Guatemala is a country in Latin America that is small in size but rich in traditions, culture, languages, and architecture. I first went to Guatemala with my husband and daughter in 1997, not long after the 36 year civil war had ended. We went to see the highlands, rain forests, volcanoes, ruins, and deepest lake in the world and left with a great admiration for the Maya people. More than half of Guatemala’s population is indigenous Maya and most of them live in the western highlands. I visited Guatemala again in 2010 when my daughter, Jessica, was working there with a Canadian nongovernmental organization in two rather remote villages. My conclusion? Guatemala is simply a spectacular destination.
The travel infrastructure along the path taken by most foreign tourists in Guatemala is well developed, and the more popular points on an itinerary can be reached by a shuttle van service (door-to-door) for a reasonable price. If you’re coming from Mexico, you can catch a shuttle south from San Cristobal de las Casas. There are also the infamous chicken buses that go everywhere and cost little. These are old school buses from Canada and the United States and there is very little leg room. Also, the driver keeps letting passengers on until there’s almost no breathing space. And it’s so crowded that you have to be very careful about pickpockets (my daughter had her wallet and cell phone stolen when riding on one). But an interesting experience, particularly if the trip is not too long.
Guatemala is a country where it’s easy to meet up with solo independent travellers who are perhaps staying awhile, studying Spanish or doing volunteer work with a charitable organization. If you’re willing to stay in hostels and take local transportation, the journey can be remarkably inexpensive. And if you get off the beaten path a bit, you can easily have a rather intrepid experience.
- Guatemala City Airport
- Antigua (colonial city and place to stay awhile)
- Panajachel (ringed by volcanoes and on Lake Atitlan, one of the world’s most beautiful lakes)
- Chichicastenago “Chichi” (world-renowned market)
- Tikal (outstanding Maya ceremonial centre situated in the continent’s largest surviving rainforest)
- Guatemala City Airport (for flight home)
Guatemala City Airport
Guatemala City has a formidable reputation so I would move on to Antigua upon arrival. You should make arrangements in advance for a shuttle van or taxi pickup. The shuttle will cost about $8 and the taxi about $35.
Antigua, an hour’s drive from Guatemala City, was once the capital of Central America and considered to be one of the grandest cities in the Americas with its beautiful colonial buildings. It looks out on three magnificent volcanoes. Antigua is well known for its Spanish schools as it is for its ruins. It is a place to stay awhile.
Antigua is a favourite of mine. There are great restaurants and shops. The central part, called the Plaza de Armas, is lively and the place to watch people and practice your bargaining skills. The Maya people in their spectacular dress are everywhere and while shy, are persistent vendors.
There are literally dozens of colonial buildings, and it’s easy to get lost until you get your bearings. There’s a great choice of hotels, a favourite of mine being the Hotel Aurora, the oldest hotel in the city with 16 large rooms situated around a courtyard. For my daughter, El Hostal is a good place to stay and when she was able to spend a little more she’d stay at Posada Juma Ocag.
I often heard young foreigners say they thought Antigua was too touristy and that they preferred Quetzalenango (Xela), a place they considered to be more authentic while having a good vibe.
Take a tourist shuttle to Panajachel, which is on the northern shore of Lake Atitlan, considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The trip takes about two hours and is very scenic, with the highway winding through the mountains until it descends to the lake that is ringed by volcanoes. Vendors’ stalls line the main street.
There are several villages around the lake and they are relatively easy to visit by boat. Tours around the lake are offered by local operators or simply walk down to the pier and take one of the small boats that leave for villages when there are enough passengers.
San Pedro La Laguna, which I must say was my least favourite village when I visited in 1997, is now the place for young travellers to hang out. Besides being a party place, it has developed a good reputation as a language school centre. There are other places to stay awhile around the lake and differing opinions on which is best, which leads to interesting discussions if nothing else. If you have a couple of days, check a few of them out.
It’s easy to get a tourist shuttle bus to Chichi on market day (Thursday and Sunday). Chichi tops my list of outstanding public markets for there are hundreds of vendors and artisans selling textiles, wood carvings, masks, ceramics, and jewelry. I was enamoured by the vendors themselves who are so vibrant in their traditional dress.
