So, its been quite a while since I have last shared stories from our travels. As most of you already know, we took a couple months off, worked a bit, celebrated holidays with friends and family, and are now back on the travel trail. Instead of just jumping into where we are now, I wanted to do my best to catch up on what I haven’t shared. I left off as we were exiting Mexico into Guatemala, following which we explored Honduras, then cruised back up to the states through northern Mexico. So enjoy, hopefully we will be caught up to our second leg soon!
Like all good things, our Mexico travels had finally come to an end, and we were excited to start exploring a new country. Approaching Guatemala had me wondering how much different things would really be from Mexico. With the same language, similar Mayan heritage, and rich culture, I figured not much would change. When we crossed the, one thing was immediately apparent, the geography.
You wouldn’t think there would be a significant difference just traveling a few miles south, but almost immediately over the border we came upon some of the most dramatic landscape we had seen thus far. From what I learned, that territory in Central America is known as the ring of fire, where you find a large concentration of volcanoes, both dormant and active. Guatemala alone is home to 28 volcanoes, 3 of which are currently active. With our first stop in Guatemala, we immediately found ourselves indulging in the natural wonders provided by this local volcanic activity.
Only a couple hours drive past the border, we came upon the somewhat large city of Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela (pronounced she-la). The city itself is compact with busy streets and bustling markets. We didn’t spend much time in the “downtown” area beyond a stop at a cool bar/cafe called El Cuartito that served some fantastic eats, craft beers from the states, and one hell of a Bloody Mary, worth a visit for sure. The city also is known to offer very cheap options for travelers to live and study Spanish, in fact its one of the cheapest places to do so in Central America. We had already made plans to do our Spanish study in Antigua, so instead we spent our time exploring the region that surrounded the city.
Hotel Las Cumbres Spa
Our first night in Guatemala, we found the most incredible little hotel/spa that allowed us to spend the night in the truck in their parking lot for $10, which included the use of the amenities the spa had to offer. Hotel Las Cumbres was perched on a mountainside that had volcanic activity flowing deep underground beneath the property. Using the underground geothermal heat to their advantage, the spa channeled volcanic steam into numerous natural steam baths, and even used the mineral springs to fill the hot tubs. For that first night, we stayed in the truck and had access to a private volcanic steam room for an hour in the evening and again in the morning.
As we sat and enjoyed a delicious fresh breakfast in the onsite restaurant and took in the surroundings of the beautiful spa, we decided it was necessary for us to spend our “splurge” travel dollars on a full experience at this place. Traveling on a tight budget is tough when you are constantly running into amazing places such as this, so we tell ourselves we can splurge once a month. After breakfast we spoke to the front desk and were told they were all booked up for the next two nights, so we booked the room three days out and planned a two-night excursion into the mountains to a nearby hiking spot we had heard about.
It was the perfect plan, we went into the mountains and got some good hiking in, and then returned for a great pampering session. We got an amazing room with a king bed, fireplace, and our own private in-suite mineral spring hot tub. On top of that we booked a couple’s spa day package which included a mineral steam, full body massages, a pedicure, and Champagne with snacks to top it all off. Total cost of the room and spa day: $150, prob the best money we had spent on the entire trip!
As for our two-day excursion while we waited to be pampered at the spa, we found a spot on our iOverlander app that had a cheap place to stay in the truck and an easy-to-moderate hike up to the top of a dormant volcano where a lake had formed in the crater over time. The trip up to the trail head was no joke, and if it wasn’t for the fact that Poppins is an absolute boss, we probably would have had to give up on the plan. I’m not sure of the altitude, but the tiny dirt road was so steep it felt like we could have almost tumbled backwards down the mountain. With the petal to the floor, Poppins barely squeaked it out, crawling up the mountainside at a snail’s pace, but slow and steady, she got it done.
When we arrived at the tiny base village, we were welcomed by packs of dogs, and looks of curiosity from some locals. Whether they were wondering how the truck made it up that hill, or if they just weren’t accustom to seeing gringo travelers, we will never really know. Our camp spot was in a big grassy area along side a soccer field. Plenty of room to set up our full kitchen and outdoor patio that Poppins provides. We even found a new friend, or I guess he found us. The little pup must have been no more than 6 weeks old, and after we saved him from being tormented by some little Guatemalan boys, he didn’t leave our side for the duration of our stay. It was tough saying goodbye (especially for Linds) but unfortunately, we just couldn’t provide a good life for a pup in our cramped little space (definitely for the best…).
