The best reason to visit Guatemala, Tikal’s gorgeous Maya site embedded in the jungle. More. Photo by Mike Vondran.
Lake Atitlan’s volcanoes seen from Panajachel’s port by Chensiyuan.
Wide, clear and beautifully framed by three volcanoes Lake Atitlan is where Maya traditions are at their ancient best in spite of a river of gringos silting up the neighbourhood over the years.
The bizarre local god, Maximon/Ry Laj Man/San Simon, in all his wooden, smoking, drinking glory can be visited hereabouts.
The largest and most sophisticated of the lake’s 13 towns is Panajachel – aka Gringotenango, not a pretty sight, but foreigner-friendly (particularly backpackers) and what a location!
Next best stop is Santiago Atitlan, across the lake, a more traditional town with terrific Friday and Sunday markets.
San Pedro la Laguna is a kind of alternative hippie retirement home with plentiful inexpensive accommodation, thermal baths, hikes up the nearby volcano and ganja blowing in the wind.
Tikal’s brilliantly atmospheric Maya pyramid group seen from a plane by Dennis Jarvis.
One of the most impressive Maya pyramid groups anywhere, this magnificent cluster of ancient structures is embedded in 370 sq kms of howling, fluttering, overpowering jungle.
Day trips are possible from quiet Flores but VERY different from the Tikal dusk/dawn experience when you’ll be surrounded by fewer tourists but a forest of roaring monkeys (howlers), screeching parakeets, fluttering bats and all sorts of scary Indiana Jonesness, so stay overnight and go buggy!
Peeking over one million hectares of jungle reserve the stately Tikal pyramids have an earthy, dark and mysterious atmosphere like no other pyramid group except perhaps Palenque in Mexico. The only sounds will be of deep jungle, particularly the appalling roar of the howler monkeys, the squawking of parakeets or the shrieking of tour groups, while the primo sight is of a toucan hurtling like a guided missile across the central plaza.
However, to really experience this magical location you will need to stay nearby, preferably in one of the hotels within walking distance of the site, in order to bypass the seething hordes of daytime arrivistes.
Temple of the Great Jaguar in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Dennis Jarvis
Many visitors stay in the small conurbation of Flores, one and a half hours drive from Tikal. This is composed of three towns beside the lake of Petén Itza – Flores, Santa Elena and San Benito, with the first, Flores, offering reasonably attractive, old world surroundings, while the other two are noisome, recent and disorganized.
Halfway to Tikal but still on the lake shore El Remate is developing into a pleasant little base for Tikal trips.
From Flores travel to other less well-known, more distant Maya ruins are also possible, El Mirador, El Zotz and Rio Azul – still in Guatemala – and a much longer drive can take you across the border in Mexico, en route for Palenque.
Flores town seen by plane, main access point for Tikal ancient site. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.
Only go to this dirty, dull and dangerous city if you need transport connections, though there are a couple of OK museums, the Palacio Nacional and the central market is lively. Antigua is only an hour away.
San Andres Xecul church photographed by Chensiyuan.
Cycling and motorcycling
Popular and with plenty of local support, though don’t forget much of Guatemala is mountainous, roads are in poor shape and many vehicle drivers verge on the lunatic. Welcome to Latin America! Bicycles can be carried on most bus roofs.
Bikes and motorbikes can be rented in tourist locations like Antigua, Flores, Panajachel.
Hikers can lose themselves in the lowland rainforest of Petén, stumbling over toucans and undiscovered Maya pyramids or head for the highlands around Lake Atitlan for easy, spectacular, less sweaty walks.
Alternatively high altitude freaks will enjoy scrambling up volcanoes such as Pacaya or San Pedro. Guides are useful in low and high cases and can be recruited locally.
Horse riding is available, mostly around Lake Atitlan.
White Water Rafting: One day to one week expeditions. June-Oct on Rivers Esclavos, Motagua and Naranjo and all year on Rio Cahabon.
Kayaking: good in Sept/Oct on Lanquin, Sauce, and Esclavos Rivers, and all year on Rio Cahabon.
Caving: in Verapaces area, Lanquin and Poptun have well known cave complexes. Candeleria is the new cave wave, with Gruta Rey Marcos and Chicoy.
Climbing: many good climbs in the Cuchumatanes range or Tajumulco Volcano for a real challenge.
Beach bumming: on the Pacific coast there are a couple of OK beaches, Balneario Chulamar (5km east of Puerto San José) and Balneario Likin (17km east of Puerto San José) or for the Caribbean side see right, Livingston #7.
Fishing: the number one deep sea fishing port is Iztapa on the Pacific coast, and world records have been set here in the hunt for marlin, sharks and other big fry.
With no rail service and flights to Flores/Tikal being the only real need for a compulsively disorganized airline, solo travellers in Guatemala will spend considerable time on buses.
There are three types, a) posh/1st class/Pullman b) chicken buses c) minibuses.
Pullman buses are not frequent, expensive and only run on major tourist routes, but are generally comfortable, fast and safe.
Chicken buses are local buses that stop to pick up everyone and everything, including chickens. They are very cheap and entertaining, with no shortage of sights to see and friends to make, but could well be cramped, uncomfortable and driven by a lunatic. Big baggage will be stored on the roof and should be safe as, theoretically, only the driver’s mate can go up there.
Minibuses will be operated by tour companies and may include a guide. They take tourists from/to their hotels and are consequently convenient, quick and safe, though dull and the most expensive of all three bus types.
Guatemala is a country with a petty crime problem, no more so than at bus stations and on chicken buses, so keep valuables well hidden from pickpockets and check what happens to your luggage.
Beware offers of drink and food from strangers, drugged produce is not unknown in this part of the world.
If you think you may fall asleep on the bus ensure that things are VERY secure before you doze off. Avoid night buses. The bugcrew has been robbed of valuables in this very situation!
The week before Easter (Semana Santa), a very lively time with processions, music and dance, especially impressive and colourful in Antigua or Santiago Atitlan.
late July, Rabin Ajau Indian folk festival, music and dance, esp. good in Coban.
Oct 28, San Simon/Maximon’s birthday party, near Antigua in San Andres Iztapa. Wild.
Nov 1, Day of the Dead Kite Flying near Antigua, at the cemeteries of Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango. Thousands of kites connect the living with the dead.
Dec 7, Quema del Diablo, Burning the Devil, music, mad fireworks and more, especially bizarre in Chichicastenango, followed by. . .
Dec 14-21, Chichicastenango fiesta, colours in extremis.