Guatemala – Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Semuc Champey & Flores

Other backpackers on the Central America trail have longed raved about Guatemala so we had high hopes for this country as we flew in to the capital. We immediately made a beeline to Antigua via private shuttle which was a genius move as we arrived late afternoon Sunday in time for the Lent religious parades around the Central Park. After exploring quaint Antigua, we hiked up Guatemala’s 3rd highest volcano, Acatenango, for an overnight lava show from nearby Volcán de Fuego. It was a super tough hike with phenomenal views…worth our muscles aching for days afterwards! From Antigua, we made our way to Lake Atitlan’s Panajachel where we relaxed for 3 nights. Highlights were the Panajachel Sunday market and lounging all day at Club Ven Aca in Jaibalito. From here, we made our way towards Semuc Champey, home to the legendary turquoise blue pools on top of a natural limestone bridge. Getting here wasn’t easy but well worth the detour. And lastly, the quaint town of Flores was home for a few nights as we explored nearby Mayan ruins to our heart’s content, the world famous Tikal and nearby less visited Yaxha. Our verdict on Guatemala? It certainly lives up to the hype and as a result is firmly entrenched on every backpacker’s Central America itinerary. We still think Nicaragua is our favorite country in Central America but Guatemala does rank high up there as well.

An elaborate Catholic religious procession celebrating Lent; Antigua A white clad banner carrier stands out amongst the purple robed cucuruchos (carriers) during the Lent procession; Antiigua Lent celebrations in Antigua include a lavish decoration of Jesus held by purple robed carriers while Roman centurions look on Statues at the base of the hike up to Cerro de la Cruz; Antigua Tourists gather at the stone cross of Cerro de la Cruz for a fine view towards Volcán Agua La Merced church as seen from Cerro de la Cruz hilltop Street dogs in Antigua are surprisinngly well cared for Facade of the Baroque church of La Merced; Antigua Angel detail on the La Merced Church; Antigua Carved wooden door to the La Merced Church; Antigua During the month of Lent, every church displays an "alfombra" (carpet) made of colored sawdust, flowers, fruits and vegetables Guatemala license plate Masks for sale; Nim Pot souvenir depot Live chickens for sale at the market; Antigua Colorful houses in Antigua Guatemalan chicken bus; Antigua Courtyard at the CFCE (Training Center for Spanish Cooperation); Antigua Window in an exhibition space at the CFCE; Antigua Antigua's outdoor market Hand woven baskets for sale; Antigua market Colorful artwork on display; Antigua artiisan market Central Park's semi-nude water fountain; Antigua Volcán de Agua looms over the city of Antigua Early morning view of the Santa Catalina Arch, Antigua's most iconic landmark Antigua school bus The ruins of El Carmen church; Antigua The dome of the Church of San Francisco; Antigua Door knocker; Antigua Crest of a double headed bird above the entrance to San Francisco Cathedral; Antigua Garden view of San Francisco church Brass door knocker Hmmm, which apartment is it? Facade detail on Iglesia Beatas de Belén; Antigua Window and tiled roof detail on a colonial building in Antigua Tanque La Unión, a historic gathering place where locals would wash their clothes The Church of San Pedro Apóstol; Antigua Bright colors dominate the colonial streets of Antigua Carved detail on the Antigua Guatemala Cathedral Corner view of the Palace of the General Captains Mermaids on the Museo de Arte Colonial; Antigua Enjoying a cheap lunch at La Casa de la Mixtas; Antigua Lion stone carving at the entrance to La Casa De Don Rodrigo Santa Catalina Arch The most photographed street in Antigua Colorful view of La Merced Church; Antigua Antigua's colonial houses have unique door knockers Hiking up the 3rd highest volcano in Guatemala, the famous Acatenango Volcano It is a hot and miserable climb up Acatenango One of many well deserved rest breaks; Acatenango Volcano Stray dogs hike up with our group in the hopes of getting some food and water This dog hiked all the way to base camp with us; Acatenango Volcano After over 3 hours of hiking we are rewarded with this fine view of Volcán de Agua Robby taking a rest at our base camp while Volcán de Fuego erupts nearby From base camp, it is a tough 90 minute struggle to the summit of Acatenango Volcano Slowly making our way to the top of the volcano Robby admiring the view of Volcán de Agua from above the clouds! Both Volcán de Agua and Volcán de Fuego are visible from the top of Volcán de Acatenango...welll worth the herculean effort to reach the summit Becky smiles as she watches sunset from Acatenango A gorgeous sunset at the end of a very tough day Enjoying a warm campfire at our base camp; Acatenango Volcano All night long, we are treated to rumblings and volcanic eruptions from Volcán de Fuego, which lives up to its name! Lava flowing from Volcán de Fuego A gorgeous sunrise over Volcán de Agua We reluctantly say goodbye to Volcán de Fuego after breakfast Market day at Sololá Beautiful mural of Lake Atitlan; Panajachel Robby by a mural next to the waterfront in Panajachel Sunset over Lake Atitlan Locals walking down to the water taxi; Santa Cruz Santa Cruz church; Lake Atitlan View of the hike between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito Robby smiles on the hike to Jaibalito Wooden pier; Lake Atitlan View of Lake Atitlan with Atitlán, Toliman and San Pedro volcanoes in the background Becky soaking in the jacuzzi at Club Ven Aca; Jaibalito Enjoying a day by the pool at Club Ven Aca Traditional Guatemalan blouses for sale; Calle Santander in Panajachel Calle Santander is the place to do all your souvenir shopping in Panajachel Colorful tableclothes for sale starting from 100Q; Panajachel Street mural; Panajachel Lake Atitlan's water taxis A local dressed her best for the Sunday market; Panajachel Weighing green beans; Panajachel market Indigenous Guatemalan women in traditional clothing shopping at the Sunday market; Panajachel Garlic seller; Panajachel market A bird's eye view of Panajachel's bustling Sunday market Buying carrots; Panajachel Meat vendor; Panajachel market Onion seller; Panajachel market Traditional outfits are worn by women and men at the Sunday market; Panajachel A man in traditional clothes counts his money; Panajachel market Vibrant outfits on full display at the Sunday market in Panajachel Fruit section; Panajachel market Dinosaur statues at a park in Panajachel Making fresh orange juice; Panajachel Locals ride a pick up truck colectivo; Panajachel Recycled coffee sack purses; Panajachel Cute girls dressing alike; Panajachel Our last sunset at pretty Lake Atitlan Central Park; Antigua Snoozing dogs take over the couch at Greengos Hostel; Semuc Champey It is worth the arduous journey to reach Semuc Champey, a remote oasis near the town of Lanquin Posing at Semuc Champey Semuc Champey is a natural 300 meter long limestone bridge The Cahabón River flows under the limestone bridge at Semuc Champey Get there early to enjoy a few hours of solitude before the day trippers arrive! Gorgeous turquoise hues of Semuc Champey Natural water slides; Semuc Champey Becky enjoying her private plunge pool at Semuc Champey Cacao tree; Semuc Champey Enjoying a happy hour beer; Greengos Hostel Sunset over Flores Colorful houses; Flores Cormorants on a sunken pier; Flores Stele outside Maya Mall; Flores Painted wall murals; Flores Mayan temple at Yaxhá Robby admiring the North Acropolis temple complex; Yaxha Few tourists visit Yaxha Mayan ruins, so we had this place to ourselves Spider monkey power pose; Yaxha Unique pyramid from the Maler group; Yaxha archaeological site Sunset over Lake Yaxha viewed from the summit of Temple 216 Ocellated turkey; Tikal Coatimundi  (a member of the raccoon family); Tikal National Park Crested Guan; Tikal Collared Aracari toucans; Tikal Stone mask of Mayan rain god Chac; North Acropolis in Tikal North Acropolis temple; Tikal Temple II - the temple of the masks; Tikal Spider monkey clambering in a tree at the Great Plaza; Tikal Panoramic view of the Great Plaza with the Temple of the Jaguar on the far right; Tikal View of the Mundo Perdido (lost world) pyramid and Temple IV (the tallest building in the Maya world); Tikal Temple V; Tikal Quaint colorful houses in tiny Flores - a backpacker's haven Bright cheery door; Flores Peten - the northernmost department (state) of Guatemala Local swimming spot; Flores Enjoying our last night in Guatemala js photo galleryby VisualLightBox.com v6.1

