Between my trip to Costa Rica and defending my dissertation, I flew to Guatemala for six days. Amanda was spending two months there to travel, volunteer, and take intensive Spanish classes in a town called Xela. Financially, I probably couldn’t afford a trip to Guatemala, and academically, I probably had way too much work to justify another Latin American vacation; but I’d accumulated enough frequent flier miles to get a free a ticket and I was low on writing inspiration for my dissertation. Maybe I’d find some by visiting Amanda in Guatemala?
I arrived in Guatemala City in the late afternoon. Amanda was waiting for me outside the airport. We quickly taxied to a rental car outfitter and leased an obscure, but seemingly functional 4WD vehicle. Our first destination was Lake Atitlan, a five-hour drive from the city. We had a reservation at a B&B in Jaibalito called the Volcano Lodge.
We traveled around Atitlan on boat taxis. Two of Atitlan's volcanos can be seen in the background. We climbed San Pedro, the volcano to the right.
Jaibalito is a small lakeside town. The only way to get to Jaibalito is by boat from other larger towns on Lake Atitlan, such as Panajachel. We arrived in Panajachel around 10PM and parked our car in a private lot near the marina. A small boat was waiting to shuttle us to Volcano Lodge. We threw our packs into the boat and taxied across the lake.
Amanda eating breakfast at Volcano Lodge the morning of our hike up San Pedro.
Lake Atitlan is renown as the deepest lake in Central America (340m). The lake itself is about 5100 ft in elevation and has more than 50 square miles of surface area. Three large volcanoes surround Atitlan. As we boated across the lake, the volcanoes formed massive black silhouettes against a starry night sky. A candlelit dinner was literally waiting for us as we arrived at Volcano Lodge. Not a bad start to our trip.
The next morning we ate an exhaustingly large breakfast before taking a water taxi to San Pedro, a small town on the other side of the lake. San Pedro is named after the volcano we were about to climb. The hike was strait forward – dirt paths winded through impossibly steep cornfields and coffee plantations before reaching high-altitude tropical cloud forests near the summit. The peak afforded us an excellent view of the lake and surrounding mountains. Guatemala is a mountainous country. It has more and higher volcanoes than any other Central American. To put it into perspective, if you could spread it out flat, Guatemala would approach the size of all Central American country.
A view of Lake Atitlan and surrounding mountains through cornfields about halfway to the top of the San Pedro Volcano.
The Ancient Mayan city of Tikal
The next morning, we left Volcano Lodge, returned to our car, and drove 14 hours through Guatemala’s mountains, dirt roads, and small towns. We crossed several rives and got lost a handful of times before arriving on the island town of Flores late at night. The hostel we planned to stay at had no more rooms, but they let us set up our hammock between two large wooden poles in the common area. Surprisingly, we slept well.
Flores itself has a lot of history, but we were here to see something else – the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Early the next morning, we rolled out of our hammock and drove to Tikal. I was floored by this ancient city. No matter how many televisions programs you see on Tikal you cannot image what its like to visit it in person. It’s simply amazing. Tucans and Oropendulas fly between huge limestone pyramids. The low calls of howler monkey echo between ancient stadium walls. Atop any pyramid, all you can see are the tips of other such structures emerging from a sea of flat forest canopy. At its economic and political pinnacle, Tikal was densely populated with conservative estimates ranging around 45,000 inhabitants. This was a sophisticated and highly organized population. Gazing out from these stone structures, I couldn’t help but try and imagine the world they lived in.
A view of Tikal from atop the Jaguar Pyramid
Our time in Tikal was short but sweet. By mid-afternoon, we were back on the road headed for Rio Dulce. Rio Dulce is river that flows in to Lake Izabal and then eventually connects to Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. This river and lake system runs between larger mountains and dozens of rivers run off these hills and connect to Rio Dulce. Because of these winding rivers and the resulting matrix of vegetated islands, this place is considered one of the Caribbean’s best havens for boats during Caribbean storms.
On our drive to Rio Dulce, we stopped to photograph this tree filled with snowy egrets.
Again, Amanda and I dropped our car off in Rio Dulce, boarded a boat and taxied through a maze of rivers to one of the coolest hostels I’ve ever visited. We stayed at Hostel Kangaroo. This hostel was composed of a series of bungalows and one larger structure build above the river on stilts. Once again, the only way to get here was by boat. We rented a bungalow for $30 a night and spent the night drinking and debating with ex-pats and travelers a few feet above rich sediment-filled waters.
Amanda wades though the hot waterfall that cascades into the cold river at Finca El Paradiso.
After a leisurely breakfast, Amanda and I boarded a boat back to Rio Dulce. There, we got onto an 8-person van with around 20 people and drove 45 minutes where we were dropped off at a place called Finca El Paradiso, or the Ranch/Farm of Paradise. There, we paid the owner a small fee to walk through his forest to a famous hot spring waterfall. A river that carries cold water rushes through the canyons from mountains above. A spring of hot water spews from a nearby hill with enough hot water to form a respectable stream that eventually cascades into the cold river. It was surreal swimming in through the cold river water into a large hot waterfall. Even once it started raining, Amanda and I refused to get out of the water.
Amanda swims towards the hot water that cascades into a cool mountain stream at Finca el Paradiso.
One more night at Hostel Kangaroo before we were dropped back off in Rio Dulce to collected our car and drive to Guatemala City. I had to fly back to Miami the next day and Amanda had to go back to Xela. We found a cheap hotel near the airport and then took a taxi into the city. We spent our last night in Guatemala in a bar watching the 2012 Super Bowl and reflecting on our vacation.