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Guatemala Trip Report

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This is a very belated trip report for a trip that we took to Guatemala over Thanksgiving of 2006. There has never been a ton of information about Guatemala on Fodors and I always meant to do the report, but just never got around to it so here goes. I hope it helps people.

We left very early the Sat morning before Thanksgiving and returned on the Monday after which gave us about 10 days in Guatemala. We traveled from Washington, DC through Miami and on to Guatemala city. We are a mid-30s couple who like to travel relatively comfortably without breaking the bank.

Why Guatemala? A lot of people asked us that and my response generally was that I had heard that it was beautiful and pretty inexpensive. We had just been to China the year before and I wanted to try to go to a different region of the world and had previously only been to Costa Rica in Latin America. Also, it was pretty easy to get there (no 17 hour flight to Asia) and not that expensive to fly there either so my answer was why not Guatemala?

Now anyone who knows much about Guatemala knows that there can be some safety issues and I sort of went back and forth on that, but living in Washington DC for the last decade made me feel like I was probably prepared for petty crime in another country. I did do some things a little differently than I might have otherwise and we never encountered any problems so who knows if we were careful, lucky, or the crime issues are overblown. I tend to think it is the last 2 rather than the first. That’s enough about that. For people who ask about the safety, I can only say that we encountered nothing but very nice people and had no problems, but everyone has to make the decisions that make them comfortable.

Itinerary
Day 1: Arrive Guatemala City--transfer to Antigua.
Day 2: Antigua
Day 3: Transfer to Lake Atitlan—Santiago Atitlan
Day 4: Lake Atitlan—Santiago Atitlan
Day 5: Lake Atitlan—Casa del Mundo
Day 6: Lake Atitlan—Casa del Mundo
Day 7: Transfer back to Antigua—overnight Antigua
Day 8: Transfer to Tikal—overnight Tikal
Day 9: Tikal then transfer back to Anitgua—overnight Antigua.
Day 10: Antigua and then back to Guatemala City for departure.

This itinerary was sort of disjointed, especially at the end when we went to Tikal with all of the transferring back and forth through Antigua, it actually worked pretty well for us, but the main reason it looked like this is when I called Casa del Mundo 3 months before our trip they had pretty limited availability so we rearranged some of our dates based on that. This was the only place that was even remotely booked, but once I found out it was I sort of went into high gear and just booked everything else so that we wouldn’t end up out of luck on reservations. I think pretty much everyone else I talked to thought I was a bit nuts for booking so far ahead, but that’s ok—I’m used to that! For all of our hotels and arrangements, I just used email to reserve the rooms and had no problems. I think that the exception was that I had to call one place to give a credit card number, but other than that it was all email.

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    Day 1
    We depart out of Washington National airport on a 7 am flight to Miami which we almost miss because who knew so many people had 7 am flights out of National the Sat before Thanksgiving? We end up being one of the last on the plane, but other than that no mishaps and we connect through Miami just fine and end up in Guatemala City at about 2 in the afternoon. The Guatemala City airport is not your shiny new US airport, but it is fine. Their baggage claim belts definitely were not big enough and so they kept running out of room on the belts and had to offload baggage to the middle where passengers couldn’t reach it. I don’t know where all these people were that they weren’t there to claim their bags, but it made for sort of a humorous scene. We had bags that were small enough not to check, but thanks to the only small and approved liquids rule we were checking so that we could take large amounts of sun screen and bug spray, so there we were in the baggage claim fray.

