Travel in Guatemala – One of the Most Rewarding Experiences !

Thanksgiving is the time of the year, I highly recommend for travel in Guatemala. For me personally, my work slows down, weather is not so great at home in North America, no ambitious triathlon or marathons to train for. It’s really time to wind down and take a good couple of weeks off. Ever since I discovered Central America as a travel destination, I have been smitten by the pure beauty of the countries loaded with volcanoes, beaches and rain forests.

I visited Costa Rica nearly 12 years ago and wandered around the country with no aim for weeks. Back then tourism was just picking up. I still found great places with nearly no other tourist around. But those days are long gone when it comes to Costa Rica. For obvious reasons of course. It’s a great country to visit and everyone deserves to experience the raw beautify and the amazing food.

A few years after I visited Costa Rica, I embarked on an adventurous yet gut wrenching trip to Honduras. It wasn’t with travel warnings and freaked out state of mine. Honduras is not the safest country in the world. I tried my best to stick to safe places, stayed at well rated home stays and hostels. Still, the fear of what could happen was lingering until I realized that basically people are nice in general. Just avoid going alone, or walking around with huge camera or obviously showing off things that can be of a target for robbery. Boils down to common sense. Aren’t we Indian women used to that growing up in India ?

That Honduras experience gave me the confidence to explore more and more of Central America and for some reason, traveling in Guatemala was escaping me for several years.

Finally in 2018, I made it a point to book my tickets well ahead of time after doing some research on safe places to travel to in Guatemala. After all, now I have a baby and my son will be barely one year old at the time of travel to Guatemala.

Is Guatemala Safe to Travel ?

I am not going to lie to you. I spent several hours on travel forums and travel advisory websites to understand the level of travel warning and what it really means. And you should too. Not everyone would feel comfortable with my type of travel preferences. At the time of my travel, the US travel warning for Guatemala was the same as that of India. Right off the bat, that told me that I am comfortable with the idea of travel to Guatemala.

What does that really mean ? Let me break that down for you.

  • Dress moderately
  • Don’t carry too much luggage
  • Don’t carry too many valuables
  • Watch your possessions at all times
  • Don’t leave the house after dark
  • Don’t go to places that are not crowded
  • Be extra careful in crowded place
  • Don’t wear jewelry
  • Be ready to lose your wallet and have backup plans
  • Research the place where you stay and make sure it’s secure enough
  • Don’t drink water outside. Carry filtered or bottled water, especially if you have sensitive stomach

After reading this list, some of you might determine that it is not worth traveling to Guatemala. I urge you not to come to that conclusion so quickly. With these precautions, the country has some amazing experiences to offer to you. In fact, I would go so far to say that places like Lake Atitlan and Antigua are worth moving to for long term living.

Now, let’s talk about all the reasons why you should travel to Guatemala.

UNESCO Heritage at It’s Best Display in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua is bound to steal your heart. It’s a love at first sight. We had booked our AirBnb room in the heart of Antigua and had the host pick us up from the airport. This 1.5 hours drive from Guatemala city is probably pretty scary initially. You might see police with pretty serious looking guns right outside and the around the airport.

But, booking the transportation ahead of time through the hotel or your host is one of the easiest ways to get out of Guatemala city and straight to Antigua. As you drive through Guatemala City and eventually leave behind the crowd, traffic, rush and shady looking parts of the country, and enter into the vicinity of Antigua, it might feel really like you just arrived at a completely different country all together. It’s such a stark difference in everything you would notice.

UNESCO doesn’t give the Heritage title for no reason. This 16th century Colonial architecture, largely untouched would transport you back in time for the history buffs. Even if you are not into history, the feel and vibe of the town is bound to make you want to stay here longer.

Guatemala has done a great job of keep new construction and restoration under control to maintain the integrity of Antigua.

When you are in Antigua, be sure to step out to the terrace in the middle of the night to experience a national geographic moment for yourself. No, I am not exaggerating. It’s highly likely you will see the nearby volcano erupting and spewing out lava that will be so vividly visible from Antigua.

This is probably the closest most of us would come to sleeping to the view of an active volcano with a lava fireworks into the air.

The time when we were in town, it was the weekend of floral festival in Antigua. The main square was decorated with gorgeous flower arrangements, a true treat to anyone with a camera or a cellphone to click away.

What more ? The 4 days in Antigua was filled with great food, lots of music, cultural gatherings, flower shows, history, 1600s style monasteries, churches, volcano hikes and needless to say the national geographic moment in the middle of the night ….a true bliss !!

Mayan Culture is Still Alive

From language, to food, there is a strong presence of Mayan culture everywhere in Guatemala. It is one thing to read about the history of Mayan culture and visit the ancient ruins, museums etc., but a whole another thing to witness age old culture in practice in day to day life.

We had the pleasure of spending several days in Lake Atitlan and surrounding villages. People look distinctly Mayan. Unlike other central American countries and even the urban side of Guatemala, the rural Mayan tribes dress in their indigenous outfit, not just to attract tourists, but on their day to day lives.

Food and language spoken by the locals are some of the things one would notice as very Mayan in Guatemala that is very distinct from other central American countries.

As I am writing this, the post sunset walks in the streets of villages surrounding lake Atitlan, makes me want to go back and relive the moments. Almost at every street there will be someone selling corn tortilla made in front of their home, fresh and hot. We used to buy them even if we are not hungry just to eat them with some avocados that we bought from Sunday farmers markets.