Accommodation

Casa del Cerro, Antigua: 155.55 Q per night for a double room (room 1) or 181.48 Q for a twin room (room 2). Well worth it to upgrade for the large, more spacious and comfortable twin room. The staff here is friendly and helpful. We were able to book onward shuttles here for a fair price (75Q to Lake Atitlan, 150Q to Semuc Champey). The shared bathroom is kept super clean. The free breakfast was a nice bonus. The property is just below the Cerro de la Cruz mirador lookout point, so it is a short walk (5 – 10 min) from the center of town. Its quiet and peaceful here at night. WiFi is decent. We used Antigua as our base to visit Lake Atitlan and hike Acatenango volcano and the staff happily let us use the luggage storage to keep our big bags. We stayed in the double room (room 1) which is just off reception for our first stay here…the window opens up right to the reception area so wear earplugs to sleep if you are a light sleeper. Our second stay here was after we did the overnight hike to Acatenango Volcano so we were hot, sweaty and dirty after the hike and wanted to check in at 11 am which the staff happily let us do. The hot water shower felt amazing! We had room 2 which is a spacious twin room located right next to the bathroom. We much preferred this room to the double room (room 1) so pay a bit more to get this one!

Hostal Dulces Suenos, Panajachel: 152.09 Q per night for a double room, including breakfast. The pros: We stayed here for 3 nights and found this place to be the cheapest place in Pana for a double room with private bathroom, including free breakfast (pancakes) so it is very good value. You get what you pay for…we liked the property although it is not perfect. The free drinking water was a nice touch. Free breakfast every morning is pancakes served with fruit. The property is located in a good location, close to the supermarket and restaurants, and not too far from the lake. The cons: We had read other reviews about the tiny bathroom and the fitted sheet slipping away from the mattress so it was not a surprise when we discovered that to be true. Also, even though the property is located away from the lake, it can get noisy at night when the wind blows the roof or if you have loud, inconsiderate neighbors (thin walls) so earplugs are highly recommended for a peaceful night’s sleep.

Greengos Hostel, Semuc Champey: 200 Q per night. Our double room with shared bathroom facilities had a fan. This was the most expensive place we stayed in Guatemala and for the price paid, value is poor. The staff here is laid back, friendly and helpful. The shared bathrooms are kept clean and the showers have steaming hot water which was a treat. The onsite restaurant has a range of food but prices are a bit high (45 Q and upwards for a meal). WiFi only from 7 am to 7 pm and power is on from 6 am to noon, and from 4 pm to 11 pm. There are lots of fun activities arranged by the staff (volleyball competitions, drinking games, trivia night) and loads of board games. However, smoking in the hangout area is allowed which was unpleasant for non smokers.

