Guatemala – a journey of highlights and lowlights

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In this series of posts, we share the highlights of our visits to the countries in the Central America Grande journey. It’s hard to put everything that impressed you about a country in a single post, but we’d love to give you some good and brief introduction. If something sparked your interest, let us know that you want more details and we’ll do our best to elaborate on that in a separate article.

Here’s a bit different story on our visit to Guatemala. We want to show our journey there as a series of highlights and lowlights because it was just like that! So here it is, country number three of our Central America Grande journey.

 

Replicating a Star Wars scene at Tikal Ruins in Guatemala

 

 

Our itinerary

We entered the country from western Belize and headed straight to Tikal park and the out-of-this-world ruins. It turned out they’re actually from the Yavin 4 moon, the Outer Rim Territories (any Star Wars fans here?). We continued to the picturesque Flores, then hopped on a night bus to Antigua. From the colonial town, we proceeded to Lake Atitlan and its indigenous villages and mesmerizing views. After enough chill, we returned to Antigua to take a shuttle to El Salvador. 

 

Walking towards our hotel in Tikal, Guatemala

 

 

Weather and nature

We entered the jungle in the northeast part of the country but it was a bit different from the jungles in Mexico and Belize – it was a bit cooler so we didn’t sweat all the time. A colder season was said to start. It drizzled a bit too. Mosquitoes were again present so no getting rid of them so far. 

When we traveled to the highlands it was a different story – lots of sun in the mornings and then cloudy and even rainy afternoons. We had to put our jackets on from time to time! A nice relief from the humid heat, but also easy to catch a cold as our bodies were already accustomed to being hot all the time.

Dense jungle, active volcanos, beautiful mountains, a huge pristine lake – this is just a small part of Guatemala’s landscape diversity. 

 

Looking over the foggy forest from Temple IV in Tikal ruins, Guatemala

 

 

The people 

We’ve met many smiling faces in the country. We met many greedy faces too. Can’t say if we’re big fans of the Guatemalans as many times we were treated as dollar bills or cash machines. We enjoyed observing indigenous people in their daily activities. If you read below you’ll find out why we can’t say we loved the people of Guatemala. 

Being authentic in your relationships with people is the key to a better future. We wish this authenticity spreads further so people talk to us without the intent to sell us something or even worse, beg money from us. In Guatemala, we felt we were supposed to donate or sponsor just because we come from far away, which means we’re rich. Pure logic. Hopefully, when we return in a few years we won’t be discriminated against our foreign origins. 

 

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Group of men is having their Sunday chat at the church's yard in Santiago, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

 

The experience

Here is a long story of highlights and lowlights, of ups and downs. Guatemala might be a highlight, it might turn out a lowlight, but one thing is clear – you’ll never be bored in there.

 

The border
  • In Belize, they offered us to exchange Belize dollars for Guatemalan quetzals at the rate one to three. We thought that’s an awful rate so we just exchanged just enough money to get to Tikal.
  • On the Guatemalan side the rate was 1:3.25 so we thought it is getting better until…
  • We were surrounded by taxi drivers trying to rip us off with the rates to Tikal.
  • We received directions to the colectivo station so we headed there, crossing a bridge. A boy started walking with us speaking in English to help us get there. How nice, but
  • When we reached the colectivo, he tried to ask us twice the regular price!
  • Good, we speak Spanish so we arranged the fee with the shuttle driver. 
  • You can check out the adventures of driving across the Belize/Guatemala border. You won’t get bored.

 

The nature over the minibus window driving in Guatemala after we passed the border with Belize

Bistra makes a selfie with Nace, who is sleeping deeply in the minibus heading to Tikal, Guatemala

 

 

Welcome to Guatemala
  • We are still with almost no cash in Quetzals so while the colectivo is still waiting for other passengers Nace finds 1:3.3 deal with a shop owner.
  • When he goes with our Belize money, the shop owner says he has no Quetzals. The money disappeared magically. 
  • Nace manages to get some sleep, he’s so sleepy that I’m starting to get worried that someone might have drugged him.
  • The road is terrible! Full of potholes and the driver is another need-for-speed enthusiast. 
  • We are left where we agreed at El Cruce, where the road to Tikal passes. The atmosphere is kind of sketchy but we keep the positive spirit and Nace is finally awake!
  • We say no to the first bus that passes, the price of 20Q seems to me too high. Big mistake!
  • We wait and wait, and a new shiny tourism shuttle stops. The guy says there’s a better place to wait for 5 km up the road, as more buses pass from there. He says he’ll drop us to the next village for free.
  • He drives us to a secondary road in front of a hotel. It becomes clear this is not the main road and he wants to sell us tours and transportation. 
  • We walk back following the lake road. Views are gorgeous, our cursing in Bulgarian not so much.
  • We catch a family run bus to Tikal, the price is 20Q per person. 

Ok, we’ve been in the country for two hours and only two people wanted to screw us big time. We don’t count the usual spammers and scammers.

