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Guatemala

Curious what backpackers do in Guatemala? Discover travel destinations all over the world of travelers writing a travel blog on FindPenguins.
  • Day320

    The border crossing wasn't as bad as expected. There was no queues of cars - in fact I think we were the only one I saw. We got sprayed (no idea what for), got our passport stamped, and got our vehicle import licence all within an hour. Tried to buy insurance but the guy said not to bother :l

    From there we drove through a narrow and deep valley into the mountains and to Huehuetenango (all the big towns seem to end with ~tenango around here) and started to find our feet. We were told there weren't any supermarkets here but immediately we found one, and we're surprised to see it a lot more expensive than Mexico. We got ourselves a local SIM and made our way to a strange little campsite on the edge of a football field.

    Over a week on and I'm still not feeling right, so we decided to head to Lake Atitlán for a few days R&R before we head to our volunteering place. To get to the lake you summit at over 3,000 metres which was thick with fog, then head steeply down to 1,800 metres in only a few miles.

    The lake is ringed by high classically shaped volcanoes, one of which is active. Unfortunately clouds are sitting on the lake so we only get a few tantalising glimpses of these majestic peaks. We mooched around the main tourist town of Panajachel and jumped into the back of a pickup to visit a small artesanal village further around the lake. We even got invited to a baptismal ceremony held at the campsite, and got called out by name by the priest buy fortunately we avoided the dunking.
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  • Day19

    Up into the mountains today to a town called Chichicastenango which has a large market and a very colourful cemetary. Loved wandering around the markets taking photos.

    Bought a little hand made material cat which spoke to me - had to bargain hard though! Her name is Guatsup!

    Had my smoothie for the day in a cute cafe.

    Then onto our homestay in the village of San Jorge La Laguna overlooking Lake Atitlan. My room is pretty large. We share a toilet and a cold trickle of a shower with the family. There is a kitchen and two other bedrooms one which is used as a homestay room as well. So the family must sleep in one room when a homestay is on. See the various photos of the home including my colourful bed!

    Then there is a central courtyard which is partly covered.

    We had a traditional Guatemalan meal with the family with a very bad soapie on the tv in the background.

    We were told to bring gifts for the family - food shampoo pots etc. Anything as the families don't have much. I took soap and shampoo. Others took pineapples, corn, muffins. I should have got some pencils or pens for the kids as well.

    There were two kids - the boy was fascinated with the padlock on my case. The little girl was curious about everything so I showed her the photos and videos I had on my phone - including Minnie Mai dancing and skipping which she loved. She also loved the dolphin and sea lion photos.

    The whole tour group got dressed up in traditional clothing supplied by our families. Then we went to the town centre to hang out. We also went to part of a church service where a band played!

    Dinner was pretty good and filling. Early night as no internet and nothing to do. Our home had these crazy christmas lights in the courtyard which played the same christmas tune so in the ear plugs went!
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  • Day19

    The faces say it all!

    First food photo was dinner and next is breakfast.

    Me in my traditional attire. There are alot of pretty gruesome photos on my camera!

    Is my forehead beginning to take over my face?

  • Day132

    Looking back.

    I wrote the first part of San Pedro midway through the week, but I needed to add more photos and I had a bit more to say so here's the follow up:

    Coffee.

    The first shock to me about coffee was that kids drink it. Six year olds. Regularly. I'll admit it's heavily watered down but seriously? I suppose it's nice to drink something other than water every now and again - a dietary choice we take for granted.

    For those of you like me who look no further than that aromatic brown bean as the source of their hot and steamy morning Joe, read on. That coffee you're drinking, or that one you had this morning - that comes from the seed of a fruit no larger than a modestly sized grape. Come to think of it, I don't know why they're called beans, instead of the seeds that they are. And if you're reading from NZ or AUS, chances are it has come an awfully long way as coffee is usually only grown in equatorial climates. That seed comes from the fruit on a tree rarely bigger than you or me. The berries are deseeded en masse, before undergoing drying and washing (read: machined/chemical peeling) three times over. The beans don't go brown or aromatic until you roast them. In fact prior to roasting, coffee beans are white and less flavourless than a watermelon seed. The final process is the grind, which I'm sure you are all familiar.

    In San Pedro, most of the coffee harvested is consumed locally or rarely leaves the family. Hardly surprising when a 20kg bag of fruit can be sold for a lousy $40NZD. Machined peeling is not an option locally so the beans aren't washed - an action they are proud of, claiming the coffee is more organic and better for your health. Fair enough.

    Lucky for us, that plant has spread across the world from africa. Otherwise we'd be still be drinking Earl Grey at every break.

    Farming.

