For a small country, Guatemala is chock full of sights to see — major Mayan ruins at Tikal, the pristine Lake Atitlan and the well-preserved Colonial city of Antigua. But a trek through this budget travelers’ paradise is not for the faint of heart. Earlier this year, New Yorkers Courtney Hamilton and her boyfriend, Al Huang, took a two-week trip around Guatemala and braved scorpions, active volcanoes and all-night bus rides. Here, Courtney shares her experiences and travel advice as she explains why this vibrant Central American country is worth roughing it.
Itinerary: After landing in Guatemala City, we took a car to Antigua (pictured left), where we spent a few days. Then, we went to San Marcos La Laguna on Lake Atitlan via Panajachel. After spending a couple of days there, we went back to Guatemala City to grab a first-class overnight bus (Auto Bus Del Norte for $20 per person) to Flores. We arrived in Flores at 7am or so, checked into our hotel and by noon were on our way to climb the Mayan ruins at Tikal, which lived up to our expectations — they were just incredible. The next day we woke up early and caught a bus to Rio Dulce where we relaxed in a riverfront bungalow for a few nights. Then my boyfriend hopped on a week-long bargain-basement cruise through the Belizian Cayes and I went back to Antigua for two nights before returning to Guatemala City to catch my flight back to the US.
Favorite Hotels: By far my favorite hotel was Aaculaax in San Marcos La Laguna. The word “amazing” even falls a little short to describe this stylish, eco-friendly hotel that even had stained-glass windows made of recycled bottles. For about $27 a night, we stayed in the Cascada suite, a small room literally built into the side of a cliff — a boulder was one of the walls in the room. From our bed we had a breathtaking view of two volcanoes looming over the Lake Atitlan (pictured right). By the way, San Marcos is a great town to stay in if you like massages. New Age ex-pats have opened a few holistic healing places with ridiculously affordable spa services.
When I returned to Antigua solo at the end of the trip I stayed in another hotel where my room had a terrific view: Hotel Palacio Chico 1940. For just $35 a night, I had a perfect view of the volcanoes. Even though it’s a no- frills budget hotel, I’d recommend it over where we stayed earlier in Antigua, Hotel Palacio de Dona Beatriz, which was overpriced and nothing special.
Most Memorable Experience: When we were staying in Rio Dulce, we explored El Boqueron Canyon, a collapsed cave system, and Finca Paraiso, a hot springs waterfall in the jungle (pictured left). We rode on a private lancha for a couple of hours down the river and disembarked at a resort near the waterfall. From there we walked along a dirt road through some farmland and stood by the side of the road until a public mini-van drove by and we waved it down. The van took us to Boqueron, picking up lots of locals along the way, including an old woman with a purse full of chirping chicks. This was the closest we came to taking one of the “chicken buses” that Guatemala is known for.
We got off at Boqueron and hired a 16-year-old boy to paddle us downstream in a carved-out tree trunk and marveled at the scenery. When we were done seeing Boqueron, we took a similar crowded minivan to as close as we could get to the waterfall and then hiked the rest of the way. Relaxing in the hotsprings was the perfect way to end the day.
Favorite Restaurants: Unfortunately, I never ended up having a great traditional Guatemalan meal. But I did enjoy some good restaurants in Antigua. I really liked Las Palmas, which served eclectic food at New York City prices. On my last day there, I had a delicious Italian lunch at El Punto. Also, all over Guatemala you can find a cheap taco chain called 3×15. I became addicted to their pollo hawaiiano tacos.
Beware of Scorpions: When we were staying at Hotel Tortugal in Rio Dulce, I got stung by a scorpion on my middle finger. My hand swelled up and ached for days, but thankfully nothing more serious happened. I iced the bite and I also slathered on prescription-strength steroid cream that I was glad to have with me. If getting medical attention was an option, I gladly would have pursued it. But Tortugal, a beautiful jungle property, is very isolated — it’s only accessible by boat. Their internet was down the entire time we were there so I had to text my mom at 4 AM her time to ask her to Google “scorpion sting” immediately.
Ironically, I was stung while reaching into my bag to grab my camera to take a picture of a giant furry spider that was chilling out with my new stuffed animal. As I reached into the camera bag, I said (jokingly!), “Now I really kind of regret not closing our bags last night.” If only I had actually thought about what I was saying!
More Tips For Your Medicine Bag: If you’re prone to motion sickness, bring Dramamine. There are 33 volcanoes in Guatemala; some are active (like Pacaya, pictured left), some are not, but all are covered in steep, curvy, narrow roads. I certainly tried on many occasions to travel without the Dramamine so I could take in the beautiful scenery, but I rarely succeeded.
Another medicine I was happy to have brought with me was the antibiotic Cipro. I got quite sick from eating some delicious street food during our first few days in Antigua so I took a dose of Cipro and felt better. Then, when we were on Lake Atitlan, I accidentally swallowed some lake water while I was jumping off a cliff. I got sick again, and once again taking Cipro made me feel better. I decided to keep taking it for the rest of the trip just in case. If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, talk to your doctor and see if they are willing to prescribe it — your doctor will know what’s best course of action for you.
Final Thoughts: As with most adventures, the images that have stayed with me are the most benign: the vibrant colors of the markets and the flower stands, happy Guatemalan families and the wonderful smells of street food.