Saturday, October 11, 2014

Top Ten: Guatemala

A few weeks ago, I received a message from two friends of mine in the Netherlands.  They've started up a travel website and asked if I'd be willing to write a piece on Guatemala for them.  I was thrilled and excited!  My first foree into actual travel writing.  So, while they translate my article into Dutch to post on their website, I'll post it here for your reading pleasure.  (And, because it's my blog, I'll add a bunch of links back to prior entries about each of these things).  

I moved to Guatemala City just over a year ago to teach at an American School here.  I don’t pretend to know everything about the country, its sights and sounds, or its people after one short year, but I started to discover some of its treasures in my time here.  So if you ask my humble opinion, here are my top ten tips for what to do in Guatemala.

1. Hike a volcano.  This is my absolute favorite thing to do in the country.  Guatemala has 33 volcanoes, and many of them are hike-able.  Hire a guide or get a trekking company to take you to the top of one of them.  Be prepared for a long day of physical exertion with a stellar view from the top as a reward.  My personal favorite organization to hike with is Quetzaltrekkers (Click here for Quetzaltrekkers' website) because of their dedication to bettering the community, showcasing Guatemalan culture, and great service with their amiable guides. 
Two of my favorite hikes were Atitlan and Acatenango.

View of Lake Atitlan from near the top of Volcan Atitlan

Volcanes Agua, Acatenango, Fuego, Atitlan, San Pedro, and Toliman
as seen at sunrise from our hike up Volcan Zunil

2. Volunteer!  The disparity between rich and poor in Guatemala is jaw-dropping, and every day the small percentage of upper class citizens get richer while the poor get by with less and less.  Over 50% of children in the country are malnourished.  And extreme poverty breeds a host of other social issues as well.  Volunteering is a great way to see what is really going on in the country.  Many great organizations exist to help, and many of them welcome volunteers.  Research them wisely and remember that  you’re here to open your own eyes, not “bring the change” to the country.
I don't volunteer enough, but the one time I did, it changed me.  

3. Spend some time at Lake Atitlan.  This stunning lake is surrounded by 3 impressive volcanoes and numerous small villages.  Each village has its own personality, and hotels and hostels ranging from hip to luxurious abound.  Spend some time taking in the culture in the villages, learning Spanish in one of the many Spanish schools, hiking, kayaking, shopping at a local market, or just relaxing and drinking in the jaw-dropping view.
I love Atitlan, and I've been to SantiagoSan Pedro, and once, I hiked from Quetzaltenango to Lake Atitlan.

Vocan San Pedro and the lake, seen from Posada de Santiago

Lake Atitlan at dawn

4. Find adventure at Semuc Champey.  Located just outside of Lanquin, Semuc Champey is a bit off the beaten path, but is becoming more of a tourist destination each year, and for good reason.  The turquoise pools, exquisite as seen after hiking to the mirador, are perfect places to swim and play at your leisure.  But you can also swim through the caves there holding your candle above the water, jump off the bridge or the swing into the river, or go tubing down the calmer sections of the river.  There’s something for everyone, and definite adventures to be had. 
My trip to Semuc was definitely an adventure.

View of Semuc Champey from the mirador (lookout point)

5. Bargain at an artisan’s market.   Skip the tourist shops and get a douse of culture with your souvenir shopping as you peruse a true Guatemalan market.  The biggest native market is in the city of Chichicastenango on Thursdays and Sundays, but there are also large artisan markets in Antigua and Guatemala City.  The stalls are filled with colorful fabrics and weavings, handicrafts, jewelry, and artwork.

6. Visit Antigua.  It’s filled with tourists, yes, but they’re there for good reason.  The pretty, colonial town is only 45 minutes from the Guatemala City airport, making it easily accessible, and the cobblestone streets are lined with restaurants boasting pleasing atmospheres and delicious food, cool shops, and beautiful architecture.  Take some time exploring the many ruins throughout the city, check out the markets, relax in the center square, or get a bit more adventurous and go up to the cross that overlooks the city for a great view of the town and surrounding volcanoes.
I still remember my first ever trip to Antigua vividly. 

La Antigua Guatemala

7. Tikal.  Obviously.  Tikal is perhaps the most impressive Mayan site in existence.  Well maintained and protected, if you’re at all into Mayan history, this national park is a must-see.  Stay in the park and get up early to take advantage of the sunrise tour where you’ll listen to the howler monkeys sing Good Morning as the sun lights up the sky over the tallest temples. 
A sunrise tour makes a day starting in Tikal a long one, but a good one.

Sunrise over the jungle of Tikal

Gran Plaza, Tikal

8. Learn about coffee at a finca.  The Guatemalan hills are covered in coffee plantations, and several of them (like Finca Filadelfia just outside Antigua) welcome visitors, offer tours, and teach about the coffee making process.  So go, enjoy the beautiful views, sample some deliciously fresh roasted coffee, and learn a bit! 
I confess the only time I was at Finca Filadelfia, it was for a brutal race and not to learn about coffee...but it's a beautiful place! 

9. Hit up the beach.  Guatemala may not boast the calm white-sand beaches of the Caribbean, but its volcanic black sand beaches on the Pacific coast are still worth visiting.  I recommend renting a beach house or hotel room with a pool and a nice view of the waves, because strong currents and riptides make the ocean treacherous.
I've had some great times at the beach, both in Monterrico and Iztapa.

Sunset on the beach in Hawaii, Guatemala

10. Skip Guatemala City and head to Quetzaltenango for culture.  Guatemala City gets a bad rap as a tourist destination because of the crime and traffic and overall dingy big city feel.  (That’s not to say that the city doesn’t have its charms, of course—check out Zona 10 for great restaurants or visit Historical Zona 1 during the daylight hours for a piece of history).  But Guate’s 2nd largest city, Quetzaltenango (more often called “Xela” by locals), has what most people look for in a Central American city: a lively center square, colonial architecture, and friendly people.  Xela is also a popular starting point for more adventurous activities.  Several volcano hikes leave from there, and there are also rock climbing options and hot springs nearby. 
The last time I was in Xela, we went rock climbing.

Walkind down the hill towards Xela's main plaza

Bottom line: Guatemala is worth a visit.  Come give it a try.  

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