Guatemala was one of my favorite last minute backpacker-getaway decisions I’ve made. I was happily surprised by my time visiting the country. Guatemalans are reserved but very friendly, they respect their surroundings by being neat and courteous to others, and they have a great deal of pride of their religious beliefs and their Mayan culture and clothing. Although a small country, it holds a richness and diversity in geographical and cultural sites. Although I only had 11 days there before I had to catch my flight to Cuba, I felt I was able to see the highlights of the country, and left feeling energized and renewed as a backpacker from my time there. And best of all, my last two days in Guatemala was spent accomplishing a major physical feat: hiking up Acatenango Volcano.
And so, just as I had begun my travels ice climbing Volcán Villarrica in Chile in December (my post about it can be found clicking here), I neared the end of my journey with an even more challenging hike. It was difficult, but it was an incredible reminder that we can truly achieve whatever we put our minds to. And the physical challenge was just what I needed to keep me motivated as I began to acknowledge that I was indeed going home within a month. Acatenango Volcano peaks at 3,976 meters, and although it’s not the highest climb I’ve done, it was the longest. We began our hike in the morning at 2,400 meters above sea level. The following six hours was a straight uphill climb, finishing the day at basecamp at 3,600 meters. The following morning we awoke at 4am to finish the vertical climb on soft volcanic ash to the summit. The two steps forward, one step backward rule was in full effect as we scrambled to the top with just enough time to watch the sunrise alongside a nearby volcano peaking above the clouds. My knees were like jello, my hands and face were frozen, I had barely slept the night before. It was not only the incredible view but also the exhilarating feeling of making it to the summit that made the entire journey worth it. The volcano is joined by Volcán de Fuego, a highly active stratovolcano where you can see eruptions of ash and lava on a weekly basis. We were so lucky to camp overnight with a close view of Fuego, and throughout the night we were able to see it erupt, something I had never seen before in my life. I was in awe of our guides who did this hike about three times per week. One of them brought his puppy named Valentino. Having a dog accompany our group was a real treat, as it offered an escape from the discomfort of the grueling hike to the summit. The hike itself was a fascinating experience of three completely distinct biospheres: the dry farmland and oak forest, the wet and humid cloud forest, and the high altitude pine/subalpine forest at the higher levels of the volcano, just beneath the volcanic ash that leads to the summit.
Prior to the hike, I was able to visit the beautiful colonial town of Antigua, only 35 minutes outside of Guatemala City. It’s a colorful, cobble-stoned town in a valley, surrounded by active volcanoes, and generally serves as any tourist’s introduction and farewell to the country. On a shuttle bus from the airport in Guatemala city to Antigua you’ll see for the first time the local busses that Guatemalans use, which are called “chicken busses.” These busses were previously American yellow school busses, only in Guatemala people have made them colorful, often metal plated, and generally pimped out, each with their own signature look and style. Some even carry the old license plates from the state where they were used. For example, I saw a California license plate on a silver and red painted chicken bus, with a painting of Jesus at the top of the backside of the bus. The motorbike taxis are equally adorned with pride and care, reflecting the driver’s individual personality.
