Right now it’s a lazy Saturday morning and I’m sitting literally on the beach at La Tortuga Verde a beautiful little eco-hotel 3km east of Playa El Cuco that doubles as a turtle sanctuary on the east coast of El Salvador. I’ve literally just finished a surf session and even though the waves were not pumping I loved having the waves completely to myself such as I did this morning.
With a few hours to spare before I do some fishing this afternoon I thought it would be a perfect time to write a post on the 17 days I recently spent in Guatemala. Loaded with Mayan ruins, gorgeous colonial towns as well as beautiful lakes and seaside villages I once again squeezed in what I think was a ‘Best of Guatemala’ in quite a short time. With the dry season nearly over I’m trying to get my skates on and move a little faster down south.
After an interesting 12 hour commute by mainly mini-vans and chicken busses from Palenque (Mexico) I arrived to the inland island of Flores on Lago De Petén Itza. The reason I was there was to visit one of the jewels of Guatemala’s crown – Tikal.
Nestled deep in the jungle are massive temples and towering pyramids. I read that the Mayans settled there around 700 BC and what makes this place unique from most of the other ruins sites I have visited was the awesome wildlife on show. After a 1.5 hour shuttle from Flores I arrived in Tikal at about 6am and this time I decided to explore the site solo without a guide or tour group.
I remember walking under the rainforest canopy at first light hearing only what I could describe as a barking dog originating high up from the trees. I quickly discovered that these were Howler Monkeys swinging around the tree branches and I stood there for at least half an hour watching these awesome creatures in amazement. The sounds resonating around the jungle were captivating and I was constantly looking around trying to spot different forms of wildlife. There were brightly coloured Parrots and Toucans, the sound of beating drums from the Woodpeckers in the trees and the buzz of Tree Frogs all working in harmony to create a wonderful ambience.
The highlight for me was stumbling across a group of about 20 Pizotes with their heads in the ground and large tails in their air just going about their business with absolutely no regard for me being there – it was like I didn’t even exist. I would almost go as far as saying that seeing the wildlife was more impressive than the ruins themselves.
After shaking off yet another bout of food poisoning I was ready to bounce out of Flores to visit the natural rock pools of Semuc Champey. That was my 3rd instance in as many weeks and I was at a loss to determine the cause of this frequent illness as I was far more stringent on food choice and hygiene. I was starting to get a little worried that I had picked up some type of parasite in Mexico (Tip: Don’t resort to google to diagnose ailments). Fortunately it has now been about 3 weeks without any issue so my concerns have eased. Even after a few ‘self-tests’ such as eating Papusas from the street in El Salvador my confidence has now returned.
Semuc Champey was tranquil and picturesque. I stayed in a cosy little wood cabin near the entrance to the national park. The drive out there was stunning and loaded with some of the most beautiful scenery of my trip to date as well as some charming little country towns that blended into the environment so eloquently. I enjoyed cooling-off in the rock pools for a day and soaking in as much of the tranquillity as I could.
After 2 days I left Semuc Champey super-chilled and headed towards to a small town on the eastern side of Guatemala called Livingston. This involved a gruelling 6-hour ride in a fully loaded shuttle over super bumpy unmade roads where we eventually arrived at Rio Dulce. From there it was about a 1-hour ride in a small wooden-hull boat to Livingston. During the boat ride I was once again spoilt with some beautiful scenery and wildlife.
Almost immediately after stepping off the boat I could tell that Livingston was totally different from the rest of Guatemala. Many locals are of Garifuna descent originating in Africa and being so close to Belize it had more of a Caribbean feel to the place. Livingston is also unconnected by road from the rest of Guatemala which also adds to the individuality of the town. I was travelling with a guy called Pablo (German) whom I met in Puerto Escondido and this was the third time I had randomly stumbled into him in Central America during my travels.
