GUATEMALA


Diary/Travel guide

Mayan sites, jungles, volcanoes, ...

Dates : From April 26th to May 14th 2008
Duration : 14 days in Guatemala + 4 days in Belize
Visited countries : Guatemala - Belize (see Belize)
Visited towns : Lanquin - Flores - El Remate - Antigua - Panajachel - Chichicastenango
Visited sites : Lanquin cave - Semuc Champey - Lake Peten Itza - Biotopo Cerro Cahui - Tikal - Antigua - Volcano Pacaya  - Lake Atitlán - Chichicastenango market
Accommodations : Hotel - Guesthouse
Transportation : Taxi - Bus - Minibus - Pick-up - Tuc-tuc - Hitch-hiking
Number of persons : 2 (Emmanuelle & Gilles)
Used languages : Spanish - English
Average exchange rate during the travel : 1 EUR (Euro) = 11,42 GTO (Guatemalan Quetzal) = 1,56 USD (American Dollar)


Summary of the route

This diary divides into 3 parts :

NIGHTS

VISITS
GUATEMALA 1st part (on the road to the north of Guatemala)
1 night in the plane  
2 nights at Lanquin Lanquin - Lanquin cave - Semuc Champey
2 nights at Flores Flores - Lake Peten Itza
2 nights at El Remate Lake Peten Itza - Biotopo Cerro Cahui - Tikal
BELIZE 2nd part (rest on a heavenly Belizian island)
4 nights (see detail)
GUATEMALA 3rd part (the West, discovering Guatemalan volcanoes)
3 nights at Antigua Antigua - Volcano Pacaya
2 nights at Panajachel Lake Atitlán - Panajachel - Santiago Atitlán - Chichicastenango market
1 night in New York City (USA)  
1 night in London (GB)  

Our itinerary in Guatemala

Preparation

Guatemala has always been attractive to us, inasmuch as this country is renowned to be one of the most authentic countries of Central America. Unfortunately, the website of Ministère des Affaires Etrangères (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) describes Guatemala as a particularly dangerous country, that had, in a first time, dissuaded us from choosing this destination ! Furthermore, flights allowing to go there are not very cheap, and May, during which we had our holiday, is not the best month with regards to the weather ! Indeed, in this period of the year, the sky is very often cloudy and it's not impossible to get rain, that can spoil the landscape. Moreover, fields ans forests are frequently burnt at this period, a practice called "brûlis"..., that can also prove disagreeable (not to mention the ecological impact of these fires on the planet !).

Despite all these reluctances, the desire to discover this country was the strongest one !

Apart from the round trip flight, we hadn't booked anything in advance. As a reference, we had taken with us the travel guides "Lonely Planet" and "Petit Futé".


1st PART : GUATEMALA
(ON THE ROAD TO THE NORTH)

Outward journey

In order to reduce the cost of the travel, our outward journey was divided into 3 flights : a first flight Baden-Baden (Germany) / London (GB) lasting 1 hour and 10 minutes with the airline company Ryanair. A second flight London / New York City (USA) lasting 8 hours with the company Delta Airlines (excellent service ; good and copious meal, ice cream and snack in the middle of the flight, toilet bag). Then a third flight New York City / Guatemala City (Guatemala) lasting 5 hours with the company Taca Airlines.

The stopover in London had lasted almost 7 hours, which has allowed us to visit the town centre (for further details about London and its airports). Cost of the complete route : 646 EUR inclusive of tax the return ticket per person, Baden-Baden / Guatemala City, bought on internet via this "flight comparator".

We land in Guatemala City (or Ciudad de Guatemala, the capital of Guatemala) at 6:00 AM. The airport is small and going through customs is fast. We back our watches 8 hours compared with France.

Outside the airport, it's quite cool, but it is true that we are at an altitude of nearly 1500 metres. We take a taxi to get to a bus station of the company "Linea Dorada", that I had read on the travel guide "Lonely Planet", and which might allow us to get to the town of Cobán (7 EUR by taxi ; 10 minutes route). We go through a town, still deserted at this time. At "Linea Dorada", we learn that there is no bus to Cobán !

INFORMATION ABOUT THE BUS COMPANY "LINEA DORADA"
This company is renowned to be good and it offers some direct routes.
Their contact details : 16 Calle 10-03, Zona 1, Guatemala City, phone 2415-8900.
Here are the itineraries and departure times noted in May 2008 :
  • Guatemala City -> Flores : 10:00 AM - 9:00 PM - 9:15 PM
  • Guatemala City -> Quetzaltenango : 8:30 AM - 3:00 PM
  • Guatemala City -> Huehuetenango : 6:30 AM - 5:00 AM - 10:30 AM
  • Guatemala City -> Tapachula : 6:00 AM
  • Flores -> Guatemala City : 10:00 AM - 9:30 PM - 10:00 PM
  • Quetzaltenango -> Guatemala City : 4:00 AM- 2:30 PM
  • Huehuetenango -> Guatemala City : 2:30 PM - 11:15 PM - 12:00 midnight
  • Cuauhtemoc (Mexico) -> Guatemala City : 12:00 noon
  • De Camoja -> Guatemala City : 1:00 PM - 9:30 PM
  • La Mesilla -> Guatemala City : 12:30 noon - 9:00 PM
  • Tapachula -> Guatemala City : 2:30 PM
  • Flores -> Belize City (Belize) : 7:30 AM
  • Belize City (Belize) -> Flores : 9:30 AM
  • Huehuetenango -> Cuauhtemoc (Mexico) : 4:30 AM

So we are compelled to choose another company to take a bus to Cobán. Someone explains to us with kindness, on a map drawn freehand, how to get, on foot, to the company "TMB" (Transportes Monja Blanca), situated two streets further, station where a bus is justly preparing for leaving at 7:00 AM to Cobán. We arrive a few minutes before 7 o'clock at the bus station and ten minutes later, we are on the road to Cobán (4 EUR per person ; 4 hours and 15 minutes route ; one 15 minutes stop ; medium quality and local bus ; www.tmb.com.gt).
We are the only tourists in the bus and the natives, who get into and off all along the route, are in a first time surprised to see "strangers" then they address to us a large smile by way of "good morning". The driver drives a little fast to our mind, on a road, indeed good, but nevertheless very winding !


