Not what I was expecting. Here’s the thing with having expectations…they are almost always wrong, but it is impossible to not think about a place, its people and culture. Isn’t that why we travel somewhere? We see a picture, hear a tale, read a book, and that inspires us to go. So somewhere expectations come along.
I like to do my research before jet setting. Some of the research I ran across on Guatemala said it is unsafe; there are kidnappings, muggings at gun point, corrupt cops, ATMs that will steal your information, the list goes on. So, I had my guard up while visiting the country (FYI – you should be aware anywhere where you go). Even though these things are scary to read I was drawn to the country and this wasn’t going to stop me from going. I went, I was careful, and nothing happened. I felt completely safe. I am sure these things happen in Guatemala, but they also happen everywhere! Don’t let warnings like this stop you from new experiences. It is just as easy for me to be mugged walking to my place in Denver as it is anywhere else in the world.
Guatemala 5 Day Itinerary
Day 1: Travel Day
Fly into Guatemala City and head directly to Antigua. We prearranged a driver to pick us up from the airport with our hotel (this cost us $15 for two people). The drive from the airport was about 1.5 hours (we also got stuck in traffic, generally I think the drive is 45 minutes). Our plane landed around 9PM, so after getting to our Antigua hotel we crashed for the night.
Day 2: Antigua
The city sits between three volcanoes; Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango. Fuego erupts daily, you can see small plumes of smoke during the day and possibly hints of lava at night.
Antigua has an old European feel. This city was conquered by the Spanish back in the 1500’s and has been able to maintain its colonial charm throughout its history. Recommendations for your first day – roam the city! Antigua is great for walking. The streets within the city are cobblestone so wear appropriate shoes.
Check out the architecture of the many Catholic churches that dot the city, visit the El Mercado for handicrafts made in the area, people watch in Parque Central (the plaza), relax with an inexpensive massage or mani/pedi, or book a day trip to the Tikal ruins or to Pacaya volcano. There are several tour operators in town to book walking tours, food tours, and other excursions. After wandering around the city for the day head back to your hotel, grab a couple of Gallos from a Tienda and watch the sunset over the volcanoes. Our hotel had a rooftop deck with hammocks, perfect for lounging and taking in the views.
Day 3: Antigua
What we thought we wanted to do – Take a scooter to the top of Cerro de la Cruz; a large cross placed on a hillside that overlooks Antigua and the Agua volcano. There is a road that leads up to the look out as well as a trail. We were feeling adventurous. I’ve never been on a motorcycle so the owners of the bike shop thought a scooter would be better for us. Well that was scary as fuck. Two tall mamas trying to balance on a scooter while driving over cobblestone. Yea…right. Not cute (and totally not safe).
What we actually did – Ate and drank at Cerro San Cristobal, which is a farm to table restaurant with breathtaking views of the city and surrounding volcanoes. So, very similar to what we planned to do except this involved little work from us to get up mountain, booze and food. Better choice if you ask me. There is a free shuttle that runs every hour or so from the indoor market (Nim Po’t) located a couple of businesses down from the famous Arch (Arco de Santa Catalina). Go inside Nim Po’t and ask for the shuttle to Cerro San Cristobal. The road up to the restaurant is dirt…so if the windows in the shuttle van are down you will get a little dusty. The ride to the restaurant takes around 30 minutes and there are some hair bending turns. The restaurant is surrounded by gardens and greenhouses. There is a large dining patio that overlooks Antigua. Grab some munchies and booze, and chill out for a couple of hours. Depending on the day and time there may be live music. After you eat your entire plate of nachos and say three beers, wander around the gardens. Grab the shuttle for a ride back to town or if you dare….walk down.
Day 4: Lake Atitlán
Book a shuttle with your hotel and head to Lake Atitlán. We left at 8AM and got into Panajachel around 11AM. Shuttles are around $15 one-way. Make sure you have cash before going to Lake Atitlán. There are only a few ATMS/banks located around the lake. I believe there are ATMs located in Pana, San Juan, and San Pedro. If you are staying anywhere but Panajachel you will need to take a water taxi. There isn’t an official place to buy tickets; down by the docks there are some gentlemen hanging out usually with a line in front of them, that’s where you need to go. NEGOTIATE THE PRICE BEFORE YOU BOARD! Prices are usually around 20-25 Quetzal for a ride.
Lake Atitlán is surrounded by volcanoes and it’s the deepest lake in Central America, its depths reach over 1,000 ft. That’s deep! I’ve been to some beautiful places, this one is up there on the list of most beautiful.
We decided to stay in the less touristy village of Santa Cruz. After dropping off our bags we headed to San Juan village, as recommended by our hotel. Here we found Carlos chillin’ in his tuk tuk. He quickly approached us and asked if we would like a tour of the village. Hell, why not?
Carlos showed us the process of harvesting coffee beans from plant to cup. Guatemalan coffee is pretty darn good. Then we went to a medicinal herb garden, and bought some much needed aloe lotion, I crisp up nicely in the sun. The final stop on our tour was to a women’s textile cooperative to see how Guatemalan textiles are made using dye from regional plants. This type of tour is usually not my thing, but if felt very authentic, there wasn’t much pressure to buy the goods and if you did, all proceeds went to a good cause.
The highlight of the tour was driving around the steep and narrow streets of San Juan with a local learning the history of the village and its native people. Carlos drove us from San Juan to San Pedro where we boarded a taxi boat and headed back to Santa Cruz.
If you are looking for a touristy spot San Pedro or Panachajel is the place to be, their streets are crowded with locals and foreigners alike, there are several souvenir/tourist shops, bars, and restaurants. If you are looking to get away from the hustle and bustle, check out one of the smaller villages such as San Marcos, San Juan or Santa Cruz, here you can see a more authentic side of Lake Atitlán.
Day 5: Lake Atitlán
This was our day to be outdoorsy. Lake Atitlán is connected by a series of hiking trails, the trails connect the villages and if you wanted to you could hike the circumference of the lake. We didn’t get that ballsy. We did wander down a path near our hotel and found a house renting kayaks. For 40Q, we took the kayaks out for an hour. If you plan to kayak, go in the morning as the lake gets choppy in the afternoon.
After kayaking we took a tuk tuk up to Santa Cruz village. There isn’t much going on up there, but the views are stunning. We walked down the main road, and of course I ate shit. So my recommendation to you is to be careful. The road is STEEP and there are cliffs around each bend. Santa Cruz is perfect for relaxing, reading a book, sunbathing, and taking in the stunning beauty of lake. There is also a dive shop for those who enjoy scuba, and it’s pretty cool do to a high altitude dive in Central America’s deepest lake. We did get adventurous in the afternoon and jumped in the lake.
Day 6: Travel Day
Most hotels will book a shuttle for you, the ride is about 3 hours from Panachajel to Guatemala City. Our driver dropped us off directly at our hotel.
Police randomly stop cars along Guatemalan highways. This happened to us twice. We have no clue why, but our driver worked it out and we were on our way within 10 minutes.
Gallo is Guatemala’s National Beer.
Need to brush up on your Spanish? Check out the Duolingo. There is an app as well!
Check out Por Que No? Café in Antigua. Chill bar with an eclectic mix of random objects hanging from the ceiling, you can leave your mark by writing a message/drawing on the wall.
Guatemala was better than expected, I don’t know what I expected but the country, culture, and friendliness of its people blew me away. The scenery was incredible, seeing a volcano erupt was something I never thought I’d experience, and the of the price didn’t break the bank. I will be going back.