Tag Archives: Guatemala

Guatemala parte tres – more fun, frights and amazing sights (or how a little Tikal does you good…)

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Guatemala certainly isn’t the biggest country in the world but it manages to pack a lot within its borders. We’d already seen volcanos, an amazing water park, a beautiful lake, a World Heritage city and the sublime scenery of Semuc Champey, and now it was time to visit another must-see sight in this must-visit country – the ancient Mayan site of Tikal (incidentally, another on the World Heritage list).

Predictably enough though, getting there involved another lengthy journey, the highlight of which was crossing a river by ferry: now this was no ordinary ferry, but was basically a glorified raft with oil drums at each corner, attached to which were four outboard motors. Now you might think there would be some sophisticated steering system in place to coordinate these motors, but you’d be mistaken; instead they only operated one, or occasionally two, at a time and weaved their way across the river. It was only a short journey across and there were signs that a bridge was in the early stages of construction – although we were glad to reach the other side it’d be a bit of a shame to lose such a quirky transport solution.

Riding the rickshaw, and a moment for reflection...

Riding the rickshaw, and a moment for reflection…

So, after eight hours and with numb bums and lethargic limbs we reached Flores, a pleasant town jutting out into the middle of Lake Peten Itza, connected by a causeway to the mainland. This is the main tourist town for visiting Tikal, and some people (and guidebooks) do it down a little but we liked it – it felt like an island, being almost surrounded by water, had hilly little cobbled streets, a few craft shops and a couple of very decent places to eat. It also had auto-rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, which the girls loved; to top if all off it had an enormous Christmas tree in the square, with blaring music and glaring lights, and a chicken on top courtesy of the sponsors, Gallo beer. (Just in case anyone’s confused, we’re so far behind with our blog that we were actually there before Christmas and as such the tree was entirely appropriate, with the possible exception of the chicken).

We had a couple of quiet days exploring Flores, recovering from our bus journey and preparing for a sunrise tour of Tikal – this was to set a new record in early starts as we were being picked up at 3 am. Yes, that’s still the middle of the night, but somehow we were able to get ourselves and the kids up in time. The girls have proved remarkably resilient in getting up early for buses and enduring epic discomfort on long journeys – sometimes the things you think they might moan about are the things they take in their stride with very little fuss.

We left Flores at 3 and arrived at Tikal at 4 am, ready for an hour’s walk by torch-light through the jungle to climb Temple IV for sunrise. On the way we saw a jumping tarantula, which jumped down onto the path in front of the people in front of us – these are canopy dwelling spiders and apparently its quite rare to see them – this didn’t make the arachnophobes in our party feel much better! That aside, it was quite atmospheric walking though the darkness, with vast temples looming out of the gloom and a dotted line of torchlights leading the way. There was then many steps to scale before we could take our place near the top of Temple IV as the first signs of light and life began to appear. Unfortunately there were some people already up there who seemed to expect total silence and at first the main sounds we could hear were tuts, sighs and shushes. Considering there must have been about forty people there and that everyone had just climbed a hefty stairway to get there we thought it was a bit rude, particularly since nobody was making that much noise – that is, until everyone started getting their cameras out. This heralded a cacophony of bags being unzipped, followed by the distinctive ‘der-ding’ noise of digital cameras springing into life. Everyone comes here to listen to the sounds of the animals in the jungle waking up; maybe the monkeys and toucans come to listen to the curious song of the digital traveller, the photo-call of the often-spotted Western tourist.

However, in amongst all this, there was a moment of magic to savour. To hear the sounds of the jungle waking up and to see Tikal’s other temples slowly define themselves against the sky, with mist moving through the trees all around was quite an experience. It wasn’t much of a sunrise but we did get a brief burst of colour before the cloud descended and somehow all the man-made noise didn’t seem to matter so much.

Tikal's temples appear through the morning mist

Tikal’s temples appear through the morning mist

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We then had a guided tour; now we don’t often do guideP1020516d tours, thinking it might be too much for the girls, but this was certainly worth doing, and Luis, the guide was fantastic. We’d already heard spider monkeys and toucans but then we went and found coatimundis, various birds and more monkeys. This was just on the walk between the various temples and ancient ruins themselves.

