A March 2005 trip
to Guatemala by albionvicar
Quote: I took a tour around the highlands, visiting Antigua, Chichicastenango, and Panajachel. Then it was off to the Peten for a 2-week language school featuring a weekend visit to Tikal before finishing in the delightful island of Caye Caulker.
One of the major meeting points are the markets of Chichicastenango (Thursdays and Sundays). It is good advice to get there the night before. The atmosphere around the Santo Tomas church, with native rites still being performed into the late hours is truly memorable.
Tikal is, of course, a traveller must and early entrance to the park highly beneficial. Bird spotters (Twitchers) will be delighted with Little Ceasars’ 5am tour. Try climbing one of the less tourist targeted pyramids and enjoy sunrise on your own.
Caye Caulker is a delight for snorkellers and divers, and also for those who like a quieter Caribbean experience, complete with all of the ‘characters’ you could only find in that region. See seperate journal 'Island Life' for full details.
Hotel | "Panza Verde Hotel (Antigua)"
The basic rooms are of an average value (no tub or TV) and quite small. They have a patio, but with no view and squashed up against a drab wall. The suites looked superb, with loads of space and tubs with excellent views over the volcanoes. Each are equipped with an oversized hammock. A number of imaginative activities take place during the day, such as still-life drawing classes.
For a summary of the good-value suites, see the separate restaurant review.
Take a look at http://www.panzaverde.com.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on April 11, 2005
Mesón Panza Verde Hotel and Restaurant
5a Ave Sur # 19
Antigua, Guatemala 03001
(502) 7832 1745
This is a curious hotel containing a beautiful forecourt with parrots on display during the day. With the number of religious artifacts around, it rather felt like a monastery, though one that could make exceptionally good cocktails.
Rooms are large but sparsely decorated. The bar area very pleasant, with an open fireplaces and candles, but it closed far too early. The restaurant was poor, with food on a fixed menu and mass produced for the tourist groups.
Service could have been much better. There were no stamps, exchange-only changing notes, and no travellers cheques. They were unhelpful. It was in a nice location but overpriced.
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on April 14, 2005
Hotel | "Posada de los Volcanes (Panajachel)"
Julio is probably one of the most caring hosts I have stayed with since the legendry Margarita in Copper Canyon, Mexico. Julio arranged for a taxi from Chichi to the hotel for my arrival (driven by him). For an encore, he drove me all the way back to Guatemala City airport (2.5 hours) on my way back, where he waited a couple of hours for his next guests to arrive. Consequently, this becomes a viable first destination on your itinerary, with the guarantee of a safe and caring driver awaiting your arrival (who, if asked nicely enough, will stop for photo opportunities).
This is very highly recommended. See http://www.posadadelosvolcanes.com/eng/index.htm.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on April 15, 2005
Posada de los Volcanes
Calle Santander 5-51 Zona 2
Live music is available on some evenings. Food is superb and good value for money, considering the venue. Full wine list (expensive!) to compliment the food.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on April 12, 2005
Panza Verde Restaurant
5a Avenue Sur # 19
+502 (9) 78321745
It is a pretty little town surrounded by unforgiving, steep hills. Not much happens here; with the exception of an occasional festival, it is quiet, with one cantina (with only one CD playing Guatemalan rap nonstop!) on the seafront. Security is tight, and local police are only distinguished by the alarming weaponry carried in public view, a concern when these guys have been drinking.
Like most courses, this involved a family stay. My home for the 2 weeks was clean and comfortable but basic, sharing toilet facilities at the back of the garden. Once you got used to it, this presented no problem at all. The food was a constant: eggs, beans, and tortillas, with a little meat/fish occasionally. I felt the need for a weekly trip to Flores to catch up on emails, use the phone, and to eat a more meat-based meal. Alright, I confess, I had spaghetti Bolognese and ice cream.
With three generations of the family in residence, family life was conducted behind closed doors, and disappointingly, I ate separately from the family, thus restricting opportunities to talk with and participate in family life.
