I am in Guatemala, finally! I made it to Antigua last night, after a night of couchsurfing in Rome, a flight to London and from there to Miami and finally to Guatemala city. It was crazy – I have arrived in Rome when it was POURING rain, and got completely wet trying to find my couch. But, it was nice and free 🙂 I would be lying if I said that leaving and saying goodbye was great – I spent the last 2 days before the beginning of my trip going almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown, it was so hard to say goodbye to people – my parents, my sister, my friends, my swimming instructors, my cats. So, I cried so much before and during the flight that I travelled with a tremendous headache. But, guess what? It is gone now, and my smile is back on. I reminded myself that there can be “a going back”, if I want to. And I guess the first lesson that I have learned is how much I really love it back home.
Is Gallo really the best beer in Guatemala? – photo courtesy of Lynn F. (flickr)
Here is a first about Guatemala, that I did not know before. Radio commercials. I was listening to the radio on the car from the airport to Antigua and there was a football match on. The speakers continued asking each other, before anything else, whether they were indeed drinking “la mejor cerveza”. An entire conversation such as: “Here’s to you, Bob, and I bet you are drinking la mejor cerveza!” “Yes Dan, indeed I am having la mejor cerveza” – to then continue on commenting on the match.
As you can imagine, the minute I arrived in Antigua, I dropped my bags and went to have a Gallo. I am not sure it is la mejor cerveza, but it surely isn’t bad to toast on the beginning of my backpacking adventure through Latin America.
Read more about Guatemala.
In search of the Maya at Tikal ruins and Yaxha
I tried to travel to Guatemala on a budget, but I would never dare miss one of the most impressive Mayan archeological sites. Guatemala tourism is often associated with Tikal ruins, making this one of the places to visit in Guatemala. Flores, in Peten Guatemala, is the easiest access point to the world famous archeological site of Tikal. The city is located on a beautiful island in Lago de Petén and a 500 meters causeway connects it to another, less touristy city – Santa Elena.
Tikal is a well preserved Mayan archeological site with steep-sided temples. It definitely is one of the places to visit in Guatemala. Its most striking feature are the temples that can be as tall as 61 meters. But what is incredible about Tikal is that it is completely immersed in the jungle. Its main plazas have been cleared and the temples restored, but as I walked from one place to the other, I crossed the dense jungle, smell earth and trees, and see lots of animals. Walking around, I could see racoons, and I saw and definitely heard the hauler monkeys, as well as various species of birds. This is the jungle, and I was glad to have carried mosquito repellent as I did not want mosquitoes to feast on me.
One of the many pyramids of Tikal, Guatemala
Among the other places to visit in Guatemala but yet to be fully promoted by Guatemala tourism, Yaxha is a great, less explored site, closer to the border with Belize and with similar features to those of Tikal ruins. I think anybody willing to travel to Guatemala, should as well add this to the list of places to see.
How to get there and away:
Flores Guatemala can be easily reached with direct buses from Guatemala City and Antigua. It also has connections to Belize City, Rio Dulce and the Mexican Border and there are regular flights to Guatemala City, making this an easy stop when travelling to Guatemala.
If on one of the many Guatemala tours and hoping to avoid going back to La Antigua Guatemala, it is also possible to reach it from Lanquin: Atitlan Tours runs regular direct shuttle services for about $35, the trip lasts about 9 hours.
If heading South towards Copan Ruinas Honduras, it may be a good option to catch an early morning Fuente del Norte bus from Santa Elena to Chiquimula, where there is another bus going to El Florido. The overall trip should last about 12 hours and cost no more than $15.
Tikal is one of the best preserved Maya sites
How to get to Tikal:
Regular buses connect Flores to Tikal. Buses leaving early in the morning (allowing visitors to catch the sunrise in Tikal) or later on in the afternoon (for those who want to see the sunset) are more expensive. Otherwise, a return ticket should cost no more than $10. The bus can be booked in advance, deciding on the pick up time, from any good hostel or from one of the many agencies in town.
Where to stay and eat in Flores:
Chaltunha hostel, located just a few minutes by boat from Flores (transportation to and from the hostel is included in the price), is a good option. From there I could enjoy a beautiful sunset view over the lake and village.
