After extending our time in Mexico and booking a flight to Colombia we were left with just under two weeks to squeeze in some Guatemala banter. What we ended up with were three very diverse Guatemalan experiences; A small town / hippy vibe at Lake Atitlan, a modern city vibe in Antigua with a bit of Guatemala City and the Mayan exploration vibe in Tikal. Here’s how we got on.
The whole area was once a super volcano. 84,000 years ago after a massive eruption the magma chamber of the volcano collapsed and two rivers moved to fill the massive hole which became the lake. Today there are three younger volcanoes just sitting on the shore which create an amazing backdrop that puts Lake Annecy and Lake Lecco to shame.
We spent a whole week in San Marcos, one of the smaller towns dotted around the lake. The town itself is a hippy haven, for years it has been a mecca for yoga, meditation, spiritualism and every type of workshop you can imagine. The biggest thing we noticed from San Marcos is the massive line between the locals and international crowds. In Mexico we met a lot of Mexican tourists but around the lake and particularly in San Marcos there were two very distinct worlds; the indigenous locals and the “Westerners” / hippies. The two groups interact and live together but the distance between them was striking. We arrived just in time for the full moon party, complete with a sunset boat ride on the lake and an all night hippy party. I’ve never been to a party like this one in my life. We had a ball and stayed up all night with our new friends. Faces painted and everything.
Most of our time was spent in the Eagles Nest, a space at the very top of the town with incredible views of the lake and volcanoes. The owner is Greg, brother of everyone’s favourite hammer throwing British – French frisbee player Alize (aka. Bob). Although they’re still building, they rent cabins and luxury tents and have a huge platform space for yoga, events or just hanging out with the best views of the lake by far.
Our fellow guests were a motley crew of artists, and volunteers lending their talents to the project in exchange for accommodation. We camped in a tent and felt really at home on top of the hill with the gang. It’s hard to put into words waking up, cooking, eating and just relaxing with that superb view.
Using San Marcos as a base we ventured out and braved the chicken buses to explore the nearby town of Chichicastenango where on Thursdays and Sundays they host one of the largest artisan markets on Latin America. On arrival we found most beautiful hand made and colourful textiles we’ve seen so far on our trip. Julie was in her element and was negotiating like a beast for a handful of goodies we’ll be shipping home shortly. While the merchandise was stunning, I think I’ve hit my limit of colourful blankets, hammocks and purses.
Volcano San Pedro
Right across from us at the Eagles Nest is the town and adjacent volcano of San Pedro. It’s 3,020m high was practically calling out to be climbed. We took a Tuk Tuk at 6am to the entrance and hiked the three hours to the summit. We coincided with Pablo, a local from San Pedro, and Barça fan who’s job is the build and maintain the trail. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he climbs the volcano with some tools and goes to work. He was happy to chat and quickly became our impromptu guide. On the lower part of the trail they grow corn, coffee and massive avacado trees. The highlights included the tyre swing and the wild green toucans halfway up the trail.
We were the only ones at the top when we arrived and the view was well worth the climb. We arrived before the clouds blocked the view of acatenango and fuego (the two volcanoes near Antigua) and devoured our picnic as other climbers started to arrive. The descent was tough on the knees and punctuated with attempts to fill my backpack with avacadoes (I managed to get 4).
We spent two nights in Antigua, a small colonial city that was once the capital but due to earthquakes and the danger of landslides they built a new city 45 minutes away. What is left is a beautiful snapshot of the Spanish era, that has attracted lots of tourists with its charm. This was a completely different Guatemala to what we saw around Lake Atitlan. Hipster cafes, Irish pubs, Welsh pubs (I never knew that was a thing) gourmet international food, American fast food chains and hidden dive bars and clubs were to be found everywhere, all packed in their cute colonial buildings.
We stayed with a American frisbee player Chris who with his flat mates hosted us with a whopper dinner and a night on the town the first night. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to climb the nearby volcanoes, instead we explored the city and took a beautiful bird watching walk in a small town just outside. There’s definitely a lot of life and charm in Antigua and i struggle to think of a similar place in Europe that balances the past and the present so well.
We caught a very quick glimpse of the lifestyle in Guatemala City thanks to Julie’s ex-work mate Melanie. She drove to Antigua to have lunch with us and later drove us to her place in Guatemala city for dinner before the night bus heading north. Melanie is Franco – Guatemalan and runs her own business in the city. Meeting her and her husband Ale was great and seeing their home in the city was another completely different experience to what we’d seen before.
We talked about the Mayan ruins we saw in Chiapas before but the Mecca of ancient Mayan cities is Tikal. It can be found in the north of Guatemala near Flores and we went all out for this one. We slept in the national park beside the ruins, at 4AM we met our guide at our hotel and we took a two hour stroll through the ruins in the dark with torches. Just before 6AM we climbed Temple IV to watch the sun rise above the jungle and listen to the animals wake up. (Howler monkeys like to howl in the morning) The ruins themselves are really impressive, and have much more or an impact than what we’ve seen so far. There are six massive temples, many still overgrown by the jungle, but the restoration work is so impressive. We didn’t leave the park until almost midday when the early start and baking sun caught up with us. The down side is that Tikal is way more costly and complicated than any ruins we’d seen in Mexico. The whole thing cost us over €200 including a fun trip to the bank for payment and lots of conflicting information from cowboy tour operators. We had a bit of a bitter taste in our mouth until we got into the park and all that was washed away. Also there were monkeys everywhere! Class.
So we didn’t get to climb Acatenango or see Semuc Champey but we did get a broad spectrum of what’s on offer and would be delighted to return some day. Our next stop is Colombia where we’re hoping to slow the pace for a while. Stay tuned for more adventures.
- Chicken Buses are old American school busses that Guatemala have restored and use as public transport. Imagine Pimp My Ride for school buses with religious slogans like “I drive, Jesus guides me” painted all over them. Amazing!
- Our second chicken bus broke down. Luckily we were 5 minutes walk from our destination.
- We spent St Patrick’s day by the lake. There were a few tricolours flying in San Pedro and due to the lack of Guinness we settled for a couple Brooklyn ales on the platform.
- In one of our crossings of the lake my hat blew off. Another one for the fail list.
- We drank lots and lots of hot Cacao. Great stuff.
- Guatemala is way more expensive than Mexico. 1. The Mexican peso is very low and 2. There’s much less national tourism than Mexico so many things have tourists prices 6x higher than local prices.
- There was a 10m jump into the lake. Gopro video will follow shortly.
- From the roof of our awesome hostel in Antigua (3 Monkeys) we could see the lava erupting from the Volcano Fuego, it was crazy!
- George Lucas filmed Tikal as yhe rebel base on Yavin 4 in Star Wars. One of the Indiana Jones movies and Apocalypto were also filmed there.
- Our bus driver told us there was an ATM at the Belize border to pay to exit. He lied. Thankfully Ingrid our bus mate saved us and two other travellers by loaning us the money. You’re a legend Ingrid!