Every single time I think of Guatemala I literally get this overwhelming feeling of happiness, warmth and adventure. A country that is thankfully underrated and still off the tourism radar that has managed to keep its authenticity and beyond stunning scenery has captured the hearts of many backpackers including mine, and being a country that is smothered with volcanoes, natural wonders and ancient ruins it is easy to understand why. Many people that I had met along the way during my trip through Central America had told me that this had been by far their favourite country but no amount of amazing pictures or stories could do it justice. During my time here I experienced so much laughter and happiness, so many experiences that I learned so much from, met some of the most incredible people that I have ever met and pushed myself both physically and mentally to the limit (climbing a volcano is not as easy as it says on the tin!)
When I first arrived into Guatemala I headed straight to Antigua, a quaint little colonial town nestled between volcanoes (one of which is still active and erupts around every 10mins or so). My original plan was to stay here for 4 days and then head on to my next spot but as a lot of other backpackers have experienced I fell in to the Antigua trap and ended up staying for 4 and a half weeks, eventually running out of time and having to leave kicking and screaming. So, many people ask me, what is it about this place that made it so amazing? In my opinion the list is endless but here is just a few of my personal highlights along with where I stayed and what there is to do……
Like with most things to do with Guatemala, Antigua blew all of my expectations out of the water, it has got to be the sweetest tiny city that I have ever seen, lined with cobbled streets, crumbling old colonial ruins and nestled between ancient volcanoes. As soon as I got here I felt right at home and so content, everything goes at such a nice pace and it is so much quieter than most other cities.
Where to stay?
A million times over The Doozy Koala. This by far has been my favourite place to stay, EVER. They can’t be found on the usual platforms such as Hostelworld or booking.com and bookings can only be made directly through the hostel or their facebook page, this gives the place a real warm homely feel, most people ended up staying here because of what they had seen on the Facebook or Instagram page or via word of mouth. Almost everyone I met here ended up staying for at least a week and quite often returned for a second and sometimes third visit. With two bars onsite (veryyyyyyy dangerous when you are as easily tempted as me) an extensive menu, extremely comfy beds and regular events with DJ’s and live bands (not to mention some of the nicest people I have met!) this hostel is everything a backpacker needs.
Other places to stay in Antigua
Although I didn’t ever actually stay in any of these hostels I did visit them because I either had friends staying there or wanted to drink at one of their rooftop bars, from what I have seen and also been told these are nice spots to stay also.
- Tropicana – This has a lovely rooftop bar where you can see Fuego erupting. They also have a swimming pool and a hot tub.
- Zoola – My favourite thing about Zoola was by far the food! (Best way to anyone’s heart) this has got to be some of the best Israeli food that I have eaten. Similar to Tropicana they have a rooftop bar with a hot tub where you can see Fuego erupting.
- Wincho and Charlie’s – I never personally went here myself but a lot of my friends stayed here and raved about how comfy and clean it was along with an extremely lovely owner!
What to do
Climb Volcano Acatenango
This has got to be the most breathtaking thing that I have EVER EVER done (Also the hardest fucking thing I have EVER done! Even harder than the Himalayas) Honestly I feel so so fortunate that I have had the opportunity to do this. But the highlight of climbing Acatenango is not that you have climbed a volcano or the million dollar views on the way up, but actually that you have a front row seat to watching just how powerful Mother Nature is. The over night campsites sit directly opposite Acatenango’s neighbour, Volcan Fuego, this is something that I never thought I would see, especially not so close, in my lifetime, an active volcano erupting up to every 5 minutes, booming so hard that sometimes the ground underneath would shake and spurting huge rocks and glowing lava!
I have been told mixed reviews on this hike from different people, some have said it was the hardest thing they have ever had to climb and others have said it wasn’t too bad, I wish I could say that I agreed with the latter statement, but after a few weeks of partying hard my lungs weren’t quite up to the task and I got hit with sodding altitude sickness! BUT every single person that I know that has done this hike has said it is the most amazing once in a lifetime encounter they have had.
