Guatemala backpacking guide

guatemala, In this entry:

Exploring volcanoes, jungles, lakes and colonial cities of Guatemala. Getting around using the colorful chicken buses. Living on cheap and delicious tropical fruit, tortillas and amazing local coffee. All about our budget, transport, accommodation and food.

GUATEMALA  BUDGET:

Currency Guatemalan Quetzal (GTQ)

Total: GTQ 1619/$210/R3354 in 16 days,

$13.13 per day

Accomodation: GTQ 59/$7.60/R122 per day

Transport: GTQ 24/$3.12/R50 per day

Trekking: GTQ 300/$39/R620

LIKES: Natural beauty; amazing jungles, volcanoes and the unreal turquoise pools of Semuc Champey. Cheap transport, cheap accommodation, cheap fruit at local markets.

DISLIKES: Vendors and drivers always attempting to overcharge you. Expensive Supermarkets. Dirty cities and littering. Shocking how people throw rubbish in the streets and out of bus windows.

Chicken buses, lined up at a local bus station

Chicken buses, lined up at a local bus station

Upon entry into Guatemala I realized how far removed from the developed world I was. Myself, and Alya walked around in Guatemala for a while when we realized nobody stamped our passports yet. We had to walk back to the border to find an immigration officer to make our arrival official! We caught a ride with our first ‘chicken bus’, the plan was to go to Xela in the Western Highlands but only made it as far as Hue Hue Tenango before sunset. These buses are the old yellow school buses donated to Guatemala by the US. ‘Chicken’ refers to the fact that the buses are often crammed with passengers, not unlike a truck of chickens. Having heard many stories about travelers that were robbed blind at night, we decided to only travel on these buses during daytime.

HUE HUE TENANGO

Sick at our first stop. The bus station at Hue Hue Tenango is a bit of a crazy place, rubbish everywhere. A mix of buses and food vendors, surrounded by dilapidated buildings. The evening that we arrived we just wanted to get off the street with our stuff, but the first room we looked at resembled a crime scene in CSI, it was scary dirty. We found a very nice, cheap hotel close to the bus station. We ended up being stuck in Hue Hue Tenango for three days since both of us became sick from some street food, after which we moved on to Xela.

QUETZALTENANGO (XELA)

hiking to the highest peak in Central America: The majority of travelers in Xela are either learning Spanish or hiking one of the surrounding volcanoes.  English is not widely spoken in Latin America and many backpackers thus take Spanish lessons before traveling this region for a couple of months. There are many cheap Spanish schools or home stays including food and four hours of Spanish lessons a day. Since Alya is fluent in Spanish I decided to skip this exercise, something I now regret. We did a two day hike up Mount Tajamulco, at 4220m this volcano is the highest point in Central America. It was a great hike, beautiful views and not too tough. We reached our campsite (4000m) after about 4 hours, set up camp, made a fire and were four people sharing a tent. I don’t think anybody slept much since at this altitude it was freezing!

Making Tea on the fire, freezing at our camp on Mount Tajamulco

Making Tea on the fire, freezing at our camp on Mount Tajamulco

There was great relief when the alarm clock finally went off at 5am, since nobody slept much during the night. We hiked the last 200m to the summit in about 40 minutes, just in time for a spectacular sun rise. Our decent took an hour and half followed by 2 tired hours on a chicken bus back to Xela.

