Making my way into Guatemala via my first ever land border crossing was quite the anticlimax as I walked through with my bag still on my back, got my passport stamped and was out the other side and in another country in less than 10 minutes. We befriended the only other foreigners in sight at the border and shared a taxi for the two hour or so trip to Flores, an island town in the middle of lake Peten Itza. After checking into the hostel, paying slightly extra for a dorm with air conditioning, we set off to find some food and explore for the afternoon.
With barely any sleep we awoke at 2:45am to get a 3:00am shuttle to Tikal for the sunrise tour. Tikal is the ruins of an ancient city found in a rainforest and is a world heritage site filled with temples, pyramids and other buildings. Despite the very early morning and fast paced hike to the top vantage point it was all worth it to be there as the jungle began to wake up. Howler monkeys were screaming and swinging from the trees right in front of us and birds started screeching and whistling as they flew, waking up more animals in their path. As the fog and mist started to lift, temple ruins began to appear in all directions. The morning was spent exploring the ruins site and climbing the steep stairs of the many temples for a different view of the national park. It definitely paid to go early to beat both the midday heat and the crowds to get near empty photos.
Lauren and I happened to have our ten-year anniversary fall while we were in Flores and I wanted to do something special for it. We’d been staying almost exclusively in hostels up until this point and had been travelling together for around five weeks, and me for four months. I booked us a night in Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel without telling her where we would be staying. It was, however, a surprise to both of us when we arrived and were amazed that such a place could exist in a country like Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in Latin America. On arrival the staff greeted me by name and handed us both a welcome cocktail before sitting down together on a lounge to sign for the check-in process on already completed forms, already a very different experience to the usual sweaty, passport required, rule-driven hostel check-in. We were then lead to the next part of my surprise. For our “room” I had booked a private cabana built over the water and overlooking the lake, complete with jacuzzi, king bed, private deck and sunroom, three seating areas, his and her bathroom sinks and to our biggest excitement a shower with hot water!
We spent the afternoon laying around the pool enjoying a swim, the pool bar and uninterrupted views of the lake. I had advised Lauren earlier in the day to make sure she allowed enough time to be ready for our dinner plans. Meanwhile, following my typical relaxed approach to getting ready I was showered, dried and dressed quickly allowing plenty of time to set up and pace around nervously in preparation for what was to come next. I had positioned my camera on a tripod in the corner of the outside deck and using the remote trigger had it continuously taking photos in our direction, before asking Lauren to come out and join me for a photo. The difficult lighting combined with my nervousness meant I almost skipped setting up the camera, but looking back I’m glad I did as otherwise I wouldn’t have shots like this…
That’s right, if you hadn’t already guessed I proposed to Lauren and she said Yes, or more precisely, “Of course!!”…
For my final surprise we went for a walk up the bar for a drink, which was really just to stall and get Lauren out of the room. While we were out the staff snuck in and set up a private dinner for the two of us on the deck of our cabana. We returned to a candlelit table and private waiter and had a nice, romantic dinner with some amazing food. Lauren couldn’t finish one of her courses so in true backpacker style she hid it in the fridge to eat the next day… In saying that we still ordered dessert too, as there is always room for dessert.
Romance, luxury and privacy were shortlived as later the following day we were back to hostel life with dorm room bunk beds but it was a nice treat and something I’m sure we will remember forever. We hired kayaks and paddled up the lake to a local house that had been clever enough to capitalise on their perfect lakeside location and build a rope swing, diving platform and patio filled with hammocks. They charged a very small entry fee (10 GTQ / $1.60 AUD) and provided the ideal place to hang out for the afternoon before we paddled back into the sunset.
The next day was a travel day and we took a bus from Flores down to Rio Dulce. Our accommodation was a short boat ride away in a hostel built like a three storey tree house above the water. Thankfully they provided mosquito nets to sleep under as the shallow wetlands were heaven to every type of insect that wants to bite. The place was run by a friendly couple and was cheap, quiet, served great food and was impressively well built, especially when I later learned it was built by hand by an Australian guy without any power tools. Rio Dulce is located on the eastern side of Guatemala and lies around the river with most locals opting for boats over cars to get around.