The hike up to the crater took under two hours and wasn’t all that challenging. When you reached the top, the crater was heavily wooded, so views of the small lake were certainly limited. Being as secluded and wooded as it was, we hoped to spot one the elusive Quetzals, Guatemala’s national bird, but no such luck. We made our way down to the lake, hoping to go for a dip, but upon arriving at the shore we discovered this lake was not for swimming. Turns out it is considered a sacred place of cosmic convergence by the Mayan people. The shores of the lake are commonly used for many ceremonies and offerings ranging from flower bouquets along the shore to the more deeply cultural Mayan Fire Ceremonies. During these fire ceremonies, trained Mayan spiritual leaders use fire to create a vortex of energy that can be used as a portal into the Spirit world. Through these portals they can receive healing and offer prayers. As you can see, our simple little hike turned out to be quite the learning experience into the ancient Mayan world.
It had been a little while since we had last hiked, so this was a nice ease back into it. Regardless, while the hike wasn’t all that strenuous, we were beyond excited to get back to Las Cumbres for some luxurious volcanic steaming and relaxation!
After we lapped up all the luxury we could during our overnight stay at that amazing spa, we had one more spot in the Xela region we wanted to check out. Up into the mountains to the south of the city, we found Fuentes Georginas, a beautiful hot spring compound tucked away deep in this mountain valley. This placed wasn’t like most hot springs you find. It was more developed with larger man made pools set up to collect the spring water.
Through the site there were 6 or 7 different hot spring pools, each varying in size and temperature. Several of the pools were stacked above one another, with water flowing from one to the next. The biggest of the pools sat at the top and tucked itself up against a towering rocky cliff covered with spots of moss and vines dangling down. Out from the cracks of the cliff walls poured out spouts of blazing hot water that cooled as it cascaded down into the large pool. The steam rising from the hot pool at the base of this cliff provided quite the picturesque and surreal backdrop for yet another impressive stop along our travels.
The overnight camping was in the parking lot at the entrance and was nothing to write home about, but it did mark the first place we met our new friends Ketrin and Leo, who we crossed paths with a couple times since this stop. In fact, at our next stop at Lake Atitilan, they ended up being our neighbors for a week! Sometimes the best part of traveling can come in the form of new connections made along the way!
Our next destination was one of the places we had been looking forward to most our travels, right behind Chiapas Mexico. Many of our friends had traveled to Lake Atitlan Guatemala and the reviews we got from all them were nothing short of fantastic. Beyond the hype, we were also looking forward to getting to a spot where we planned to spend some extended time. Up until this point, all our stops had been brief. When we started, we were so excited to drive everywhere and experience all the crazy places Mexico had to offer that we usually jumped from spot to spot every 2-3 days. After doing that for 7 months, we were longing for a place where we just set up shop for a couple weeks, and Lake Atitlan was the perfect location for that.
Atitlan is a large, beautifully blue lake surrounded by Guatemala’s dramatic mountainous landscape, complete with multiple dormant volcanoes towering over its shores. Scattered along the edge of the lake are a handful of little villages, each with a character of its own. Exploring the different villages is done via water taxi’s that are constantly running from port to port throughout the day. There are 8 or 9 small villages around the waters edge, but during our time there, we ended up exploring 4 of them, with our home base in San Marcos.
San Marcos is a chill little town, known best for being a spiritual center where people come to practice holistic arts such as yoga, Reiki, crystal healing and meditation. For us, we were excited to be in the laid-back village, but the main draw was this absolutely beautiful campground just outside of town called Pierre Pasajcap. This place is by far the most incredible overlanding spot we stayed at throughout the entire trip. There are a handful of home/apartment rentals on the property (which were outstanding) and then a big sloping field with space for maybe 8-10 overlanders. When we arrived, there were only 2 other campers there, so we were able to secure a great spot perched up on the top of the hill with incredible views of the lake and the towering volcanoes in the backdrop.
As if the beautiful campsite and view wasn’t enough, this compound created by Pierre, the owner, is magnificent. As I previously mentioned, the onsite housing options were impressive, with perfect views of the lake. Stone pathways lead you though the lush green grass accented by brightly colored flower bushes and vines draping over archways. Paths lead to multiple common spaces complete with hammocks and lounge chairs, one of which was situated at the base of the hill at the waters edge. Talk about the most calming, serene place to chill and read a book. Pierre even had an assortment of high-quality frozen meat and fish for sale that you could cook up on the BBQ pits onsite, the place had it all.
If we wanted to explore the town, it was a short 15 min walk from the campsite, or you could opt for a cheap tuk tuk ride down the road. The town of San Marcos consisted of one road big enough for vehicles, then a couple walking paths that lead down to the lake. Along these walking paths were a handful of street vendors & shops, cafes & restaurants, and a few hostels & small boutique hotels. Like we find in many of these popular backpacking destinations, the restaurants were fantastic, so we spent our time there sampling as much as we could, with our clear favorite being a spot called Fe, so good I think we ate there 3 times!
We also spent a lot of time hanging out at a cool hostel on the water called Hostel Del Lago. With cheap food & drinks, solid WiFi, and great views, it was a popular spot for most of the travelers staying in the area to hang out and mingle. They also offered yoga in the morning on a big deck over the water, so Lindsey took full advantage of that. Not being much of a yogi myself, I did not partake, but I have to say, if I was going to do some yoga, that deck with that amazing backdrop would be the spot to do it!
One of the most popular destination on the lake is the little party town of San Pedro. San Pedro is much larger than San Marcos, with many streets large enough for vehicles. This is where you find the bulk of the travel hostels, as well as the highest density of bars and restaurants around the lake. We only spent one afternoon here, so didn’t get to explore very much, but you could tell the place erupts at night.
There were lots of cool waterfront bar/restaurants each offering an assortment of weekly bar specials and advertising DJ parties. If you are looking to rage, you will find your hands full here. Thing is, the boats taking you from town to town stop running around 6 or 7 pm, so to partake in the nightlife, you would need to be staying at one of the local spots in San Pedro. At the time of our stay, we were on the other end of the spectrum, so we weren’t too upset about not having experienced the night life, our peaceful little spot on the hill was all we needed!
San Juan is the neighboring town to San Pedro and is the place you want to go to shop for local textiles, gifts, and souvenirs. We really enjoyed the town, starting our day at this great little waterfront cafe that made some delicious smoothies and healthy snacks. From there we explored the main street that lead up the steep hill and was filled with little shops selling all sorts of gifts and souvenirs. Unlike your standard tourist trap places aboard where every store carries the same exact items, the shops along this street were unique.
In one of them, a woman explained to us the process of making the fabrics that use, as well as what they use as natural dyes to get the vibrant colors they use. For example, light green comes from avocados, while the avocado seed is used for a light brown color. Darker brown comes from coffee beans, and the deep red comes from the blood of crushed insects; crazy, right?!. In another shop that sold an assortment of cacao products, we watched how tradition chocolate is made and learned a bit about how they incorporate the different flavors into the chocolate. One other place we stopped had a fresh herb garden and enlightened us on the various herbal teas they make and how each of the fresh herbs can be used to heal a variety of what ails you.
There was a collective of women in San Juan that all work together on the hand-making of the assorted materials they use, sharing a portion of profits to create some stability for the local families. It made us feel good about spending our limited funds on these particular souvenirs, as though we were now part of their cause. Certainly not the feeling you get when purchasing anything from say, Panajachel…
Panajachel is the tourist central of Lake Atitlan. If you are traveling here by bus from one of the larger cities in Guatemala, this is where you land. It’s a busy town jam packed with bars & restaurants, but it’s also the spot where you have shop after shop selling the same exact items, complete with guys at the store fronts coaxing you inside to make the sale. That sort of thing is to be expected at most any foreign tourist location and is equally annoying everywhere you go.
It wasn’t all bad though. Along the water’s edge, Panajachel has a nice walking path leading out through a handful of vendors, and some cool waterfront bars and restaurants. While not as cheap as some of the other less touristy spots around the lake, you are certain to find some fantastic local eats. Is also a great place to enjoy a beer or cocktail while overlooking the lake. For me, that was the extent of what there was to offer. Considering the super cool towns in arms reach, Panajachel is nothing more than the tourist stop and jumping off point to exploring the true beauty of lake Atitlan.
Our two-week window went faster than we could have imagined, and it was a sad day when we had to pack up to head out of our beautiful lake front campground. If we didn’t make other plans, I am sure we would have spent even more time there, but our next stop was Antigua Guatemala. It was there that we had arranged to live with a family and study Spanish for a couple weeks!
I can’t say enough about how much we love Antigua. Right up there with San Cristobal de Las Casas in Mexico, Antigua is a beautiful little city nested in the valley of central Guatemala and surrounded by picturesque volcanoes. For those of you who have been following our travels, you are familiar with one of these volcanoes, known as Fuego. Yeah, that story where we found ourselves running for our lives from its eruption during a failed attempt to hike the neighboring volcano, Acatenango. If you haven’t heard that one yet, check out the full story HERE.