Summit Mount Tajamulco

Summit Mount Tajamulco

LAGO DE ATITLAN

Holistic therapies? I don’t think so. Following our volcano hike expedition we were looking forward to a couple of days of swimming and this volcano-ringed lake looked perfect. The lake is surrounded by many small villages and snaking down a mountain pass toward the town of San Pedro in our packed chicken bus with some Spanish tunes booming, the lake surrounded by volcanoes and small villages, coffee plantations and jungle looked beautiful. Unfortunately we found a cheap hotel in the wrong part of town, so instead of being surrounded by coffee plantations, banana trees, hammocks on the lake and hippies doing yoga, we were in a more city type setting where you took some money and locked your wallet in your room when going shopping. Overall the lake was not a very good experience, we were advised not to swim in the lake due to pollution and we saw nobody in the water, what is the point of staying next to a lake? The next village was much worst, San Marco Laguna is supposed to be hippie-capital, the most beautiful, artistic village and best place to learn meditation, holistic  therapies, massage, reiki (I have no idea what that is) and other spiritual activities. Instead what we found was some kind of local festival, many drunken people walking around and with some local bands blaring through monster size speakers’ morning to night, respect to the sound engineer we had trouble talking to each other in our room! We caught the first boat out the next morning with a throbbing head ache (not a hangover). I am no expert on spiritual practices, but cannot picture monks and yoga masters operating in these conditions.

Lago de Atitlan from San Marco

Lago de Atitlan from San Marco

ANTIGUA

Amazing colonial city. Our next stop was the cosmopolitan, colonial city Antigua. We spent most of our time walking around the cobble stone streets lined with multi-colored houses under terracotta roofs, trying to take the perfect photo of the picturesque streets with Volcano Agua in the background.

Volcano Agua behind the City Antigua

Volcano Agua behind the City Antigua

We stayed in Hostel Antigua, the only really good hostel we found in Guatemala. Since we had a nice kitchen, walking around the large local market shopping for fruit, veggies and ingredients was always a treat and so cheap. Guatemala is known for its coffee and I discovered a great roaster/coffee shop, where the owner shared some of his knowledge, the coffee was amazing, unfortunately I cannot remember or fined the name of the place, just search for a small coffee shop on a corner, roasting their own beans, there are not many around. Antigua is well known among travelers for its Spanish schools and many remain here for weeks learning the language; although this is a nice location I think the homestay/learning deals in Xela are cheaper.

Guatemala coffee

Campbell with a good cup of Guatemala coffee, roasted on the spot in Antigua

SEMUC CHAMPEY

Here I have to agree with travel guides describing this as ‘the most beautiful place in Guatemala’ and I think the most beautiful place in Central America.

Semuc Champey, swimming in the crystal clear pools in this unreal setting was awesome, so perfect and beautiful it looks artificial, like a movie set.

Semuc Champey, swimming in the crystal clear pools in this unreal setting was awesome, so perfect and beautiful it looks artificial, like a movie set.

Semuc Champey is a collection of a row of linked pools atop a natural limestone bridge in the lush jungles of Guatemala. Crystal clear, cool water flows in a stepped series from pool to pool, beautiful and fantastic to swim in.

 A collection of a row of linked pools atop a natural limestone bridge

A collection of a row of linked pools atop a natural limestone bridge

There are some amazing view points in the surrounding jungle and walking next to the river and on the roads cutting through the jungle made for some awesome scenery.

Alya going for a swim at Semuc Champey.

Alya going for a swim at Semuc Champey.

The bungalows we stayed in had great views of this unreal area and it was great to sit on the deck with a beer looking at the river and listening to the sound of a myriad of birds and monkeys in the surrounding jungle. The river was also good for swimming, crossed by a fun bridge to jump off (about 10m high).

Campbell jumping from the bridge in front of Hostal El Portal, Semuc Champey

Campbell jumping off the bridge in front of Hostal El Portal, Semuc Champey

Local children were walking around with little tin foil packets of chocolate they make themselves  from sugar and cocoa beans of pods they pic  from the Theobroma cacao trees growing everywhere in the jungle.

Home made chocolate sold by kids around Semuc Champey. They pic the pods from the Theobroma cacao trees growing in the jungle and make the chocolate from sugar and cocoa they make from beans of these pods

Home made chocolate sold by kids around Semuc Champey. They pic the pods from the Theobroma cacao trees growing in the jungle and make the chocolate from sugar and cocoa they make from beans of these pods.

Getting to and from Semuc Champey can take more than a day, requiring multiple bus switches and complicated logistics. Using a tourist shuttle to Semuc and back from Antigua looked like a much simpler and ultimately cheaper option. The shuttle bus back to Antigua filled with a lot of annoying, some hungover and some drunk Australians was a long eight hours. We decided that this was our first and last shuttle bus, multiple chicken buses, bargaining for prices, listening to live music and catholic preachers and off course hoping your pack is still on the roof after every switch is much more fun. Following two more days in Antigua we left Guatemala in a colorful series of chicken buses..

