Exploring Guatemala

December 29, 2015

We took a bus from Belize City to Flores, Guatemala. A tiny city-island on a lake connected by a bridge. It admittedly looks way cooler from some kind of aerial view, which is not available to a budget backpacker with both feet firmly planted in the ground. It was our base to do some trekking in the area though.

Tikal

We immediately booked a tour to do a sunrise tour of Tikal the next morning. We got up at 3 or some ungodly hour like that, got on our shuttle, and made the trek through the ruins and up the famous temple.

Tikal - Guatemala
We watched the sunrise from the largest temple at around 4:30AM. Howler monkeys were going crazy the whole time. The entire ruins were submerged in a hazy fog. It was magical.
Tikal - Guatemala

Tikal - Guatemala
Tikal - Guatemala

Tikal - Guatemala
Look familiar? This was in Star Wars, Episode IV.
Tikal - Guatemala

Tikal - Guatemala
Tikal - Guatemala

Tikal - Guatemala
Tikal - Guatemala

Tikal is cool. The hype was worth it. And since we got up super early we beat most of the traffic, although there was another group of people doing a sunrise tour.

El Mirador

The next day we started what would be a five day trek through jungle to a different set of Mayan ruins, El Mirador. The ruins at El Mirador are some of the oldest Mayan ruins, and the largest temple, La Danta, is one of the biggest pyramids in the world. Bigger in volume than any of the Egyptian pyramids. And nobody has ever heard of it!

The trip entailed two full days of hiking to the ruins, a day visiting them, then two full days hiking back out of the jungle. The hiking wasn’t extremely strenuous, but the mud was thick. I was wearing my beloved Chacos, and my feet were slipping and sliding inside the straps. It was bad. The mud was unavoidable. The mosquitos were relentless. But we did have a mule to carry our shit, so all in all it was one of the easiest multi-day hikes I’ve ever done!

El Mirador - Guatemala
Chacos + mud = slippery feet.
El Mirador - Guatemala

El Mirador - Guatemala
We reached these ruins on the second day, about an hour away from most of the ruins. Our guide said the two temples here were 3000 years old.
El Mirador - Guatemala

El Mirador - Guatemala
We crawled into this hole and all around inside the temple. And we were not alone! Plenty of bats were there to welcome us.
El Mirador - Guatemala

El Mirador - Guatemala
This is La Danta, one of the biggest pyramids in the world. It sits on a huge platform that makes it rise out of the forest. It's so old that trees have totally overtaken it from all sides. It was incredible.
El Mirador - Guatemala

El Mirador - Guatemala
This is the view from the top of La Danta. When El Mirador was a city, all of the jungle you can see here had been cleared for the city, which might have had up to 250,000 people living in it! And now look at it. Nature is so powerful.
El Mirador - Guatemala

El Mirador - Guatemala
Enjoying the view
El Mirador - Guatemala

El Mirador - Guatemala
A friend enjoying the view with us.
El Mirador - Guatemala

El Mirador - Guatemala
These carvings were remarkably conserved. Our guide told us that these were not renovated, this is how the area was found. When the Mayans abandoned the city, they covered up certain parts of it with mud and earth to protect it. Looks like it worked!
El Mirador - Guatemala

El Mirador - Guatemala
El Mirador - Guatemala

El Mirador - Guatemala
On the third day we watched the sunset from the top of a temple.
El Mirador - Guatemala

El Mirador - Guatemala
El Mirador - Guatemala

One of the coolest thing about this hike was that we didn’t see any other tourists. When we reached the campsite on the second night, there was another small group, but they left in the morning and since we camped in a different location we never even spoke to them. So besides the brief moment of walking past their campsite on the second day, for five days straight, it was just MJ, our guide, and me, traipsing through Guatemalan jungle in search of ancient ruins.

When we got out of the jungle on the fifth day, the beer tasted so. good. We headed back to Flores to, most importantly, wash our clothes. Then, we were off to…

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey is kind of in the middle of nowhere. The bus drops you off in Lanquín after what I thought was a pretty bad road. Then we piled 18 of us into the back of a 4x4 truck, with me and another guy literally hanging out the back, and made our way another 45 minutes to our hostel, just in front of Semuc Champey National Park.

The attraction is along the river, where there are a series of waterfalls and pools.

Semuc Champey - Guatemala
From the viewpoint a few hundred meters up.
Semuc Champey - Guatemala

Semuc Champey - Guatemala
Unfortunately I didn't have a wide enough lens to really get everything in the picture. It was an amazing viewpoint.
Semuc Champey - Guatemala

Semuc Champey - Guatemala
And pools to play in!
Semuc Champey - Guatemala

Semuc Champey - Guatemala
Every pool had waterfalls at the upstream end.
Semuc Champey - Guatemala

Antigua

We made our way down to Antigua, a beautiful colonial town nestled between several volcanoes.