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And the ruins were pretty amazing too, with huge monumental pyramids soaring upwards at improbably steep inclines. The jungle setting adds a dense green backdrop and the early morning mist adds an air of mystery; it was also really quiet too, with no stalls and very few people, making that 3 am start all the more worthwhile. If all that wasn’t quite enough it also starred in the first Star Wars movie, though George Lucas seems to have had better weather than we did.

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P1020551 P1020588Later, the girls were telling Luis about all the Mayan ruins we’d visited, and counted eight including Tikal. Luis said it was a shame we hadn’t seen nine, as this was a lucky number – we then recounted and realised we’d missed out Tonina, so we’d done the magic nine! We’re not sure that Tikal was our favourite but it wasn’t far off, and we saw another tarantula and some amazing trees, to round off a great trip.

We then headed back to Flores and got back in time for lunch – we’d been on a nine hour trip and still got back in time for lunch! Needless to say we were quite tired for the rest of the day, but still managed to see a glorious sunset over the lake. It’s not all that often we see both sunrise and sunset but then this hadn’t been an ordinary day – we would soon be leaving Guatemala but what a way to leave it. It had become one of our favourite countries, with fantastic sights and friendly people – what more could you ask for?

Sunset over Lake Peten Itza, Flores

Sunset over Lake Peten Itza, Flores

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Guatemala parte dos – fun, frights and awesome sights… (or how Semuc Champey took our breath away)

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After our quick jaunt through El Salvador and Honduras it felt good to be returning to Guatemala, though perhaps not so good to be on another mammoth bus journey. Our journey from Copan (Honduras) to Coban (Guatemala) would take seven hours, two buses and one border crossing, all just to change one letter. First we had to catch an early morning shuttle bus – this involved the usual early morning shuttle shuffle as we drove round town picking people up, though as Copan Ruinas is a small town at least it didn’t take too long this time. The multi-cultural collection of passengers included three French travellers, three people from Thailand and a large group of young Americans who were on a weekend minibreak from teaching in Honduras. Consequently it was quite a lively group who headed to the border for the random roulette fee-charging policies of Guatemala’s passport officials. Some people paid their Quetzales, others (including us) didn’t, and again we entered Guatemala not quite sure of what had just happened.

But we were soon back in fairly familiar territory and drove for a couple of hours before stopping for breakfast. When these meal stops work well they’re a model of efficiency, with the restaurant able to feed a coach load of people and get them back on their way in about half an hour. Happily this was one of the good ones, and it even had a small play area for the kids. We then drove on for a while before we had to switch buses – our shuttle bus was heading for Antigua with the giddy teachers so we were dropped off at the dusty junction town of El Rancho, with only the vaguest of instructions that a bus to Coban would be along shortly. However again we were pleasantly surprised as fifteen minutes later a bus did indeed pull up. It was crowded but bearable, though it did stop almost immediately for another meal break. The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful – we drove up over some hills blanketed in cloud forest that apparently provide the habitat for the last remaining wild quetzel birds in Guatemala – however it’s not called cloud forest for nothing, and that’s precisely what we could see: nothing!

The weather hadn’t improved by the time we reached Coban and it was almost like being back in England as we got off the bus – cold, damp, drab and grey. We found a reasonable hostel though, and then found a playground where the girls impressed some of the local adults with their monkey bar antics – we got the impression they didn’t get many fair-haired white kids swinging like chimpanzees in this neck of the woods. We also found a bit of a gem of a restaurant too, called Casa d’Acuna, where white-shirted waiters served fantastic pizza in a courtyard garden – while Coban hadn’t really grabbed us with its drizzle and dullness it’s always nice to eat somewhere that feels both posh and affordable.

The reason we’d come to Coban was beacuse it made a convenient stopping off point on the way to Semuc Champey. This is one of Guatemala’s must-see attractions, and as getting there involves something of an arduous journey we thought it must be pretty spectacular when you got there. While at the hostel in Coban we tried to book accommodation at a backpacker lodge in the small town of Lanquin, the nearest place of any size to Semuc Champey, but were told that they didn’t take children. Now, sometimes you can get thrown off course and things happen that turn your travels into travails – at other times a slight twist or kink in your path can send you in a different direction and throw some fantastic experiences your way, and provide memories worth keeping for a lifetime. That’s what makes flexible travel such an adventure, an unplanned diversion or change in itinerary can lead to something that becomes a real highlight, made all the better by its unplanned nature. So when the lad on reception recommended another place that had only just opened, and two other guests who happened to be nearby also said they’d stayed there and loved it, we booked a room in Utopia: it would prove to be one of the best places we’ve stayed at – if that first hostel had taken kids we would have missed out on one of the most memorable times of our trip.