I booked my trek with Tropicana Hostel for around £40 which included all meals, camping and a guide. (Read more about what to expect while hiking Acatenango in my next post)
Yep, Antigua (or close by) has it’s very own Hobbit themed pub/restaurant, but it’s not just any old pub/restaurant, it’s up high in the hills amongst the clouds overlooking Antigua, Acatenango and Fuego, with a Hobbit themed menu, a cosy bar as well as a hot chocolate bar and a beautiful lawn to sit back and enjoy a crisp wine (or whatever you would prefer to drink). To get here from Antigua you can book a shuttle, taxi or uber (I used uber which was about 35Q which is about £3.50) it is on a very steep hill on the last section from the car park so it is best to wait for the pick up trucks on rotation to get up the last part (if i remember this was about 10Q for both ways so approx £1).
Cerro de la Cruz
This is a beautiful little spot just a 15min walk from where I was staying (The Doozy Koala) it is home to a 1930’s cross and a large patch of lawn with sweeping views of Antigua and a face on view of Volcan Agua (you can spot the cross whilst walking around the main square of Antigua). It is up a hill and some steps but nothing difficult, it is free to go up here and it is somewhere you can spend 5 minutes taking in the view or a few hours if you have a book or headphones with you.
When I say the markets I don’t mean the markets that sell all the over priced touristy crap (soz if that’s what you enjoy buying!) but the markets behind the touristy markets are where the real gems are. The Paca market may just look like a car boot sale on steroids with tables pilled with mountains of clothes, but actually if you have the patience to sieve through all the shit you can find some real beautiful vintage pieces. (A friend of mine bought a vintage Levis denim jacket here for the equivalent of $1 AUD)
Saturday night party
This used to be a massive highlight for people coming to Antigua, this was held at an abandoned pool and would go on to the early hours of Sunday morning. Just before I arrived this got closed down, but since I have left I have heard this has restarted at a new location. Best ask around when you are there!
Casa Santo Domingo
If you have a bit of spare cash and fancy a treat then a day at Casa Santo Domingo is the one! For $28 US you get use of the beautiful spa here for the whole day, this included a outdoor heated pool, an indoor spa, steam room, sauna and free chocolates (defo my highlight!) plus this is the best shower I think I had on my whole trip!
Sunday’s at The Doozy
Live music, great company and copious amounts of alcohol, need I say more?
When the time comes to leave Antigua (or just leave for a few days and then come back!) most people take a little trip down to El Paredon to soak up some sun and sea whilst chilling on the volcanic sand.
Based about two and a half hours out of Antigua, El Paredon boasts beautiful black volcanic beaches, tropical trees and climate AND if you go at the right time……. BABY TURTLES.
Where to stay
There is only really one place to stay here (in my opinion) and that’s The Driftwood Surfer, right on the beachfront with its own swimming pool and resident micro-pig named Potato there isn’t much more you could need here. Every night they hold family dinners with a different theme every night (French, Mexican etc.) and have a separate breakfast and lunch menu with some really tasty food! I recommend the veggie curry!
What to do
A lot of people come here to surf or learn how to surf, unfortunately I’m not the most balanced or co-ordinated of humans so surfing is a little out of the question for me (or I was just to lazy after my hike!) so I can’t personally pass comment on the surf here, but a lot of people I had met said that it was great!
Release the baby turtles
This was the main reason that I came to El Paredon, that and I wanted few days of tanning, but mainly the turtles. The sad thing about Guatemala, as well as many other countries, is that turtles can still legally be poached, this alongside the fact that only 1 in 1000 hatch-lings survive to adult life, global warming and other factors has resulted in turtles becoming endangered. Every morning (in turtle season) a group from The Driftwood Surfer leaves at around 5.30am to take a short walk down the beach to the hatchery where, if the eggs have hatched, you can help release the babies into the ocean. Unfortunately for me both mornings I got up and went to the hatchery, no eggs had hatched! Gutted wasn’t even the word for it!!! However, the views from the beach for sunrise were well worth the early wake up call! (The Driftwood do this based on donations)
Side note- Whilst in El Paredon be sure to walk a few minutes down the road and on the left from Driftwood to Pacifico, they do the best pizzas I’ve ever tasted!
