antigua

The Absolute best of Guatemala – ten things you have to do

After spending six sensational weeks in Guatemala, its hard to decide what was the best of the best! The guide books weren’t wrong when they advise that it’s easy to fall in love with this magnificent country, and you might stay longer then you may have originally intended!

1. Lake Atitlan – spending time relaxing or partying around the many towns surrounding the lake. Each has it’s own personality and vibe – personally I loved the atmosphere and food choices available in San Pedro, and spending time during the day at San Marcos swimming and diving from the raised platform on the cliffside. Admission is 15Q, and take your own food/drinks or buy some in town as there is none at the swimming hole. You can also hike the Indian Nose or Volcan Atitlan if you have a little more time, or study Spanish by the lake. Shuttles to San Pedro cost around 65-90Q and boat trips across the lake are usually around 10-20Q return.

2. Acetenango hike – one of the most rewarding but physically and mentally challenging things I have done in my life. Sunset above the clouds watching the nearby volcano erupt was just magical. I did my tour through NEWay tours (300Q) plus park entrance fee of 50Q

Looking out over the cloud

Looking out over the cloud

Read more and see the stunning photos in my post about the hike here.

3. Semuc Champay/Lanquin – the natural beauty of the national park is just breathtaking. Spending an afternoon swimming in the rockpools was the best after exploring the underground cave system, and hiking up to enjoy the beautiful view. We stayed on the mountainside at Zephyr lodge, treated to our own pool and magnificent views of the valley from the facilities! A day tour of the national park costs around 150Q (cheaper if you book in town rather than at the hostel). Hear the story.

Heading down into the cave by candlelight

Heading down into the cave by candlelight

4. Antigua – I spent four weeks in this old colonial town, studying Spanish and soaking up the atmosphere. It has so much to offer – culture, history, architecture, great food, nighhtlife and of course a beautiful backdrop of mountains. Over Semana Santa it becomes a hub for both national and international tourists to see the colourful and vibrant parades that snake down the cobblestone streets, over beautiful ‘carpets’ laid down by the locals. The food markets at Iglesia La Merced leading up to easter was a definite highlight, as was my host family mother’s home cooked Guatemalan food. A week at spanish school, homestay and three meals a day cost approximately 1300Q. Last but not least, the nightlife is buzzing, and if you are female you are in luck – it’a always ladies night somewhere! Rotating between establishments on a nightly basis, you can get free drinks and even a free massage on a Wednesday!

 

5. Tikal– spending a day climbing the ancient Mayan ruins of this old city, taking in the scenery and the wildlife. For the brave, you can camp overnight on the ruins if you manage to talk the security guards into it with a small offering, but be prepared for a cold night! Another hidden Mayan ruin can be found at thr lost Mirador, however to reach it incolves a six day hike through the jungle from Flores. Admission into the park costs 150Q (extra for sunrise tour).

Tikal

Tikal

6. Flores/ rope swing – this lovely little town is quaint and peaceful, you can walk around e island in around 15 minutes. We took a day trip over the lake to the rope swing, where you can spend time swimming, relaxing in a hammock or launching yourself off a dive platform (as some of us did). You are actually able to stay overnight there (hammocks or cabins), which I imagine would be amazing! The owner will come and pick you up in their boat (70Q per boatload) and it is 15Q for admission.

7. Pacaya hike – for those who aren’t quite willing to put themselves through the pain of the overnight Acetenango hike, Pacaya is a nice compromose. The hike is a relatively gentle 90minute climb to the crater rim, where you can roast marshmallows on the volcanic molten rock. There are two tours a day, 6am and 2pm, cost is 60-80Q plus 50Q park admission fee.

8. Breakfast/dinner at Cerro San Cristobal – affording an amazing view over Antigua, this cliffside restaurant has great food as well! Just be sure to ask them when it closes, as we were served a second bottle of wine after dinner only to then be told they were closing in ten minutes – at 8pm on a weekend! The return sttle can be arranged through Nim P’ot craft mark underneath the Santa Catalina Arch, and costs 10Q. In my opinion, the mirador is mich better than that at El Tenedor (reached by free shuttle from the Hotel Santo Domingo).

9. Yoga class at Hobbitenango – I was lucky enough to be introduced to this great place by Yoga by Lewis. It’s a short drive from Antigua and an amazing way to start your day. Transport, yoga and a fruit breakfast included for 120Q.

10. Monterrico – who can go to Guatemala without seeing a volcanic black sand beach? To be fair, I was short on time so didn’t visit El Parédon which is more of a surf beach. Staying at Johnny’s place, the service was great, and I never had to leave as I had everything I needed right there – food, drinks, pool, beach, billiards and even a beach soccer goal. Return shuttle 140Q and dorm accomodation with fan was 45Q (includes breakfast). Could easily have spent more time there!

Rising above the clouds, volcanic eruptions and that bag incident… Hiking Volcan Acetenango

I must admit I was feeling nervous as I emptied my backpack in preparation for the Acetenango hike.  Friends who had been in the past few weeks had described how difficult it was, and I knew that I was in for a struggle.

