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Our Route in Guatemala

After crossing the Mexican / Guatemalan border in the morning, we headed toward Antigua.  There are two routes you can take to Antigua since Interstate 1 leads to Quetzaltenango and splits to the north and to the south.  Take the south route (Highway 2), which takes only 2-3 hours to reach Antigua.  We, of course, unknowingly took the north route, which, while looking at a map, looks to be about the same distance.  However, this route winds through the mountains and takes 5-6 hours.  Although the trip was long, the mountains north of Lago Atitlan are breathtaking and looking down the bright green mountains gives new meaning to the term, “scenic view.”

Antigua is pristine, stylish, and crawling with gringos.  While walking through the streets of Antigua, you will pass more 18-30 year old white faces than you can count.  Antigua is the most popular tourist local in Guatemala due to its numerous language schools, shopping, fashionable hotels, restaurants and cafes.

The pervasive tourism in Antigua has positive and negative consequences.  The city is clean and colorful, with intricate wrought-iron designs adorning storefront windows.  Stone fountains can be found in cafes, hotels and in the main plaza, and hotels offer private gardens and an understated elegance.  It is extremely easy to vacation in Antigua, and it’s businesses cater to the wants and needs of tourists.  But the fact that Antigua runs on tourism makes it expensive, a tad cliche, and distant from an authentic experience of Guatemala.  Menus come with Spanish and English pages, which create an easy escape from practicing Spanish, the brightly colored Mayan blankets and weavings are highly overpriced, and half of the people you encounter are not even Guatemalan.

Due to the ease and familiarity of Antigua’s amenities, it is a perfect city for the groups to whom it caters: families, students studying Spanish, group tours, and general tourists taking brief vacations.

Despite the consequences, I highly recommend visiting Antigua.  We spent a week in a gorgeous house with Nick’s mom and cousin, and our time spent together was a welcome vacation from living in a truck.  If you grow tired of rambling the streets of Antigua, there are also many opportunities to explore – you can tour coffee and macadamia nut farms, hike up a volcano Pacaya, and visit nearby towns.

I read in Lonely Planet that Sipacate is Guatemala’s surf capitol, so Nick was more than ready to head to the coast.  We checked surfline.com and a swell was approaching.  But entering Sipacate gave us a different opinion of this supposed surf capitol.  The buildings on the coast were dilapidated, and most of the crumbling concrete structures appeared to be half constructed and abandoned.

We met a group of Guatemalan surfers, and one of them kindly offered us a secure place to camp at his future hotel, which was under construction.  We had arrived on a Thursday, and supposedly the town fills up on the weekends with Guatemalan tourists.  The waves were choppy and unpredictable – too difficult to surf for the day.

I am still mystified about the attraction of Sipacate, and we did not stick around to discover the mystery.

Rio Dulce is a wonderful little town that sits on the shores of Lago de Izabal.  It is small, but the center of Rio Dulce is bustling with various vendors, tiny shops, and restaurants.  Since the Dulce River (Rio Dulce) begins at Lake Izabal (Lago de Izabal) and leads to the Caribbean Sea, many sailboats and yachts park at it’s marinas, bringing large groups of sailers into the city.  Sailors also favor Rio Dulce during hurricane season, for Lake Izabal is over 20 miles inland and thus a safe-haven from hurricanes.

Since the town’s center is a bit chaotic, the numerous hotels and hostels that line that lake are a stark contrast, yet pleasant surprise.  We stayed at Hotel Backpackers, a hostel that funds the Casa Guatemala orphanage.  Main dorm rooms at the hostel are only $3.25 USD per person a night, and they are clean and spacious.  The hostel also features a restaurant, free internet and wi-fi, laundry service (about $4 a load), warm water showers, and a large deck that gives a peaceful view of the lake.  The typical hostel culture is sure to be found here, which makes it easy to meet young ramblers from all over the world.  Hanging out with new folks and trading travel stories and recommendations was an added bonus to our stay at the hostel.  Another bonus is the staff – everyone was friendly, always willing to chat, and would bend over backwards to give help when needed.  Domino was Mr. Popular with the staff, and made even more friends than we did.