LANQUIN AND SEMUC CHAMPEY

We arrive at Cobán at 11:45 AM and the bus driver proposes us to drop us off in front of an agency which can organize the continuity of our route. We then schedule a journey by minibus to get to Lanquin village, but before, I must absolutely find a cash dispenser because I'm not certain that there is one at Lanquin ! I withdraw some Quetzal at a cash dispenser situated on the main square, in the centre of Cobán. It is good to know that there are some others, in particular at the level of a big modern shopping centre. As expected, we leave at 12 o'clock by minibus to Lanquin (3 EUR per person ; 2 hours route ; 80 per cent of asphalted roads).

Arriving at Lanquin, we ask the driver to drop us off at one of the accommodations that I had previously noticed on internet, called "El Retiro". Unfortunately, the latter is almost fully booked and there are only 2 rooms left ; but we don't like them ! What a pity, because the heavenly garden which surrounds rooms makes really feel like letting oneself live... So we must search for another accommodation... After 1 hour research, we finally halt at "El Recreo" (good standing ; we choose a room in an individual house set back, comprising 3 rooms in all, but we will be the only occupants ; our room costs 24 EUR).

ACCOMMODATIONS AT LANQUIN
Here is a description of two accommodations that we have visited :
  • "El Recreo" where we live (good standing ; several categories of rooms ; we take a pretty room for 24 EUR, breakfast excluded ; bathroom ; toilets ; towels ; very clean ; it has got its own restaurant - very clean - which offers good dishes ; situated among the first houses of Lanquin, if you are coming from Cobán) ;
  • "El Retiro" (heavenly setting ; at a quiet place ; several categories of rooms at every price : with or without bathroom, permanent house, wooden bungalow, dormitory,... ; situated at the opposite side of the village, if you are coming from Cobán).
There are of course other accommodations at Lanquin. Beware of scorpions in the rooms, because there are a lot of them in this area (information received from the lodgers of "El Retiro").
There are also some accommodations situated next to the site of Semuc Champey at 45 minutes from Lanquin, but the latter are far from all (shops, village,...)

Tired of the day, we have dinner at our accommodation "El Recreo" at around 4:00 PM (good dish ; very clean restaurant). Then we start a little digestive walk to the river situated at the level of Lanquin caves (15 minutes walk from our accommodation). The water has got magnificent turquoise blue glints ! A few natives are already bathing and encourage me to rejoin them, I don't have to be asked twice, however water is really very cool !

River at Lanquin - Guatemala

On the way back, a pick-up proposes to bring us back to our accommodation. Our first contacts with Guatemalan people have already seduced us : large jovial smiles and "Hola" (which mean "Hello") left and right, and now, without asking anything at all, we are taken to our accommodation by pick-up. We feel good and secure. We notice that in this village, most women still wear their traditional outfit while men are more easily overcome with jeans fashion.

At 8:00 PM, we are already in bed ! Far off, we can hear the music of a local dance which lulls the first minutes of our sleep...

Day outlays : 29 EUR per person
(taxi, bus, minibus, meals, accommodation)

We spend an excellent night before being woken, in the morning, by roosters crow, dogs barks as well as church bells (like in many countries besides !) Fortunately, we are a little set back from the village and the song of exotic birds which populate the forest surrounding us makes quickly forget this cacophony ! Here, the weather is much better than in Guatemala City since we are at an altitude of 250 metres only. At 9:00 AM, we peacefully have breakfast at our accommodation.

Church at Lanquin - Guatemala

We walk up to the village centre where the market is (just opposite the church). We pass many people, women and men, who are coming back from the forest, their machete hung on their belt, and carrying wood loads on their back.

We want to find a transportation which allows us to get to the site of Semuc Champey. Very quickly a person proposes us to give us a lift. We then climb at the back of his pick-up, where we remain standing since it is assailed by natives who, like us, stand at the back of the vehicle. We are the only tourists and they are looking at us amused. We must hold on tightly, because the pick-up runs on a track in very poor condition and sometimes very steep on the way up and down ! But the marvellous landscape which unfolds makes forget our painful arms. As the kilometres are going, the pick-up is being empty, and we finish the route alone with the driver. It takes us 45 minutes to reach Semuc Champey (1,75 EUR per person), making a few breaks to stretch our legs (and our arms !). Note : just before the site of Semuc Champey, there are several isolated accommodations.

Semuc Champey is at an altitude of 250 metres, and it can be very warm there ! The visit of the site of Semuc Champey costs 4,40 EUR per person. You have the possibility to buy a map at the entrance of the site for a few Quetzal centimes. Several waymarked paths cover the site, all are situated in the forest, some run alongside the river deeply embanked in the mountain while others climb to the top of a hill. We choose to take the path which goes to the point of view called "Mirador". The way up is rough, because very steep, and moreover it's very warm there ; fortunately, there is only a 100 metres incline and certain sections are fitted out with wooden stairs... After our efforts, the sight is grandiose... ! We tower above the numerous natural turquoise blue pools formed by the river... We sit down to rest and to fill with this magnificent panorama !

Natural pool at Semuc Champey - Guatemala                                   Semuc Champey - Guatemala

Then we continue on the path (without turning back) which goes down to the river bank and at the level of the natural pools. We halt one hour to refresh ourselves in this beautiful water. All the morning physical exercises had whetted our appetite and we savour with delight the fruit that we have previously bought at Lanquin. Water is limpid and turns green. The edges are covered by a thin yellow silt layer. Moreover, watch out, because it's very slippery ! We count a dozen of persons who, as we do, take advantage of these natural pools... It's a really magical place ! And thanks to the mask and the snorkel that we have brought, we discover the translucent bottom where many fishes nestle.

Natural pool at Semuc Champey - Guatemala               Semuc Champey - Guatemala

More photos of Semuc Champey...

We leave regretfully this fabulous place in taking, this time, one of the paths which run alongside the river (much easier) in order to get to the exit of the site. Once outside, we wait - during a long moment - for the coming of a vehicle. Finally, we manage to be taken away by a 4X4 hired by a couple of tourists and their driver (0,90 EUR per person ; 45 minutes route) which drops us off at our accommodation.

