- Swim by candle light through the caves of Semuc Champey in Lanquin.
- Explore the architecture and markets of Antigua.
- Make your own chocolates at the Choco Museo (Antigua)
- Roast marshmallows at the top of an active volcano (Pacaya Volcano, Antigua)
- Kayak alongside the dramatic backdrop of Lake Atitlan
- Visit the ruins of Tikal.
- Improve your Spanish and take some courses in Antigua, Xela or Lake Atitlan. Xela (Quetzaltenango) is the most conducive to learning if you get easily distracted.
- Expect everyone to speak English. You're in a Spanish speaking country so make an effort.
- Forget your rain jacket if you're traveling to Guatemala during the rainy season (May-Oct).
- Spend much time in Guatemala City.
- Feel the need to venture out of the way to Chichicastenango if you've already been to the market in Antigua.
Hopping on a chicken bus to Guatemala, I was leaving the ocean behind, trading in dirt roads for cobble stone streets, and was on my way to realize that English was not going to get me by once I left Belize. Unless speaking with travelers of course. The most shocking thing for me was realizing my high school Spanish actually got me no where and I would find myself having stare offs with clerks at corner stores solely in an effort to purchase gum out of a glass case. During the ride to Guatemala, I could tell we were headed inland. The blue skies began to disappear as we made our way to the mountains. It wasn't the typical coastal paradise I had been used to, but the change in scenery offered a new type of lush beauty.
The chicken bus arrived in Santa Elena, Guatemala in the late afternoon, so I took another bus to the little island of Flores situated just next to Santa Elena. I had no idea where I was going but I had heard that there was a cool hostel called Los Amigos Hostel. I walked around, since Flores is really small, and finally found it. There isn't much to do in Flores, but it's a good place to situate yourself for a trip to the ruins in Tikal since it's about 45 minutes away. The hostel offers any transport or tour you could possible want/need. Prefer to just hang around? Find the swings and docks around the island and enjoy your time by the water.
After walking around the island and grabbing some food, I decided to have a relaxing night in since I had to get up for a 7am shuttle the next morning to Lanquin. I got into bed to listen to some music and mellow out. This lasted about 5 minutes before the guy below my bunk bed opened up dialogue. It began with the introduction that every traveler begins to hate or hates themselves for asking, but sometimes there's no way around it: "where ya from, where ya going, how long you been traveling? blah blah blah" Somehow this American guy eventually managed to get me out of bed to go check out what was going on at the bar upstairs. Lesson #3: Be outgoing. Sure everyone has their moments where they need to be alone. But no matter how much of an introvert you may be, while you're traveling, talk to everyone! You never know what you'll learn about yourself or others by simply participating in a conversation. People can even change your path without you even realizing it. Sure this was the first and last time I ever saw this American guy, but unbeknownst to me (and him), he lead me to my next travel family and friends I would have for a lifetime. It began with him introducing me to a guy from England who would be on my shuttle the next morning. We chatted a bit and then called it a night so we could manage to get some sleep.
A bumpy ride does not even describe what you'll experience if you take a shuttle from Flores to Lanquin. Wear a sports bra. As soon as we arrived at Zephyr Lodge, my English friend introduced me to a Scottish girl he had met earlier in his travels. It was a domino effect from there as she introduced me to an entire crew of Aussies, Canadians, Germans and a badass kiwi chick. I had actually seen a few of them, including the Germans and a guy from Tassie, earlier in my travels in Mexico and Belize. With proper introductions, I was glad I decided to get out of bed the night before.
On to the hostel. Zephyr Lodge is awesome and a great place to meet people! The view is amazing, especially in the morning when the fog rolls in. You will have one of the best showers of your life here since there's a giant window overlooking the mountains. However, it is in open air, so be prepared for critters of all sorts. One night I had a rat the size of a small kitten run across my body. So make sure to stay in the rooms away from the bar. Or drink a lot so you can sleep like a rock and not notice anything. Kidding…kinda...but switch rooms.
During your stay, make sure to go to Semuc Champey. If you don't, then you didn't do Guatemala correctly and you need to go back. You can book a tour through Zephyr and you'll be gone for the whole day. You'll be packed into a truck bed with the others on your tour, but it's kind of fun. Once you arrive, you'll spend the day crawling/swimming your way through caves by candle light, rope swinging through waterfalls, jumping off bridges into a river, and enjoying the natural pools. Not to mention you'll be doing a fair bit of hiking to get to these places. Wear a bathing suit and some sneakers because the terrain is rough. The trip to Semuc was honestly unlike anything I've ever experience and is a must do in my opinion.
For the remainder of your days at Zephyr, (if the weather permits) go tubing down the river, or take a walk to the river and through the main town. After four nights of family dinners, endless drinking games, dancing on tables, playing spin the bottle, and hours of Monopoly and Risk, it was time to say goodbye to Lanquin and go to Antigua. Luckily, the group of friends I made at Zephyr were all going in the same direction.
