For this post, I suggest you curl up on the couch with a cup of coffee or tea and get cozy because this is a long one…
After a relaxing week on the beach in Utila, we had 5 full days in Guatemala and this part of the trip was going to be a whirlwind. The plan was to fly from San Pedro Sula, Honduras to Guatemala City, hire a private driver to take us from Guatemala City to Antigua with a final stop at Lake Atitlán. We would spend 2 nights at the lake, be driven back to Guatemala City to fly to Flores, spend 8 hours there, explore Tikal on the way to Belize City to catch our flights back to the states. Did you get all that? It’s impossible to see Guatemala in 5 days but we were there and wanted to take advantage. Was our plan aggressive? Yes, but we wanted to see as much as we could.
For years, Guatemala had a reputation of being really dangerous and unsafe for tourists to travel to. Because of this, Guatemala was never on my bucket list. The only thing I knew about Guatemala was that there were tons of Mayan ruins that were less crowded than the ones in Mexico. My best friends just went to Guatemala last year and reported that it was absolutely amazing and nothing like the dangerous country that has been reported. My analogy in these situations is Chicago is an amazing city. It’s safe and an all around awesome place but you would never go to the South Side of Chicago. Well, I think of countries in the same vain. You wouldn’t go to the dangerous spots. You need to do your research and know where to go.
On our way to Lake Atitlán, we asked our driver to stop at Antigua, Guatemala which is an old Spanish colonial town about an hour from Guatemala City. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and it’s no wonder because it’s gorgeous. When we finally arrived at Panajachel which is the main port of the lake, we were blown away by the beauty. Lake Atitlán is surrounded by volcanoes and the only way to get around to the towns is by boat. Because we booked our hotel last minute, we chose one of the nicest and most expensive ones on the lake. By expensive I mean $100 US a night but we were still on a budget. Our hotel, Lomas de Tzununa, had its own dock so we were told to tell the boat driver that we were staying at Lomas to be dropped off. The boat captain’s first mate took our backpacks and flung them on the roof of the boat and we were on our way. There’s something about traveling on a boat that makes me giddy inside. There’s no better way to travel. Even though we had to climb what felt like 1,000 steps, Lomas was breathtaking! Every room has a view of the lake and I loved the log cabin style. At dinner we met Thierry, the owner, who recommended that we visit San Juan to visit a women’s cooperative and lunch in San Pedro. We went to bed feeling like we landed in paradise.
We woke up the next morning to watch the sunrise and had a leisurely breakfast. Afterwards, we stood on our dock and waved boats down like a taxi. We arrived at San Juan around 8:00am so the town was still sleepy. We visited two women’s cooperatives (Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botánico and Casa del Tejido) and learned so much about the ancient Mayan techniques for dying fabric and weaving. What I found so fascinating about the whole process was that they use fruits and vegetables to dye their yarn. Also, how labor intensive weaving is. One scarf can take 2 weeks to weave! We decided to do a little village hopping. Our next stop was San Pedro for lunch. San Pedro is known as the backpackers village. We found Sababa which is an Israeli inspired lunch spot with views of the lake. After lunch, we went to Santa Cruz to spend the rest of the afternoon at Isla Verde. If I was to go back to the lake, I would stay here because they offer everything I love: yoga, organic food, and it’s right on the lake. We spent a magical afternoon of drinks, chatting about life and lake views. We only had 2 nights but it was enough for all of us to want to go back.
The last leg of our journey went by in a flash. We couldn’t leave Guatemala without seeing Tikal so we flew to Flores just to see it. We found a private driver to pick us up from our hotel at 5:30am drop us off at Tikal, pick us up again at 9:00am and drive us across the border to Belize so that we could catch our flights back home. We went to the Mayans’ most sacred grounds on New Year’s Eve so there has to be some luck in being there. Back in the day, Tikal was like the Manhattan of the Mayan world. The mystery and lure of Tikal is that nobody knows why the Mayans left and abandoned the city. The three of us sleepy heads arrived at the gates to Tikal in pitch black before sunrise with only our flashlight apps as guides. We embarked on our mile walk to the Grand Plaza with the sound of howler monkeys surrounding us. It was a little scary because it sounded like they were in the trees above us. We arrived at the Grand Plaza right when the sun was coming up and we had the whole place to ourselves. Seeing the Grand Plaza was one of those experiences like seeing Machu Picchu, the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, sea lions in the Galapagos, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia; you cannot believe your eyes. Tikal is so impressive because they are still uncovering temples even today. We spent 3 hours hitting up all the sites. We couldn’t believe that the Mayans built this city in the middle of the jungle. Tikal is a place you must put on your bucket list because it’s like no other archaeological site you will ever visit.
During the 4 hour drive to Belize, I had a lot of time to reflect on Guatemala and about travel and it reminded me of my favorite quote, “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page” – Saint Augustine. When you travel and allow yourself to go outside of your comfort zone, become completely immersed in another culture, meet the locals, and become engaged in your surroundings, a part of you changes. Your perspectives on things will inevitably shift because how could it not? Guatemala wasn’t even in my radar until last month and I thought it was off the table because of the danger. After this trip, it’s one of my favorite places I’ve been to and will definitely go back.