    Farming in San Pedro is another family affair. A farm is passed through generations, divided equally amoungst siblings, so the farms are beginning to get pretty small. We saw some no bigger than your average backyard! The siblings all farm that land and the harvest is kept to feed the family almost exclusively. The main crop is corn, a fundamental ingredient in tortillas (the side for every meal). Coffee forests too are vast at slightly lower altitudes, with the extent of the plots marked only by a palm tree at each corner. Finally and much to my delight, avocado trees tower intermittently between these, bursting with fruit. Well at least those which haven't been genetically modified to stud their growth. Mayans aren't tall people. But they are strong. All of them carry their crop out in sacks (bigger than themselves), slung over their foreheads with a length of old yarn. Right Mike?

    This proves my theory that ripe avocados are not a mytholgical creature. They exist in great quantities for as little as 10c NZD each. This week's avo count is at an all time record.

    Cooking.

    Cooking with wood is both easy and economical if you have the right set up. Most houses have a gas stove and a woodfire. The woodfire heats a hotplate for most of the day, primarily for stewing the corn tortilla mix, then frying the tortillas. Needless to say the kitchen is the hottest and only heated room in the house. Lola spent most of her day in the kitchen, sourcing and preparing loads of delicious local food. Impressively tasty meals considering the relative quantity of bland foods such as bread, tortillas and potatoes. Cat and I seemed to be the only ones who truly appreciated her cooking, with Magda being a fussy six year old and Jack not showing for meals or bolting midway through the last mouthful. I hope she doesn't feel the same!

    Water.

    It's Earths most valuable resource. In San Pedro, most houses have running water but it is piped and residents pay for this convenience dearly with what little money they have. To drink, it must be filtered in the house, even for the locals. And for those who can't afford it, they cluster in their dozens on the lake side, washing themselves and their clothes in the shallows. Hot water, is an absolute luxury, one which we were fortunate enough to have in the guest shower, Mike and Char not so much. I didn't see another hot tap all week.

    Sleep.

    I don't know how they do it. Between midnight bed times, 5am starts and a town which sounds more alive at night than it does in the day - where do yhey find rest?! Cat and I were awoken on numerous occasions per night by cat fights, cats falling onto our roof, roosters, dogs barking, the tortilla machine (starts at 4am), church bells (predawn), Magda and traffic - to name just a few. Luckily we saw humour in the ridiculousness of most of these, but we'll be looking forward to a quiet night's sleep, that's for sure.

    Religion.

    San Pedro has 26 churches for a population of 14,000. I'm no town planner but that ratio seems through the roof! Religion, predominantly catholic, is visible everywhere. In murals on the street, to bumper stickers, windscreen stickers, graffiti art, tattoos, song, dance and the ringing of bells which can be heard continuously throughout the day and night. Even the rearview mirror of the van we're in right now says 'Jesus'. I can't say I investigated further but it definitely stood out to all of us.

    On our final Saturday (after watching Scotland put Wales away in the Six Nations!) we managed to sneak across to Santiago Atitlán for an afternoon. Our host family recommended it but I wouldn't. The location is famous for it's markets and 16th century Church, neither of which I'm yet to find huge appeal in. The touristy hustle was aggresively present, and the food no better or different to what we were eating in San Pedro. Nice to keep that explorative attitude alive but I prefer the friendly locals in San Pedro. That and the ferry cost and arm and a leg!

    Spanish in San Pedro has been one of my favourite weeks on tour so far. A huge thanks to all the locals who made it so fun - Javier, Lola, Magda, Jose, Graciella, Chema, Conchita, Felix and Tina! Unfortunately, we all know a week is not nearly long enough to learn spanish. We have seriously considered pulling the pin on the rest of the trip and staying here until we speak the mother-tongue. Three months they say. Too bad. I only hope we will continue to learn and speak more and more often. Perhaps we will find another week elsewhere.
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  • Day324

    After a night (or half a night in my case, due to a severe case of my indigestion catching up after weeks of painkillers and antibiotics) in the Xela McDonald's car park we drove down a dusty dirt road until it turned into a rough track. Knowing we couldn't cheat and gain any more altitude we pulled into a farmers front yard. That left us with over 1,300m to climb, and we know from experience that 1,000m is a tough day in the saddle.

    Despite much differing advice we decided to go without a guide, mainly as this was the one volcano with a Google Map route and we weren't overly concerned about the vague reports of robberies. The trail started easily enough and wound upwards reasonably gently through some impressive farmlands etched into the lower slopes.

