Entirely unexpected. Completely beautiful. So much better than I imagined.
Dear Guatemala. You had me at Hola! I hated to say good-bye. I left my heart in Guatemala.
Once again, I approached another Central American country with apprehension, based solely on the information on the U.S. State Department website. I should know by now not to allow that to sway me totally. I should heed the warnings for sure, and carry on with caution.
Yes, Guatemala has some dangers just like every other country I have been too (and the USA too). Pick
pockets are a problem, although we did not have an issue. Like always, whether in Central America, Europe or anywhere else in the world we are cautious. There are definitely some horrendous violent crimes, rarely against foreigners. Unless you go looking for trouble. Smart and cautious travel with guides when possible is the best way in this country. Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the world, and yet there is a small population who hold extreme wealth while the rest suffer. There are some other issues in Guatemala, particularly government corruption. However this is not something the average visitor will see. The only thing we saw was one entry fee into the town of Panajachel that was illegal. We also ended up paying twice for our boat on Lake Atitlan because the first guy was a scam. This ended up costing us an additional $6.50. Small problems – other than that we found the
country no more dangerous than anywhere we have been.
And the positives certainly outweighed the negatives. In fact, I would put Guatemala in my top list of favorite places I have been. And that is saying an awful lot. Yes I left my heart in Guatemala.
So Guatemala how do I love thee? Let me count the ways;
- I love Antigua, one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. Being there for the beginning of Semana Santa (Holy Week) was an incredible experience. Although I am not Catholic, the Palm
Sunday spectacle we witnessed was so full of tradition, majesty, history and faith I was incredibly moved. I think I became Catholic for a day. We have had similar experiences in other places around the world where faith is such an important part of everyday life. On the Camino de Santiago in Spain, in New Delhi India, in Istanbul Turkey, in Seoul South Korea. A few examples of the places where we felt privileged to witness how faith, history and community converge. Additionally Antigua offers gorgeous scenery, delicious food and incredible history. Seeing lava spewing from the active volcano Fuego was a definite highlight. We enjoyed two tours with Antigua Tours and my cooking class with La Tortilla was a highlight. I hope to visit again.
- I love Lake Atitlan. Here we spent a week enjoying the beauty of Guatemala, and not doing much else. It was one of the more peaceful places I have been in the world; a crater lake surrounded by three beautiful extinct volcanoes. The small villages surrounding the lake are each named after one of the apostles. We spent our time in San Marcos, a teeny village known for its holistic
offerings, yoga, health food and hippies. Our airbnb was one of the most unique we have ever had…a cave dwelling nestled into the cliff. Memorable for sure. We hiked and swam and did yoga every day. Heaven on earth.
- I love Flores. We went to Flores so we could visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal, about an hour and a half drive north. Tikal was amazing…but the tiny town of Flores was such a pleasant surprise. Situated on a tiny island in Lake Petenitza, the tiny town is colorful, historic, beautiful and yummy. The town dates back to the 1400’s. We enjoyed the very warm weather here and a highlight was a private boat tour of the very large and beautiful lake. Muy bien.
- I love Rio Dulce. The region known as Rio Dulce encompasses Livingston on the Caribbean coast (Livingston is only accessible by boat) to the town of Rio Dulce on Lake Izabal. A gorgeous stretch of water known as the Rio Dulce connects the two. Our boat ride from Livingston to Rio Dulce was stunning as we
wound our way in an open boat through the narrow gorge, through which the Rio Dulce drains into the Caribbean. Although VERY rustic, our accommodations in Rio Dulce served us well, and had some of the BEST Mexican food we have ever had. From our tiny cabin in the marsh we took excursions to the ancient Castillo San Felipe de Lara, to the Agua Caliente waterfall known as El Paraiso and to the beautiful Boqueron Canyon, where we spent several solitary hours deep in the canyon on a beautiful sunny day. We also learned the very humble ways of the
Guatemalan people and their use of the collectivos for transportation and saw our first manatee in the wild, although not as close up as we would have liked.
- I love a challenge. It’s a challenge getting around Guatemala, as it is still a developing country. But some of those challenges made for memorable moments. As mentioned above the collectivo experience in Rio Dulce was certainly unforgettable, riding in a van made for 12 with 23 other people. During our time here we
road in twelve different boats, mostly for transportation, but a couple for pleasure. We also hired a driver for a private shuttle three times, and through that experience met a wonderful Guatemalan man named Alejandro who we hope to see again some day. We felt safe in all of these situations and enjoyed the experience. My least enjoyable experience was the plane ride from Flores to Guatemala city in a small 20 seat plane. I got sick on this very bumpy and diesel-smelling ride. Ugh.
- I love a bargain. Guatemala is cheap. Although we spent money on private shuttles, we could have gone with less expensive non-private shuttles or public transportation known as chicken busses. We used the kitchens in our airbnb’s when possible, but eating in restaurants was very inexpensive
and all the food we ate was amazing, fresh and local. Our accommodations have ranged from $30 to $100 a night. We loved our Antigua Airbnb for $80 a night and our spectacular Airbnb in San Marcos with lake view was $75 a night. In Rio Dulce we paid $30 and Livingston was $70. We ended up spending $100 a night at a Ramada in Flores after the hotel we booked was CLOSED on arrival. That was something that had never happened before. But all in all Guatemala is one of the least expensive countries of our travels. The gorgeous textiles made by the indigenous Mayan people are so inexpensive, buying the same thing online would cost five times as much. Alas my suitcase it too small…
- I love Guatemalan coffee. Guatemala is known for its coffee, and I have to agree…it is now possibly my favorite coffee of the world. Dark, rich and very flavorful, I am a convert. Guatemala is also
known for its chocolate. Although I am not a big consumer of chocolate, the samples of chocolate I had were exceptional. The Maya used cacao as currency once upon a time. More valuable than gold.
- I loved the people. Everyone we met (except for the one guy who ripped us off $6.50) was amazing. Few people spoke English and we actually enjoy being forced to expand our limited Spanish knowledge. Many people however also didn’t speak Spanish, as the Maya who are my generation mostly only spoke their native tongue. I loved the shy and traditional Maya, especially the beautiful women in their traditional dress. These are not costumes but how they dress everyday. The Guatemalan people
were all very private yet friendly, hard working and religious, welcoming and helpful. We enjoyed being a part of their culture and community.
So I left my heart in Guatemala. Possibly my favorite Central American country. Of course our time in Mal Pais in Costa Rica ranks VERY high. But Guatemala you are special. Unique. Beautiful. If you have
every considered visiting Guatemala you should do it. And do it soon. Supporting these developing countries through tourism is the least we can do, especially since America’s abandoning Guatemala after funding of guerrilla warfare during the civil war has caused much of the current economic situation Guatemala suffers.
Guatemala’s upcoming elections could be a turning point for the country…but perhaps things will stay the same, and the slow climb out of the devastation from a two-decade civil war will continue at a snail’s pace.
We hope for the best for this country and its beautiful people, where we have left our heart. We will be back.
God speed Guatemala.
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