Guatemala is one of those hidden gems for traveling that you will only hear about from other people that have been there before you. Like any gem that you pick up out of the dirt, you need to wash off its exaggerated bad reputation to find out how great it really is. There are beaches of the Caribbean and the Pacific on each side, the Mayan cities of the north and the central highlands that have erupting volcanos to climb and beautiful cities to explore.
While exploring the mayan cities we heard news that there was a hurricane heading straight for Flores. Not knowing how bad things were going to get we decided to head south to the central highlands to check out a town that people wouldn’t shut up about. The town is called San Pedro on the shore of Lake Atitlan. If you’ve been there I can imagine you’re already smiling.
Lake Atitlan has been called the most beautiful lake in the world and seems to have a special power over people that makes them fall in love with the place. At the end of a sixteen hour bus ride from Flores the road plunges over the edge of a mountain range and the lake can be seen for the first time. I couldn’t stop looking out the window at the enormous lake below.
On one side is a stunning mountain range that plunges into the lake and looks like the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. On the other side are three volcanos, all poking up through the clouds and towering 2000m over the land below. Around the lake there are small villages and towns but from the top of the range they look like tiny terracotta smudges on the green of the rainforest.
Depending on whether you want to relax, hike, party or study one of these towns will be perfect to use as a base for exploring the local area. San Pedro is famous for being one of the best places in Guatemala to party but it is also one of the cheapest places in the world to study Spanish. San Marcos is perfect for a relaxing getaway with eco tourism and yoga retreats. From these two towns it’s possible to take a water taxi and visit the others at your leisure.
Almost as soon as I arrived in San Pedro I got an epic case of food poisoning which I must have caught before the bus trip. In the few days that I took to get over that almost everyone who had been in Belize arrived in town and we settled in for what would be a three week case of ‘getting stuck.’
We quickly realised that renting a private hotel room with an ensuite cost around $7USD a day and so it wasn’t too long before we had taken over almost a whole floor of a hotel that has billion dollar views and is one minute from the best parts of town. I also signed up for 2 weeks of Spanish lessons that cost $5USD an hour for a private session. It is the textbook definition of living the dream and anyone can do it there.
It isn’t all about partying and cheap Spanish lessons though. All of the volcanos and mountain ranges around the lake have incredible walking trails and Volcano San Pedro just behind the town is possible to hike in one day taking 3-4 hours to get up and 2-3 hours back down.
I was stupid enough to attempt it just after getting over the food poisoning and it almost beat me. The trail starts just off a main road and climbs very quickly through coffee plantations and maize farms before reaching a lookout of San Pedro. From this point the trail gets even steeper and combined with the altitude it becomes a real mind vs body battle. In the 3-4 hours it takes to get up you gain around 1500m in altitude to reach the summit which is around 3100m.
At this height the weather became freezing and rain would come in waves lasting a couple of minutes and would then clear up for ten minutes of sun. For the short times that the clouds would clear the entire lake, towns and volcanos around it were visible below. All we could do was sit there while we recovered asking how a place so incredible could exist.
For the other times we enjoyed the backpacker lifestyle. Spending our night time at the bars and clubs, some that you can jump off into the lake. Then doing our Spanish lessons in the afternoon. Even after just two weeks I could notice a huge difference in how much I could speak and understand so I’d recommend it to anyone that has the time.
It was a depressing day when we all needed to leave the lake but there were plans to meet up in the other much loved place of Guatemala, Antigua. Antigua is also stunning but for different reasons. Nestled in a valley between its own set of volcanos the city centre is still completely built in the original Spanish architecture. The only other place I have seen that compares with Antigua is Cartagena in Colombia.
All of the main Hostels in Antigua are also top class with great facilities, great staff, bars and sometimes with a rooftop area to chill on. I had the time to check out Jungle Party and Tropicana hostels in town and they are both great to stay at.
There are a few things to do in town but the first thing I’d suggest is to just wander around and take in the old town. The cobbled streets, pastel buildings and the backdrop of the mountains are a photographers dream. After this, a short walk out to the main market in town is a great place to get yourself some genuine fake clothing, accessories and sometimes food if you’re willing to make the gamble.
On most nights of the week a few bars and clubs around the main square fill up with travellers and one night a week is the famous pool party that takes place in an abandoned mansion on the outskirts of town.
Before getting stuck into the nightlife it’s worth doing the main adventure activity of the city, climbing the Acatenengo Volcano. Not too far from Antigua the volcano sits next to one of the most active volcanoes in Central America, Fuego. Fuego has been erupting a few times a day since May and the best view of the eruptions is from the summit of Acatenanago just a few km’s away. The hike is punishing, it’s cold and it could be the hardest hike you ever do but from what my friends told me it’s one of best things they saw traveling.
Be careful if you go there because you will probably end up staying much longer than you planned and making a whole lot of friends that are hard to leave behind.