    After a couple of hours of reasonably hard slog we reached the shoulder, where the nice old man on a horse waited for us to make sure we took the right route, although it was hard to miss the massive conical peak towering above us. The trail soon got even steeper & dustier, and I was glad of my newly acquired hiking poles (which I was hoping would help me avoid my back issues) . We really felt the thin air as we slowly ascended, and needed to stop to catch our breath at almost every switchback turn.

    After 4 really tough hours we finally reached the summit at over 3,700m, and found it covered with flowers and indigenous shrines. It was a truly stunning 360 degree view, with a thick layer of clouds several hundred metres below us. We were expecting cold & windy but it was a glorious day and we spent a good while up there enjoying the view and tucking into lunch.

    Coming down was a breeze as the thin air didn't matter and we were down in about half the time. I was pretty amazed I made it considering how rough a night I'd had, but my back was in good shape, although the rest of me was pretty beat. Unfortunately there was no hot shower to sooth away the ashes and pains, and we had to make do with an authentic farmers shower from the plastic tubs in their outdoor sink.

    Cleaned and fed we collapsed into a blissful sleep, proud of having summited on one of the harder hikes we've done. Fortunately you tend to remember the amazing views rather than the slog it was to get them.
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  • Day120

    Find Pengiuns only let's me put six photos per footprint, so I'm adding Semuc Champey as a seperate one and to be fair, it deserves it.

    Our hostel offered a guided day trip to this natural wonder for 225 Quetzals ($45NZ), lunch included. Our chariot was a ute with a home made tent-like frame bolted over the tray. We piled in and rode the half hour or so over some horrific roads in the cool air under a hot rising sun. In itself it was a great ride, weaving through the countryside, seeing families and farmers in their daily routines stopping only to shout 'Holà' at us, the giant gringos.

    Our first stop was to venture into the underground. Caving was included in our package so we stipped down to our shorts or bikinis and retied the trainers - a look more unusual the the dreaded sneans. At the entry to the cave we were armed with our only equipment: a candle. It wasn't until we were held up at the entry that we realised our guide hadn't even brought a lighter, which gave us a lot of faith in his preparation... The guides took great pleasure in turning us into warriors with candle-soot face paint. I'm sure they were laughing at as the whole time, cheeky sods.

    Unlike most caves, this one was surprisingly uniform in size and water depth and had a distinct lack of alternate caverns or routes. That or we couldn't see further than our candlelight permitted. This made for easy navigation despite thex wading, swimming, climbing and jumping that was involved. What happens when you climb a waterfall with a candle? Yes it goes out, but keep it safe in your back pocket or tucked in the side of your bikini bottoms and hope that an amigo will give you another light on the other side. The tour culminated in a rock jump into darkness followed by a now heavily congested exit route. Glad to have been the first through!

    Upon exiting we raced for the sunlight, as slow progress and relentless wetting and re-wetting had brought a chill to the bones.

    The next activity was a sketchy and pretty darn massive seated rope swing. It provided outstanding entertainment watching many amatuers attempt to dismount the swing into the racing river below. Many complaints of pain put the girls off, but the boys all had a crack and walked away with only minor bruises and humility.

    Still in recovery, we were marched to the local bridge for another hit of adrenaline. A young and highly abusive Guatemalan boy set the bar for the jump, climbing onto the suspension wire, parading up and down whilst giving us a gutful before dropping a dizzying 10m into the river. Some attitude. Some kahunas. We all jumped, girls included, and were grateful for our shoes on impact once more!

    We're more used to the hustle now and are learning quick and easy ways out, or how to avoid the situation altogether.

    Lunch came and went with little excitement, save for my attempt to pick up a pile of sticks Guatemalan-style (with my head). A different life they lead indeed!

    The afternoon brought us to Semuc Champey, literally the only reason this secluded and so very isolated place is on the tourist trail. Semuc Champey is a series of terraced rock pools, filled with turqoise blue water and schools of those fish that nibble at your toes, creepy! The main river, Rìo Cahabón actually flows underneath the terraces; an impressive tunnel of roaring white water, only just visible to the intrigued tourist.

    It was nice to relax after the hike to get there, swimming, diving, jumping and sliding (barebummed) down the terraces, from pool to pool. The natural beauty speaks for itself in the photos below. We went back the same way we drove in, ever appreciating the friendly and smiling locals.

    All in all it was one of the best days in Central America yet! Definitely worth the hot and bumpy eight hour drives we put ourselves through at each end.
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  • Day123

    Up, up, up and up some more.

    Antigua Guatemala and Lake Atitlan are the mountainous capitals of Guatemala. We'd been eyeing up a challenging hike since we hit this continent and boy did we strike gold.

