10 days in Guatemala!

Trip Start Oct 13, 2010
Trip End Feb 22, 2012

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Phew! I spent 10 days on a madcap tour of Guatemala, racing to get to Mexico in time for Christmas ... Guatemala is a beautiful country and I could have stayed for months ... but here are the highlights!

First stop, the colonial city of Antigua de Guatemala. The Lonely Planet says there is a 'shuttle' bus from the airport to Antigua so I decided to miss out Guatelama City. The shuttle bus is a cramped, pimped up minibus and the very friendly driver informs me that its $10, everything is great, except there are no other passengers yet so why don't I go and get a coffee while I wait. So I wait, and wait, and wait .... until 2 hours later two Canadian girls turn up wanting to go to Antigua and we're off! The girls had just arrived from Canada, and they got in to the minivan and started looking for the seatbelts -  I couldn't help laughing as I told them that I haven't seen a seatbelt in 6 months. Next they were asking me anxiously 'is this service legit?? is it dodgy?' ... umm ... I told them that a direct shuttle from the airport that drops you off at your hostel is about as legit as it gets! Making conversation I asked them if they were visiting Tikal, the Mayan ruins and Guatemala's main tourist draw, expecting them to say yes ... 'no' they said 'it's way too dangerous!! 100 people were murdered!!' Oh dear ... they were refererring to the murder of 27 peasants in the area by a paramilitary group which ofcourse is terrible but not a reason to avoid visiting the ruins. I used to check the UK government advice webpage but the Guatemala travel page reads like a horror movie and if you followed it they you wouldn't even set foot in this country. I decided to go by the dozens of good stories I heard from fellow travellers and they proved right. Yes there is a big problem with drug cartels and gang crime but generally they don't target tourists, and tourist magnets like Antigua like Tikal have increased security. So that was the end of the conversation because we really didn't have anything in common to talk about ... I just wondered why they chose to come to Guatemala!

Anyway I arrived at my hostel in Antigua, Jungle Party Hostel and was feeling pretty sick, coming down with a cough. Unfortunately my bed was almost next to the bar but after choosing a hostel called Jungle Party I couldn't really complain. The people at the hostel were really nice and it was easy to make friends for a few days. I spent the day in bed until I felt up to exploring the following day. Antigua is just beautiful - again like stepping back a few hundred years. The streets are all cobbled so no traffic problems, and the buildings are preserved in time with their their colourful facades. I loved this place straight away and new I'd made the right decision in coming! Antigua feels safe and friendly and the plazas are lined with cafes. There is enough to do here for a few days ... but I needed to get organised if I was going to get to Mexico in time for Christmas. Luckily I found the Status Travel office just down the road from my hostel. A really nice man helped me plan out everything for the next 9 days, even my bus ticket in Mexico. So for the first time in over a year I had an itinerary to follow :) However things don't often go to plan in places like this so it was going to be a challenge ...

First, a climb up Volcan Pataya! Disappointingly the volcano is no longer spewing red lava, which is the attraction for tourists, but I climbed it anyway for the views. I felt pretty sick but was determined to do it and it was so worth it. A local dog accompanied us and the guide cooked marshmallows over the steam vents. There were some holes with steam coming out of them that were big enough for us to climb into, and so we did :) Safety is also a concern here with previous reports of armed robbery so now all tourists go in groups with a guide on a horse, who I noticed had a machete strapped to the saddle, and armed military guard the trailheads. Armed military and police are a frequent sight all over, but my personal opinion is that I felt reassured rather than alarmed by their presence.