Getting there wasn’t without incident though, and the promised arduous journey was that, and more. Yet another early start saw us herded onto a creaky charabanc of a bus for the two hour journey to Lanquin. The first hour was ok, on a proper tarmac road; we then turned off onto a rough track for the next hour, down a series of switchbacks as we dropped into a lush valley. We had been told then we would then switch into 4×4 vehicles for the last few kilometres to Semuc Champey, as the road was too bad for the bus; when they then discovered that they didn’t have enough 4x4s for the number of passengers it was coincidentally decided that the road wasn’t in fact all that bad, and we would continue on the same bus. This was despite the fact that this area had suffered the same heavy rain that we’d enjoyed so much in Coban! Sure enough, the road was an interesting mix of muddy trenches and standing water and we were left to admire the skill of the driver in getting a two-wheel-drive shed of a bus up and down the slippery surfaces. Just when we thought we were nearing our destination we hit something of a traffic jam; after some investigation it appeared that a van had run out of diesel while coming up the hill in the opposite direction – as virtually all the road is single track it hadn’t taken long for a queue to build up in both directions. We couldn’t quite understand why somebody would be driving in such a remote area with no diesel, but it didn’t come as a great surprise. Yet again though, our driver proved his worth, as he syphoned some of the diesel from the bus, put it in the van and got it going again. There then followed a lot of shunting back and forth to get all the vehicles past each other – if anyone has played Traffic Jam on their smartphone they’ll have a decent understanding of the complexity involved.

Utopia, with Remy, Ellen and the dogs!

Utopia, with Remy, Ellen and the dogs!

So, after a delay of an hour or so we reached our rendezvous with Remy from the hostel, and a few minutes later we were at Utopia. It sat amongst cocoa trees above the turquoise waters of the Cahabon river, surrounded by verdant hills, and had a huge communal area with tables, chairs and swings, and several friendly dogs. Sometimes a place just feels right, and the girls loved it straight away. They immediately made friends with Ellen, an American girl who helped run the hostel and we spent the rest of the day eating, drinking and chatting. There was a couple from Barnsley staying who’d spent the last year and a half cycling around, and also another English couple, Carl and Becky, who lived in London; however Carl was also from Barnsley, making this the biggest Yorkshire contingent we’d met outside Yorkshire itself.

Swimming by candle-light, Kan'Ba caves

Swimming by candle-light, Kan’Ba caves

The next day would turn out to be one of the best. We’d decided to do a tour with the hostel, partly after speaking to an American family who’d done it the day before. This would involve a visit to the Kan’Ba caves and to Semuc Champey itself. Weeks ago, a Canadian girl in Merida had told us about these caves where you go swimming with just a candle for light and she said it was one of the best things she’d ever done. We’d been unsure of how the girls would enjoy it, but as the American kids were only a couple of years older we decided to go for it. We still set off with a certain amount of trepidation though, and this would turn out to be well-founded. Almost immediately after entering the caves you are plunged into almost total darkness, with only a spindly candle each to light the way. You are then plunged into icy-cold water, and it’s quite a feat swimming with a candle in one hand and a child in the other, leaving only the feet for propulsion. Just when you’re getting used to swimming for a bit and then picking your way over rocks for a bit, you are then presented with a new challenge – either climbing up a knotted rope through a waterfall, or climbing up a metal ladder through the edge of the waterfall.

Taking the plunge...