    Acatanango was not our first pick, in fact we'd been looking further afield, but it had been recommended to us and our hostel offered to arrange it, so we locked in the overnight hike at the modest price of $35NZD per head.

    Acatanango is a giant. It's Ngaruhoe shaped cone tops out at 3980m (taller than Mt Cook!), making it the tallest in the country and one of the tallest in Central America. This region lies on an active fault and is dotted with similar peaks, many still alarmingly active. Lake Atitlan is also a caldera, surrounded by peaks and the geograhical resemblance to the Central Plateau is uncanny.

    Our two day expedition began with some nervous wees and a shuttle pick up. A shuttle pick up always includes a free tour of the town, as one must navigate as many narrow cobbled streets as are required to visit all the hostels, plus some. This tour continued, picking up food and gear and of course tour guides. The tour company obviously not bothering to do all this before they picked us up. Hot tip: Learn to love a shuttle ride.

    Hopefully you're not thinking lesser of us for getting tour guides. Trust me, if they say you need one you most probably do unless you want to get lost, robbed, stabbed or worse.

    The start for this hike was at a local's house on the side of a narrow, two-lane mountain road with no parking or footpath. So we parked on the road, unloaded all our gear into the gutter and repacked our bags with the overnight camping gear and food with which we had been provided - all the while dodging trucks, buses and men on horses. Luckily we were able to fit it in the three tramping packs and two day packs we had; the rental packs comprised canvas on a welded steel tube frame. "In my day..." right dad??

    After some serious faffing and a $10 NZD park entrance fee we were ready to go. Starting elevation: 2500m (over half way already!). We crossed the road and were instantly funnelled into a steep river of loose volcanic rock. It went straight up. It literally pointed at the summit. As far as you could see. In the midday heat, a rising dust cloud and a pack laden two-forward-one-back step routine, it was undoubtedly one of the most brutal ascents I've done.

    And it didn't relent. Up, up, up, rest, repeat. We climbed out of farming pasture (yes, they farm this slope?!), into rainforest and deeper into the clouds. The view disappeared, the temperature dropped and quads and calves burnt like the Great Fire of London. Our group was in surprisingly good shape. The lead pace was slow, and the stragglers were slower still, but we only had one turn back and zero audible tantrums.

    As the afternoon dragged on the trail flattened and forest thinned. We tip toed along the top of the clouds, fatigued yet grateful for the break in ascent. By now the thinning air was adding noticeably to the difficulty. Late in the afternoon I heard a few 'bang-rumbles'. I feared the worst; thunder meant rain. It struck frequently and grew in intensity as we continued. I verbalised my fears and much to my surprise, was informed as to what we were hearing. It was the nearby Mt Fuego, erupting from beyond the clouds!

    By 5pm we were scaling the final stretch to our campsite. This confused me. The whole day I had not seen a single plot of flat land. Certainly nothing flat enough to pitch a tent, let alone ten tents! And we were currently on all fours climbing in tussock laden scree. Where the hell were we going to sleep?! My confusion was resolved moments later when we scrambled past a homemade timber retaining wall. Genious. There were several of them; a few meters high, constructed of stripped trees from the surrounding forest and cutting into the steep volcanic rock face. Each retained just enough rock to pitch a row of tents on the 'flat'. Hazardous terrain encompassed each site, making even just going for a wee quite a risky exercise.

    It was an unceremonius end to the day. We had not yet conquered the beast and the thought of a cold nights sleep on rock wasn't exactly what we desired, although putting down the pack for the last time felt damn good! Our mood was swiftly replaced with excitement by another huge bang from Fuego. Heads swivelled to watch the giant blast another ash cloud into the atmosphere. It wouldn't be the last. As the night fell the blasts became more and more regular, and the lava brighter and brighter, rocketing out of the crater and tumbling down the cone. Explosions of molten orange in all directions. By now the high clouds had evapourated, thousands of stars had come to shine and our fantastic guides had made us a fire. We'd also snuck up a couple of beersies each (cheers Mike!) which had finished chilling in the crisp mountain air.

    That evening was worth every step of the climb. We sat around the fire drinking beer, eating ramen noodles and toasting marshmellows, with the mountain of fire providing endless spectacle under the starry night. Truely incredible.

    During our earlier excitement, our guides had snuck off and felled a tree each for firewood. They'd made good use of the scree and dragged the 5m long trunks back to site. Their evening's entertainment was letting the more foolhardy of us chop them up with a machete. Hard work for the days end, but it generated heat we much desired, especially Cat who had brought up and worn every item of clothing she had plus some of mine!

