Guatemala, Home of the Maya
Guatemala, a country that was once the heart of the Maya civilization, was colonized by the Spanish in the early 16th century, and gained its independence in 1821. Guatemala is a country rich in culture, with 23 recognized languages (dialects) and a wide array of indigenous groups. This country is a mix of colors, flavors, and life. Guatemala is the home of the Maya!
I grew up in Guatemala but never had the opportunity to really explore it on my own as a tourist; therefore, I decided it was time to do just that! Guatemala would be my first stop of a 30 country tour. After spending a few weeks volunteering for two NGOs within my community in Antigua, I began to visit my country.
First item on the list... When is the best time to visit Guatemala? High season begins in early November and ends in May. During this time you will likely find very pleasant weather (around 70-85 °F; about 21-28 °C). Winter (rainy season) begins in mid May and ends in mid October. During rainy season, the weather doesn't change much to be fair; however, the storms will usually arrive in the early afternoon and end in the late afternoon (approximately 1pm-6pm). This doesn't mean that you will find a cold gloomy type of winter in Guatemala since the mornings will likely be sunny; however, you just have to be aware that the rain may interfere with your afternoon activities. I went in August and although I went in winter, my pics will show that I had some really sunny days.
Landing in Guatemala City it is easy to take a shared van to Antigua for about $10/person. You can also take a taxi but it's much more expensive (expect between $30-$40). I personally opted for a car rental, with a US or European driver's license you don't need an international DL to drive in Guatemala. Cost of car rental for a week is about $100-$150 depending on the car you get. Gas is pretty inexpensive compared to the US and definitely compared to Europe. A car allows flexibility so this was my choice; however, driving in Latin America is not for everyone so I suggest using bus companies such as: Galgos or Linea Dorada, which cover most popular destinations at a reasonable price and most importantly in comfort and with safety.
After 5.5 years of working in corporate finance, boy did I need a place where I could find tranquility and I could't thing of a better place in my country than Lake Atitlan. I opted to stay away from the popular Panajachel to avoid the crowds. I booked my room at Villas Balam Ya (Villas "Tiger by the Water" in the Mayan Kakchiquel language) in Santa Catarina Palopo because it's a very secluded location, yet still only 10-15 minute ride from Panajachel. The thing that caught my attention about these villas was the view. I absolutely loved waking up to this view, brewing some fresh coffee in my Guatemalan fabric robe, enjoying breakfast in the loft, and just relaxing on the lake. Much needed pampering... it was worth every penny!
Villas Balam Ya offers a range of prices depending on the size of the villa, view or no view, and on or offseason (from $60 to $200 per night). They offer outstanding service, a family friendly environment, and not to mention it's so quiet, you can't hear a thing! All the villas are spread away from the other so you wake up to the sound of the birds or rain drops if going in winter (May-Sep). The villa I picked had a private kitchen, dining, living rooms, and a balcony with a lake view. I truly recommend these villas vs. other resorts in Santa Catarina (which could be extremely pricey $200+). The only thing is the road is steep to get to the lobby so if you're driving a manual car its a bit of a descent/climb, but fun!
How to get into town? So the beauty of tranquility in Santa Catarina also comes at a cost of having to drive to the city center. I didn't feel like driving that steep road but rather, you can call a tuk tuk (rickshaw), which are mototaxis imported from India, for about Q.10 ($1.2 each way). Not bad, plus it's really fun strolling down the beautiful landscapes along the lake.
Once you're in town, you can find a variety of restaurants along Calle Santander, which is the main street in Panajachel. You'll find anything from traditional Guatemalan dishes such as: pepian, tamales, hilachas, and a variety of seafood dishes and great ceviche. No matter what your food preference is, you must have a "Gallo" as this is the national beer in Guatemala. It goes well with any dish you decide to eat.
According to the Popol Vuh (ancient Mayan bible), men were created from corn, it is evident that due to its roots, you will likely find a variety of corn based dishes, including tortillas in Guatemala.
