Guatemala - Tikal, Antigua, Lake Atilan

Trip Start Jan 03, 2013
Trip End Jul 21, 2013

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Flag of Guatemala  , Sacatepequez,
Monday, January 21, 2013

After a smooth immigration control into Guatemala, we got a collectivo van to our hotel in El Remate. El Remate is a small town located on Lake Peten which was close to Tikal, the Mayan site we planned to see at dawn in the morning.

The bus picked us up at 5:30am to take us to Tikal. We had heard great things about Tikal from other travellers so we were looking forward to it, even though we had seen plenty of mayan ruins before - this one was different apparently! Tikal is set deep in the Guatemalan rainforest and we had been told that by getting there early you stand the best chance of seeing the wildlife. They weren't wrong! We arrived at first light and walked into the park and within a few minutes had seen wild occelated turkeys, an agouti, a grey fox and beautiful aracari toucans.

We had a tip from another traveller that Temple 4 was the place to be early in the morning so we power walked through the Grand Plaza and past other temples to climb the wooden staircase to the top and the view was certainly worth it. We sat and gazed over the jungle mist with the sun rising over the temples poking through the jungle canopy in the distance. A magical moment.

The site was huge and all the ruins were surrounded by dense jungle. There were these racoon-like creatures, called coatis all around and the noise of the birds was fantastic. We wandered around, climbing the different ruins and temples where we could to take in the view from the tops. We must have walked miles!

Once back in El Remate, we grabbed a collectivo to Santa Elena, where we would be leaving from for Guatemala City. We checked out the bus times and costs then headed via tuktuk into Flores. Flores is the picturesque neighbour of Santa Elena, set on an island on Lake Peten. It was lovely, with little streets of colourful houses and hotels and a nice waterside with bars and restaurants. As we were carrying our big bags, we didn't walk around for too long and settled in a lakeside bar for a drink, before getting some food at one of the restaurants.

We grabbed a tuktuk back to the bus station and waited for our departure. We decided for budget reasons to risk the 'normal' service for our 8 hour overnight bus to Guatemala City and it seemed fine when it turned up - air con, toilets, partially reclining seats. After a few hours on the road, we discovered that it would be the Guatemalan roads, not the bus, that would stop us sleeping. The bumps, jolts, swinging round corners and potholes in the rain made for a very bumpy ride. The best solution was to just not open your eyes!

After a few stops at towns in central Guatemala overnight, we arrived at Guatemala City Bus terminal, in the far north of the city at 4am. It was only when the conductor kicked us off that we knew we'd arrived. Alexa needed a prod to awaken her from a deep sleep so she had no idea where she was or what time it was. After some basic Spanish to and fro with the locals, we discovered that the buses to Antigua departed from a station in the downtown area of city so we got a taxi there. The taxi dropped us just before 5 am, not a soul was about and the bus station was locked and dead. Not the best place to be, especially in a city with such a reputation for crime (muggings, kidnappings and murders). We waited for about 20 minutes, undecided about what to do, then fortunately a friendly bus driver arrived and dropped us off down the road where a bus was preparing to leave for Antigua at 6am. We felt very relieved to be on the bus! Leaving the city was interesting, and it's always fascinating to see a capital city rise and experience the mayhem of rush hour develop, especially Monday!

Despite a near miss with a oncoming car, the journey to Antigua (1hr) was smooth. We arrived in Antigua and made our way to Ixchel Spanish school where we had booked 5 days of lessons and 4 nights with a local family. We both immediately liked the look of the town, with a European colonial feel, cobbled streets and beautiful churches scattered around, set in the shadow of 3 Volcanoes. That morning we met our host family (Araceli and Jorge) who were really nice, and settled in to our home for the next few days before having a 2 hour nap which was needed!

We headed to the language school for our first lesson in the afternoon and met our respective teachers, before doing a 3-4 hour lesson. Alexa's teacher was Ingrid, Sean had Luis. We both found it a really enjoyable start. We had dinner with our hosts in the evening, a tasty Guatemalan dish consisting of stewed beans, rice, fried plantain and bread. We were shattered after the overnight bus, so an early night again.

The rest of the week in Antigua followed a similar pattern with Spanish lessons with Luis and Ingrid from 8am -12pm then we were free for the rest of the day but had to do the spanish homework we were set. We really enjoyed the spanish lessons and were really pleased at how much we were picked up and how quickly we were progressing. Our teachers Ingrid and Luis were happy with the speed we were learning so it made the hours doing our the internet spanish course worthwhile. The Spanish got harder during the week and took more brainwork to get to grips with it, but we were still really enjoying it and making progress. It will certainly help for the rest of our travels!

We usually had a delicious lunch with Araceli and Jorge (the guatemalans tend to have their main meal at lunchtime). On our second afternoon, we walked into the centre of Antigua to explore the city a bit more. Our first stop off was the Cerro de Cruz, a cross on the hillside from which you got a brilliant view of the city and it's surrounding volcanoes. After a short walk up, the view was stunning so we relaxed and enjoyed the sight of this beautiful city. We headed back into the centre and wanted to treat ourselves to an ice cream. Unfortunately our grasp of Spanish let us down and Alexa ended up with a mango and pumpkin seed ice cream!! Not a good combination! So it was disappointing to say the least. We had spent the 20 quetzales we went out with and amazing ice cream shops seemed to taunt us as we walked around.

On Wednesday afternoon we went on a trip to climb Volcan Pacaya, the active volcano in the area that last erupted in 2010. When our minibus arrived, it was full of nine 18 year old Aussie girls singing to Taylor Swift! An hour later, and after enduring the party bus, we arrived at the Volcano and the setting was great, with some stunning views of Guatemala City. All the Aussies decided to go up by horse so we were the only ones walking. It was pretty tough going as we were walking in ash, so it was like walking in deep sand. We kept up though and about an hour later we enjoyed a great view up to the summit (which was smoking) and felt the heat coming from the rocks. Our guide offered us marshmallows which we cooked over the scorching rocks, pretty cool! We made our way back down which was much easier, and returned to Antigua.

On Wednesday and Thursday evenings, we had dinner with Araceli and Jorge and ended up chatting to them in Spanish for over 2 hours, sharing photos, talking about our lives back home and finding out more about guatemalan life. It was testament to just how far our spanish had come in just a few days.

We took a shuttle to Lake Atitlan on Friday afternoon, after our final Spanish lessons. After a bumpy 3 hour drive, we descended the windy road down to the lake. We both agreed that the first time we saw the Lake, was a jaw dropping moment. The view was spectacular, the huge lake shining like ice surrounded by lush green mountains. Unfortunately we couldn't take a photo, however it wouldn't have done it justice anyway. We were dropped in San Pablo (the only people getting off) and hopped on a tuk tuk to San Marcos, where we had decided to stay. It is one of the smaller villages on the lake, but by all accounts the most tranquil. As soon as we arrived, we felt we made the right call. It had a real chilled hippy vibe, with cool hotels set in lush gardens by the lakeside, meditation and yoga classes, and of course lots of of hippies!

The next day, we were up at 7am and decided to go for a pre-breakfast walk up a hill for a good view over the lake. It was a glorious day with not a cloud in the sky and the lake looked just stunning from the viewpoint. We arrived at San Pedro, a nearby lakeside town, after a boat ride across the lake with great views. San Pedro was much more built up and more touristy than San Marcus and as we walked round we knew we had made the right decision about where to stay. We hired some kayaks (this time one each!) and paddled across the lake to a beach we spotted. The sun was hot but we made good progress and made it to the beach in less than 25 mins to enjoy a few hours in the sun there before heading back. We walked to the next village along the lake of San Juan. It was a 30 minute walk and we arrived at the tiny lakeside village of San Juan had lunch in a lovely cafe overlooking the lake. Sean also had a 60p haircut!

We had planned to get the boat back to San Marcus from San Juan but we found out that it doesn't do that route so we decided to walk to the next village along, San Pablo, and then get a tuktuk back to San Marcus. We started walking and after about 15 mins the road appeared to be shut and they were doing some road works Guatemalan style! After waiting a few mins, we were assured by a local guy (who we later found out was called Miguel) that we could walk round it. It was not that straight forward though, sliding down the bank and along the lake edge. As we did so, a huge boulder followed by quite a few rocks flew down the bank just past us!! We hurried to get back on the road out of danger. We walked the rest of the journey back to San Pablo with Miguel chatting to him in spanish about various things. It really pleased us as certainly showed how much our Spanish had come on in the past week. It was actually quite a long walk so as we were halfway up a big hill, about 10 mins away from San Pablo a tuktuk stopped and offered us a lift back to San Marcus. For 5 quetzals each (40p) it was an easy decision so enjoyed the scenic ride back.

Again, the next day, we went for a early morning walk to the view point at the hill - we never got tired of that view! After breakfast, we spent the morning reading by the lake, admiring the scenery and just enjoying the peace and quiet of this amazing place, before catching a boat to Panajachel where our shuttle bus back to Antigua was departing from. 'Pana' is the largest town in Lake Atitlan and is a popular holiday destination for locals. We killed time at the lake reading and amusing a local 6 year old boy with Alexa's Iphone game. We caught the bus back to Antigua and after a quick dinner headed back to our hostel. An early start in the morning to head to our fourth country of the trip - El Salvador.

It was time to leave Guatemala after 10 great days. We had been a bit apprehensive when we arrived, knowing very little about the country other than the horror stories, civil war and the not-so-nice things that the people in Belize told us about Guatemala. However, our experience has been very different. It is a beautiful country, and the people are very hospitable and friendly. Traditions are very strong here and the majority of women still wear traditional dress. The places we have visited and the people we met made it a very memorable 10 days. We would love to come back spend more time at the Lake, and also see Semuc Champey, which is meant to be one of the most beautiful spots in the country. Guatemala was certainly a surprise!
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