Its that time…time to leave Mexico for the Guatemalan frontera. We learned a lot about being on the road, saw some amazing sights, met wonderful people, and improved our Spanish in Mexico, but we were really ready for something new. And we definitely found it.
Border Crossing Fun – Welcome to Guatemala!
I have to admit that heading to Guatemala, specifically the part about crossing the border, freaked me out just a little (ok, a lot…just ask George how fun I was the 24 hours leading up to the crossing). We had heard many stories of “helpers” trying to jump on your car, corrupt officials, and people generally trying to hassle you for money, making an already tedious process more chaotic (not to mention we just came off of roadblock hell in Mexico on the way to the border – our friends Jacqui and Cameron from Follow the Wind summarized it nicely for us). Knowing we wanted to head to northern Guatemala first, we decided on the tiny border crossing of El Ceibo. I was incredibly relieved to find that there were no hawkers or helpers of any kind, and the process was so well laid out online that it was really a piece of cake! I hope they are all this easy…
Tikal National Park
With the border crossing happily behind us, we sought out the nearest ATM and gas station, and headed for one of the places I have been incredibly excited to visit since the start of this trip, Tikal National Park. Tikal is another set of Mayan ruins, but not just ANY ruins. Tikal is in the jungle, with howler monkeys and tucans (and jaguars and poisonous snakes), and boasts the largest excavated site in the Americas.
The scale of the ruins were quite impressive (with only 20% of the ruins actually excavated), and I really did get to see tucans and howler monkeys just like I had hoped! One thing that put a damper on the experience was the sunrise tour we were talked into. We had quite the frustrating experience with hidden fees, tourists who just can’t seem to be quiet for 10 minutes while you watch the sunrise from the top of an ancient temple, and the kicker – no actual sunrise due to fog. But that was all water under the bridge once we ran to the Gran Plaza just before 6am (and just before the park officially opened) to meditate, just the two of us, on top of an ancient ruin. Pretty special experience.
The City of Antigua
Knowing we only had two weeks in Guatemala, and about 5 days of that behind us, we had to choose between Antigua and Lake (Lago) Atitlan to do another week of Spanish lessons. We chose the colonial UNESCO world heritage sight of Antigua. Many of the colonial style buildings were built in the early 16th century and have been well preserved. The town was interesting from this perspective, but otherwise Antigua probably isn’t the best representation of Guatemala (its pretty touristy, including prices). It was really nice that we got to stay right in town with Titus. The Tourist Police let overlanders stay for free in the parking lot / old hospital ruins; it’s a little creepy, but hey, it is free (we heard that Guatemalans are very superstitious and wouldn’t want to live on top of old hospital grounds, but I guess tourists don’t mind too much).
Hiking Volcan Acatenango – WOW!
Before entering Guatemala I had never heard of Volcan Acatenango. At Tikal this couple we met told us about an amazing 2 day hike they did to the top of this Volcano. We thought, well we love hiking, why not? So while in Antigua we booked the hike with a tour company. They didn’t tell us too much about the hike. Only that they would provide the guide, tent, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, and food, and we just need to bring our water and snacks. Oh, and that it would be really cold at night so bundle up. So off we went in the morning, and met up with our group and hiking mates for the trip.
I’m not sure why George and I originally disregarded all signs that this hike would be hard, but we did. The dirty group of hikers ending their hike when we began, saying “it was really really REALLY hard, but worth it” didn’t phase us. No one mentioned that the volcano stands at 13,000 feet (of that we would be ascending almost 5,000 feet) and that a lot of the hike up would be in deep volcanic sand. But probably better we didn’t know. It was one of the toughest hikes I’ve ever done, but also hands down the most rewarding.
We camped about 6 hours into the ascent, and when we arrived, I saw something I really never considered witnessing in person at such a close proximity – a small volcanic eruption occurred right when we arrived, and our guide assured us there were more to come. Then the sun set and the view got even better…red hot lava that you just can’t see during the day was spewing out of the volcano next to us!
After sort of sleeping that night, we woke to our alarms at 4am to finish the ascent to the top of Acatenango for sunrise. Of the 6 in our hiking group, 4 of us decided to make the freezing, difficult ascent, and arrived just in time for sunrise. It was so incredibly difficult to hike in the deep volcanic sand at that altitude and steepness that I almost cried in joy when I reached the top. That feeling of accomplishing something difficult that you put your mind to is so rewarding that we decided right then and there that we will be doing a lot more multi-day hiking in the future.
So what did we think of Guatemala? Guatemala is so lush and green. In my opinion the people in Guatemala are generally VERY friendly (or maybe they just smile more?) and the bathrooms in Guatemala seemed to be a step up for us (hold on, you can have toilet paper AND soap in the bathroom? luxury). But honestly, I don’t think we spent enough time in Guatemala to warrant drawing any kind of grand conclusions. However, we did have a great time, met more awesome people, and had some wonderful adventures in Guatemala that I will always remember. But for now, it’s on to El Salvador…
More pics of our time in Guatemala: