As I look back on our recent trip to Guatemala, I keep feeling a yearning to go back. We've made it our goal to take one international trip per year, and, as we're trying to decide upon travel destinations for 2019, there is a strong voice inside that keeps saying, "Go back to Guatemala... just go back to Guatemala!"
I'm determined to travel as much of the world as I can before I'm too old and immobile to do so, I can't help but feel that there is so much I missed while I was in Guatemala... and that the things I did experience are worth experiencing again. And here's why.
10 Reasons to Visit and Re-Visit Guatemala
1. The Children of Guatemala
The children throughout Guatemala brought more smiles to my face than any other thing we experienced in the country. Hearing their cheers when the "school's out" bell rings at Noon and watching them excitedly spill out of the schoolhouse and head home to help their families was something I won't forget. These kids are joyful. They don't have a lot of material things (if any, really) and yet they're some of the happiest kids I've ever encountered.
One evening we spent just sitting and watching three kids play at the basketball court on the island of Flores at Lake Peten. These three kids shared one bicycle and had a blast, and all I could think of was that if there was one bike among three kids in my neighborhood in Washington State, arguments and meltdowns would most-assuredly occur. But not with these three little boys, who happily shared and showed off for each other with nonstop giggling.
Another amazing time we spent with the kids of Guatemala was in a small village on Lake Atitlan called Jaibalito. These kids are little businesspeople, as they know to ask for "un quetzal" anytime a tourist snaps a photo of them. They will happily pose for a selfie with you, and then immediately ask for a coin with a huge grin.
One evening my friend, Paul, decided to purchase a few hacky-sacks in Panajachel and bring them back to our village to juggle for the kids. The kids loved it, and they came running from all corners of the village to watch him. Though I only knew about ten words in Spanish, I was able to have a conversation with some of these little ones. They are very trusting, and one of them even stood next to me with her little hand on my shoulder the whole time we were hanging out. They're curious and sweet and eager to learn words in English. It is, without a doubt, my favorite moment of a magical trip to Guatemala.
2. Hiking at Lake Atitlan
There are many adventures to take around Lake Atitlan, known as one of the world's top 10 most beautiful lakes. I haven't seen much of the world, but I have grown up in the Pacific Northwest and seen my share of beautiful lakes. But Lake Atitlan will take your breath away.
Surrounded by volcanoes and hillside villages, it is the kind of place that postcards are made of. We took two easy hikes while we stayed at Lago Atitlan, and though they were epic, they are pretty mild compared to some of the hiking available to us at this gorgeous Central American paradise.
My favorite hike, by far, was from Jaibalito to San Marcos La Laguna. You can read more about the hike and see photos here. The trail leads up and down through the jungle and against cliffs, over boulders and through sleepy villages. You'll see a little bit of everything on this 7-mile trek including friendly, but shy stray dogs that will trot alongside you for miles.
We also hiked from Jaibalito to Santa Cruz, a neighboring village which is a trek of only about 3.5 miles each way. Santa Cruz is a much busier village than Jaibalito, but on the scale of "busy", it rates alongside tiny tiny towns in the U.S. There are no cars, only tuk-tuks and your own two feet, and Santa Cruz's elevation gain from lakeside to the top of the village is no joke. The hike between villages winds through small coffee farms, over grand peaks with breathtaking views, and up and down steep staircases. Read more about our hike from Jaibalito to Santa Cruz here.
3. The Villages of Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan itself is inside the crater of an extinct volcano, surrounded by "smaller" volcanoes. Each village has its own personality and its own set of walking challenges. Santa Cruz and San Pedro are one steep hill after another, and every turn makes it worth the burning calves as there is a new shop, beautiful church, or lush park to see. We stayed at Lake Atitlan for 4 days in a beautiful AirBnB called "Casa de Juan" in Jaibalito and either hiked or took water taxis to other villages around the lake for just a few bucks.
Expect a large expat community, mostly in the lakefront area. Venture up the hill to visit with friendly locals and see how modestly and happily they live in this little paradise. The square in the center of town includes a beautiful church, and the school where all of the kids of the village attend. Visit this square at around Noon and you'll get to see these grinning kids running home after a day of studying.
This village is great for shopping and has a big backpacker community. You'll see a lot of barefooted white people with dreadlocks here, drum circles, etc. The best sunset at Lake Atitlan is seen from San Pedro, and we purchased our favorite locally-made goods while visiting this village.