Next stop was the stunning Lake Atilan and the lakeside villages. Yet again, warnings of armed robberies - Lonely Planet went so far as to say that one particular trail between two villages carries a 99% risk of armed robbery for tourists - anybody fancy a walk?! Yet when you ask at the tourist boards here they say it's fine ... nevertheless this time I heeded the warning and took the boat instead. I stayed a the most spartan hostel I've ever seen, 'Marvelous Hostel' (not the best name for this place) but it was complimentary of the travel agency who sorted out my itinerary and they had hammocks on the roof so I was happy, in the busy town of Panajachel. It's quite touristy here with the main street lined with vendors. The problem is when you are eating in a restaurant and women come and beg you to buy their scarves and tablecloths and you feel so guilty having spent the money on a meal that you end up buying stuff you don't even want. The next day I took a day trip to four villages on a little boat - Santa Cruz, San Marcos, San Pedro La Laguna and Santiago Atilan. The Canadian girls had also warned me that the lake was very rough but I didn't take any notice ... how could a lake be rough?! Well apparently it can be - so rough that everyone in the first 5 rows got absolutely drenched and it looked like were going to capsize. Lucky for me I was in the back row and the only person completely dry and laughing my head off as the waves hit my fellow passengers in the face :) They were mostly in their 60s and terrified ... but oh it was soooo funny seeing their faces that I could not stop laughing ... it's a lake not a shark infested ocean, who cares if we go under, I can swim! :)

The villages were lovely, especially San Marcos and San Pedro, very laid back. Two little kids were waiting to show tourists around and while everyone else ignored them they were so cute that I bought them a coca cola and let them take me around. They showed me their school and told me about their English teacher called Kevin, the single basketball court, a nature reserve ... well worth the small tip! On the boat to the next village, I met a backpacker from the USA. We were chatting and he mentioned that he travels every winter. I asked what kind of work do you do that allows you every winter off? I was not expecting this answer - 'I grow medicinal weed and make over $100k a year selling it' .... OK!! I'm clearly in the wrong job. There are a lot of backpackers hanging around here taking Spanish classes and yoga courses, or just dossing around depending on how you look at it ...

On to the main village of Santiago Atilan, I was going around with another man from the USA, Stanley, in his 60's and with a female companion who told me that he was NOT her husband. Older kids were waiting to take us on little tours this time, so a nice teenage girl took us to see the cathedral and a few other sights, and then offered to show us to the Mayan God of Maximón .... the god of, er, smoking and drinking ... this was a very bizarre experience! The girl led us down tiny backstreets into what appeared to be someone's house, where we had to pay about $1 to go in an another $1 to take a photo. There is no way we would have found this place alone. Apparently Maximón is moved twice a year. A shrine to Maximón was setup and several men were sitting around, completely drunk - as we arrived a pint glass was shattered as a man who could hardly stand was trying to worship Maximón. A drunk man collecting the fee - i.e. the beer money - was grinning stupidly and encouraged me to take several photos even though I'd only paid for one. Stanley was horrified - 'it's just an excuse for a pissup!!' he kept saying, 'and there is definitely something going on here, something homosexual!!'. Stanleys' 'friend' was equally horrified with him, telling him 'be quiet Stanley, you don't know that!!' but he was insistent we had stumbled upon the secret gay HQ of Guetamala ... who knows?!

Moving swifty on, I took another 'shuttle' to the highlands of Lanquin and Semuc Champey. Somebody had told me that Semuc Champey was beautiful so I thought I'd take a look for myself. The 6 hour bus ride turned out to be almost 12 hours, with 15 people crammed into the minibus (they put hard boxes down in the gaps to fit in more people) and our bags on the roof, everyone soon became good friends! The last 2 hours of the drive were over dirt tracks and we went about 5mph, a good thing really considering we were on the edge of a sheer drop most of the time. There was a great bunch of people - a couple from the USA, Kate from Australia and Izzy from Scotland and I were staying at the same hostel, El Retiro, which has the perfect location but very rude staff who overbooked our dorm room - Izzy and I came back from dinner to find that our stuff had been moved and other people had taken over the beds. This is something you never do as a backpacker - it's an unwritten rule!! The next day we all took a tour to Semuc Champey, which really is stunning. The drive there was fun - transportation here in Guatemala, if not a minibus or chickenbus, is usually in a pickup truck, and by this I mean 20 people standing in the back of the pickup hanging on the bars for thier lives as the drivers floors it over the dirt tracks .. at least you are so busy trying to stay inside the truck that you forget about the sheer drop the other side!