We would like to visit Lanquin cave and we leave a few minutes later on foot (15 minutes route - entrance fees : 2,60 EUR per person). The visit is individual, following a waymarked and lighted path. Stalactites and stalagmites from various sizes which form now columns now hangings, cover the inside of the cave and give to it a ghostly atmosphere. The inside is sweaty and it's very warm. We get a few bats out of their torpor and the latter fly off with a wing rustling above our heads. We must pay attention to our steps because the ground is really very slippery !

Lanquin cave - Guatemala

It's possible to go into the cave, walking for about 15 minutes, then there is no lighting any more. I try to continue with a frontal torch, but it becomes very quickly dangerous. We come out of the cave, muddy and sweating. The river which gushes from the cave is welcome to clean us up and to refresh ourselves (it is even cold !).

View from the entrance of Lanquin cave - Guatemala

More photos of Lanquin cave and of the river...

We go back to our accommodation (15 minutes walk) to have a shower. At the end of the day, we go back to the centre of the village to have dinner, but also to book a minibus for the following morning. We have dinner at "Comedor Shalom" a little local restaurant - very busy - which seems quite nice to us (family ; very clean and delicious ; 1,30 EUR for one dish ; 2,20 EUR for one complete meal (meal + drink + dessert) ).

CULINARY SPECIALITY OF GUATEMALA
Guatemalan cooking is very similar to Mexican one.
  • Tortillas (flat cake made up of corn or wheat flour) ;
  • Nachos (triangular and spicy corn crisps, covered by cheddar cheese, tomatoes and sometimes minced meat) ;
  • Guacamole (spicy avocados purée which is served with several dishes or which can be eaten as an appetizer) ;
  • Frijoles (red beans (black beans) purée ; vegetable which can be served with meat and which can be tasted even at breakfast ; sometimes, the purée is a bit grilled and we have found it delicious !) ;
  • Fajitas (wheat or corn flat cake rolled up like a crêpe and filled with beef or chicken cuts, peppers and a few other ingredients. Often served with guacamole and frijoles) ;
  • Burritos (wheat or corn flat cake rolled up like a crêpe and filled with minced meat, red beans or rice. They are served with guacamole) ;
As a drink there is "Horchata" (taste similar to the medicine "Smecta" ; from Spain and extracted from a root, but here it's made up of rice and some other products according to varieties).
A 1,5 litre water bottle costs 7 GTQ, that is 0,61 EUR.

Leaving the restaurant, we feel a few rain drops ! We notice that the natives hurry over closing their workshops ! Ouch ! The wind is rising and we take to our heels but it's already too late because 2 minutes later... it's the deluge and we arrive at our accommodation soaking wet !

More photos of Lanquin and Semuc Champey...

Day outlays : 30 EUR per person
(pick-up and 4x4, Semuc Champey, Lanquin cave, meals, accommodation)

It has rained all night long, the air is very humid and our washing isn't dry ! After breakfast, we live Lanquin with a minibus that we have booked the previous day (departure one hour late ; 11 EUR per person for the complete route Lanquin/Flores via Cobán ; 6 hours and 30 minutes route). Two hours later, we arrive at Cobán where we have a few minutes break.


FLORES

We next leave toward the north to get to Flores. We drive during the two first hours on a winding mountain road, then relief disappear little by little to make way for a completely flat landscape. We enter the department of Peten, an area covered by jungle and much less populated than the rest of the country. We observe - vexed - some areas totally deforested by mankind, which make way for palm plantations ; the latter will serve, certainly, to the production of future biofuel ! What a disaster !

On the way, our minibus crosses a river on a very rustic ferry and after 6 hours and 30 minutes route from Lanquin, we finally arrive at Flores (that is 4 hours and 30 minutes from Cobán).

Flores is a little peninsula on Lake Petzen Itza. Initially an island, it has been linked to the mainland with a bridge built from Santa Elena. Flores is a good stopover to get to the site of Tikal which is at only 1 hour and 30 minutes route. Many agencies offer their services from Flores to discover the surroundings (Tikal, hiking and trekking in the jungle, discovery of the lake, etc.).

Map of Lake Peten Itza, Flores, Santa Elena and El Remate - Guatemala

To view Flores on "Google Maps"

The bus driver drops us off at Flores and proposes to find an accommodation for us. We prefer getting out of the vehicle and seeking by ourselves, calmly, because we are exhausted ! So we begin with having a drink at Restaurant "La Luna" (very clean ; pretty setting), because heat is torrid. Then I go alone in order to look for an accommodation and I notice that a large number of establishments are fully booked ! I finally find a room at "Sabana" (clean room ; some are on the lake side, others on the road side with much noise in the evening and from 4:00 AM ; bathroom ; hot water ; balcony ; swimming pool ; jacuzzi ; 17 EUR for the room on the road side, because there was nothing left).

We enjoy having dinner at "Cafe Arqueologico Yax-Ha" (delicious cooking ; delicious faritas ; delicious chicken with yucca sauce ; 3,50 EUR for one dish ; pretty setting full of photos of archaeological excavations ; unfortunately, the welcome leaves something to be desired).

We next back to our room at around 8:30 PM ; it is still 26°C (79°F) hot and streets are a bit noisy, but we are pleasantly surprised noticing that there is no mosquito in the room, and this despite the presence of the lake !

Day outlays : 30 EUR per person
(minibus, meals, accommodation)

From 4:00 AM, we are woken by voices in the streets and vehicles which run under our windows... : it's departure time of numerous agencies which, at this time of the day, are leaving Flores to get to Tikal, in order to arrive early on the spot. Then the streets calm down and at 7:00 AM it's the hotel which wakes us with the reception desk PA system !!!

We have breakfast at "Casa Amelia" (terrace with view on the lake ; 3,50 EUR for one breakfast). Then we stroll at the edge of Lake Peten Itza. We only see a tiny part of this huge lake. Water is limpid and helped on the heat, I can't help going swimming ! But before, and in doubt, I peer at the vicinity to make sure that no crocodile is visible !!! We don't know if there are some crocodiles since we didn't have seen any of them. But I was told that there will be some on a few lake banks. As to me, I'm nearly certain that, if crocodiles must frequent this lake, it will certainly not be around Flores... I then plunge alone into the water, Emmanuelle is more reluctant ! Water is deliciously warm and I don't feel like leaving at all !