Hotel Aurora, Flores: 108Q per night. The pros: Our double room was very clean with private bathroom and hot water (unexpected surprise). We had a fan which was a nice bonus. The WiFi signal was fine and internet was OK. The staff was helpful – they received our laundry for us when it was delivered and held onto it until we returned from our day trip to Tikal. Also, when our shuttle to San Ignacio changed the meeting place, the staff came to let us know. For the price, this place can’t be beat. The cons: The kitchen is VERY basic with only a stove and a sink. If you want to use any dishes, pots, pans, utensils, you must pay a 100 Q deposit which will be given back to you when you return the items. I think someone must have stolen their kitchenware for them to do the deposit now – it was a bit strange but not a big deal.

Itinerary

10 Mar: Arrive Guatemala City, shuttle to Antigua
11 Mar: Antigua
12 Mar: Antigua
13 Mar: Hike Acatenango Volcano
14 Mar: Return from volcano hike, stay at Antigua
15 Mar: Shuttle to Panajachel, Lake Atitlan
16 Mar: Lake Atitlan water taxi to Santa Cruz, hike to Jaibalito. Hang out at Club Ven Aca. Water taxi back to Panajachel
17 Mar: Panajachel, visit Sunday market
18 Mar: Shuttle to Antigua
19 Mar: Shuttle to Semuc Champey
20 Mar: Semuc Champey
21 Mar: Semuc Champey
22 Mar: Shuttle to Flores
23 Mar: Day trip to Yaxha, overnight Flores
24 Mar: Day trip to Tikal, overnight Flores
25 Mar: Shuttle from Flores to San Ignacio, Belize

Daily Journal

10 Mar: Our Volaris flight from Costa Rica to Guatemala City was very quick and easy, with great views of volcanoes. We landed on time at 3:30 pm, had our bags and passed through immigration by 4 pm where we met our driver. We tried to withdraw money from the first (and only) ATM in the airport but it didn’t work, and we weren’t too surprised as that ATM is notoriously always out of money. Our driver had his wife with him, and was a safe and cautious driver. It took us just over an hour to get to Antigua. Thankfully, since he was aware of our ATM issues, our driver kindly told us we could pay for the taxi ride (250 Q) later which was nice. We walked downtown and found out it was the first week of Lent and there was a massive religious ceremony at the town square, complete with a statue of Jesus carrying the cross on a big float. What a spectacular surprise, it was very scenic and we took tons of photos. We were on a quest to find a safe ATM but couldn’t find one that was still open. So for dinner, we found the first place that accepted credit card and it ended up being a great Chinese restaurant (Mulan) near the Central Park. Our mixed fried rice and ribs smothered in garlic sauce dishes hit the spot. After dinner, we wandered the streets and finally found an ATM where we were able to withdraw 2000 Q. Slept a bit warm since the room had no fan.

11 Mar: Slept in until 8 am. Had breakfast (eggs, toast, fruit, coffee/tea) and then climbed up the Cerro de la Cruz, a lookout point above our hostel (Casa del Cerro). It was already hot by the time we got there, and filled with tourists obsessed with taking selfies. We finally got a pic snapped and quickly went back down to check out Iglesia de la Merced, which is an 18th Century cathedral with an amazing facade. A huge tourist group entered the adjacent convent (15 Q) and we considered going at another time when it wasn’t too crowded. Then wandered into a massive souvenir store “Nim Pot” which had tons of colorful masks, tapestries and photographs. Fixed prices here so it was good to compare a fair price for what is being offered by the street vendors. Went to Wicho & Charlie’s to book our 2 day tour to hike Acatenango Volcano (not the cheapest at 400 Q but they have the best reviews on Trip Advisor). Asked a million questions and felt comfortable with their answers so we went ahead to book it. Had lunch at Pollo Campero, which we remembered from our time in El Salvador. Chicken was tasty and prepared super fast. $15 for 2 meals with 2 sides and free drink refills, not too bad. Took a nap after lunch and went back out at 4 pm. Walked back to Iglesia de la Merced which was open for afternoon service. Then walked over to two other points of interest but entry was a whopping 40 Q each so we decided to pass. Instead, made our way to the large market and wandered through it, getting lost and buying some batteries for our headtorches (6 x AAA batteries for 15 Q). Found the artisan market, which had loads of arts, crafts and textiles for sale. While walking towards the park, found the Spanish Cooperation Cultural Center which was closing in 20 minutes at 6 pm. Wandered in for a quick stroll and some photos, before finally making it to Central Park. The Antigua Guatemala Cathedral was open at dusk so we went it but it was an active service so we went right back out. The interior was pretty plain looking so it didn’t feel like we were missing out. Back to our room to drop off the cameras before heading out for dinner. We had two restaurants in mind but couldn’t find them so we went back to Mulan for dinner and it was just as good as yesterday and cheap (104 Q for a massive plate of pork fried rice, Chinese tea and beer, plus tip). Hot water shower at the hotel felt great.

12 Mar: Got up at 6:30 to walk around town before the streets got too congested. A stray dog immediately befriended us and walked all around town with us as our “tour guide”. We found out that Antigua has countless churches, it felt like there was one on every block! By 8:30 am, we were ready for breakfast back at our hotel. Afterwards, we relaxed until it was time to head out for lunch. We figured we’d try one of the cheap eats options listed by a blogger, La Casa de las Mixtas. The menu del dia was only 20 Q each, and included soup, main, dessert and drink (plus free refills)…amazing value! We relaxed in our room after lunch and had an early dinner in anticipation of our hike tomorrow. Dinner was Mulan again (the staff smiled as we walked in) and we had chicken egg rolls and pork fried rice. Absolutely delicious and we left completely stuffed. Packed for our volcano adventure and figured out what we wanted to leave behind at the hotel. The weather is looking OK for tomorrow…there are thunderstorms predicted during sunset so fingers crossed we will still be able to see a decent one! In bed early in anticipation of a long day tomorrow.

