Guatemala is one of my favourite places I’ve visited so far.
This Central American country has it all: city centres filled with brightly coloured market stalls, chilled-out lakeside villages, ancient Mayan ruins, erupting volcanoes and gorgeous, colour-splashed colonial towns.
Capital: Guatemala City
Plug Sockets: Type A and B
Ease of travel: 4/5
Ease of communication: 3/5
Ease of meeting others: 5/5
General costs: £
I visited Guatemala in July 2016, as part of a G-adventures trip through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.
We entered at Benque Viejo del Carmen, coming from the Beliziean border. From here we headed straight to Tikal before carrying on through Flores, Rio Dulce, Antigua and Lake Atitlan.
We dived headfirst into the first stop, Tikal. Situated within the El Peten region, Tikal is an astonishing wonderland of steeping Mayan temples and pyramids emerging from dense green jungle. You could spend several days wandering around these ancient structures.
The site is the ruins of an abandoned Mayan city, home to approximately 90,000 people in its hayday. It it thought the inhabitants fled the site around 900AD, after the collapse of the Classic Mayan civlisation. Exploration of the site began in the 1800s and further work in the late 1900s gave rise to the tourist attraction it is today.
Within the site, there are several structures you really can’t miss.
The centre of the area is the grand plaza, home to two of the most notable buildings – Temple 1 and Temple 2. Designed by Ha Sawa Chaan-K'awil around 700AD, Temple 2 faces East towards the rising sun, whilst Temple 1 faces the west, and was considered by the Mayans to be a portal to the underworld. Temple 1 is also where Ha Sawa Chaan-K'awil was buried.
Whilst you can’t climb Temple 1, Temple 2 is fair game, and there are some pretty incredible views from the top.
The acropolises are where the Tikal rulers were buried from 1AD to 550AD, however perhaps even more impressively, it contains evidence of inhabitants dating back as far as 800BC.
This is the highest of the Tikal temples, and is the tallest building of all the Mayan sites.
After Tikal, we headed onwards to Flores.
Look out for the wildlife! There are over 50 species of mammal and hundreds of species of birds here.
Flores is a cute island town decorated in vibrant colours that perfectly illuminate the winding cobblestoned streets. This is the perfect base to explore El Peten, and offers plenty of photo opportunities!
1. Wander the town
The town is small, so is easy to explore on foot.
2. Lake Petén Itzá
This is the name of the lake that surrounds the island. Here you can swim, boat, and even visit an island zoo or hurl into the waters from a rope swing!
Next, we headed for Rio Dulce for some more chill-out time.
This tranquil town, literally translated as ‘Sweet River’ is the perfect place to spend a few days relaxing, which was exactly what we needed after the 6 hour bus ride, followed by a ferry ride, followed by another bus ride getting here.
We stayed in Hotel Hacienda Tijax Jungle Lodge, which was beautiful.
Things to do:
1. Sunrise Kayak
Rio Dulce is situated at the east end of lake Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake, so it makes sense to schedule some time to explore.
We chose a sunrise kayak tour around Boqueron canyon. It was an early start, but a great way to start the day, drifting across the waters to the sight of the sun climbing through the sky and the sound of howler monkeys and birds chirping in the trees.
A popular day trip is to Livingston village, where a unique Afro-Caribbean Garifuna community reside, known for their interesting art, music and seafood.
3. Chocón-Machacas Nature Reserve Hike
Explore the nature reserve by foot – walk over creeks, through jungle, looking out for birds, fish and manatees (we sadly didn’t spot one).
Our hotel arranged a hike + yoga class- which given the heat felt more like Bikram yoga, but with stunning scenery.
4. Visit a hot waterfall
Easily one of the highlights of my trip was our day spent in Finca el Paraíso. This small village is home to a heavenly natural spa: a hot waterfall surrounded by greenery and the busy sounds of insects and chirping birds. I felt like I was in an old Herbal Essences advert.
The hot waterfall is pretty spectacular – it’s huge and drops down into a deep crystal-clear pool.
