I ended my original girltakesmundo trip where it all started. What I mean to say, the first real country outside of the US that I’ve ever visited. My motherland AKA where both my parents were born, Guatemala. The place I call home, the place where I come from despite where I was born, the place that has contributed to the shaping of my culture, my traditions and ultimately who I am.
A big disclaimer hear is that this wasn’t the original plan. My plan was to visit Guatemala then make my way to Belize where I would end my journey spending my last days on a beach putting the cherry on top of my already dark tan before going back to the blistering cold of Chicago for the holidays. Knowing what you heard above, life had its own plan and I let life take the wheel. (Life drove manual so I had no choice but to be the best co-pilot I could be/ be the best Ms. Daisy one has driven for. The Guatemalan sometimes non existent roads may have scared me but my chauffeur never made me feel unsafe.) Read on to hear where this Guatemalan road trip took us.
Transportation – Depending on the number in your group renting a car may be a cheaper option than taking long hour shuttles in Guatemala but ensure you rent a car with power to get you through bad roads, dirt roads or roads that don’t look like they are roads but are roads. Know that night comes sooner in Guatemala as less light posts have been placed in cities outside of the capital. Having a GPS, a phone with a downloaded map like maps.me or simply having an international phone plan so your map on the phone works is highly recommended. Also having someone that speaks some Spanish will be a big plus if you need to ask for directions etc. The freedom to hop and go, travel at your own pace, make as many stops as you wish to your next destination is what makes road tripping and renting a car a big plus and far more comfortable than a shuttle but, if renting a car isn’t something you want, or can do, then fear not as there are many shuttle companies that can take you to your next stop in Guatemala that aren’t chicken buses and go to the must see cities in Guatemala. These can be easily booked at tourist agencies or in your hostel itself. From Nicaragua, for example, I took a shuttle to Antigua using BigFoot Hostels shuttle service and they were very good.
Antigua – Being from Guatemala and having visited Antigua multiple times as a child and even as a young teen to an adult it’s surprising to see how touristy Antigua has become and every time I visit I feel like there is always something new to see. Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala, really is a must see city for tourists. Many come here to see this colonial town and climb the various volcanos with the 2 more popular volcanos being Acatenango (2 day trek) and Pacaya (1/2 day trek).
Aside from volcano treks, Antigua is a great town to explore. Don’t miss visiting Central Park, the various museums, old monasteries, people watch or grab street food at Iglesia de La Merced, walk through the famous Santa Catalina arch, souvenir shop in what seems like a never ending market or check out the night life and its various cocktail bars for delicious drinks. (FYI: Rum is the liquor of choice in Guatemala with brands like “Ron Zacapa”, “Venado” and “Quezalteca” among the popular options. If beer is what you fancy then “Gallo” is the way to go.)
Having visited here multiple times I really like to do new things here and may decline more popular tourist activities like treks but that is not to say you won’t find me still at a yoga studio, asking locals for their favorite dive spots to grab meals or better yet, learning how to cook authentic Guatemalan dishes myself in the various cooking schools. After a little research I opted to take a cooking class at “La Tortilla Cooking School” where our group learned to make 5 Guatemalan dishes during the class while enjoying unlimited wine and ultimately being able to indulge in the fruits of our labor. This was a wonderful experience for me and would recommend to tourists and those who visit Guatemala multiple times, like myself, alike as the class is in both English and Spanish and they email you the recipes to the dishes you cooked.
Rested My Head:
Selina Antigua, new hostel In Antigua for this big chain so everything is new. While a bit more pricey the garden is beautiful and perfect for lounging, fun bar and nightly events without being party central so a good nights rest is sure to be had.
Hotel Paseo de la Merced, next door to Selina’s you will find this small but very economical hotel with lovely 2 person bedrooms and shared bathroom including a small but effective kitchen. Big plus, it’s only a bit more for your own bedroom compared to a bed in Selina. My mate and I stayed in Selina the first night and then moved here which allowed us to still have access to the common areas at Selina.
Casa Santa Lucia Hotel, stayed here during a stop over on our way to Lake Atitlan. Clean, economical bedrooms with shared bathrooms. Certainly gives you a good nights rest.