We took local transport, a collectivo, to Finca Paraiso beside a village in the middle of nowhere. It was an amazing waterfall feeding near boiling water from an underground spring into a pool of icy, cold water below creating a steamy spa-like swimming experience. We floated around for close to an hour when a young, local guy offered to show us through the caves behind the waterfall. The dark caves were a tight fit crawling through on your stomach and looking back probably not the safest thing to be doing but it was great to be shown through something that not many others have likely ever seen.
Casa Guatemala is a volunteer run boarding school in Rio Dulce housing kids from as young as three years old to fifteen. We visited for a day and helped out, which for us just meant playing with the kids all day. The little ones were especially excited to see us and came running up to give high fives, hugs, and hold our hands. We participated in physica class (P.E) playing basketball and soccer with the kids and took the kindergartens to the park to play on the equipment. It was kind of embarrassing when a Spanish speaking five year rolls her eyes and has to translate “What is your name?” to English for us but it inspired us to get more serious about learning the language and we promised to get some lessons once we reached Antigua. Being as useless as we are, we forgot to bring any food for the day so we joined the kids in the canteen line to buy snacks. We finished a fun and rewarding day by sitting in on an English class before jumping back on a boat home.
Lanquin is located five hours north in the centre highlands of the country. According to the map our van seemed to take a “shortcut” right up and over the mountain instead of around it. The dirt road was so bumpy that it was impossible to do anything but look out the window and at times that was the last thing you felt like doing when it was a sheer cliff right beside you and no guard rails. The driver laughed and thought he was doing us a favour by driving as close to the edge as possible so that we could get a photo. We passed everything on the single lane road from horses and wild dogs to semi-trailers before eventually arriving at our next home for three nights, Zephyr lodge, a hostel perched on a hill with a brand new resort style pool and surrounded by views of mountains and a river. The showers and toilets even had open air windows so you could look out to the mountains as you went about your business. A nights accommodation here was a splurge at $14/night in comparison to most of the other places we stayed.
This hostel had no wifi, which was at first annoying when it came to planning our next destination but proved to make the place a much more social atmosphere and it was here we met lots of new friends as well as catching up with a couple we met on the sailing trip in Belize. The next afternoon we floated slowly down the river on inner tubes, beers in hand, also a great way to make friends.
Semuc Champey was the main reason we stopped in Lanquin and included a tour through a complex, pitch black cave system lit only by our handheld candles. We climbed up and down dodgy ladders, and wadded through ankle to above head deep water. A steep step climb was up next to get to the high viewpoint of the many pools below. It was a hot, sweaty climb but we took comfort knowing the we could swim when we got to the bottom. There were six freshwater pools separated by small waterfalls and all with clear, blue water to swim in and cool down.
We shared a packed minibus eight hours down to Antigua with our new found friends Anthea, Jamie, Jane and Aaron and discussed plans to book a volcano hike together. They talked us into the overnight trek to camp on Acatenango Volcano overlooking Volcano Fuego, famous for being constantly active. We teamed up with some more of their friends that were arriving the next day and were lucky enough to have our group make up the whole tour. The trek was the hardest thing any of us had ever done. We had to carry all supplies including sleeping bags, clothes, food, tents and enough water to last yourself the two days. After five and a half hours of walking straight up we had arrived at the campsite. Exhaustion, altitude and dehydration from trying to conserve your water all played a part in the struggle to reach camp but it was all forgotten the second we saw our first volcano eruption. We went into it with low expectations on seeing an eruption but as it turns out at one stage Fuego was erupting almost every 20 minutes. Each eruption was as exciting as the first with everyone cheering and shouting as it went off. The bigger ones caused the ground to tremble and sent red lava lighting up the sky before running down the side.
At that altitude we were very exposed to the weather and the temperature dropped to 0ºC during the night. We wore all the clothes in our bag and huddled around the campfire to keep warm, roasting marshmallows and melting blocks of rich Guatemalan chocolate into hot drinking chocolate. Eventually we headed to bed but the cold and discomfort meant no one really got much sleep. We climbed out of the tent at 3:50am to begin the hike to the summit in time for sunrise. The view of the sunrise above the clouds was well worth the tough walk and reaching the summit at 3975m was a rewarding accomplishment. We had a quick breakfast and begun our descent. Whilst it was definitely a quicker trip back down it was far from easy with the dirt/gravel slope being very slippery and difficult and our muscles and knees were aching from holding the weight. It was such a relief to finally see the bottom and although we all agreed it was well worth it, it just might be the end of our volcano hiking career.