    So we finally rescue our bags and go outside to get a cab. Now, last year in China we had a situation where we were totally scammed for the cab fare at the Beijing airport because I had checked the guide book in my bag and didn’t have it handy to dispute the guy and couldn’t remember what the approximate fare should be. Not to be fooled twice I was on super duper taxi alert and had my guidebook at the ready. We head to the outside and a man with an official looking badge approaches us and says do you need a cab to Antigua. We say yes, he quotes us a price that is actually a little cheaper than the guide book and says to come with him. This is setting off all kinds of red alerts in my head since anyone can come up with an official looking badge, but sure enough he navigates the sea of people outside and puts us in a very official cab and quotes the price to the driver in front of us (and actually gives us a receipt) so we are all on the same page and off we go. This would be the first of many instances where people tell us that they are going to do something for a certain price and it all happens. Once again, I have no idea how much of this is luck or how much is that the Guatemalan people generally just are nice people who are not trying to scam foreigners. My hope is that it is mostly the latter since that is what we encountered.

    We get to Antigua at probably about 3:30 or maybe 4 pm and our cab driver drops us off at the Hotel Aurora which is our on again off again home while we are in Guatemala. We will stay there on three different occasions over the course of the trip. Now, I had agonized over our hotel choices in Antigua because that is what I do. I like to stay in a place that is clean, comfortable, and where we have a private bathroom. I also don’t mind a bit of luxury (who doesn’t, really?), but I also like to feel like am getting a good value. I relatively quickly settled on the Hotel Aurora for these first 2 nights as it was close to the central plaza and got good reviews and at $60 a night including breakfast seemed like a good value. Since we were going to be checking out and then coming back to Antigua I also considered quite a few other places for the other nights in Antigua including some that were much more expensive (Posada del Angel where Clinton stayed) and some others that seemed like a good value and had a pool like Casa de los Flores, but these were not close to the center of town. For some reason, I was strangely obsessed with having a pool for part of the time in Antigua, but it seemed like the good options for places with pools would have involved a walk to the center of town and I was concerned about doing that at night due to the aforementioned safety issues. In the end, being close to the center of town won out and now having been there I have no idea why the pool seemed more important and for us I think being in the center of things was good. So I gave up on choosing another hotel in Antigua and just booked all of our nights at the Hotel Aurora.

    Back to the Hotel Aurora. This place was great. I am not sure how many rooms they have, probably 15 or so, and they all are in a square with a courtyard in the perimeter. There are various tables and couches in the courtyard where people can sit and where breakfast is served. The courtyard was beautiful and the main entrance was generally locked and you had to be buzzed in so it was very peaceful in there. The rooms were also nice—very clean, good comfortable beds, and clean bathrooms. This is not the Ritz, but what I would consider a very comfortable small 3 star hotel and we really liked it there. I am also glad that I booked it for all of our nights because it was nice to come back to some place familiar in Antigua. It seemed like our home away from home in Guatemala. The staff also were very friendly and helpful. At the end of our first 2 nights there, I went to check out since we were going to be gone for 4 days and I thought they would want me to pay and the woman just looked at me and said, “You are coming back, pay at the end.” And I thought, wow, this doesn’t happen everywhere.

    The Hotel Aurora is located about a ½ block off of the central plaza (you can pretty much see the plaza when you leave the hotel) so after checking in we headed out and got the lay of the land. We got some cash, hung out in the plaza, and I think had our first beer in Guatemala (if I remember correctly). Antigua is a cute little town and feels fairly European. It also is pretty heavily touristed; it seemed like half the people we saw were tourists as opposed to locals so it is also very easy to get around. A lot of people speak English and when I would muddle along in Spanish people would often just answer me in English that was much better than my Spanish.

    We realized that we were pretty tired and hungry so we had an early dinner and were back at the Hotel by about 8 pm. We went to Frida’s for dinner that night which was good. It was probably not the best Mexican food in the world, but we liked the margaritas and if I remember correctly the portions were huge. Back at the Hotel Aurora, we realize that we have pretty darn good cable with probably 10 to 15 English language stations. Now, I realize that this sounds pathetic, but when you have been up since 4 am and just need a little down time the ability to watch some bad American TV can be nice.

