Those who know me know that I love to travel and for the last few years I’ve been trying to see at least one new place every year. This year, I had things pretty well locked with visiting Atlanta, GA in January and then Edinburgh, Rome, Prague and Barcelona later on this year. But then I had to renew my passport and the empty pages were just begging to be filled. Then around the second week of June I stumbled on a great deal from Gate 1 Travel for a 5 day trip to Guatemala which left on 30June. I debated back and forth and then before I could say Guatemala I was booking my flight and counting down the days.
Day 1: Flying into Guatemala City
My flight into the city was scheduled to arrive a little after 1 pm Guatemala time (2 hours behind Eastern, my local time zone) and by the time I deplaned, got through customs, and arrived at my hotel it was almost 2. It then took until almost 3 for my room to be ready. I was tired from the flight so spent the time in the hotel lobby bar grabbing a drink and reading my book and just relaxing. Initially had some grand plans to go out and explore the city but after checking in I was hungry so grabbed dinner at one of the restaurants in the hotel and by the time I was done it was getting late and I was getting tired so I just called it a night. Lame I know, but some days sleep just wins.
In Guatemala City I stayed at the Barcelo Hotel which was pretty nice. The lobby was pretty swank with nice, friendly staff and an ATM where I could pull out some Quetzals (the local currency). My room was on the 10th floor and while the view was nothing super glamorous I did have two balconies and a king sized bed which was pretty nice. I also forgot to take decent photos of the hotel so I grabbed the snaps above from the internet.
Day 2: Antigua
My first full day in Guatemala began bright and early as I had a 7:15 am meet up in the hotel lobby with my Gate 1 guide, Sergio, and to begin the drive to Antigua. Antigua is a UNESCO World heritage site and was founded in the 1500s and originally named Santiago. You can see iconography of this initial name throughout the city which was also the original capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala. Antigua is a city that is prone to earthquakes and much of what was originally built has collapsed and new things built in their place. We did see an old cathedral from the 1600s which is a shell of its former self but still really beautiful even though its barely standing.
Antigua is a city that is filled with such amazing history and architecture and I really wish that I had more time to wander around explore it more fully. Its colorful and vibrant and there is something to look at on every building. There are quaint little courtyards in many of the buildings that are open to the public and I could easily have spent a few days there. If I ever make it back to Guatemala I will definitely spend more time in this fabulous place. I highly recommend the city to anyone who goes to Guatemala. There is a reason that its on the UNESCO world heritage site after all.
After having one of the best lunches and discovering a new favorite cerveza (Muy Antigua, a local brew) we headed back to the bus and drove another few hours up into the highlands to our next stop, Chichicastenango.
Day 3: Chichicastenango & Lake Atitlan
Chichicastenango is a town best known for the market that pops up there twice a week. Its crazy how the town literally transformed overnight and the streets became much narrower as they turned into a literal maze of shop after shop after shop all selling a wide variety of things. There were shops selling fruit, live birds, leather goods, jewlry, toys, tortillas, and pretty much anything that you could think of. It was crowded and chatotic and easy to get lost in the narrow aisles. From every stall people are calling out to you trying to get you to stop and if you do then they really amp up the pressure to buy. Its also expected, and encouraged, to bargain so whatever price the shopkeeper gives you always come back with something lower and eventually you meet in the middle. I liked bargaining but it was also the hardest part as the people in this area are so poor and the items so cheap (1 Quetzal is around 14 cents) that I felt bad at not spending full price on things.
In Chichicastenango, I stayed at the Mayan Inn which is a small hotel but also a really unique place to stay. The hotel spans across the street and I had to cross it in a monsoon to get to the bar and dining areas. Each room in the hotel is different and is like a mini-museum and best of all they all come with fireplaces. I wasn’t going to light mine as the temperatures weren’t that cold but in the end I just had to because how often do you get to have a cozy fireplace in a hotel? Another unique thing about this hotel is that each room is assigned a caretaker and this guy not only answers the bell when you ring it (for when you need help lighting said fireplace) but he also cleans the room, handles your luggage, and serves you in the restaurant.
By far though, one of the most interesting things about Chichicastenango was the cemetery which was a short walk from my hotel. It was bright and colorful and just a fun place to explore.
After spending the morning in the market we drove a few hours to the town of Panajachel which is one of the villages on Lake Atitlan which is the deepest lake in Guatemala. The lake itself is a massive crater of an old volcano and its surrounded by volcanoes. We got lucky on the day we went and while it wasn’t a bright and sunny day the rains held off until after we got to town and got to see the lake. The lake is massive and the views are really pretty and I can only imagine how much prettier it would be on a sunny day.
Day 4: Tikal
My final day in Guatemala was the part of the trip that I was looking forward to most, Tikal. My day started around 4 am (ugh! So early!) but we needed to get to the airport for our flight to Flores. The plane was larger than I thought but also a propeller plane so that was different. What was also nice is that on the plane we got not just beverage service but also a snack box….for a 45 minute flight…along with nice, talkative, friendly flight attendants. The US could remember a thing or two from Guatemala.
Once in Flores we got on a bus and drove another hour or so to Tikal which is in the middle of the jungle. We then spent the next 5 hours hiking through the jungle and up and down ruins and just seeing so many amazing things. Only about 20% of Tikal has been excavated and it really is impressive just how much they let people touch and walk on.
The first view of the Grand Plaza sort of sneaks up on you. Oh, on of the first things you see is the back of Temple 1 but it doesn’t fully prepare you for the overlook at the plaza. Its just so big and open and looks just how you see in pictures and movies but bigger and greener and just more. There are times when you think that you aren’t in a real place because its just so grand and impressive! Walking up to the top of Temple 2 to over look the plaza is break taking and I still can’t believe that I was there. That I was standing in a spot that’s been around since ancient times. Its hard not to wonder what life was like for those living in Tikal or why their civilization collapsed and the people moved on.
After exploring the Grand Plaza there was more hiking and ruins seen until we reached Temple IV. Temple IV is still most unexcavated and rises 212 feet with the top just over the tree line. The sunrise here is supposed to be spectacular but that wasn’t part of our agenda. It was a long climb up and there are times when I thought of turning back but I persisted and it was worth it.
Once on top of the pyramid you learn that safety isn’t a high concern for the Guatemalans as there are no guardrails and not a lot of room to walk around. The view is absolutely breathtaking. Nothing but blue skies and greenery and in the distance the tops of Temples I and II from the Grand Plaza. I could have sat up there for hours just in contemplation. But I was also very hungry and we were all promised food so down I went (much easier than up! lol) and we hiked backed through the jungle to a restaurant in the jungle for one of the best meals I had the entire trip. It was BBQ chicken with vegetables and soup and just so so good! But then again after a long day of hiking I’m not sure my assessment is the most accurate as I really worked up an appetite! lol
After we ate we hiked out of the jungle and then headed back to Flores. We had the opportunity to wander the town but most of us in the group found the nearest restaurant and just sat, drank and waited until it was time to head back to the airport. Needless to say I slept really well that night!!
Going home passed by in a blur, I got upgraded to first class (YAY!) and got to see some fireworks over NYC. It was pretty cool and I was so happy to be home. Not happy to find my car battery dead or the flat tire but very thankful to airport services who were able to get me up and running quickly!
I had a great time in Guatemala and would totally recommend it to anyone filled with Wanderlust and who doesn’t mind hiking through the jungle. I’m not sure that I’ll ever go back to Guatemala but I never say never. I am so glad that I went this truly was a very memorable trip.
See more of my photos on Instagram under the hashtag #gailandtheguatemalatrip.