 

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Waiting on a crossroad in Guatemala for the second bus to Tikal ruins

 

 

Tikal
  • We enter the park. At the border, we should get off the bus and pay the 150Q park entrance fee which is six times higher for foreigners. They also want to convince us this is the only place to pay the additional 100Q for watching sunrise or sunset from the ruins. 
  • It’s turn for a positive thing – well, it’s a nice jungle outside.
  • We’re still out of cash (good the hotel was a great deal and also payable by card).
  • We ask around and find a guy at the souvenir stalls who will exchange some Belize dollars for Quetzals at 1:3. Finding a place to exchange BZ in here is much harder than finding any kind of drug (the last not a personal experience but a perception). Well…
  • The guy doesn’t have a lot of quetzals so we still have to think how we can pay the guide for the sunrise your. Yes, now all the sunrise tours must be done with a guide. 
  • We are offered a nice breakfast plus dinner plus sunrise tour deal for 32USD. The nice part is we can pay by card.
  • We are out of cash so this is actually the only deal unless we can skip few meals and the sunrise (which is actually the highlight). Everything is expensive but it is the only option for us. Tikal has only three hotels with expensive shitty food and a few eateries with less expensive shitty food.
  • The swimming pool inside the jungle is a great advantage so we take a dip and later a cold shower which is a great thing compared to the campsite which may or may not have running water. Actually, the campsite was our first choice as it is a little cheaper from the hotel and you sleep in a hammock with mosquito net in the middle of a jungle. How lovely, but several recent visitors complained that someone went through their backpacks while they were sleeping, so we canceled this option.
  • The dinner is so-so, so we go to sleep before they turn off the electricity and the opportunity to charge our phones.
  • Hiking in the dark in the jungle is amazing! We stop to observe ants, spiders, tarantulas while waiting for the howler monkeys to wake up. We climb Temple 4 and wait for the sunrise.
  • There’s no sunrise. A thick fog covered it all. Even howler monkeys don’t howl, they are sleepy because of the rain.
  • But we wait and wait, and as there is more light the fog disappears so we can finally see the resistance fighters base (Temples 1, 2 and 3). Hooray!
  • We continue our walk through the ruins but the guide needs to explain every little detail so we get so bored. Really, who needs to know how they prepare the bricks for restoration? Tikal is an amazing place though!
  • We end with the breakfast which is amazing! Pancakes with Mayan marmalade, yummy!

 

 

 

Flores
  • We easily find a minibus to Flores. Wishing the driver washed his hands before touching our backpacks, but these are just details.
  • We stop in Santa Elena bus station – this is the twin town for Flores, located just a bridge away. We find an ATM (finally) and want to arrange tickets for the long trip to Antigua. 
  • Bad news, the overnight bus for the next day is fully booked. The semi-cama seats at least. And we can’t imagine sleeping in the regular seats for 7-8 hours.
  • Good news, seats available for tonight, we buy!
  • But we have to cancel our stay at a nice Couchsurfing place in a village, probably a very good authentic local experience. 
  • So we hope to get a decent sleep on the bus as this day we had to wake up around 3.30 for the sunrise. And…
  • To walk around Flores for the rest of the day, we have to leave the backpacks in the bus station. It is not the nicest place on Earth (which bus station is?) but there’s a security guard. Fingers crossed on our backpacks’ well-being.
  • We’re sightseeing the town of Flores and the surrounding Petén lake. Magical, beautiful, this homey feeling, nice vistas and coastal promenade in semi-good condition. Few floods from the lake. 
  • There’s not so much to do in Flores to fill a day and it’s raining on and off.
  • We chat with a random tour agent and even if he didn’t sell us anything, he kept talking to us. We find nice places to have a bite and drink and hang in there.
  • Of course, we don’t have computers with us so not able to work or do something meaningful. We just drink beer and watch the scenery. We win a lovely beer mug after finishing a six-pack. Hope it survives 6 more weeks of travel in the backpack.
  • Back at the bus station. Nobody went through our backpacks. And a movie with Jacky Chan is on! Time for boarding the bus.

 

Walking in the tiny streets of Flores, Guatemala

 

 

 

 This story has become too long. Want to know what happens next? Check out the continuation!

 

Guatemala highlights, Pinterest photo
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10 Responses

  1. Joe
    | Reply

    I’ve heard great things about Guatemala,a and it sure does seem like a beautiful place from the photos you have put here. It’s such a shame about the amount of people trying to scrounge off you though…it’s sad that more places seem to be getting like that as global travel makes the world smaller and more destinations become more visited.

    • Nace Sapundjiev
      | Reply

      Guatemala has some amazing nature and people! We felt sad about the behavior we encountered, especially after we met a traveler who visited the country 14 years ago and said it was a different story! Hope Guatemala manages to handle all the global travel effects as its still so much visited!

  2. Dan
    | Reply

    The Jungle and ruins sound amazing! Hope the rest of your trip goes smoothly. I’ve been caught without cash and its a horrible feeling when traveling.

  3. Central America always looks so green and lush with amazing vegitation. An explorers paradise i must say. Some great information and insights into travelling in this region of the world

    • Nace Sapundjiev
      | Reply

      Thank you! The nature is truly amazing out there! There is something for each type of traveler.

  4. cguttery
    | Reply

    I am a Star Wars nerd and I sat upon those pyramids in Tikal and totally nerded out.

    • Nace Sapundjiev
      | Reply

      It’s unbelievable how places like that look totally out-of-this-planet! And one of our dream jobs is to be movie location scouts! May the force be with you!

  5. So sorry you had such a negative experience in Guatemala. I spend a lot of time in the country and I find the people very authentic and warm and welcoming. I think the difference might be that I rent an apartment and am there for a very long stay so am able to avoid the scammers who prey on visitors as they enter the country and visit the major sights. I hope you’ll return and give Guatemala another try! But thank you for an honest account of your visit – its important info

    • Nace Sapundjiev
      | Reply

      Thank you for your point of view! It’s always different when you live in a place than just visit. We find our experience in Guatemala rather controversial with ups and downs than negative. We just hope this trend doesn’t develop more and we’ll find it more welcoming when we visit in few years hopefully. Maybe a thing that contributed to feeling perceived as cash machines is the fact that in none of the other countries in Central America we weren’t chased by people who only cared to receive money from us. But we are positive that Guatemala will change for the better!

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