Guatemala in 8 days
Guatemala is a hidden gem in Central America. Just like its English-speaking neighbor Belize, it is a picturesque country worth visiting.
Day 1 – Ride to Antigua
After landing at the Guatemala International Airport, I took a taxi to Antigua. It’s only an hour away and is much safer than the capital city, Guatemala City. Antigua is a UNESCO world heritage site. It has cobblestone roads and is surrounded by volcanoes. It is a backpacker’s paradise.
Day 2 – Antigua
I spent the day checking out the various touristy places in Antigua. The central town square is gorgeous. The local market has lots of good high-quality hand-made stuff. The town is gorgeous and photogenic. It is probably the best city in Guatemala for walking around.
The ruins of Santa Clara and Cappuccino Convent (~40 Qz each) are mediocre.
I would recommend they do a 15-20 mins uphill hike to Cerro de La Cruz or Hill of the Cross to get a nice view of Guatemala. I, later, booked a tour in the evening for a hike to Acatenango for 300 Qz. It is next to the active Pacaya volcano. Since 2019, hiking Pacaya volcano, being unsafe, is banned. The Acatenango hike is not allowed solo, and it is a terrible idea in any case as the hiking trails are not well-marked.
Day 3 – Acatenango Hike
The guide picked me up at about 8 AM, we stopped in San Jose Calderas at about 9 AM to pick up some gear, a jacket, cap, gloves, and food (one meal, one fruit, and one cereal box). My backpack was small, so, they offered me a small day pack for me to carry food as well. Do take the hiking stick (5 Qz), your knees would thank you.
We reached the hiking start point at about 9:40 AM. The hike starts at ~2500m and you climb another 1500m. The initial phase is most crucial. So, if you can survive that, you will enjoy the rest. By about 2 PM, the brutal phase of the hike was over. We reached the base camp by about 3 PM. We stayed at a base camp for rest of the day, it was about 100m below the top. Once the sun sets, one can see a great view of both the active volcanoes, Fuego (meaning fire) as well as Pacaya volcano (named after the edible flower Pacaya).
Day 4 – Acatenango Hike and Lake Atitlán
We woke up at 4:30 AM and started hiking at 5 AM. We reached the top at about 6:15 AM. From the top, you can not only see Fuego but even as far as Lake and Volcano/Vulcan Atitlán as well.
Returning to the base camp only took 30 minutes and we were back by 7:15 AM. We started hiking down at about 9 AM and returned to the bottom by about 11 AM. And then we returned to Antigua.
In the afternoon, I came across a great vegetarian restaurant, Samsara, I would highly recommend it for meals. In the evening, I took a ~3-hour shuttle ride for 125 Qz to Panajachel (पाना-हाचेल), the city on the shore of gorgeous Lake Atitlán(अतित्ला’न) or Lago de Atitlán in Spanish.
Day 5 – Going around Lake Atitlán
I wanted to visit towns around Lake Atitlán via public ferries, or lanchas in Spanish. Unless you have a lot of time at hand, don’t count on taking the public ferries. I waited for a while and realized that private transport is the only option I have. I booked it for 375 Qz for visiting three different towns. The towns do start to feel repetitive, so, three should suffice for you as well.
I started a bit late in the day too by about 11 AM. I would recommend starting earlier. The first island that I visited was San Juan La Laguna. It was about 30 minutes away. Here’s my recommendation, as soon as you reach the island, take a Tuk-tuk to the viewpoint for ~20 Qz, that is, mirador and when returning ask the Tuk-tuk to drop you in the center of the town. From here, you can easily walk downhill towards your boat. Elsewise, you will tire yourself walking uphill. I spent an hour on this island.
The second island, that I visited, was San Pedro La Laguna. It is only 5 minutes from the first one. This time, I did a 40 Qz Tuk-tuk to take me to Mirador. And while returning, I stopped at the Central Church. I spent an hour here as well. If you stay overnight here, you can go and hike San Pedro Volcano.
The third island, that I visited, was Santiago Atitlán. It is about 20-mins away by boat. This is the only town to have its own Mayan culture-era Shaman/Pueblo. The pueblo or grandfather stays in one of the 13 houses and goes to a new house every year. The local religion is called Syncretism, as it is a mix of Christianity and the Mayan religion. On this island, I took a guide who charged me 40 Qz and gave me a 30-40 minute average tour of the island including taking me to the local Pueblo’s house. This island felt interesting enough that I ended up spending about 2 hours here.
Day 6 – Bus to Guatemala City and then to Flores
I took the early morning 5 AM for the 190 Qz shuttle to Guatemala City. I spent the rest of the day in the city and take an overnight bus to Flores for 200Qz. I also booked a day tour of Tikal for the next day for 170 Qz.
The bus journey started at 10 PM. The seats were comfortable to sleep in. And there was a bathroom too. Unfortunately, there was no Wi-Fi or even a USB charger on the bus. The bus arrived at about 5 AM in Flores, the city on the mainland. Most tourists, however, go to the island of Petén. You can either take a taxi or walk a mile to the island.
Day 7 – Tikal
The ruins of Tikal are majestic and grandiose. They are much bigger and spread out than the Mayan ruins in Belize and Teotihuacan in Mexico.
It takes about one and a half hours to reach the ruins of Petén.
Temple one and two face each other. The forest canopy around them is cleared. They are about 48m. And via a metallic staircase from behind, you can climb to the top of the second one to get a good photo. From temple 4, which stands tallest at 64m, you can see an even better view of the canopy. The guide was good but after a while, all these Mayan places start to resemble one other.
We reached back Petén at about 12:30. I took a public Colectivo boat across the lake to get to San Miguel. Then I hiked to the viewpoint (Mirador). Don’t take a special boat for Mirador. I don’t think it is worth it as the vertical distance will be the same from the mainland as well.
While returning from Mirador, go northeast and you will end up at the Chechenal beach, or in Spanish, Playa Chechenal.
In the hindsight, I should have booked a combined tour of Tikal and Yaxhá as the Tikal tour was finished by noon. But even otherwise, Petén was worth spending half the day in.
I took a 250 Qz 8 PM to 5 AM overnight bus to return to Guatemala city. We were shifted to a different bus company and the bus wasn’t as comfortable as the first one. It reached an hour late and we were dropped at a station far from the Central zone.
Day 8 – Guatemala City
I visited the national cultural palace (Spanish-only tour) 40 Qz 45-minutes tour. I later checked the Museum of Indigenous art (40 Qz entry fee). It is kind of OK if you have some interest in Textile.
The walking street in the center is good and I would recommend living close to it. Given the time constraints, I decided not to do Samuk Champey, as it requires a three-day trip with 9-hours spent on the bus each way and that too during the day.
- The local currency of 1 Quetzales is about 8 cents.
- Credit cards are not widely accepted. Carry cash or as they call it locally, efectivo.
- Unlike Ecuador or Peru, night buses are not common in Guatemala except for Guatemala City to Flores (near Tikal) and return. There is no overnight bus, notably, to Samuc Champey.
- Guatemala is really off the tourist trail. It is difficult to find English speakers.
- Google Maps did get the location wrong a few times, Uber was more accurate for walking directions.
- Most big supermarkets have free bathroom access.
- Hotels are relatively cheap. You would pay anywhere between 100-200 Qz for a private room. Unless you are going in the peak season, don’t book online, just show up and you will get a better price. All activities online are more expensive than what you will find on-ground.
- I did a 295 Qz anti-gen COVID-19 test at Eventos Católicos. And got the results in an hour. I needed this test to fly back to the US.