I spent hours here, bathing in the warm water and watching other, braver people hurl themselves off the top of the waterfall (no thanks!). To top off the spa experience, there is an abundance of natural mud here ready to smooth on your face for the perfect smoothing face mask.
After having a spot of lunch we were tipped off that it is possible to swim into the caves underneath the waterfall itself. Apparently all we had to do was to swim underwater in a straight line for approximately 10-12 seconds, then swim up to the surface. Sounds simple, but get the timing wrong and you could hit your head, or (the conclusion I jumped to), worst-case – the conclusion I jumped to - drown. Clearly I was apprehensive.
This didn’t stop a couple of the boys in our group however. Off they swam, and about 10 minutes later came back looking triumphant “It’s actually really easy, it’s not that far”. I was still a bit unsure, so they offered a solution. One of them would take those of us who were nervous under the water one at a time, tapping our heads when it was time to swim up. After watching a couple of others go first, I decided to be brave, and so I was guided underwater and up to the cave.
It actually wasn’t that far, and it was pretty cool to be sitting inside a cave, bathing in warm water with virtually no outside sounds creeping in, sipping on a can that someone had brought in.
We stayed there for a while, singing songs, chatting, before a few of us started to get a little breathless. And so we swam back, one at a time, to the safety of the oxygenated environment!
Next stop was Antigua.
This was a long, long journey. It was supposed to be a mere 6 hours, but the presence of road closures and national protests meant we were in standstill at the side of the road for several hours, bringing our total travel time up even more.
It’s funny though, as bad it sounds, it was probably one of my favourite days. We put the windows down, opened the doors, and stepped outside into the blazing sun to work on our tan. A loudspeaker popped up and we stuck some tunes on. We were in the middle of a small village, so weren’t particularly expecting much else to happen, but within 5 minutes, a man appeared selling ice creams. Next, someone popped out with some ice cold drinks. A sign popped up in front of one of the houses ‘Toilet – 1 Quetzal’ (pretty ingenious!). To top it off, people started emerging from their cars, and joined in, drinking cold Fanta, asking where we were from, and singing along to the tunes. All in all, it beats sitting on the M80 in standstill any day.
Finally, we arrived in Antigua.
Antigua is the starting point for most people who arrive by airplane to Guatemala. It’s roughly an hour from Guatemala City, although most travellers bypass the capital and head here directly.
The city is stunning to walk around – with its iconic pale yellow buildings lining cobblestoned streets, with a dramatic mountainscape backdrop.
There is an abundance of things to do here.
1. Walk around the centre
Parque central is a good starting point – the main city square decorated with an intricate fountain. From here it’s easy to walk to the city’s main sites including the City Hall Palace, Palace of the Captain's General , the main cathedral and Santa Catalina Arch.
Antiqua is filled with delightful shops and interesting market stalls. The stalls sell lots of brightly coloured fabrics and handicrafts in typical Guatemalan patterns. Naturally I bought several cushion covers, and some oven mitts. It’s a good idea to have some basic Spanish up your sleeve – I found that a lot of sellers in the markets had limited English, and spent about 10 minutes trying to ask for a smaller cushion “más picante?” before realizing that I had in fact been asking for a spicier cushion.
My favourite market was ‘Mercado de Artesanias El Carmen’.
3. Visit a coffee plantation
Guatemalan coffee is pretty famous, so there are lots of coffee plantations to visit.
The food in Antigua was pretty tasty, and very varied – with modern eateries and countless Instagram-ready brunch places, I felt right at home.
5. Visit a volcano!
There are several volcanoes surrounding Antiqua, and a popular day trip is to hike up Pacaya.
Most of the hikes start early in the morning, and most hostels can arrange these trips for you. Christie and I initially planned to hike this volcano on our first morning in Antigua, but we were pretty tired after our long day of travel, and so decided to push it forward a few days. Fast forward to that Friday, and we had spent the night sampling the lively nightlife until the early hours of the morning. We weren’t going to cancel the hike again, so we decided to push through our exhaustion and headaches and reach the top.