13 Mar: We were up at 6:45 am in anticipation of a super long day. Today is gonna be a volcano day, and we were set to climb the 3rd highest volcano in Guatemala! We stored our big bags in luggage storage at the hotel and walked over to Wicho & Charlies. A large group was consolidated at the door so we waited for everyone to pile in. It felt a bit disorganized inside the office. Some people were sorting out their luggage, others were upstairs getting their gear, and we were left to fend for ourselves. So we got something to drink while we waited for the first 10 people to get their gear upstairs. We were in the second group and immediately grabbed 2 water 1.5L water bottles each, as well as jackets, hiking poles, head torches, and a beanie. Becky had to leave her driver’s license as a deposit and when we got back downstairs, everyone was eating breakfast. We still needed to pack our gear and fill the water bottles, so we were way behind the curve. Then the staff wanted to do a mandatory briefing, so we took that time to devour breakfast and found out that all the bananas had disappeared. Boo! If you aren’t first, you are last…now we know what to expect with this group. It is every person for themselves! We finished packing, managed to brush our teeth, and were squeezed into a minivan for shuttle to the start of the trek. In retrospect, not getting on the bus was a blessing in disguise as we beat the group by 5 minutes, which allowed us to use the only 2 toilets at the staging area first. Then Becky had to organize a porter to help with her bag (200 Q since it was “heavy”) and off we went. Our group was about 30 people, and apparently 4 of them turned back before the first rest stop. I guess this hike wasn’t for them! We had been warned the initial ascent would be difficult, and it was a bit tiring walking up volcanic pebbles and getting dust in our eyes and mouth. No wonder head buffs were offered for dust control! Becky’s porter managed to catch up to the group on a motorcycle and he quickly found Becky and introduced himself (Ovideo). The staff had frequent rest stops to allow the stragglers to catch up to the speedy hikers, and we collectively made our way up the mountain. We were hiking 11 miles and making 5150 feet (1500 meters) in elevation gain and it was steep throughout. About 90 minutes into the hike, we came to the entrance hut, where we each had to pay a 50 Q park fee. Then it was another steep section up to lunch, which was the midway point. There, we had hummus sandwiches and got a chance to bask in the sun before we were off again. It was a slow and steady slog uphill, shuffling in the person’s footsteps ahead of you. We were burning hundreds of calories and sweating our butts off and feeling the change in elevation. By 3 pm, we had reached our campsite and we quickly chose a tent with the French girls. Becky paid Ovideo for his services and told him she would carry her pack down tomorrow so he wished us luck and headed down the volcano. We sat in the sun admiring Volcan de Fuego, which was frequently bursting red hot lava and ash. We couldn’t wait until sunset so we could actually see the lava! The guides gave us an hour to rest before we hiked another 90 minutes to the top of Acatenango for sunset. They recommended we wear shorts and t-shirts until we reached the top, because it would be a hot and sweaty slog if we changed into our thermal underwear at the base camp. It was tough going, probably the hardest section of the climb. But the views were worth it. To see Volcan de Fuego and Agua peaking up in the midst of clouds, just magical. The sunset was gorgeous and we were busy taking photos. Suddenly, we looked up and realized that everyone was gone. No one had told us they were leaving, so we scrambled to made our way down the volcano. The guides led us down a shortcut, and it was like skiing through volcanic rocks. A bit scary and out of control, we descended at ridiculous speeds and prayed that we didn’t twist an ankle of break a leg. Back at our campsite, we were given hot chocolate and marshmallows, followed by a spaghetti dinner accompanied by red wine. All the while, we had a magnificent volcano show with Volcan de Fuego (“fire volcano”) living up to its name. It would periodically burst with lava and send shock waves of delight throughout our campsite, with everyone exclaiming with delight each and every explosion. Very very cool and we were happy we brought our gorillapod as a tripod. Tonight, we were going to try to take photos of the volcano using shutter speed, something we’ve not tried before. It was a lot of trial and error, but we captured some cool images. Everyone else was huddled by the camp fire, but we were more keen on watching the natural fireworks so we huddled in the cold and stayed up to 9:30 pm before finally calling it a night. The outhouse was too far away and we noticed everyone was just pissing near the wood line so we followed suit. We were joined by a Dutch girl who wanted to sleep in our tent and Robby spent the night in a tent with 4 girls. It was a cold night’s sleep and not particularly comfortable since the sleeping bags were too restrictive. Plus we had to pee (due to the cold) but didn’t want to get out from under the piles of blankets and sleeping bag. A very long night indeed.