So, beyond that crazy story, we spent two weeks in Antigua, our longest stay at any given place during the trip and had a wonderful time. Known for being an epicenter of language study, Antigua has many schools that offer Spanish classes, and many programs that set you up with a local family to live with while you’re completing your courses. This is something I had been very much looking forward to, not only to grow my skills with the language, but also for the experience of living with a local family. We decided on two weeks of study and ended up being placed in the home of a nice older woman who converted her living space to accommodate 4 or 5 rooms for Spanish students. She had two daughters that were fully grown and out of the house, but they were there everyday helping her cook all the meals for the students that were staying at the home.
Since it was a larger space with so many rooms, the feeling of living with a family was somewhat diluted, but it was a fantastic experience none the less. Besides Lindsey and I, there were three other students living in other rooms with whom we made friends. We would all have breakfast together, along with our lovely host, and then head off to school to study from 8am to noon each day. After school we would all have lunch together at the home, doing our best to only speak Spanish, and then have our afternoons open to explore the city before returning home for family dinner each night. It was a perfect mix of study, family time, and time for yourself to enjoy Antigua.
As for enjoying Antigua, there was a ton of that to be done. The city is crowded with all sorts of unique cafes, bars and delicious restaurants. We did our best to always eat our meals at home, since they were already paid for, and it was part of the family experience, but a couple times a week we would opt to eat out and sample the different spots around town. Among our favorites were Toko Baru, which was a fantastic Indian place, and Porque No?, which was a tiny spot that sat maybe 10 people in its tight loft dining space. Our favorite day spots were Samsara (where you were sure to spot Lindsey almost every day) and Hugo’s Ceviche. Samsara made great healthy food and delicious smoothies, and Hugo’s Ceviche not only had the best ceviche in town, but also served up their famous Picositas, an amazing hang over cure made with beer mixed with lime, soy sauce, red onions and chili. I can go on for days on the food alone, so many great places to eat, should probably write a blog on that alone.
The night life through out the city was something else as well. Whatever night of the week, there seemed to be something happening. Live music, some sort of good happy hour, dancing, you name it. One night we ventured out to find some live music and dancing and stumbled upon one of the coolest salsa clubs. The live salsa band was fantastic, but even better was the dancing. It was like we walked into a professional dance hall. No space for our amateur moves on the dance floor, but that was fine because sitting back and watching these people move was fascinating. There was one group of three guys that had a big 6-person salsa dance coordinated together where they would trade off their partners in a whirlwind of moves that blew us away. I’ve never been so mesmerized by dancing, and I have been to 100+ Phish concerts…
One of biggest nights of partying on the entire trip was on one of the Saturday nights, when we attended the weekly Piscina party outside of town. It got its name because it used to be thrown in the bottom of a drained pool, but as it got bigger and accidents started happening, they had to move it. Now it happens at a big field outside of town where they set up a festival stage and vendors. It starts at 1am and goes all night until sunrise, with DJ’s and dancing all night. To top off all the madness, the lot sits at the base of Fuego, so all night long, the back drop is a massive volcano erupting molten lava into the sky every 20-30 minutes. The entire thing was surreal, and if you happen to be into all night raves or not, its an unforgettable experience worth every bit of the hangover. Especially when Hugo’s Picositas and a buffalo chicken pizza from Central Park Pizza are there to cushion your fall the next day…
Our final weekend in Antigua was slated to be our climbing weekend, where we would do a warm up hike on Volcano Pacaya, and then summit Acatenango to view Fuego erupt at the top. Well you all know how things went with Fuego, but the day before we did that, we hiked a different volcano and had a much more successful experience. Pacaya is about an hour from the city and is another active volcano. To save our energy for the Fuego hike, we decided to rent horses for the bulk of the climb, which turned out to be a fun option. We were able to take the horses up to the end of the trail, which sat at the base of the crater, another 800-1000 or so feet up. There you find a cool shop that makes art out of lava rocks, and a steaming field where you can actually roast marshmallows in the steaming hot lava pits.
Typically, that is the end of the line for the hike, but if you haggle with the guides and slip them a little extra tip, they will take you up to the rim of the crater. That last 1000’ ascent had to be done on foot, and was exceptionally difficult, since it was steep and all loose gravelly lava rock where you take one step up and slide two back. When we finally made it to the top, we stood less than 50 yards from the center of the crater that was constantly spitting up small chunks of molten hot lava. The spew was minimal, maybe 10-20 feet into the air, so we were at what felt like a safe distance, but such a cool thing to see. Little did we know we were in store for the next day at Fuego!
After the craziness that ensued with our attempted hike up to Fuego, and the few days we took to gather ourselves afterwards, we were ready to get out of dodge. The air quality was really bad after the eruption, and with Fuego continuing to be more active than usual, we were excited to be moving on. Our destination would be eventually Honduras, but we decided to take the long way around so we could explore some of Guatemala’s deeper and off the beaten path sights.
