Thursday, January 2, 2014

My 5 day Guatemalan adventure

I recently did a week long trip to Guatemala during Christmas. I chose the country for two reasons, firstly, I was interested in visiting the Mayan ruins in Tikal and secondly, I wanted to practice the Spanish I've been learning for the last 5 months, mas o menos.

I started off my tour with Tikal, which is the northern part of the country. I flew directly from Guatemala City to Flores, via Tag airlines, and then the hotel (Tikal Inn) shuttle picked me up, to take me to Tikal. The Tag airlines flight was actually quite comfortable and better than some of the domestic airlines in the US. They even gave a small snack box, which was a pleasant surprise.
It was after sunset and pretty dark, I was the only one in the shuttle, the driver was a bit rude and only spoke Spanish, so I was a bit nervous. However, eventually we got to the hotel around 8:30 p.m and I felt relaxed as there were a lot of people dining and celebrating Christmas eve there. I joined them in their celebrations and they were all very welcoming. Most of them were from the US and Canada. Some of them were also doing the same sunrise tour with me and it was good to know these people, as I was going to be spending 4-5 hours with them in the morning.

Temple I in Tikal
Day 1 (Tikal): The sunrise tour started with Roxy at 4:30 am in the morning and we hiked to the top of Temple IV to watch the sunrise. Roxy told many facts and stories about the Mayan temples, their construction, purpose etc. on the hike up. We watched the sunrise from the top, which was not the best because of clouds, but we did get a few good pictures when it got bright. The tour then continued to various parts of the park as we moved from temple to temple stopping in significant places in between.
Sunrise from the top of Temple IV in Tikal
The tour ended around 10:30 am and went headed back to the hotel to get some rest, as we wanted to come back to experience the sunset. The sunset was not as spectacular as the sunrise but it was still worth going back. Tip: The park fees are Q150/day and they will be valid the whole day and the next, when you purchase it after 3:30 pm. Though, there is an additional Q100 charge to enter the park before 6 am.

View at Parque Central
Day 2 (Antigua): I left for Antigua from Tikal, early morning via Tag airlines. I checked into my hostel and went on the next tour which was a short city tour with our guide Roberto. Roberto is like the unofficial mayor of Antigua, he knew everyone and everything in the city. We went through this historical city focusing on its architecture, history, restoration and cultural trends. We explored the City hall Palace, Palace of the captain general, cathedral with its majestic ruins, jades museum focusing on the Maya spirituality and completed the tour at the paseo de los museos inside Casa Santo Domingo.
Volcano Pacaya in the background
Day 3 (Coffee plantation & Volcán Pacaya): I started off with the coffee plantation tour in the morning at Filadelfia’s Farm. I was picked up from in front of the San Jose ruins, and driven in an open truck to the Coffee plantations. Once we got there, we learnt about the Coffee plantations process, and what goes into the making of an awesome Guatemalan cup of coffee. The tour ending with a coffee drink at the restaurant in the plantations.
Various stages of the coffee beans
 I did a second tour to the Volcano Pacaya that started at 2:00. It was by far the most adventurous and physically demanding tour during my trip. We did a steep climb to the top of the Volcano and enjoyed the awesome views from the top, including the sunset.
Tip: Check the weather before you do the Volcano climb, else, it may not be worth all the hassle.
Lake Atilan
Day 4 (Lake Atilan): The day started with the shuttle picking me up at my hotel at 5:30 am for the ride to Lake Atitlan. The drive is very scenic, but it's difficult to remain awake when you've had to wake up at 4:30 am. We reached Panajachel and did a boat ride to three of the villages around the Lake viz. San Juan, San pedro and Santiago Atitlan. We did a mini tour of each of the villages and had coffee and lunch breaks in two them. We got to mingle with the locals and learnt about the what goes into the making of the Guatemalan handicrafts. The day ended at 8:00 pm with the shuttle back to Antigua.
Tourists from Japan and Austria
Day 5 (Chichicastanango market): This was the least interesting of all the tours, but still better sitting in the hotel. We drove to the Chichicastanango market, early morning, which is about a couple of hours to the west of Antigua and explored the market for about 3 hours before heading back at about 2:00 pm. The market is very crowed and be prepared to be followed and nagged by various vendors into buying their stuff. Also, keep your wallets safe.
Chaos at Chichicastanango market

Overall, this is by far the most adventurous trip I've done till now. I met people from all over the world, spoke Spanish (as much as possible) and did things that I'd laughed off, had someone told me I was going to be doing them, a year or so back.

Tips: 1) Exchange your USDs at Banco Banrural at Guatemala City Airport, which is on the 3rd floor of the departures' building, they had the best exchange rate. However, USDs are also widely accepted and preferred, and Euro and USD are the only currencies convertible to Quetzales.
With tourists from Mexico
With a local Guatemalan woman
2) Talk as much Spanish as you can, the locals appreciate it and will help you in every way possible.
3) Don't flash your camera/money or anything valuable in public.
Me on the ferry at Lake Atilan
4) Consider taking Hep A and Typhoid shots, and stick to bottled water or agua embotellado in Spanish.
5) Leave your passport at the hotel and carry a photocopy of front/back pages and two passport size photos with you, you will need this in case the passport is lost/stolen.
6) Enjoy Guatemala, the country has a lot of offer!
What businesses did I use?
Hotel in Tikal: Tikal Inn
Tour in Tikal : Roxy Ortiz (You have to email her atleast 2-3 months in advance, she's usually pretty booked and answers emails only once a week or so.)
Tour in/around Antigua: Rainbow Tours
Hotel in Antigua: Hotel Antigua
Airlines : United (They bumped me up to business class while coming back!) & Tag (for Tikal-Guatemala City round trip)


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