6 reasons to visit Guatemala

Going to Guatemala

Our regular contributor Julia Barilo drove for two weeks to Guatemala and explored this amazing country of volcanoes and caves, where you have to get to hostels by river, and the locals still walk in traditional costumes and speak Mayan languages. Catch a ready recipe for an exotic trip!

When you choose your tickets six months in advance of your vacation, you can buy anything. Even tickets to Guatemala. At first, my imagination painted exotic unexplored places, but by the time I got closer to the trip, the enthusiasm was gone. There were few pictures and interesting articles on the Internet. Scarce guidebooks fascinatingly wrote only about Tikal, where, incidentally, we did not go. There was nothing to feed our imagination. And now, when there were almost no expectations, Guatemala was a great discovery, each place we learned and explored almost from scratch, constantly surprised.

A Schengen visa for six months is enough for Belarusians to get to Guatemala. It’s more complicated with tickets. Best deals are from Western Europe, but the best tickets take a flight to the U.S., and you can’t get there without a visa.

We bought an Iberia ticket from Italy for € 600 round trip. And what a trip it was! 11 hours there and 13 hours back, not counting the change of planes in Spain. On the way back, our flight even stopped for a couple of hours in San Salvador to pick up people. And there was a 9-hour time difference awaiting us upon arrival. Physically, it was not an easy trip. Is that what it was all about?

The colonial city of Antigua, and why are tourists so fond of it?

The plane landed in Guatemala City, the capital city. But we ignored it and went straight to Antigua, a small town about 30 kilometers away. It still remembers the days when Guatemala was a Spanish colony. Even though the conquistadors are long gone, the patio houses, cobblestone roads and old colonial churches they built remain.

We got in a cab and thought we’d be in Antigua in about 20 minutes. We arrived two hours later. Traffic like I’ve only seen in Guatemala City in the evening once – in Moscow. Eleven hours of flying for exotics – and there’s traffic, fast food, a cab driver on WhatsApp with an audio message.

Antigua, on the other hand, is quiet. In the morning, it’s Guatemalan City. Locals make corn tortillas, slice mangoes right by the roadside and rush to work. After the siesta, it’s tourist town. Foreigners take pictures at the Arch of St. Catalina, flock up the Cerro de la Cruz hill overlooking the volcano and fill the central plaza and pleasant restaurants where guacamole and nachos are served unsparingly.

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From Antigua go hiking to volcanoes, of which there are only nine, go to cocoa plantations. Antigua is a compromise. It has both Guatemalan peculiarity and comfort. Americans come there for months at a time to winter or learn Spanish. One bookstore there even employs a girl from Russia, and with her care, it sells books by Dovlatov. In this city of Guatemala, it is possible.

And what about Guatemala City, and why does everyone ignore it?

Guatemala City and Guatemala City are two different worlds. A million people live in the capital, there are high-rise buildings, cars, and a high crime rate. Guards with shotguns stand outside almost every store. The local police ask keen tourists to hide their cameras. Many generalize and say it’s dangerous all over the country. But outside of the capital, all seemed calm.

We had read articles about how unsafe it was to walk in Guatemala, so we prepared like we were going to war. We even made fake wallets with $10 in them, but stopped carrying them on the second day. Stories of unpleasant situations were not told by other foreigners.

“After reading articles about how unsafe it was to walk in Guatemala, we prepared like we were going to war.”

And the more pressing tourist problem in Guatemala City seemed to be that there was nothing to see. We stayed in the city for half a day, but were only interested in the location of the hostel. It was in a completely fenced-off neighborhood, with only passes allowed into the area, and there was a high fence with wires around the hostel itself.

The average bill in Guatemalan restaurants that inspire confidence – € 5-7, tortillas, fruit, including avocados, vegetables and street food are cents, but the stores are better bypassed, because there are an incredible lot of stale products.

The Rio Dulce River, which is surrounded by jungle and no roads

It’s 270 kilometers from the capital to the only village on the river where buses go (it’s also called Rio Dulce). Four hours, I estimated. We drove more than seven. There are very few roads in Guatemala, few good ones.

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The day before we searched hard through Booking (no problem with the Internet in Guatemala), where to stay. The location of hostels was confusing: the map didn’t show any roads to them. How to get there, it was unclear.

The solution was obvious, but we hadn’t been in Guatemala long enough to figure it out. The hostel told us this:

– When you get to Rio Dulce, look for the Smile dog bar on the beach and ask to be called. We’ll pick you up. By boat.

All the guidebook said about the Rio Dulce was that it was “a unique river with lots of places of interest.” It wasn’t very clear, but when we finally got to it by evening, it was clear why we had to fly so far and spend so much. This place was surprising without end.

In American movies, spies often have secret meetings in Latin America. The said bar and the entire village were just such a place, lost and disconnected from the other world. The village of Rio Dulce itself is only a staging post with a market, a few hotels and bars. But almost every building on the shore has a wooden pier where small motorboats moor uninterruptedly.

“In American movies, spies often have secret meetings in Latin America. The said bar and the whole village were just such a place, lost and disconnected from the other world.”

We loaded boxes of food into the boat that arrived after us with the driver, and headed to the hostel at dusk. On the river itself, and it is very wide, you can see little difference from the same Pripyat. But as soon as you swim to the shore or turn into some arm, you find yourself in a Mowgli movie. The motor falters and the boat glides on the water, mangroves overhang the water, small and large birds sit on the thin branches.

There are hostels among the poor village houses on the beach. Sleeping there is like staying in a big, beautiful jungle hut. Everyone spends time on the big terrace under the canopy: there are lots of hammocks, games, music. And they go to sleep in bungalow rooms with walls so thin that it is as if they are not there. But what about the walls? The main thing is that there are mosquito nets and canopies over the bed. A room for two in such hostels costs € 15-20, in the common room you can sleep for € 6.

