Travel - Guatemala
I got the shuttle bus directly from Copan (Honduras) to Antigua. It’s roughly a seven hour journey so not too bad. Again I knew I was running out of time so I could only do so much here. With that, I decided to skip on some things like Lake Atitlan so I could have more time in Mexico.
Here are my pictures so far, I was pretty fortunate to take a few good ones of an erupting volcano thanks to a german traveller lending me his tripod. Now I just want to get one for the times I need to increase the shutter speed.
Antigua is a beautiful touristy town. It used to be Guatemala Antigua but it’s become so popular that it’s been differentiated from the main city. It’s a lovely area to walk around at all times. Similar to Granada, in that you’re best having your camera at hand as it’s a very colourful and old style town. Lots of colonial decaying houses, marble roads, churches, cathedrals and if you’re lucky with the clear skies, you might be able to spot the volcanoes and if you’re really lucky you might even be able to see Fuego erupting from the town.
I stayed at Captain Tom’s Hostel. At first you might be a bit concerned with this place as it seems a bit messy, the reception area is also where the owner sleeps but it’s actually a really nice place. It feels a bit like a home as it has a sitting room area with couches etc and a small kitchen and a terrace. The dorms are nothing special but the beds are pretty decent. Of course the main charm for me was that there were two dogs, one being a two month old husky so I was sold pretty much instantly! Don’t bother booking in advance if you don’t have to, you’ll get it for at least a dollar cheaper if you reserve there.
My first full day, I just decided to explore the small city for myself. As I mentioned it’s just a very nice place to see the local culture and take snaps of all the architecture. So you can have a great time without spending a penny by just taking your time walking around the area. Also make sure to try out the typical food. Breakfast is usually beans but they are mashed into a paste with scrambled eggs, salsa and tortillas. You’ll also find plenty of women on the street who’ll have something ready for you at a very cheap price. Just to the west side (near the hostel) you’ll find a market place where you can do your usual bargaining for pretty much anything. Once again I had to get my rucksack stitched up, third time now and another new hole that just kept on ripping open. Realistically the bag has seen better days but I’m being very stubborn, it’s making it all the way home!
For the next two days, I booked to hike up Acatenango volcano. I was able to book this from the hostel for 130 quetzals. So this isn’t an easy hike, you start at roughly 2300m and make your way to 4000m basically (3976m to be exact) and it’s terrain isn’t the friendliest. You’ll find yourself slipping a lot going up and coming down and there will be times when you feel like you’re taking one step forward and two back. Even if you’re not the fittest person, you can at least get a horse to the campsite (not the summit), so there is always a way and honestly I couldn’t recommend this hike more. It’s tough but it’s absolutely incredible. If you’re lucky (and I was) you’ll see the volcano Fuego erupting several times and it’s spectacular at night seeing the lava shoot out all around the volcano. That’s not even the full scene though, below you to your left you should be able to spot a few towns from all the street lights and above you, the milky way. Every time you see a huge eruption and hear the eruption a few seconds later is just incredible. When you finally do go to sleep (not the nicest part, generally cramped in a two man tent with 3 people), you’ll hear a huge eruption and wonder what it was like. Don’t worry too much if it’s very cloudy when you get up, that was the case for us and it cleared up completely about 20 minutes before sunset.
We woke up, or were already awake anyway, at 4am to climb to the summit, another 200m. I wouldn’t say I struggled for any of it as you do tend to get lots of breaks however at the same time it’s not easy. Again the terrain is awful for climbing up but coming down is a blast as you basically just slide down. The summit is incredible too. You get closer to the Fuego and it feels like you’re insanely high as the clouds are so far below you, surrounding other volcanoes. It’s incredible. So if you’re able for it, absolutely do it!
Make sure you have suitable clothes and food/water for the trip. You really do need thermals, gloves, hat, fleece, jacket and good trekking shoes as it does get cold at night and it’s very windy at the summit. Also a bandana would be good to have for the way down if nothing else as you’ll be breathing in a lot of dust due to the disturbed terrain. I took 5 litres of water with me (plus a bottle of gatorade) as I tend to drink a lot and some snacks as you don’t get that much for lunch, dinner and breakfast. So at least bring a bag of nuts/raisins and cereal bars, something like that.