TRANSPORT: The old US school buses, now repainted in bright colors and called second class bus or chicken buses are as part of travel in Guatemala as traveling by train is part of traveling in India. There are two schools of thought when it comes to foreigners and chicken buses; either fun, entertaining, cheap and part of the experience; or dilapidated, uncomfortable, fume filled and overcrowded. These buses are always easy to catch, just go to the local bus station usually located close to the local market or flag down a passing bus. There may not be a bus going all the way to your destination, thus for longer trips you might switch buses up to five times before arriving. Cost is more or less $1 per hour. There is never a dull moment with music playing loudly, many touters selling all kinds of refreshments and sometimes artists performing or fired up priests preaching. Your backpack is usually strapped on the roof. I have heard about many people that got robbed on these buses by pickpockets when falling asleep at night. Tourist shuttles are also available to most destinations and tickets can be organized at a backpackers or travel agent.

Inside a Chicken Bus

Inside a Chicken Bus

ACCOMMODATION: The hostels in Guatemala were quite cheap, but definitely not as good as in Mexico or El Salvador, with most of them not having breakfast, water, coffee or towels and some of them lacking a kitchen.

Hue Hue Tenango – Hotel Del Coronado 60Q ($8) very nice hotel, good wi fi

Xela – Casa Seibel 50Q ($6.50) nice hostel, friendly helpful owners, good kitchen, no towels, no breakfast, no free coffee, free water, eratic wi fi

San Marco – La Paz 60Q ($8), beautiful garden, good restaurant (not really cheap), no kitchen, no towels, no breakfast, no free coffee, no free water, wi fi in restaurant

Antigua – Hostel Antigua, Week days Q56 ($7.30), Weekends Q65 ($8.50), excellent hostel, good kitchen, towels, free coffee, free water, good wi fi, no breakfast

Semuk Champey – Hostal El Portal, This place was amazing but not really a hostel since you are not allowed to bring or make your own food, they want to make money out of the restaurant. We brought our own food and they turned a blind eye, we ordered record numbers of cups of hot water, about 4 per meal, 2 for tea and 2 to make noodles, dormitory Q65 ($8.50), room Q80 ($10),  unreal location, dormitory amazing, cheap attic rooms not great, hot, no view, good atmosphere, no kitchen, no towels, no free breakfast, no free coffee, no wi fi, not allowed to bring your own food.

FOOD: The local markets were very cheap, selling a huge variety of tropical fruit and vegetables– Tomatoes 5Q p ($0.65)er kg, Avocado pear 2Q ($0.25), Onions, Mango 5Q ($0.65) per kg, Pineapple 5Q ($0.65), Watermelon 5Q ($0.65), Bread – tortillas 1Q ($0.13) for 5.

Corn tortillas are the main source of carbs and can be bought anywhere; they are made from white, yellow or blue corn, all tasting similar.

Corn Tortillas is very popular in Guatemala, blue color comes from the blue corn.

Corn Tortillas is very popular in Guatemala, blue color comes from the blue corn.

Our favorite fruit was the granadia, this tropical fruit has a hard yellow shell, and once broken open the white interior resembles a passion fruit. We often ordered breakfast somewhere and cooked the other meals at the hostel.

Typical lunch for us, we ate lots of fruit, cheese and tortillas!

Typical lunch for us, we ate lots of fruit, cheese and tortillas!

Guatemalan breakfast (Desayuno chapin) involves eggs, refried beans, tortillas and coffee for about Q15-Q20 ($1.50, R20-R30). Supermarkets were very expensive and things like pasta, tuna, chips and cheese that we normally buy at the supermarket were European prices, about double the Mexican price.

Tortillas always the cheapest street food.

Tortillas always the cheapest street food.

The road to Semuc Champey.

The road to Semuc Champey.

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