My really, really long trip report is below. Feel free to skim. Most was taken from my journal and I did not edit much out.
I spent 9 days traveling throughout Guatemala in November 2012 with a friend. We are both women in our 40s/50s that are fairly well traveled. Our interests are wide and include politics, history, architecture, culture and crafts. We had a fairly moderate budget for the trip. While we certainly were not going high end, we did not wish to go the hostel route either. As we were covering a lot of territory during our stay, we opted to book our hotels ahead of time.
We arrived in Guatemala City at mid-day and had arranged for a private transfer to Antigua through our hotel. As promised, the driver was waiting for us at the airport with our name on a sign so we could easily find him. We spent 3 nights in Antigua at Hotel La Catedral. It is a lovely hotel in a great location. I will post reviews of all our hotels.
Antigua is an enchanting town and if you can manage the cobblestone, a walker’s dream. There was so much to see! A few highlights were the Cathedral, the Convent of Santa Clara, San Francisco Church, La Merced and the Santa Domingo Museum. We enjoyed walking through the market, people watching in the Plaza and took a trip up to Santa Domingo del Cerro. While we were up there, taking in the views of the city, we experienced the smaller earthquake on November 11th. One afternoon we took the cultural walking tour though Antigua tours. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Bell did not lead that tour, but we had a very nice tour guide.
Prior to our trip I made contact with Common Hope, a Minnesota based non-profit that runs Familias de Esperanza just outside Antigua. When asked what we could do to help, we were told they could use some school supplies. Armed with a very specific list, we conducted a school supply drive amongst our friends and co-workers and were able to hand deliver two large duffle bags of much needed supplies. We also had an opportunity to tour the facilities and meet with some of the children.
We ate very well in Antigua. The Chile Rellenos at La Fonda de Calle Real were delicious. Panza Verde offered a beautiful setting and an exquisite meal. While dining at Posada de Don Rodrigo we were treated to some local music and a short ballet folklorico performance. Fusion had the best salads!
On our 4th day we took a tourist bus to Panajachel. The bus was quite comfortable and made a short stop midway for a bathroom break and snacks. It took about 3 hours in total. When we first arrived in Panajachel it was a little overwhelming. As we got off the bus we were surrounded by people willing to carry our bags and book us tours. “Bees to honey” was my description of our arrival. After breaking our way out of the crowd we made our way to the dock and asked for the boat to San Marcos. We were advised that the regular boat was 25Q and would take about 1 hr and 15 min or we could get a private boat for 250Q. We opted for the later, although I later learned that the regular boat was closer to 45 min.
We spent 4 nights at the lovely Hotel Aaculaax in San Marcos. It is a beautiful and peaceful hotel with comfortable rooms and great views. I loved it! While the hotel was awesome, our first impression of San Marcos was not great. I just don’t think I knew what to expect. It was much smaller than I thought and seemed pretty quiet during the day. First impressions, however, are not always accurate and by the end of the 2nd day we were far more comfortable with the town and felt it was a great choice for us. We loved the quietness and small town feel but appreciated the easy access (via boat or tuk-tuk) to some of the other towns.
On somewhat short notice, I contacted Lee Beal with Elementos Adventure Center and booked a full day tour of San Juan, San Pedro and Santiago. While I’m usually not a big fan of tours, our day with Lee was one of the highlights of the whole trip. On the website it indicated the tour lasted about 5-6 hours, however Lee spent about 9 hours with us that day. He was quickly able to assess our interests and then customized a plan that would make for a very special and informative day. We visited art galleries and spoke with the artists about their work. We visited a textile cooperative and a curative plant garden. He shared his knowledge of Mayan culture and was able to answer our numerous questions about the indigenous population. We had a brief chat with a local cofradia about his work. Throughout the day we had many discussions about the current political climate and the recent civil war. I’m really grateful to Lee for making this day so meaningful. It also gave us the knowledge to more fully enjoy our remaining days in Guatemala.
The next day we went to Chichicastenango for the Thursday market. If you are prone to motion sickness I would recommend taking Dramamine or Bonine before getting on the bus/shuttle. It took about 90 minutes and was a lot of up, down, around, start and stop. The market was a fascinating place. I loved seeing the women dressed in their traditional traje, sitting on the steps of Santo Thomas Church with their buckets of flowers. Between the colors of the dresses and flowers, the music and the smell of incense and cooking tortillas it was quite of feast for the senses.
I enjoyed walking through the numerous stalls offering everything imaginable, although it did seem as though there were very few quality handicrafts. Most of the wares were mass produced and still in their plastic bags. Perhaps there are parts of the market that I did not see but I opted to buy most of my gifts at the cooperativas in San Juan vs. Chichi.
On our way back to San Marcos from Pana that day we had a little incident with the boat. While at the time it was a little frightening, it has since turned into just another adventure story and a good lesson learned. When we got to the dock in Pana I asked for the boat to San Marcos and was told to board, “Hurricane”. After waiting about 15 minutes we departed and began our trek across the lake. The route seemed a little different this time and I thought perhaps we were doing the route in reverse. When we stopped in San Pedro, however, we were told this boat did not go to San Marcos. The driver insisted I told him San Pedro, not San Marcos. Furthermore, this was the last boat of the day. After a few moments of panic and a little pleading, we were told that if we paid more money he could get us to San Marcos (or at least that is what I thought he said). We then took off at breakneck speed across the lake, beating against the waves. With each thump I had to stifle a scream. They then started to wave wildly at an oncoming boat, which eventually pulled up alongside us. As each boat was rising and falling with the waves we were told to quickly board the other boat. Yikes! We were both terrified, but there was clearly no time to panic. With the help of several people on each boat we made the mid-lake transfer.