14 Mar: We were up before 6 am for sunrise over Agua Volcano. It was a nice sunrise and we tried to get a sunstar with the volcano in our photos. Breakfast was oatmeal and tea/coffee, and then it was time to move on. We left the campsite by 8:30 am and going down was not going to be any easier than climbing up was yesterday. In part because the trail was full of loose, volcanic gravel and we kept loosing our footing. It was impossible to have grip in some sections of the steep downhill hike and we frequently slipped, tripped and fell. One of the girls hurt her knee really bad and limped all the way down. We were worried that we would get injured as the conditions down were really bad on the knees, ankles and our bums when we fell. Stray dogs accompanied us on the hike, begging for water and food. They were super cute and who knows how many times they have hiked up and down the volcano!? It took us 3 hours to descend, and our legs were shot by the time we reached the bottom. Since we knew the minivan would be faster than the bus, we were the last 2 to squeeze on the van and the first ones to turn in our gear (and grab a free corona beer at the Wicho & Charlie’s reception). Becky got her license back with no hassle, and we downed our beers and trudged wearily back to the hotel where we were able to check into our room straight away and take hot water showers. Heaven! Since we were both starving and craving pizza, we walked back into town and grabbed an XL pizza from Papa Johns. It hit the spot, especially accompanied by garlic sauce. Then it was back to the hotel for a siesta…a well deserved rest after our adventure these past 2 days. We are both definitely getting too old for this kind of adventure! Boy the pain we put our bodies through. We organized a shuttle to Lake Atitlan (75 Q each) through Carmen, the housekeeper/receptionist at Casa del Cerro. Since we didn’t want to carry our big bag tomorrow, we had to organize what we’d be doing for the next 3 days to pack accordingly. It will be nice to have some chill time at Lake Atitlan.

15 Mar: Carmen took care of our breakfast shortly after 7 am and we were ready to go before our shuttle pick up at 8 am (having stored our big bags in the luggage closet in the bathroom). Our shuttle was a bit behind schedule because they were busy picking up all the other passengers in the center of town so by the time we got picked up, there was slim pickings for available seats. Luckily, we managed to get single window seats, which at least allowed us to stretch out our legs. The ride took the full 3 hours, and the scenery picked up as we neared the lake, especially in the town of Solola. Men and women dressed in traditional outfits were shopping at the main market and it was a very colorful affair. We arrived to Panajachel just before noon, and walked over to our hotel for the next 3 nights, Hostal Dulces Suenos. After checking in, we got settled in and walked over to a cheap eatery for lunch. A blogger had recommended “Taquero Mucho” and it was excellent. Cheap, tasty and filling, especially the pork burrito which some other guests were raving about. Apparently they have eaten here every day and today is their last day in town! After lunch, we grabbed some money out of the ATM machine at the Despensa Familiar (Guatemala’s very own Walmart). We also grabbed some snacks to munch on since this was reputedly the biggest supermarket in Pana. It was hot out and we decided to take a siesta until 4:30 pm when we went back out to check out the sunset situation. Today had been hazy all day today and we couldn’t even see the 3 volcanoes that Lake Atitlan is famous for. Needless to say, sunset was a bust but we did like checking out the lakefront scene. Loads of restaurants, makeshift bars, and souvenirs for sale. We had caught a 2x25Q happy hour special at one of the restaurants so we went there to have a few cocktails after getting quoted a ridiculous 35Q by one of the lakefront vendors. The drinks were good and the chicken nachos hit the spot, since we weren’t keen on a big dinner after such a filling lunch. Back in our room, we were pleasantly surprised to find out our shower had hot water. Yay for the little things.

16 Mar: Slept in until 8 am. Good thing we both wore ear plugs as the tin roof slammed loudly a few times throughout the night because of the wind. And we had loud neighbors. With the earplugs, we didn’t hear a thing. The hostal offered free pancakes for breakfast at 8 am but it was a relaxed 8 am start time. The pancakes weren’t ready until 8:30 am and we quickly grabbed a plateful and chowed down. The reason for our haste? We wanted to catch a boat to Santa Cruz so that we could hike over to Jaibalito, which several bloggers had listed as a highlight thing to do. Becky managed to bargain down a one way ride to Santa Cruz to 10 Q each (down from 15 Q), and we were at Santa Cruz in no time. For some reason, we hiked up the super steep hill to Santa Cruz and it was NOT worth the effort. The town was fairly boring and the lake views were just meh. So we went back down and did the hike and that was pretty awesome. So in hindsight, we would definitely recommend giving Santa Cruz a miss and just go straight for the hike, which has wonderful views of Lake Atitlan and its volcanoes along the way. We did spot an amazing hotel by the lake’s edge, La Casa del Mundo. It looked amazing with private swimming holes. Later we found out it would only cost $50 a night to stay here…well worth it! Just before we hiked down to Jaibalito, we saw 4 girls walk in to Club Ven Aca. So at least we knew it was open. Minutes later, we strolled in and determined that all the lounge chairs had been snagged. Boo! Bad luck on our part but no matter, the sun was absolutely scorching and there was no way we could soak up the sun like the girls were. We were surprised to discover we had actually hiked up Acatenango Volcano with most of the girls 2 days ago…small world! The infinity pool was refreshingly cold and the hot tub was lukewarm, perfect for lounging the day away. We swam for a bit before drying off to have lunch which was excellent. Club Ven Aca has a 100 Q minimum surcharge per person to use their facilities for free, so we ordered enough to meet the requirement. Robby’s fish tacos were super tasty, and the cocktails here were lovely. Well worth the splurge for a full day’s pass here. We ended up staying until 3 pm, when we caught a boat back to Pana. The boatman got us on the return ride because we weren’t able to negotiate the ride beforehand, so we ended up being forced to pay 15 Q each. Back in Pana, we walked along Santander street which is the main shopping area. Very colorful and a wide variety of goods for sale here. We ended up getting a hammock for 100 Q and dropped it off at the room before filling our water bottles and grabbing our drinks from the fridge. Sunset tonight was marginally better than last night, but it still didn’t have the “wow” factor we hoped it would. Oh well, there is always tomorrow night! Dinner was a sandwich at Katam Pe (another cheap eatery recommended by travel bloggers), and it was OK.

17 Mar: By the time we got to the common area for breakfast a few minutes past 8 am, the Chinese couple from Canada had wiped out all the fruit that was to accompany the pancakes. And when they saw us come in to get our first serving, the husband jumped up and immediately stacked his plate with 6 pancakes. Such turd buckets! We are not liking them at all because they are quite rude and obviously don’t understand hostel etiquette. This morning, we were keen on checking out the Sunday market here in Panajachel. Great call for us to go first thing after breakfast because the market was a lively affair with everyone showing up wearing their traditional best. The older men sported cowboy hats, traditional pants, and a colorful woven belt and the women wore embroidered blouses, woven belt, and long colorful skirts. It was really cool to see the locals dressing in their traditional clothes as they have for generations. The fact that it is not a show put on for tourists made it all the more charming. We walked around taking photos, and asked a security guard if it would be OK to climb the roof of the market for some overhead views of the busy scene below. She kindly agreed and allowed us to take photos to our heart’s content. It was amazing being a fly on the wall and observing the market scene below. Just fabulous. Whenever a local would catch us taking photos, they inevitably smiled and seemed pleased or slightly embarrassed. Not a single person seemed resentful or upset at our photography and it made a really strong impression on us here in Guatemala. The entire market scene was very photogenic and we were glad to have devoted the whole morning to witnessing the locals going about their business. Next on our agenda was to do a bit of souvenir shopping and we found what we were looking for at the artensan market. 3 beautiful hand stitched table runners that we got down from 5000 Q to 850Q. We didn’t want to commit right away and the vendor kept dropping the price when he noticed our hesitation. The runners were made with cotton and silk and were absolutely gorgeous so we were quite happy with our purchase. Only problem was we didn’t have enough cash on hand so we paid a deposit and went to the supermarket to withdraw 1000Q. After picking up our runners, we went to the room to drop it off and then walked over to Taquero Mucho for lunch. Unfortunately, it was closed on Sunday which was a huge disappointment for us as we had been anticipating the yummy burritos all morning long. So as a consolation prize we went to Mister Jon’s which had been recommended by bloggers and boy did we hit the jackpot. Super tasty burgers that hit the spot. Yum yum. And we took care of our shuttle back to Antigua while we were out and about. All the travel agencies were quoting us 90 Q each for a one way ride which was 15 Q more than what we had paid to arrive to Pana. We finally found an agency that was willing to honor the same price for our return trip so we happily booked with them. Our pick up time tomorrow will be 9 am (+/- 15 minutes). Ice cream for dessert as we walked back to our hostel and we took a siesta on the hammocks in the garden for the afternoon. The Chinese couple sat next to us with a watermelon which they demolished in no time. Then they took the rinds and smeared it all over their faces before heading to their room (hopefully to wash up?). We later found out that watermelon rind facials are huge in Asia so they were onto something even though we thought their behavior was off at the time. By 4:30 pm, we did our afternoon stroll down to the lake, with Becky buying a pair of jade earrings for 100 Q (bargained down from 180Q and he wouldn’t budge further). At the lake, an elder lady in traditional dress sold Becky a headband for 10 Q and she was thrilled with the business. We bought beer and a cocktail from a small tienda and drank them on the docks while watching the sunset. Not too shabby. For dinner, we visited Mr Jon’s again and left equally satiated. The burgers there are seriously good, and we wished there was a branch in Antigua. A female dog followed us back to our hostel and tried to enter our room but we had to force her away. Becky ended up giving her some leftover chips which she ravenously ate…she seemed to be a well fed dog so she must do well with the tourists.

18 Mar: Breakfast wasn’t ready at 8 am so we hovered near the kitchen while the pancakes were being prepared and jumped on them as soon as they were ready. As soon as the melon was sliced up, the greedy Chinese couple scooped half of the bowl for themselves, basically telling the rest of us in the hostel to fuck off. They are really rude but it is not worth getting into a confrontation with them since they won’t change. We were checked out by 8:45 and waited for half an hour for our pick up. To our surprise, it was a shuttle van and there was plenty of seats to lounge out. We drove 20 minutes to a gas station and everyone headed to Guatemala City jumped out, so we ended up having only 5 of us to Antigua. Our driver drove fast but was very cautious and safe, and we were dropped off at Casa del Cerro less than 3 hours after pick up. First order of business after checking in and arranging our onward shuttle to Semuc Champey ($20 each) was to get some lunch at our favorite Antigua restaurant, Mulan. We ordered a massive plate of pork fried rice and chicken spring rolls…bliss! Back at the hotel, we relaxed all afternoon until it was time for dinner. Neither of us wanted a big meal since lunch was so heavy, so we figured we’d order a light noodle dish to share at Mulan. The staff seemed tickled pink to see us twice in one day. We sure are going to miss this restaurant! Dinner was a beef noodle dish in oyster sauce and was tasty, but not as good as the pork fried rice which was our favorite dish here. Robby grabbed an icecream for dessert and we packed our bags for the shuttle tomorrow. Apparently it is supposed to be long and uncomfortable, and rumored to take up to 12 hours. Not looking forward to it! All of our souvenirs bought in Panajachel fit in the gray backpack which freed up space in our larger backpack.