The school was friendly and helpful, with classes in the morning and an activity in the afternoon, like cooking, soap making, or a visit to the nature reserve an hour away by road. The school also assists in the maintenance of a medicinal garden, producing herbs and remedies to cure illnesses. The organisers were very good, providing a launch to get to the town and even a completely unexpected airport pick up. Thanks, Manuel.
Lessons are with teachers from the village (no English-speakers) and concentrate on a teaching guide heavy on grammar. I feel more could have been done to encourage everyday conversation. The teaching standards did vary from one tutor to the next. Some were very clear and patient, while others were not.
The town is one hour away on a chicken bus from Santa Elena Market (Q5), or 30 minutes on a launch from Flores (Q100).
For a school with a difference, I can happily recommend it, though perhaps not for beginners.
The town of Chichicastenango is an absolute must, not only for the twice-weekly market, but as a destination in itself for a couple of nights. There is not a lot to do, but the atmosphere here is truly mystical.
I was advised to arrive the night before the market, a challenge in itself, as there are no organised trips into the town outside of market day. I took what was advertised as a tourist bus from Antigua heading to Panajachel and changed at Los Encuentros. It turned out to be a curious journey--tourists up the front, locals at the back as the bus proceeded to stop on request all along the route. Soon it was a complete mix of farmers, indigenous women in full costume, their children, and anything else they could carry. We had reverted to a chicken bus. This, of course, made the journey far more interesting, and I shared a seat with a mother and two children, one slung over her back in the traditional way.
We made our way down the Transamerica highway, full of colour, as this is a very traditional area. At Los Encuentros, I became the only gringo changing buses and felt quite vulnerable. The town is nothing more than a collection of roadside snack bars and none-too-healthy-looking local cafes. This is real Guatemala. I was soon offered a ride in a local collectivo and within half an hour had arrived in the heart of ‘Chichi’.
This is the heart of indigenous Guatemala, the sights, sounds, colours and smells deliciously overwhelming. There a limited number of restaurants and snack bars geared to a western pallet. For the more adventurous, there are countless street food stands. The town is centred around a plaza, with a number of very good-value shops selling the full range of local wares at very reasonable price on most days.
Beware the guides offering trips to Maximon and the local altar. I was asked $60 for a tour. The altar is mapped, signposted, and perfectly safe to walk to, without paying rip-off prices for a guide.
Late night before market day, the church of Santo Tomas becomes a blaze of incense as local shamans chant their rituals for a successful trading day ahead.
Market day itself, it’s a good idea to tour early, before the tourist buses get in, to decide what you would like, need, and absolutely must have. Get a fix on prices and quality of the goods. Some items are at every stand, and some are completely unique. Set a limit on what you are going to spend and step forward to enjoy the show.
Tu Café is a nice spot for a cooling beer and for people-watching. For dinner, try ‘Casa San Juan’, a lovely candlelit venue where mains, coffee, and a couple of glasses of wine can be had for Q70. Both are on the main plaza.
I stayed in the Hotel Santo Tomas--see the individual review for details.
The hotels organise tours commencing from 5am, guaranteeing you a suitable pitch to watch the sunrise. The best of these is the bird-watching tour by Little Caesar. He has an amazing ability to spot rare birds, and armed with his equipment, you can photograph through a high-powered telescopic lens. He is independent but has posters on display at most hotels, or ask at the Jaguar Inn.
If you want to have solitude, you can enter on your own from 5am, but you will be obliged to hire an armed guard who will remain with you until sunrise. (Wild animals and bandits are present!) Entrance to the park costs 50Q a day, plus 20Q for a guard if you are early. (Bring a strong flashlight and back-up battery.)
You can buy drinks on site, but there is no food. You would need a pack a lunch or leave the site and eat at one of the hotels, or for far cheaper, at the range of comedores at the park entrance. Most of the early risers retreat to their hotels for a late breakfast.