Antigua itself is a beautiful city, rich in history and Spanish influence with plenty of things to do and see. It had quality food ranging from the ridiculously cheap street food to fancy restaurants and with Guatemala being famous for both coffee and chocolate it was the perfect place to try some…almost daily. We often stuffed ourselves with fresh meals at the cheap food stalls, walking away having eaten 3 persons worth of food all for less than $3 each. The markets were a cheap source of absolutely everything from toothpaste to fruit to live animals and were ideal for stocking up on anything we were out of. One lunch was spent in the park cutting up fresh avocados, tomatoes and mangos with corn chips, more a tasty activity in itself than an exercise in money saving, despite it costing $2-3 for the lot.
One of our main objectives for Antigua was to take some Spanish lessons in an effort to improve our skills. We found space in one of the many schools in town and booked in 4 x 4hr classes. We started at our level (ie. the basics..) though rather than only learning vocabulary words, which we can practice and memorise in our own time, the teacher suggested we spend a lot of the time on grammar and the rules. It was hard to forget the differing sentence structure of English and also accept that there will not necessarily always be a direct translation back into English but over time we got better. We wanted to make a serious attempt at the lessons so at night we revised what we had learnt that day and, like good nerdy students, copied the notes into our 0.16c exercise books we had bought from the local markets. We chose a two on one class and got on well with our teacher who was impressed with our homework diligence and thought we were good students despite the majority of my practice sentences in class being based either on cerveza (beer) or teasing my novia (girlfriend).
"I like working with students who are intelligent!"
Despite the lessons being a fun activity we really need to improve our Spanish before moving into South America where some parts will likely be completely non English speaking so during the lessons we moved accommodation to a homestay with a local family as a way to further practice. Most of our interaction was with the grandmother who cooked our meals and spoke absolutely no English. It was a bit like being thrown in the deep end but we managed to have some funny conversations with her at the dinner table with the assistance of our notebooks if we got stuck or needed inspiration for our next incredibly basic question or statement. The excitement on both parties faces when we realised we had both understood what was said was both encouraging and rewarding.
As previously mentioned, the roads and especially the driving were worryingly bad in Guatemala and the minibus to Lake Atitlan was no different. When you also combine the fact that most of the vans have bald tyres, are overloaded with people, and the drivers reluctant to slow down even in the pouring rain I came to the conclusion that it was easier to relax if you accepted that you are going to crash eventually.
We stayed in San Pedro, a small tourism driven town on the shore of the lake and surrounded by escarpment and three volcanoes. We caught back up with our volcano trekking friends who were staying in the same hostel and went out for dinner and drinks with the first stop being a common recommendation, Jakuu, for their excellent yet cheap food and giant portions. The streets of San Pedro were filled with shops, restaurants and cafes all overlooking the large lake and we were surprised by both the quality and cheap price of everything on offer. Whenever you didn’t have time to sit or were just in need of a quick snack you could always rely on the ladies walking up and down the street with baskets on their head selling freshly baked banana and choc-banana bread. In fact the price of everything was below the already low prices we had seen throughout Guatemala with a nights accommodation costing only $6.70!
A short boat ride across the lake was San Marcos, another small lakeside village with a nature reserve on the water’s edge and man-made platforms to jump off into the water. We laid around in the sun for a few hours, climbing the trees overhanging the water and swimming in the clean and clear freshwater lake. Conveniently just as we were getting hungry a group of kids came along selling banana bread which kept us going for a while and then on our way out we had built up the courage to jump from the 7 metre high platform and both took turns.
Our final activity with our group of friends was a day trip to Chichicastenango markets, a large, colourful market catering for both tourists and locals alike. We walked around for a few hours admiring the colourful fabrics, fruits and animals for sale with the girls negotiating prices on small bags and notepads and the boys buying unusual foods and taking photos. The difficult part about meeting so many great people when travelling is always the goodbyes as we go our separate ways. We had shared grueling volcano hikes, shivered in tents passing around wine from the bottle, hot bus rides, meals, card games and many laughs in between and with a bit of luck we may cross paths again in our travels.
For a country that was supposed to be dangerous and rough it gave us nothing but good memories and friendly people. Sometimes you can’t believe everything you hear on the news..
Next we are making our way down to El Salvador, a country often skipped past and one many have warned us against but we figured we would at least give it a try.