Who knew middle aged women could move that fast. Did I mention we each had about 5 pounds of coffee that we’ve picked up at Crossroads in Pana?
On our last morning, we had another boat experience, although this one was entirely different… Apparently 8am is rush hour on the lake because our boat from San Marcos to Pana started filling up very quickly. At one point I counted about 12 life jackets and 20 people. However, they kept stopping and picking up more and more people. I’m sure there were more than 30 people on that boat and we were moving slow and low. Anyways, as space was at a premium I offered to let a little girl who was with her mother and baby brother sit on my lap. We had a little conversation and I learned that she was 5 and her name was Rosa. Rosa loved playing with my blond hair and trying on my sunglasses. It started to get cold and wet so I took my scarf and wrapped it around her. She then rearranged the scarf so it would keep me warm as well. Given the time it was taking and how slow we were moving, I briefly started to panic about making our 9am bus. When I looked down at Rosa, who was cuddled up in my arms and then peered over at her mother who was peaceful nursing her baby, I realized I could care less if we made our bus. It is moments like these that we need to remember and cherish.
Luckily for us, the shuttle bus waited for us in Pana. After a quick change in Los Encuentos and another change in Antigua we arrived at the Guatemala City airport. With 4 hours before our flight, I opted to take a taxi to the Palacio Nacional in Zona 1. I went alone as my friend wanted to stay at the airport and read. (Perhaps she needed a break from me). Anyways, I enjoyed the National Palace, particularly seeing the peace monument. I also visited the Cathedral and spent some time in the plaza people watching. I was hoping to see the memorial for the victims of the Spanish Embassy massacre but did not find it. Regardless, it was well worth the cab fare to make the brief visit and it felt very safe.
We arrived in Flores about 7:30 pm and took a shuttle to Hotel Casa Amelia. While unremarkable, it was a good option for a short stay. It was clean, safe, in a good location and close to some nice restaurants. I opted to book a private shuttle for the trip from Flores to Tikal the next morning as we needed to be in Tikal by 6:00am.
We were scheduled to meet with Roxy Ortiz for a private tour. When we arrived she greeted us warmly and then offered some coffee and a little breakfast. As I stated earlier, I’m normally not a big fan of tours. I’m also a little skeptical when one individual gets such rave reviews. I find myself asking if any individual can really be that good? I’m pleased to report that Ms. Roxy Ortiz is without a doubt, that good. She not only met our expectations, she far exceeded them. She is a charming, intelligent woman who possesses a great deal of knowledge about Mayan history, Tikal, nature and politics. Furthermore, she has a gift of storytelling that enables history to come alive. Her tales were so captivating I felt transported back in time. Intermixed throughout our tour were sightings of howler and spider monkeys, oscellated turkeys, a cool raccoon-like animal and numerous birds. I’m pretty sure my bird-watching brother-in-law would have been quite jealous!
We took the San Juan shuttle back to Flores that afternoon without incident. We spent the remainder of the day wandering around Flores and enjoyed our last night in Guatemala watching the sunset from the balcony at Villa del Chef. At the recommendation of Roxy, we had the blanco fish and it was wonderful.
Thanks for reading my lengthy report. I have added a few additional practical tips, observations below:
Ground Transportation: We booked all our shuttles and the private car in Tikal through Adrenalina Tours. They were awesome and everything went smoothly. When we were late for the 9am shuttle out of Pana the driver called the office in Antigua and the gentleman told him to wait for us. He assured the driver we would be there as we had a flight to catch. I highly recommend this company. We made our bookings when we were in Antigua.
Spanish: While my Spanish language skills are pretty basic, I used them a lot. Not only did it make traveling easier, it also made the experiences richer. I was able to communicate with the people about their lives, their families, their struggles, achievements and dreams (as well as find the bathroom). If you don’t speak Spanish, I would recommend learning at least a few key phrases.
Money: Be prepared that you are going to want to give people money. Whether it is the boy in the street with a mangled foot, the man in the park who tells you about how he is trying to find work so he can feed his family or a shopkeeper who has 2 special needs kids and struggles to pay medical bills. There are several philosophies about giving away money during your travels and you have to decide for yourself how you want to handle these situations. My only advice is to give it some thought before you find yourself digging through your wallet.
Speaking of money, you may get ripped off a couple of times. We had more than one experience where we agreed upon a price of 30Q before entering a tuk tuk and when we arrived at our destination it went up to 60Q. You may be told to go on a boat that is not going to your destination unless you pay more midway through the trip. Our first day in Antigua we walked into a convent and started a tour, which we thought was included in the price of admission. At the end, when I tried to give him a tip, I was told 50Q was not enough. We needed to pay 200Q. This may very well happen, and perhaps the likelihood increases if you are women whose Spanish skills are limited to the present tense. You can get angry or you can just shrug your shoulders and say lesson learned. I opted for the later.
Photos: Take lots of pictures but be sure to ask before photographing people. Some people, especially the elderly did not want to be photographed. It is important to respect their wishes. Kids, on the other hand loved it. I struck up numerous conversations with kids on the street and then we had fun taking photos of each other. After each photo they would anxiously wait to see it on the camera.
Educate yourself ahead of time, in order to make the most of your time there. I have an interest in political and economic history and really wanted to learn more about the civil war. I read several books which gave me some great insights: Silence on the Mountain, I, Rigoberta Menchu, Burried Secrets and Hummingbird House. Movies are a great source of information too. I watched, “El Norte”, Sin Nombre and “Romero”. While the latter two took place in other Central American countries, they helped explain the struggles between the rich and the poor and the level of violence that was prevalent.
Hope this helps. Feel free to send me a message if you have any further questions. Safe travels!