There are plain comfortable dorms and private rooms in cabanas overlooking a very well kept garden and a nice swimming pool to cool down from the heat. Meals are available at a reasonable price. Beware as this is a gorgeous location but as it is located on an island in the lake, meaning I had to take a boat any time I needed to go to the village. Consider this when thinking about extra-cheap eating options and nightlife.
When I was craving meat, I opted for Raices and I wasn’t disappointed. The juiciest, biggest fillet steaks in Flores!
Travel to Lanquin Guatemala
When they travel to Guatemala, backpackers go to Lanquin to explore the wonderful Semuc Champey caves around 9 km out of town and to visit its natural rock pools. Any Semuc Champey hostel can organise guided tours of the caves and of the area. For as adventurous as a Semuc Champey tour can be (picture walking in a cave, immersed in the water till your waste, holding a torch, and eventually getting out in the open air to view Semuc Champey and being able to go tubing, jumping off cliffs etc), these can be pricey. Since I was on a budget, I actually just got a ride and walked there and pay the basic entrance fee once there, to then hike around the slippery slopes and eventually get changed to jump in its paradisiac natural pools.
A view of the splendid Semuc Champey natural rock pools
I had to remember to carry cash as once in the isolated Semuc Champey hostels I wasn’t able to withdraw any! My advice is to also stop in Lanquin and do some basic grocery shopping before getting to the hostel. Hostels tend to be isolated here, they don’t allow kitchen use and serve meals that the guests will be pretty much forced to eat as there are no other eateries around. Hostels do sell snacks, but everything is more expensive compared to the regular shop in the village. To save at least something, it may be better buying drinks and snacks before getting to the hostel.
How to get to Lanquin:
The best starting point to travel to Lanquin is La Antigua Guatemala and chances are that even if from Lake Atitlan it is necessary to go through Antigua to then reach Lanquin. Atitrans runs regular shuttle services from Antigua to Lanquin, $ 25, but it must be booked in advance.
From Lake Atitlan, there is a shuttle from Panajachel Guatemala (going through Antigua) with Atitlan Tours for around $45.
It will definitely be cheaper to travel via chicken bus, but the trip will last much longer due to the number of changes and inevitable stops. A good option for those who are not in a rush and can stop somewhere random on the way.
Once in Lanquin, Semuc Champey hostels outside of the village usually organise a pick up service. Beware that while this service is free on the way there, but not on the way back (it is possible to hitchhike on the way back to Lanquin, but in Guatemala it is a custom to pay those who pick up).
The gorgeous pools of Semuc Champey – photo courtesy of Matthias Hiltner (flickr)
Where to stay and eat:
The settings are all gorgeous. El Retiro is a good hostel right in front of the river, about 500 meters from the village, with some organisation issues (it may well happen that the reservation is lost once there, leaving guests with no place to stay).
Utopia hotel is a budget hostel closer to the Semuc Champey caves, and right in the middle of nowhere (that is, isolated), somewhere above the river. It offers accommodation for all budgets, included an incredibly comfortable open air dorm (surprisingly, there are no mosquitos although this is right in the middle of the jungle and it only costs around $6 per night), hammocks and river side camping for those on a super-tight budget (under $4 per night), and small private nooks – beware, the entire construction is made of wood so noise travels easily. Bathrooms are shared (and illuminated by candlelight) and showers cold. The kitchen prepares breakfast, light lunches (and packed lunches for those going on the organised tours) and family style dinners, and there is a bar. This is a good option to stay in Semuc Champey, but party person should beware it won’t be easy to reach any other location from Utopia. Utopia staff can organise transportation to other locations in Guatemala too.
Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Do not ever plan a trip to Guatemala without considering a visit of Lake Atitlan: (rightly) considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, it is a place of breathtaking beauty, incredible magnetism, where I felt close to nature and where I could spend weeks doing different activities, and most of all where I could relax as I had not done in years.
Lake Atitlan and the villages overlooking the lake are a winning combination of beautiful scenery, relaxing atmosphere, easily accessible maya culture and good tourist infrastructures. The lake is volcanic, settled at 1560 meters above sea level and surrounded by more volcanoes such as Tolimán, whose peak reaches 3158 meters.
Views of volcanoes on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
The main port of entrance (and easiest to reach) to Atitlan lake is Panajachel Guatemala, the busiest settlement in the lake region, from which regular boats leave taking visitors to the many villages surrounding the lake. The village to pick for a stay depends on personal taste, but my advice is to visit all of them. San Pedro la Laguna is the less touristic one. San Marcos is the perfect place to practice yoga and meditation.
