Guatemala was wonderful, for me, it was a true highlight of the trip, perfect weather, delightful locals and scenery and variety were hard to rival. We spent the best part of 5 weeks of our time here on Lake Atitlan, with two weeks of that time at a homestay, attending Spanish lessons, and the rest in the awesome Pasaj Cap campground, working online.
For the purposes of recounting our time in Guatemala, it can, therefore be broken down into the following anecdotes and experiences:
Our first night in Guatemala saw us driving down to a town called El Petal on the shore of Lago Peten Itza, little more than a collection of smallish shops and hotels dotted in the trees along the lake shore. We did manage to time our arrival perfectly to conincide with one of the most spectacular sunsets that Central America had to offer. During our time in Mexico, we had been rather spoilt for Mayan ruins, so I must admit that I had my protestations at getting up and packing down the cruiser at half four in the morning to go and see another.
We were first through the gate, the dog hidden in the back, and in the early morning like parked up and began the hike up to the main temple. There was not a soul around, just ourselves, the chirping of birds and the distant echo of Howler Monkeys. We walked past the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, trying not to look at it too much so we could get the big sunrise reveal and ascended the stairs that loop around the mirroring ruin. From there we sat and watched as the sun illuminated the sky behind the ancient temple, listened to the sound of the Jungle, and tried to picture this city in its glory, a task that was not very challenging.
The pictures say more than I could, but Tikal was a truly special place, the scale of it gave a real sense of understanding the layout of the city, the early morning light and the absence of other tourists, paired with the soundscape of the Jungle and the overgrowing vines made for a feeling of being a true explorer, like you were discovering it for the first time, like there was no one there but you and the ghosts of the Mayans.
Isla de Flores
While many of the Guatemalan towns were special, interesting and vibrant, there were few more fun and picturesque than Flores. We camped up on the opposite side of the lake, with a view that was like something out of a storybook.
The town itself was a short walk and boat ride away, where the streets were filled with superb and inexpensive bars and restaurants, quirky shops and winding cobbled streets, all in an island setting that put you in mind of somewhere between Miami and Dubrovnik.
With Spanish school booked and rapidly approaching, the fact that we had to rebuild the entire front axle whilst here, meant our time was limited in classic fashion, to spending days sweaty and greasy and upon being able to stand it no more, having a quick shower, and heading into town for the evenings to explore. It was certainly a place that otherwise, we would have spent much more time enjoying, but on a time limit, and in a country with so much to offer, we were limited to but three short days.
Semuc Champey was one of the highlights of the trip for me, and certainly one of my favourite days in Central America. We managed to luck out and get a private tour and arrived first in the morning to have the majority of the place, and certainly the cave system, entirely to ourselves.It was at this point that I realised that, after clearing it in preparation, I had completely neglected to replace the memory card in the GoPro. Classic Ross. We have not one photo of our time here.
Luckily, we have solid memories of this incredible place. It began, superbly for a claustrophobic such as myself, venturing by candlelight, chest deep in water, deep into the cave system, just the two of us and our local guide. I nearly lost it on several occasions, those moments where you have to take deep breaths and solidly reassure yourself that everything will be ok, like when I tripped on a submerged rock and lost a candle, or when we had to squeeze through a narrow chute with flowing water. I was truly thankful then when we re-emerged back into the Guatemalan sunlight to continue our tour.
We jumped of huge rope swings and waterfalls, tubed down fast flowing rivers and dived from bridges, ate a huge lunch and hiked up to look down on the famous pools. We ended the day, swimming in the crystal blue waters of the magical tiered pools and sliding down the rocks that connected them. It was an awesome day, in an awesome location and one thing that I would put on any must do list for Central America.
Some of the most memorable moments during our time in Guatemala were the drives. Road or dirt track, each came with a unique set of challenges and dangers that resulted in some hair-raising moments that we will not soon forget. Between the crazy bus drivers to overtaking on blind corners to windy mountain dirt roads that descended hundreds of meters with a precipice that felt like it could plunge you to your death at any moment.
We had our bullbars clipped on more than one occasion, and once, rounding a corner had to screech to a halt in the middle of the road, as an overtaking driver in our lane nearly collided with us. We renamed the local repurposed American School buses “Devil Bus” as these were some of the most aggressive and terrifying drivers we have ever encountered. They would fly through, on windy country roads, overtake in a black cloud of diesel smoke, only the blasting horn and array of lights to warn you and, often force you into the ditch, as it certainly wasn’t a game of chicken you were about to win.
The views on these roads, however, were some of the best of the trip so far, between the clearing dust clouds revealing a mountain valley, or rounding a steep corner to find the deep blue of a huge lake, they never disappointed.
Antigua was the last town we stopped in in Guatemala, and we used it as a base to prepare ourselves and our vehicles for the coming drive through El Salvador and Honduras, as these are not places you want to break down! The city is famous as one of the finest examples of colonial architecture and is constantly framed by the smoking Volcan Fuego, making it a stunning place to spend time. We stayed on the street, parked up outside a little hostel, and using the facilities from there, luckily, by this point, we have managed to get the vehicle interior into a usable configuration.
Guatemala was awesome, with incredible variety, (cultural, architectural and natural) to keep us exploring for weeks without ever feeling like we were seeing the same thing twice. I do sometimes feel, that writing this blog, I can be too enthusiastic, and sound like I am writing just to promote visits to the countries that I am seeing, but in most cases, it is just as looking back, i enjoyed the places so thoroughly and truly hope others will do the same. Guatemala is no different, it is a superb country to travel in, to overland in and to live in. Like everywhere, it does have its problems, and whilst personally, I hardly ever felt unsafe, we have heard of a few isolated incidents of nasty occurrences. Finally, while this represents the highlights of the trip, I must add that I did not think much of what I saw of Guatemala City itself, and, being stuck, temporarily, after nightfall in some of the rougher ends of this Central American metropolis, I did have a few panicked moments, worrying that this was the time, if any, something bad would happen, but that is a story for another day.
*Our highlights in Guatemala also certainly included the spectacular Lake Atitlan, San Pedro, Pasaj Cap and the incredible Semana Santa Celebrations, but, as this was over a month of our time here, it will have its own post (coming next!)