There is the Church of Santo Tomas, which dates back to 1540, and often featured in tourism photos, with incense and candles burning on its steps and where age-old rituals are performed based on Maya rites.
Tikal is an outstanding Maya ceremonial centre situated in the continent’s largest surviving rainforest in the most remote and least developed region of the country. A two-day tour from Antigua to Tikal includes hotel pickup, flight from Guatemala City to Flores, bus from Flores to Tikal National Park, hotel in the park, tour of ruins and then return to Antigua. With hindsight I would have stayed longer with at least two nights in the park.
During the 3rd and 4th centuries, Tikal flourished as the heart of the Maya culture. UNESCO declared it a World Cultural and Natural Monument in 1979 and hundreds of pyramids, temples, and palaces have been excavated. I loved Tikal, not only for the ruins but because of its rainforest setting: spider monkeys leaping from branch to branch, howler monkeys’ unmistakable cries, the long lines of leaf cutter ants that stretch along the jungle paths, the continuous sounds of chiggers. There are many well-worn trails in the park and I would imagine it would be easy to get lost so recommend going in with a guide. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes to walk from the parking lot through the forest to the ruins. You can visit the key temples and palaces in a few hours. Some of us paid an off-duty park attendant to take us in at night (when the park is closed) and we sat on top of one of the pyramid’s as the sun set and a zillion stars lit up the sky with sounds of the jungle all around. It was one of life’s great moments. I understand that experiencing dawn in the Tikal jungle, albeit from a different pyramid, is also an ultimate travel experience.
Going beyond the basic itinerary
On that first trip to Guatemala, we impulsively took a shuttle bus across the country to Livingston on the Caribbean. Along the way, our driver bribed four police cars to escort us through construction zones (siren blaring). At first we didn’t know what was going on and feared we were being kidnapped (I even put money in my shoe—a lot of good that would have done). We stopped at the ruins in Quirigua along the way. The van dropped us off at Rio Dulce, which was a rather seedy spot, and a friendly boat taxi driver helped us find a hotel (the Catamaran Island Hotel where we huddled in our cabin built on stilts over the water as a tropical storm raged outside) and took us to Livingston the following day.
There is no road link from the rest of Guatemala to Livingston so you have to get there by boat. Most of the people are Garifuna (or Black Caribs) and their treatment under various colonial powers was horrific. It is known for its great food, Caribbean culture, lively music and incredible dancing. There are mixed views about the place and the people certainly seem more in-your-face than in other places in Guatemala.
We also took a shuttle van to Quetzaltenango, commonly referred to as Xela (SHAY-lah), which we found to be a little too foreign in 1997! Times have changed and Xela has become a popular place, particularly with those who are in the country for awhile and know some Spanish. It’s off the main gringo trail but the people are friendly and hospitable. Few locals speak English and it is considered one of the best places to learn Spanish.
An increasing number of international NGOs are setting up an office here. Visitors also use the city as a base for exploring the highlands, climbing volcanoes, bathing in hot springs, and visiting indigenous villages.
My daughter worked in a small village west of Xela for several months and Xela was the place she’d go to when she felt the need to meet up with other foreign visitors and have a good time for it is a big going-out town. She enjoyed the restaurants that offered international cuisine and the grocery store where she could buy goods that were not available in her tiny village.
She says the Black Cat Hostel is a good place to meet other travellers and serves great food. If she wanted a quiet place and a hot shower she would stay at the Hotel Kiktem-Ja.
I spent a few days in Todos Santos in 2010, which was another village where my daughter worked. I was there for All Saints Day on November 1, which is not only a national holiday but a particularly special holiday here for the English translation of Todos Santos is “all saints”. It is located high in the Cuchumatanes mountains and the setting is spectacular as are the people, who are largely Maya. The festivities are celebrated over three days and include an infamous “drunken” horse race. A photo gallery of the fiesta is on this website. Todos Santos is one of the few places in Guatemala where the Maya men still wear their traditional dress.
You can get a shuttle van to Huehuetenango and then a local bus up to Todos Santos, which takes about two hours. There are a few places in the village to stay and if the hotel rooms are booked, villagers seem to take visitors into their home for a small fee.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2011