Guatemala - An unexpected adventure
Team GG's Lizzi gives us the low down on how she unexpectedly fell in love with this beautiful country...
Welcome to Guatemala- the land of adventures! I’m ashamed to admit that Guatemala was never on my travel list- I ended up here completely by accident after a teaching job in Mexico didn’t work out and I had some extra travel time. I planned to spend a week or two travelling through Guatemala to get to Belize, but ended up staying for over a month and falling completely in love! I still didn’t get to see all that this beautiful country has to offer, but I’m going to share some of my highlights.
One of my favourite places in the country was Lake Atitlan, a huge lake nestled between three volcanoes and surrounded by lots of towns, all with something different to offer. Panajachel is the largest town and it’s markets are the cheapest place in the country to buy traditional Guatemalan products and souvenirs. San Marcos is known as the hippy town- a great place to practice your yoga skills and connect with your spiritual side. The main backpacker town is called San Pedro and this is where you’ll find most of the hostels and parties. It’s easy to get around the lake using water ferries which run between the towns frequently for reasonable prices (around £2.50 for a half hour journey from Panajachel to San Marcos). There are great views across the lake from all of the towns, as well as swimming spots and platforms for cliff jumping. One of the best experiences here was the Indian’s nose sunrise hike- after an easy 30 minute climb you reach the summit where you’ll have panoramic views across the lake and the best seats for a spectacular sunrise- definitely worth the 4am start!
From Lake Atitlan I travelled to Semuc Champey, a stunning natural monument in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle. This place really has to be seen to be believed, with crystal blue waters cascading through shallow pools and waterfalls, surrounded by sheer mountains and lush jungle.
Prepare for a full day of adventure- beginning with the transport! If you stay in the nearby town of Lanquin, the only way into Semuc Champey is on the back of a truck, clinging on for dear life on the steep and bumpy roads. Most hostels in the area run tours to Semuc Champey which usually include transport, lunch and a full day of activities. We started with a cave tour, walking, climbing, swimming and sliding through the maze of caves with only candles to light the way. The next stop was a stunning waterfall with lots of jumping spots to cater for every level of bravery! After lunch we hiked up the steep jungle path to the mirador- it was a hard and sweaty climb in the jungle heat but totally worth it for the amazing views of the pools below. The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming in the beautiful blue pools before we headed back, with a quick stop at a river rope swing on the way. Altogether one of the best days in Guatemala!
From Semuc Champey I travelled east to the beautiful Rio Dulce where I spent a few tranquil nights on the river before heading to the Caribbean town of Livingston. Because there are no roads into the town, the only way to get there is on a small boat which takes you along the beautiful river, stopping at hot springs, mangroves and lily covered channels along the way.
As soon as we arrived in Livingston it felt completely different to the rest of Guatemala. This colourful town is home to the Garifuna people- descended from shipwrecked Nigerian slaves, they have a completely different language, culture and food to Mayan Guatemalans. The traditional Garifuna dish of tapado is a delicious coconut and seafood soup, which was a welcoming change from the sometimes uninspiring Guatemalan cuisine.
Another popular tourist destination in Guatemala is the beautiful colonial town of Antigua, filled with character and cobbled streets and surrounded by volcanoes. One of the main attractions here is Acatenango volcano- a challenging two day hike which rewards you with close up views of the active Volcano Fuego.
We set off early in the morning and spent 5-6hrs hiking up to base camp. When we arrived we were completely surrounded by clouds but could hear nearby Fuego erupting beyond the mist. After a few hours of waiting, huddled around the campfire, the clouds suddenly cleared and we were rewarded with a stunning view of the volcano only 1km away. Watching Fuego erupting against the black night sky can only be described as completely magical- without a doubt one of the best experiences of my travels so far. As I sat admiring this natural wonder, little did I know that only 6 weeks later this same volcano would suffer a huge and devastating eruption, killing over 70 people and completely burying a nearby village.
As Guatemala continues to deal with the effects of the eruption, 12,000 people have been evacuated from their homes and over 3,500 people are still living in temporary shelters. There are a number of charities doing great work in Guatemala (see links below) but they also need the financial support of tourism more than ever. So if you’re trying to decide on your next travel destination look no further- Guatemala is a beautiful country with friendly locals and countless hidden gems!
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By Team GG