get there?
From Antigua, you need to get to Panajachel. You can either take the local chicken bus, but you probably have to switch buses and it will probably not worth it, or you can take the direct “gringo” style buses. From Panajachel by the lake, you can take a boat ferry with the locals to any of the other villages. I knew where I was heading, so soon as I left the bus, I went straight down to the pier to take the 30 minutes ferry.
Where to stay?
Almost all villages around are places worth staying in or visit.it all depends on your preferences. Among most famous places to stay you have the more expensive, more tourist type villages like Panajachel and Santiago, the “holistic”, yoga and massage lovers, loners or couples village of San Marcus, and the hippie backpacker village of San Pedro.
San Pedro de la Laguna
This small village was my choice of residence for my stay in Lago De Atitlan, as I heard it’s a bohemian place filled with backpackers, cool hostels, restaurants and bars, and even though it’s a very touristic, it’s still very much fun. They were right.
San Pedro is somewhat of a backpacker small paradise spot with a hippie laid back vibe, reggae is the most common music of choice, the Mary Jane is easy to find and you have various options to start your day having a nice breakfast by the stunning lake in the morning, and after that spending another relaxing day by the lake reading a book on your favorite hammock, or engaging in some day activity. Even though the place has gotten very touristic, the locals still keep an authentic way of life, and many of the Mayan locals wear the traditional clothes. You will the village girls sell “Pan de Banana” or “Pan De Chocolate” (muffins) on the streets by the lake (great for the munchies..).
It is really one of this places where your mind can simply worry about nothing beside what to eat, when to sleep, and what another fun thing I shall do today..
At night time, you simply hop from one bar to another, having another cervesa or “Cuba libre”, listening to reggae music..
From San Pedro you can leave to different day trips around the lake with a bus to places like to most famous market Mercado de Xixi in Chichicastenango where you can find all the souvenirs and other products of Guatemala you can get, or with a boat to the neighbor villages like San Marcos.
One of the best things I did while I was there, is agreeing to go with this guy who came to our hostel, and offered a bunch of us to go to a horseback riding trip. Now, I have never been horse riding before, and the guy didn’t really provided much instructions along with the horses, so it was one of my biggest adventures at the time, and it was worth every second.
We rode the horses rapidly along the foothills of the volcanoes surrounding the lake, riding like there is no tomorrow with a one of a kind view. It was one great way to experience this amazing lake.
Where to stay?
There are plenty of hostels and even more expensive hotels just by the lake on san Pedro’s main street (which is just along the lake), a quick look up and about the street will find you a place to rest. For me, one I just got out the boat to enter San Pedro, this kid took my bag and pointed me up hill, so I did walked with him, all the uphill to “San Francisco” hotel, located not in the heart of what’s happening, but rather in a more quiet neighborhood of the Village. It’s a family owned hostel with nice and very cheap rooms with a private shower (about 2.5 dollars per night), especially for a solo backpacker. One disadvantage is the fact that it’s uphill, so when mostly you will want to spend your time by the lake, you will not be near your hostel, and it can be a drag to go up at night after you had a few drinks…
But the big advantage is the breathtaking view of the lake that you can have if you will stay in the more upper floors of the hostels. When I was there, all the people who stayed there were pretty cool, and I got to meet the people I mostly hung out with during my stay there and after.
Or Xela, as the Mayans call it, is the second largest city in Guatemala. Quetzaltenango Is much more relaxed then Guatemala City and safer to be in, yet it also has a more authentic vibe than Touristic Antigua. Most travellers that do get here stay around the “Centro America” park in the old city. You can get to Quetzaltenango from lago de Atitlan in about 3 hours, but you will probably need to switch buses.
What to do?
Quetzaltenango a nice market to go to, but mainly it has some interesting outdoor activities, like rock climbing, and trekking to Santa Maria volcano.
Quetzaltenango’s main nature attraction is Fuentes Georginas, which are hot springs, located in a marvelous location in a tropical forest in between mountains. The hot springs itself is two little nature’s “hot tub”. It’s a wonderful moment sitting in the hot waters where it’s a bit cold outside in these areas, watching the beautiful view.
The best and cheapest way getting there is hopping on the back of a pickup truck/taxi from town central. It’s a different way of transportation and it costs only about 20 Quetzals. The entrance fee to the hot springs is about the same, and better brings with you a few more quetzals for a hot drink after your visit.
For the more adventures, you can stay the night in the hot springs, where you can find nice cabins to stay in right next to the pools. If I would have known before I came there, I might have considered it. You can come here also to learn Spanish, if you rather doing that in a more typical city of Guatemala from Antigua.
Coban– lanquin –the magnificent Semuk Champey
From Quetzaltenango, you can continue on to the city of Coban, just to continue on to your destination, Lanquin village, going to visit Semuk Champey. There is nothing much to do in Coban, but there is a high chance you’ll get here in the evening time and will have to spend the night (as did I), so you can find, if you look hard enough around town for a cheap place to stay, or any other accommodation of your likening’s. Don’t get tempted to take one of the organized tours leaving from Coban to Semuk Champey, you want to get to the real experience.
This small yet magical village, hides in a valley of great beauty, and it is one of Guatemala’s most visited villages, due to it being close by to Semuk Champey.
