Flores, Guatemala

  • Visited February 2019

Flores is a lovely little Guatemalan town located on an island within Lake Peten Itza. Cute and compact, you can walk around the entire Island within an hour or so. Most people come here to explore the Mayan ruins of Tikal, and my friend Meghan and I were no exceptions, however Flores itself is very charming so come for a night or two. It is picturesque, there are some nice bars and restaurants situated along the waterfront, and it rocks a low-key vibe.

Getting to Flores is easy. We took the overnight bus which entailed a shuttle collecting us from our hostel in Antigua, Barbara’s Boutique Hostel, and other travellers from various hostels around the city, and then being dropped off at the bus station in Guatemala City to catch the night bus. We took the Maya de Oro first class bus at 9pm which meant we had reclining seats, a blanket, and a toilet on board. I didn’t get any sleep as I can’t sleep when I travel at night but at least I was comfortable. Unlike the first class buses in Mexico, snacks or drinks were not included so remember to pack what you will need for the journey. Our bus arrived in Flores at 5 am, earlier than the scheduled time of arrival as there were no traffic hold-ups, and a shuttle was waiting for the passengers, ready to drop us off at our accommodation. Luckily our hotel was very welcoming at that hour, letting us rest in the foyer and leave our luggage until we could access our room. They had originally said that our room would be available at 11 am but seeing how tired we were, they kindly let us into our room at 8.30 am. 

Our schedule

  • Day 1 – we explored the town and caught up on sleep.
  • Day 2 – we had a much-needed relaxing pool day at our hotel and an evening meal in the hotel’s restaurant, Achiote.
  • Day 3 – we visited Tikal National Park.

Visiting Tikal

Tikal is one of the premier sights for travellers exploring Guatemala. The UNESCO site states that Tikal National Park is, ‘In the heart of the jungle, surrounded by lush vegetation, […Tikal is] one of the major sites of Mayan civilization, inhabited from the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. The ceremonial centre contains superb temples and palaces, and public squares accessed by means of ramps. Remains of dwellings are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside’. See the site for further contextual information https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/64

Tikal can be an expensive experience. Tour operators in Flores you quote you various prices for guided tours. Shop around for the best price. We were not interested in having a guided tour so we managed to get a transport-only deal with a tour operator for 80 Q (return). We were told to wait by the Peten sign for the bus at 12 noon and the bus arrived on time. The journey time was around an hour and 20 minutes. When we arrived at the park, we all had to buy an entrance ticket for 150 Q (remember to bring your passport with you as you need this to buy the ticket). To see either sunset or sunrise at Tikal, you have to pay a further 100 Q.

There are limited food options at the park. Your cheapest option is the cafe that sells lacklustre sandwiches for around 20 Q. Bring your own food if you can, especially if you have special dietary needs.

The park itself was bigger than we expected. A guide would obviously be able to take you round the main sites and give you information about everything but were able to see the key things we wanted to by ourselves and were happy with that. Tikal is an impressive set of ruins and well worth a visit.  There are accommodation options at the Park (The Jungle Lodge Tikal, The Jaguar Inn Tikal and The Tikal Inn) but a day trip was fine for us.

Some Flores foodie recommendations:

  • Achiote – located in our hotel – we enjoyed breakfast and a delicious evening meal here (with muchos red wine!).
  • Cool Beans Cafe – super chilled place with hammocks to snooze off your post-food coma. We enjoyed a lunch here.
  • Maracuya Restaurant – vegan/vegetarian restaurant – so lovely! Tasty food in a lush setting.