I found that I was pretty shattered the next day due to the hike and lack of sleep so I just did a few chores and got an early sleep to recover. That was also when I decided to skip lake Atitlan and go straight to Semuc Champey. My understanding of Atitlan is it has a lot of towns/villages that are nice to stay in to soak up so I didn’t see the point in getting a bus out there, spend a day and get a bus back. Jungle and caves it is!
Small food recommendation, if you’re craving some Indian (who isn’t), there is a place called Toko Baru who have a really nice selection of dishes, really good sauces and it’s worth getting a side of sweet potato chips (one portion is probably enough for two… even though I totally ate all that portion myself)
I got a bus at 8am from Antigua and I highly recommend you do the same. It takes a good 10-12 hours to get here so you don’t want to be coming in at midnight and have to get another pickup truck 10km into the jungle. Generally this will be free, once you get off the bus a bunch of people will surround you about accommodation. Fortunately for me there was a person there for Utopia, a hostel two of my friends volunteered at and said was nice so I decided that’ll do me. Said I’d go and he threw me on one of these pick up trucks. Some advise, stand. It’s a rough enough journey and it’ll take about half an hour anyway.
The hostel itself is a pretty cool, chill spot. I was looking for a dorm and they threw me into a 3/4 person cabana on the first night and into the open dorm on the second night for the same price. The beds are really nice here. It has a huge open area with a wonderful view of the jungle. They have plenty of room for people to eat in and in a corner nearby they’ve a bunch of movies and xbox 360 for people to watch or play something. It’s also a vegetarian hostel so they serve and prepare breakfast, lunch and dinners. The dinner is kind of like a family thing, there is only one option (I think you can still order pizza from somewhere, they’ll call) between 7-9 and you’re either in or out. From what I had, the food is pretty good. They also sort out shuttles and tours which is very handy although it’s also your only option. As you’d expect in such a remote place, there isn’t really wifi. I did find out the second night that they do have a ‘antisocial zone/zombie zone’ as they call it just up the hill from the hostel but it seemed pretty awful. I was only able to get a few messages from WhatsApp and that was it. But I didn’t mind anyway as I was surprised to hear they had anything.
The next morning, I joined up with the two girls in my room and we walked our way to Semuc Champey itself and Grutas K’anba cave. There is a trail you can take directly from Utopia, just down the hill, follow the river basically and always stick to your left when you get to any type of crossroad or junction. Luckily we got a drive there and back from other tourists but it’s not a very long walk anyway. Maybe 30-45 minutes to the caves and a few minutes more, across the bridge, to the entrance of Semuc Champey.
We went to Semuc Champey first as that’s where we were dropped off. We spent about 3 hours here in total I think, I’d advise heading up to the mirador first as it’s going to be so refreshing after when you jump into the natural pools and make your way from one to the other until you reach the end (the end being a fence stopping you).The viewpoint is a bit of an ascent that takes about 25 minutes to get to and maybe 20 minutes to get down the other side but it’s totally worth it as you get a really nice aerial view and it’s not too difficult as a lot of it is steps. Then you can come down the other side, lock your stuff away (bring a lock) and start swimming. This is exactly what I needed the day I came down from the volcano, just to jump into some water. The crystal clear water is just so nice to swim in. You even have those little fish who pick away at your dead cells for free…. well, you do have to pay 50 quetzals to enter but still, you get my point.
We walked back out the entrance, down the hill, across the bridge and went left for the caves. Keep on your swimming gear as you’ll still need it here. The cave is another 60 quetzals which gives you a guide, somewhere to lock your stuff and a candle. You might want to have sandals or shoes that you don’t mind getting wet. I just went barefoot but it can be uncomfortable and you might scratch your foot off a rock or something. Anyway, you go through the cave, from just getting your feet wet to having to swim or hold a rope with one hand and keep the candle above water in the other. It’s really atmospheric seeing twelve candles lights make their way around this pitch black cave and you have some really fun activities in here too like climbing up a mini waterfall or jumping into a pool from a relatively high spot. The only thing I’d say against it is you spend about 10 minutes backtracking until you go to a new area so that was a little boring but still very much worth doing.
