Top of the morning to you, runway chasers!
If you read our post on packing essentials then you’re somewhat familiar with the backstory of our recent Guatemala trip. If you didn’t, be a pal and give it a peep after you’re done here, but in summation: Guatemalan friend from Miami extends invitation to Adventure Club to visit his mother country, Adventure Club accepts graciously (as they do any reason to expatriate), Adventure Club finds sweet airfare deal (here’s how) and BOOM. We were Guate-bound.
Our trip was undoubtedly a blast, but as with any foreign experience, there are lessons to be learned. In fact, for us this is exactly what drives the appeal for discovery– the key takeaways you’re left with once you’re back home and your bags are unpacked. If you’re planning a trip to Guate anytime soon (and you should) here are five things you should keep in mind that we wish we had approached differently:
- Take a hike.
With nearly 40 volcanoes scattered within its borders, Guatemala is a hiker’s veritable paradise.
We hiked Acatenango, Guatemala’s third-highest peak at 13,000 feet tall, described as suitable for “brave” and “seasoned” hikers by the likes of TripAdvisor. Adventure Club polls in at average to above-average when it comes to physical adeptness, and we sure as hell are brave. This hike was hands-down one of the most physically challenging feats we’ve ever undertaken, but it was also the most memorable. Once we summited this bad boy after six hours of steep and grueling ascension, the volcano next door, Fuego, began to erupt. It was a surreal and perfectly timed moment in nature’s warzone.
- Guatemala is not the place to hike or explore solo. We signed up for this guided hike on Viator from Antigua (you can also go from Guatemala City). Though the price tag is hefty, it’s well worth the guide, the door-to-door van service from your hotel to the trailhead, and the copious supply of food and water which are all included. (This hike will take you 8-10 hours)
- Bring a small backpack or daypack because you’re an adult and you’ve got to carry your provisions your damn self. 😜
- If you’re looking for a more leisurely mountain undertaking, hike Pacaya, one of Guatemala’s few remaining active volcanoes and Antigua’s top tourist attraction (you can lava-roast marshmallows when you get to the top, too!). Viator offers a variety of guided tours, or you can ask the front desk at your hotel. (This hike takes half a day)
- Cool off at Kawilal Hot Springs afterwards or Santa Teresita Thermal Baths and Spa at the base of Pacaya.
- Give yourself time to acclimate.
Guate gets high. As it is Guatemala City, your likely point of entry, is about 300 feet short of a mile above sea level.
We made the rookie mistake of embarking on an all-day hike up good ol’ 13,000-foot Acatenango less than 12 hours after we landed. As a result, two of us got altitude sickness, and one of us so acutely that she was horizontal for the better part of our trip. Don’t do this.
- Don’t miss Antigua.
Guatemala’s former capital, a picturesque enclave of Old World aesthetic, is the apex of colonial charm.
About an hour and a half (traffic-permitting) outside of Guatemala City lies Antigua, an aptly-designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is nested within the austere bluffs of the Sierra Madre mountain chain in Guatemala’s western highlands. Cobblestone streets impose geometrical order on the several Spanish Baroque-style churches and convents, each of which is more brightly-colored than the one before it. Many of these structures just barely reveal their refurbished identities as restaurants, boutiques or bars. Ruins from the 17th and 18th centuries are dispersed throughout the city as symbols of defiance against 500 years of wear-and-tear at the hands of both man and Mother Nature. It’s utterly other-worldly.
- Where to stay: Really anywhere, as far as hotels go because most all were at one point former convents and they’re charming AF. Also, they’re reasonably priced for what you get ($80-100ish/night depending on the time of year). Casa Santo Domingo, Pensativo House, Casa Encantada, or Porta Antigua are our top picks.
- What to eat: You’ll get your choice of diverse food genres in Antigua, but try the varied types of delicious soups/consommes (dubbed “pepian”) and tasty tropical fruits like mangoes and avocadoes. Don’t forget to imbibe the local spirits like La Galla beer and Zacapa rum. Panza Verde, the restaurant in the Hotel Porta Blanco, Ruben Restaurante, La Bodegona for wine and cheese, and the restaurant in Casa Santo Domingo came highly recommended. Stop by Doña Gavi for ice cream (try the avocado) and go to Cafe Condesa for breakfast, tucked in the city’s main square– it’s the cutest spot in town– must.
- Where to shop: The famous Santa Catalina Arch is the landmark in the center of town, and the several streets around it are lined with little shops. At the Jade factory you’ll find excellent prices on sterling silver-plated and jade-encrusted accessories. Also, there are a couple artisanal markets that are not difficult to stumble upon, as well as a local fruit and vegetable market. For your sweet-tooth fix, go to the Chocolate museum.
- Be a traveler, not a tourist.
Guatemala is hard. Pervasive crime and violence is a daily reality for this country, and travelers need to take wise precautions.
Only 20 years ago, four of Guatemala’s cities were listed in Latin America’s top 10 cities with highest homicide rate per capita. Guatemala City’s murder rate is still gnarly, underpinned by cartel-led narco-trafficking, gang-related violence and a heavily-armed population with a judicial system that is ineffective of curbing criminals and their activity.
- Guatemala City is a place where you needn’t spend much time. We passed through quickly (pretty much just in transit) with little regret.
- Pre-book a driver or reliable transportation service. We recommend: Maya Trails, a local tourism company that can arrange everything from airport transfers to private tours; or our boy Mario, a private driver who owns a driving service for tourists and services guests of the US Embassy. He was awesome. Drop us a note and we’d be glad to provide you either of their contact deets.
- Spend more than five days.
Guatemala is the type of country you could explore for weeks on end.
There are several places we wish we could have hit up but didn’t due to the fact that they’re not easily accessible (i.e. a plane ride or 12-hour car ride away from Guatemala City):
- Tikal Mayan Ruins– rumored to be exquisite and untouched (getting there by plane and staying the night is easiest though there are day trips from Guate City or Antigua that exist)
- Lake Atitlan- a popular getaway and a haven for yogis and peaceful lakeside bliss-seekers. Highlights include San Marcos and the numerous eco-chic wellness centers like this one.
- Cobán- a municipality in Guatemala’s central region and coffee-growing epicenter. Lots of rivers and caves to be explored here, we hear.
- Finca de cafe Filadelfia outside of Antigua for a tour of a working coffee farm (which will run you about $20)
- A coffee tour in Antigua (Finca de café Filadelfia) or elsewhere.
But you know what they say…always leave something undone so you have a reason to come back.
Thoughts? Questions? Reflections on your own trip to Guatemala? We’d love to hear guat’s up. Drop us a note!