Yet again if you leave Antigua and want to head somewhere close by that isn’t El Paredon, another option about the same distance away would be the infamous volcanic lake…..
A massive body of water in a volcanic crater surrounded by volcanoes, Lake Atitlan is what you would picture to be on the front of a National Geographic magazine. When visiting the lake you need to be aware of the fact that there is more than one spot that you could visit (San Marco, San Pedro etc) When I came to the lake a few of my friends were hosting a boat party, so I probably didn’t venture out as much here as I would of done if the boat party wasn’t happening, but I still managed to have a wander around and really fall in love with the place.
Where to stay
When I was here I only stayed in San Pedro and as there was so many of us we ended up getting a Air Bnb (which was so cheap btw!) but I drank at a few of the hostels and got a feel for them.
- Mr.Mullet’s – Cosy hostel right next to the dock for when you get there.
- Hostel Fe – Also really close to the dock when you get there with a bar right on the waterfront.
- Zoola – This is a bit more of a walk away and down a small alleyway so can be hard to find, the bar here is really beautiful and also on the waterfront. They also have a pool over looking the lake.
If you are staying in Santa Cruz, I would highly recommend staying at Free Cervesa, yet again I haven’t personally stayed here, but a lot of my friends have and a few friends have also worked there. Free Cervesa is a eco lodge where you can chose to go glamping whilst over looking the lake and the volcanoes and between 5-7 in the evening you get free beer! Win Win.
What to do
Well obviously if there is any boat parties going on here 100% do that! Stunning views, with amazing music and a skinny bitch in my hand (a vodka, soda and lime!) set the perfect day for me!
The Paca Market
Like with Antigua there is also a Paca Market here in San Pedro except that the clothes are even better if you get there early enough (around 8am).
Yet again I did not do any hiking here (just another reason for me to return!) but if you have the time to do so, the views over the lake are so stunning I can imagine that from high above it would be even more breath taking!
After doing Antigua and the surrounding areas (or before if you came in form the other direction) the next best spot is a little bit further out by around 8 hours, the roads are pretty shitty on the last hour and a bit but like with everywhere in Guatemala the trip is so worth it…….
Semuc Champey is a natural wonder made out of limestone which has formed mini natural pools and waterfalls with striking blue water. It is surrounded by beautiful green forest and it is a 40 minute drive away by pick up truck to the closest town which is Lanquin. (The pick up truck journey alone is experience enough, especially when you are standing up holding on to a bar for dear life every time they go over a bump!)
Where to stay
Without a doubt Zephyr Lodge has been the most picturesque, tranquil and beautiful HOSTEL that I have stayed in. Up in the mountains in Lanquin surrounded yet again by more greenery and over looking a flowing river with an infinity pool and jacuzzi to top it all off, you would never look at this place and believe it’s a hostel! The dorm rooms are spacious, and semi outdoor showers help you feel a bit more at one with nature! The food menu here is one of the larger menus I have seen in a hostel and at nighttime the bar becomes full and the drinks are flowing.
What to do
As I said in the last paragraph about Zephyr over looking a river, you can actually go tubing along that river, at 11 in the morning, with more alcohol, perfect after a heavy night of drinking, or not! Especially as the river goes really fast if it has had a heavy rain so be sure to know where you need to be getting off!