San Juan is the heart of many cultural activities such as weaving done using natural colours, traditional medicine and coffee production, and is a great place to buy souvenirs. San Antonio Palopo is a tranquil maya village famous for its ceramics. Santa Catarina Palopo is an authentic maya village that perfectly represents the Kaqchiquel culture. Last but not least, Santa Cruz la Laguna is a great starting point for sports and has a great view over the 3 volcanoes. It is the smallest village and can only be reached by boat or via a walk. There is a waterfront with an hotel and a hostel and the village, home of a Kaqchiquel community, is reached via a steep 600 meters walk. It is common to see villagers carrying heavy weights uo to the village.
Things to do in Atitlan Lake:
There are many activities that kept me busy while I was on the lake: hiking around lake Atitlan or on any of the surrounding volcanoes, biking, swimming in the lake, kayaking, boat tours of the lake, diving, yoga and Spanish courses are offered in any village on the lake and by practically all hostels. Trekking can be done independently as there are a number of free hiking trails to most places, but keep in mind that incidents have been reported on some of the hikes, with travellers attacked and robbed on the footpath that connects the villages. I always double check at my hostel to make sure it was safe to walk. Pueblos are interesting to visit, and in each one of them there is different artesania. Each has its own different weaving.
Women dressed in traditional clothes at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
During the evening, it is very pleasant to sit outside and sip a glass of wine to admire the beautiful sky, the many shooting stars, or the show of lightning breaking behind the volcanoes.
How to get to Panajachel Guatemala and to the lake:
From Antigua Guatemala, there are regular bus and shuttle services to Panajachel Guatemala (about 2 and a half hours). These cost around $ 12, with Atitrans. Tickets can be purchased in the main offices which are located in 6a Avenida Sur 8. Any good hostel in La Antigua Guatemala will be able to arrange this. It is possible to travel cheaper on the chicken buses leaving from Antigua bus station, but ask in advance for there will be many changes.
From Chichicastenango, there are regular direct shuttles to and from Chichicastenango. Going to Chichicastenango, the shuttle costs around $6 on market days and $15 on other days. I suggest to spend a night in Chichicastenango to enjoy the market from the early morning, and for a cheaper and more adventurous trip, Chichicastenango and Panajachel are connected via the super-cheap chicken buses (camionetas): just change at Los Encuentros and ask around – it is actually impossible to get lost! Needless to say, the same goes for the reverse route.
Once in Panajachel, go to the embarcadero, from where it is possible to catch one of the frequent lanchas to the villages that surround the lake. Prices are higher for non-locals (even Guatemalan tourists) but do make sure to ask the price, as the drivers tend to higher them a bit too much for non-Spanish speaking tourists. Boats run from early morning (as soon as the sun is out) till around 7:30 pm. Make sure to withdraw cash before getting on the lancha: ATMs are hard to find in some of the villages and not all hostels accept payment by credit card.
Santa Cruz La Laguna:
I normally am looking forward to relax, so Santa Cruz la Laguna, the smallest one in the area and only reached by foot or by boat, suited me perfectly. Santa Cruz has waterfront resorts (where the main sleeping options are) while the main village is on the hills, about 600 meters uphill from the dock and inhabited by the Kaqchiquel. The village overlooks 3 of the volcanoes that surround the lake: picture waking up in the morning and seeing this natural marvels sitting on the calm waters of the lake.
Sleeping options in Santa Cruz include home stays and La Iguana Perdida, which caters to any budget. This is right next to the dock, and offers a spectacular view of the lake.
The dock in Santa Cruz la Laguna
It is the perfect place to relax, practice yoga, read a book, play the guitar and just soak in the sun all day or lazily hang on one of the hammocks. The cheapest option to sleep is the open air dorm, with no electricity and costing less than $6; for a dollar difference there are dorms with shared bathroom, and for a few extra dollars private rooms with shared bathroom and private rooms with private bathrooms. There is a library and tv room with book crossing. Meals are extra, but there is a wide selection for breakfast and a home style dinner where all guests who have signed up for the dinner earlier on can eat together in the dining room. Vegetarian options are available.
The hostel can organise transportation to other places in Guatemala, diving lessons, spanish classes, treks and pretty much any other activity such as guided visits of the nearby village of San Juan La Laguna, where the coffee plantations (included in the tour is coffee tasting) can be visited, as well as the traditional medicine and wooving centres in order to experience local culture.
The price of the guide can be negotiated locally – one should cost no more than 40 or 50 Quetzales (around 5 to 7 US dollars). From San Juan there are tuk tuk to San Pedro, where it is possible to catch a boat back to Santa Cruz. There are a number of cheap comedores in San Juan.
The nearest place to reach via a quite easy walk is Jaibalito. It is possible to also hike independently to San Marcos (about 3 hours) and to Solola (about 5 hours).
Places to visit in Guatemala: Chichicastenango
Colours of the market
For those who visit Guatemala, Chichicastenango is a must see. This small city feels isolated in time and space from the rest of country. Picture high mountains and a mist that covers the city, and when it comes down at night, it looks almost surreal. Set at 2172 meters above sea level, it does get cold in Chichicastenango, so be prepared and wear good layers. Travellers who do not have sufficient clothing to keep warm, can definitely find what they need at the local market but they should always barter the prices!
Does this look good on me?
Shopping for chickens at Chichicastenango market
Chichi, as it is called, has always been an important trading town. The main attraction here is the huge crafts market, where Maya traders meet on Thursdays and Sundays to sell their produce. Visiting the market is thus one of the things to do in Guatemala, even if you only just go for half a day. Tourist-oriented stalls – selling anything from clothing to wooden masks to leather goods – are mostly at the outer edges of the market, while the ones at the centre are mostly devoted to locals’ needs, selling fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese and live animals. I don’t think anybody should miss the colourful vegetable market, but it is important to be aware of pickpockets there. It is incredibly crowded, and tourists are an easy target.
I always advice not to carry the passport or any bulky, showy item, and make sure to keep belongings in the inside pockets of clothes, or in a money belt. Pickpockets are often just children who won’t find it hard, in the mist of the crowd, to unzip pockets and take out whatever is inside (be it a passport, a credit card, or just cash), to throw whatever they may not find useful. A 5 minute distraction may well cost a long time at the police station (where people literally line up to report thefts), at least a phone call to the travel insurance and credit card company, and the stress of having to get a new passport while away from home.
The colourful vegetable market of Chichicastenango
Tourists may be distracted by such cuteness while their pockets are being unzipped – that’s what happened to my friend
Chickens being sold at the market
Colours of the market in Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango is one of the places to visit in Guatemala, and not just for the market. It has a very strong Mayan influence, and here it is possible to observe some traditional Mayan rituals. Many local shamans will crowd the colourful cemetery and the two main churches, where they are summoned to pray by the locals looking for some specific “favours”. They will start ceremonies that involve colourful candles (each colour having a different meaning), sugar, eggs, and chanting. While pictures are strictly forbidden inside the churches, they can be taken (from a distance) at the cemetery.
Mayan rituals in Chichicastenango
On the way to Chichicastenango from La Antigua Guatemala, it is possible to also stop for a visit at Iximché, one of Guatemala Mayan ruins hardly ever included in Guatemala tours. Once at Katok it is necessary to take a short diversion. When I visited it the first time, I was among the very few visitors, which meant that I did not have to fight my way to the Mayan rituals that regularly take place on this lovely site.
Guatemala mayan ruins: Iximché
How to get there:
Shuttles: Chichicastenango is connected to Antigua via shuttle buses. Any hostel can arrange door to door transportation.
Chicken buses: adventurous types can opt for local chicken buses (camionetas). Keep in mind that these do not have a real schedule but tend to leave when full. From Antigua get any bus headed to Guatemala City and change at Chimaltenango.
Chichicastenango can also be easily reached from Panajachel: take a bus to Los Encuentros and then change there to Chichicastenango.
Where to stay and eat in Chichicastenango:
Hotel Mashito (8a Calle 1-72) is a family run hotel, with plain comfortable (if only a bit humid) rooms with private bathrooms.
On market days, the best option for meals are the cook shops at the centre of the market (the fried food stalls surround the edges). For as little as $ 2 it is possible to have meal of caldo de res (meat soup) with potatoes and corn; or a chuleta (pork chop) with vegetables and rice, and a drink. On any other day, the comedores near the post office are a good budget option.
Care to know about more places to visit in Guatemala? Click here.