Guatemala Part II

Lake Atitlan is a stunning lake formed by an ancient eruption and now framed by three volcanoes. We spent a week at a lakeside campsite and could have stayed much longer. We stayed near the village of San Marcos, which is a funny little gringo hippie village. The selection of yoga classes and kombucha was like what you’d expect in the most hipster neighborhood in Portland. Our campsite was about a mile from here and felt like another world. Pierre, a longtime French expat, has a lovely property with rental homes and camping with a view. Down by the water there is a dock to swim from, hammock to chill on and boats to get you to other villages around the lake. Our favorite stop was in the village of San Juan, which is known for textiles and weaving. We visited a local cooperative, where they demonstrate the weaving and dying processes and sold local artisan products.

After a relaxing week came the very strenuous overnight hike up Volcan Acatenango. This is a popular overnight hike because it offers views of the very active Volcano Fuego. Many tours and guides operate up here, but we decided to go up without support. To reach base camp at 3700m (12,140 ft) we had to climb over 1300m (4,300 ft) in 5km (3 miles), followed by another mile of normal hiking along the side of the volcano, to reach base camp. For Seattle friends, the profile is similar to that of the old Mailbox Peak trail, just a bit more climbing and at a much higher elevation. All this with our packs full of water, food and gear for the night. We cruised the first half, led by Mitzi’s surprising energy level.  After we crossed the 3000m mark, Rachel felt the effects of thinner air and started to slow down. Then we reach a stretch with sharp lava rocks that Mitzi needed help to cross, which gave us (mostly Ben) the extra challenge of schlepping her up the hill. At that point, we were kind of wishing we had done like most others and hired someone to bring our tent and food up. But we survived, and once we arrived at our campsite, we were treated to a view of… Clouds. We were completely fogged in and could only see about 10m ahead.

We could hear the volcano rumbling and booming from our tent. Occasionally the clouds would drift and reveal Fuego’s peak for a minute, then for two, and by sunset the clouds had fully disappeared and we got to watch Fuego put on a show! As it got dark, the magma glowed and the many eruptions were more and more impressive to us. Poor Mitzi didn’t enjoy the booms and hid in the tent all the night. Every half hour or so the volcano would rumble and boom. We didn’t get much sleep that night but it was an unforgettable experience and worth all the trouble!

Antigua Guatemala was our final stop and is one of the most visited places. The well preserved colonial town has managed to preserve its charm in spite of all of us tourists roaming around. The cobblestone streets and colorful buildings are best viewed from the patio of Antigua Brewery with IPA in hand.

We only spent three weeks in Guatemala and could have stayed so much longer. The country is vibrant and fun with so much to explore.

Guatemala I

After only a half an hour drive from San Ignacio, we reached the border to Guatemala. Leaving Belize was a relatively quick process, and entering we got lucky with short lines and zipped through there as well. We met a motorcyclist from Switzerland at the border that was heading north, and then on the road from the border met a Swiss couple heading the opposite direction. We made our way to camp at Lago Peten Iztá before heading up to Tikal in the morning. The whole Peten region is hot and humid, so we had trouble sleeping at night and were up very early to reach Tikal while it was still cool out. Tikal ruins were a great start to our time in Guatemala! Even after all the sites we visited in Mexico, these were still special. In no small part because it was a filming location for Star Wars.

After Tikal, we headed to the island town of Flores – or rather, a small town just across the lake with great views of the village. We spent a morning exploring hiking trails near camp and took a boat across the lake to wander the town. After two nights, the Landy got to enjoy a little boat ride too! A tiny car ferry took us to Flores on our way out, and we took another rickety ferry south of Flores to cross a river.

The distance between Flores in the north and the mountainous region around Coban is long and bumpy, so we split the drive up and stayed at an adorable campsite in Raxruhá. The site was quiet and beautiful, with a swing to play on and lightning bugs to entertain us in the evening. The countryside around here is stunning and we were so happy to be back in green hills and beautiful landscapes.

In Coban, we stayed at a Coffee plantation and took a tour of the site. We got to see and learn how they plant, harvest, dry and roast the beans. Best of all, we got to sample it at the end. The best espresso we’ve had in a long time!

From Coban was a long, bumpy road to Semuc Champey. This is one of the most popular backpacker destinations in all of Guatemala. We are really glad to have our own car, since the backpackers get stuffed in the back of a pickup to ride down the crazy roads. On the road we ran into more Swiss travelers, and in the camping near the park yet another pair. After not meeting many others from Switzerland on the road this far, it was fun to run into them and chat.

As we are now entering the rainy season, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that it rained while we were in Semuc. The clouds made the area look more beautiful, but the rain made the path pretty slippery! It also made the roads a bit muddy, so we had to change our original plans of going off-roading a bit and just backtrack the same road to Coban instead. We spent another night Coban, this time at an Orchid reserve.

From Coban was a long drive day. The “highway” from Coban is a slow and bumpy road, which managed to destroy the bushings on our shocks. Luckily Ben is well prepared and had replacement parts on hand. So only a short delay at a small town mechanic later, Google took us on a “shortcut” on windy roads through small villages where we were quite the spectacle. Little kids would run to hide behind a building then peak out at us as we drove by. Even though the route was likely longer, it was definitely more fun.

We spent the night at a park in the mountains at 3000m elevation. The air was soooo clean and clear, and we were surrounded by pine trees. There was a short hiking trail and the lodge/restaurant had the smell of alpine huts we both missed. It was refreshing for both our lungs and minds.

Next day we stopped in the city of Quetzeltenango, and had the opposite experience – traffic and diesel fumes. We did some grocery shopping and headed out into the mountains again. The road to Lake Chicabal was STEEP and slow going, but again a quiet and clear location. Chicabal is a crater lake with a steep hike up to a lookout point. We went up twice – once in the evening and only saw clouds, then again in the morning with great views of the lake and surrounding volcanoes.

After our nice hike we then drove off to Chichicastenango. This highland village is home to Guatemala’s largest market, which happens twice a week. We got in the night before, toured the village a bit, then were up early to see the market before it got too crazy. Even in the early hours, we were quickly overwhelmed by everything going on around us. People descend on the village to sell everything from live turkeys to tourist trinkets. We did a lot of looking and only a little bit of buying.

After lots of long days on the road and bumpy roads, we left in search of a place to settle in for a week – and off we went towards Lake Atitlan…. More on that later!