If you only had to choose one Latin American colonial town you can visit in your life, make sure it's Antigua. Imagine cobble-stoned streets that lead you to the most charming cafes and restaurants, hidden in patios that look like secret gardens. And when you're bored of sipping avocado margaritas, you can climb a volcano or try zip lining. Or learn some Spanish in one of the many language schools.
Do not be discouraged by its location and the fact that you'll need to travel many hours to get here. We can't imagine our trip without Semuc Champey. Looks like a nature paradise, we're surprised no Hollywood movie, starring young Leonardo DiCaprio, was ever made here. Our only regret about this place is that we stayed here too short.
The limestone, turquoise pools in which you can swim are the most famous feature of Semuc Champey, but it's not the only thing to do. Try also the river tubing (we felt like kids again!) and exploring the Grutas de Lanquin (scary but fun). See our pictures HERE
For many people, Tikal is the main reason to visit Guatemala. This ancient Mayan city is located in the middle of the rainforest, so when walking from one temple to another, you'll have a pretty good chance to spot a toucan, a howler monkey, flocks of green parakeets or even a tarantula spider. Not to be missed.
A volcanic lake, so beautiful you’ll be stunned. It is surrounded by several little towns located on its shore, and you can move between them on boats (the boats frequently go from one town to another). The place becomes popular among Spanish language learners – there are several schools to choose from in the area. You might want to begin your journey in Panajachel, where the hotel infrastructure is developed the most and where the boat rides start and end. For more tranquil locations check San Juan, San Marcos or Santiago Atitlan.
Monterrico is a beach resort for residents of Guatemala City. But only during weekends. On the weekdays it's a quiet fishermen village on the Pacific coast, where you can relax in beach hammocks, read books or try to catch a glimpse of whales on the horizon, exhaling air through their blowholes (yes, we saw it!). You can also visit the local “tortugario” (a place where sea turtles hatch) to watch tiny little turtles being released into the sea. For the sunrise, you can go for a boat trip to the protected area of Monterrico mangroves and observe the nature waking up to life.
There's one flaw, though - the Monterrico beach waves are too big for swimming. OK, there’s another one – the beach is volcanic, and thus, it’s black.
Flores is a starting point for trips to Tikal, and most visitors come here only for this purpose. We did the same. And we haven't expected to find such a gem! This charming colonial town located on the lake island, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway only, is home to countless restaurants and bars, where you can sip your mojito watching the sun setting over Lake Peten Itza. The mojito was the best we ever had!
We had a big discussion over this one. Chris insisted on putting Santa Lucia somewhere among the top three, I would rather place them on a special list. Called "a must-see for ancient murderous cults fans".
The Pipils of Santa Lucia were death-obsessed, and their religion required human sacrifice. The present population of the region claim ancestry from the Pipils and still preserve some of the traditional beliefs and practices. In Bilbao field, you’ll find a potbelly with the evident marks of ongoing ceremonies. Bilbao is the name of the sugar cane plantation where the sculptures have been excavated. It lies a few kilometers outside Santa Lucia, and the only way to get there is by taxi. The place has safety issues – our driver was evidently nervous when Chris accepted a local guide’s proposal to show him the sculptures located distantly in the fields. The sculptures are scattered, so make sure the taxi driver knows where to go. The safest places are the Museo Cultura Cotzumalguapa and the Finca el Baul headquarters, where the stone figures and reliefs found on the plantation are exhibited.
On the other hand, the Monte Alto potbelly sculptures in La Democracia seemed to be cute – round, fat and smiling. But don’t underestimate them - they are believed to be the oldest magnetic artifacts in the world, and judging by the number of local elders crouching on the stone pedestals they must make powerful chakras!
Rio Dulce (proper name Fronteras) is a town located at the point where Dulce River flows from Lake Izabal. It serves as a shelter for yachts and other boats during the Atlantic hurricane season. There's nothing special about the town itself, except maybe the Castillo de San Felipe - the Spanish colonial fort, built to stop pirates from entering Lake Izabal. The magic of Rio Dulce is its location and natural attractions. But it’s powerful magic, so be aware – we met some wandering spirits who came here for merely a visit and couldn’t find strength to leave. Book a room ahead – access to some hotels is possible by boat only, and while the owners will get you from the bridge area for free if you’re a guest, getting there by water taxi only to learn they are fully booked might be a bit pricey. Rio Dulce makes a perfect starting point for trips to Livingston, Finca el Paraiso and El Boqueron canyon (read below).
Both of them are easily visited on the same day trip from Rio Dulce. First stop near El Boqueron - a river canyon, where you can hire a local guide with a paddled boat. The canyon is picturesque and makes a nice break from the heat. Then catch a bus and head to Finca el Paraiso - a ranch with hot spring waterfall that drops into a cold pool of crystal clear water. There's a small fee to be paid at the gate. We planned to soak for an hour or so but ended up staying almost till the sunset.
This town, located on the Caribbean coast, is famous for its Garifuna* culture. Colorful houses, live drum music, lunch at the seashore - you'll get all of this in Livingston. The only way to get here is by boat, as there are no roads to the town, but the ride is very pleasant and picturesque. There are day trips to Livingston organized from Rio Dulce (Fronteras). And although it is possible to stay in Livingston overnight, we think a day trip will do just fine.
* Garifuna are mixed-race descendants of Africans and the indigenous peoples of the South American-Caribbean region.
W H A T T O S E E N E X T
Be aware that there are some safety issues concerning Semuc Champey - the area is heavily guarded by the police forces. We haven't experienced any particular danger there, and we never heard of anyone else getting hurt. But we admit, swimming in the company of an armed SWAT unit might feel a bit uneasy...