Guatemala City – Guatemala City AKA the capital of Guatemala is like any other city, plenty of commerce, array of neighborhoods from the poorest to the most upscale that may even make you feel out of place. Guatemala City offers a wide range of cuisine options as well. In the past this has been seen to my family and I as a stop over for seeing family, picking up our rental car, catching flights and picking up groceries. This visit seemed no different as our time in Guatemala City was for catching flights and picking up a rental car for our road trip. We did manage to squeeze a day in the city where we checked out the spots below.
- Visited Paseo Cayala which is an upscale retail promenade with admittedly probably too many teens for my mate and I.
- A driving sight seeing/food tour to see the various government buildings, main city sites including the national holiday tree and the multiple food stops to try different food including all natural homemade ice cream, Guatemalan hotdogs and ceviche thanks to my aunt and cousin. (FYI: Of the many roles my mate had during this trip, a very important one was my human food disposal as I hate food going to waste yet I tend to get full quite easily BUT BUT this was the first city that after so much food my Human Waste Disposal met his match and actually tapped out. Consider yourself warned.)
- Ever drank in a place that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro drank at outside of Cuba? Well look no further, the most famous and oldest watering hole in the capital where famous poets, writers and political figures have drank the holiest of waters can be found in Guatemala City in a place called, “Restaurant El Portal”. Your drinks include complimentary Guatemalan finger food and it’s not uncommon to see musicians come and play to really have you feeling like you’re getting this local experience.
- December means the holiday season and in front of the National Palace we found Guatemala’s winter festival. It was wonderful to see locals get into the holiday spirit but what was more lovely was being a part of it ourselves by enjoying street food, taking in the holiday decorations, music, seeing children play games and/or ice skate and browsing the various booths in the market.
Rested My Head: Hostal Guatefriends, another stop over place that is perfect for those people who need a proper place to sleep near the airport. Feels like someone’s home but it’s very clean, provides breakfast and they will drive you to the airport as a complimentary service for staying with them. (Additionally, my aunt and cousin also happily hosted us for the night that we stayed before picking up our rental and beginning our road trip during the first part of this trip and as I mentioned on the final night in Guatemala we opted to stay closer to the airport as I had a very early flight back home.)
Rio Dulce (& Livingston) – An up and coming tourist location that’s starting to appear more and more in travel blogs and recommended cities to visit in Guatemala. The biggest highlights in Rio Dulce is Castillo San Felipe, a fortress built by the Spanish to protect themselves from Caribbean pirates ($20 Quetzales or $2.70 USD), Finca Paraiso for its hot springs atop a waterfall ($10 Quetzales or $1.50 USD) or enjoy the river itself which is lovely to boat through, kayak etc. If you have the time I would suggest stopping by the ruins of Quirigua which are only 45 minutes away from Rio Dulce. While they may not be as impressive as the ruins in Tikal the ruins are in very good condition. ($80 Quetzales or $11 USD for non national guests.)
In an effort to maximize on time and please my desire to also visit Livingston, the day tour to Levingston was a match made in heaven for me. The tour was the perfect way to visit this Caribbean paradise and see Rio Dulce as well. Personally for me it’s beautiful to see how diverse, not only the landscape but also the people are in Guatemala and Livingston is a perfect example of this. Not only do you feel like you are in a Caribbean country but the Guatemalans here are Afro Latinos. Anywho, the boat shuttle for the day trip will pick you up from your lodge if booked directly with who you are staying with. The tour includes a visit to Castillo San Felipe, the hot springs and ending with a 1/2 day in Livingston. (FYI: There is an option to stay in Livingston if you so wish and the price is different from the $200 Quetzales or $27 USD for the day trip.) I certainly think spending more time in Livingston may be in order especially since it sounds like a lot was missed given only having 1/2 day here from speaking with my dad and could agree as only the surface of this quiet, less touristy Caribbean paradise was scratched. Regardless it was a great way to spend a day.
If there wasn’t another reason to visit Rio Dulce, it is ideally located to many other great places in Guatemala such as Livingston, Puerto Barrios and if you fancy checking off another country, Belize is only a hop and skip away and you can easily get there either by a bus shuttle or taking a boat.
