With ancient Mayan ruins, Spanish colonial cities, volcanoes, underground rivers, art, culture, varied cuisine, friendly people, and very affordable courses in Spanish, yoga, metaphysics, and meditation, it is easy to spend mucho tiempo en Guatemala!
Currency: 8 Quetzals/dollar. Guatemala offers Visa-On-Arrival for most nationalities and it’s free, but if you exit the country by air there is a $30 departure tax! Guatemala is part of the “Central America-4 (CA-4) Border Control Agreement” with El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Under the terms of the agreement, citizens of the four countries may travel freely across land borders from one of the countries to any of the others without completing entry and exit formalities at immigration checkpoints. U.S. citizens and other eligible foreign nationals who legally enter any of the four countries should receive a 90 day Visa and may similarly travel among the four without obtaining additional visas or tourist entry permits for the other three countries. Remember this and mention it often when crossing the other borders when they try to charge you entry and exit fees. Depending on the guard, maybe he will wave the fee, but don’t count on it. 🙂
Getting into the country is cheap and easy. A flight into Guatemala City from Ft. Lauderdale was only $120 through Spirit Airlines. (more on them later) From the airport, you can easily catch a taxi or minivan to just about anywhere you want to go in country. The minivans are cheap since they are shared with other travelers, and because almost every driver thinks he is a Formula 1 driver, you’ll get there fast as well! You can easily book these at the airport or just walk out of the arrival gate and jump in a van. Yes there are also cheap “chicken buses” to take, but in Guatemala I would save these for when you don’t have all of your stuff. Since I was a newbie backpacker, I ordered a private pick up from the owner of the Spanish school I would attend. Although much more expensive for a private ride ($35 for the hour trip), it was my first third world country and I didn’t feel like diving all in at once. I opted to spend the cash. Mario and I had a long talk about the country, its politics, life, Antigua, and his school on the way into town. He brought me directly to the school and then on to the home stay that he had arranged. It was great to have such an easy transition into the country! If you are ever in Antigua and looking for Spanish classes, check out Tecun Uman. They are a bit more expensive than some of the others, but the teachers and location are great. He also has great connections for local home stays.
Ok back to Spirit Airlines. Although I’ve heard many horror stories about Spirit from other backpackers, I didn’t have any issues. They even let me bring on both backpacks as free carry ons. But FYI, this is rare and Spirit is normally quite anal about charging for every bag. Several months later I would find this out the hard way, and pay over $50 for one bag when leaving Peru. Grrrr. Recently airlines have also become serious about checking for an outbound flight when you fly into a country. Spirit is particularly serious about this. Whether you plan to bus out or not, I have heard stories of them and other airlines not letting passengers on planes if they did not have a flight itinerary out of the country. To avoid this hassle, research the flight details for a flight out of the country and write them down. If an airline asks, give them that and they have no way to prove if you have a ticket or not. Since no latin american immigration official, nor southeast asia for that matter, ever made me show proof of a way out of their country, it is only the airline you have to pacify. Even if for some reason an immigration agent happens to ask, it’s unlikely they will want to confirm your details either. The fact that you have them will be enough to convince them unless you’ve caused some international trouble in the past. 🙂
The first 3 weeks of Guatemala were spent using Antigua as base. Antigua is a UNESCO world heritage site full of numerous church ruins and Spanish colonial architecture. It’s also surrounded by several active volcanoes. For more than 200 years it served as the seat of the Spanish military governor for conquered territories from present day Southern Mexico to Costa Rica. The history, architecture, volcanoes, local people, and general safety of the town make it a must visit if you are ever in the area. If you visit, keep an eye out for Volcan Fuego. It has minor eruptions hourly. You can easily see this from a high point in town, or for a close up view, you can hike Volcan Acetenango. It’s a long hike of over 8 hours from what I hear, but from the top of Acetenango you can look down into Fuego for amazing views. Other things not to miss include the local market, nachos at Monoloko, apple bread from Dona Luisa, and hiking nearby Volcan Pacaya.
Volcan Pacaya is a great day trip from Antigua. It erupted violently in 1965 and has been erupting continuously since then. The last major eruption was in May 2010 where it killed a local photographer who got too close. From Antigua it takes about an hour to get to the base of the volcano. From the base the
round-trip hike up and down takes about 6 hours, including a lunch break and stop to roast marshmallows in a lava tube. At some points it can be strenuous, but overall I would say it was an easy/medium hike. At the top you will feel like you are walking in Mordor from The Lord of the Rings. Although you can negotiate and find tours around town for $25, we chose a company that was a bit more expensive than others and paid $50 for the day trip. It included transport, a great lunch, and the guide. We really enjoyed our guide, who actually represents Guatemala in triathalons, and the lunch was great, but we still felt like we paid a bit too much.
Just twenty minutes and 6000 feet into the mountains above Antigua, Earth Lodge is a unique and wonderful place to relax. The lodge overlooks the town and offers stunning views of three volcanoes in the distance. Spend the day swinging in a hammock, hiking the hills, or just watching Volcan Fuego puff smoke in the distance. At night the lodge cooks massive group dinners that were delicious when we were there. Accommodation ranges from dorms to private loft style cabins with prices between 45-80 Quetzals per person. http://www.earthlodgeguatemala.com/
I was staying in Antigua and using it as a base because I was taking 4 hours of Spanish class each day. I lived with a local family in their home which also had a restaurant and playground on site. They provided 3 meals a day, a private room, and extra Spanish practice. There were initially 4 generations in the house I stayed in, but during my stay the great-grandmother of the family passed away. Although expected by everyone, this was obviously very sad for the family. While not the average dynamic for a home stay, the experience will stay with me forever. If you choose Tecun Uman to study with, the owner Jose has many contact for home stays. If that;s not your speed, there are a few good hostels in town. I stayed at Banana Azul for a few nights after I left the homestay. It was cheap and social, but the dorms are in the attic of a house and very basic. As a backpacker it’s an experience.