Taking the plunge…

When you’ve surmounted this obstacle you have the opportunity to take things up a notch, adventure-wise, just in case you’d been feeling it was all a little tame! Emerging into a high chamber with a deep pool in the bottom, we watched as our guide scampered up a ten-foot rock face, threw his candle down into the water and then leapt through the darkness into the forbidding water below. Of course we were given the chance to try this and Tilly quickly decided she wanted a go – she climbed up quite a few feet and jumped down into the pool, and we were mightily impressed by her bravery. Pete wasn’t quite so quick to accept the challenge but, with heart thumping, managed the full jump, to emerge coughing and spluttering but exhilarated.
We then had to make our way back to the entrance, meaning a climb back down the waterfall and then a slide down a natural chute. Pete went first and the two girls were sent next – however the three of us couldn’t see which way we were supposed to go as our candles had gone out, and we had a bit of a moment’s panic before our guide climbed down and handed us some new candles. By this time though the candles were down to a stump, meaning boiling hot wax was dripping onto our hands and as we swam through a narrow chamber these candles too were extinguished, leaving us in total darkness with two screaming, and by now freezing, children. The rest of the group quickly caught us up though, and we soon emerged back into the daylight, blinking and feeling like we’d had quite the adventure. The girls warmed up and calmed down, and we were left with a thrill of exhilaration as we tucked into a well-deserved snack.

Almost a bridge too far...

Almost a bridge too far…

Faced with the next challenge, this feeling must have gone to Pete’s head, as he then agreed to do a mad bridge jump. We’re not sure just how high above the river it was, but suffice to say the time in the air went on for far too long for comfort. That feeling of exhilaration was quickly replaced with screams, a feeling that this was crazy, then wondering why the water hadn’t arrived yet, then just why was I still in the air, then ooooooaaaarrrgghhh, as body hit water, knocking breath and sense away – even the swim back up to the surface seemed to take an age, then whoops a-plenty on emerging fully intact. If the guide and Carl hadn’t done the jump first it would have seemed a crazy thing to attempt, but it was another high in a day of glorious adventure, and we still had Semuc Champey to come.

After a bit of lunch we then climbed up to the viewpoint above Semuc Champey with Carl and Becky and yet again our breath was taken away…

Can't really think of a caption that does this justice!

Can’t really think of a caption that does this justice!


These crystal clear pools create a natural water park that's impossible to resist!

These crystal clear pools create a natural water park that’s impossible to resist!

P1000948This was truly spectacular – the main river disappears underground, flowing under a vast limestone bridge before emerging hundreds of feet downstream. Some water still flows above ground and runs down over this bridge, creating a series of impossibly inviting pools, linked by little cascades and waterfalls. It also provides some natural water chutes, to add just a little more excitement to the day. And that was our day at Semuc Champey – seldom has a beer tasted as good as the one back at Utopia that evening!

We then had a bit of a mad, and maddening, day on the following day, just to even things up. It would take too long to recount all the details (in an already lengthy post!) but a combination of a 4×4 truck that wouldn’t start, a spare wheel that had been removed in order to fit in the Barnsley couple’s bikes, a group of hippies who couldn’t be bothered to turn up for their lift to Lanquin, and a tyre as flat as a pancake meant that we weren’t able to make it to Coban the next day as planned. Hence we had to stay an extra night at Utopia, and this time the change in our plans provided memories of a more challenging variety. Just as Rach and the girls were going to sleep they had an unwelcome visitor in their room – a visitor of the hairy, scary variety! Pete was in the next room and heard Tilly screaming “TARANTULA!!!!” Thinking it would just be a slightly larger spider than usual he went to investigate and found three females entwined together, all screaming, while above their heads a very real, very large arachnid crept along the ceiling.

Just to try and convey the full horror of this imagine you’re in that drowsy, trance-like state somewhere between sleep and consciousness; you’re lying in bed beneath a low, sloping bamboo roof: now imagine that just as you’re about to finally drift into dreams you take one last, lazy glance up and see a gigantic tarantula a few inches above you. Even if you weren’t a fully fledged arachnophobe you may let out a small scream. The girls let out blood-curdling screams of a magnitude you wouldn’t think they were capable of. The staff and all the rest of the guests came running to see what the commotion was – all apart from one girl in the dorm just outside the room, who somehow managed to sleep through the entire incident! Rach and the girls left the room, vowing never to return again; Pete managed to take a photo before the tarantula disappeared back behind the bamboo ceiling – knowing it was still in the room there’s no way any of us were going to be able to sleep in there, so we were moved to a different room for a night of uneasy sleep, and eight-legged nightmares! We promised not to put the photo on the main post, for viewers of a particularly nervous disposition, but if you want to see it its in the accompanying post, along with some other snaps.

