I managed to cover Guatemala in a week. However I did wish I had more time. Guatemala is famous for the coffee, chocolate, apparently the best rum in the world, amazing Mayan sites and active volcanos you can hike. The people are short but kind and the town’s are so adorable. The part that was the most difficult for me was the van rides to get from one place to another. The roads are narrow and bad and going from one town to another takes about 8 hours so you waste a day. Having said that, the places I arrived in are vastly different and it’s so interesting because it’s so diverse even though it’s just 1 country!
I arrived in Lake Atilan from San Cristobal de la casas in Mexico and it took me 11 hours. Upon arrival in Panajachel which is the main town and most convenient, I took a private car up to a family’s house in San Jorge la Laguna. I arrived late in the evening about 8pm so I had a very nice dinner of Tamalitoes prepared by the family and chicken curry. It was a treat for me because it’s Christmas time and they were celebrating and tamalitoes were only eaten during festivities, so how lucky was I?!
I then spent the evening chatting with the children and they taught me a few words in Kaqchikal which is a traditional Mayan language. They do have at least 20 different Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. They learn Spanish in school and they were taught Kaqchikal at home so the teachers here have to know both for the kids to stay engaged in school. The kids I stayed with also knew English as they learn it as a second language for some of them who want to. It’s so heartwarming to see that the kids here are trilingual and they make an effort to speak to gringos like me.
they call this the chicken bus coz you’re squeezed like chickens. It’s an old American school bus. For 2 quitzal per trip, it’s cheap as chips
The family was wonderful and the next day their mom made me a breakfast of eggs, fresh tortillas and beans before I headed off to explore Lake Atilan to see more indigenous people in the different villages. I had to take the public bus down to Panajachel as The boat departs from Panajachel. Being on the chicken bus was so fun! It went downhill and you can see the entire lake and the volcanos around it and it’s so beautiful. The people on the bus also squeezed in so I could sit down. They are so nice!
The boat made 3 stops in different villages and they were quite different. My favourite was San Antonio Palopo and the best place to really get an idea for how these traditional indigenous towns used to feel. Walking through the village I could see people wearing intricately designed “huipiles” (woven tunics) and women weaving fabric made of wool and cotton. Take in the views of this tranquil town and step into the workshops to see how they make the beautiful scarfs and ponchos. I wish I bought a poncho as the other 2 villages had slight different things.
San Pedro La Laguna and Santiago Atilan were quite different. You also have the option to stay in San Pedro as it’s quite a busy and well ammentized town and had a bohemian feel to it. Lots of health shops and cafes selling organic things and of course, crafts and when I was there, they were having the music festival there. Santiago Atilan was a big town and famous for their coffee. So if you love coffee, you must try it.
I had to finish the tour at 3, catch some snacks and catch the van to Antigua that took about 4 hours. I wish I had an additional day as Panajachel was quite nice with a sunset on the malecon which I left too early so I missed it.
delicious grilled meat for only $5!
Arriving to Antigua on New Year’s Eve was a treat. Plaza mayor will have their fireworks show on display for at least 30 minutes and it seemed like the whole town was out and about in town. I spent the evening with my friend I met in Patagonia and we went to the salsa club there. I walked past the most beautiful Taco Bell in a beautiful colonial building. Antigua is not called the Gem of guatemala for nothing. Antigua is very beautiful by night and you can walk around easily as it’s a grid. The lights delicately illuminate the old cathedrals and nice old buildings and the whole place seemed so romantic and really charming at night.
this is the most beautiful Taco Bell I’ve seen
The next day, I had a very good breakfast in a beautiful garden setting at Cafe de la Escalonia. It serves organic breakfast and lunch and the staff were attentive and the food delicious. After that, I explored the beautiful town admiring old buildings and the scenery around. As my friend lives there, she told me the rich people in Guatemala have their mansions in Antigua. They are real mansions. Inside the high walls are beautiful big houses with large gardens and amazing furniture to match. They are usually only single or double storey as Antigua is Unesco and they cannot be built taller than that.
In the afternoon at 2pm, I took the hike to Volcano Pacaya it’s quite a tough hike as it was steep and rocky but the sunset here was beautiful. You can also bbq your mashmellows at the top from the hole. I wasn’t lucky enough to see the lava flows when I was there. Bring a torch and windbreaker, you’ll need it in the evening as the wind is strong and you hike down at sunset and it gets very dark.
If I stayed 2 more days in Antigua, I would have done another volcano hike to Acatenango. My hostel mates did it and camped over night and the sunrise views were amazing and you watch the volcano smoking for 30 minutes with lava flows to boot! I regret not doing that but that just means I have to come back to do it 😂😂 you can also choose to do it in the day and see wonderful nature and not camp overnight. You could still see the smoke and lava flows.
you can also take the horse up and down if you don’t have the stamina
Antigua has very good restaurants and cafes. I had dinner at Angie’s which was owned by an Argentinian so their meats are good as were their pizzas. We had amazing live music that night and the food and Malbec and music made it an amazing New Year’s Day celebration for me
After Antigua, I headed to Lanquin to see Semuc Champey. At Lanquin, I stayed at El Retiro lodge and it was really nice as the river runs behind it and they had very good dinner buffets.
the grounds of El Retiro lodge
I did semuc champey the next day and you get to hike up to the Mirador, soak in the very clear waters, go river tubing and walk into the very scary cave with just candles. It’s really fun and I highly recommend it. You make a lot of good friends as you have to stand in a van for about 45 minutes to reach the site, have beers while river tubing and help each other out in the caves as it’s really dark and you only have 1 candle to share among 2 people. It’s touristy but it’s because it’s really a good excursion.
walking in the dark cave with candles and waters up to your chest
The next day, I took the van again to Flores and it was another 10 hours on a squeezy van. I stayed at Los Amigos hostel which apparently is the best hostel in Flores. I had Thai curry with rice on my first night there and it was quite good. The restaurant for the hostel is set in a forest environment and it’s really pretty. As I walked along the streets of Flores, I really like Hotel Isla de flores as it’s cute and pretty as I walked past it and cost about $90 Per night. They also have a very nice restaurant called Achiote and I had delicious fish dinner here. The staff were very attentive.
The next day I took a trip to Tikal. You can choose to do the 3am sunrise hike, the 430am, 8am or 12pm. I initially wanted to do sunrise but my friend told me that it’s too cloudy and I won’t see much and it’ll be a waste to wake up so early. So I opted for the sunset which begins at 12pm. This means I had time to roam the cute quaint islet of Flores and also have breakfast at cafe Uke just down the road from the hostel. I liked the jazz music they played and also the delicious breads and eggs.
Tikal was an amazing Mayan site. Set in a lush jungle, it is one of the most magnificent archaeological site and important Maya citadel in Mesoamerica. Tikal National Park, declared as a UN World Heritage Site in 1979, is the largest excavated archaeological site on the American continents and is one of the most important natural reserves of Central America. We scaled the pyramids, saw so many trees, birds and monkeys and had a good time.
If I stayed 5 more days here, I can do another hiking trip to the largest Mayan site called El Mirador near the border of Mexico. You have to hike and camp overnight there or take the 400 euro helicopter ride.
I skipped it as I guess it’s enough hiking for me and I want some beach time in Belize.
Not looking forward to the van ride though! It’s another 10 hours!
Oh! One thing I learnt from my guide is that guatemala rum is very very good. I had the Zacapa centenario and it was super delicious neat and smells better then the Havana rum, sorry CUBA!