19 Mar: Our alarm sounded for 15 minutes before Becky finally heard it…our poor neighbors! We quickly had breakfast and were ready for the long shuttle day way before pickup. Our ride pulled up at 8:20 am and we were the first foreigners on the bus, so we got our choice of seats…yay. By 9 am, we had picked everyone up but one couple who wasn’t at the agreed upon area. The driver had already circled around town multiple times so after a phone call with his office, he agreed to start his journey. First stop was at a gas station to fuel up and our driver got a call informing him that the last 2 clients finally showed up and were catching a ride to where we were currently at. Very frustrating as now we had to wait for these 2 dickheads. They finally arrived and 2 minutes into the ride, had the audacity to walk to the front of the bus to tell the driver that they had lost their phone on the shuttle ride. Our driver had no pity on them but then thought better of it so he made a quick phone call on their behalf. After asking the other driver to search his van for the phone, he reported the news that the phone could not be located. The guy finally walked up to the front of the bus with his phone in his hand and told the driver he had found it in his backpack. What a dick head! Not impressed with these two spazzes and they didn’t even apologize to the rest of us for making us wait and extra 80 minutes because they failed to be at the departure location on time. We drove for about 3 hours until the first rest stop, which was a bathroom break and convenience store to buy snacks. Then on the road again for a longer time, not stopping until 3 pm when we reached the town of Coban. All the locals on our shuttle disembarked here, along with a tourist couple. This meant the rest of us had plenty of space to lounge around. We finally had a lunch stop here at a restaurant that had free WiFi, clean bathrooms, and decent food at OK prices. Our meal came out to 100 Q with drinks and it was a decent stop to wait for the driver to refuel. Then we had another 2 hour drive to Lanquin where our driver dropped us off and 4×4 drivers yelled out various hostel names. We linked up with the Greengos driver and had another 45 minute drive to our hostel with the company of Jason (Canadian physicist) and Ricardo (a young Brazilian photographer). Both of them are SCUBA divers so we had an interesting chat with them on the drive to the hostel. Checking into Greengos was easy and we were quickly shown to our room where we settled in before heading to the bar area to be social. A group of frat boys were being loud and drunk and we avoided their drinking games, preferring to chat with Jason about world travels. He gave us some good tips for hiking Chile. Neither of us were hungry, so we hit the sack just after 10 pm. We’ll just wing it tomorrow and figure out what we want to do later.

20 Mar: It actually got a bit cold last night so the blanket they gave us came in handy. Up by 7:30 am for breakfast at 8 am so we could be one of the first to enter Semuc Champey (before all the shuttles from Lanquin arrived). We were the 3rd guests to sign into the park and we made a beeline to the mirador lookout point which was worth the effort to see the turquoise pools shining below. A Guatemalan boy offered to take our photo at the mirador which we appreciated, so we reciprocated by buying a sliced mango from his friend (5 Q). The hike down was much easier than the hike up and we quickly jumped into a pool to cool down. Tiny fish immediately started nibbling on our toes and fingers, looking for dead skin to munch on. What a hilarious experience, no need to pay for a fish “spa” since this is au natural. We kept moving from pool to pool as the upper pools soon became crowded with day visitors. The sun was super strong and we didn’t want to get too sunburned so we limited our time out in the sun. Down by the lower pools, we found a spot to take a little lunch/siesta and it was perfect except for the biting ants which would munch down and leave a nasty welt. The lower pools beckoned so we hopped in for a final swim and let the fish munch on us before deciding to give them the rest of our lunch crumbs…they went bonkers for our leftovers. Then it was the long hike back to Greengos where we found two hammocks and read books. Power kicked back on at 4 pm, and we had WiFi so we managed to check email and take care of some tax business. Went up for happyhour at 6 pm and discovered it is a buy 1, get 1 free shot so not that great of a deal. Bought some beer and played dominos. Chatted with Jason and Ricardo showed up so we played a card game called “Cambio”. A girl from the UK, Sabah, joined in and the 5 of us played for several hours until it was trivia time. Our team, “Semuc Champey-ions” did pretty good, but we came in 3rd place. However, we did get a free show for our team title. Actually, we all did! It was a fun night, and we went to bed just before 11 pm.

21 Mar: Woke up at 8am to pouring rain so we weren’t motivated to budge from bed. Decided to skip breakfast and have lunch, so we got up at noon and had tuna sandwiches which were OK. Then it started pouring rain some more so we decided to give our cave tour a miss and just hung out, watching “Vikings” and other TV shows. Got dinner at 7 pm but it was pretty dead up in the common area with a whole new rotation of visitors. The turnover here is pretty high! We played a few games of dominos and hit the sack by 10 pm. Long drive day tomorrow and we are not looking forward to it.

22 Mar: Got up at 6:20 am to be ready to go by 7 am. We turned in our sheets and towels and our prepaid charge card to get some money back. At 7 am, 13 of us lugged our gear to the road and piled into a truck. The rain had caused huge puddles to form in the truck and of course our backpack was the one that got put into the puddle, which the driver tried to wipe up with a cloth. 45 bumpy minutes later, we were in Lanquin and we immediately got into another shuttle van, basically a minivan where 11 of us were shoved in with our luggage. Crammed in there like sardines! Nearly 3 hours to backtrack to Coban, where we had 40 minutes at a McDonalds for breakfast. Then on the road until 2:30 pm when we stopped for lunch. Back on the road at 3:20 pm and drove until we got to Flores. The driver pulled off near an ATM and one of his colleagues tried to sell us overpriced tours. We declined his help and walked to our hostel, Hotel Aurora. Got a nice queen room for $15 a night, with private bathroom. Score! Went over to Amigos Hostel and booked our tours for the next 2 days. Decided to have dinner at the hostel and the food was actually pretty good. Ricardo from Semuc Champey showed up and we chatted with him for a while before finally heading back to our room at 9:30 pm. Even though all we had done today was to travel, we were both pretty wiped out. Thank goodness we do not have to get up early for tomorrow!