*Budget accommodation option – I hear good things about Los Amigos Hostel. You have to book direct on their website to reserve a bed.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

El Paredón, Guatemala

  • Visited January 2019

Looking to stay in Paradise? Look no further. Get yourself to the sleepy fishing village of El Paredón in Guatemala. A blog reader suggested I go (thank you Bar, who blogs on http://www.bwildnfree.com) and I’m so grateful for the recommendation. I spent eight blissful days there and didn’t want to leave. Largely off the beaten track for most tourists coming to Guatemala, you will probably find that you have the beach to yourself. The unspoilt black sand beach gets incredibly hot between 12 and 4 pm so take some covered shoes with you if you want to walk on the beach during that time period otherwise save your beach walk for the early morning or evening. Most people come here to surf, lie in a hammock and relax so El Paredón is the perfect place to come to escape the outside world and de-stress.

With a population of around 1,500 people, tourism is only just beginning to impact here which is part of the attraction of visiting. There is not much to do in El Paredón but in the village itself you will find tiendas (small shops) selling snacks and toiletries, and a couple of eateries. Everyone is friendly and welcoming and there is no pressure on you to part with your cash unlike in more developed beach resorts. The one not-for-profit organisation La Choza Chula does excellent work to ensure that the local community benefits from the growth in tourism by training local tour guides to run various tours for tourists. With them, you can go fishing in the mangroves, learn to cook traditional Guatemalan food, learn how to make bracelets, or visit a sea turtle feeding ground (you can also release baby turtles if you visit in season). The tours contribute to the conservation of the local environment as well as providing an income for the community. There are no souvenir shops but you can buy locally made t-shirts, bags and bracelets at the La Choza Chula shop. There are no ATMs here so make sure you bring enough Quetzales with you. There is however an internet store – the majority of accommodation does not provide WiFi – though you may prefer to have a digital detox and unplug whilst in El Paredón. That said, Paredon Surf House where I stayed has strong WiFi and could be a great place for a digital nomad to base themselves for a while. 

Though El Paredón is a quiet village, you can party daily at the Driftwood Surfer Hostel on the beachfront. I personally would not choose to stay there as it’s a party all day hostel and there are nicer places to sleep elsewhere but all are welcome at the Driftwood and it’s a fun place. Go there if you are looking for a good time.

Suggested Eateries in El Paredón:

  • Yoli’s – behind Paredon Surf House. Some of the best value food in town.
  • Priscilla’s – the place to go for fried chicken apparently.
  • Sandra’s – offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • Soul Food Kitchen – Thai and Indian food.
  • El Tiburon (in the Pacifico) – pizzas made in a brick oven.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

 

 

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

  • Visited January 2019

Described as the closest place to Eden on Earth, Lake Atitlán, the mystical and mysterious lake that fills a large volcanic crater in Guatemala’s Southwestern highlands is considered by many to be the must-see destination of Guatemala. The lake itself is vast, with a luminescent beauty that can calm the soul of some and evoke weird dreams in others. It is certainly a peaceful place that provides an opportunity for travellers to unwind, contemplate life and reconnect with themselves if that’s what they’re looking for. Amongst the tranquility though, travellers can also find a good time in a few well-known party hostels. The lake is surrounded by villages that offer different experiences to travellers so consider what you want from your visit before booking your accommodation.  Most travellers will arrive by shuttle into Panajachel, a busy town with plenty of places to shop and eat, before travelling on by boat to their chosen village.

Here is a summary of the key villages to help you make your choice:

  • Santa Cruz La Laguna: This was the village I chose to stay in and was by far my favourite of those I visited. Two hostels are based here and both offer excellent views of the lake. Both provide family dinners (a three-course meal for a fixed price) as there are limited eating options in Santa Cruz. Iguana Perdida, where I stayed, has better accommodation options though, with dorms and luxury private rooms available. Free Cerveza has a treehouse dorm and tents for ‘glamping’ but a friend stayed there and showed me pictures of black mould in the tent he stayed in. Not nice. Free Cerveza also has an age restriction for guests – no over 40s allowed. As their name suggests, they give you a free beer on arrival and two hours of free beer between 5 and 7 pm if guests sign up for the family dinner. As attractive as free beer sounds, I’ve been told that it is common for travellers to spend a night at Free Cerveza and then move over to the Iguana. Other food options in Santa Cruz include Cafe Sabor at the top of the hill, run by local students and providing good food with a spectacular view; Holy Tortillas which does a tasty breakfast; and Arca de Noé which is next to the Iguana. All three places have WiFi which is handy as the Iguana has a no WiFi policy (but does have a computer room for guests) and Free Cerveza charges for WiFi.
  • San Marcos – this hippy Mecca consists of yoga retreats, holistic centres, and cafes/restaurants catering to the gluten-free vegan crowd. It has one main street leading up from the dock with some pretty street murals. In San Marcos you can partake in a cocoa ceremony that claims to open up hearts, enhance meditation, give energy and encourage creativity. Circles Cafe has lovely but expensive smoothies and I hear it does good food. I thought I would like San Marcos more than I did – I personally found it quite pretentious.
  • San Pedro – the party village of the lake. Travellers come here for a good time. There is lots to do here so if somewhere like Santa Cruz is too quiet for you, then San Pedro might suit you better. Its view of the lake is not as nice as Santa Cruz though.

Taking Boats

The main way to get between villages is by boat. There are public and private boats. Public boats run fairly regularly until 7pm – so keep that in mind if you head to San Pedro to party but have accommodation booked in another village. Don’t ask the boatmen how much the boat costs when taking the public boat because you will end up paying more than you should. For example, the boat from Panajachel to Santa Cruz costs 10 Q but I have heard of travellers being charged up to 25 Q for the journey. Santa Cruz to San Marcos should be between 15 to 20 Q and Santa Cruz to San Pedro should be between 20 to 25 Q.

*Just a note if you get seasick. Make sure you bring your medication with you. Most of the lake crossings I made were fine but one day the lake was very choppy even though it was a beautiful sunny day and I had a very rough ride to San Pedro and back.

Activities

The hostel I stayed in in Santa Cruz can arrange Spanish lessons, weaving and cooking classes, hiking, yoga, kayaking and has a dive centre for those looking to dive in the lake. It is a cheap place for beginners to learn to dive but perhaps not the easiest place to do it for the first time. Many divers come to the lake for altitude diving. Other than that, the lake is a great place to hang out in a hammock, enjoy a beer and watch the sun go down. 

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Antigua, Guatemala

  • Visited December 2018/January 2019

Antigua, a small gem of a city surrounded by volcanoes and known for its well-preserved colonial buildings, is an absolute delight to visit and stay. In fact many travellers come here for a few days and find themselves sucked in by Antigua’s charms and extend their stays, like I did. Antigua is a very easy place to be. There’s plenty to do and see and numerous restaurants/cafes and bars catering to tourists so you can have a good time here. Reminiscent of Mexico’s San Cristobal (which I also loved, see my post here https://wp.me/p9u5hw-1gl) but with generally a warmer climate, I spent most of my days just wandering the streets, visiting boutiques, churches and snapping lots of pictures as this is a particularly instagrammable city. The volcanoes provide an impressive backdrop, challenging yet rewarding hikes and spectacular views when you reach their summits. You haven’t really experienced Antigua if you haven’t scaled at least one volcano in the area and seeing lava cascade from a volcano at sunset is unforgettable.

If you want to climb a volcano there are two main choices. The most popular is a day trip hike to Pacaya which involves a very steep one hour 30 minute climb to the top (so you will need to be at least moderately fit). We did the 2pm pick up from Antigua to Pacaya (you pay the tour company for the bus – we paid 60 Q then you pay 50 Q for the entrance ticket when you arrive and a guide leads the group up) which meant we got to be on the volcano for sunset and the views were unbelievable. You get to toast marshmallows on hot lava rocks and then walk down in the dark (you can use a torch or your mobile phone to help you) which is atmospheric, returning to Antigua around 9pm. You need to take a warm layer of clothing with you as it can get cold and windy at the summit. The other option is to do the overnight trip to Acatenango volcano (which provides views of Fuego) and entails five hours hiking on day one, camping overnight, hiking up for about an hour on day two before descending. As I have the chronic medical condition fibromyalgia, I judged the Acatenango trip to be a bit much for me but really enjoyed the Pacaya day trip. I’ve been told that tour companies in the area provide coats, hats, sleeping bags, tents etc for hire for those that want to do Acatenango but again, you would need to take warm clothing with you as it’s very cold at night on the volcano.

