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.