Backpacking in Guatemala
The lure of volcanoes, lakes and colonial towns
Standing on the San Pedro volcano, one has a great view of Lake Atitlàn and the surrounding towns of Panajachel and San Pedro. Antigua has colonial houses, churches and a monastery, all with façades in pastel colors. The lava in Pacaya volcano's crater glows in the dark. Near Livingston are waterfalls and white beaches. The Maya ruins of Tikal rise above the jungle and those in Copàn in Honduras are also worth a visit.
Travelogue & photos: Peter van Boheemen
Beautiful views from the peak of the San Pedro volcano
The situation is chaotic when we arrive from San Cristobal de Las Casas at the border between Mexico and Guatemala. But the drivers of the tourist buses manage to get us through quickly.
A little later we change money at a gas station. The ATM is just a square metal box in the store. It would have been rammed by a shovel already where I come from. Is Guatemala even remotely as crime ridden as we were told before we left?
It's dark when we arrive in Panajachel, a popular town at 1,597 m on the north side of Lake Atitlàn. I spend the night here and will take a boat ride on the crater lake tomorrow at dawn.
After a night in the very clean Hotel Linda I walk to Panajachel's marine. Little boats are already waiting for passengers. Lake Atitlàn looks shiny in the sunlight. The 45 minutes crossing is a pleasant boat ride.
Most hotels in San Pedro La Laguna on the west side of Lake Atitlàn are booked up, so I end up in a terrible slab of concrete. But at least I have a bed.
Renting a canoe seems like a good idea for this afternoon. The guy who rents them out, runs after me, because he needs to screw a plug in the bottom of the canoe. As soon as the plug is in, the canoe tips over. Thank God, I put my camera in a watertight container and left my travel documents in the hotel.
But my wallet is drenched. I run back to the hotel, where I spread the bank notes on the bed to dry, like a bad counterfeiter. Back to the canoe. I didn't rent it for three hours to watch money dry. But even though canoeing on the lake is fun, I don't use all the time I have left.
I turn in early, because tomorrow morning I have to be ready at 6 AM to hike up the San Pedro volcano. I manage to get up in time. I am even the first to arrive at the little travel agency. The other hikers arrive soon and we leave immediately.
The first leg is on an asphalted road. We walk fast. I am the oldest hiker by far, but I have no problem keeping up with the youngsters. At a viewing spot (1,828 m) the unpaved hiking trail begins. For now, it's not too steep and winds between tree ferns and brushwood.
When we arrive at a cornfield, our guide tells us that this is the last spot that has a view. From here we will be walking between dense vegetation. So we enjoy the wonderful view of Lake Atitlàn. San Pedro sits on a little penninsula and can be made out easily at this altitude.
The extinguished volcano has an altitude of 3,000 m, so we still have a while to go. The temperature is indicative of how far we have already ascended. I put my shirt back on. The thick layers of moss on the trees prove that it is also a humid climate. It's misty.
The steepest parts are bridged by slippery wooden stairs which take us higher up. We all reach the peak without problems. There is no sign that says that this is the top, but our guide tells us that a group of large rocks is the end of the trail. Content with ourselves, we eat the food we brought and proudly take pictures.
And then the descent begins. It goes well, even though you still have to stay alert not to slip. Especially on those rickety stairs. Around noon we're back in San Pedro.
I made a reservation for a stone massage later this afternoon. My body can use it after this tough morning walk. A Canadian woman who's been living here since five years, does the massage. And she does it well. While you lie on your back on hot stones, she also holds a hot stone in the palm of her hand. The result of the two-hour massage is amazing.
In the evening I have a beer in an outdoor café. Sleeping is hard, with the loud house beats that shake this lovely village until all hours, pounding the concrete walls of the hotel.
I wake up slowly, but pleasantly: on a wooden terrace where I have breakfast in the morning sun. A young couple I met in San Cristobal joins me. And before you can say "vacation" it's already noon.
We need to pack, because all three of us travel on today. When we have packed our suitcases, there is still more than enough time for a drink. And another one, and another one... and another... And before we know, it's already after 5 PM. Now we say goodbye for real.
It's hard to get a boat to Panajachel. They only will cross the lake for a usurious price. Fortunately a little later four more people arrive who want to cross, so I can leave, too.
The boat is pounded hard by the waves and when we dock in Panajachel it's already dark. I return to the hotel where I spent the night a few days ago and make a reservation for the bus to Antigua tomorrow.