It actually wasn’t as long as I expected, but it was pretty steep. I noticed that whilst most people were hiking, many were horse-riding up. Clearly someone had seen me looking with jealousy, and before I knew it, I had handed over some cash and was riding a horse up the track instead – MUCH more pleasant.
It was a really cool thing to do, and although we didn’t see any visible lava, there were lots of small heat vents between the rocks. Our guide produced some skewers and marshmallows ready for toasting – delicious!
6. Take in the view at Cerro de la Cruz
For the best views of the city, there’s no competition for Cerro de la Cruz.
A steep 300 steps to the top and you’re rewarded with panoramic views.
7. Learn to salsa
As with most Latin American cities, there are hundreds of salsa classes dotted about, and it’s a really fun way of spending the evening.
8. Learn Spanish
Antigua is a beautiful place to stay for a few weeks to learn the language.
9. Take part in a cooking class
I love doing a cooking class wherever I visit, and so there was no question about it in Antigua – here I (tried) to learn how to make tortillas, something I found surprisingly difficult!
10. Sample the nightlife
The nightlife in Antigua is lively and loud, and I have to say, I came away being pretty impressed.
Our guide and several other travellers we had met had told us about a house/pool party that was happening, and after being told again and again, we thought we would check it out. But not before a few drinks in Lucky Rabbit.
We dolled up and headed out to a cocktail karaoke bar, which thankfully had some English songs as well as Spanish ones on the machine. After blaring out Amy Winehouse, we were ready to see what a Guatemalan house/pool party was like – should we have brought bikinis? And so, we ordered a taxi and headed out – this was no ordinary pool party, and unable to understand anyone or really make any sense of what was going on, we decided to just go with the flow. Pulling up, there was an enormous house, but all the lights were off – instead, there were hundreds of people dancing outside a giant tent. There was no sign of a pool anywhere. Walking towards the music, we passed food trucks, mobile bars, and a very long queue for an outdoor toilet before finally approaching the tent. Aha! The tent was in fact a marquee covering an empty Olympic-sized swimming pool! Definitely not your typical pool party. There were people (who looked like security guards) helping others down into the swimming pool, and under the tent. We climbed down the stairs and entered the tent to a pretty impressive sight – there were hundreds of people dancing to a DJ set at the front, and another bar! I don’t think I’ve ever been to a house party like this. This was more like a festival, and so much fun. We stayed for hours, dancing and scoffing down the street food before we turned to the sky and realized that we had a perfect view of a volcano erupting in the background – there was a fluorescent orange beam illuminating the sky ahead! Should we be worried? I thought it was pretty normal to react to an erupting volcano by scarpering away, but no-one else seemed the slightest bit alarmed, “oh, it’s always erupting, it’s only a tiny bit and its really far away, don’t worry’.
It was a really fun night all in all – I certainly wasn’t expecting to be dancing to a DJ set in an emptied swimming pool in front of an erupting volcano on this trip.
I wish I had taken some good photos, but it was back in my pre-iPhone days, and I unsurprisingly hadn’t taken my camera out, so all I have are some very dark photos with a dot of orange in the background.
The next day we did a bit of googling to see if we had imagined the night. Thankfully we had not – it’s actually a organised rave that happens every Saturday, starting just after the bars and clubs close in the city!
After a few days in Antigua, we were onwards to our next spot, this time heading into the highlands of Guatemala.
We drove through stunning countryside until we arrived at Lake Atitlan, and parked up at the lakeside town of Panajachel.
Lake Atitlan is an incredibly beautiful part of Guatemala. This vast body of water is dramatically studded with towering mountains and volcanoes where unique villages and towns perch.
Panajachel is one of the most built-up of the lakeside towns, and is perfectly set up for tourists.
With a buzzing nightlife, decent food scene and lots of day markets, this is a great place to base yourself. From here, you can easily take a taxi boat to visit some of the other villages.