The next day we did finally leave Utopia and Semuc Champey- it was one of our favourite places, and had certainly provided plenty of incident! Next we were on our way to another of Guatemala’s amazing places, but that will have to wait for another day, and another post…

Guatemala parte uno – quakes, a lake, and bellyaches…

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One of the reasons we decided to come travelling was because we wanted to see a different side of life, to go just beyond our comfort zone and then to keep going. We’d planned the trip to ease ourselves into it, starting in the States, moving into Mexico and then progressing into Central America, slowly extending our boundaries past familiarity into uncharted territory, at least for us; and here we were, on the threshold of adventure.

There’s something about crossing the border into a new country, a certain frisson as you stand there in the heat and humidity, waiting for your passport to be stamped, to admit you into a new world. This is particularly true for land crossings, as these often seem to be a law unto themselves and you’re never quite sure how long it will take, as you stand there smiling vacantly, trying to look like your passport photo.

We’d got a minibus from San Cristobal to the border, then had to carry our many bags out of Mexico and into Guatemala. This was one of those slightly chaotic borders, with money-changers waving thick wads of notes at you, and trucks and tuk-tuks (and every size of vehicle in between) weaving their way through the barriers, stalls, animals and people. The Guatemalan officials then asked for an unofficial fee of 10 Quetzales (the Guatemalan currency, 1 Quetzal equaling roughly £0.08) – however we didn’t have any Quetzales, so acted dumb until they waved us through. We didn’t really fancy changing money with one of the characters waving a stash of cash as thick as an encyclopedia at us. It seemed quite random, some people paid, others didn’t, though it did appear that people who’d been into Guatemala before weren’t coughing up!

Soon though we were on a new minibus, curving our way through spectacular scenery, lush green vegetation clinging to an endless array of hills and mountains. We’d decided to go first to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city and a relatively un-touristy place. The Spanish conquistadors named it Quetzaltenango and that’s the official name, but almost everyone calls it Xela, from it’s indigenous name of Xelaju, which can be confusing if you’re looking for it on a map. Like many Guatemalan places, it’s surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, but isn’t exactly what you would call picturesque. It does however, have a rather lovely hotel, Casa Renaissance, and a fabulous Indian restaurant, Sabor de la India, so we were more than happy to visit. We try to find Indian restaurants wherever we can, as you’re virtually assured of decent vegetarian food, and this was one of the best – so much so that we went twice in three days! There was also a Pizza Hut, which the girls were very pleased about, particularly as it had an indoor play!

However we’ll always remember Xela for what happened on our second day. If we were looking for Guatemala to shake things up a bit, nothing prepared us for this. We were sat in the hotel, chatting to an American/English/Canadian family who’d just arrived when a strange rumbling noise started. It was like a monumentally huge freight train was passing just outside, but we knew there were no train tracks anywhere nearby. Then the walls started shaking, rattling the pictures and ornaments as our unease grew. Just as realisation was starting to hit, the Dutch lady who ran the hostel called for us to stand in the courtyard, shouting “Earthquake”, and “This is a Big ONE!”

At this the girls started screaming and a surreal passage of time began. The walls continued to rattle. Pots and glasses tinkled a chilling tune. But most of all the floor moved. Really moved. We were stood on a solid, tiled floor and the whole place just moved in waves under our feet. Slow, menacing waves, like standing on a boat but feeling a vast, primeval force beneath us. And then, after what seemed like minutes, it stopped. First thoughts, relief; then more anxious moments, wondering if it was really over, or if there would be aftershocks. Then worried about how bad it might have been elsewhere – the power had gone off so we had no way of knowing how near the epicentre we were, or how big it had been.

Rach went out on the streets and found people in a state of near panic – everyone on their mobile phones, even though there was no coverage, and rumours spreading like crazy. It was all quite upsetting and we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves for the next hour or so until the power came back on. We then found out it was pretty bad, but not an absolutely major catastrophe; again, first thoughts, relief, then guilt as there had been quite a few fatalities. Then more guilt as it was impossible not to feel that we’d witnessed, and survived, an experience that was frightening, and exciting, for want of a better word.

