1 month in Guatemala

Finally, I have some time to write a new blog post about the third country on my trip: Guatemala. I was really looking forward to this country since I’ve heard so many stories from other travelers and it certainly did not disappoint me. Guatemala was colorful, diverse, breathtaking, chaotic and challenging. I don’t know how many times I stood in awe and how many times I wanted to cry out of frustration. But let’s start at the beginning. I entered Guatemala coming from San Ignacio, Belize, and headed straight to the little town of Flores, which is located on an island on lake Petén Itza. Flores is a cute colonial town, but there wasn’t much going on. The main thing to do here is to visit the Maya ruins of Tikal, which I did. After having seen so many Maya ruins already I was a bit hesitant, but Tikal actually turned out to be my favorite Maya ruin site so far. It’s located in the middle of a dense jungle, the temples are breathtakingly high and if you climb them, the views are just amazing. The jungle was full of wildlife, we spotted several monkeys and toucans.

Amazingly high temples.

 

Breathtaking views.

 

Toucans spotted in a tree.

After visiting Tikal I took a night bus to Guatemala City. The bus was by far not as nice as the night buses in Mexico, it was completely full and felt a little bit sketchy, but I arrived safely in Guatemala City. From there I took a direct shuttle to Antigua, which is just one hour from away. I liked Antigua from the first moment. It’s a beautiful colonial city, with cobblestone streets, colorful houses, a lot of handicraft shops, hipster-ish restaurants and local women in traditional clothes selling textiles and jewelry. The town is surrounded by volcanoes and those volcanoes where one of the main reasons I was here. After having spent so much time at sea level and in jungles, I really wanted to climb some of them. I started with the smallest one: Pacaya. It’s an active volcano where you can (supposedly) see lava and which you can hike in just one hour. However, I was a bit unlucky with the weather when I did the tour. It was pouring rain when we were hiking up, we could hardly see our own feet, and definitely not Pacaya. However, at one point it the clouds suddenly disappeared just for one minute and we actually caught a glimpse of the lava streaming down the hill, which looked pretty cool. So in the end the tour was still worth it, even though we arrived back in Antigua completely soaked and freezing.

Lava streaming down Pacaya.

I was definitely ready for another volcano experience, but I wanted to get used to the altitude before climbing the higher ones, so I first headed on to Quetzaltenango (or Xela, as the locals call it). When traveling around in Guatemala you can either choose the tourist shuttle, which usually brings you from door to door and is expensive for Guatemalan standards, or the Chicken bus, which are colorfully painted American school buses and are super cheap and super crowded. I decided to choose the more adventurous option and take the chicken bus. Well, it was a huge mess. The buses were even more crowded than I had imagined. There were 3-4 people sitting on each bench (designed for 2 kids!) and then at least 2 more people somehow squatting in the aisle. I have no clue how they managed. Also, when I asked the drivers, each of them assured me that the bus was going directly to Xela, but then suddenly told me to get out and take another bus at random places. So in the end I had to change buses 4 times instead of twice. But anyway, I arrived in Xela, which turned out to be an interesting town. Less beautiful than Antigua, but also less touristy and therefore somehow more authentic. I spent some time just wandering around and exploring the city. And I also went rock climbing once which was a great and weird experience. My guide was a 61-year-old Guatemalan who told me he had learned how to climb from books 40 years ago and has bolted all the walls himself. I was pretty impressed with his knowledge and climbing skills. The locals used the hills around the wall for religious purposes and were putting flowers and were sitting between the rocks, praying loudly, singing, even crying and screaming to good. So that was definitely the strangest place I’ve ever climbed in.

Meet the chicken bus: as colorful and crazy as Guatemala.

 

Crazy Guatemalan climbing experience.

After having spent a few days in Xela, my next stop was Lake Atitlan. However, this time I did take neither the bus nor the shuttle. Instead I walked there. I had booked a 3 days trek from Xela to San Pedro La Laguna. We were a nice group of 6 people, all solo travelers, plus 2 guides. We had to bring clothes, sleeping bags, mattresses and food for most of the trek, so our backpacks were quite heavy. I’m a quite good hiker and I usually don’t get tired easily, but the first day of the trek really got me to my limits. It started with a 2 hours super steep ascent through a beautiful forest. After that it got a little bit easier. We walked through corn fields and tiny villages and after lunch descended into a valley. Unfortunately, it started raining and the path became super muddy, which made it difficult to walk. When we finally arrived we were all soaked (once again) and super tired. We were allowed to sleep in the main hall of a tiny village somewhere in the mountains and so we luckily had a roof to keep the rain off. We also were allowed to try the Mayan sauna (kind of like a normal Sauna, but with a lot more smoke, since they just heat a huge pot of water over a fire in a tiny room), which was actually very refreshing after a long day of hiking. The second day was easier, we went up and down, through cloud forests, corn fields, villages and in the end, we had to cross the same river 9 times (nope, I’m not exaggerating). This night we stayed in another village and slept in the living room of an amazingly nice local called Don Pedro, who spoiled us with Smoothies, an amazing buffet dinner and a campfire where we could roast marshmallows. The next day we started hiking at 4 am in order to reach the viewpoint for sunrise. That was definitely worth it, it was one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. The view over lake Atitlan and the surrounding volcanoes -we could even see lava and smoke coming out of one of them- and the rising sun behind them was just breathtakingly beautiful. It took us just a few more hours to reach San Pedro La Laguna and that was the end of the 3 days trek.