We stayed one night in Panajachel, and one night in a homestay on San Pedro la Lagua.
San Pedro La Lagua
This village is incredibly laid back and we spent the day wandering through art galleries, walking past weavers, and exploring the town.
The homestay was basic, but comfortable, and our host family were very friendly. With limited English, and our limited Spanish, we attempted to make conversation with the adults as best we could, but when it came to playing with their 8 year old child, we realized you don’t need to speak the same language to play and laugh! We had a delicious family dinner of chicken pepian (a traditional dish, chicken in a spicy sauce) and tortillas. We were pretty glad we’d already done the cooking class, so making those tortillas would be a breeze! (On review, after seeing our host remake all my tortillas afterwards, it would appear not!).
There are other villages to visit too, and we stopped off at San Marcas La Laguna and Santa Cruz La Laguna.
San Marcas La Laguna
This town was very chilled-out; I honestly could have spent a week here. There were beautiful painted murals lining the streets and a plethora* of interesting brunch spots – vegetarians and vegans will be very happy here! This is clearly a place that people flock to for spiritual healing, given the sheer number of holistic therapy and yoga centres around.
We wandered the streets for a while before reaching an interesting ‘holistic centre’ offering ‘Mayan massage’, reiki, tarot readings and crystal healing. We were feeling pretty achy from carrying our backpacks around, and being not entirely sure what a ‘Mayan massage’ was, we thought it would be an experience to find out. Christie, Lesley and I were led upstairs to a large room lined with various artworks and woven shawls lining the floorboards, the light from the windows dimmed by thin scarves. We were guided to the floor where our massage took place. It started off as a pretty typical massage – back, head, shoulders, arms, but then I was asked to turn over, and promptly had my entire front massaged. I’ve never had an abdominal massage before, and it was a very odd sensation and lasted for about 20 minutes! I couldn’t decide if the stomach massage was making me feel sick or hungry. But apart from that, it was pretty relaxing. The experience ended with the three of us in a circle, cross-legged and holding hands with our three masseuses, crystals were placed in our hands and we were told to close our eyes whilst lavender incense burnt, and our host chanted words in an unfamiliar language.
Overall, it was an odd experience, but I certainly did come away feeling very relaxed!
We were feeling FAR too relaxed to walk back to boat, so opted for a tuc-tuc – our driver even let us have a go at driving it!
Sadly our time at Atitlan was up, and we began our long drive back to Antigua.
I had initially planned to spend a few days after the tour travelling up to Semuc Champney, which is a beautiful paradise of turquoise pools, waterfalls and caves in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle – perfect for swimming and relaxing. Sadly the protests and road blocks had escalated, and no tourist buses were running there. I looked into a 2 day trip to Copan, in Honduras – but with 10 hours of driving over 2 days, I just wasn’t sure it was worth it. In the end, I decided to stay in Antigua and explore the city a little more with a few of the others who were still here from the tour.
I flew out of Guatemala city airport a few days later, and back to rainy Glasgow, a mere 38 hours later. (That’s what you get for booking the cheapest flight).
I LOVED my trip to Guatemala, and I’d really love to go back.
Top Tips about Guatemala:
Travelling around is pretty easy. Hostels will advertise tourists buses to get you from A to B – sometimes in the form of a modern AC bus, and chicken buses (or Las camionetas) for shorter trips. If you get the chance, it’s worth going on a chicken bus just for the experience. They are essentially old USA school buses (you know, those yellow ones you see in the movies), but they’ve been painted in bright colours.
Bring cash – more and more shops and cafes, particularly in the bigger cities take card, but to buy cheap drinks en-route, it’s best to bring cash.
Bring snacks and drinks on bus rides – road blocks and protests do happen, as do mud slides and crashes – journey times can be MUCH longer than you expect.
In the cities, you can pretty much dress how you would at home. If you visit quieter Mayan villages, especially indigenous villages, you need to be MUCH more covered up – knees and shoulders.
Learn a little Spanish before you go!