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Everyone eats dinner right in the hostel, like in a children’s camp at communal tables. The main activities during the day are swimming in the river, bungee jumping, jungle fishing and boat rides. Boats can be borrowed for free, although they are not easy to handle. All the locals are adept at navigating in narrow, long boats. We rode one for about 3 minutes and then realized that we’d be in the water in a couple more minutes.

Livingstone and the long way to the sea

Guatemala wasn’t very lucky to have access to the Caribbean Sea. Neighboring Belize and Honduras have several hundred kilometers of coastline. And Guatemala seems to have been left out: one small beach that you can walk around in a couple of hours.

On the coast of the Caribbean Sea in Guatemala is the only city – Livingstone. It is home to almost 50,000 people. The city is not small, the more difficult to believe that it has not yet been paved through the jungle. And while someone flies to space on vacation, 25 kilometers from Rio Dulce to Livingstone, as 200 years ago, can be overcome only by boat.

So, a couple of times a day, a 15-man motorboat goes around hotels and hostels in the area and picks people up at sea. The road to the Caribbean on the Rio Dulce is beautiful. Livingston, on the other hand, has no sights, no beauty spots and not even … a beach. To swim, you have to get in the boat again and swim another 20 minutes to the only and isolated beach.

The beach is beautiful. The fact that there are few people, and with some of them you swim together, it seems that you are on a VIP area, where everyone has enough room under the palm trees and wooden deck chairs. But the sea is the sea everywhere. We suddenly got bored with the colorful river, and planned a few days in the Caribbean, we decided to spend on the Rio Dulse. And who would have thought!

Guatemalan cities have no train stations with a clear schedule. The help is either small travel agencies that provide tickets for shuttles and buses, including public buses, or WhatsApp. Since there was nothing to get out of town after three, we wrote to a hostel we saw on the way and quickly got an answer as to what boat and where to find to get to them.

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Villages on Lake Atitlan, where tourists are spoken to in Spanish and at home in the Mayan dialect

On the shores of Lake Atitlan stand three volcanoes. When their cones peek out of the airy haze, the view of the lake becomes unusual, and that is why Atitlán is loved by tourists. And for some very different villages on its shores, where the descendants of the Maya, the Kakchikeli and Tsotsili people live.

Guatemala is a Mayan country. The same ones that, a thousand years ago, were well versed in astronomy, agriculture, and created a calendar that is used even today. Most of the people lived in what is now Guatemala. Most Guatemalans still speak Mayan dialects. There are about 20 such living dialects, although the state language in the country is one – Spanish.

In the tranquil surroundings of Lake Atitlan, better than in any city, you can see what foreigners go to Guatemala for: tradition. Folk costumes, for example. The men have mostly succumbed to the times, except for the occasional small hat. And women everywhere wear long straight skirts, a wide belt and a loose shirt, all very colorful and beautiful.

This is how the most advanced village on Lake Atitlán, Panajachel, welcomes visitors: women in national costumes carrying children on their backs, baskets of food on their heads, washing clothes on the lake shore, and making tortillas for sale at lunch.

“Women in national costumes carry children on their backs, baskets of food on their heads, wash their clothes by the lake, and make tortillas for sale at lunch.”

Foreigners usually stay in Panajachel, and from there they take a boat to walk to the rest of the villages. Panahachel is the most touristy in the area: there are many souvenir shops, restaurants and exchange offices. The second busiest – the village of San Pedro la Laguna, where for some reason massively settled Americans and Israelis. Despite the fact that there are few tourists in Guatemala, the emigrants, who have replaced the bustling cities on the primitive, silent places of Guatemala, enough.

In all the villages on the lake, it’s fun to wander around and look at the intricate Mayan hieroglyphics on the signs, taste the unusual fruit in the markets, and catch a glimpse of the women in the traditional costumes they so casually wear. In addition, there are many activities on the lake. There are horseback riding, volcano climbing, line fishing and many more things to safely forget about city life everywhere.

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Semuk-Champay River with its endless rapids and natural pools

Semuk-Champay is a very beautiful river with natural pools and waterfalls. First, everyone goes to the tower to view the river from above. And then go down and soak in the water, climbing over the rocks from one natural pool to another. Many SPA-salons offer pedicures with fish, which bite off the keratinized skin. In Semuk-Champay such fish can be found in the wild, right on some parts of the river. True, outside the salon, this procedure inspires real horror.

In the same places there is a cave, where everyone advised to go. We signed up for a tour, not really knowing where we were going. And when you’re in Guatemala and don’t know Spanish, everything around here turns into a big surprise. What’s on the menu, what’s on the river and what’s on the tour isn’t clear until you see it with your own eyes.

In the cave we did not see anything at first. It was completely dark. Guide handed out candles and we are a small group of about an hour waded, crawled and swam through the untouched cave. In some places, the tour even seemed dangerous, because we had to climb slippery rocks and jump into the water. We had no life jackets. It was only later that we learned that we could ask for them.

“In some places the excursion even seemed dangerous, because we had to climb on slippery rocks and jump into the water.”

Guatemalans, who are used to living in nature, probably do not even think that someone would find such an excursion too exotic and dangerous. But it’s great that we adapted to them, not them under us. We went to see the real Guatemala.

And after a little excitement tour of the cave guide put us on the tubing, gently pushed, and we swam down the river, once again with amazement enjoying the beauty and uniqueness of Guatemala.

Budget for one for 2 weeks

Tickets € 600 ;

Accommodation € 110 (if you stay in hostels it will be half price);

Meals – € 130 ; Transportation – € 80 ; (if you stay in hostels it will be twice cheaper)

Transportation: € 80;

Souvenirs € 30.

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