One of the first things visitors to Guatemala will notice is the presence of the Mayas. And I’m not referring to the Ancient Mayas here, even though Guatemala has some impressive archaeological sites. With around 40% of its population claiming full Mayan heritage, Guatemala is one of the most Amerindian countries in the world. Their colourful traditional dress and the beautiful melodic sound of their languages can be seen and heard everywhere.
Entering Guatemala overland from Belize meant our second border crossing within a week. We chose the easy option and booked another shuttle by Marlin Espadas (USD15 per person), departing San Ignacio (from Hode’s Place restaurant) at 1600h and arriving in Flores at 1830h.
Belize charges an exit fee of BZD40 per person (at land crossings only, the departure tax charged if you fly is ridiculous). Once out of the Belizean immigration building you walk past the quarantine area towards a bridge. The Guatemalan immigration building is to your left before the bridge. It’s a big hall but there are no signs (until you stand right in front of the immigration desk). Easy to miss…
What you can’t miss are the touting children greeting you in the no man’s land between the two immigration buildings. They offer anything from money exchange to tours to Tikal. One guy followed us all the way to the immigration desk in the hope to make a sale.
We had heard of a scam whereby Guatemalan border officials tried to charge an entry fee (there is none). The immigration officer however just stamped our passports without even asking a single question. Bienvenidos a Guatemala.
If Belize is jungle interspersed with agriculture the northeastern corner of Guatemala is the reverse. The landscape between the border and Flores was dotted with cattle ranches. To our surprise, the road to Flores (the only road connecting the two countries) is not paved all the way: a few kilometres are still a slow, potholed, dirt road.
What did we get up to?
We had planned to volunteer at the ARCAS Wildlife Rescue Centre in Petén for a week. Unfortunately, the night before we were to start at ARCAS, I was struck by a stomach bug. Fortunately, our hosts arranged for me to see a doctor at the hospital in Santa Elena straight away (the visit was free but medication in Guatemala is expensive). Sadly, with my full recovery taking almost a week, our volunteering plans had to be scrapped.
In the end, we spent a total of eight nights in the Flores/Tikal area, three nights in Lanquín/Semuc Champey, seven nights in Antigua, eight nights at Lake Atitlan and finally one night in Guatemala City, next to the airport as our flight to Nicaragua was to leave early in the morning.
Flores / Tikal
We arrived in Flores by nightfall. A massive thunderstorm had been brewing in the direction our shuttle was travelling, unleashing right at the moment when we reached Flores. If you haven’t been to Flores: it’s a cute, little island with cobblestoned streets and colonial architecture in the middle of Lake Petén Itza, connected to its sister town Santa Elena on the southern lakeshores by a causeway. We didn’t actually stay on the island, but a short boat ride away in the village of San Miguel at Casa De Grethel. The views from the casa across the lake to Flores were amazing, especially at night when the daily storms created a colourful (and loud) spectacle above the lake.
Most people use Flores as the launch point for Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 1 1/2 hours’ drive northeast of Flores. In fact, there are day trips from Flores that leave as early as 0300h. These tours arrive in Tikal in time for sunrise. While it’s probably a magic experience if you do get to see the sunrise, the truth is it rarely happens. Tikal tends to be misty in the morning – it’s the jungle after all.
We had decided to stay up in the Tikal National Park for two nights. There are three accommodation options in the park. We chose the Jungle Lodge, the closest one of the three to the visitor centre. It also happened to be the base of the first archaeological expedition to Tikal in the 1950s. There were heaps of old black and white photos in the dining area.
Having experienced the site at different times of the day, we would recommend the following:
- Book one night’s accommodation in Tikal.
- Take the shuttle from Flores at 1200h (75-80 Guatemalan quetzal per person excluding guided tour).
- Check-in, relax for a bit (the Jungle Lodge has a swimming pool) and grab a bite to eat. Then enter the park at 1500h or 1530h and explore until the park closes at 1800h. If you want to stay for the sunset at around 1830h you will need to buy an extension ticket at the same time you buy your normal entry ticket (150 Guatemalan quetzals per person normal entry plus 100 Guatemalan quetzals per person for after-hour access) at the park entrance 17km before the visitor centre.
- Get up early the next morning and enter the park at 0600h when it opens (on the same ticket). We took some food with us to do a breakfast picnic in the park.
- It is totally worth getting up so early: You have the park pretty much to yourself and will see lots of wildlife as the jungle awakens. We saw agoutis, pizotes, spider monkeys, toucans and lots of other birds, butterflies, frogs… you name it.
