Guatemala is simply a great country to travel – it’s super easy to get around, incredibly colourful as well as highly diverse in terms of its population, sights to see and things to do. Those who had visited Mexican state of Chiapas before might see strong similarities and realise that Guatemala is pretty much exactly as pleasant to casually wander around its rolling hills as its western neighbour. In fact Chiapas used to be under Guatemalan regional administration during the colonial times. No wonder why visible similarities exist.
However, as pleasant as it might be, travelling around Guatemala doesn’t come without some cons. Crowds of (sometimes) retarded hippies and obnoxious English monolingual backpackers can be frustrating. So is the necessity to take extra safety precautions when planning one’s voyages – parts of Guatemala (such as the capital city) can indeed be a bit sketchy.
Anyway, let’s get down to the point and see what I found to be great and not-so-great about travelling in Guatemala.
I know this sounds super cliche. All in all Tikal alone is the sole reason why a lot of tourists make it to Guatemala every year. I’ve got great news for those who might be afraid that due to its popularity this insanely impressive Mayan site is as crowded as Chichen Itza in Mexico – NO, IT’s NOT! Chichen indeed might feel like a pasture for the American White Whales – you know, those horribly obnoxious and obese species delivered there every day in huge quantities on coaches from Cancun.
Tikal is nothing like this. It’s nicely hidden in the jungle (watch out for snakes, tarantulas and amazing birds). Its pyramids are among the most splendid in the whole of the Mesoamerica. Some scenes from Star Wars were filmed there. There are almost no vendors on the site trying to sell those f*****g roaring jaguar figurines. And finally there is a much higher chance to hear the tropical birds singing rather than some Texan rednecks struggling to catch the breath and make their lungs work from underneath their enormous layers of belly fat.
I absolutely loved Tikal and spent nearly 7 hours there. Still didn’t feel long enough.
2. Fiesta del Cristo Negro in Flores
I was lucky to make it to Flores just on time when the whole town was in the middle of the grand celebration. The procession carrying crucifix with Black Christ was making its way through the town accompanied by crowds of Guatemalan locals. Traditional Danza de los Venados (Dance of the Deer) was taking place on the main square in front of the church. Guys playing marimbas were all around the cobblestone alleyways. Great street food was served everywhere. Thousands of people from all around Guatemala participated in massive outdoor parties, dancing to salsa and merengue music till the wee hours of the morning. Hot chicks from Guatemala City swarmed all around the place. Everyone had a great time, myself included.
What a perfect introduction to Guatemala on my day 1 one there.
If you consider only as a jumping-off point for Tikal, come there in the first fortnight of January. You might end up enjoying it even more than the ruins. Just watch your consumption of Gallo beer. I didn’t.
Woohaa, what a completely different face of Guatemala than Flores. In fact, after arriving by boat from Belize like I did, you might be excused for thinking that you haven’t even left the country. Especially since the immigration office is 5 minutes uphill walk through the town and is surprisingly easy to miss (there is no border control on the pier).
Have you ever heard about Garifuna people? Yep, these are exactly the same supercool fun-loving people of Caribbean origin which you can find in parts of Belize (such as Dangriga). There are three things those people absolutely know how to do for sure – cooking (I swear they make the best food in the whole of Guatemala and probably in the whole region), playing drums and being irresistibly charming and nice.
Add the local Mayan population and their colourful handicrafts and what you’ll get is the enchanting ethnic and cultural mix you won’t find anywhere else in Guatemala. It’s also worth pointing out that there is no road access to Livingston from other parts of Guatemala. Hop on that boat from Punta Gorda in Belize, Puerto Barrios in Guatemala or – this trip is particularly worth your time – take a boat through Rio Dulce and enjoy the spectacular scenery.
Do yourself a favour and stay in Hostel Iguana – it’s fantastic. Be warned it’s a party hostel though and is operating on tab system – you will for sure end up drinking and spending more than you had initially planned. But with prices being so low and peps being so cool – who cares anyway?
Side note: if you are Danish – DO NOT EVEN THINK about doing the drinking challenge there. I didn’t down all those glasses for Poland to allow you guys beat us again. It’s simply not gonna happen. Forget about it.
I know. Every single goddamned guidebook in the World and every single gringo you met in Central America will brag about how awesome Antigua is.