Rested My Head:
Hostal Casa Perico, a quiet but beautiful eco lodge along Rio Dulce that works on a tab system. This jungle cabin resort is a perfect place to feel secluded and provides various tours, shuttles to the various surrounding areas like Livingston, canoes free of charge and tips of things to do in Rio Dulce.
Coban – We treated Coban as a city to break the long journey from Rio Dulce to Lanquín and rested our head here. It certainly has a more local feel as you hardly saw any tourists and we should know as I was quick to point them out to my tourist chauffeur, who “stood out like a sore thumb” . When we checked into our hostel we were advised by the staff that the road to Lanquín and in our car wasn’t a good idea. We decided to listen to them based off some of the roads we had already been on. We were able to easily get to the bus station and get on a bus to Lanquín which departs every hour. That is if your driver doesn’t get slashed with a pocket knife by a local youngster which then makes for a city stopping moment we learned. Like any other country there is violence in Guatemala but when that’s all you see in your trip one really should question the news and stories people tell about these countries and not fear traveling to them but instead be smart, safe and aware of your surroundings.
Anywho, while we were limited in time during our road trip for those who do have time, Coban can be a perfect place to base yourself if you want to explore more. Below is some of the places I want to check off during my next trip to Guatemala that aren’t far at all from Coban.
- Cuevas Candelarias – Caving and tubing
- Las Concha – Waterfalls
- El Biotopo Del Quetzal – Only place to see the national bird, El Quetzal and la monja blanca which is another typical bird known in Guatemala
Rested My Head:
Hotel Don Juan Matalbatz, another lovely stop over place that had clean bedrooms with shared bath in a central location in Coban. Additionally, staff are very helpful and informative and even let us keep our rental car here while we went to Lanquín free of charge since we stayed here.
Lanquín – Going to take you directly to the Rested My Head portion and you will understand why. I will say that from Coban this is a 2 hour journey and given the roads taking a shuttle or local bus is the best option opposed to trying to venture and drive here. My mate and I were glad we didn’t drive and with buses leaving hourly from either Lanquin and Coban it’s easy to get here.
Rested My Head:
Zephyr Lodge, another tab system lodge in an amazing location with an infinity pool that adds to the stunning views. If you’ve seen pictures of Lanquín I’m certain you’ve seen pictures of this lodge. A bit of a party hostel as Lanquín is considered the place you stay if you want to visit Semuc Champey so picking a good lodge here is important when your activities are visiting Semuc Champey, zip lining or tubing the river and nothing else. (FYI: These can be booked directly via the lodge and it helps with making friends who are also staying in the same place you are.) Keep in mind that you must email them to request a bed or room but if you are picking places last minute like my mate and I were since we were traveling on our own pace, a simple call can have you ensure there are vacancies. Additionally, ensure you bring cash as their credit card reader may at times not work and if there is no electricity in the small town the 1 ATM will not work for you. I learned this the hard way. Oh and how could I forget, be mindful of their notorious dice game played at the bar where if you lose you pay for the shots of everyone who played the game. Ask my chauffeur who was soooooooo good at this game that our bill that night had him seeing double. 😂
Semuc Champey – The 1 day tour was organized directly with Zephyr Lodge at $200 Quetzales or $27 USD and I can’t rave enough about this trip. Yes, you will be picked up at 9am and will ride like a local on the trunk portion of a pickup truck for an hour on a bumpy road with the others on your trip but did I mention it’s all part of this “cultural experience”? I say this as it’s actually quite fun to ride like this but NOT if you are hungover. Thankfully for me – after the hungover trek in Nicaragua for volcano boarding – I learned my lesson.
Once in Semuc Champey your day is filled with amazing activities including a 40 minute hike to the viewpoint to take in the natural made pools, visiting the waterfall and if you’re up for the swim going through said waterfall for another stunning view point, swinging yourself into the river or how about jumping off a bridge into said river if that’s your thing, not to mention 2 hours in the natural pools and cave exploration which was probably my favorite part of this trip. Our group explored these dark cave systems with only candles while jumping off ledges and at times swimming in these caves especially if you’re a shorty like myself.
Lunch options during the day trip which are not included in the tour are ordering a lunch box option via Zephyr Lodge or picking the buffet lunch at Semuc Champey. At $50 Quetzales or $6.80 USD the buffet lunch is worth it even for a vegetarian like myself.
