Ever since watching Fun For Louis’ ‘Best Coffee in Guatemala’ vlog, Guatemala has been on my radar. And it wasn’t just because of the amazing coffee (yet it was a very big part of my obsession), but the people, the culture and the landscapes seemed incredible. Plus – what did I actually even know about Guatemala? I didn’t even really know where it was! So when I heard my study program in Mexico City didn’t start until the 1st of July, and realising I had three weeks completely free, this was my time to finally go to Guatemala.
I found an awesome G Adventures tour that spent a week in Guatemala before making it’s way up to Belize and then Mexico. And before I knew it I was landing in Guatemala City.
The first stop was Antigua, where I met my awesome G Adventures Group. There were people from all over the world, Germany (Luisa, my amazing room mate for the trip), Ireland, another fellow Aussie and lots of people from England. Our tour guide was from Costa Rica, thankfully, because it’s quite essential to know some Spanish when travelling in Central America.
As you can tell from the photos below – Antigua is very colourful and extremely beautiful. It is a UNESCO world heritage site for its outstanding universal value and is a backpackers paradise. With an abundance of hotels, hostels, bars, clubs, restaurants, markets and plazas, Antigua will surely steal your heart, just like it did mine.
I must admit, I was completely unprepared for the weather we faced in Guatemala. In my mind I thought ‘ooh Central America… hot.’ But boy was I wrong. A lot of the time it was actually quite cold and it rained a lot, because guess what… it’s their rainy season. So, note to self, always research the weather of the place you’re going before you go there! Lucky for me, this meant I got to buy the coolest purple jacket which you’ll see shortly in some pictures below.
Lake Atitlán – San Juan and Panajachel
From Antigua, we drove a few hours to Lake Atitlán, this time, prepared for the rain. We shuffled our bags around and packed an overnight bag for our adventures across the lake to San Juan. Here, we were introduced to some local Mayan families, and we were introduced to Marcos and Juana, the family that Luisa and I would stay with for the night. We caught a tuk tuk through the torrential rain to their house with a view that looked up at the giant mountains surrounding the lake.
In Guatemala, there are over 23 different Mayan languages spoken, and Mayan is completely different to Spanish. And nor Luisa or I spoke any Spanish. Yet we did manage to communicate, in very broken English, Spanish and way too many hand gestures, we learnt a lot about life in Guatemala, the Mayan culture and history, and my favourite part, how to make tortillas. Mayan recognition, acceptance and equality has been a struggle for a long time in many Central American countries. For instance, neither X or X went to school and therefore cannot read and write. They work in intense labour jobs to provide for their family. Yet because of their hard work and changing economic and social patterns in Guatemala, all three of their sons attended and completed high school, with one studying at university to become a teacher and the other, a local artist. I will never forget the kindness and generosity that this family showed to Luisa and I. This unique experience of a homestay is unique to G Adventures to their sustainability program ‘Planeterra.’ I was so overwhelmed by the whole experience that I had to leave the table for a minute to shed a tear. It really put my life, values and experiences into perspective and I felt so lucky to be able to learn from one of the worlds oldest civilisations.
After our homestay, we headed back to Panajachel where we spent our last night on the lake.
This was by far one of our longest travel days. It took us approximately 9-10hours by bus to reach Rio Dulce. The roads in Guatemala are windy, prone to landslides, narrow and honestly make no sense. So I chucked some music in and watched the beautiful countryside roll by. Our tour guide Brayan actually managed to buy some DVD’s from the side of the road (I tell you, these people have everything!) so that definitely helped pass the time.
When we finally made it to Rio Dulce, we were welcomed by a to die for pool. After shrivelling up into prunes we settled in for a quiet night.
The next day we did a day trip to the Caribbean seaside town of Livingston, about an hour away from Rio Dulce by boat. We stopped off at some thermal hot springs, lily pad fields and really just enjoyed the stunning view on the incredible Lake De Izabal. Livingston is a really interesting town full of wonderful history and a unique culture. It was actually founded by an escaped African slave, descendants of the Garifuna. Today, there are special programs in place to ensure the preservation of the Garifuna culture and language, which is still widely spoken in Livingston.
Our last morning we went kayaking around the lake to find Howler Monkeys. We unfortunately didn’t see any but we sure did hear them. We did however see a manatee in the river, plus a beautiful sunrise. It was definitely one of the best mornings I’ve ever had.
After our kayak, we were off to Flores. But first, an amazing waterfall and thermal hot spring. Paying just 100 Quetzales, let us cross a farmers field and walk the 5 minutes to one of the most incredible waterfalls I’ve ever been to. The water is a nice temperature and very deep – meaning ultimate jumping time! We climbed the rocks to the top of the waterfall where the pools of water at the top are actually a thermal hot spring. The water was so hot it felt like a bath. Once we enjoyed our spa treatment, we took it in turns of jumping from the top. Like any kind of jump rock, it was awesome fun. The best part was you could swim up and under the waterfall and the water that fell on you was super warm – like you were taking a shower. Honestly one of the best waterfalls I’ve ever been to.
Once we arrived in Flores, we jumped straight onto our party boat to start our booze cruise. Considering we had a 5am start the next day, we partied way too hard. Flores looked like such a beautiful town. We cruised around the lake and went to a platform that we could jump off into the lake. There was also a rope swing – which I may have nearly died by using. We would be drinking on the boat, diving off the boat, floating on our backs under the nights sky. It truly was a fabulous night!
After a big night of partying, we somehow managed to get up at 5am to arrive at Tikal by 7am to avoid tourists and the heat. Despite our efforts, we were dripping with sweat at 7:30 so sunscreen and hats were of the upmost importance. We had an extremely knowledgable guide who showed us around the ancient city of Tikal, which used to be one of the epicentres of Mayan culture and civilisations. The pictures really speak for itself!
After being taken back in time to 200AD, were headed off to explore a new country and get some ink in our passport to go to Belize!
Looking back on my time in Guatemala, I really can’t believe all of the incredible places we managed to go in such a short period of time. The diversity of such a small country and the kindness of the people I met will never be forgotten.
This being said, I’m not ignorant of the deep seeded issues faced by this country and it was unfortunately something we saw and experienced. Gangs and violence are still an extremely prevalent threat to the safety of Guatemalans, economic inequality sees the rich thrive off of the vulnerable and poor and Mayans often face discrimination informally and through formal institutions such as education and work rights.
Throughout travelling this magnificent country, I’ve been able to learn, question and challenge myself and the ideas that I had. Guatemala is a resilient country and through growing popularity in tourism, perhaps this new found income will be able to counter some of these issues. This experience has epitomised the concept that travel is the best form of education and I’m so incredibly grateful and privileged that I’ve been able to explore and learn from such a beautiful country.