Antigua - Guatemala
El Cerro de la Cruz
Antigua - Guatemala

Antigua - Guatemala
Volcán del Agua
Antigua - Guatemala

Antigua - Guatemala
So picturesque
Antigua - Guatemala

Antigua - Guatemala
There's a cool restaurant that overlooks the city on a big hill. Mmmmm micheladas.
Antigua - Guatemala

We spent almost a month here. We lived in a homestay with a family (actually two, we switched family’s after a week to get a family with more interaction). Our host family was so sweet. They had a daughter who turned 15 while we were there, and we went to her birthday party. In Latin America, the 15th birthday is the most important birthday (more so than 16 in the US), and they throw a huge party. It was a lot of fun.

I took two weeks of 1 on 1 Spanish classes, which was fun. Although at this point I could easily carry on conversation, I had pretty much self-taught up until this point, so it was nice to have someone I could ask questions.

We also took two weeks of salsa classes. I ended up kind of hating our instructor, which was a bummer, but we got pretty damn good at it, if I do say so myself!

The Volcano Acatenango

At the end of our stay in Antigua we decided to climb the volcano Acatenango. It’s a two day hike, where you camp near the top, then get up at about 4AM to make it to the top and watch the sunrise. The views were incredible.

Acatenango - Guatemala
Once we got up to a certain altitude, we were pretty much above the clouds the rest of the time.
Acatenango - Guatemala

Acatenango - Guatemala
This is Volcán del Fuego from near the top of Acatenango.
Acatenango - Guatemala

Acatenango - Guatemala
As I was taking the last picture, it erupted!
Acatenango - Guatemala

Acatenango - Guatemala
Somewhere around 4:30AM, looking back at Antigua and Guatemala City in the distance.
Acatenango - Guatemala

Acatenango - Guatemala
Unfortunately, 15 minutes from the top, the clouds settled in and blocked all views of anything. But! Just before the clouds arrived, we got to see the Volcano of Fire erupt in the darkness. That was one of the coolest things I´ve ever seen. It's almost complete darkness besides our headlamps, and then you hear it. You look, and glowing red magma is spewing out of the cone and dribbling down its mouth. Although the actual summit was a letdown due to the clouds, the light show we got to see a half an hour before was worth the entire trip.
Acatenango - Guatemala

Sumpango

The day after Halloween is a big celebration in Guatemala. Everyone goes to the cemeteries and decorates the tombs. The cemeteries are basically a big, colorful party. They also make and fly huge kites. We went to one of the biggest festivals in Sumpango to enjoy the event.

Sumpango - Guatemala
Kite festival!
Sumpango - Guatemala

Sumpango - Guatemala
An outside view looking in on the cemetery in Sumpango.
Sumpango - Guatemala

Sumpango - Guatemala
Very colorful decorations. People aren't sad, they're just having a good time around the tombs of their loved ones.
Sumpango - Guatemala

Sumpango - Guatemala
Notice the volcanoes in the distance. <3 Guatemala.
Sumpango - Guatemala

Sumpango - Guatemala
Gives you an idea of how big these kites are.
Sumpango - Guatemala

Sumpango - Guatemala
Unbelievably big! There were tons like this.
Sumpango - Guatemala

Lake Atitlan

I got to reunite with Mario and Tirza, whom I worked with in Cancún. They were working at a hostel in San Marcos La Laguna at the time. So we spent 5 days chilling out on the lake. I loved it here. If we hadn’t just spent almost a month in Antigua I probably would have stayed here awhile to relax.

Lake Atitlan - Guatemala
One of the coolest places I've been on this trip.
Lake Atitlan - Guatemala

Quetzaltenango (Xela)

The next place we went was Quetzaltenango, or Xela (pronounced Shayla) as everyone calls it, presumably because Quetzaltenango is too difficult to say. It’s Guatemala’s second largest city. Honestly, there wasn’t a whole lot to do, but I felt quite at home during our limited stay. At 2380m (7800 feet), it’s at an even higher elevation than Antigua, and it was pretty damn chilly at night. I loved it–it felt like Autumn!

Xela (Quetzaltenango) - Guatemala
This part of town felt like a European city.
Xela (Quetzaltenango) - Guatemala

Xela (Quetzaltenango) - Guatemala
From a restaurant with a great viewpoint up on a hill overlooking the city.
Xela (Quetzaltenango) - Guatemala

Xela (Quetzaltenango) - Guatemala
Not sure how this happened. I swear the city just became purple one night. No filter. I took a bunch of photos of it because I was like, WTF. Why is the sky purple. It's like the Northern lights but purple and Guatemalan.
Xela (Quetzaltenango) - Guatemala

Guatemala City

Central American capitals are, well, usually not worth going to if you’re on a time-budget. But, we weren’t, so we went. I actually enjoyed it. Barely any tourists, so it felt more real. We went to a couple of cool museums on Guatemalan history. We were pretty much too afraid to be out after about 7PM so we didn’t get into too much trouble!

Guatemala City - Guatemala
The cathedral
Guatemala City - Guatemala

The path

Guatemala Path
I spent a little under two months exploring Guatemala. It was a wonderful experience!
Guatemala Path

That’s about it for Guatemala. I highly recommend it if you get a chance to go to Central America!

Penned on December 29, 2015 by Kevin Sweet.

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