We checked into a recommended hostel called Casa De La Iguana which was surprisingly managed by some young Australian guys. Whilst we knew this was a party hostel it actually turned out to be a huge mistake as we grossly underestimated the party nature. After check-in we were offered shots of alcohol and shortly after dinner the music started pumping and lasted until at least 4-5am. The sounds of drunken 18 year olds stumbling around all night could be heard and I dreaded walking into the single bathroom which was constantly covered in vomit and filth.
The next morning Pablo and I got the hell out of there and checked-out with the staff that had started on what looked like their usual breakfast shots of alcohol. After inspecting a few local hotels we found a hidden gem near where the fishing boats dock called Hotel Viajero. At about US$3 per night for a basic private room and bathroom it was an absolute steal. It was super quiet, ultra-cheap and literally on the water which had us both feeling impressed with our new find. By far the best feature was the little restaurant at the rear that had no menu and just made whatever the owner ‘Bilda’ had in her kitchen.
We spent 4 days just lounging in the hammock, eating home-style food and drinking beer whilst the fishing boats headed in and out of dock. I was super-keen to go out with the fisherman and struck up some conversation with them and volunteered my services as a deck-hand in return for some local catch. I didn’t seem to get any interest however a few days later I was approached at breakfast and asked if I was still interested. I agreed without any hesitation and was told to be ready at sunset where I would return at sunrise.
Bilda and the rest of the staff at the hotel didn’t think it was a good idea that I go as they thought the demands of being a deck-hand on these boats might be too hard on my western unexperienced body. Pablo just thought it was hilarious and was encouraging me to go and was probably more interested in eating some of the catch of prawns I would bring back. I was dead-set on going regardless so Bilda whipped me up a few sandwiches to take and off we went at sunset. It was a bumpy ride out on the relatively small wooden boat which was not an issue for me but unfortunately we struck engine trouble about an hour offshore. The crew tried to do some running repairs but quickly turned back as the engine was over-heating and even they didn’t want to risk completely breaking down out there – needless to say I was devastated.
I could have easily stayed at Hotel Viajero for many more weeks so before I got to settled I decided to leave the next day otherwise Id never make it down to South America. I boarded a boat heading towards the larger town of Puerto Barrios from where I got a bus to sketchy Guatemala City and then quickly jumped on another bus for the short ride to Antigua.
Antigua is a tourism showpiece and Guatemala’s version of Disneyland. An abundance of Spanish language schools make it a favourite stop for travellers as do its beauty, history and vibrant culture. The colourful colonial buildings surrounded by three intimidating volcanoes made for an impressive backdrop however what I was looking forward to the most was the coffee and chocolate – which I knew was going to be world-class. Antigua did not disappoint one-bit as I café-hopped my way around the town sipping on Guatemala’s finest coffee and indulging in seriously decadent chocolate. Surprisingly the food was also top-notch as my expectations were low due to feedback from fellow travellers as well as prior personal experience throughout Guatemala.
With my caffeine addiction quenched and body carb-loaded on excess chocolate I headed to the party town of San Pedro on the edge of Lago De Atitlan which was about a 3 hour shuttle ride north from Antigua. I had heard so much about this vibrant little town and was excited about a few days of letting loose there. Unfortunately I either experienced some very poor timing or the town was slightly overrated as even the wildest bar “Zoola” disappointed with a very low-key atmosphere. The only part of me that got anything close to a party was my taste buds as I chowed down on a mediocre falafel which was the last place I would expect to consume such a meal.
I did enrol in a Spanish school for the 4 days I spent there and squeezed-in some much-needed practise as my Spanish had suffered due to hanging out with too many English-speaking gringos. Guatemala is definitely a great place to learn as not only are the schools affordable but most importantly the accent is much more neutral compared to other Central American countries.
And that was it for my 17 days in Guatemala as I decided it was time to bounce and once again chicken bus it all the way to a quiet surf beach called El Sunzal in El Savlador. Two weeks were just the right amount of time to take in the best of what Guatemala had to offer and whilst the country wasn’t exactly all that I thought it would be I certainly enjoyed my time there.
If you want some tranquillity, want to learn Spanish or simply feed your caffeine or chocolate addiction then be sure to visit this gateway to Central America.
Adios for now.