The Backstory to My Travels in Guatemala
I went to Guatemala for vacation back in February 2014, originally planning to spend a week lounging on beautiful Lake Atitlán and taking a few Spanish lessons. Instead, I ended up spontaneously backpacking around the country for 10 days – I took in Antigua, spent a night at a pristine hostel in Santa Cruz where other backpackers convinced me to hightail it on up to Semuc Champey, and ended with partying in San Pedro before heading back to New York.
My first day back at work somewhere between Brooklyn and Manhattan on the 2 train, I had a complete meltdown, my boss sent me home to get myself together, and the next day I put in my three weeks notice and bought a one way ticket back down to Guatemala.
Over the next three months I spent about seven weeks in Guatemala, mostly on Lake Atitlán but also visiting other cities on the way to other destinations. The colonial architecture in Antigua is picture perfect and brightly colored in a peaceful setting. The Highlands are massive and breathtaking, with bus rides up taking you there driving up the most winding, treacherous mountains. Indigenous folk in beautiful, colorful costume at the markets and around town – 60% of Guatemala’s population is Maya and s many as 26 different Mayan languages are still spoken across the country. Hope on a “chicken bus”, jump into the the perfect temperature of Lake Atitlán, watch the sunrise on Volcano San Pedro…
I absolutely loved visiting and spending time in this country, meeting locals young and old (although the niños are the harshest critics of your Spanish, let me tell you!), having a fantastic Tz’utujil Spanish teacher, and rebel-rousing with the best crew of gringos a solo-traveller could have found.
Below are some tips and pictures about the places I visited in Guatemala if you are planning a trip or just interested in learning more about what this country has to offer.
Antigua, Guatemala is about about 45 minutes from Guatemala City airport by bus. You’ll want to spend at least two or three days in Antigua, wandering the market, admiring the brightly colored buildings, drinking coffee, and going on an outdoor excursion.
Reserve early and book La Casa Amarilla/The Yellow House. It’s got a dorm room and privates (I’ve stayed in both, thumbs up), hot showers, and an incredible continental breakfast! Located on a quiet street on the edge of downtown, the rooftop is calm and beautiful with hammocks and tables to take in the views of the mountains.
Antigua has lots of cute shops, great restaurants, beautiful old churches and buildings, and chocolate and coffeeshops. I liked Ferando’s Cafe around the corner from The Yellow House. There are some fantastic marketplaces on the edges of town that you can walk through and bargain for just about anything. Café Sky has a particularly beautiful view of the city and its outskirts, and the Terrace Hostel has a nice…terrace as well, and a great happy hour.
One thing I regret not doing is taking some sort of cooking or craft class – It’s definitely a great way to get some contact with locals and to learn more about the culture. I never did cooking, I did Spanish class but I definitely think learning to prepare some food is a valuable thing to be able to bring home with you.
Climbing the Pacaya Volcano is a fun way to meet other tourists and to…climb a volcano! For me, this was a new experience. Pacaya in particular is pretty easy (in comparison to Volcano San Pedro, omg), it only takes an hour or so to summit, and you get to roast Guatemalan marshmallows on the lava up top! It’s a good volcano to climb if you’re new to the hiking/climbing game and want some cool views, a bit of exercise after all those tamales, and a bit of banter with some other travelers.
You can pretty much book any activity through your hostel, or shop around at the different tour and activity operators around town.
It’s about a 2.5/2 hour drive from Antigua to Panajachel – I would recommend taking a shuttle to Panajachel (even if you don’t plan on staying there) rather than take a bus all the way to San Pedro/San Juan/San Marcos. From Panajachel and then take a boat to whichever town you decide you want to visit. It’s much quicker to cross a large body of water than to follow one narrow (and sometimes frightening) road around a lake.
I’ll give you a synopsis here of some of the villages around the lake, but the Globe Trotter Girls do a great job on this one too if you want some more information.
- The biggest town on the Lake Atitlán, it’s very touristy with a lot of mostly older American ex-pat retirees. Tons of places for you to buy just about anything. Not my favorite spot on the lake but totally decent! It’s also a base to do a lot of outdoor activities around the lake.
- Not much here besides La Iguana Perdida hostel, but that’s okay because it’s a great hostel! I spent one night here on my original trip down, and there was a great family dinner (everyone in the hostel eats together) which was delicious and a memorable experience meeting interesting people from all over the world. The view from the dock also cannot be beat. I remember when the sun was setting I was legitimately stunned at what I saw.
San Pedro la Laguna
- San Pedro where I spent six glorious weeks on Lake Atitlán. Very young touristy along the lake but if you walk up the hill it’s a real, lovely Guatemalan town of the Tz’utujil people, and it’s pretty traditional. I absolutely loved it here – great bars to party at or to do trivia nights (I always preferred trivia at El Barrio to Hostel Fe, but killed it at both!), Spanish classes if you’re into that, a base for climbing the volcano San Pedro and for hiking other mountains, for kayaking, sunbathing (The Deep End, also has amazing BBQ cookout on Sundays), and chilling out. Go to Hummous Ya for breakfast, these Italian owners can cook some serious pancakes. I had an amazing crew the month or so I spent here so it will always have a special place for me!
