My family and I have already been in Guatemala for a week and I’m loving every bit of it! Like Mexico, Guatemala is such an underrated tourist destination, which really shouldn’t be…let me tell you why.
Tikal is one of those places that take one’s breath away…it carries so much history, beauty, and secrets. Along with the ruins of Palenque, Tikal is a favorite of mine—one of the largest archeological sites of the pre-Columbian Maya Civilization.
Once one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya, Tikal was home to 100,000 inhabitants on its prime time, between 700-850 AD. Like many other kingdoms, Tikal began as a small village in 900 BC through 300 BC, and commenced growing and developing into a great Maya kingdom—the construction of major pyramids, temples, plazas, and palaces took place—between 300 BC until 900 AD. Because of its prestigious location in Northern Guatemala, Tikal became an important trading center in Mesoamerica. After its prime, the kingdom of Tikal was completely abandoned by the 10th century—it’s believed there was a severe drought and people were forced to seek water in other regions—and the glorious ruins were left behind at the mercy of hundreds of years of desolation.
I highly recommend hiring a guide for Tikal because there was so much information and hidden things that only experts would be able to point-out and explain. My family and I did a tour of about 4 hours—we didn’t even see 100% of the ruins—and I liked it very much! Besides seeing the imposing ruins, I was amazed by the beauty of the nature and animals that surrounded the ancient Maya city.
Even though we spent a single night in Flores, I thought it to be exceedingly picturesque—an island packed with colonial-style houses, narrow, uneven streets, and tiny shops. In addition to a beautiful sunset and the Lago Peten Itza, lovely people, and charming hotels and tiendas, we dinned at Raices Bar & Grill, which offered a delicious local fish (pescado blanco). The best way to explore Flores is by foot, so one won’t miss the tiny details about the city.
La Antigua Guatemala
By far my favorite destination in Guatemala, Antigua is a city to spend at least a handful of days exploring. Being close to the capital—Guatemala City, which is a very beautiful city—Antigua is one of the ultimate getaways for tourists in the country because of the many attractions it has to offer: coffee tours, beautiful colonial houses of every color, ancient churches and ruins, pedestrian calles, rich cousine, many charming hotels and hostels, and numerous outdoors activities such as hiking the volcanoes nearby. Even though Antigua is considered to be a big city, about 70,000 inhabitants, I felt extremely safe throughout the tours and walks.
For those who are travelling by car or rv, a great place to park and spend the night at is the policia turistica—very safe and peaceful—and for those who would rather stay at hostels, I highly recommend the Antigua Hostel—which is situated in a prestigious location, has good food, is neat looking, and the owner, Mauricio, is very welcoming.
Our stay in Antigua was filled with the most diverse activities, all which I liked a lot! The first couple of days were reserved for walking through the city and exploring local tiendas, experimenting Guatemalan food (which I found to be very healthy compared to Mexican food), and seeing the many iglesias and plazas, as well as the Calle del Arco de Santa Catalina and the Agua Vulcan rising above it. The Maya culture was richly exhibited by the many families who worked with artesanias near the plaza and who fully dressed with the traditional, handmade cotton clothes with the most beautiful patterns and garments. On a street perpendicular to the plaza, there’s a chocolate factory, which offers tours, a spa with chocolate massages and facials, and many locally made products.
Another fun tour to do in the city was the coffee tours—I recommend supporting the local, coffee producers and do the tour with the De La Gente cooperative*. We were kindly welcomed by one of the families of coffee producers, who walked us through the process of producing high quality coffee: first going to the fields, then the process of harvesting, selecting, fermenting, roasting, grinding, and preparing the drink, which was accompanied by delicious biscuits and great company. An interesting fact that I learned from the tour is that the Guatemalan coffee places third place in the world regarding coffee quality—losing only to Ethiopia and Kenya.
Besides the beautiful colonial-style houses, ancient churches and plazas, and fincas de café, Antigua also offered many excellent restaurant and café options. Some of our favorites were Cocina Ganache, a little French Café with excellent desserts, crema de maiz, and a spicy corn tortilla lasagna; El Cazador Italiano, which had excellent, made from scratch Italian food; Antigua Hostel, a cheap, and yet good place to grab omelets and fruit-salad bowls; and the Guatelaria, a charming coffee house that made exotic sweets.
As for outdoor activities, we decided to climb one of volcanoes of the region—the Volcan Acatenango. The Acatenango Volcano is situated near Antigua, about an hour away driving, and is surrounded by other volcanoes: Agua, Fuego, and Pacaya are the closest ones. All hikes are done through tourism companies and most of them already have tents set-up at basecamp. Our group was composed of five hikers, one guide, and an extra guide that met us up at the basecamp, and two horses.
