1 month: Antigua → Lake Atitlan → Tikal → BELIZE → Livingston → Rio Dulce → Antigua → Lake Atitlan → Semuc Champey → Antigua
30.07.2015 - 13.08.2015
About an hour outside of Guatemala City (no reason to stay there) is Antigua, the country's nexus. The city is beautiful with cute parks, cobblestone roads and colonial architecture, not to mention a backdrop featuring a huge volcano. That being said, the neverending flow of tourists and cobblestones can wear on you.
DO: Antigua is the best place to do your shopping (beyond the artisano mercado where you will satiate all your local handicraft needs is a local market that sells literally everything). Sit back and relax in Parque Central. Check out Cerro de la Cruz for views of the city. Visit the ChocoMuseo (the classes may seem tempting but there are better, more authentic opportunities elsewhere in the country). Take Spanish classes. There are a bunch of tour operators... we did a tour to Volcano Payaca (don't believe the photos that show lava - there is none; although you do get to roast marshmallows from the cold lava vents), but it's possible to do it on your own. For a more intense volcano experience, there are day and overnight opportunities to check out Acatenango and Fuego.
Tip: save your shopping spree at the mercados until your last stop in Antigua so you don't have to lug it around everywhere
A must! It's a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains and volcanos. There are a number of villages along the lake's edge, varying in size and action.
Panajachel (Pana): the entry point. Nice little town that has everything you need (visit the ATM before heading anywhere else on the lake). No need to stay here - you will find a boat going anywhere you want to go.
San Pedro: (top right) the backpacker hotspot. Possibility of getting stuck here is high, there are a bunch of hostels, restaurants, pharmacies, stores. And agencies that offer activities (hikes, paragliding, kayak rentals, etc), tours, and transportation to almost anywhere (meaning you don't have to get here via a boat from Pana). That being said, transport will pass through Pana, stop at Antigua and, depending where you go, Guatemala City.
San Marcos: (bottom right) not much to do here but chill. There is a spot where you can jump off rocks into the water, but we didn't want to pay the entrance fee so we explored and found our own little spot. No ATM.
Tip: from San Pedro, take a boat ride here and return via tuktuk - fun ride with beautiful scenery!
Santa Cruz: beautiful scenery, but besides a few hikes there is nothing to do here. No ATM. There are several resorts/hostels to stay at here that provide resources, info, and activities so you can enjoy the serenity but boredom can set in especially if you have other places you're trying to go to.
DO: you have a great view of Nariz do Indio from San Pedro (left), but there is a sunrise tour that I wish I had been able to do.
I wasn't too bothered to go to here considering how far out of the way it was, but combined with a quick detour through Belize to connect back to Guatemala in Livingston, it has turned out to be one of my favorite adventures. We left San Pedro at 4am and arrived in Flores (the city that feeds into Tikal) at 8pm. Flores is a cute little town on the water, but only necessary to spend the night before or after visiting the ruins.
DO: It's possible to do Tikal on your own... but we did a sunrise tour which I would absolutely recommend. It provided transportation to the park before dawn (and back), a legit guide, and time to explore on our own for a bit after. The whole thing went from 3am until noon. The crowds were arriving as we were leaving... perfect!
→ easy jump off point to Belize City (can connect back to Guatemala via Punta Gorda / Livingston).
When coming via boat from Belize (Punta Gorda), definitely opt for Livingston over Puerto Barrios as your final destination (check tip #1). Keep in mind neither are particularly desirable, and you will have to get your passport stamped in PB before moving on to Livingston.
Tip #1: if you are making the boat ride from Belize to Guatemala, it takes some coordinating - boats that go all the way to Livingston are only an option on Tuesdays and Fridays (unless anything has changed). Otherwise they only go to Puerto Barrios.
Tip #2: you will be bombarded by people when you get off the boat in Livingston telling you about which hostel to go to. Try to shake them off. If you can't, just make sure to ask all the right questions to the hostel they take you to - price? AC? wifi? also ask to see the room.
If you assumed, like me, that this refers only to a river, the logistics might seem a little confusing at first... but it actually refers to a city on the water's edge. This means it is accessible from other parts of the country via shuttle/bus/taxi; however, I would 1000% recommend coming via lancha (boat) from Livingston for 125Q. The setting is very relaxed, so I would recommend allowing yourself a couple days to enjoy it.
STAY: at Kangaroo Hostel!!! Hustlers at the boat dock were pushing this hostel, which made us apprehensive, but it turned out to be LEGIT. They sent a boat to collect us from the dock (the hostel is right on the water, totally isolated - but don't worry you won't go hungry, it has an awesome restaurant/bar). The owners are incredibly sweet and have tons of interesting stories to share as well as incredibly helpful travel advice.
DO: Day trip to Castillo de San Felipe. A more involved day trip involves a collectivo/short hike to Finca Paraiso - a hot waterfall that drops into cold river water. Mudbath possible. Bring snacks! If you did not come in via lancha from Livingston, experience the ride twice in a day trip to Livingston.
This was another destination I was initially a bit confused about.. I saw the unreal photos of the tiered limestone bridges and turquoise pools, but I didn't understand how to do it logistically. Now I know: Semuc Champey is the monument, Lanquin is the city you will visit it from.
Location awareness: this area is very isolated which adds to it's magic, but also begs a warning that the journey there is not necessarily comfortable. It's long, and the last part is on unpaved roads. Just focus on the beautiful, untouched scenery you are passing through. Also, wifi access will be limited and you may run into some tarantulas.
Accommodation tip: make arrangements beforehand!!! You do not want to be scrambling for a place to stay once you get there, especially because there are only a handful and they fill up fast. You will arrive in Lanquin, where hostel reps will be waiting with a truck ready to take you to the hostel.
Logistic tip: no ATMs, bring cash and avoid paying the credit card fee!!!!
STAY: My mom and I stayed at Utopia, which we enjoyed. Sleeping options included hammocks, bunk beds, private rooms, and bungalows. Considering the isolation, food options are limited, but the hostel offers all meals - dinner is served family style. It is within walking distance to Semuc Champey (meaning you can skip the tour and do it on your own). Zephyr is highly rated, and supposedly the rowdiest hostel in the area.
DO: the hostels will provide a list of activities and tours you can do. Learning about the process of making chocolate and actually doing it during the chocolate tour was unforgettable! Of course, visit Semuc Champey. You can do this on your own or with a tour, where a guide while take you caving (I won't go into detail, but unless you have major problems with the dark, claustrophobia, and/or water, you will love it), up to the viewpoint, and back down to swim in the pools. There is also an option to go tubing. TIP: do not take a packed lunch from the hostel - you will stop for lunch, but there is a food stand that offers a warm, hearty, cheap meal.
Unfortunately, over night buses are not a thing in Guatemala for safety reasons.