As I said before Semuc Champey is a real stunning yet impressive wonder of nature, be sure to go for a swim in the natural swimming pools, which are definitely refreshing once you get over the initial shock of hypothermia. Ok, it’s not that bad but it is still pretty cold to begin with. When visiting Semuc Champey you can also tie this in with the candle caving tour, I didn’t as lets face it I’m perfectly happy swimming/floating in the water with little to no effort, plus I was so caved out after the amount of caves I have been to this last year! But yet again if this is your thing and you aren’t as lazy as me defo give this a go!
Last but not least, another amazing spot keeping in line with the Guatemala theme…..
By the time I reached Flores I was running very short on time to get to Belize and then on to Mexico, to say I get easily distracted is an understatement, so I actually only had two nights/one full day here. I always knew that my number one priority for Flores was to go to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal and this is the main reason that people head here. The sad thing is when I woke up on my only full day in Flores did I see just how beautiful it was here and I was due to spend the whole day at Tikal and then leaving for Belize at 4am the next day! I wouldn’t recommend to stay here too long but 2/3 full days would of been better in my opinion! You win some you lose some, but looking back I actually would have shortened my time in Mexico and stayed here longer.
Where to stay
The sweet and cosy Los Amigos hostel, with resident bunnies, doggies and cats roaming around I felt like I had walked in to my Mum’s house back home (she has 6 cats and a dog!) The layout of the hostel really did give it a homely feel and the common area was almost like a indoor garden, with small tables where you could sit on the floor on comfy cushions to enjoy a drink or some food. It seems to be a bit of a theme in Guatemala that all the hostels serve good food because that was the same again here at Los Amigos.
What to do
The main attraction that brings people to Flores, the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, located about an hour out of Flores. You can choose from 4 different times to go and visit, sunrise, early bird, day tour or sunset tour. Naturally, because I love sunsets, plus I hate getting up early, I chose the sunset tour which meant we left the hostel at 12pm. Before getting to Tikal I had images in my head of these ruins flooded with tourists taking selfies with their selfie sticks and i-pads, what actually was there left me shocked. We arrived got our tickets and entered the car park, by the time our group had had a bathroom break and got some food it must of been around 2-2.30. We then walked through the gate and made our way to the first temple when it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t seen anyone else apart from our group! (During our walk around we only saw two other small groups!) This was a first for me at any tourist spot! AND there are no stalls or stands with people trying to sell you stuff while you are walking around. During the walk around, between temples there were big hills that I thought was just part of the landscape here, but what these actually are is temples that haven’t been uncovered yet! Apparently up to 80% still hasn’t been recovered! Walking around the jungle there was a constant sound of howler monkey’s and birds which was so peaceful. When we got to our last temple we climbed to the top to watch the sunset but one side of the temple was blocked off, of course it was the side to watch the sunset from (coincidence? I think not!) our guide spoke to one of the guards who said for 25Q (£2.50) we could go around the fence to watch the sunset. Obviously we did this and oh my God it was so worth the extra £2.50! The sunset was beautiful, setting over the jungle which was bustling with wildlife, we even had a female Howler Monkey a few trees in front of us carrying her baby! Being lazy and opting for the sunset tour paid off!!!
Side note – Unfortunately due to leaving so early from Flores I missed out on this, but if you have enough time take a trip out to the rope swing on the lake 100% do it!
Getting to Guatemala from Nicaragua
This is the route that I took as I was making my way from Panama to Mexico. I booked my shuttle through Bigfoot hostel in Leon Nicaragua, to go across the boarders of Honduras, El Salvador and then in to Guatemala. This is ‘only’ meant to be a 16 hour trip, unfortunately due to us getting delayed at a few of the boarders, a burst tyre and two drivers who for some reason didn’t know their way or how to use google maps this journey ended up taking me almost 35 hours! One of the workers from Bigfoot was in the car with us and couldn’t believe it (I think he defo had a word with his boss about it!) Looking back now, if I could change it I would stay in El Salvador for a few nights in El Tunco, we was lucky enough to be passing through here at sunset and the colours in the sky were unbelievable!
Anyway that was my life changing time in Guatemala!