    To say we awoke the next morning would be misleading, as most of us never slept. The freezing cold, continuous blasting and a rocky bed countered our fatigue and prevented any decent rest. 4am slowly drifted around and we were roused back into the icy wind for the summit climb. It was cold. Really cold. And pitch black, thanks to the rogue head torch straight to face, abolishing any form of night vision that might have developed under the half moon.

    The ascent started slowly, as we slipped and scrambled and bumped into each other. With no cloud cover yet, the sparkle of distant towns was our only reference point, and progress was faster than it seemed - especially with no packs. It only took an hour and a half before we were making the final ascent to the summit, with the sky glowing orange, blue and black under the rising sun. In an unworldy coincidence, with the sky still half black, we popped over the summit of Acetenango to witness Fuego in all her might; firing lava high into the sky and down her slopes in a fashion only hollywood could recreate. By this stage, low level cloud had drifted in, soaking the lowlands in a fluffy white blanket. The only land visible was the peaks of numerous mountains, poking up from the mystery below. Peak elevation: 3980m.

    We sheltered from the roaring sub zero winds in the lee of some rocks, tucked into some banana bread and muesli bars whilst watching the sun rise over Mt Agua, a nearby peak, and Fuego continuing to announce its presence. It was a morning I will never forget.

    Moments before frostbite cut through my cotton socks (yes, yes, no cotton on the mountain - sorry mum and dad!) we were hustled to the start of the descent. The triple head count that ensued was by far the biggest indicator of the guides' care for our wellbeing I had witnessed all trip. That quickly went out the window as we burst into a free-for-all descent. Shoes buried deep into the soft scree as we ran, jumped, skidded, slid and skied down the mountain, narrowly missing rocks and on occasion, each other. The hour and a half ascent obliterated by a fifteen minute run-tumble back to base camp.

    By the time we got back, we'd all warmed up, the sun had turned on the heat and the wind eased. We drank hot chocolate on heaven's porch, soaking up the sun, the view and the morning that was.

    A lot more faff followed as we packed up camp and readied for the descent. The packs were much lighter without the water, beers and food yet the legs were suffering from the previous day and descending was no less brutal. We had one fast guide (running fast) and one slow. The fast guide set a pace almost impossible to match; ascending the steep, slippery narrow and winding track like we had the summit earlier that morning. Very impressive. Meanwhile in the middle of the field, the quads had packed in and a combination of fatigue and lack of coordination saw Cat rack up quite the number of spills. Perfectly acceptable under the circumstances, I might add. In fact, by the time we reached the bottom, at around midday, I was thoroughly impressed at the state the team was in. Well, except for the fact we looked and smelt like we'd been dragged through a chimney.

    We were spent and ravenous. We loaded up the van and prepared to depart. The thought of jacuzzi and pizza were making my mouth water. However, it was not to be. Our van crapped out (for lack of a less vulgar phrase) leaving us tired, hungry and stranded on the side of the road for nearly two hours. Aid came in the form of cold beer and it would have taken a lot more than a broken bus to bring me down from that high (no pun intended). A huge thanks to nature for nailing the weather and the tectonic activity and to our legendary guides/Guataninjas for putting up with useless gringos and learning english for us!!!!

    By the time we made it back to Antigua in our rapidly repaired bus, we were hangry, busting for the loo and in need of a shower. After much debacle, our needs were met (in that order) so we put our tired, wrinkly feet up in newly appreciated comfort and relived the day that was.
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You might also know this place by the following names:

Republic of Guatemala, Guatemala, Guwatemala, ጉዋቲማላ, جواتيمالا, Qvatemala, Гватэмала, Гватемала, Gwatemala, গোয়াতিমালা, གྷོ་ཊེ་མ་ལ།, Gvatemala, Guatemala nutome, Γουατεμάλα, Gvatemalo, گواتمالا, Gwaatemalaa, Goatemala, Guatamala, ગ્વાટેમાલા, Gwatamala, גווטמלה, गोतेदाला, Գվատեմալա, グアテマラ, გვატემალა, ហ្គាតេម៉ាឡា, ಗ್ವಾಟೆಮಾಲಾ, 과테말라, گواتیمالا, Gwatémala, ກົວເຕມາລາ, Ngwatemala, Goatemalà, ഗ്വാട്ടിമാലാ, ग्वाटेमाला, ဂွာတီမာလာ, Cuauhtemallan, ଗୁଏତମାଲା, ګواتمالا, Watimala, Guatêmälä, Guwaatamaala, குவாத்தாமாலா, గ్వాటిమాల, Гуатемала, ประเทศกัวเตมาลา, Kuatamala, گۋاتېمالا, Ґватемала, گواٹے مالا, Gvatemalän, Orílẹ́ède Guatemala, 危地马拉, i-Guatemala