And it’s true (surprise, surprise!). Antigua is fantastic. A bit touristy in some bits but in a good sense (decent restaurants abound). It also has much better vibe than San Cristobal de Las Casas due to the lack of annoying hippies, obnoxious indigenous Maya souvenir vendors as well as zapatourists and other retarded far-left enthusiasts who love to write about how badly capitalism sucks using their iPhones and Facebook accounts. Remember kids – the good communist is the DEAD communist!
Fortunately there is no commie trash visible on the streets of Antigua. On the other hand – there are plenty of super affordable Spanish schools offering flexible class schedules and good quality tuition. Do yourself a favour and spent at least a week there attending the Spanish classes. Even better – do yourself another favour and restrict your interactions with monolingual English native speakers and focus instead on talking to those who are either local Spanish speakers or Spanish students just like you – you will progress much faster.
I love volcanoes. Volcanoes are cool. And just like in my worse moments – they like to erupt and spread the doom. That’s why we are usually in good terms with each other.
There are plenty of fantastic volcanoes in Guatemala. You cannot climb Pacaya volcano as it constantly releases enough lava every single day to effectively prevent you from getting too close to its slopes. On the other hand you can fry marshmallows nearby. Don’t expect a challenging, adventure-thrilled hike though – it’s a leisurely 1,5h walk to the final point.
Acatenango is another story though – I didn’t climb due to the quite crappy (read: cloudy) weather at that time. Rumour says it is a challenging hike and offers some great views of the smoking hot Fuego volcano. Do yourself a favour and don’t pay 90 USD for this 2-day tour like some fellas do… one third of this price will get you to the summit as well without compromising on the quality of the camping gear.
San Pedro Volcano on the shore of Lake Atitlan is a worthy climb too. Very easy and quite interesting due to the coffee plantations located on its north-eastern slopes and enjoyable (albeit a bit limited) view from the summit showcasing the beauty of the lake and two other conical domes gazing from the other shore – volcanoes Toliman and Atitlan.
DO NOT book a tour in San Pedro town – simply get yourself to the trailhead by a tuk-tuk, pay the compulsory entry fee and the guide service up to the attitude of 2000 m and pocket the money you saved on other treats. Aha, don’t forget to be at least conversational in Spanish – otherwise you will miss some interesting information the local guide will share with you about the local coffee plantations and other stuff worth remembering.
6. Drinking with Maximon
Have you ever drank rum inside the chapel? Or smoked a cigar or cigarette right in front of the main altar depicting a guy in a suit holding a gun in his left hand?
If not, Maximon (or San Simon) is waiting for you in the town of San Andres de Itzapa, only 45 minute chicken bus ride away from Antigua. Read more about this wicked saint in my other post (when it will be ready, haha) and enjoy the sacrum profanum experience as its best.
7. Chicken buses
Whoever gave this name to these colourful old converted US school buses must have probably been an American hippie who had just gone abroad for the first in their lives and found it supercool that the locals in Guatemala sometimes bring some living chickens onboard. Just like if nobody in Albania, China, Laos, Indonesia, El Salvador or Ukraine did the same thing.
Anyway I kind of like this name (note: the locals refer to them as ‘camionetas’) and like the buses even more. They are colourful. No other tourists (especially Israelis! see below in cons…) onboard. Super friendly locals. Some annoying vendors but it’s ok as long as you don’t have to switch between 20 buses over the period of 3 days. Then the constant screams and whistles of ayudantes and snack vendors might actually get irritating.
But the cons of travelling on chicken buses are still way much more enjoyable than the first item on the list of our cons of travelling in Guatemala. Here we go…
1. Sharing a tourist shuttle bus with a group of Israeli assholes.
I hate those scumbags almost as much as I hate the hordes of gypsy beggars in Eastern Europe.
And I know I am not alone in my views since pretty much everyone not from Israel I asked about what they think about those evasive groups of forever complaining and rude Israeli backpackers, express roughly the same view – “man, they don’t want to talk to anyone, they shout at the locals, they are rude to everyone, they only limit themselves to Jewish-owned places, they haggle on every single penny, I really don’t get what’s wrong with those fellas!”.