I also suggest taking a kayak tour to any of the 11 towns surrounding the lake. There are ferry ports all around the lake and they charge about Q.50 per day ($6 USD). Villas Balam Ya offers them to their guests for free so I was excited to take my kayak to the town center in Santa Catarina. It was quite a paddle but it was such a fun experience, even better than taking a tuk tuk! In the town center you'll find many shops with textiles, fresh fruit, freshly baked bread and other goodies. I really enjoy buying Guatemalan crafts in remote places such as Santa Catarina versus the busy markets of Antigua or Guatemala City. Its a much more authentic experience, and also a lot more affordable.
There are a variety of other activities in Atitlan such as: zip lining, parasailing, jet skiing, trekking, waterfalls, ferry tours, museums, golfing, folk dancing shows, etc. For my trip I chose kayaking but there are many others.
After a few days of tranquility in Atitlan, I headed off to Antigua, where I enjoyed my city for the first time as a tourist.
Antigua was the former capital of Guatemala but was destroyed twice by natural disasters and in 1776, the capital was moved to "El Valle de Almolonga," which is currently Guatemala City. Antigua was pronounced a UNESCO world heritage and is one of the most visited cities in Guatemala. How can it not? From its beautiful ancient buildings, ruins, monuments, colorful markets, rich food, and culture. It offers a variety of restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels, spas, etc. Antigua is a small city, it can be crossed by foot in about 20 minutes walk. Most touristic sites are within a 1 kilometer radius.
Now ... where to stay .... this is a tough one, there are so many great places to stay depending on your budget. Varying from $20/night to $400/night. I travel on a budget so I stayed at a small hotel called "Hostal Las Marias," reasonably priced and near the bus terminal. Although it is called Hostel, it is a actually a hotel in a private gated community, very private, and has very spacious rooms.
Now... let's talk about places to go. If this is your first time in Antigua, you must visit all the historical sites such as "La Catedral," which is the main cathedral in the city in front of the central park. You must go inside and see the ruins, which are now a museum but were once the walls that formed one of the first Cathedrals in Central America and was destroyed in the 1776 earthquake, which devastated the city. Also, visit other Cathedrals such as: La Merced, La Escuela de Cristo, San Francisco, Arco de Santa Catarina, and the ancient convent of "Las Capuchinas." One thing many tourists neglect to do is to climb "El Cerro de la Cruz" (cross hill), which provides a beautiful view of the city from above and where you can appreciate the perfection of the city streets laid out in perfect angles (Spanish architecture). Also, one thing many tourists don't know is that much of Antigua is buried underground. Lots of tunnels and chapels were built underground during the Spanish inquisition (la conquista) as a safeguard from the enemy.
On your descent from the hill make your way into my favorite ice cream shop in town "La Tienda de Dona Gavi," where for many years the family recipe of ice cream has captivated locals. Please don't be alarmed by some of the strange flavors such as avocado, corn, or zapote (local fruit), trust me, all the flavors they offer are amazing and they are all organic. Don't be fooled into a tourist trap of expensive and not so authentic ice cream near the central park. Go here... do as locals do. This little store is located 1 block west of the central park, on the road to Guatemala City and across the street from "Dona Luisa," which is another must try restaurant. Family owned and most popular for its bakery, I personally love their banana bread, which goes for about $3 USD for a loaf.
Antigua is surrounded by 3 volcanoes: Agua (water), Fuego (fire), and Acatenango. Two of the three are active, mostly Volcan de Fuego. It's a beautiful spectacle to watch them erupt at dusk or dawn. Vulcan de Agua (inactive) can be climbed so if you are an adventurer, I suggest scheduling a tour in one of the many agencies in Antigua. You can also climb Volcan de Papaya, which is about 1 hour away from Antigua but it's an easier climb, can be done in half day (3 hours uphill and about 1.5 downhill). Just make sure you wear the right clothes, bring gloves, and make sure your shoes are resistant as you could possibly walk on hot stones or even dry lava. I did this climb in 2007 and it was such an amazing experience. Must do if you're an adventurer!