First we went tubing down a river, then hiked up to a viewpoint. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera so have no photos of my own!!! For now here are a couple of photos I found on google .... there are dozens of crystal clear natural rock pools, cascading down the mountainside - one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. You are free to swim wherever you want and can jump down into as many pools as you fancy. Let's just hope that people don't spoil this little piece of paradise. Right now it's well maintained. In the evening we went to the Lanquin bat caves for sunset, to watch thousands of bats depart the cave as they do each night. It was great fun as we waited inside the cave and suddenly there are tiny bats everywhere whizzing past your head as they make for the exit! Our guide took us further into the huge caves to look at the different formations. We had to climb over rocks and slide down channels - made very difficult by the inches of bat poo covering every surface ... at first you avoid touching it but by the end after you've fallen over you have no choice but to grab on, eugh!! We were hysterical with laughter as Izzy, Kate and I kept getting stuck, unable to climb down again without falling and covered in bat crap, holding up the entire group behind us :) Meanwhile the guide was running around leaping from rock to rock and showing everyone else giant spiders lurking in the corners which I did not want to see!

The next day we all took shuttles to Flores but were put on different buses. There seemed to be some confusion with my voucher, which had me panicked because I was on an incredibly tight schedule to reach Mexico for Christmas and if i missed  a single connection then I wouldn't make it, but they eventually put me on one of the minibuses and I bagged the front seat. Good thing, because the bus had been overbooked and after waiting an hour for a Australian guy who had been shunted off his original bus, we went to pick up a German couple but there was only one seat left. Eventually a Japanese couple on the bus offered to share one seat so that the
German couple could come onboard. Extremely considerate considering it was another 10 bus ride - everybody else agreed that we would not have been so kind! So off we went again, the bus so full of people and luggage that it could hardly get up the hills. I was still in the prime front seat and could feel everybody glaring at me but they were all too polite to ask me to move. I have to say that bus travel in Gueatemala has been the worst of my entire trip - they sell these 'shuttles' to tourists but every time we were at least 2 hours late due to picking everyone up and you have less room than on the Chicken buses. Ah, the Chicken buses! These are the old American school buses, which are sent to Guatemala and pimped up then put back on the road again! I actually arrived at my hostel at exactly the same time as Kate, who had taken a series of public buses to get here so the shuttles are really not worth it.

Still no time to relax - next morning a 4.30am pickup for a trip to the Mayan site of Tikal ... cue loads of backpackers waiting bleary eyed outside the hostel in the dark, hoping that their shuttle will turn up and hasn't forgotten them. Sure enough my bus arrived and off I went with 10 other people, everyone sleeping until we got to the gates at 6am. After a cup of coffee we had an excellent tour - the guides here seem to be a very high standard with excellent English and he told us lots about the Mayan culture. Apparently the world is gonna end next year ... it was the day of the Solstice and the hippies were out of force dancing around fires and holding 'ceremonies', which our guide thought was ridiculous - he said that most of the the people don't even know what they are doing there, they are just 'wanna-be's following the crowd and I had to agree. So I didn't bother hanging around to watch them burn anymore incense. Tikal is amazing - it's in the middle of the jungle, with monkeys and parrots eveywhere, so it feels like you are discovering the ruins for yourself. It's hard to be blown away after seeing Angkor Wat but Tikal is definitely up there. Our guide picked up an enormous tarantula and carried it around on his shoulder to freak everyone out ... he made sure to put it back it's place again afterwards. Tarantulas are actually not scary to me, they are so big and furry that I think of them as an animal not a 'spider' if that makes sense to anyone else!!

So that was my whistlestop tour of Guatemala and i managed to follow my itinerary to the end! I would recommend Guatemala to anyone with a sense of adventure and a love of the outdoors. All I had to do now was get through two days of buses and boats to cross the border and reach my destination of Queretaro, Mexico ....
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