The rest of the day was a bit weird after that. As soon as the power came back on we sent messages home in case it’d made the news and people were worried. (Though as our friend Vicky said, the only way it would have made the news back home was if Obama had mentioned it in his acceptance speech, after being re-elected president!). Meanwhile Jacco and Mareike (the hotel owners) surveyed the damaged to the hotel – a bit of plaster damage and a smshed chandelier, leaving glass all over the room next to ours. Then Mareike had an almighty row with a disgruntled former guest who acted like she owned the place (this added to the oddness). We then went out for lunch with the other family and witnessed just how slow and frustrating service can be in Guatemala (stranger, and yet stranger). Later on we went to a playground and got some shopping at the supermarket, then, back at the hotel we cooked tea – normal service had been resumed. It was only when we caught up with the news and read about the damage and numerous aftershocks that we got worried again, and it was an uneasy sleep that lay in wait for us that night.

The next day we decided to have a lazy day of doing nothing, to recover from yesterday and to catch up on things. We’d also more or less decided to go home for Christmas, which meant lots of research on flights. Casa Renaissance was a homely place to spend some time, and they had lots of films loaded on the computer so the day passed without incident – that is, until one of the girls had a major meltdown at bedtime. Perhaps it was the stress of yesterday, the stress of travelling or the stress of spending 24 hours a day together but this was quite a low point in our journey, and made our Christmas decision for us. Maybe we were asking too much of the girls. Maybe things just got magnified. Travelling does tend to compress a wealth of experiences into a short space of time, and it can overload your senses. Maybe we just needed a break, and at least we wouldn’t have to worry about booking somewhere over Christmas.

We needed cheering up, so what better then a trip to a water park the following day? Xocomil was built by several large businesses in Guatemala for their workers – a bit of their wage is deducted and they get free entry. It’s also open to the paying public so we decided to visit, well aware that we’d almost certainly be the only foreigners there. It’s also in the middle of nowhere and the only way to get there is by one of the legendary ‘chicken buses’. These are a Central American institution, old, retired US school buses shipped down and ‘renovated’. This renovation involves a major paint job, the addition of lots of chrome, and replacing the seats with longer benches. So, in a vehicle designed to fit 4 small American children in each row they now fit in a couple of families travelling with all their worldly goods, plus a few farmyard animals. The only concession to safety seems to be to add stickers saying that Jesus will protect us. These vehicles support a whole industry of spray painters and chrome fitters, and the owners try to outdo and out-bling each other. Each bus also has a girl’s name emblazoned across it. It’s definitely part of the Guatemalan experience travelling on one of these and on the way to the park it wasn’t too bad – we had almost a place and a half between the four of us, and even if the idea of personal space is an alien concept, it wasn’t so different to being on the northern line in London.

We then reached the park and paid our entry fee and walked in – and into a different world, so much so that we wondered if we’d missed passport control. This was a water park to rival any we’d been to before, with about twenty chutes, slides and rides, plus a couple of wave pools, all bathed in glorious sunshine. We also went to the theme park next door, which had recreations of Paris, Venice and Bavaria but not many rides. This was a bit of a let down after the water park but since both parks had cost us less for the four of us than one ticket to Disneyland we couldn’t really complain.

Xocomil Water Park - it's Guatemala, but not as we know it...

Xocomil Water Park – it’s Guatemala, but not as we know it…

We then had to get back to Xela and if we’d been feeling that we didn’t quite know what all the fuss was about chicken buses this changed on the way back. It was full when we got on and then got busier; Rach got about half a seat and had both girls on her knee, Pete had less and had an elderly Guatemalan gentleman on his knee. It then started raining, so all the windows were shut and the heat and humidity reached passing out levels. We were also climbing back up into the mountains, which was bad enough for the bus but the many trucks found it almost impossible to keep going at more than snail’s pace. Imagine a bus travelling at 2 km/h trying to overtake a truck travelling at 1 km/h in torrential rain round a blind corner going up a mountain. Now imagine cramming twice as many people as you thought possible onto the bus, and then squeezing in thirty more people, all carrying bags the size of hay bales. Now imagine this scene relocated into a sauna – there, now that’s a chicken bus journey!

However Pete did get chatting to the elderly gentleman, who’d lived in California for a while and was an entertaining companion – while the journey didn’t exactly fly by it did make it more pleasant, and we got back to Xela having seen two very different sides to Guatemala.