After a day of activities you certainly bond with your group so the beer you get at the lodge upon returning from the trip helps get the night started at the lodge.
Panajachel (Lake Atitlan) – There are many Mayan villages around Lake Atitlan, the massive body of water in a volcanic crater. (11 unique villages to be exact) Our plan was to make our base in San Pedro La Laguna which was supposed to be a 2 hour ride from Panajachel where we grabbed lunch. Frustratingly this “2 hour” ride turned into an unexpected 1/2 day excursion of getting lost multiple times, being directed into what looked like non existent roads via Siri and finally learning from a worker at a gasoline station that the main road from the direction we were going was closed. We finally threw in the towel and opted to go to Panajachel, the larger village along Lake Atitlan and usually where my family calls base when we come and visit.
At this point of the journey with the stop and go travel in our attempt to cover a lot of ground in Guatemala and the hours of being on the road got the best of us and a unanimous decision was made that we would spend the rest of our days of what was left in this trip in Panajachel (3.5 days to be exact). This allowed us to slow down and unwind before our return to our respective homes. While in “Pana”, (FYI: another way many locals or Guatemalans refer to Panajachel) we spent the remainder of our days getting massages for the hard working chauffeur and facials for Ms. Daisy at Exhale: Body and Mind Spa, drinking shots of Guatemalan schnapps, “Cusha” at Pana Rock (FYI: shots are always $5 Quetzales or $0.70 USD each) and eating at the many restaurants along the popular street, “Calle Santander”. My favorite being “Almendros Supermarket & Cafe” as they had my favorite meat filled ethnic dish, the Guatemalan tamal in a vegetarian option. Visited a few times while here and the rest of the menu was delicious as well especially their coffee which came from Guatemala coffee beans and not that instant stuff that other restaurants will try to serve you. (Quite frankly they should be ashamed especially coming out of Guatemala which is known for its coffee but I’ll table this discussion.) Being our last stop of the trip, souvenir shopping was in order and we couldn’t of picked a better place. “Calle Satander” is filled with booths and stores where you will find the perfect traditional gift for anyone on your list and be sure to barter.
Panajachel (or anywhere surrounding Lake Atitlan) is also another awesome location to base yourself if you have an extended amount of time. Consider doing a day trip to Chichi, an overnight in Xela and don’t miss visiting the Sunday market in Chichicastenango. Additionally, use boats to travel to the various Mayan villages surrounding Late Atitlan such as San Pedro La Laguna the more tourist village around Lake Atitlan and San Marcos known for their yoga and spiritual retreats. (FYI: Boat travel is the easiest way to visits these villages. Public boats will cost $60 Quetzales or $8 USD round trip and private boats may also be hired for the day and again it’s best to barter for a price on those.)
Rested My Head:
Mario’s Room, a quiet but lovely bedroom or dorm style rooms with private bathrooms in each room. Breakfast is included and it’s on the popular “Calle Santander” where you can suffice all your shopping and hunger needs.
As I mentioned, life really does have a way of changing things for you and while you may have a plan, life has another. In Bolivia, I recall looking at the Salt Flats in Uyuni and discovering that there was a Guatemalan flag in the collection of flags near the salt hotel.
I proudly stood holding the flag as I took a picture #forthegram and told myself that I would use this picture to invite my “followers” to join me in Guatemala. I figured I could show whoever wanted why I love this country and make them love Guatemala too. Colombia must’ve happened – as I giggle while I write this – as this picture and this invite never made it on instagram. Little did I know that life already knew that there would be somebody joining me in Guatemala, that I wouldn’t shorten my trip because I stayed longer in Colombia but that I would actually extend my time and would indeed have the chance to show this person why I love this country. So to my chauffeur, my road trip mate, my human food disposal, I hope your co-pilot, Ms. Daisy was able to accomplish this despite Guatemala’s sometimes questionable “roads”, the terrible routes Siri tried to take us on and the fact that I don’t drive manual. Ms. Daisy can only wish that as we stood on the side of a road in Lake Atitlan taking in the Sunday sunset before continuing our day of spending unnecessary hours in a car that you thought to yourself, “Guatemala, you’re worth it”.