Guatemala Highlights... and more
1. Lake Atitlan. Can't remember who said Atitlan was the most beautiful lake in the world, but it comes close, at least among the ones I have seen. Surrounded by three volcanoes and a necklace of Mayan villages, it is no wonder the lake draws tons of foreign visitors. Many actually stay for months and even years, and you would see gringo couples holding their offspring on fast-paced lanchas that haul locals and tourists alike from village to village. The water of the lake is not clean everywhere, but is still swimmable most of the year. Kayaking is easy, too, thanks to rental outfits in practically every dock. My favourite village was San Pedro, with its views over the lake, sizeable gringo-dominated nightlife and a very authentic Mayan towncentre speckled with many reminders on walls that Jesus is indeed the lord of San Pedro and he loves YOU.
2. Chichicastenango. My favourite Guatemalan Mayan town, mostly due to its well-known Sunday market. Best thing to do is get there on Saturday before the market and wander around the stalls as they are being built and spaces being held by the Maya in colourful dresses through the night. There are bonfires, tortillas baked on the huge pans, street food and scores of children running around the market square. The main church nearby is a sacred place where Mayan shamans mix their ancient rituals with the catholic rites. Whatever they are doing, it involves lots of fire and smoke. Despite the town's market fame and plenty of souvenir stands at the market, most gringos come on day trips from Lake Atitlan or Antigua, so if you do come a day before or on another day, you will see this charming busy town in all its authenticity.
3. Tikal. It's a no-brainer - Tikal is Guatemala's number one attraction. For a good reason, too - it's the best preserved, largest Mayan ruin. Bit of a bitch to get to, however. A bus ride from just about anywhere in Guatemala to Tikal takes many hours of not exactly comfortable seating (or standing). Flores, the town nearby, is a gem, too - compactly located on an artificial island on Lake Peten Itza, affording great sunset and sunrise views, a decent cuisine and even nightlife. Every single hotel, restaurant and tortilla joint in Flores will offer you a shuttle ride to Tikal itself, about an hour away. Once there, you can wander around on your own or fork out $10 for a guide, probably a better option unless you are not inclined to walk in a small group, especially if you want to "see" the depiction of king Ah Cacao on a stela monument. Remarkably, only a small fraction of Tikal's structures have been excavated, so among the humongous step pyramids you will see no less gigantic mounds of earth thickly covered with trees.
4. Livingston. Since you made it all the way to Tikal, you might as well take a breathtaking boat ride along Rio Dulce (4 hours south by bus) toward Livingston, a different Guatemala altogether. Here's where black slave descendants called Garifuna made their home. It's a quirky little town. Photography, for one thing, is much easier here than in the rest of the country. Unlike the superstitious Maya, the local black population enjoys posing for pictures and may not let you go until they pose in every possible way and stance for your camera.
5. Fuentes Georginas. This lovely hotspring not far from Xela, Guatemala's second largest city, is a real gem. A large natural pool or hot water is surrounded by high cliffs covered in tropical vine, it is remote enough not to attract too many foreign tourists, although you are likely to be swarmed with guatemalan kids enjoying the soak. Best thing to do is stay overnight in one of the cabins on site. That will allow you the use of the pools all night, long after the day crowd is kicked out at 5 pm. Just be very careful with your belongings, as the resort staff is known to have stolen valuables from people's rooms while they were mellowing up in the divine warmth under the stars... you've been warned!
6. Semuc Champey. This place is listed in all guidebooks as the most beautiful spot in Guatemala due to its series of natural blue and green water pools cascading down in a weird geological formation. To me, the pools were all right, but probably not worth the hype and the pain in the ass of getting there. However, the nearby caves were far more exciting. Filled with water, so that you have to wear your swimsuit and be prepared to swim - with a candle in one hand! - the underground passages curve around arches, stalactites and pitch-dark vast caverns. And you better not be claustrophobic or a bad swimmer - trust me, passing through a showering underground waterfall with a lit candle in your hand is no easy challenge.
7. Antigua. Just like in Europe all roads used to lead to Rome, all roads in Guatemala still lead to its colonial capital of Antigua. So much so that the actual capital, Guatemala City, is overlooked and ignored by almost every traveller in favour of the charming old city 45 minutes west. And Antigua does make an excellent base for exploring Guatemala. It's filled with travel agencies, gourmet restaurants, bars and coffee shops. The latter is significant, as it is remarkably difficult to get a decent cup in this coffee-producing country. Besides all the conveniences and being the only place you can don your clubbing outfit, Antigua is a beautiful town itself, a UNESCO heritage site, in fact. It easily deserves 2-3 days of exploring and sightseeing. A true hub of civilization in Guatemala's wilderness, in other words!
8. Chicken Buses. You cannot say you've been to Guatemala if you haven't ridden in chicken buses. Love them or hate them, but there is hardly a cheaper and more convenient and efficient way to get around the country. Connecting virtually anywhere to anywhere (with a few changes), they are nothing but retired US school buses that have sometimes been left original yellow, but usually repainted and refurbished and let out to navigate Guatemala's mountain roads. They are remarkably agile and certainly spacious. Standard seating is 3 per seat, and as for the few-inch-wide middle aisle - well, that's up to the conductor's discretion, but anywhere from 2 dozen to a few hundred. OK, maybe that's an exagerration, but that's certainly how it feels when one of your buttocks is pressing against a rotund Mayan woman with 2 kids on her lap and the other one is overhanging above someone's luggage and you are trying to balance yourself among the cowboy hats, crying children, enormous baskets, other passengers' arses and an occasional chicken. But you can be assured that whenever you need a bus somewhere, it will be waiting to leave "ahorita" (soon), and the helpful attendant will pick up your backpack and thrust it up to the huge roofrack. Miraculaously, most of the luggage indeed arrives to its destination.