The hike was about 17 km total, 10.6 mi, to the basecamp—an extra 1.5 hours of climbing up to the summit, having to wake-up at 4 am to catch the sunrise of the following day—and reached a height of almost 4,000 m (starting at 2, 300 m). Depending on the group’s pace, hiking to the basecamp could take from 3-7 hours of climbing: ours took around 4 hours, including rest stops and lunch break.
The hike of Acatenango was composed of many sections: the start of the hike, a very steep uphill, lose dirt pathway; the jungle section, from high bushes to thick jungle, and the temperature dropped considerably; the above the clouds section, the jungle cleared out and a jaw-dropping view of the mountains and volcanoes, all covered by the multicolored wild flowers, took its place; the arrival on basecamp, this last section was the final push, and as the adrenaline was wearing out and one’s leg muscles were screaming in protest, suddenly all of the troubles were forgotten in a matter of seconds…Once I arrived at basecamp, it took me several minutes to process everything I was standing before because of its surreal beauty. Not only we were extremely close of Volcan Fuego—an active volcano which erupted a couple of months ago, killing an entire village—but we seemed to be on top of the world: a sea of clouds stretched below us, swallowing the valleys and smaller hills, turning into a warm, golden color; volcanoes emerged from the golden carpet like skyscrapers, some covered by a deep green shade, and where trees were absent from, the rocks were bright orange, red, and brown; the side of our own volcano was dotted by bumblebee yellow flowers, and tents were being set up and bonfires coming to life. However, the spectacle wasn’t close to ending…as the sun casted its last rays and the sky began turning a light pink and then a deep purple, the first stars began to shine and thin, bright red streams ran down the side of Fuego and Picaya—lava rivers! During the day the magma couldn’t be seen, only the sound of the eruptions and smoke were visible; nevertheless, at night the lava was visible, and so were the eruptions—magma being spat into the night sky. Throughout the night we constantly heard and saw the eruptions, and around 8 pm a lighting storm kicked in; thus, lighting and lava illuminated the sky. If it wasn’t for the storm, we would have woken up at 4 am to climb to the summit, but unfortunately we weren’t able because of the hazards the storm brought (this year 6 people died of hypothermia because they got lost while climbing to the summit in a storm). Consequently, we contemplated the sunrise at basecamp, still an outstanding show of colors, clouds, volcanoes, and sunrays.
Notes for Volcan Acatenango Hike
- Pack extra food, especially if you are vegetarian/vegan/have allergies, because there aren’t many options of food to pick from.
- Buy gloves, thick socks, and warm beanie.
- Bring baby wipes.
- Bring very warm, waterproof clothes, it gets extremely cold and temperatures can drop below zero (lots of wind and rain).
- Bring extra water.
- Bring band-aids and some first aid necessities.
- Bring something to soothe a headache, I got headaches due to the altitude. Bring lip balm too.
- Bring a camera!!!!
- And this is my personal advice, bring something to play music with—it makes the hike up SO much easier!
Our last stop in Guatemala was the famous Lake Atitlan, a massive lake in a volcanic crater. Our sole purpose of visiting Atitlan was to do the boat tour through the poblados—San Juan La Laguna and Santiago Atitlan—which consisted of visiting each town for a few hours and getting to know their costumes. There were public boats that would take people to the towns for a cheaper price and there were also private tours.
Our first stop, San Juan La Laguna, was very famous for its cooperatives: coffee, chocolate, textiles, tuk tuks, honey and medicine producing. Many of the boat captains would discourage tourists to take the tuk tuk tours throughout the village; however, we couldn’t have made a better choice! We did a 3 hours tour—the “Tour de Coperativas de los Tuk Tuks”—and visited four coops. We learned about the variety of bees at Xunah Kaab, mostly on the edge of being extinct, and the benefits of their honey; saw the entire process of textiles, from the weaving of cotton to the making of the natural dyes; learned how to make handmade chocolate and tasted unique flavors at Licor Marron; and listened to the Maya methods of curing illnesses with local plants at Mayab Medicional.
In the second village, Santiago Atitlan, we did a tour with a guide and tuk tuks—another great choice! We drove around the city, stopping in various sites, while the guides related the town’s history and its big role on ending Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996). A good choice of restaurant is the El Pescador de Santiago.
*The family we did the tour with is called Gerardo Gonzalez
- Facebook: Gerardo Gonzalez DLG
- E-mail: Gergonzalez555@hotmail.com