Don’t get me wrong – I met plenty of fantastic Israeli individuals in my life (especially those living in China). Israeli business owners are also usually excellent managers and know how to meet the expectations of their customers. But the groups of backpackers, especially those tho have just finished their army service back home – Jesus Christ… no matter if it’s Guatemala, Laos or Thailand – pretty much all of them behave equally terrible, annoying you to the point that you wish that their military service involved having a rendezvous with Hezbollah (whatever the outcome). It’s actually not a terribly bad thing at all that some places like Malaysia ban Israeli passport holders from entering the country – the streets look much cleaner without those obnoxious Israeli backpacking fellas.
As you can imagine – sharing a small shuttle bus with a group of 10 of those specimens doesn’t make up for a great experience. Instead of listening to the sound of merengue music you have to cope with the sound of loud khkhkhkhkhkhhhhhhebrew, aggressive bitchy looks of the girls, guys shouting at the driver because he doesn’t want to act like a taxi driver and bring them all the way to the front doors of their Jewish-owned hostel and so on.
My advice – if you need to take a shuttle bus for whatever reason, enquire in the tour office if there are any Israeli backpackers who have already booked the tickets not the same bus. By doing so you will limit the chance of encountering those douchebags.
2. White tourists everywhere
I love some touristy places. They provide great facilities, excellent dining options, convenient transportation and the decent selection of international beers. On the other hand I do not particularly like tourist ghettos such as Cancun, Kuta Bali etc. They are simply too disconnected from the countries they exist in and attract their fair share of wankers from all around the world.
Fortunately the parts of Guatemala I have visited mostly belong to the former category. However, it is still true that pretty much every single major highlight of this country has been throughly explored by other white guys like you and there is relatively little room for that amazing “wow, I’m the first” feeling the great explorers might have once felt.
Guatemala is simply not China where a lot of absolute highlights, while being extremely popular among the locals, are nearly totally unknown to the Westerners. Not to mention that it rarely happens in Guatemala that some random local will approach you and say “you are the first foreigner I’ve ever seen!”.
Guatemala is firmly positioned on the Gringo trail. And unless you are interested in exploring the countryside in the West or the jungles of Peten in the North, you will hardly have it all for yourself.
3. San Marcos
On the surface it looks great – a pleasant village on the shore of lake Atitlan with amazing views, nice wooden hostels, laid-back feel and hammocks all around the place.
Too bad that it also happens to be a mecca for the mentally ill… sorry, I meant – mentally free ultra spiritual namaste-saying esoteric thinkers spending their precious time freeing their minds and souls through various spiritual practices, the holy word of veganism, refuelling each other with positive energy by hugging random strangers, displaying intricate Buddha tattoos, tripping on some heavy drugs whenever not busy calling the aliens on the football pitch…
Avoid San Marcos like a plague if you love meat and hate overly hippie places.
I hope that JP Sears visits this place at some point – I swear he’s gonna have a lot of fantastic material for his new videos.
Sorry Guatemala, but your Mexican neighbours play in a different league on this matter.
Guatemalan food is ok.
Mexican is orgasmic.
You can eat Mexican food every day and never get bored.
Try the same with Guatemalan dishes and find yourself resorting to munching on some random innocent plants like those vegeterrorists in San Marcos do, just because you couldn’t stand the relatively bland Guatemalan food anymore.
I had this chat about food with some other Polish travellers in El Salvador and it seems that they shared my point of view. Especially in comparison to what Southeast Asia or China have to offer. (I’m writing this with tears in my eyes. So good I’m gonna be back in Asia in couple of months time)
No wonder why some of the best food I had in Guatemala was in fact… Chinese (Mulan restaurant in Antigua) or Mexican.
On the other hand – those skewers I had in Flores were PHENOMENAL! Too bad that it was an exception, rather the rule.
That’s it – a brief list of my I-would-absolutely-do-it-one-more-time and never-again experiences in Guatemala.
If you are a hippie and are offended by this article – go f*** yourself and smoke your pot.
If you are Israeli – talk to your compatriots about how you guys should work together to change the negative image of Israeli backpackers abroad.
If you are a Mexican chef – can I have another burrito, please?
If you are Guatemalan – thank you so much guys for the great time I had in your country!
And finally if you are American – learn bloody Spanish, gringo.
Adios and see you in the next post!