Three Weeks in Guatemala
All photos by Josh Meister Photo.
Guatemala seemed like an ideal country to add to our itinerary – it's inexpensive, there's a ton to see and do, and it's not all that large so we figured we could check off all the boxes. We were correct on those first two points; not exactly on the last one.
We flew into Guatemala City on the south side of the country. Our first destination was the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal up north, and there is an airport in that region, but the flights there were fairly expensive, so Guate City it was. Even though the country is small, there's not a ton of roads throughout it, and the ones that do exist are a mixed bag in quality. Most visitors overwhelmingly choose to travel around Guatemala by bus. There's different categories of buses: chicken buses, the crowded and iconic colorfully decorated retired Bluebird school buses from the US; tourist buses, which up the comfort level significantly; and overnight buses, which, in theory, allow you to snooze as you move from one end of the country to the other.
A bus from Guatemala City to the Tikal area takes about nine to ten hours and is usually an overnight affair. Diligently doing our research like the responsible travelers we sometimes find ourselves being, we realized that overnight buses in Guatemala are not the safest mode of transport. There's a little too many robbery, etc. reports for comfort, and we opted to avoid that entirely. (And later befriended a few girls who almost found themselves stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere when their overnight bus broke down and said if they hadn't been able to jump on a bus that was luckily a few minutes behind theirs, they would have considered it a good outcome if the worst thing that happened to them was a mugging – ugh!)
We decided to rent a car, which was incredibly economical. For only about $50 more (plus gas, which was actually pretty pricey) than the cost of the tickets we would have purchased on the nicer buses, we got a one-week rental and were able to set our own schedule. The only drawback was the roads. Most of the roads we encountered were in decent shape, but there were some places we couldn't get to without 4-wheel drive. We hit a few questionable sections, but overall, our little econ rental did just fine.
TIKAL AND FLORES
The most common place to stay when visiting Tikal is Flores. It consists of a smallish residential and commercial area along with an island on a lake that has a ton of restaurants and lodging opportunities. And other than that, there's not much going on. Tikal is a little over an hour's drive away, so at most, you only need about two nights there.
Tikal is the ruins of an ancient Mayan civilization in the rainforests of Guatemala. The structures may date from as long ago as the 1st century A.D. The steep structures are pretty amazing to explore and climb on, and the surrounding jungle complete with howler monkeys make it feel – and sound – like you've been transported to Jurassic Park Central American edition. We spent about six hours there poking around, listening to and watching monkeys, and generally basking in the amazingness of what existed so long ago.
Rio Dulce is on the eastern side of the country, seemingly out of the way between Guatemala City and Tikal, yet actually a great halfway point, since the lack of road options basically forces you to pass right through there anyway.
We spent a few nights in the area, checking out some attractions, including El Paraiso Waterfall, a hot-spring waterfall; Castillo de San Felipe, an old Spanish Colonial fort; and kayaking on the river.
A lot of people chose to take the boat trip to the town of Livingston as well, which is a unique spot with a more Caribbean feel made up of former slaves called Garafuna. We opted to skip the trip, and talked to a few other travelers who went and said we didn't miss all that much aside from the complimentary tour of the river you get along the way.
Next we drove to Antigua and handed over the car since we wouldn't be needing it much from there on out. Antigua is an adorable little city full of Spanish Colonial architecture and surrounded by volcanos, some puffing out smoke and throwing lava on the regular. We happened to arrive right before Semana Santa, the holy week leading up to Easter, so we got to see some of the festivities including parades and “carpets”, or art pieces on the ground made of sand or sawdust dyed different colors, flowers, other plants, and fruits, vegetables, and seeds.
There's tons to see and do in Antigua, and we easily filled a week checking out different ruins, fumbling our way through salsa class, and exploring the area. There's two very popular volcano climbs, the first an overnight that we would have loved to do but didn't plan our time accordingly, and the second, a half-day trip. Normally, we're proponents of tackling nature activities on our own, as it's a great cost-saving opportunity. But in Guatemala you don't want to do that. The sad fact is that the country is just not all that safe. There's not gang wars or mass shootings, but there seems to be a fairly large occurrence of robberies, even on volcanos, which seems kind of insane, but I guess if that's where the tourists go, that's where the opportunistic criminals also go. Plus we were still a little on edge after our near-miss attempted mugging in Bogota. And there's strength in numbers. So a tour it was.
The Pacaya Volcano hike is small yet mighty. It only takes about an hour and a half to go up, but it is STEEP! The start of the hike didn’t bode well – the transport van broke down on the way (and a few of the other travelers on it actually ordered an Uber to take them back to town!), then when we arrived at the trailhead (in a replacement van), the sky was full of clouds which proceeded to thicken to a solid white wall as we hiked up. And a cute band of children followed us on horses all the way up with choruses of “Bueno caballo, you ride, Cheesepuff beuno.” We refused to succumb and take the easy way out by riding Cheesepuff (or Tequila or Cerveza), and finally we rounded a bend, emerging from the clouds, and all was clear for a beautiful view!
One of the traditions at the top is to roast marshmallows over the natural vents in the ground. It seemed another tradition is to feed some of those marshmallows to the volcano dogs, who, we’re pretty sure, survive on a diet of marshmallows alone. Our late arrival to the hike seemed to work in our favor as we then got to watch an epic sunset before sand-skiing our way back down the volcano with a great group of new friends. It was a blast, and I'm so glad we decided to do it!
We also opted to take a tour in order to see a side of Guatemala that a lot of visitors don't get to witness. Niños de Guatemala is an organization that provides underprivileged children with an education. The Guatemalan government does not require that the children go to school, so a lot of them wind up working instead. Niños de Guatemala has built two schools for area children, and one of the funding contributions is the cultural tours they provide. On the tour, we visited two local enterprises, a chicken bus factory and a coffin workshop to see firsthand some of the industries of the area.
After that we got to visit the schools, meet some children and teachers, and learn about the complicated situation there. It was a fantastic tour, really enlightening and inspiring. If you're interested in contributing to Niños de Guatemala, you can make a donation here, or, even cooler, check out their Padrino program which allows you to sponsor a Guatemalan child's education!
Our last stop in Guatemala was Lake Atitlán, a lake in a huge volcanic crater in the southwest part of the country, just a few hours by bus from Antigua. There's several Mayan villages and volcanoes surrounding the lake. Our main objective in this picturesque area was to power up our Spanish language skills. The area is full of crazy-affordable Spanish schools, and we loved our week of classes as well as our homestay with a local family.
We also had some time to check out a few of the local attractions including the sunrise Indian Nose hike, kayaking on the lake, and visiting a few of the villages to check out their coffee plantations and traditional weaving businesses.