Guatemala is famous for her beautiful rough nature, volcanoes and outdoor activities. Are you interested in culture and archaeology? Guatemala will treat you well too. Sit down and wonder back into ancient times after a day of exploring the famous ruins of Tikal. Another well known gem in Guatemala is Lake Atitlan. And this is my favourite place to be in Guatemala. Lake Atitlan – Lago Atitlan in Spanish – is a peaceful lake surrounded by volcanoes. Indigenous people and tourists blend into a perfect mix of nature, authentic lifestyle and tourism.
We spent almost one month in Guatemala. I am happy to share my cherished memories and favourite places with you.
Quick Republic of Guatemala facts:
- 1 Usd = 7,33 Quetzal (February 2018)
- 16,5 million inhabitants
- Independency attained in 1821
- Language is Spanish
- 108.889 square feet of land
- 41% are indigenous people
- 27 volcanoes according to wikipedia (active, extinct and dormant)
- and of course Guatemala was the core of the Maya civilization
All those beautiful colours
The first thing you will notice when you cross the Mexico Guatemala border like we did are the mountains. Guatemala is one living volcano. The landscape goes up and down and twisty roads reinvent the definition of twisty. Do you have a weak stomach? Prepare yourself for all the endless curves. It can get tough.
The second thing that will dazzle your imagination is the extreme variety of different fabrics and colours local people wear. You will be blinded by all the colours that are used into the fabrics of local indigenous people.
We have been at many places around the globe. We have met indigenous people before. Although we got to know different indigenous styles, from Myanmar and Vietnam to Mexico, we were still surprised by the local way of living and the beautiful fabrics local people wear in Guatemala.
Guatemala is a very poor country. Locals concern themselves with the high level of corruption in their country, especially in Guatemala City. The wealth is divided uneven and therefore the rich get more wealthy and the poor people have to keep their head above the water as good as they can. They also tell that Antigua is almost a foreigner colony. Most of the time only the rich families in Guatemala benefit form the tourism in Antigua. The normal folks have to move because they can’t afford to live there anymore. It is too expensive.
I like to talk about politics but for now enough about politics.
Indigenous people live a lifestyle really close to nature. They grow their own vegetables and they have their own pigs and chickens. Living close to nature is very inspiring to me. City people, and I am a great example, don’t know nature anymore.
Indigenous people live a very sustainable lifestyle. This inspires me a lot. I think this is how people should live in harmony with nature. Not exploiting nature like we do now, in order to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
If you are in Guatemala you must visit a market. Everywhere you look there are women in beautiful coloured clothes selling their goods. We really liked the markets in Quetzaltenango and in San Pedro la Laguna at Lake Atitlan.
Lake Atitlan and her secrets
The word secrets is a little bit exaggerated in this context because Lake Atitlan is one of the highlights for many people who visit Guatemala. Which makes good sense. For every type of traveler there are things to do at Lake Atitlan. If you like markets go to San Pedro or Santiago Atitlan. Are you more the coffee therapy kind of traveler don’t pass by San Marcos. Are you one of those active travelers? Mount a volcano and dip into the lake afterwards.
This is the main entrance to the lake. It is in the north east of the Atitlan lake. It is a crowded little town with a big boulevard where you can stroll, drink beers and have your fried potatoes. Did you know one of the best local street snacks in Guatemala is fried potatoes? Taste at least one time a fried potato street snack. It is a good salty energizer.
In Panajachel you have a really good view on the volcanoes. If you are limited in time you don’t need to stay in Panajachel. It is crowded and very touristic, and Lake Atitlan has so much more to offer.
San Pedro La Laguna
We fell in love with San Pedro at Lake Atitlan. It is a less touristic place and you can really chill down and feel at ease. The daily market is a little treat to yourself. Everywhere you look you will see blackberries and strawberries. Because the temperature is not too high at Lake Atitlan it is the perfect climate to grow those delicious friends.
We have spent ten days in San Pedro and we slept in Vila Cuba. A beautiful calm quiet place with a stunning lake view. It is a little bit out of town, approximately a 25 minutes stroll from the market. If you like nature, hummingbirds, cooking your own meals in a well equipped kitchen and swimming in the morning then this is a good place to spend some of your time and quetzals.
San Marcos La Laguna
If you like a western and spiritual place then you probably settle down at San Marcos. This is the therapy heart of Lake Atitlan. You can do yoga, eat vegan salads and drop in one of the various therapies the village has to offer. From chocolate therapy to music therapy. Everything your soul needs you can buy in San Marcos. Or if you are not really into the chakras in your life, you can shoot some hoops with local children for a good, warm and healing feeling like I did.
Other places in Guatemala to consider
Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela)
We entered Guatemala from Mexico. Quetzaltenango was a perfect hub for us to relax for a day or three. We arrived a little bit late, it started to get dark. It is not recommended to travel by night in Guatemala. In the end we found a place called casa kolibri. Owned and managed by Carlos. He was fully booked for that night but as friendly and creative he was he offered us a bed in the kitchen which was out of order.
Quetzaltenango is a good place to book and organise your trekkings. If you are up to climb a volcano this is the best place to find yourself one to mount. Ask around and there are many operators where you can book an adventurous hike.
We liked the main bus station in Quetzaltenango. It is crowded. Guys are shouting and screaming to make you board. People are in a hurry to catch their ride and numerous vendors selling their goods for a little bit energy during your chicken bus adventure. Next to the bus station is a great market without a tourist.
Herds of tourists are seduced to go to Antigua for historical colonial buildings. Personally Antigua was the least interesting place for me to be in Guatemala. This is because we were on a tight budget and were looking for authentic experiences. Antigua is not the place to go to if you are on a tight budget and you want to see ‘authentic’ Guatemala.
Antigua has become a settlement filled with foreigners blended with rich people from Guatemala. And that is why normal people are squeezed out of the city. They live around Antigua in little villages.
But, if you want to relax after climbing a volcano? Or after a heavy chickbus ride. then Antigua is a good place to relax. Settle down, drink Guatemalan coffee and chill in your peaceful colonial courtyard garden.
And of course – that is my assumption – Tikal is worth your visit. Unfortunately we didn’t go there. But one should keep something for the next visit isn’t it?
The Chicken bus
I think one of the coolest things to do in Guatemala is to take a chicken bus and immerse yourself into local life. It is not the fastest bus. Definitely it is not the most comfortable. But it is the best story you will tell to your family and friends when you get home. You can get sick or extremely tired. Local elbows squeese into your side. And you probably experience some dangerous traffic encounters. But you will see a lot of friendly people. Big smiles will come into your direction. Nice little chats will enlighten your perspective of humans and you will see the country from her best angle.
Prepare yourself for loud music. And you have to trust the network of buses who connect with each other. This means when they say (or shout) ‘go out’, you need to go out. Probably they will help you carry your backpack to your next chicken bus adventure.
Have a great time in Guatemala and hopefully you keep on reading our experiences. Do you like this blog post? Subscribe to our newsletter. We struggle and you will benefit.