Tikal is Breathtaking

If you have been to Machu Picchu and think this Incan ruins are the only most beautiful ones you have seen, I urge you to also check out Tikal, set up in the rainforest. I am not going to attempt to compare Machu Picchu and Tikal. They are both beasts in their own way.

Tikal blew my mind. I wondered why even in 2018 the tourist crowd hasn’t attacked this Mayan complex of acres of ruins and history.

It is remote in a hot and humid country. You need to either fly from Guatemala City to Flores or a super long bus ride from Belize to cross into Guatemala.

Either way, this complicated planning is well worth the effort. For more details on the data Tikal read here.

We stayed at the town of Flores in an airbnb house that organized the bus to Tikal for us. The day trip was as pleasant, uncrowded and stunning as it can get.

Lake Atitlán is a Heaven on Earth

Lake Atitlán, is a volcanic crater, surrounded by mountains, Mayan villages, and volcanoes. If there is one place you want to pick and spend an entire week or even a month immersing yourself in Mayan life, just head straight to Lake Atitlan.

Situated in the Sierra Madre mountains, the lake is big (130 square km), and deep (an unnerving 340 metres).

There are seven villages surrounding Lake Atitlan. Chose to stay in anyone of them and you won’t regret. Or do village hopping for fun. Every village has it’s own charm and unique feature.

Even better, there is regular and super fast transportation services from one village to another via boat on the lake. You could also travel by road, but that would be a super round about way to get around.

You can grab a bit at San Marcos, hike San Pedro volcano, go shopping in San Juan la laguna all in one day if you choose to.

Backpackers come to Lake Atitlan and live for months at a stretch to unwind. One of the best features of the area is high speed internet that attracts the crowd that works remotely for a picture perfect nomadic work from anywhere life style. Along with it comes a bit of hippy culture.

Lake Atitlan villages are also home to expats from North America. You will come across Americans and Canadians pretty much on a daily basis on these villages.

Besides these facts, what makes lake Atitlan so special is the stunning beauty and picture perfect sunrise/sunsets.

Waterfall Chasing

What’s a tropical paradise without waterfalls ?! One awesome way to explore Guatemala would be do waterfall chasing. They are all over the country and spread out perfectly to allow one to make a custom itinerary chasing the waterfall.

Here are some of my top picks, just to name a few:

  • Semuc Champey
  • El Chorro del Carmen
  • 7 Altars of Izabal
  • Nebaj Fallss
  • Cascada Río Cahabón
  • Cataratas de La Igualdad

If you must pick one from this list, it’s a no brainer to pick Semuc Champey, a must visit place in Guatemala. But, the road to this area can be long and treacherous. But, the beauty at the end is well worth the hard work.

Surf Your Stress Out

I bet Guatemala is not what comes to your mind when you think about surfing. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama are on your top surfing list for the reefs and points. And you are right about those countries. But, what about the crowd, and money factors ? Haven’t you seen the crowd factor grow in multiples in these popular countries ?

Again, Guatemala is that next go to place for beating the crowd, or lack of. Watch out, you might be sharing the wave with that lone local teenager.

Pure and Lush Jungle Experience

Experience the rainforest and jungle experience with an experienced guide either on a day excursion or a multi-day itineraries. After all, the word “Guatemala” means “land of trees” in Mayan.

Petén has Guatemala’s best of rainforests, most notably around Tikal, El Mirador, Uaxactún, and Yaxhá.

The hillsides around Lake Petén Itzá also have some access to beautiful rainforests, specifically outside the town of San Andrés.

The best way to get a feel for these rainforests in Guatemala is to stay at a jungle lodge and experience hiking, bird watching and zip-lining type of activities.

Learn Spanish Without Fuss

Let’s be honest, who doesn’t have learning Spanish (or a foreign language) on their bucket list ? Guatemala is one of the easiest and least expensive countries to learn Spanish from. Here are the reasons to consider Guatemala for Spanish immersion.

  • Most neutral accent
  • Home stays with meals and learning Spanish can be done for as little as $200 in Guatemala
  • You pick the type of place where you want to stay
    • Antigua for UNESCO heritage atmosphere
    • Lake Atitlan, specifically San Pedro for a gorgeous backdrop and lively culture
    • Xelo, if you want to stay away from tourists and truly experience the local culture

Hike Active Volcanoes

A must do activity for anyone visiting Guatemala. After all Guatemala is a home to ~35+ volcanoes. If you stay in Antigua you are sure to see an active volcano spewing out lava on a regular basis.

There are several tour companies that have a pre-defined itinerary and will take you up to the volcanoes on a everyday basis.

Here are some volcano hikes to consider:

  • Pacaya
  • Acatenango
  • Ipala
  • Los Amates waterfall
  • San Pedro Volcano
  • Los Vahos
  • Tajumulco Volcano

We only climbed Pacaya as we went with our 1 year old son and chose the moderate one to attempt. All the hikes are organized and you end up going with a large group of people.

Shop to Your Heart’s Desire

From local markets to high end boutiques Guatemala has some great shopping experience to offer. Both Antigua and Lake Atitlan are full of shops to indulge in local handicrafts and handlooms etc.,

Here is a list published by lonely planet: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/guatemala/shopping

You Don’t Need a Deep Pocket

For a solo traveler, one can do a decent travel, good meal and budget but good stay with approximately $35 – $50 a day. Activities, meals and accommodations are fairly less expensive their neighbors like Mexico or Costa Rica.

From west coast of US, the flights to Guatemala also tends to go on sale at a reasonable price. We paid around $400 for a round trip to Guatemala from San Francisco.