- You can then explore parts of the park you hadn’t seen the previous afternoon and take a shuttle back to Flores at 1100h. Later shuttles leave at 1230h, 1500h and 1830h (double check times with your travel agency).
- Thanks to its jungle setting, Tikal has lots of shade. While you will still need sunscreen and plenty of water, it doesn’t get too hot.
- Final Note: There are no ATMs in Tikal so bring enough cash with you for your stay.
Tikal was our final Maya site on this journey (we also visited Chichen Itza and Tulum in Mexico, and Cahal Pech and Xunantunich in Belize) and our absolute favourite. Tikal is not just an archaeological site. It is set deep in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. We loved the combination of nature and history. Contrary to the Maya sites we had visited in Mexico, you are able to climb Temples II and IV (and some smaller structures).
Back in Flores, we spent our days exploring the island and the area around San Miguel. I even had a dip in Lake Petén Itza (before I got sick), at Playa El Chechenal (5 Guatemalan quetzals per person entrance), which is much cleaner than the water around Flores.
Once I felt reasonably okay, we mustered the courage to embark on the long bus ride from Flores to San Agustín Lanquín (or short: Lanquín). The bus leaves Flores at 0800h, and the agencies selling the tickets advertise an arrival time of 1400h or 1500h. In reality, the bus ride takes 10-12 hours (we arrived just before nightfall), with one 30 minute lunch stop, two further toilet stops and a ferry crossing.
The last hour is spent driving along a slow, potholed dirt road down into the valley leading to Lanquín. Shuttle tickets cost 110-150 Guatemalan quetzals per person – shop around.
While there are accommodation options directly in Semuc Champey, we decided to stay in Lanquín at El Retiro, a nice hostel on the banks of the Lanquín River with a nightly dinner buffet and live music. Despite its river setting, it was also mosquito-free thanks to the bats that roam the river valley at night.
After the long bus ride, we took it easy the next day, roaming around town, checking out the big Thursday market, and exploring the Grutas de Lanquín, a cave system north of town (30 Guatemalan quetzals per person entrance).
We went to the cave about an hour before sunset to experience thousands of bats leaving the cave for their nightly feeding frenzy. For some reason, the lights in the cave did not work, so we stumbled with our phones’ flashlights deeper and deeper into the cave. While the stalagmites and stalactites were not the most impressive we have seen to date, the scale of the cave system was: one giant cavern led to another.
The steps in the cave are very slippery, and there is bat poo everywhere, so make sure you bring good shoes (and ideally a headlamp to be able to hold on to the rails). The cave is open until 1830h. As it gradually gets darker you notice more and more bats leave the cave and head into the river valley (our hostel was only a few kilometres downriver).
On our second day in Lanquín, we headed to Semuc Champey. Visiting Semuc Champey had been on my bucket list for a while. For those who don’t know what it is: Semuc Champey is a 300m long limestone bridge that sits on top of the Río Cahabón. The bridge itself is a series of cascades and pools, each one a little lower than the other. The pools’ colour changes throughout the day, depending on how sunny or cloudy it is, between turquoise and emerald green… stunning. The water temperature is refreshing, especially on a hot day.
You can join day tours (our hostel charged 185 Guatemalan quetzals per person) which include return transfer and guide, a visit of the K’an-Ba Caves (not for the faint-hearted I heard), a number of adventure activities including tubing and rope swings, the hike up to the mirador overlooking Semuc Champey and the actual cascades and pools everyone comes to see.
As I was still recovering from my stomach bug, I had to take it easy. I would have liked to hike up to the Mirador but I knew I wasn’t fit enough yet (it’s a steep and slippery ascent/descent). Instead, we spent a leisurely few hours exploring the cascades and pools and hiked the flatter path along the river. As most of the day tours use the pools as the highlight of the day and visit them at the end, we only shared the pools with maybe 10 other people. By the time we left in the early afternoon, most of the tour groups had arrived, and the place was packed.
To get there yourself, all you need to do is join one of the pick-up trucks leaving Lanquín (20-25 Guatemalan quetzals per person one way, you can book them through your hostel or grab one in town). Be prepared for a very bumpy, uncomfortable 45-minute ride in the back of a pick-up truck.