Beautiful landscapes on the way to Lake Atitlan.

 

Cloudy evenings.

 

Highlight of the trek: sunrise over the lake.

I stayed 2 nights in San Pedro and didn’t do much except for relaxing, eating and drinking coffee (actually Guatemalan coffee is one of the best I’ve tried). I didn’t like San Pedro too much though, it was way too touristy for my taste. I then went on to Santa Cruz La Laguna, which is another village on the lake. It was pretty easy to get there, there are little boats every 15 min, that stop in all the villages along the lake. I liked Santa Cruz much more, it was smaller and much less touristy. I stayed in an amazing hostel right at the lake, with spectacular views of San Pedro volcano on the opposite side. Again, I didn’t do much, except enjoying the scenery. Lake Atitlan is definitely one of my favorite places on this trip so far. Clear water, steep walls, green hills and the beautiful volcanoes… I just couldn’t get enough of those views.

Morning views in Santa Cruz la Laguna.

But after I few days I got itchy feet again and headed on to the next adventure: hiking Acatenango, one of Guatemala’s bigger volcanoes. The trek started from Antigua and there was a pre-trek meeting on the evening before, so I booked a shuttle from Lake Atitlan to Antigua to make sure I made it in time. Unfortunately this shuttle never showed up, so I had no choice but to go for another crazy chicken bus experience. As last time, the buses were all crowed, I had to change 3 times and there was a huge traffic jam, so in the end I spent the whole day in a bus and made it to my meeting just in time (2 minutes delay). On the next day at 7 am the adventure began. We again were a group of 6 people plus 2 guides and again we had to carry a lot: tents, sleeping bags, mattresses, food and water for the 2 days. It was a 1 hour’s shuttle ride to the start of the trail. The rest of the day was a steep uphill hike. But either I was now trained enough from doing the other hikes or I had gotten used to the altitude. I felt super energetic and was just happy to be hiking. The scenery was beautiful. Somehow, I had expected it to be all rocks, but we actually first hiked through an agricultural zone, then through a beautiful cloud forest and finally through a breathtaking high altitude pine forest full of red, blue and yellow flowers. Towards the afternoon we reached basecamp, which was at about 3600 m above sea. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of a cloud, we saw nothing and it was freezing cold. We set up our tents and hid in our sleeping bags. But then, after an hour, the sky suddenly cleared up and we had the most spectacular view of the neighboring volcano Fuego, which was erupting and spitting lava and ashes every few minutes. In our tour we actually had the option to hike to Fuego. I was the only one who was still motivated enough to go for it. Alonzo, our guide first made me race downhill and then climb a steep hill to reach a ridge from which we could see the peak of Fuego. We reached that point just when it got dark and seeing the eruptions from that close was breathtakingly beautiful and scary at the same time. The lava was glowing in the dark and more than once the eruptions were so big that I was afraid to get hit. We sat there and watched for more than an hour before heading back to basecamp. It was a short night. At 3:30 am on the next morning we had to get up to reach the peak of Acatenango for sunrise. At least that was the plan, but unfortunately the peak was in the middle of a cloud and it was freezing cold, so that we descended back to basecamp pretty soon. From there we could actually see the sunrise, which was just beautiful. We then had breakfast, packed our stuff and headed downhill. We actually ran almost all the way down, which was probably not too healthy for our knees, but was super fun.

View from Acatenango base camp.

Fuego by night.

After that, I had a bit less than a week left in Guatemala, so I considered either staying around Antigua and resting (which I’m definitely not doing often enough on that trip) or visiting Semuc Champey, the famous limestone pools. The problem was that it was a 10 hours shuttle ride to Lanquin and 10 hours back to Antigua, just to visit Semuc Champey. In the end I couldn’t resist and went for it. It was worth it. I loved Lanquin, a small and super remote village in the middle of the jungle. I loved my hostel, which was on top of a hill and had an infinity pool and breathtaking views. And I loved Semuc Champey. I had to head back to Antigua soon though, because my friend Vera who was going to visit me for 2 weeks was flying into Guatemala City and we had plans to travel to Honduras from there. So that was my Guatemalan adventure (for now). I really, really loved this country, I’ve done so much and I’ve seen so many breathtaking landscapes in just 3 weeks. Even though I don’t like to pick favorites I think it actually was my favorite so far.

Semuc Champey.

 

View from my hostel in Lanquin

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