The Verapaces is the region covering Central Guatemala, made up of many of the bio reserves and other protected natural wonders found in Guatemala. For our first stop in the region, we decided to make another attempt at tracking down an elusive Quetzal. The male Quetzal has a small bright green body with a bright red belly, but most noticeable are its long thin tail feathers that dangle a foot or more below its perched body. Biotopo del Quetzal seemed like our best chance at finding the little guy, so we gave it a shot. We were at the entrance to the reserve first thing in the morning and began our hike, being told the morning is our best chance. After a three-hour hike, we came up empty, but the hike itself was through pristine Guatemalan jungle, so it didn’t feel like a total loss. We will just have to add the Quetzal to the list, right behind the elusive Keel-billed Toucan!
Next up on our Verapaces tour was one of Guatemala’s most popular nature spots, Samuc Champey. Pretty much any Guatemala tour guide will have some aerial photos of this natural wonder. Samuc Champey is made up of a limestone rock formation that creates a natural bridge almost a half mile long. Underneath the bridge, the Cahabon river rushes through a large tunnel, but on top you find a series of calm, beautiful turquoise pools, a fantastic place to cool off and enjoy the pristine waters. In the area that surrounds, there are a handful of cool hostels, and river front cafes that offer cave tours and river tubing experiences.
A unique place to spend a day or two, but getting there is not a simple journey. Of course, going with a tour, you just sit in a van for a few hours and then you are there. For us, it was a different story. Following our suggested route on google maps, we headed north from the Quetzal reserve. Even looking at the map we had, it seemed like it was a legitimate road, but in rural Guatemala, you can’t really trust maps to tell you what the roads will be like. Our 2-hour ride quickly turned into a 5-hour excursion, trekking through some of the roughest mountain roads Poppins has ever seen. I mean, if you can even call it road. A video of us going through some of this would have looked like one of those Jeep commercials where the Cherokees are climbing straight boulders and ending up at the end of giant canyon. It was a slow crawl over this rugged terrain to say the least. Five hours of that will really test your patience, but we made it through, and were that much more excited for Samuc Champey when we arrived.
As we headed toward Guatemala’s Caribbean coast, we made one more stop at another waterfall called Las Conchas. Unfortunately, we arrived here at the tail end of the rainy season, which brings heavy water-flow and churns up what would be clear blue water and leaves you with murky brown river water. Not so appealing for a swim, but the waterfalls were impressive none the less. I could only imagine how nice of a place it would be if it were its pristine blue color. Oh well, we can’t win ‘em all…
After our short tour through the Verapaces, we made our final stop in Guatemala in the town of Rio Dulce. An interesting town to say the least, Rio Dulce is nestled along the Rio Dulce, which is the waterway connecting Lago Izabal and El Golfete. El Golfete is a smaller lake that leads out to the Caribbean Sea, and Lago Izabal is the largest body of water in Guatemala, larger than Lake Tahoe if that gives you a reference. The town is one super hectic and busy road, dirty, and filled with shops and people over flowing into the small street. Behind the madness of the town there are a handful of decent bars & restaurants on the water’s edge, but nothing outstanding.
What people truly come here for is what lies outside of the busy town. Up and down the banks of the Rio Dulce that connects the two large bodies of water you will find small marinas with bars & restaurants, hotels, resorts, and gorgeous private dwellings. From what I can tell, it’s a bit of a haven for those in the sailing community. Boats from all around the world that spend their time sailing around the Caribbean usually make port at Rio Dulce for at least a little while.
For us, we found a couple little treasures that made our final stop in Guatemala very much worth it. Our camping location for one was a large lot on the shores of Lago Izabal, completely secluded from the road, and pretty much anything else around. While the lake didn’t consist of the most beautiful water we have seen, it was still a great spot to have to ourselves for a night or two of relaxed and secluded camping. What made the stay exceptional was the hot spring waterfall not far from our campsite. This particular hot spring consisted of a blazing hot waterfall that cascaded about 20 feet down into a cold-water pool. The hot water was too hot to even touch, but a perfect match for the cold water below. As you swam closer to the base of the falls, you drifted through ebbs and flows of warm, cold and hot water. Tucked away deep in the woods with no one else around, its was super relaxing, a beautiful natural spa!
So after about 5 weeks and some amazing adventures, it was time for us to cross the boarder into Honduras. At the start of our travels, Honduras was low on the list, and perceived as dangerous and unpleasant. We didn’t plan to spend much of any time there, but after some more in depth research and discussion with other travelers, we were now psyched to spend the next month exploring what the country had to offer!