Thanks to Lonely Planet, travelling has become very easy. Most of the time, it’s not very difficult to get around. This is also true for Central America as there seem to be mandatory stops and common routes that many travellers take. In our case, we started the trip on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, then went on to Belize in order to get to Guatemala. Along the way, we met many people who did the same. And there is a good reason for it: Backpacking in Central America is great, easy and safe! Here are the highlights from our trip to Guatemala, a country of beautiful natural diversity, a well-preserved Mayan culture, delicious food, coffee, cacao and very friendly people.
Isla de Flores at beautiful Lake Peten Itza
‘Flores’ is a place that attracts many tourists because it lies on a gorgeous lake. The town is actually divided into two parts: when travellers talk about Flores, they refer to the part that lies on the peninsula in the middle of beautiful Lake Peten Itza. Yet, when one arrives at ‘Flores’ it can be a bit confusing at first because the bus terminal is on the mainland. From this buzzing part of the town, you can easily get to the more scenic old town on the bespoke peninsula. It’s connected by road and you’ll get there within 10 minutes by one of the eager taxi or Tuk-tuk drivers that is waiting for you in front of the bus terminal. Here is a short video from our Tuk-tuk ride to Isla de Flores:
We stayed one night in one of the hostels on the island and then ‘fled’ to the quieter shore just opposite of the town, from which we had an amazing view onto Flores’ colourful houses. The boat ride is less than 5 minutes, and brings you to an area where only local people live. Yet, there is one hotel (which is still a lot more economic than in the touristy old town of Flores), a couple of shops and a few houses of the local fishermen and their families. For food shopping, you will have to go back to the mainland, but it’s worth it. It’s everything you need if you are looking for some quiet and peaceful time at the lake.
There are plenty of things to do in Flores: you can take a scenic boat ride across the lake, stroll through the market, admire traditional Guatemalans’ horse demonstrations, go hiking in the nearby mountains or simply enjoy the view of the lake while sipping a cup of Guatemalan coffee.
Welcome to the capital: ‘Guate’
From Flores, we took an overnight bus to Guatemala City or like the locals call it: ‘Guate’. It depends highly on your choice of bus company and price of the ticket whether you will enjoy this ride or not. We probably went a bit too cheap and hardly slept that night due to the bumpy road and the ambitious driver…we arrived safe and according to plan to the bus terminal at 7 am in Guatemala City.
After a strong coffee and a bite to eat, we hopped onto the metro-bus that took us to the city. The public transportation in Guatemala City works with a pre-purchased card that you load with money. If you only stay for a couple days, though, do it like the locals who don’t have a card and ask in line if you can pay someone the price of one ride and use his or her card. It’s very cheap to get around and you would be never able to make up for the initial cost of the card. It’s very common, don’t be shy, everyone is friendly and happy to help out!
In the city centre, there are plenty of options to stay. We chose the Theatre International Hostel which is a cool place for backpackers. It has a pool, a decent common area to hang out, the rooms are nice and the breakfast is yummy! We stayed there two nights and liked it. From there you can walk to the main shopping area of the city, with loads of local and international bars and restaurants. A 10 minute walk away you’ll find the market to buy fresh fruit, vegetables and Guatemalan craft. This is the place where the locals eat lunch, so make sure to try some traditional dishes and enjoy the special atmosphere.
What is true for most places in Central America, goes also for Guatemala City: it is considered dangerous. I would say that you need to be a normal person and not a scared victim when walking in the streets ANYWHERE in the world. Plus, stay in the areas that are safe (you can find that out easily by talking to locals or read some guidebooks, although some exaggerate extremely!) and don’t walk around with your valuables/a camera or phone visible in a real dark street late at night, unless absolutely necessary. I mean, all it takes is a bit of common sense and some research. But what I can say about this city is that we felt safe all the time. I find it’s absolutely fine to visit Guatemala City and it has a great deal to offer if you are into museums, shopping, nightlife or some historical buildings.
Antigua is dominated by international influence and is the leader when it comes to tourism. Someone in Honduras told me that all of the tourism of Central America is managed through Antigua. And I believe it. There are a ton of tour operators, travel agencies, cafes, restaurants and you can find many international brands in clothes shops. It almost feels a bit like strolling through a European town… plus, you hear more English in the streets than Spanish. Most people stop in Antigua in to hike to one of the many Volcanoes in the area. We ended up not going because the weather did not match our gear and it was unexceptionally cold those days.
What else is there to do in Antigua? The usual: cute little markets and shops that sell all sorts of local arts and handicrafts. You can find in almost all the restaurants and bars very good coffee and hot chocolate – it’s a must when in Guatemala to try as many variations as you can (it was one of my missions at least ;-)). There are a quite a few bars and clubs if you want to go out at night. We had a quiet time in Antigua as the weather was too cold and windy – we stuck to the hot chocolate tastings for most of the time….
One very adventurous bus ride and four hours later, we arrived at beautiful Lake Atitlan. It is really worth the somewhat stressful ride, but be prepared for some adrenalin running through your body on the bus. In general, the drivers in Guatemala seem to think they drive a race car. Luckily, the buses resist a lot, they are the old Ford School Buses from the United States, that were donated to the country….
San Marcos, Lago Atitlan
Once you get to Panajachel, you can either stay there or hop on a boat to get to one of the places at the lake. The boat ride is about 15-30 minutes depending on your destination. We paid 25 Quetzales/ about 3 USD to get to San Marcos.
We stayed a couple of nights in San Marcos, which is small hippie town with loads of organic food options, nature-focused shops and spiritual/mind-body workshops. You can do Yoga, attend some moon dancing rituals or get a massage…I think I am not a hippie after all, but like the idea that we should connect more with our body, mind, and nature. San Marcos gets you into the right vibe for that, for sure!
San Pedro de la Laguna, Lago Atitlan
After a couple of days of tranquility and some productive hours in the many cafés of San Marcos, we took one of the small boats (10 Quetzales/ 1.30 USD) and headed over to the busier town San Pedro.
This place is the absolute opposite of it’s little brother San Marcos: it is a lot bigger and has very steep streets (almost like the streets in San Francisco but narrower) that are filled with the noise of constantly running Tuk-tuks up and down the hills. It’s perhaps great for people who want to meet other travellers and party. Actually, there are also a lot of Spanish language schools. So, many tourists stay for a few weeks in order to learn Spanish or improve their language skills. Guatemala is known for a very clear and almost accent-free Spanish.
After another rocky bus trip back to Guatemala City, we headed over to the Honduran border. The whole way from San Pedro to Honduras you can do in one day, but you have to start early: We took the bus at 7 am in San Pedro and had to switch buses in one of the smaller towns after about 1 1/2 hours. The next bus took us straight to Guatemala City (it took us 5 hours and in total we paid 50 Quetzales which is around 6.5 USD. From there, we had to cross the city from one end to the other (about 2 hours in total, including the transition times) before we jumped on the next bus that took us to the border of Honduras (another 5 hours and 60 Quetzales this time).
We arrived at the immigration office at around 7 pm and were told that there was no more public transportation to the nearest town ‘Copan’. How we got to our hotel in the dark and why we would do it differently next time, you can read in our post about the Ruins of Copan…