Panajachel is "the" marketplace village at Lake Atitlan, and you can stroll the main drag for hours, eating samples of chocolate and sipping Guatemalan coffee while shopping for handmade textiles, shoes, clothing, oil paintings, jewelry, hats... the list goes on and on. The goods are beautiful, and the majority are handmade, usually with an artisan in the back of the stall working on their latest creation.
San Marcos La Laguna
Based on what we had read before traveling to Guatemala, San Marcos, we thought, was going to be our favorite village. And it is pretty cool, but I will say that it had the most Americanized vibe of any of the villages we visited. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing! The local vendors's businesses were busy and thriving, and San Marcos has more options for spa services, massages, health food stores and restaurants in one compact little area than the other three villages we visited put together! And that is not to say that it's a frantically busy or loud place... it's not. In fact if you wander off the main drag, you'll stroll some of the most peaceful cobblestone streets and pathways you've ever seen. Take care when you pass by some of the "retreats," as they are yoga silent retreats, and there are people inside those areas who have come there specifically for the quiet. It's pretty cool.
We only passed through Tzununa on our hike from Jaibalito to San Marcos La Laguna, and only saw the main drag through town. But still, it stands out in my mind as a very special place. It's a quiet little town, and we saw few of the men that live there, as they were mostly at work in the farms above the town. The women walk with a sense of purpose from one area to another, usually carrying things on their heads. Strolling through Tzununa almost feels like you're in a Western movie or as my husband likes to refer to it, "the Romancing the Stone" town.
Jaibalito is a sleepy village neighboring Santa Cruz. There is not much of an expat population here, and the people are extremely friendly and welcoming. We stayed in this village for 4 nights and I would stay there again. There are one or two little convenience stalls with things like chips, soda, etc. There are no ATMs or supermarkets in this tiny village. While you're there, make sure to eat at Posada de Jaibalito and Casa del Mundo. There are also a couple of resorts outside of Jaibalito that serve dinner, but really, who cares. ;)
Santiago, San Juan La Laguna and Santa Catarina Palopo
These are the three villages we did not have time to visit. Each of them have their own special charms, and one day when I go back to Guatemala (and I WILL) these three villages will be at the top of my list.
4. The Street Food in Flores
I will admit that this is really the first international trip where I didn't stay at a resort (and I'll probably never stay at a "resort" again after taking this trip). During our first 24 hours we were hesitant to try street food, or anything that didn't look like a touristy-type restaurant where we could be sure not to get some type of food poisoning or unfiltered water. But you quickly realize that if the locals are eating at the food stalls, then the food is fine. (Duh.) So we went for it, and I'm still craving the food we ate from street vendors in Flores.
The food stalls lining the waterfront in Flores, Guatemala are absolutely delicious.
Let me say that again.
AB. SO. LUTELY. DEEEEEE. LICIOUS.
Most of the stalls are serving basically the same things: chicken tacos, chicken burritos, chicken empanadas, and chicken tamales. In addition, they've got fresh-baked banana bread, chocolate cake, and carrot cake. And when I say fresh, I mean they baked those cakes that day, along with the fresh tortillas wrapped around every taco, burrito and empanada. I will tell you that at home, food variety is important to me. I'm spoiled. It's true. I hardly even eat leftovers because I want something new to eat. But in Flores, I went back to these street food stalls every single night we were there. And yes, I had chocolate cake EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. So sue me.
Oh, and did I forget to mention the beverages? Ordering a fresh lemonade in Guatemala is a different thing altogether than it is in the states. I'm talking about fresh-squeezed lemons with purified water and just enough sugar to make it delicately sweet. Needless to say, I also drank a lot of "Limonada y Azucar" while I was visiting Guatemala. You should, too.
Also, the street food is ridiculously cheap. You can get a couple of fresh tacos, lemonade and fresh-baked cake or banana bread for about $5 US. The women in these stands work hard... please tip them generously! It matters!