I stayed at the Tikal Inn, with clean, simple, and overpriced rooms. They do offer an all-inclusive package. The food was average. There is a pool but no bar, but they have electric running until late. A much cheaper option is the Jaguar Inn, with a good bar, Internet, and nice restaurant (good, though service is slow and the staff can be difficult and it closes early when the electric shuts off at 9pm). It is frequently full, so book in advance.
The tourist buses start trundling in from Flores around 7am, and then the site becomes busy. There is a small museum selling a book with an excellent map of the area.
The Mundo Perdido area offers some of the oldest remains and is still being excavated. It has a very special feel and receives few visitors, so it is worth checking out. The top of the central pyramid offers stunning views over the main pyramids of the site.
This is a charming, touristy retreat on a small island on Lake Peten Itza, linked to the mainland by a causeway. A series of quaint buildings tumble down a hill from the village square. It makes a pleasant stopover before moving onto Tikal or as a base before, whichever more demanding adventure you wish to tackle.
A series of travel agents compete to make all arrangements you wish and will advertise in advance dates for the next group departures to more difficult destinations, such as El Mirador, a 3-day trek on foot. Most seem to sell the same trips, but it all seems to work. The town offers a wide variety of hotels and restaurants, most of a good standard.
Check out Restaurant La Luna (Calle 10th Noviembre), which has wonderful food and a chilled-out atmosphere, candlelit with ambient music. It is part German-owned, thus guaranteeing good food and efficient service. For a more Guatemalan experience, follow the locals to El Gran Jacal (Calle Centroamerica.) It offers simple Guatemalan food of a high quality for very reasonable prices.
I stayed in the Hotel Peten (Calle 30 de Junio), which was pleasant and good value. It has Internet connections, and oddly, a pool in the lobby. It is a nice cool spot. Rooms have views over the lake.
There is nothing to do here, but it makes a nice place to breathe for a day on a hectic itinerary and leave real Guatemala behind on the other side of the causeway. Just a few hundred meters on the other side is Santa Elena, Guatemala chaos at its finest. It is worth noting that there are two bus stations here, the national one at the back of the town and the local one situated in the market.
The chicken bus it is then and a drive along the lake on a very dusty road towards Santa Elena, stopping wherever and whenever. The locals seemed to feel out of place taking the seat next to me, until a large lady heading to market announced to the bus/ "Alright, I’ll sit next to the gringo then," in Spanish, and deposited herself next to me with a charming smile.
Fifty minutes or so later, we are deposited in the market of Santa Elena, first job on arrival to find the servicios. On asking in the café, a small child indicated to follow her, and off we went through a labyrinth of small stores, alleys, and a building site to find a rather unhygienic facility located next to a small store selling radio and cd’s, etc. It was, of course, truly awful, yet proudly guarded by a lady demanding 2Q for admission. A small alter sat appropriately in the background. On departing, she elects to stand in my way, admonishing me for my lack of hygiene in not washing my hands. A difficult task without a basin I pointed out. She maintained her stance and pointed me to a large tar barrel overflowing with a humming green liquid, to which I then had to wash to gain my freedom. Eek!
A 10-minute walk over the causeway to Flores and I felt I had left Guate behind. Odd that, after a couple of weeks in San Jose, I should crave spaghetti bolognese, but that’s what I wanted and that’s what I had, stuffed down with a large glass of wine.
Off then it was to the Internet café, armed with an oddly warm bottle of water from the local shop. Then it hit me, no Internet, power failure I was told. This also means no cold drinks, no air-conditioning, and not even a fan. It was 2pm, and I was roasting.
My only other job was to book my transport with San Juan Travel for my escape to Belize the following week. That done, I was still facing the prospect of starting to tackle the return journey in an even more intense heat. There was only one choice: enter George and a boat named Zeppelin. I considered 100Q an investment as I slowly cruised back across the lake hot but fed, and was soon being deposited opposite the Cantina Mal Musica, at the bottom of the very unforgiving hill that led to my temporary home.
Brighton, United Kingdom