From Antigua I made my way to the mystically serene Lake Atitlán, a volcanic lake at 1,560 meters above sea level. The area has been a sacred place for Mayans for centuries, and holds a measurable vortex of energy. It’s difficult not to sense the spiritual presence of the area, particularly in the small villages surrounding the lake that can be easily visited by boat. I stayed in the backpacker town called San Pedro, but was able to visit the mind-body conscious village of San Marcos one afternoon. As soon as I had arrived I saw that it was a place filled to the brim with yoga and meditation focused hotels, Vipassana retreat centers, shamanic healing workshops, organic vegan restaurants, and shops selling natural, homeopathic herbs and medicines. The initial shock I felt was how could this exist so far away from where you’d normally find it, such as in Bali or Koh Phagnan in the Southeast Asia. It was a true hippie hideaway, one that I immediately felt a connection to. But as I walked around, and with two friends I had made who were nowhere near this sort of lifestyle back in their hometowns, I felt that the high concentration of these types of establishments only served to lessen the effect of the positive and transformative experiences that are being offered to visitors. Is there such thing as too much of a good thing? I realized that although I consider myself a practitioner of many of the offerings to be found in San Marcos, I am also very much aligned to the New Yorker way of living, which brings in that balance of a practical, day-to-day work life. It did feel as if some of the authenticity was lost. Or, perhaps it was a reminder that these practices, traditionally derived from eastern medicine, are now becoming popular enough for westerners to bring them to the rest of the world. Globalization has it’s positive side effects, and arguably this is one of them. But perhaps the reality of it is that eastern societies actually incorporate these practices into their daily rituals, and not as merely an escape or a retreat. And by doing so, there is no need to go out of their way to travel to, and pay for, a transformative experience. It is in their blood and in their culture. This is something that I hope tourists passing through this sacred lake will realize: that they can make change happen wherever home may be for them and still be true to their authentic selves.
My last night at Lake Atitlán brought me to another place in my memory where I felt as if I was back home; I found myself at a bar in San Pedro playing deep house music and with fire dancers worthy of a Burning Man DJ and performance set. But something was different. Something had quickly brought me back to Guatemala, accompanied by a big-bellied laugh that only I could hear as my laughter was drowned by the music. As backpackers danced and watched the performance, an old Mayan woman walked across the center of the dance floor, a basket on her head filled with muffins. She didn’t seem to notice or care of what was happening around her. It was such an odd image. Here was a woman, born and raised on this land; was she adapting to the changes around her, or forcibly catering to those who have decided to make roots in her village? Was she just trying to sell her food and go about the rest of her night in peace, and not let the new music and strange foreigners influence her? I asked myself this as I watched her pace around the bar, until at last she vanished.
Anyhow, a little sidetracked there. My next stop was near a town called Lanquin. It was a long daytime journey on winding, bumpy roads, but by nightfall I had arrived at Semuc Champey. The forest was unlike your typical humid jungle. Rather, it was a dry, pine forest with a mix of trees that blended the native species of central america to some of the trees you’ll find in the mountains of upstate New York. Semuc Champey itself is a series of limestone bridges and caves that runs through central Guatemala and meets the Cabahón River. Combining the limestone and the river creates various tiered pools of turquoise, which were extraordinarily beautiful. From there I made my way to Flores, the jumping off point for visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal. In just one day’s drive I left the dry forest of Lanquin and found myself in the country’s northern tropical rainforest, rife with abundant wildlife, namely howler monkeys, toucans, and coatis. Tikal itself dates back to the 4th century BC, but reached its height during the Classic Period, from 200 to 900 AD. We watched the sunset from one of the temples in Tikal and listened to the birds and howler monkeys as they made their way to sleep.
Some practical tips for those looking to backpack in Guatemala. Firstly, most ATMs do not accept MasterCard debit cards. I had a huge problem with this as both my debit cards are MasterCard, and after trying countless machines in Flores and in Antigua, I was not able to withdraw any money. Luckily, I had just enough dollars that I could exchange to last me the remaining four days in the country. Secondly, Guatemala time is very different from the standard concept of time; when a Guatemalan says the journey will last 1.5 hours, it will actually take 3. The most common method of transport within the country for tourists are small shuttle busses, not the local chicken busses. These busses are not the most comfortable and often lack air conditioning, but they are the safest and most reliable means of getting from one place to another. The journey from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin took almost 10.5 hours on a tourist shuttle, even though it was advertised as 8 hours. Don’t be fooled by the small size of Guatemala. Because of the road conditions it does take a long time to cover a short distance, and unfortunately the only overnight bus you can take is from the town of Flores (where you go to visit Tikal) to Guatemala City. I did take this bus and it was decent, similar to an average quality South American coach. So in all, be aware that you may take a day just to travel from one place to another, which makes the amount of days remaining to visit the cities more limited if you’re short on time.