On the tourist route through Guatemala

Crossing the border to Guatemala was at the same time exciting and scaring. Like Mexico, Guatemala does not have a good reputation, and even though we were just a few meters from English-speaking Belize we were now back to relying on Ulrik’s Spanish and Gittte’s lively gestures.

However, we had done our research and easily found an ATM, a grocery store, and a collectivo (the characteristic shared minibuses taking the locals everywhere following an unknown schedule and to some extent unknown route). About an hour later we were dropped off at the turnoff to Tikal. The destination of the day was now only 36 km away!

According to our research we should be able to flag down a collectivo at this turnoff. It may be true, but after half an hour of waiting a family from Guatemala City (driving the about 10 hours for the free entry for locals on Sundays 😮) came by in their pickup truck and offered us a ride in the back. Lovely ride on the winding jungle road 🙂.

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We spent the night at the campsite right next to the archaeological site of Tikal. The campsite was greatly taken care of by the lovely, elderly caretaker who definitely were very excited to have some guests! It was a night full of fireflies and loud howler monkeys — we kind of started to like the jungle 🙂.

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We woke up before sunrise to go to the archaeological site. We had been warned about crowds and heat, but in fact we just had some pleasant hours with only a few other groups at the site. It sounds slightly boring with all these ruins, but it keeps surprising us how different they are. And Tikal was no exception: Featuring spectacular views of the jungle it was definitely worth it!

We ended the day in nearby Flores, where we got a video of the daily thunderstorm!

Guatemala has only a handful of regular tourist destinations, and as we are kind of short of time in Central America we decided to follow the tourist shuttle route. Next stop: Lanquín and Semuc Champey.

To get a bit out and about on our own we decided to hike the 10 km from Lanquín to Semuc Champey instead of using the pickup trucks running as collectivos on that stretch of road. It proved very rewarding with wonderful views and loads of curious locals definitely not used to tourists walking there.

Semuc Champey is said to be the most beautiful spot in Guatemala. However, when we read about it we did not really understand what it was. We found out! Semuc Champey means “where the river hides under the rocks”, and it turns out that the Cahabón River pases underground through 300 m long limestone tunnel at this spot. Above ground where the river should have been flowing is instead a series of stepped pools with chill, turquoise water perfect for swimming!

We ended the day all alone in the Lanquín Caves — first exploring the huge cave system with a guide, and then watching the sunset at the entrance while many thousands of bats were flying out for their nightly hunt via that same exit. Ulrik was absolutely thrilled, Gitte more like in-between scared and disgusted 😛.

After a day and a half of horrible bus rides we arrived in Quetzaltenango, the second biggest city of Guatemala. There may be loads to see here, and there was a big Independence Day parade on our day of arrival, but our main purpose for going there was to join a three-day trek to Lake Atitlán through a landscape which should be absolutely stunning with a local NGO, Quetzaltrekkers, who support local children.

As we are traveling to experience absolutely stunning nature we thought it would be just right for us. Another 22 backpackers had thought the same thing, and soon we found ourselves part of the biggest trekking group we have ever joined. The guides were friendly and helpful, and all the others in the group were very social and friendly — so it was a good trek. However, we felt a bit like being on the big tourist tour assembly line. Nonetheless, we did see some amazing nature!

We started out early morning going from Quetzaltenango to Xecam by minibus. From here we started the trek: Tough uphill for the first few hours. We gained some 800 meters in altitude on narrow cloud forest paths before we hit the open corn field landscape. To our relief we were far from the slowest in the group, so we did not need to hurry and could enjoy the nature.

The rest of the day was more mixed uphill and downhill, and we reached our destination for the night in time for a Mayan sauna called a temazcal. This is pretty much a low shed in which you make a fire heating up the tiny room, a pile of stones, and a bucket of water. When the fire is out you crawl in there and can treat yourself with a hot bucket shower. Recommendable? Absolutely, if you have no other shower options 😉. But we have no plans for building one ourselves 😛.

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Photo borrowed from another trekker.

We spent the night in the municipality building in the mountain village of Santa Catarina Ixtahuaxan. As the evening and night came with heavy rain and thunder we were happy to have shelter!

On our second day we had another big hill to climb as well as a total of nine stream crossings and unnumbered fantastic views of both cloud forest and agricultural land.

The hill wasn’t too bad, but apparently it’s a tradition to get an icecream in one of the small shops on the top. And who are we to break such a great tradition 😉. So we both got frozen chocobananas, and Ulrik got an icecream 😀.

Our destination for the night was the home of Don Pedro, a lovely comedor owner in Xiprian. He served us dinner in his comedor, and thereafter moved the tables so we could get a few hours of sleep before we embarked on the trek towards a local mirador from where we could watch the sunrise over Lake Atitlán. And that sunrise is really worth walking for!

We ended the trek with a tough decent to San Juan la Laguna, where we bought a well-deserved cup of Guatemalan coffee and some banana bread. After having lunch in nearby San Pedro our tour ended. Sad goodbyes to new friends, and an evening of doing laundry before we moved on to Antigua, and now Honduras!

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Photo by Roz.

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