The pick-ups will drop you at the park entrance a few hundred metres from the bridge over the Río Cahabón. You can catch a pick-up back to Lanquín from there or from the bridge. There is no regular schedule. They leave when they are full. We waited for about an hour until ours left around 1430h.
To give you some further orientation:
- Before the bridge, you can find a big Comedor / dining hall, and the access to the K’an-Ba Caves, as well as rope swing and tubing activities.
- After the bridge are more food stalls, the ticket office and hiking trails that all end at the pools – the shortest one goes directly, another one goes via the Mirador and a third one goes along the river.
- There are changing huts and lockers at the pools (bring your own small lock). The bathrooms are a little earlier, so make sure you go before you reach the pools.
- You can view the mouth of the river entering its underground course (called ‘Sumidero’) from above. The water up there is quite murky, so it’s best to enter the pools a little further down.
- You can slide from the pool to pool but it’s not always straightforward. Sometimes, you need to go to the far side to find a spot where you can slowly slide to the next pool. We saw people lose control as they slid down one of the steeper parts – which can get quite painful (especially if you wear a bikini). You can jump too, just make sure the next pool is deep enough (there are lots of boulders underwater so be careful).
- There are little fish in the pools who love to nibble on people’s feet and hands – a very odd sensation. If you have water shoes wear them.
As on the border with Belize, there are lots of touting children at Semuc Champey, some as little as five years old, trying to sell you drinks or homemade chocolate. Some of the older ones speak perfect English, self-taught through their daily interactions with tourists. You can tell by talking to them that they are super smart. It’s such a shame seeing their talent wasted by having to earn money to support their families rather than being able to go to school.
Another long shuttle ride… This time, we left Lanquín at 0600h, arriving in Antigua at 1500h. Make sure you bring some food with you as there is only one 20-30 min meal stop plus two more toilet breaks. You may also need a tablet against motion sickness as the roads are curvy and Guatemalan drivers tend to have a very erratic driving style.
We had bought our ticket on the shuttle from Flores to Lanquín for 125 Guatemalan quetzals per person, the same price our hostel charged. Others on our shuttle got it for 100 Guatemalan quetzals per person, so make sure you negotiate. The distance between Lanquín and Antigua is about 315km. The route takes you through Guatemala City, and traffic in the capital is horrendous, at most times of the day, hence the 9-hour ride from/to Lanquín.
Antigua is a beautiful town with gorgeous colonial architecture and cobblestoned streets. It is surrounded by three volcanoes: perfectly cone-shaped Agua towers over the city, and Acatenango with its twin-peaks and smouldering, aptly named Fuego is also close by.
Antigua reminded us a little of Trinidad in Cuba, and like Trinidad, Antigua is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Antigua is the former capital of Guatemala: La Antigua Guatemala is its full name. The old capital, however, was all but destroyed by three massive earthquakes in the 18th century, which led to the relocation of the capital to Guatemala City in 1776.
Antigua is full of foreigners, many of them here to study Spanish but also many ex-pats who made Antigua their home. Locals are friendly.
With a bit of extra time on our hands after our volunteering fell through, I decided to go back to school too and do another week of Spanish classes at Don Pedro de Alvarado Spanish school. This time though I only did two hours each day, in the afternoon, to have time to explore Antigua and its surroundings with Paul. Our lovely host family lived a minute away from school… very convenient.
Antigua has many churches, all of them badly hit by the earthquakes that led to the relocation of the capital. It was very interesting visiting some of them, to see the grandeur of times gone by, and the destruction Mother Earth can unleash. It’s kind of ironic that the earthquakes destroyed the richly decorated churches, full of wealth amassed on the back of enslaved indigenous people who used to live in harmony with nature and were forced to adopt Catholicism.
One of the churches, La Iglesia de San Francisco, holds the remains of Saint Hermano Pedro, who was a 17th century Mother Teresa, caring for the sick and marginalised. People flock here every day to ask the Saint for help or thank him for healing miracles he is said to have performed.
While I’m not a sweet tooth, Paul is, so it was clear that we would visit the local branch of the Choco Museo. The museum is free and surprisingly educational, showcasing the history of cocoa and presenting some interesting facts. You can make your own chocolate during a 2-hour workshop (180 Guatemalan quetzals per person), or taste some samples – chocolate lovers will be in heaven – including clove-infused chocolate tea. We bought a little bag – it was that good.
We also hiked up the Cerro de la Cruz (an easy stroll up a set of paved steps that meander through a shady forest) with gorgeous views over Antigua and its surroundings.