Stashing 5L of water, some nuts, choccy biscuits, bananas, snickers bars, and the essential cold weather gear in my backpack and I was set to go. On arrival at the base of the hike, Jade and I met our guide Luis, hired our walking sticks and filled in the registration forms. S#!t was getting real.

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I think it was only five or ten minutes in and I was already feeling it, step after step the loose gravel gave way underfoot and I was not helped by the ~20kg pack on my back. Both a good and a bad thing, it was just us two girls Jade and I with the one guide but this meant between us we had to carry our tent, sleeping bags and mats. There were no strapping young men to assist!

Jade loving the serenity

Jade loving the serenity

Our first rest stop arrived after only 25 minutes in a nice grassy area overlooking the valley. At least the view was nice! After a short rest we pushed on, climbing with corn fields to our left, up a steep set of stairs carved in the mountainside.

One hour in and we had reached the registration hut. We’d been told the first part was the most difficult, and my friends were not wrong.  However from this point on, the ground became harder which was one consolation. The climb was steep, and there were rest stops each half hour. We had started to feel some effects of the altitude above 3,000m – sharp headaches in the temple, and a tingly sensation in our fingers and toes.

We stopped for lunch over half way, at a hut where Luis says you can normally see an amazing view of volcanoes and the valley. We were treated to low lying cloud, which we very much hoped would clear by the time we reached the campground!

Luis did not speak much English, so he and I chatted and I tried my best to translate for Jade. He guides the climb around two times a week, and no more as it is so hard on the body. The rest of the time, he helps farm crops such as corn and beans, staples for his family – he has five sisters and five brothers! I’m told that the volcanic soil and ash is very good for the crops because of the minerals if it is in smaller doses, but Luis says that a large amount at one time can be toxic and wipe out the crop.

The last hour I’ll admit I struggled, by now I had the tent strapped to my pack as Jade had carried it for two hours already. One section as closer to be decribed as “rockclimbing” rather than trekking, and at the top of this steep rocky section Luis relieved me of the tent for the final half hour climb.

We made it!

We made it!

Reaching the base camp (3800m) after 4 hours and 40 minutes, we were both exhausted and relieved. Though I felt kind of guilty, we offered to help set up camp but the able guides thankfully did most of the work. I really didnt feel like putting up a tent at that point in time!

The weary hiking crew getting warm at base camp

The weary hiking crew getting warm at base camp

As the sun went down the clouds began to clear and little by little we could see the active volcano nearby.

Sunset through the cloud

Sunset through the cloud

It did not disappoint, as many times during the evening and night a plume of red hot lava danced in the sky, met with loud cries of excitement from the groups caming on the mountainside.

Watching her erupt

Watching her erupt

At 4:30 in the morning we were woken by Luis for the hike to the summit to see the sunrise. At no stage were we warned about the pain which we would be about to endure on the early morning adventure up to the viewpoint. Jade, having no light and struggling with the cold, decided to turn back to base camp, however I felt i’d come so far it would be a shame not to see it.

My tired legs struggled in the volcanic pea gravel, scrambling up steep sections of rock. Luis and I had fallen behind the rest of the group who had camped next to us overnight. I kept asking him “cuánto más? How far?” Only to be met with, i’m sorry it is still a little far. I couldnt see the summit and I was really beginning to feel exhausted and my muscles were sore. Still we pushed on, Luis grabbing my hand and assisting me uo the steep sections.

Some 45 minutes later I was at breaking point – “no más” I said to Luis, only to be met with a gentle “puedes subir chica” – you can climb it! Not far now, I promise. The sun had started to rise already and I looked around to be rewarded by am amazing view of the valley below. Ok, we will continue.

A well deserved sunrise

A well deserved sunrise

Reaching the top it was almost a surreal feeling – we were above the cloud line and the view was stunning.

Looking out over the cloud

Looking out over the cloud

Without going into too much detail, be it for the altitude, the food the night before, or some other reason, about 15 minutes into the walk I had searing pain in my stomach and I knew my body was telling me it needed me to find a place to go, right now. So I took off my backpack and rested it securely up against a rock, while I climbed a little back up the hill to find some bushes to hide behind. They may have been blackberries (!) – yeah I told you I really needed to go. There was a big group coming down behind us and I needed to hurry.

I heard loud shouting and looked up from my cruched position to see my beloved backpack tumbling down the hill toward the cliff below. Not much I could do but watch. Luckily for me, at the very last moment it got caught in some bushes which stopped it from vanishing into the never never. On retrieving it with a smile, one of the guides told me I was lucky, if it had dropped over the edge there was no way I was getting it back! Said guide then proceeded to ask me out that night, a lovely offer but I unfortunately had to refuse.

To this moment I am still unsure if one of the group behind touched my bag to send it flying, or if the wind was really that strong… It could have been an interesting travel insurance claim thats for sure!

The descent took two hours down mostly steep, stony, gravelly and slippery terrain and both Jade and I fell, more than once. We were extremely excited to reach the safety of the bottom, and my shower that day felt absolutely amazing.

It was an experience not to be missed, well worth every mental fight, the physical exhaustion, every sore muscle, and all the stones in our shoes!