TIP: Pets at Hotel Backpackers are welcome. Domino slept in the dormitory by our beds every night, and never needed a leash.  However, we were very careful to keep an eye on him during our stay, and made sure he was never an inconvenience to other guests and the staff.

Swim under a waterfall. The waterfall at Finca el Paraiso is not your typical waterfall.  A hot spring feeds the fall, which drops into a pool of cool water.  The combination of steaming hot and brisk cold water is wonderful.

Save money and eat well - walk along Rio Dulce’s main street for dinner.  You’ll find street food that beats just about any of the restaurants, especially since they primarily cater to gringos.  Feast on steak or chicken that is grilled right in front of you, or pork tacos at a stall nearby.  You’ll be able to eat a full meal for 10-12 quetzales ($1.25 – $1.50 USD).
TIP ON TOP OF A TIP: Always exercise caution when eating street food. A general rule of thumb that Nick and I often follow is to choose the meals that you can see cooked right in front of you.  This will avoid your chances of eating a leg of fried chicken that has been sitting in the sun for half of the day.

Tikal, ancient ruins that are some of the most famous in Guatemala, was settled by the Mayans around 700 BC.  The ruins, which are incredibly sturdy despite their age, are located deep in the jungle, allowing visitors to be surrounded by monkeys, butterflies, various birds, and many other wildlife.  I recommend visiting Tikal in the early morning to beat the heat and avoid hoards of tourists.  Tikal opens at 6 am.

My favorite experience in Tikal was actually outside of the park.  We drove from Rio Dulce to Tikal in the afternoon, and arrived around 3 pm.  As we pulled up to the gates, the security guards immediately spotted Domino and would not allow us to enter.  We pleaded for a while, but the guards stood their ground and continued to point to the sign that read “No Pets Allowed.”  Since the ruins were about a 15 minute drive from the entry gate, they suggested that we ask the two nearby girls selling banana bread and fruit if their family would keep Domino for a few hours.  I didn’t like the idea of leaving Domino with strangers, and so we came up with a plan: sleep near Tikal for the night, park at the entrance in the morning, leave Domino in the car (with the sides rolled up and in the shade, of course), and hitch a ride into the park.

We sat at the entrance eating lunch and scoping out a good camp spot, and soon started chatting with the girls selling banana bread.  This lead to us visiting their house, meeting their parents, their 7 brothers and sisters, and camping on their land for the night.  The family, who lives in a stick hut with a thatched roof, dirt floors, and no electricity, was happy to have us at their home, as well as obviously curious about our strange appearance and giant truck.  As corny as this sounds, it was a wonderful gift to meet such this beautiful family and learn about the way they live.

If you would like to camp on this family’s land, you can email me and I will send you the directions.  We asked their permission to give out this information, and I hope that this will generate a little bit of money for them.  We gave them 25 quetzales (about $3 USD) for the night, and also cut up a cold papaya we had in the refrigerator for the whole family.  After scrounging around for another little gift, I found a travel magazine that they loved.  If you visit, I suggest bringing items like cold fruit or pencils and paper for the kids, in addition to the small payment.  Keep in mind that you will need to bring any necessities for camping with you – all you will have is a secure place to park, and 10 visitors at several points in the evening!

After our Tikal excursion in the morning, we visited Flores, which is a short drive from Tikal.  Although this town is evidently a tourist hot-spot, it has a myriad of restaurants that look onto Lake Peten Itza (Lago de Peten Itza), which lends a calm and relaxed atmosphere.  You can also jump in the lake if you’re up for a swim.

We left Guatemala at Entrerios, the closest Honduran border crossing from Rio Dulce.  If you plan to cross at this location I must warn you – this is the only border crossing in Honduras that does not have aduana at the same location.  Getting our paperwork settled took hours – and an escorted drive to Puerto Cortez, where aduana is located.

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