Colonial façades in pretty pastel colors
In the morning I wait for the bus that will take me to Antigua, a long ride to the east in a valley at the foot of Volcán de Agua. The bus is half an hour late, but I suppose that is part of the culture. There are only four passengers in the mini van, so I have enough space for a relaxed ride.
It's New Year's Eve and I still have to find a hotel in Antigua. I follow a guy who says he has something. The room is a little more expensive because of the New Year Holiday. The guy says I'm lucky, because this room was cancelled. I tell him he's lucky to be able to rent out the room anyway and manage to get 25 quetzal off the price.
Antigua is a beautiful city which is on the World Heritage list of the Unesco. Despite tourism Antigua still has a wonderful charm. All streets are paved with cobblestones and the colonial façades have pretty pastel colors. Soon I see the atmospheric Parque Central with its Baroque cathedral.
5th Avenida Norte is Antigua's most famous street. It is spanned by the 17th century Arco de Santa Catalina. The yellow ochre arch was part of a nunnery in the past. Nuns used the arch to walk from one building to the other without having to cross the street. A clock was added in 1850.
That clock is the reason it's overcrowded here on New Year's Eve. The crowd is almost too dense to get through. Fireworks already begin at 10:30 PM. The party goes on deep into the night, but I go to bed.
Still I wake up reasonably early. The rest of the city doesn't. After breakfast, I go out to explore. There are many churches, monasteries and ruins, even though on New Year's Day some of them are closed.
I first visit the 16th century La Merced church, the oldest in the city. For a small entrance fee you can also visit the adjoining monastery with its beautiful fountain.
A little farther is Museo del Tejido, where I can enter for half a euro, including a private tour. It has a collection of traditional garb and weaving. With the information the guide provides, it's actually interesting.
After crossing the whole city, I arrive at the San Francisco church, where a service is taking place. After that, I've had enough of culture. But the next morning I continue all the same.
First the San José cathedral: its Baroque façade is in perfect condition. But behind it only ruins are left. Earthquakes prevented the building from ever being completed. Through the high vaults I see the bright blue sky.
Opposite the ruins is the Old University San Carlos museum. I should have skipped it. There isn't much to see and as a foreigner you have to pay ten times as much to enter as someone who lives here. Fortunately, I planned something more exciting for the afternoon: climbing the Pacaya volcano.
Climbing the Pacaya volcano
The red-hot lava glows in the dark
There are lots of tourists who also want to climb the Pacaya volcano. After a short wait, an old schoolbus takes us to the 2,500 m high volcano.
On arrival we are divided in groups that each have their own nickname. I have to respond to "Cobra". The first leg of the hike goes through green fields with brushwood. After that, it gets bare and dusty. But we see a beautiful sunset behind other volcanoes.
We plod on to the top. Because of the loose grit, one step forward sometimes means sliding two steps back. That doesn't happen all the time, fortunately, so we all reach the top. And the reward is grand.
From a hole with a 2.5 diameter flows lava. The red-hot mass glows in the darkness that has fallen meanwhile. It winds like a small river downward. Despite the fact that the lava is over a 1000 degrees centigrade hot, it's possible to get very close.
Some people even hang socks in the viscous lava mass. Where I come from, it would be unthinkable that there are no fences. Here in Guatemala, everyone has their own responsibility: the government couldn't care less.
Still overwhelmed by this miracle of nature, I hear "Cobra" and know we're heading back down. Again many slips on the loose grit. Fortunately I am wearing good hiking boots, so I don't have to stop all the time to empty my shoes, like the people who wear sneakers.
Excursion to Honduras
The famous Maya ruins of Copàn
I set my alarm clock for 3:30 AM. A tourist bus will take me to Honduras today. According to Guatemalese tradition, it is half an hour late, but then takes me without any problems to Copàn in Honduras.
I find a hotel quickly and decide to go immediately to visit the famous ruins. That's what I'm here for, after all. A kilometer-long walk takes me there.
Even though by now I've seen a lot of Maya ruins, these are definitely worth the trouble. Except for the hieroglyph stairway there are no tall buildings here, but many stèles (memorial obelisk-like stones with inscriptions) in perfect condition and altars. The complex also has a system of tunnels which can be visited for an extra fee.
In Maya culture it was common for people to let themselves be killed by having their hearts torn out, in the conviction that this would earn them a better place in the hereafter. This was done on the altars.
Some altar stones have recognizable notches for heads and arms. Other altars have hollows in which the torn-out heart was put to be sacrificed to the gods.
The tunnels show a prettier side of Maya life. Here are baths for pleasant cooling. There also is a field for ball games. Relaxing, even though the losers would sometimes be sacrificed to the gods.