Finally, a visit to Antigua can’t be complete without at least one volcano hike. After a bit of research, we decided to join a half-day tour to Pacaya, one of the three currently active volcanoes in Guatemala (Fuego and Santiaguito are the other two).
- We booked the tour through Sunrise Travel, an agency on 6ta Avenida Norte near the Iglesia La Merced (80 Guatemalan quetzals per person, including transport and guide but excluding National Park entry fees, which were an additional 50 Guatemalan quetzals per person).
- A van picked us up at 0600h, collected other hikers, and then made its way past the outskirts of Guatemala City to the parking lot at the visitor centre (a hut) at the base of the volcano.
- From there, it was a steep, slippery 1 1/2 hour hike up along a path of soft (in places muddy) lava with lots of small boulders. The pace was quite fast, and one girl in our group decided to hire a horse to take her up (100 Guatemalan quetzals one way).
- Once we reached the most recent lava field (from an eruption in 2014), we were able to see the very top close-up, billowing smoke. We walked over parts of the lava field. You could feel the heat and saw the steam coming out from underneath. Some of the stones were so hot that water poured over them immediately evaporated. Before we headed back, we also roasted some marshmallows in one of the vents.
We happened to choose the perfect day for our hike. On our way up, we could see the volcanoes Agua, Acatenango and Fuego in the distance. We were the first group on Pacaya. Only half an hour later, the clouds moved in, and Pacaya, as well as the other volcanoes, disappeared within minutes.
Apparently, they also do tours that leave Antigua at 1400h. If you are in Antigua during the rainy season, don’t bother with the afternoon tour. Most days when we were there, it rained, and visibility up on the volcano would have been pretty close to zero.
Since we had laundry to do that morning, we took a shuttle at 1230h. Big mistake. Not only did the shuttle leave an hour later (after it was late from Guatemala City and then picked up every man and his dog in Antigua), it was also stuck in painfully slow Saturday afternoon traffic. It seems half of Guatemala City heads out to Lake Atitlán for a weekend outing. A trip that can be done in two hours took us 4 1/2 hours. Ridiculous.
As we had booked a casita in Santa Cruz La Laguna, we had to take a boat (lancha) from Panajachel (where the shuttle dropped us off). Santa Cruz La Laguna is high above the lake, a steep road leading up to the village. Our casita was about half-way between the jetty and the village, with gorgeous views across the lake to the volcanoes San Pedro, Atitlán and Tolimán.
Our casita was also right on the old Mayan trail, connecting Santa Cruz with Jabailito, Tzununá and San Marcos. After checking out the Sunday market in Panajachel, and buying fresh fruit and vegetables from the campesinos around the lake, we hiked to Tzununá on Monday.
The hike is absolutely stunning: You cross little streams, walk through forests and past cornfields – high above the lake. It’s not always clear which turn to take, especially as you leave Santa Cruz, but you realise quickly if you are wrong and can easily backtrack.
The most challenging part is between Jabailito and Tzununá, with several almost vertical ascends (you have to climb up on all four). On this stretch, you also pass cornfields, and the path almost disappears.
All in all, the hike is 6km long and took us almost 2 hours pure walking time (more with breaks). There is a little cafe a few hundred metres before you reach the jetty in Tzununá, which serves yummy breakfasts, and hot and cold drinks – a welcome treat after the hike.
Unfortunately, Paul caught the very same stomach bug I had only two weeks earlier, so we spent a few days bunkered down in our casita. Thankfully, this time we knew what it was (as the symptoms were the same), and what medication to take.
Once Paul felt a little better, we headed back to Panajachel to pay a visit to Mayan Families, a charity that has been doing invaluable work to improve the lives of countless poor Mayan families around Lake Atitlán.
We had learned of them through the guys from Living on One. If you haven’t watched their film ‘Living on one dollar’ you can watch it here. The guys lived in Peña Blanca (a village close to Panajachel) for a few months to experience how it is trying to survive on less than USD1 per day (sadly, the life of more than a billion people around the world).
Dylan Colburn, Volunteer Program Manager for Mayan Families, showed us around the facilities in Panajachel. We had contacted him about volunteering while we were at Lake Atitlán. It wasn’t possible during our stay, but he mentioned that they did have a lot of work between January and March, and in June / July for people who want to volunteer for a week or more.
Donations, of course, are always welcome. The money goes towards projects that centre around education and nutrition, but they also run a small clinic, pharmacy and laboratory on-site.