Since I was using Antigua as a base, I chose to take weekend trips to visit the rest of Guatemala rather than move from point to point. It cost much more to take tour group trips for the weekend than it would the jump from point to point, but staying in Antigua and living as a local was worth the extra cost. If you are on a budget, it will obviously be much cheaper to take minivans between the major locations and stay at hostels in each place. Minivans between the major locations should only cost between 40-80 Quetzals. If you want to jump, and plan to go to Honduras after, I would recommend the route of Antigua-Lake Atitlan-Quetzaltenango-Semuc Champey-Flores/Tikal-Rio Dulce-and then Honduras. If you are coming from San Cristobal in Mexico and following the backpacker trail south, I would suggest Quetzaltenango-Lake Atitlan-Antigua-Semuc Champey-Tikal-Rio Dulce-Copan.
For me, the first weekend trip was to Semuc Champey. The attraction here is a series of stepped turquoise pools which are great for swimming. These pools are actually part of a natural limestone bridge, under which passes a very turbulent river. There is also a cave nearby which can be explored with a guide. The cave extends about 1km into the mountain and has numerous pools and slides. There is even a 4 meter cliff jump at the end of the cave and the guides will turn out all the lights while you jump. INTENSE! Since most of the cave is about half filled with water, and can be more than 6 ft deep at some points, you should know how to swim. We booked this trip through a tour company called Chisbin. For $55, it included transport in a minivan for 6 hours each way from Antigua and lodging for two nights.
The other major weekend trip from Antigua was through Flores, Rio Dulce, Livingston, and Tikal. Although boating down the Rio Dulce river to Livingston was nice, the highlight was definitely Tikal. Dating back to the 4th century BC, Tikal dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily. It is spread out over 6 miles and has over 3000 structures, many of which are still covered in thick vegetation. The architecture of the ancient city is built from limestone and includes the remains of temples that tower over 200 ft high, large royal palaces, residences, administrative buildings, platforms and inscribed stone monuments. Including the residential area, there could have been over
400,000 people living near Tikal at its height. Through the school, we paid about $160 each including transport by minivan, lodging, boat trip to/from Rio Dulce and Livingston, and guides. This would be MUCH cheaper if you follow the trail mentioned above and stay at a hostel or cheap hotel in Flores. Accommodation can easily be found in Flores by walking around the small island and asking for a room.
After 3 weeks of refresher Spanish classes in Antigua and seeing many of the countries highlights on weekend trips, I left my homestay and headed to Lake Atitlan. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do there, but had heard the lake was beautiful. Once I arrived in Panajachel, (40 Quetzals,3.5 hours by minivan) I knew it wasn’t the town for me and decided to grab a boat to one of the other villages on the lake. (Boats to any town on the lake cost between 15-25 Quetzals which is only $2-$3. Locals pay about half that, but don’t bother trying to negotiate the price. Although everything in Guatemala is negotiable, they don’t like flexing on this one).
Everyone on the small boat that was leaving next were headed to San Marcos, so I took it as a sign to head there. I’m so thankful I did. Within 5 minutes of exploring the village I knew it was were I wanted to be. San Marcos is mainly two narrow walkways, and a couple small paths. On these paths are a few small restaurants, several small hostels, and little shops. The main draw to this village are the holistic schools, especially Las Pyramides. http://www.laspiramidesdelka.com/ This center for spiritual study has been around for over 20 years. It was started and is still run by Chatty, with the help of her two daughters and two other teachers. For under $500, you can join the month-long moon course and get schooled in yoga, metaphysics, and meditation everyday. Oh yea that also includes your own private pyramid-shaped cabin to sleep in. At that moment in my life, this was exactly what I needed! I had read a bit on various metaphysical topics, and taken a couple of yoga classes, but never truly LIVED it. In San Diego yoga was too expensive, and I didn’t know where to begin to find someone who could teach me meditation and metaphysics. For it to fall in my lap in that particular moment of my life seemed like divine providence.
The course was incredible. It was mind expanding, inspiring, forced me to self-reflect, and brought some amazing people into my life. Almost everyday there was an awe-inspiring moment, whether it was in yoga, or metaphysics, or meditation. By far the most intense were the last 5 days. Those days were spent in silence with a limited liquid diet and set of questions to answer about ourselves. Life gets in your face when you have nothing to do but ponder who you are, who you want to be, why you’re not who you want to be, and how you plan to become who you want to be. I highly recommend it!
After the course, and weeks of rain, it was time to continue the journey south. Thankfully, many others from the course were looking to do the same. Choosing a path was difficult, until nature stepped in and sent a hurricane our way to knock out some roads. Copan ruins and diving in the Bay Islands of Honduras it is! You can’t catch a minivan from Antigua to Copan for 120 Quetzals. They will start higher, but there are many shops offering the same trip so be sure to negotiate.
If you make it to San Marcos, make sure you check out: The wooden platform about 20 ft above the lake that you can jump from. Moonfish – great falafel, FE restaurant – great curries if Paul is there, Blind Lemons – watch games and shoot pool, and hike to Indian nose for the view you see above.
If you head to San Pedro, a neighboring lakeside village, check out: La Piscina restaurant – good BBQ on Sundays and a nice pool, Buddha Bar for watching sports and cool owners, and El Barrio for Sunday brunch and nice owners.