- On the other side of the lake from San Pedro, San Marcos la Laguna has got a very hippy, new-age earthy vibe. If you’re into yoga, reiki, water births, cacao ceremonies, and cliff jumping, you’ve found the right place. Beautiful views, very laid back vegan/hippy sort of atmosphere. Don’t be surprised if you leave with dreads and clad in harem pants. Make sure to jump off the famous trampolin but also make sure you’re not afraid of heights!
Santiago de Atitilán
- The most traditional stronghold on the lake. There’s a shrine to Maximon which is definitely kitschy (don’t forget to bring him some ciggies or Quetzalteca), and the marketplace there is quite an experience (best days are Saturday and Sunday mornings). In this town you’ll probably get the best deals around the lake on souvenirs, backpacks, coats, sweaters, jewelry, whatever you want to buy. Even some the men wear traditional Guatemalan outfits here (in the other villages it was mostly the just the women in huipiles, fajas, and skirts)!
I visited Chichicastenango as a day trip from San Pedro but you can also go here and spend the night. It’s a big town in the Quiché region home to the largest indigenous handicraft market in all of Central America. It’s an enormous expanse of kiosks and tents filled to the brim with everything you can imagine and more!
I bought a beautiful wraparound belt called a faja here (see me awkwardly wearing it below, I usually have a bit more swagger when I wear it, I promise), and marveled at the colorful assortment of pretty much anything you might be itching to buy – knives, backpacks, rugs, tapestries, food, machetes, plants, pottery… Definitely the best marketplace I went to in Guatemala and certainly trumped any market in Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua (where I went later) in terms of handmade items with a local flair. You’ll definitely hone your bargaining skills here.
Semuc Champey is home to beautiful, natural, turquoise pools on a limestone bridge up in Lanquín, Guatemala. A lot of people come here on their way to Tikal, which are some ancient ruins right below the Yucatan in Mexico. It was a long 10-hour bus ride from Panajachel (there are only a few highways in Guatemala, so sometimes you have to do some really roundabout ways of getting around).
There are some fun hostels in the town that are on the river – I stayed at El Retiro, and there’s a great family dinner every night. It’s a fun atmosphere at night, and then you can do a tour of the underwater caves and the pools during the day. There are also other caves you can go explore with the very friendly local guides, like Hector below (who dabbled in a million languages to cater to all the tourists, which you know I love). These guys are not afraid of giant tarantulas and can, with the simple wave of a hand, grab a bat out of the cold dark cave air. For real!
If you’re not planning on exploring northern Guatemala, Semuc Champey is a bit out of the way, but there are other spots to explore up there as well that I didn’t visit. It’s much more secluded than towns on Lake Atitlán.
I went to Huehuetenango because we got held up at the border to Mexico at La Mesilla and had to spend the night until the strike was lifted and we could cross over to Mexico. This was a beautiful, very Guatemalan city with colonial architecture! I’m not sure you’d want to spend more than a day or so here, but if you wanted a more off-the-beaten-track, local experience, this is the city for you.
I can’t find any of my pix from this city, but here are some videos of the bus ride up through the mountains and then through a town near the border with Mexico, so near La Mesilla.
This is the second largest city in Guatemala after Guatemala City, and it’s commonly referred to by it’s indigenous name, Xela (shay-la). It’s cool – the Germans actually came in for a while at some point and built it up, so the downtown does have a very different feel than Spanish colonial Antigua! It’s in a valley too, so the view driving down is incredible and makes for an awesome hike or intensive bike ride that will burn your thighs.
There are lots of charities and Spanish schools here so there are quite a few hostels and travelers. It’s quite a busy city that’s bustling with people and car-heavy traffic, but architecturally it was an interesting city to explore and had a big-city feel. It was also good base to get some work done (I was on my way down to Guatemala City to do a seminar) with lots of cafés and decent WiFi. Good hostel crew here too at The Black Cat, so that also contributed to a time well spent in these here parts.
Most people just fly in and fly out of here, but because I was in Guatemala City for a job, I spent three days here. The first time I flew out I stayed at Quetzalroo, a hostel in the center of the city, which was nice and all but they didn’t warn me about how fast their iron gate shuts out front and I almost lost some fingers. But I’m being nit-picky here, it was very clean and quiet and safe, and easy to get to the airport.
Most of what I saw of the city was by taxi. I did go to two different malls, which I suppose was nice and luxurious at the time. I was mostly preparing for my seminar. There was a mall in the center of the city where I met my colleague for the seminar I was giving and bought the best bikini ever (when you’re bad at dividing by 7.8 for quetzales to dollars you’ll buy almost anything with a smile til you realize you’re a total doofus). There is also the brand new Paseo Calaya on the outskirts of town – My Guatemalan colleague liked Paseo because she felt she could drop her teenage kids off there for the afternoon without having to worry about them, but others feel it’s further alienating wealthy foreigners and Guatemalans from the rest of the population.
I was determined to find some cool, hip places in Guatemala City, and I did find this coffeeshop run by two Guatemalan guys my age near the university! They were really knowledgeable about coffee and made me an incredible latte, and let me practice my Spanish on them even though their English was fantástico. So a special shout out to the guys at Rojocerezo 🙂
I have so many more great memories of the people and places I met and saw while in Guatemala…beautiful country, lovely people, Mayan ruins, Mayan languages, lakes, mountains, tamales, volcanoes…just go.