On our last day at the lake, we took boat rides around the whole lake: from Santa Cruz to San Pedro (20 Guatemalan quetzals per person), from San Pedro to Santiago (25 Guatemalan quetzals per person), from Santiago to Panajachel (25 Guatemalan quetzals per person), and from Panajachel back to Santa Cruz (10 Guatemalan quetzals per person – it costs the same from Tzununá to Santa Cruz). Each time, we stopped for about an hour or two, strolling around the towns.
In San Pedro, we stumbled upon Voz Evangélica, a Christian radio station broadcasting from the very top of the Primera Iglesia Bautista (which also happens to offer stunning views of the lake and town).
In Santiago, we strolled through the streets leading up to the market near Parque Central, visited the Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol (built at the end of the 16th century and one of the oldest churches in Guatemala), and stopped for a crepe at Café Eiffel. Out of the towns around the lake, I liked Santiago the most. It had lots of character, and you could see many men wear their colourful traditional woven pants.
In Panajachel, we explored the waterfront between the two jetties. Watching the sunset from here would be amazing (outside the rainy season).
A few tips for boat travel around the lake:
- In Panajachel, the jetty at Calle del Embarcadero services the village’s north-west of Panajachel all the way to San Pedro. The jetty at Calle del Rio services the south-west of the village of Panajachel all the way to Santiago. In San Pedro, the jetty servicing Panajachel and the village’s north-west of Panajachel is about 15 minutes walk away from the jetty servicing Santiago.
- When you travel between Panajachel and San Pedro, you pay for your boat ride upon arrival. When you travel between Santiago and San Pedro / Panajachel you pay prior to departure. Just to confuse (and probably overcharge) the gringos (as locals always pay upon arrival).
- There are public and private boats. The public boat staff (at least between Panajachel and San Pedro) is recognisable by their white polo shirts with boat steering wheel emblem, and orange and blue stripes. We preferred taking the public boats: the prices quoted were always the same (whilst the private guys always tried to overcharge us), and the rides were smoother and more enjoyable.
- During the rainy season, it rains pretty much every afternoon/evening, and it’s not just a trickle but a downpour. While the boats all have tarpaulins to protect cargo and passengers, it can get quite wet.
The water level of Lake Atitlán has been on the rise since 2009, gaining about 5 metres. It seems to do that fairly regularly but it means that lower-lying houses and businesses have been (and are being) swallowed by the lake.
The desolation caused by the rising water level is visible everywhere. For example
- in Panajachel, the public beach is no more;
- in San Pedro, the jetty for the boats to Santiago is almost unrecognisable; and
- in Santiago, a giant fountain is submerged in the water underneath the wooden footpath you cross as you walk to the (now floating) jetty.
Having learned from our experience travelling to Lake Atitlán, we booked a shuttle to Guatemala City for 0930h. Expecting we would spend another few hours squeezed in a packed minivan, we arrived at the collection point about 0850h. To our surprise, the guy who sold us our tickets (at a far too pricey 150 Guatemalan quetzals per person) waited for us with a driver who took just the two of us directly to our hostel near the airport. With the driver pretending to be Ayrton Senna, we arrived at our hostel just before 1200h.
We did not stay in the capital (apart from that one night). While we did go for a walk around the neighbourhood of our hostel, the suburbs in Guatemala City (called ‘Zonas’) are not always safe. A local travelling with us on the shuttle from Lanquín to Antigua told stories about being mugged on average three times a year and recommended to avoid the red buses in Guatemala City as muggings are common on that line, even during daylight hours.
As we drove through Guatemala City, its topography reminded us of Quito (albeit it’s only 1,500m above sea level). Different to Quito however, we saw several slums clinging to mountain slopes, and there are very poor people working and living at El Basurero in Zona 3, the city’s largest garbage dump.
Guatemala is an amazingly beautiful country. It is sadly also one of the poorest countries in the Americas, resulting from many decades of US-backed dictatorships, violent suppression (especially of its indigenous population) and corruption. We have seen a lot of poverty all around the Americas but it has been (to date) most heart-wrenching in Guatemala. Despite the hardship, the Guatemaltecos were some of the friendliest, most resilient and generous people we have met.
When we read the travel advice of our respective governments before entering the country, we had doubts about whether visiting Guatemala was a good idea. We are so glad we came. While we can’t say bad things don’t happen, we never felt unsafe. As with most places around the world, common sense and vigilance go a long way.