In addition to the volcano views, you can’t wander around Antigua and not see a church. The main church that should not be missed is San Francisco el Grande, built in 1542 – the oldest church in Antigua still holding ceremonies. Within the complex you will find the church, the ruined monastery, the tomb of Hermano Pedro (a Spanish missionary and Guatemala’s only saint), and a museum dedicated to the man himself. Entrance to the church and tomb are free but it costs 8 Q to enter the museum and ruins. The museum is well worth a visit as it displays clothing and artefacts that belonged to Hermano and you really get a sense of how revered he is by the people of Guatemala. Other key city sites include the iconic archway Arco de Santa Catalina, the Iglesia de La Merced, Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas, Casa Santo Domingo, and the climb up to the Cerro de La Cruz, for a view of the city and Volcan Agua. The cavernous Mercado is an enjoyable way to pass time in the city, see the locals and pick up some bargains – you can buy everything in this market! Art lovers should stop by La Antigua Galeria de Arte, a free gallery which showcases 80% work from Guatemalan artists, and there is some great work on display on both floors and you could always pop in to Nimpot afterwards, a large warehouse of local arts, crafts and textile products, if you want to buy gifts. Items are marked with a price, rather than requiring you to haggle, so good for those who don’t enjoy bartering for a bargain. The rather dramatic Holy Week floats are sheltered opposite and also worth a look. The gate was only open one day I was in Antigua but you can see some of the floats through the gate and they are quite something.

If you tire of roaming the city streets, a fab option is to visit Santa Teresita Hotel and Thermal Spa. It’s around a 20 minute drive from the city but you can Uber it there and back without issue (there is free Wifi at the Spa). You pay for a package – we did the Piscine Relax package for 380 Q which gave us access to 11 thermal pools, the jacuzzi, and a 50 minute massage (one of the best I’ve had). We also got lunch at the cafe, thinking it would be just a small snack I ordered quesadillas, but the portion sizes were large and delicious. Overall, it was an amazing treat day. Highly recommended!

In terms of restaurants/cafes and bars, you are spoilt for choice in Antigua. Here are some I visited during my stay:

  • Fridas – Frida Kahlo-themed restaurant. Had lovely Baja Fish Tacos for lunch one day. Service was excellent.
  • Cactus Tacos – Great place with live music. Always busy. Loved my shrimp quesadillas. Our server was attentive and hilarious.
  • The Londoner – decent pub grub and live music. Good for those missing a taste of the UK on their travels.
  • Y Tu Pina También – This place offers all day breakfasts and I really enjoyed my Huevos Rancheros and smoothie after a late night out the previous evening. Service was not great unfortunately.
  • Samsara – good vegan options and excellent smoothies in a hippie vibe. Service was OK.
  • Rainbow Cafe – liked the quirky interior. Delicious Potato and Leek soup. Service was mediocre – pretty much ignored after my food was delivered.
  • Monoloco – busy American Sports bar. Not cheap. Tasty food though (sliders, chicken fingers etc) and good service.
  • Lucky Rabbit – perfect choice for those looking for a late night lively bar option (though places close at 1 am in Antigua). It has two rooms offering different music (latin pop in the main room and electronic house in the smaller room) and party goers can get the bus to the Saturday night after party (in a disused swimming pool) from this venue.

Antigua is a beautiful, though not necessarily cheap, city to visit so don’t be surprised if you don’t want to leave…

Selection of pictures from my stay: