Best of Central America: 5. Guatemala

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Guatemala is the 5th country of the Republic of Central America which gained independence on September 15th 1821 (and our 5th country of this tour). We had dipped our toes into Mayan territory in Honduras but from here on, we learnt so much more. It was another place which hadn’t been on my radar much prior to the trip so I was excited to see what it had to offer in our week here (12th to 20th April).

The local currency is called quetzal (also the name of the National bird!).

As with the other Central American countries, we travelled here via private bus. We had just spent 48 hours in Honduras, having already passed through Guatemalan borders so didn’t need to pay again. The journey was long and took us through the capital Guatemala city to finally reach our first destination.

Antigua

This was the halfway point of our month long tour which meant saying goodbye to our tour leader and a few fellow travellers and welcoming the newbies. For anyone who has done a tour abroad before, you know how quickly you can grow to love or hate the group as all those hours spent travelling in a small bus and sharing dorms can really make or break you! Luckily for me, they were like family.

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We spent 3 days in this gorgeous Spanish colonial town. We stayed in our second Lemon tree hostel close to the town centre. It is usefully attached to an ale house!

Antigua is full of colourful cobblestone streets, bright yellow churches, cathedrals and the infamous golden arches (Arco de Santa Catalina). It is a good sized town to explore by foot, made easier by the American style grid system of their streets.

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I also visited Convento de las Capuchinas (40quetzals entry for adults or 20 for students) a convent with a museum which looks at the role it played in Antigua’s past, religion through the times and the life of the nuns who founded it. After the original site was destroyed by earthquakes in the 18th century, the founding nuns relocated to new Guatemala with altarpieces and other things of value. It is an interesting museum and has a few quirky displays.

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Disclaimer: not a real nun

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Jade is a very precious stone in Guatemala and can be bought anywhere from the market stalls to jade shops. I visited Jada Maya where as well as the opportunity to buy lovely jewellery (including a replica of one of Princess Diana’s necklaces), you can learn more about jade in their little museum. Another cool thing they offer is a book with every date in it and its corresponding Mayan sign so you can find the one for your birth date for personalised accessories.

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The markets are an incredible place to visit even just to have a wander around. Some are located outside and others indoors in various locations (we visited the ones by the Arches and also the convent above)

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The viewpoint (Cerro de la Cruz) is the best way to see the town on a clear day. As you may have noticed from my other blogs, the best views of a Central American town are from a huge cross on hill! It is a short steep hike up to the point but very impressive once you get there.

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By this point, you’ve already climbed a bit of a hill and there’s still more to go!

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Another great activity to do here is have a salsa class! For 50q per person, we had a private hour lesson which everyone loved followed by some rum to cool down!

Whilst we were here, Guatemala was also preparing for election…not a presidential one but to decide if part of Belize should be part of Guatemala (I understood there was a lot of history behind this). So the weekend prior to this was known as “la seca” – literally the dry, where no alcohol was served. It just meant that the Friday night before was a huge party!

The one activity I was completely unprepared for and sad to have not done was hiking the volcanoes. There are a few to choose from and can be day or overnight hikes (Acatenango, Fuego and Pacaya). The attraction is seeing active lava spurting up which I was told by fellow tour members is an impressive sight..although recent events may deter some understandably.

Food and drink highlights:

Rainbow cafe – we were treated to live music whilst we dined. Everything on the menu looked delicious. I had the red pepper and mozzarella quesadillas which were divine. Tip: have an early dinner (before 8) to enjoy 2 4 1 happy hour too!

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Macinare caffe – this had the best meat that I’ve had in this area! Not many great alternatives for non meat eaters unfortunately.

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And the avocado is an extra $1..well worth it though!

Montagu – really cool concept of open kitchen, closed door. It felt like you were in someone’s kitchen as everything was cooked right in front of you. The shrimp and bacon tacos on blue tortilla were incredible. And my hibiscus sangria was too good!

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Bagel barn – I had breakfast here twice as it was so good! First one was granola and hot chocolate which was healthy but filling. Second was the mcbarn bagel (garlic cream cheese, ham, cheese and potato) plus chain latte for 56q was pretty affordable!

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La Casa de Sopa (for more quesadillas and sangria). Huge portions and decent taste.

Lucky bar – really fun vibe with games such as beer pong and decent priced drinks. Not entirely sure the aesthetic behind the old bras hanging up though..!

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La sala – a great club filled with a nice ratio of more locals than tourists. The music is popping, the dancing is on fire and everyone had the best time. If the heat is too much downstairs, you can sit upstairs which is an open rooftop with its own bar.

San Juan La Laguna

We arrived at this Mayan town via bus and boat (for sure the choppiest boat ride yet). The streets and roads are quite steep so we stopped off at Panajachel on the way to leave our bags in our next hotel before getting the boat across.

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Our first encounter of Lake Atitlan

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We stayed with local Mayan families which was an amazing experience. Their homes are cleverly designed for the climate and I loved the open plan design of the kitchen and living space. Our host mum was one of many women in the town who own their own textile and clothes shop.  Any item of clothing you buy is so beautiful designed…but interestingly only the women wore traditional clothing.

We went on a tour of the town to experience modern Mayan life. The locals of the town still speak the Mayan language and only a few do Spanish so this was a perfect opportunity to learn a few new words!

Our first stop was a demonstration centre where the women showed us how they make and dye cotton before sewing it to create scarves, hats etc. Anything you buy from their shop has a tag with the name of the woman who made it and all the money goes towards supporting their kids education.

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This method of weaving was very similar to the Incan style I experienced in Peru last year!

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The next stop was a herbal garden where we had a session on the different healing properties of various plants. As the island is small, they haven’t got huge modern medical services so they rely on holistic methods which are provided by “midwives”. My favourite taster was definitely the lemongrass and liquorice tea which is supposed to help with stress.

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Last stop of the day was to the arts centre which had the most beautiful paintings and accessories by local artists which are all available for purchase.

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The food and drink provided by our families was of course delicious and consisted of traditional tortillas with meat or veg substitute, plantain, beans, rice and veg.

A lovely restaurant we discovered was Chichoy restaurant in Tecpan, which we stopped off at on our way to San Juan. My meal of tortilla with chorizo, beans and Jamaica drink cost only 41q. There was a Mayan woman demonstrating how tortillas are made traditionally with the clapping motion which we got to practice with our families (and it is harder than it looks!)

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Panajachel

We travelled from San Juan by boat via La Casa del Mundo (situated on Lake Atitlan) where we stopped for breakfast. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s definitely worth planning your itinerary so you can pass through. The views of Lake Atitlan are sensational and you can go for a cheeky dip or just take it all in sat comfortably in a hammock.

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Casa del Mundo

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Overlooking Lake Atitlan

Back at Panajachel, we had the day to explore the town’s markets and chill by the beach. We stayed for one night at Hotel K’amol B’ey which is definitely one of the prettiest accommodations with plenty of grassy areas to sunbathe and relax.

There are a number of Deli’s here which basically serve the same food (which is equally good). We ate at Deli Jasmin for lunch and Deli llama del fuego for dinner. For drinks, Pana Rock (which has all the vibes of Hard Rock Cafe even in their merchandise) is a fun place for live music!

Top tip: if you fancy a post night out meal from one of the street vendors, don’t try and feed the stray dog that starts to follow you as their friends will soon join and literally all follow you home!

Rio Dulce

This translates as the sweet river (Spanish is just such a lovely language!). We arrived here via private bus and then took a boat to our eco lodge Hacienda Tijax for the next 2 days. You are at one with nature as the bungalows are within a jungle on this island. All the beds have nets but still insect repellent is your best friend here!

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There is a restaurant and bar on site where we had most of our meals. The menu limited and not the cheapest so going elsewhere for a couple of meals is a good idea if you’re on a budget…however do try the pulled pork sandwich as it’s one of the best items on the menu.

A few activities to enjoy include sunrise kayaking, a nature hike or to visit towns such as Livingstone (where you get to experience African culture fused with Latin culture). To go anywhere, you need to take a boat which varies in cost depending on the distance and the last one of the night is usually arrives back by half 10 (20q round trip to the nearest town). Or you can chill by the pool with a book, music and a drink as most of us did!

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We did go across to town one night to enjoy dinner at SundogCafe (which served the biggest pizzas I’ve ever seen) and visit the funfair briefly before coming back to enjoy beers under the stars. Honestly this place is a little paradise and a nice chill spot which is just what we needed at this point!

Flores

Another beautifully named place meaning “flowers”. It’s ideal to spend a day in before moving on to Tikal. We spent our one night here at Hotel Peten.

Flores is the perfect Instagram town as every door and building is just so quirky and colourful. You can explore the town in basically an hour as it is tiny. There are a few great places to eat, one being Cool Beans which has quite an extensive and decently priced menu. You can sit on hammocks inside or dine outside by the river and they also have free books which you can take to keep (we gave a donation of a few dollars).

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Unexpected flooded area where the path ended!

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A great way to spend your evening is to have a boat party. There will be people everywhere offering you and friends this opportunity. We payed 250q each for unlimited drinks, dinner and the party which also included karaoke later on! We visited Jorge’s Rope Swing which is a house (presumably Jorge’s) on the river with a rope swing and boards to jump off too – great for an adrenaline rush! To end our night, we visited the club next door to our hotel which was great for more dancing (a woman fully dressed in traditional Mayan dress stole the dancefloor!)

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Tikal National Park

This was sadly the final stop for us in Guatemala (the entrance fees were included in our original tour price) and is an absolute must see. We spent half the day here learning a lot about ancient Mayan life with our excellent tour guide. The ruins are surrounded by lush trees (including the National tree of Guatemala) but the temples are very exposed to the elements so think hat, sunscreen, insect repellent (plenty of water as it is tiring) and maybe raincoats depending on the season! It also means you get to see some wildlife..we saw howler monkeys and toucans in the trees.

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National tree of Guatemala

Tikal was important in pre-Colombian Mayan times and has impressive architecture including the 4 temples which were cleverly built to observe the Sun perfectly on either the winter and summer solstices and September and March 22nd, depending on where you stand.

You can also climb up a few of the temples via the specially built steps and the views from the top are magnificent.

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There have been new discoveries made at Tikal recently so watch this space! And from here, we set off to our 6th country…Belize!

Final words about Guatemala:

As you may be aware, one of the active volcanoes Fuego erupted at the beginning of June, causing devastation to neighbouring villages and towns. I wasn’t sure about finishing this blog given the current situation that Guatemalans are dealing with. However the country is so beautiful that I wanted to share my experiences so hopefully you’ll be inspired to go once safe to do so as Guatemala has so much to offer.

J Xo

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