I think if you have more time, it is worth spending another day or two in the area. There are some chocolate tours you can do which look good, back in Lanquin (10km away) there are more impressive caves, one where you see thousands of bats spring out from at sunset and even if you’re not into that you can just chill out as it really is a nice place to relax in and maybe do some tubing. On that actually, that seems to be the only good thing about doing the Semuc Champey tour. It’s 185 quetzals (while we paid 110) and it comes with transport and a guide. The extra thing you can do is tubing with the tour so basically from the caves, they’ll give you a tube to float all the way back to Utopia which costs an additional 60 quetzal. Otherwise you can just rent some tubes from the caves for a small journey down the river or you can rent tubes at Utopia itself and head down to the river from here.
For me, I reserved a shuttle bus to Flores at 7am (that’s when every bus leaves) to speed my way through Guatemala. I’m actually a little sad about this. So far I’m getting the same feeling I got when I rushed through Loas, that wI would absolutely love to spend more time in this country. So it might be one I have to come back to!
My base for getting to Tikal. Flores is essentially a little city island surrounded by Lago Peten Itza. I didn't do a whole pile here really. I arrived relatively late and found a hostel (Los Amigos, bit expensive youth hostel but beds are good and A/C) and planned out going to Tikal and figuring out how I'd get to Mexico.
Then I got myself a deal, or at least bargained down the price a few dollars by booking both things with the same operator and was able to decide the next day whether I'd go to Palenque or Chetumal (through Belize) to get to Mexico.
I think if I had more time here, I'd probably rent out a kayak or cycle to another part of the lake. Other than that though, there isn't a huge amount to do here.
So you have a few time options in getting to Tikal but it isn't cheap. You can go at 3am for the sunrise, 4:30am, 8am, 10am and 12pm I believe. Maybe 3pm too as there is a sunset bus that returns afterwards.
As for me, I've seen enough sunrises/sets at ruins that I'd no interest in getting up early so I went for the 8am bus. So that'll probably cost you at least 70 quetzal and the entrance fee to the park is another 150 (250 if you go for sunrise I believe!) and it takes roughly an ninety minutes to get out there from Flores although there are other, closer places you can stay, including Tikal itself.
I actually had a great day out here. Myself and a girl I was chatting with on the bus over decided to tour around together. It took roughly four hours to cover the vast majority of the area and the only reason we struggled a bit was due to no map and wandering down the wrong way on the odd occasion but we saw pretty much everything. The whole ruins are surrounded by a jungle and there are several paths to go on. We decided to go to Templo VI first and that seemed to work out perfectly as it was generally super quiet as we walked around and it didn't really get very busy until we got to the main temple where you can climb up above the trees and see the other major temples surrounded by the jungle. It's a beautiful view and I imagine where you spend the sunrise and sunset.
The ruins themselves are impressive however even if that isn't something you're overly interested in, you'll still find a load of wildlife active in the area. We were lucky enough to see a scorpion, plenty of geckos, toucans (along with several other birds), White-nosed coati, Howler monkeys and spider monkeys. We were extremely lucky to see a family of howler monkeys on the ground, just drinking some water. It's pretty rare to see them not jumping around the trees. And even if you don't see them, you'll be sure to hear them. I swear, if you didn't know what a howler monkey sounded like and heard one, you'd be terrified. Also this was all during the day, I can only imagine it being a lot more active animal wise if you got the early buses.
Cool ruins, cool wildlife, nice walks. Very much worth checking out!
I'm a bit sad that I had such a short time in Guatemala. I loved everywhere I went to and other places I heard about seemed to be amazing but that's how it had to be.
It's a place I might just have to come back to! I'll always remember it just for getting that really cool volcano photo. That night was one of the best nights I've had travelling.