23 Mar: Slept in until 8 am and got up to turn in laundry at the place next door to Amigos. It was great…they dumped all our clothes into a bucket, charged us 50 Q for it, and said they would deliver to our hotel since we wouldn’t be back in time for pickup before they closed. Excellent! Walked over to the mall across the causeway to get breakfast and dinner supplies since we saw a bunch of folks in the kitchen at our hotel yesterday. Bought snacks for our two day trips as well as spag bol ingredients and were dismayed to find out at our hotel that the kitchen is bare bones. Not even a fridge to put our stuff in! So we made spaghetti for breakfast and decided to have cereal for dinner. Not ideal but we didn’t want all the food to go to waste. Thankfully we had 2 hours to cook, eat and get over to Amigos hostel for our pickup. There were only 11 of us headed to the afternoon excursion to Yaxha, and we had a massive bus so plenty of room to lounge out on. The drive was straight forward and we picked up our guide, Ruben, slightly out of town. He advised us to stock up on snacks, drinks and cash as the site would not have any facilities. Once in Yaxha, we bought our entrance tickets (80 Q each), got a wristband, and entered the complex. And immediately regretted signing up for a tour as Ruben was a talker, and not only that, he briefed us in both Spanish and English so the tour was extra long and drawn out. No way we wanted to suffer through 3 hours of this, so we quickly begged off to go explore on our own even though we had paid an extra 25Q for the tour. Good call as we enjoyed exploring on our own. Yaxha is actually a pretty compact complex, so it didn’t take us long to see everything and head over to the sunset point where we linked up with the French girl on our tour. She was pretty cool and we enjoyed chatting with her for an hour as we waited for the sunset. A security guard told everyone off for talking and demanded silence for 15 minutes until the sun set. A rude Hispanic couple continued to speak to each other, even though everyone else was completely silent. The sunset over the lake was nice, and then we walked back down to link up with Ruben and the rest of the group. The ride back to Flores was actually a bit cold, as the windows on the bus were wide open and we were cruising back. We reached Flores before 9 pm and decided to talk to the tour desk at Amigos since they had lied to us when they told us a guide was mandatory in order to climb the towers at Yaxha. Robby wanted a refund. However, no one was manning the desk and we waited for nearly 30 minutes. Ricardo showed up and chatted with us and told us that his special morning sunrise at Tikal had been a bust…it was completely fogged over and lifted 20 minutes after sunrise. Boo! We felt bad for him as he had paid 100 Q extra for the opportunity to see an amazing sunrise. We didn’t want to linger as we had an early morning wakeup so we left after realizing the tour desk was probably shut down for the night. After taking a photo with Ricardo, we hugged goodbye and had cereal back in our room for dinner.

24 Mar: An early wake up at 4 am for our 4:30 departure from Amigos. Robby managed to get a written commitment from the bartender that the guide portion of our tour would be refunded since we didn’t want one (40 Q refund) and off we went towards Tikal. Our bus was crammed full and thankfully we got aisle seats and not the middle fold down ones. Just before 6 am, we pulled into the Tikal ticket office where we lined up to buy tickets (150 Q for foreigners, ID was mandatory). Our guide seemed interesting, but we told him that we wanted to do our own thing and he advised us to walk with him into the park so he could show us the best way to walk to the sights. As our group entered the massive sprawling complex, we listened to our guide and found him informative, so we changed our minds and decided to do the tour portion after all. We had a 3 hour tour with loads of free time to take photos and explore on our own. Everything was good until the guide checked everyone’s tickets and found that ours no longer included the tour but we have him the paperwork for the 40Q refund and all was good. We had some free time to explore on our own after the tour ended so we did, and then we decided to catch the 11 am bus back to Flores. We were stuffed like sardines, and a very long, uncomfortable ride ensued. At least we both had a window to lean our heads on as we took a siesta on the 2 hour ride back into town. Back by 1 pm, we had cereal for lunch and a brief siesta before heading out to explore Flores itself. Very compact and easy to walk around, it didn’t take us long to see everything. So off in search of happy hour and we found a great restaurant with 9 Q gin and tonics and beer…score! The sunset tonight was spectacular and a beautiful way to say goodbye to Guatemala. Dinner was at a local fisherman shack so it probably wasn’t the best idea to order burgers because they looked weird and had a strange texture. As long as we don’t get food poisoning! It was a pain packing all our stuff for the shuffle to San Ignacio tomorrow but we didn’t want to do it tomorrow morning so we did it tonight instead.

25 Mar: Got a knock at 6 am from the receptionist who told us our bus was waiting for us. Not entirely true…what she meant to say was a travel rep for the bus company was downstairs waiting to talk to us. She told us to report to Green Monkey Hostel at 6:40 am for our ride to San Ignacio. So we had a few minutes to finalize packing before heading over for our meetup point. There, we were surprised to learn that a free breakfast (pancakes, scrambled eggs and watermelon) was included with our bus ride…score! After that, the driver began to slowly load our gear onto the rooftop of the bus and we were on our way. Exiting Guatemala was a breeze and getting stamped into Belize equally as easy. Goodbye Guatemala! We’ve enjoyed you these past few weeks and hope to return again one day.

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