I stay for another day. First I visit the archeological museum in the village and in the afternoon I take a trip to a waterfall. I am the only participant. Thanks to the good mood of my guide it is a fun outing with a hike in the green and a swim beneath the waterfall.
Rastas, waterfalls and white sand beaches
Today I leave Honduras. The mini van is on time, but it is packed. After we cross the border, I have to transfer to a local bus. A spacious spot in the front of the bus gives me room to stretch my legs, so I arrive completely relaxed in Rio Dulce.
The only thing Rio Dulce has to offer a tourist is a boat ride on El Golfeto river. So that's what I do. The destination is Livingston, on the estuary of Rio Dulce at the Caribbean Sea, where I want to stay for some days.
On the boat ride we pass an island where cormorants have made their nests. We pass through a water lily filled branch of the river. There is an option to visit some caves, but nobody wants to go.
In a few hours we arrive in Livingston. A Bob Marley look-alike helps me find a hotel. The room price of five euro is the only good thing about the slab of concrete. Oh well, when I sleep, my eyes are closed.
Except for Ladinos and Mayas, there is a Garifuna community in Livingston, who are a mix of Africans and Indians. Polo is one of them. During breakfast he joins me at my table for a cup of coffee and tells me he is in a music band. He has performed in several cities in The Netherlands, where I live.
I buy some CDs with music of his band. The music is nice, rythmic and African.
Today I take a boat ride to White Sand Beach to relax and swim. Polo is there, too, so we can continue our conversation of this morning.
In the afternoon I visit the waterfalls of Los Sietes Alteras. Because this is the dry season, there isn't much waterfall. But the surrounding nature is beautiful and there still is enough water for a cooling dip.
Back in Livingston nothing exciting happens, if you don't count the heroin that I got offered tonight.
When I leave Livingston the next day, it's overcast for the first time. In a boat packed with tourists we sail to Rio Dulce. On the way we stop several times. There has to be a waterfall somewhere... We walk into the forest, but no waterfall in sight. Must be the lack of rain.
But now there is; back in the boat it starts to pour. The captain gives us a canvas to shelter us from the rain. Still, I am drenched on arrival in Rio Dulce.
Flores and Tikal
The ruins of the Maya town rise above the jungle
Two Swedes and an Australian also want to visit Flores today. We get bus tickets, have some food and then get on the packed old school bus. For now, standing room only. Half way I find a spot on the floor behind the driver.
Even though the road is in good conditon, we see no less than three accidents. One car in a brook, one upside-down in a meadow and one dented.
We arrive safely in Flores. With the two Swedes and the Australian we look for a hotel and we find one with two double room. After that we immediately book a tour to the ruins of Tikal, on of the largest Maya cities, which was inhabited between 400 BC and 1000 AD.
We turn in early, because we have to get up at 4:45 for our trip to Tikal. We don't need an alarm, because after a night of traffic noise, fireworks and partying people, at 4:45 a car with a bullhorn sounds out its commercial message. We are awake immediately.
In a rickety bus with a good guide we drive to Tikal. In the quiet of the early morning we walk on thickly wooded paths to the ruins. Wooden stairs take us to the top of Temple IV. Here we have a panoramic view of Tikal Nationaal Park.
The tall temples of Plaza Mayor rise far above the tropical vegetation. The buildings are scattered over a 16 km² surface. Over 3,000 buildings were found, many of which haven't been restored yet.
If you aren't afraid of heights, you can climb to the top of the 57 m tall Temple V. Extremely steep stairs take you there to enjoy the view of Plaza Mayor. We return here later and sit on the grass to listen to the last information our guide gives us.
Then we are free to explore the temples around Plaza Mayor on our own. Temples I and II are the most impressive ones. Underneath temple I the tomb of the great king Ah Cacao was discovered. Temples I and II cannot be climbed. But the surrounding ruins are a climbing and clambering paradise.
Late in the morning I visit a museum in Tikal and am still on time for the 12:30 bus back to Flores.
I stay another day in Flores. The Lake of Petén offers an opportunity for boat rides. In the morning I take a boat to the vantage point Mirador de Rey Kanek, where you get a good impression of the size of the lake and the island of Flores.
In the afternoon I take a boat to the zoo. It looks neglected. The animal shelter a little farther looks better. I take a tour. The animals here are victims of pouching. There are aras, parrots, several kinds of monkeys and even a leopard.
This is my last day in Guatemala. It's a wonderful country, with lots of culture, nature, friendly people and fortunately it's not too spoiled by mass tourism.