So now we leave Antigua behind and head out to Coban, in Alta Verapaz province. Coban is the closest and most populous city near Semuc Champey. Semuc Champey is a collection of pools that form a staircase situated top of a limestone bridge with the Chabon River in the middle of the dense jungle. From up above in "El Mirador" (viewing point) it is evident why this is truly a natural wonder.
I stayed in Coban as it offers a wider variety of hotels than the small towns near Semuc. Getting to Semuc was quite an adventure. At my hotel in Coban they suggested either a private tour or a shared bus to Lanquin. From there, you must take a 4x4 because normal cars cannot get through the treacherous roads. When you arrive in Lanquin there are tons of 4x4's asking if you need a ride, take any of them and negotiate the best price. This was such as fun ride I'd say. About 45 minutes of off-roading fun. Once there, go do a bit of trekking, hike up to "El Mirador" and lastly, enjoy a swim on these clear water pools before heading back to Coban as I did.
Last but not least, enjoy a traditional Kak-ik. Turkey based dish in a traditional spicy sauce (see below image) and a cold Gallo.
My last stop was Tikal. I returned my car rental at La Aurora airport and took a direct flight to Flores (about $100 with Avianca Airlines) and decided to stay 2 nights in Tikal rather than in the city center of Flores. I wanted a more authentic experience in the jungle. I stayed at Hotel Jaguar Inn. This hotel is basically a handful of bungalows in the jungle, despite the fact it was a good experience for me it could perhaps be inconvenient for others as there is no AC, hot water runs only during daytime, and mosquito repellent is a must. For me however, this didn't take away from the experience. If you aren't an adventurer and prefer comfort, I suggest you stay in Flores, where there are a variety of hotels, hostels, restaurants, bars, etc. and many with competitive prices starting at about $25/night+.
I scheduled a sunrise tour with my taxi driver for the next morning; however, many agencies in Flores sell these tours and include transportation to the national park of Tikal, which is about 1 hour away from Flores + park entrance fee. The park entrance fee is about $3 US for locals and $10 for tourists. You may tour on your own but you must arrange your own transportation. The tour I took began early (around 5am). From the park entrance it's about a 30-45 minute walk into the jungle before getting to temple IV, which is the tallest temple in the park. The tour guide will provide flash lights so you can watch your step, seems a bit scary at first but do not worry, these guys do it every day with thousands of tourists. Once at temple IV, I was able to experience a beautiful sunrise but most importantly, enjoyed the sound of the animals waking up. You'll hear anything from birds, wild warthogs, monkeys, and even black panthers and jaguars roaring as the sun rises. It's just simply amazing and unexplainable! MUST do and in my opinion better than the sunset tour.
After the clouds cleared and the sun was shining bright, I finally explored the park. Boy was it mesmerizing to see how this ancient civilization could build such a beautiful sight! I was impressed with the architecture, the angles, the story behind each of these temples. To think that even before the Romans and the Greeks civilizations such as the Egyptians and the Maya were so advanced. The Maya were engineers, mathematicians, architects, artists, astronomers, poets, and the list goes on. They developed their own calendar and alphabet. It is truly amazing to see this site in person.
Touring the park took me about 8 hours (from 7am-3pm). After a full day at the park, it was time to go back to the hotel. I walked 50 meters and I was already at my hotel, where I first enjoyed a cold shower, which was much need after a day in the scorching heat and humidity. Then I headed over to the restaurant for a delicious lunch. Enjoy a variety of typical dishes and also western dishes such as sandwiches, burgers, salads, pastas, etc. I ended the day by relaxing and doing some shopping in the crafts market by the park entrance. The next day it was time to head out to the next destination.... Belize!
I really enjoyed my stay in Guatemala this time. I finally got to explore my culture. Such rich food, picturesque landscapes, and beautiful people. I hope that through this blog you can learn more about my country and potentially plan a future trip to Guatemala. You'll love it!