Lanquin is about a 2.5 hour drive down curved roads in the valley. It’s a slow drive, until you reach this magical village by the lake. In Lanquin everybody goes to visit the grutas de lanquin , which are long bat caves with interesting stalactite, which makes great photos opt when the bats go out.
Where to stay?
I stayed in the most famous “El Retiro” lodge, where they know what backpackers want, and they provide it. El Retiro is situated inside a beautiful green valley and offers wooden cabins right by this green lake. The place offers a great atmosphere for backpackers, where all your needs are satisfied, like a buffet restaurant, tube rentals for tubing down the lake, parties, sauna and all together a great vibe for backpackers.
When I was there, the owner invited us to this party in some house in the village, it was a lot of fun. The place runs on the “tab system”, which means you pay a your bill including your food orders from the in-house restaurant with great buffet in the end of your stay, which is nice because you don’t have to worry about paying all the time, but the system will get you in the end as you don’t seem to notice how much you spend.
I saw there were some bad reviews about the place too, especially about the snotty service after they have gone so commercialized, but all in all it’s a great place to stay. I went from there through just by the gate pick up, to get to Semuck Champey twice.
A visit to this famous Guatemala nature site, will definitely be one of your highlights to your visit to Guatemala, and probably for all around the Central America Region.
Semuck Champey (Meaning: water coming out of a rock) you will notice the natural pools, hidden withinh a “green lung” mounted forests.
Better head here first thing in the morning to beat the crowds (or even stay at one of the resorts nearby), because you first start off with a long stairway climb to the lookout. It is a rough way up, but the view from the top is so worth it.
Only looking from above, you will really notice where you are, looking at the stunning tortoise waters of the pools underneath, created by nature. I have never seen such beautiful natural before, and come to think of it, it’s still the most beautiful pools I’ve seen (Can you think of one?), and it’s defiantly one of the top scenic views I’ve seen in all my travels.
After you go down, you can go jump in the clear waters, having yet another best moment. If you brought a spliff with you, it’s time to take it out.. Walk around the rocks, and you will the cave where the water comes out and splashes on the rocks. You can also take an organized tour, that will take you around the a cave filled with water, waterfalls and a deep pool. In conclusion, Semuck Champey is a must to all nature lovers.
Located in the north region of el Petén, which borders with Belize and Mexico and offers passages to and from these countries, Tikal is one of Guatemala’s most recognized and visited National Parks.
Tikal “starred” in “STARWARS Episode IV” (I personally not a huge star wars fan, I actually don’t remember watching that movie, but I knew that fact before I came here.), but a lot before that, it was one of the Maya culture biggest center.
So to this day, this national park offers a visit to the preserved Mayan perfectly structured pyramids, located in clearings inside the jungle, where you will walk in the paths with monkeys and king of birds around you. The Mayan pyramids on site are well preserved, and they offer a taste of this ancient culture, where on them you can still find mathematics and mystical symbols.
Most travellers that come here and got the time, come here before sunrise, to have to have the time to climb to one of the top pyramids and see how the sunrises in the jungle trees.
You can also have an organized tour if you want to be spending your time there being attached to a guide..
Where to stay?
Basically, you got 3 options. One, is staying just next to the national park in the nearby lodges, which are nice to get the full Tikal experience, but they are expensive compared to the rest of Guatemala. The other 2 options are staying in one of two towns by Lago de Petén Itza. The one Is El Remate, which is a nice little town closer to Tikal than the other option (which is still more popular) which is Flores. This is where I stayed.
Flores is a nice colorful town located right on the lake, and its connected to the land only by one road. I found a cheap little hotel on one of the main streets, filled with restaurants and shops, but mostly travel agencies waiting for you to book with them your tour to Tikal or just the bus ticket. In most of them you can also book your tour to Chiapas in Mexico or to Belize.
I regret not going to Belize, as it is so close to and easy to get there from Flores.
Rio Dulce – Livingston
Rio Dulce is a village town, where you leave from to a boat trip on the same name, Rio Dulce sweet water river ending in Livingston. Rio Dulce lake, connects to the biggest lake in Guatemala, Lago de Isabel
The boat is the only way to go to Livingston, and you will pass through beautiful water flowers, Mangrove trees, a fortress, and a lot more of nature’s beauty.
You can also take a 3-4 days hiking/kayaking trip from Rio Dulce
Livingston is a small beach town right on connection point between the sweet waters of Rio Dulce, to the salty water of the Caribbean Sea. Livingston locals are a cool mixture mostly ‘Garifunes’, which are decentness of slaves brought by the brits, local Mayans, and Spaniards. The main language spoken is the local ‘Garifunes’, which is kind of an African English. The vibe is Caribbean, and the Rasta’s and reggae are always the fashion.
But the fact is, that they are much nicer Caribbean beach towns. The beaches on town are not so nice, and there is nothing much to do around the area. The locals, especially the young, can try and “leach” on you so you will be them something to smoke or a beer. Be assertive.
Being said that, Livingston is still a place that can be fun to visit. Just the boat ride itself getting here can be fun. Livingston is also a great last stop in Guatemala, before heading to Honduras, especially if you are heading to Utila Island of anywhere in the Caribbean side.
From Livingston you take a boat ride to Puerto Barrios (still in Guatemala). From there, you take a boat ride to Puerto Curtes, take a pickup truck that will take your through the border to Honduras, and all the way to the town of La Ceiba.
That’s what I did..