It takes us about 20 minutes to walk around Flores, that gives a certain time to stroll from shop to shop : and we could spend hours and hours there ! People are very nice, particularly polite and obliging. Sellers or touts aren't insistent at all. There is unfortunately nothing much traditional in the town and natives are also dressed in occidental style.

Alley at Flores - Guatemala

Flores streets are small and crossed by numerous tuc-tuc. At noon, it is 33°C (91°F) hot in the shade, since Flores is at an altitude of only 100 metres. We search for coolness in the shade of "Casa Amelia" where we halt to nibble and to quench our thirst (good ; excellent strawberry juice !) We have got a pretty view on the lake and we observe several tourists getting to a little island by swimming... there is even a dog which is making the crossing by himself ! A little later, we try to find a foreign exchange bureau to change our Euros, in vain !

Despite the large number of restaurants of all categories, we go back to "Casa Amelia" (our canteen !) to have dinner (good ; very good nachos ; 6 EUR for one complete meal (first course, main course, dessert and fresh fruit juice) ).

More photos of Flores and of Lake Peten Itza...

Day outlays : 20 EUR per person
(meals, accommodation)

The following morning, we are woken at 6:00 AM  by the noise of the streets and a group of tourists particularly noisy ! Outside, it is already 22°C (71°F) hot ; we decide to leave Flores to get to El Remate, situated at the other end of Lake Peten Itza.


SANTA ELENA

We take a tuc-tuc to get to one of the bus stations of Santa Elena (0,50 EUR per person ; 10 minutes ; you just need to ask the way to the station with buses going to El Remate ; very obliging) and wait half an hour before boarding a minibus... which will stop a few hundreds of metres further, at the centre of a market, in order to fill up with passengers (half an hour stop). I take opportunity to walk round the market... We are the only tourists and the natives which surround us, firstly shy, strike up a conversation... they are really lovely ! After 45 minutes route, we arrive at El Remate (1,75 EUR per person ; 45 minutes route).

Market at Santa Elena - Guatemala

More photos of Santa Elena...


EL REMATE

We quickly find an accommodation which suits us : "Las Gardenias" (9 EUR for one large room ; 2 large beds ; clean ; fan ; bathroom ; at the side of the main road ; internet ; No. 3 on the map).

ACCOMMODATIONS AND RESTAURANTS AT EL REMATE El Remate map - Guatemala
Here are some accommodations and restaurants that we have visited or tested :
  • "Restaurante Cahui" (there we just had a drink ; not clean straws ; a couple of travellers had told us that their pastas weren't very appetizing (very fat) ; at a terrace on a pile with a pretty view on the lake ; No. 1 on the map opposite) ;
  • "Las Gardenias" where we lodge (9 EUR for one large room with 2 large beds ; clean ; fan ; bathroom ; hot water, useless ; situated at the roadside ; a bit noisy, but quiet after 11:00 PM, except when dogs are going wild ; internet ; No. 3 on the map opposite) ;
  • "La Casa de Don David" (24 EUR for one non individual bungalow ; breakfast or dinner included - as one chooses ; clean ; possibility to have your dirty linen washed, even for the non residents ; has got a restaurant ; light breakfast and average fresh fruit juice ; No. 4 on the map opposite) ;
  • "Palomino Ranch Hotel" (very smart ; swimming pool ; owns horses ; www.hotelpalominoranch.com ; No. 5 on the map opposite) ;
  • "Las Orquideas" (restaurant with a menu well supplied with courses and desserts of Italian specialities ; pretty garden ; No. 2 on the map opposite) ;
  • "Casa Mobego" (No. 6 on the map opposite) ;
  • "La Casa de Doña Tonita" (No. 7 on the map opposite) ;
  • "Casa de Ernesto" (No. 8 on the map opposite) ;
  • "Mon Ami" (bungalows ; hammock ; pretty setting ; also restaurant ; delicious tuna salad in French style called "Ensalada Francesa" ; delicious milk-shake ; No. 9 on the map opposite) ;
  • "Hostal El Cocodrilo" (11 EUR for one room ; situated in the middle of a garden ; No. 10 on the map opposite).

El Remate is situated in the extreme east of Lake Peten Itza. The village is much less touristic than Flores so more quiet ! It's also a good stopover to get to Tikal, situated at only 45 minutes route ! We find there numerous accommodations and restaurants, for every liking and every budget ; there are also numerous agencies which can organize all kinds of trips (from the single visit of Tikal, to several days trekking in the surrounding jungle). Here the colour of the lake is turquoise blue and several pontoons make easier the access to the water and swimming.

View on Lake Peten Itza from Biotopo Cerro Cahui - Guatemala                                        Lake Peten Itza - Guatemala

We go as far as "Biotopo Cerro Cahui" on foot (1,5 kilometre from our accommodation "Las Gardenias" ; 1,75 EUR for one entrance ticket ; about 6 kilometres waymarked paths ; No. 11 on the map). At the entrance, a guide explains to us which paths can be followed and gives us a little map. We walk alone a large part of waymarked paths. The ground is hilly and under this heavy sun (33°C (91°F) in the shade), we sweat profusely. Unfortunately, although we are alone and silent, we can't observe any animal, neither toucans nor monkeys or other animals... But it's true that at this time heat is too important and animals lie low in the shade. A pretty point of view allows to see a large part of Lake Peten Itza.

After 3 hours and 30 minutes walk, we head toward the place opposite the site entrance ; in a space laid out for bathing. It is about a green space created by natives with a few shelters to protect from the sun and a pontoon to make easier the access to the water. The surroundings are very pretty and water is 28°C (82°F) hot ! The turquoise blue of the water is due to a whitish deposit on the bottom of the water. Walking in water is not very pleasant, because the whitish sediments are so thin that it looks like silt and in places, we can sink on a few dozens of centimetres !

On the way back, we stop at "Mon Ami" (tuna salad in French style (delicious !) "Ensalada Francesa" ; delicious milk-shake ; pretty setting ; offers also accommodations kind of bungalows). Back to El Remate, we have a drink at "Restaurant Cahui" (No. 1 on the map). We next have dinner at "Las Orquideas" (good ; 5 EUR for one meal).