Chicken Buses, Guatemala

Chicken Buses, Guatemala

The next day we moved on to Lago Atitlan – an early German explorer called it ‘the most beautiful lake in the world’, and it is certainly very impressive, with three volcanoes standing watch over it.

Lago Atitlan - said to be the most beautiful lake in the world...

Lago Atitlan – said to be the most beautiful lake in the world…

Village life, unchanged.

Village life, unchanged.


We stayed in the town of Panajachel, which is not quite so picturesque, but does have a decent selection of cafes and a wide range of accommodation. We found a room with a double bed and two singles, which was a little bit grotty but the hotel was run by a friendly lady, and there was a beautiful garden with hummingbirds and a resident parrot.

We took a boat trip across the lake to Santiago Atitlan, where most of the people still wear traditional dress; down by the port it was a bit touristy but when you walked up to the town itseld there was a bustling market which was certainly not touristy – not unless you count endless stalls selling tomatoes as a must-see attraction.

Apparently while we were on the boat back to Panajachel there was another earthquake, though much smaller than the last one. We didn’t know about it until a couple of days later but had noticed that the water suddenly went very choppy for a few seconds, and then stopped. I don’t think this contributed to what happened to Kiah’s hair though…

Wavy hair, Lago Atitlan

Wavy hair, Lago Atitlan

Just in case you haven’t had enough lake photos, there’s some more, along with other Guatemala pictures in the accompanying post.

One of the reasons we decided to stay in Panajachel was because we’d followed the blog of a family who were living there. They’d travelled from Alaska and were eventually heading for Argentina, but had been in Pana for the last few months. The mum was called Rachel and they had a daughter called Kyah so it seemed like we really ought to try and meet up with them. We’d been in contact on Facebook and went later that day up to their house and had a great time – they were really friendly and welcoming, our kids had a fantastic time playing with their five children, and they even fed us for two nights running!

A bound of bravery for Tilly...

A bound of bravery for Tilly…

A jump of courage for Kiah...

A jump of courage for Kiah…

Their boys, Parker and Kimball had invented a game jumping from the roof of their bungalow onto the trampoline and eventually Tilly and Kiah plucked up the courage to leap into the unknown. Tilly, Kyah and Parker also went on an adventure to the supermarket, catching a tuk-tuk there and back (a little motorised rickshaw taxi) and buying some shopping. It was great for the girls to spend time with other children, and great for us to have some grown up conversation too.

We found the town a bit of a hassle though, and after one too many meals spent sat in a restaurant being pestered by people selling stuff we were ready to move on.

Our next destination was Antigua, and we were delighted to find that Kylie and Jez, who we’d met in Merida, were staying there – the girls had got on really well with them and it was great fun meeting up with them again, going out for a meal and having a couple of beers on the hostel roof terrace. They were heading in the opposite direction the next day but Kylie still found time to plait the girls’ hair.

Antigua is possibly the quintessential colonial city, and is a World Heritage Site. It’s chock full of cafes, restaurants and chocolate shops, and its streets are full of crumbling buildings and weathered charm.

Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

The girls were also very keen to sample the chocolate museum, and went on a chocolate making workshop…

Chocolate wouldn't melt...

Chocolate wouldn’t melt…

We’re sure it was nothing to do with the lovely chocolates, but Kiah, and then Pete, started feeling rather under the weather over the next couple of days, with a temperature, stomach aches and dizzy spells. Consequently Antigua ended up being something of a mixed bag – beautiful to look at, but left us feeling ill, which somehow fitted in with it’s feel of bygone decadence.

And that was it for Guatemala for now. We managed a bit of shopping in the markets but it was time to move on. Having decided to go home for Christmas and then fly back out to South America we needed to fit a fair bit into the time we had left before our flight. Hence we decided to dip our collective toes briefly into El Salvador and Honduras, before coming back through Guatemala, on our way to Belize and then back to Mexico to catch a flight home.

We’d enjoyed Guatemala so far – who wouldn’t like crazy buses and volcanoes?

Chicken bus + volcano = Guatemala

Chicken bus + volcano = Guatemala

And in case anyone was wondering – yes, they do still have the vicious speed bumps in Guatemala, but they call them tumulos, instead of topes in Mexico…