5. The Shopping in San Pedro and Panajachel
While Panajachel has a daily marketplace with rows upon rows of vendors, restaurants and artisans walking through the cobblestone streets, I consider both Panajachel and San Pedro to be great for shopping. They both have offerings from local artists, including textile weavers, oil painters, jewelry makes and clothing makers. Panajachel has a lot of "stalls" and the vendors are ready to negotiate, while San Pedro is a bit more "boutique" with proprietors that tend to stick to the "sticker price" of their items. San Pedro also has an extensive food market where the locals shop. If you are hoping to purchase handmade items while you're in Guatemala, either of these villages will suffice, and then some.
6. Tikal Mayan Ruins at Tikal National Park
During our two weeks in Guatemala, our day at Tikal was the only "guided tour" that we booked, and for many good reasons. While staying in Flores, we booked our Tikal trip through a local travel agency. She gave us a lot of information, dos and don'ts about spending a day in Tikal, The package we purchased included a shuttle that picked us up at our hotel doorstep, and a guide that met us as soon as we arrived at the park.
7. Strolling through Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala was the last stop in our two week visit to the country, and believe me we were getting pretty tired at this point. Luckily we rented a great apartment right in the city and slept really well, so we were ready to hit the town the next morning.
Like most places in this gorgeous country, the photos you'll find online do not do the city justice. Cobblestone streets do not make for the most comfortable car ride, but strolling them on foot is dreamy. Much like Flores, there is another beautiful church; a doorway that opens into a beautiful courtyard; and a delicious restaurant or relaxing park around every corner.
And while you definitely want to take most opportunities to eat local cuisine while you're in Guatemala, don't discount the foreign food as well. One of the best meals that I ate during my trip was at a french restaurant, where I had the most excellent beef tenderloin in a creme fresh sauce that I've ever tasted. Guatemalan food is amazing, but don't discount the talented Guatemalan chefs who specialize in other types of food!
You can easily fill a couple of days just strolling the streets of Antigua, but make sure to make your way up to Cerro de la Cruz for a beautiful view of the entire city and the surrounding volcanoes.
8. Shop, Eat and Play for Pennies in Guatemala
Honestly, even if you pay "tourist prices" for many goods or services in Guatemala, you're still getting away with purchases that are handmade and would cost 4x as much in the states. Personally, I enjoyed haggling only because they expect it, but I never asked for too much. If a bracelet was priced at 25 Quetzales, I would ask to purchase two bracelets for 45 Quetzales. It's not much less than they were asking, and it's still two handmade leather bracelets for about 6 bucks. Keep in mind that these people are making a living off of what they can sell to tourists, and their income is seasonal. Even if you spend full price, you're going to get away with an amazing deal, and you're going to profoundly help the Guatemalan family from which you make your purchase. That's my two cents. ;)
9. Sunsets that are Better than Maui
I've been to Maui a couple of times. I had always heard that the sunsets there were like no other. And they were pretty. I stared at them. They made me happy. I was at peace. But I will say that after seeing the sun set over the jungle treetops in Tikal, or behind a wooden boat on Lake Peten in Flores, or next to a volcano peak at Lake Atitlan, there is absolutely no comparison. Maybe it has to do with something more than the sunset itself, maybe it's just because Guatemala feels so much more special to me than Hawaii (which is very special in its own right) but the 10 sunsets I witnessed in Guatemala were all one-of-a-kind experiences.
10. Water Taxi Rides across Lake Peten and Lake Atitlan
This may not sound like much, but bouncing over the bumpy waters in the afternoon on Lake Atitilan in full sun and gliding over the calm waters of Lake Peten are little adventures all their own. The rides cost only a few bucks, and whether you are on a private boat or riding along with other locals and travelers, it's such a fun experience. Some of the biggest smiles we shared as a group were while we were racing over lake water on the way to our next brand new destination for the day. You're not sure what's ahead. You're just sure you're going to love it.
So there are my top 10 reasons to visit Guatemala, and why it's never too many times to visit. If we were able to see all of this in a matter of 2 weeks, imagine what you could see if you re-visit Guatemala again and again. Some of the top sites that we weren't able to see, and hope to see during our next trip are Semuc Champey, Livingston, and the Rio Dulce.
More About Traveling to Guatemala
We've written a lot about our trip to Guatemala in 2018. Here's a short list of some of the more-detailed travel blog posts we've written about hiking in Guatemala, places to stay in Guatemala and things to do in Flores.
A Pictorial of Flores and Antigua Guatemala Doors and Windows
A Guided Hike Through Tikal National Park