It is 7:30 PM and we take the way back - on foot - in the night, under the light of the moon and of fireflies which fly blinking ; we see, on the other lake bank, terrible flames, tall as a house, which are clearing fires called "brûlis" (unfortunately daily in Guatemala).

More photos of El Remate and of Lake Peten Itza...

Day outlays : 14 EUR per person
(tuc-tuc, minibus, Biotopo Cerro Cahui, meals, accommodation)


TIKAL

At 5:30 AM, we station ourselves in front of our accommodation which is justly on the road to Tikal. We wait hardly 10 minutes before boarding a minibus (price for tourists : 1,75 EUR per person for one single ticket ; 45 minutes route ; public bus with natives getting to Tikal for job ; we are the only tourists ; local price : 0,88 EUR per person).

HOW TO GET TO AND VISIT TIKAL ? Tikal archaeological site map - Guatemala
(source www.mapasdeguatemala.com)
Tikal or Tik'al was one of the main Mayan towns built about 300 or 400 years BC and deserted by the Mayan civilisation around the 10th century AD. Tikal has got the highest pyramids of the Mayan era, one is 70 metres high. Tikal is not only an archaeological Mayan site, but also a huge national park set up to protect jungle, fauna and flora, very present. Indeed, Tikal National Park stretches out upon nearly 600 square kilometres (but what about the rest of the jungle and its protection ?!).

To get to Tikal, several possibilities present themselves to you :

  • From Flores or El Remate, numerous agencies propose to organize a guided tour including transportation. 1 hour and 30 minutes are requested from Flores and only 45 minutes from El Remate ;
  • Still from Flores or El Remate, you could also just book a transportation (return ticket). Example : from El Remate, it is possible to leave at 5:30 AM, with a return from Tikal at 2:30 PM for 4,50 EUR.
  • We have preferred to wait for a bus in the morning stationing ourselves on the main road of El Remate, road which justly leads to Tikal. A single ticket costs 1,75 EUR. The return must be negotiated on the spot (noticed price : 2,20 EUR per person). Finally, for the return, we have chosen hitch-hiking ;
  • Another solution consists in living in one of the accommodations which find themselves at Tikal, but apparently, it is about quite costly accommodations !
  • And to finish, there is a little runway to arrive by private plane...

The admission fees to Tikal cost 13 EUR per person for tourists and 2,20 EUR for natives. Opening hours : from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM.

To visit the site, it is recommended to arrive soon, that is 6:00 AM, which corresponds to the opening hour. At this time, coaches with tourists in package tours are not yet arrived. We enjoy, furthermore, a jungle still animated by calls of birds and other animals like howler monkeys. Over the day, temperature increases and noises of the jungle soften.

Example of a day spent in Tikal : this morning, the sky is completely clear at 6:15 AM. We are almost alone and we observe with wonderment some toucans twirling from tree to tree (3 varieties with different sizes and colours) as well as numerous parrots. At around 10:00 AM, the noises of the forest soften and only the powerful howls of howler monkeys are being heard. Numerous tourists groups travelling with their guides begin to walk all over paths, but the most distant ruins remain still deserted. At around 1:00 PM, the sky is being cloudy and it is still 38°C (100°F) hot in the shade and with this temperature, the visit becomes difficult ; we then slowly reach the way out.

It is 6:15 AM when we enter the jungle of Tikal, after having paid entrance fees amounting to 13 EUR per person. We are almost alone. Our map in hand, we walk toward the ruins for about 15 minutes. Numerous toucans with sparkling colours fly not far from us, as well as parrots and hummingbirds (unfortunately I have no photo because after a bad takedown I have deleted about sixty photos !!!) The noises of the jungle are bewitching. When we arrive at the level of the first ruins, it is simply magical...

Temple V - Tikal - Guatemala           Temple I or Temple of the Great Jaguar - Tikal - Guatemala           Central acropolis - Tikal - Guatemala

Monkey seen at Tikal - Guatemala           View on a canopy from the top of a pyramid at Tikal - Guatemala

More photos of Tikal...

We go all over the site of Tikal during nearly 8 hours. We pass howler monkeys that we locate thanks to their powerful howls which resound through the whole forest. There are also several other species of monkeys. We also observe a few coatis which in this case seem to be used to be close to visitors. At around 1:00 PM, it is 38°C (100°F) hot in the shade and visit becomes tiring.

It is 2:30 PM when we come out of Tikal and we try to find a transportation to get to El Remate. Several minibuses are waiting to be full to leave. We decide to hitch-hike. Very quickly, a Guatemalan family proposes to us to climb at the back of its pick-up ; we then keep company with their 3 children who are already in, quickly met up with a third hitch-hiker (it's obvious, Guatemalan people are very nice !).

Back to our accommodation at El Remate, we slip our swimsuits on and get moving to the "beach" situated at 20 minutes from there. 10 minutes later, the family which had given us a lift at Tikal passes us again by pick-up and proposes to convey us, since they are going there too... we accept with pleasure !

The aforesaid "beach" is a green space laid out by natives, with a few shelters and a pontoon to make easier the access to the water (see No. 12 on the map). We enjoy water which is refreshing, but also wonderfully warm !

We have dinner, not far from the "beach", at "Mon Ami" (5,50 EUR for one complete meal ; see No. 9 on the map) and we go to bed at around 8:00 PM in a room with a stifling heat. The fan is welcome and hot water of the shower totally useless !

Day outlays : 26 EUR per person
(minibus, Tikal, meals, accommodation)

The following morning at 7:00 AM, it is still 30°C (86°F) hot in the room, whereas outside, it is only 28°C (82°F ) hot ! We have breakfast at "Casa de Don David" (plates not very filled ; average fresh fruit juice ; No. 4 on the map).

At 8:45 AM, a minibus, booked the previous day, picks us up at our accommodation to get to the capital of Belize (14 EUR per person ; 4 hours route). The bus is full of tourists coming from Flores...

TO GET TO BELIZE FROM EL REMATE OR FLORES
It's easy to book a bus the previous day from your accommodation or from an agency situated at El Remate or Flores.
Another solution consists in managing, taking one of the buses or minibuses which leave from Flores and inevitably go through the intersection "Flores/El Remate/Belize" at 2 kilometres to the north of El Remate.
The route El Remate->Belize City costs in average 14 EUR per person.
4 hours route are requested from El Remate, and 4 hours and 45 minutes from Flores.

During 45 minutes, the bun runs on an asphalted, but in poor condition, road. Then during 45 more minutes, it is a track. It takes us 1 hour and 30 minutes to make about 70 kilometres and to arrive at the frontier of Belize.

Just before arriving at the frontier, the bus stops to pick one person up. She goes around passengers in order to propose to change our Guatemalan currency (Guatemalan Quetzal = GTO), our Euros or American Dollars for Belizian currency (Belizian Dollar = BZD). Apparently, everybody in the bus changes money... Rate doesn't seem very interesting to me (1,00 EUR = 2,20 BZD) in the beginning, later, 2,30 BZD) so I prefer to wait. I am going to change my Euros at the frontier, for 2,60 BZD after a hard negotiation (= black market), that is almost 15 % better than in the bus.

At the frontier, we have to get out of the bus with our bags, in order to go through the two customs on foot. At the customs of Guatemala, we have to pay 10 GTO that is 0,88 EUR per person. Then we go through the customs of Belize, where there is nothing to pay for. There is no time difference in comparison with Guatemala.

We get back into our bus and we arrive 2 hours and 30 minutes later in Belize City.

Day outlays as far as the frontier of Belize : 17 EUR per person
(breakfast, minibus, tax at the exit of Guatemala)


2nd PART : BELIZE
(REST ON A HEAVENLY ISLAND)

The 2nd part of the travel takes place in Belize (see 2nd part : Belize) and will end with a 3rd part, again in Guatemala (see below).


3rd PART : GUATEMALA (continuation)
(THE WEST, DISCOVERING VOLCANOES)

We get back to Guatemala, with 2 flights Belize City/San Salvador/Guatemala City (1 hour flight + 45 minutes stopover + 45 minutes flight ; with the airline company Taca Airlines ; flight booked from France on www.DistriVols.fr for 156 EUR in business class). We now want to head for the west of Guatemala, in a region called "Highlands", bringing together mountains, volcanoes and lakes.


ANTIGUA

It is nearly 8:00 PM when we arrive in Guatemala City. After customs formalities, we take a minibus to get to Antigua (7 EUR per person for night-time rate ; otherwise it is 3 EUR during the daytime ; 1 hour route). Since we are only 4 persons plus the driver in the minibus and it's already dark, they ask us to pay double standard fare, that is 7 EUR instead of 3 EUR ! We don't really have the choice and we submit reluctantly to this sudden rise in cost ! The road is very winding but the driver seems to be careful.

We arrive at Antigua at around 9:00 PM ; we don't have the energy to compare accommodations anymore, so we halt in a little family hotel that I had previously noticed in our travel guide and which had been recommended to us by other tourists : "Posada de San Pedro" (at a quiet place ; very lovely ; pretty garden ; 28 EUR for one room, breakfast excluded ; very clean). We go to bed at around 10:30 PM without having the energy to have dinner.

Accommodation "Posada de San Pedro" at Antigua - Guatemala
Our accommodation, "Posada de San Pedro"

Outlays of the evening and the night since our arrival in Guatemala : 21 EUR per person
(minibus, accommodation)

Today morning, lie-in until 7:30 AM ! We have breakfast at "Cafe La Escudilla" (good value for money ; situated in a little garden ; 4a av. Norte No. 4, Antigua) then we go for a walk all day long discovering Antigua.

Antigua was the former colonial capital of Guatemala since 1543, but after being almost destroyed by a big earthquake in 1773, it is deserted for the newly built capital : Guatemala City. From that time, Antigua has been rebuilt but it keeps marks from its past. Thanks to its history this town has kept its genuine character, vestige of the Spanish civilisation. Its colours, its bars on the windows, its numerous churches have conquered us, as well as its arch (on UNESCO World Heritage List) "El Arco de Santa Catarina". Its situation in the heart of a mountainous landscape and in front of the majestic Volcano Agua gives even more charm to this town with sparkling colours. During this period of the year, Volcano Agua remains unfortunately behind a misty veil. Antigua is much more quiet and safe than its big sister Guatemala City. Its paved alleys are not overloaded with vehicles. Antigua is situated at an altitude of about 1450 metres, so it can get cool in the evening whereas the sun will be supportable in broad daylight.

Alley at Antigua - Guatemala          El Arco de Santa Catarina - Antigua - Guatemala          Santa Catarina Arch and Volcano Agua - Guatemala

Church Nuestra Senora de la Merced - Antigua - Guatemala          Church at Antigua - Guatemala

During our walk, we stop at "Casa Santo Domingo" which is a gorgeous luxury hotel of old stone embellished with a magnificent lush garden (free visit ; gastronomic restaurant).

Casa Santo Domingo - Antigua - Guatemala                                             Casa Santo Domingo - Antigua - Guatemala

Next our steps lead us to Antigua market, high in colours.

Near to Antigua market - Guatemala                 Fabrics and colours of Guatemala

We stop to fill up with water at the supermarket of Antigua which allows to stock up with common products for a correct price (example : one 1,5 litre water bottle costs 5 GTQ, that is 0,44 EUR). Antigua is also renowned for the jade, this magnificent precious stone which is mostly green. Besides numerous jewelleries are in competition in the town centre, all guarded by an armed gendarme.

For the 1st time in Guatemala, we manage to change our Euros in one of the banks of Antigua. In the evening, it's good to relax on a bench of the central square of Antigua.

For dinner, we try the gastronomic restaurant of the hotel "Casa Santo Domingo" that we had visited the very same morning (very good ; refined ; pretty dish, but light ; no appetizer, it's a pity for a gastronomic restaurant ; 14 EUR for a main course and a pre-dinner drink ; situated at 5 metres of the central square of Antigua ; www.casasantodomingo.com.gt). We prefer having a dessert in one of the numerous restaurants near to the central square.

Dish at Restaurant "Casa Santo Domingo" at Antigua - Guatemala

Day outlays : 34 EUR per person
(pastry, ice creams, meals, accommodation)

Today, lie-in until 8:30 AM ! Breakfast again at "Cafe La Escudilla". At noon, we leave our accommodation, because it's fully booked for the next night (the renter had warned us as we were arrived). We halt a little further, at "El Descanso" (situated right next to the central square of Antigua ; 5a av. Norte No. 9 ; 22 EUR for one room ; family ; clean ; a dining room, a kitchenette and a barbecue are apparently at tenants' disposal).

More photos of Antigua...


VOLCANO PACAYA

TO VISIT AND TO CLIMB VOLCANO PAYACA
At Antigua, numerous agencies propose several trips, among them visiting and climbing volcanoes in the surroundings of Antigua, like Volcano Agua, the one which towers above Antigua, Volcano Fuego or the most accessible, Volcano Pacaya.
Indeed, climbing Volcano Pacaya is not very difficult, since there is only a 400 metres incline to climb up on foot. First of all, you need to go to the bottom of the volcano with a vehicle, for example by minibus. Departures are planned at 6:00 AM and 2:00 PM from Antigua. A return ticket, including a guide on the spot, costs around 6 EUR par person. To this cost you must add entrance fees to Pacaya National Park, that is 3,50 EUR. The route Antigua/Pacaya lasts 1 hour and 30 minutes. The last 30 minutes are made on a track.
The climbing on foot starts at an altitude of 1800 metres, to end at 2200 metres. Around 1 hour and 20 minutes walk on a very dusty path. It's also possible to climb there with a horse (to hire at the start of the climbing). Some kids also hire sticks to walk. A few policemen accompany tourists groups, because the zone was the subject of several attacks of gangs which rob tourists. It's however allowed to make the climbing by yourself.
Once at the top, all you have to do is walk 5 to 15 minutes on the cooled down lava to get nearer to some flows still liquid and glowing. To see the red of the molten rock, it's preferable to be there after sunset or before sunrise.

Warning : cooled down lava is very crumbly and subsides under man weight. Getting nearer to hot points, the ground is even more crumbly and soles can start to melt. We can see that the molten rock is sometimes only a few centimetres under the cooled down rock. I personally went near to molten lava, but one more time, only to bring back these impressive photos. I advise anybody against doing that because it's really very dangerous. Some guides are more reckless (or irresponsible) than others, and ours have led us to some places which had seemed very risky to us ! Whereas every other guide stayed away, our travel courier continued over and over again... and of course, fascinated by the sight, I followed him !!! Pay also attention to the instability of the volcano. Some new flows can appear at any time. Sometimes the national park is closed owing to imminent risks.


At 2:30 PM we take a minibus at Antigua (1 hour and 30 minutes route). It is 4:00 PM when we arrive at the bottom of Volcano Pacaya. From there we can't see anything of the volcano ; numerous guides propose their services on foot or with a horse. We pay 3,30 EUR per person to enter Pacaya National Park. With a guide we climb up the 400 metres incline on foot. We arrive in front of the cooled down lava flows at around 5:20 PM. We walk 15 minutes more on the lava which gets warm as we go along. Next we see the first "fire red" rocks, then liquid flows of lava. The red deepens as night is falling.

Volcano Pacaya - Guatemala   Molten rock of Volcano Pacaya - Guatemala   Molten rock of Volcano Pacaya - Guatemala

Lava flow of Volcano Pacaya - Guatemala                 Lava flow of Volcano Pacaya - Guatemala

Pay attention to where you put your feet (read advice above) ! I learned that lesson to my cost with as result torn trousers and two knees bleeding ! Fortunately, it was about a place where rock was already cooled down !!!

At 6:15 AM, we start the way down in semidarkness. The last half-hour walk is made in utter darkness and in the light of our frontal torches. We arrive at the bottom of the volcano at 7:05 PM.

More photos of Volcano Pacaya...

After a few minutes break, in order to get over our emotion given by the escapade, we take a minibus to go back to Antigua where we arrive at around 9:00 PM. We end our day having a dinner at "La Fonda de la Calle Real" (good grills ; delicious "Nachos Cheese" ; good service).

Day outlays : 35 EUR per person
(meals, trip and entrance fees to Volcano Pacaya, accommodation)


PANAJACHEL AND LAKE ATITLAN

Today morning, awakening at 6:45 AM. At 7:30 AM, we take a minibus to get to Panajachel (booked the previous day ; 5 EUR per person ; 2 hours and 30 minutes route - very winding road).

We halt at "Kakchiquel" (19 EUR for one room for one night, 18 EUR if 2 nights (off-season price) ; large room ; hot water ; clean ; little internal swimming pool and internal jacuzzi ; internet for free (3 computers and high-speed access) ; few tourists, but many natives ; situated in the street "Santander", a touristic road of Panajachel which goes down to the lake).

ACCOMMODATIONS AT PANAJACHEL
Here are 2 accommodations that we have visited :
  • "Kakchiquel" or "Kaqchiquel" where we live (hot water ; clean ; 19 EUR for one large room with 2 large beds, or 18 EUR if 2 nights (off-season price) ; little internal swimming pool and jacuzzi ; 3 computers with an internet access fast and free for residents ; situated in the street "Calle Santander", a touristic road which goes down to the lake ; set on the 2 sides of the alley, one clearly visible side which proposes apartments, the other side (where we live), more quiet ; phone 7762-0634 ; hotelkakchiquel@yahoo.com.ar ; 3a av. 4-78, zona 2) ;
  • "Hotel Dos Mundos" (large and pretty rooms ; pretty garden ; external swimming pool ; 39 EUR for one room, breakfast included).
There are of course numerous other accommodations, either in this alley, or in the neighbouring streets. Some accommodations are luxury, some others are for lowlier budgets...

Panajachel (called Pana by Guatemalan people) is one of the biggest cities on the lakeside of Lake Atitlán. One comes here not only for the town, but mostly for the lake. The lake is located in a former crater (caldeira) of a volcano, collapsed many thousands of years ago. Since then, the 3 volcanoes Tolimàn, San Pedro and Atitlán have sprung from the bottom of the lake to cover a good half. It forms a magnificent landscape and Lake Atitlán is often cited as one of the most beautiful in the world. Unfortunately for us, the sky will remains cloudy every day and we will see with difficulty the shape of the 3 volcanoes.

On the lakeside, numerous little restaurants have been built on some sorts of wooden piles ; they propose some little dishes and drinks, but visibly, nothing extraordinary.

From there, we go aboard a boat called "Lancha", to get to Santiago Atitlán village (2 EUR per person for a single ticket ; 35 minutes crossing ; 15 kilometres). Unfortunately, the sky is completely cloudy, it even starts to rain, the view on the volcanoes from the lake is unfortunately completely misty ! Santiago Atitlán harbour is full of workshops which sell local handcraft ; curiously, there are few tourists, but much wealthy natives who are in weekend and who are strolling (it is indeed Saturday).

Lake Atitlan - Guatemala                 Lake Atitlan - Guatemala

Back to Panajachel, we have dinner at "Sunset Cafe" (pretty terrace with view on the lake ; very good ; delicious meat burritos ; average cost of a dish : 4,50 EUR ; fast service ; clean ; orchestra in the evening ; situated at the end of the main touristic alley, coming from the lake). At Panajachel, there are numerous bars/restaurants which propose some music in the evening and generally in a pleasant setting. Despite the altitude of 1500 metres and the lack of sunshine, it is still 26°C (79°F) hot in the evening (it's certainly an inertial phenomenon due to the lake ; the lake serves as a heat accumulator).

More photos of Lake Atitlán, of Panajachel and of Santiago Atitlán...

Day outlays : 29 EUR per person
(minibus, meals, boats, accommodation)

The following day, we wake at 6:45 AM to try hopelessly to see the volcanoes... unfortunately, the sky is even more cloudy than the previous mornings !


CHICHICASTENANGO

At 8:00 AM, we take a minibus to get to Chichicastenango, called Chichi by Guatemalan people (minibus booked the previous day to get to the market ; 5 EUR per person for a return ticket ; departure at 8:00 AM, return at 3:00 PM at Panajachel ; 1 hour route on a winding road with a pass at an altitude of 2400 metres). On the road, we see potatoes, carrots, corn and thyme crops and apple trees (apparently harvested in July). Chichicastenango is situated in the Quiché department and in order not to let some fruit diseases into, a police control guarantees that fruit never pass through !

DON'T BRING IN FRUIT TO CHICHICASTENANGO
On the route Panachel / Chichicastenango, there is a police control which forbids the transit of fruit, entering the Quiché department. Bags are gone through and fruit are confiscated.

Chichicastenango is renowned for its traditional market on Sunday (apparently also on Thursday). Situated at an altitude of 2000 metres, it can get quite cold there in winter. But today it's warm and we walk all over market alleys looking for shade, now hailed by traders, now the sleeve pulled by some 10 years old girls who also have every sort of accessories to sell ! We are swallowed up by this crowd which undulates around us. We are carried along by scents, sparkling colours and this hubbub, lively and warm which surrounds us. Most natives are dressed with this magnificent traditional outfit, so coloured.

We find everything in the course of our walking : vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, clothes, accessories and souvenirs for tourists. We make a few purchases and we strongly negotiate prices each time ! Sometimes, the final price is divided by 3 (compared with the initial price) ! We pass a few tourists, but above all numerous natives who are here to make their daily purchases. We are welcomed by nice smiles, frank and jovial. At the centre of the market, a kind of canteen offers local dishes. On the steps of the church, is the magnificent flowers market...

Chichicastenango market - Guatemala                                            Chichi market - Guatemala

Chichicastenango market - Guatemala          Chichicastenango market - Guatemala

Traditional outfit - Chichi market - Guatemala   Traditional outfit - Chichi market - Guatemala   Chichicastenango market - Guatemala

More photos of Chichicastenango...

We had an appointment at 2:00 PM to make the way back by minibus and we are back to Panajachel at around 3:00 PM.

In the evening, we have dinner again at "Cafe Sunset".

Day outlays : 23 EUR per person
(trip at Chichi, meals, accommodation)

The following morning, the weather is finally good, but the air remains filled with humidity which is added to "brûlis" smokes, usual at this period of the year, that doesn't make easier the observation of volcanoes from the lake bank.


Return

At 10:00 AM, we leave Panajachel by minibus, to get back to Antigua (2 hours route ; 3,20 EUR per person ; agency "Plus +" ; situated at Antigua, but has got an office at Pana ; universaledy@yaoo.fr ; phone 7820-3019). At Antigua, we have lunch again at "La Fonda de la Calle Real" (still delicious). We make our last purchases at the supermarket situated in the centre of Antigua. At 3:00 PM, we leave Antigua to get to Guatemala City Airport (6,50 EUR per person ; 1 hour route). Once at the airport, and in order to leave Guatemala, we have to pay an exit tax for 1,75 EUR per person.

We take off at 5:40 PM to San Salvador (El Salvador) (50 minutes flight), then we take off again 30 minutes later to JFK Airport in New York City (4 hours and 35 minutes flight) with the company Taca Airlines.

Day outlays : 20 EUR per person
(2 minibuses, meals, exit tax)

In New York City, our night stopover lasts 7 hours and 30 minutes ! Since we don't have time and even less energy to go visit Manhattan "by night", we prefer staying at the airport, trying to sleep the best possible on benches (for further details about New York City and JFK Airport). At 8:55 AM, we take off with Delta Airlines to London (Heathrow Airport ; 7 hours and 15 minutes flight). It is 9:10 PM when we land in London. As our next flight is planned for the following morning and, moreover, from a local airport, we take opportunity to visit Big Ben "by night" (for further details about London and its airports).

After our sleepless night, we take off at 7:00 AM, to land 1 hour and 30 minutes later in Baden-Baden (Germany) situated a few dozens of kilometres away from France.


Supplementary information


Conclusion

Our travel in Guatemala will remain a very happy memory, marked by the kindness of Guatemalan people, the impressive Tikal archaeological site, Volcano Pacaya still active and landscapes bringing together lakes and volcanoes, despite the rough weather of some days. It's a country that we will visit again with pleasure, but during another period of the year.

 

I hope that the summary of our travel have made you dream, and that it will perhaps make you feel like discovering this magnificent region of the world !
If you want further details for your future travel don't hesitate to ask questions on our forum !
 

I thank you for having followed our route, and I tell you "see you soon" for a new adventure !
Godspeed !

Gilles

Every photo of Guatemala...

 



 

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