08 Feb Guatemala: For the Intrepid Explorer
Guatemala offers the traveller precious natural wonders, ancient ruins, colonial architecture and extreme adventure making it the perfect destination for a whole range of intrepid explorers. The country is relatively easy to get around with bus services criss-crossing the land. You can be deep in the jungle one day and sipping lattes in a cafÃ© the next. Here are a few experiences not to be missed.
Visit the Mayan Ruins of Tikal
The Mayan ruins of Tikal located in the northern part of Guatemala in the El Peten region, are a must-see for anyone with or without an interest in this amazing ancient civilization since it would be nearly impossible to walk away from Tikal without wanting to learn more! The towering pyramids strike awe into all visitors as you stand beneath them, and if you dare to climb their steep stairways, amazing views over the surrounding jungle canopy. Get a guided tour to learn about miraculous engineering feats, with the structures aligning perfectly to certain astrological and solar movements. As an added bonus, don’t be surprised if you see monkeys and other wildlife as you hike around the park.
Visit Lago de Atitlan
Lago (Lake) de Atitlan was once described by author Aldous Huxley as “the most beautiful lake in the world”. Its deep blue waters surrounded by towering volcanoes make it easy to see why he was besotted with this natural wonder. Villages are dotted along the lake’s shores, each one boasting its own unique intricacies. The local Mayan women generally still dress in traditional clothing, consisting of brightly coloured hand-woven blouses known as huipils and long-skirts. Take a boat-ride around the lake to experience its magic.
Take a boat ride down the Rio Dulce
The river Rio Dulce runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the mouth of the giant lake Lago Izabal. Where the river meets the sea, the town of Livingston sits on its banks, home to Guatemala’s largest Garifuna population. At the mouth of Lago Izabal is the town of Rio Dulce, known by locals as Fronteras. It is populated by an ecletic mix of sailers hiding out the hurricane season and farmers. Apart from having the longest bridge in Central America, it is also the location of the Castillo San Felipe, a former Spanish fort built to provide resistance against pirates that once frequented the river. Between the two towns winds the river, flanked by jungle and nearer to Livingston, white cliffs. Pelicans swoop down on boats running along the river. If you are super lucky, you may even spot a Manatee along the journey. They used to live abundantly in the river, but now are much fewer in numbers.
Visit the Colonial City of Antigua
The former capital was ravished by earthquakes forcing it to be relocated to Guatemala City. It now offers visitors cobble-stone streets and stunning colonial architecture. More than 30 churches, many still in partial or complete ruin, are scattered across the city, many have become tourist attractions. The city is surrounded by volcanoes, some still active, making it a photographers dream. The nearby volcano Fuego often spews ash and smoke plumes high into the air reminding everyone of the volatile nature of this land. After walking around for the day, relax in one of many bars, cafes and restaurants.
Climb a Volcano
Volcanoes spring up out of the landscape across the span of Guatemala, almost daring you to scale their heights. From both Antigua and Xela it is easy to find a tour group for an organised climb, the highly recommended option due to the dangers involved. The most popular to climb is Pacaya, located not too far from Antigua, which often offers close-up experiences with lava. The hike up is relatively easy considering you are tackling a volcano. Be aware, there are no fences or anything else separating you from the lava.
Get off the Beaten Track at Todos Santos Cuchumatan
A rarely visited area of Guatemala situated in the north-western highlands, and one of the few towns where the men still dress in traditional clothing. The friendliness of the people here is overwhelming with many still finding it a strange novelty to see a foreigner in their midst. Having a bit of Spanish does wonders here because you will undoubtedly be stopped for a chat. Just be respectful if you choose to get your camera out, as some of the locals are wary of having their picture taken.
Maximon is a patron Saint, often linked to drinking alcohol and smoking cigars. While he exists in varied forms in different towns across the country, probably the most well-known version is the one in Santiago de Atitlan. There his form is a wooden puppet, dressed in silk ties, a cowboy hat and traditional clothing. A cigar burns in his mouth and cheap rum in his hands. His location within the town changes annually, and is usually not too far from the dock. Local kids will be happy to show you the way, for a small tip of course. The history of Maximon is a strange one with a few different opinions on his origin, but seems to be a mix between what the Christian Spanish brought with them and ancient Mayan traditions.
Swim in the Pools of Semuc Champey and get deep in the Nearby Caves
About an hour or so drive from the city of Coban, a river pounds down through the mountains powerfully before dipping underwater and out of sight. On top, several green pools form idyllic swimming locations. Take a tour through the nearby Las Marias caves where you can swim, climb through waterfalls and jump off small cliffs, all under a surreal candlelight. The closest town of Lanquin offers another caving experience, where swarms of bats leave on sunset in an incredible display to begin their nightly hunt.
This guest post was written by Jess and Jamie from Adventures with Cloud People. They have recently returned from travelling and volunteering throughout Central America and are currently posting photos, art and stories about their time there.