Antigua is a really cool antique/colonial looking town, hence the name. There's heaps to do! I went with the kiwi chick and another girl to the Choco Museo where we took a class to learn about the history of chocolate and more importantly, make our own. I left with almost 30 chocolates handmade by moi…and as soon as one of the Germans got his hands on them they were pretty much gone.
My German friend and I explored the never ending markets of Antigua or the Mercado, to pick up some ingredients for dinner. You can find anything you need here. Food, snacks, toys, clothing. It's like a grocery store and a thrift shop exploded into a chaotic and colourful array of tents expanding out for miles. You can easily spend the day here and barter anything down from the asking price. I wouldn't recommend hanging around this area at sunset or after. While it is a busy place, keep in mind where you are and be aware. Police dwindle down as the day goes on. Another helpful tip: Try to wash everything you buy before you eat it to avoid any stomach issues during your trip.
A great day trip for while you're in Antigua is to take a tour to Pacaya Volcano. It's still an active volcano and if you're lucky you'll get to see some lava. But don't count on it, since you are dealing with mother nature and you never know what you'll get. I didn't see any. There are definitely hot spots and you'll get the chance to roast some marshmallows on one of them with the help of your guide. The hike isn't bad but if you really can't handle it, there are locals standing by and you can hire a horse from them to take you up.
There are a few cafes/restaurants you can't miss while you're in Antigua. The first one is Café No Sé, which is across the street from the hostel El Hostal (I stayed here for a night and it's really pleasant and clean! They get booked quickly so be sure to make a rez), Café No Sé was the first mezcal bar outside of Mexico and was apparently illegal. Now it's an artsy bar illuminated by dim lights and candles, where local musicians play every night of the week. There is a tiny fridge door that leads you to another room where you can get "illegal" mezcal.
Go for dinner at cafe Por Qué No?. It's a tiny but unique restaurant with an upstairs loft that you can only access by ladder. The space is creatively decorated with wine bottles, along with other knick knacks, hanging from the ceiling. There isn't a thing on the menu that isn't worth having.
Lastly, make your way to Tretto Caffé. Whether you're going there during the day for coffee or at night for a drink, make sure to ask for the amazing barista Frosty. The night I was there, I ended up meeting Frosty and a friend of his who was sitting at the bar. We all chatted for a while about our lives and traveling Guatemala. He even demonstrated his party trick and made some awesome fire shots. Like I said before, talk to people.
If you're an architecture fanatic like me, don't forget to explore the landmarks of Antigua. There are some pretty extraordinary structures around the town. My personal favourite was the Arco de Santa Catalina, which is iconic to Antigua. It was used as a passage way for nuns to get to church so they would not be seen by the public.
It seemed as though I was in the right places at the right time throughout my trip. There was a big group of us at this point, and even though we were from every corner of the world, we all decided to dress up and celebrate Halloween. Once again, the market has a wide array of things to buy, so some of us picked up a costume while others used what they had in their backpacks. And for being a budget, we pulled off some pretty good costumes! My German friend even went as far as purchasing an ax for his lumberjack costume, which he was allowed to bring into most bars we went to. Only in Guatemala.
The next day, hungover as, we took a bus to the Day of the Dead festivities in Sumpango, a small town just outside of Antigua. People from all over the country travel to either Sumpango or Santiago (another small town) to see the vibrantly coloured kites that have been built months prior specifically for this day. The area where the kites are launched overlooks the cemetery just next to it. We explored as much of the extremely hilly cemetery (or maybe I was just that exhausted) and the surrounding area as we could before we all decided we needed to find somewhere to sit. Of course before doing so, we looked at the food tents, got more drinks, and a few of us got hair wraps because why not? Shout out to ze German for spending his last few cents on mine. In the end we found a really cool table overlooking the kite runway and the entire festival. It was crazy to see some of the big kites make it in to the air (not all of them did).
The last stop on the Guatamala tour was San Pedro la Laguna, Lake Atitlan with my new travel fam the "Wolf Pack." Make sure to look out your window when you begin driving down to the lake, you won't want to miss the views. It rained pretty much the entire time we were there, but we managed to get a kayak race in around the lake. We also witnessed a Guatemalan infant score the winning shot of a beer pong game. I have absolutely no photo evidence but you'll just have to believe me on this one. Check out Buddha bar to watch some sports and have some drinks (they have cider!). We stayed at a really chilled hostel called Zoola, which has some fantastic amenities including a pool overlooking the lake and a lady who comes daily selling an assortment of baked breads. If she's there, you won't miss her yells of "pan de coco, pan de chocolate, pan de banana!" And if you even look at her, it's game over, she'll hustle you until you give in.
I can't get over how surprisingly amazing Guatemala was. I definitely went into this country not knowing what to expect, but left loving everything about it. Honorable mention goes out to the pimped out chicken buses (school buses) you'll see all over the country.
Next up: The Wolf pack takes on El Salvador.