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    Day 2

    Our first full day in Guatemala starts with a delightful breakfast in the courtyard of the Hotel Aurora. Continental breakfast is included, but they also will do eggs and other hot items for a small charge. We decided to split an order of eggs to round out our breakfast and everything is tasty and fresh. It is really nice to just sit outside and eat breakfast and this is when we meet the resident dog at the Hotel Aurora. They have a pug named Cujo which was pretty hysterical. He was very cute and my boyfriend loves dogs so we would spend some time during our stay at the Hotel Aurora playing with Cujo.

    We head out to start our sightseeing and there are these huge (and I mean several stories high) inflatable Gatorade bottles in the plaza—what could this be about? It turns out there is a race that morning through Antigua. Now we are both moderate runners and quite sad to find this out after it has already started because running a 10K in Guatemala would have been fun. Oh well, maybe next time. So we hung around and cheered for the runners for a bit. Then we went to check out some Antigua sights. We also went to a travel agency and booked 2 seats on a minibus to go to Lake Atitlan the next day. I think the seats were $10 or $12 each. We paid for them then and it was a situation where I thought is this guy going to show up or were we just stupid. I guess we would find out.

    This was our big Antigua sight seeing day so we went to the Catedral de Santiago, La Merced, La Iglesia de San Francisco, and Las Capuchinas. Antigua is very compact and so it is easy to wander around and see the sights.

    We have lunch at a random place we picked out which I remember being very cheap and pretty tasty and also pretty fancy for how cheap it was. And then we start prepping for our big afternoon activity which is the sunset hike up Pacaya.

    This section of the report could be subtitled, “The First Time We Almost Died in Guatemala.” So here is the deal on the Pacaya hike as it happened with us. We like to hike; we are in pretty good shape; and we like some good scenery. Plus where else do you get to get close to active lava—not in the US, that is for sure. So during my copious research I decided that hiking Pacaya would be fun. I even saw trip reports of people standing next to lava and thought this would be cool. So as per the Lonely Planet instructions, I contacted Old Town Outfitters and asked about their Pacaya hike. They wrote back and said that they would be doing a sunset hike that day leaving at about 3 pm. What could be better—a leisurely stroll up Pacaya and then hanging out near some lava as the sun sets? Sign us up.

    3 pm rolls around and we head to Old Town Outfitters and get in our van with the other hikers for that day. There aren’t that many of us. A nice British couple probably in their 20s, a somewhat misanthropic Swiss man who doesn’t say much but seems quite prepared for outdoorsy activity and then a German man who appears to be the adoptive parent of a 3 year old Guatemalan boy who is also on the hike. Now when you have a 3 year old on a hike, exactly how hard can this be? So at this point the Swiss man seems overprepared for things, but hey, if you have the gear why not wear it? We drive with our guide (whose name, unfortunately, I have forgotten) for a fairly long time—I am thinking almost 2 hoursrs, until we get to Pacaya. At the trail head is a place to buy water and go to the bathroom and then we are off. The hike starts on a nice trail and it is certainly uphill, but nothing crazy. Pretty soon the 3 year old is on the shoulders of his papa which I think would have ratcheted up the difficulty level, but papa seemed up for the challenge.

    We continue hiking and eventually reach the end of the trail where there is a ton of dried lava so our guide explains that the lava used to be here and it was great and easy to see lots of lava, but unfortunately, the folks at Old Town Outfitters can’t control lava and it has moved. So he asks us if we want to go off the trail and try to find the lava and he points in a direction that while not trail, is fairly solid ground and doesn’t seem too bad. We say yes and off we go. Now pretty soon we hit a large dried lava field that goes on as far as the eye can see and our guide sort of points off in the distance and tells us this is where the lava is and do we want to continue. We all sort of say yes except for the German dad with the child who is naturally a bit apprehensive. Oh, and the Swiss dude who seems overprepared is very skeptical about all of this and does not think that it is safe for us to be doing this. We pooh-pooh this as overly cautious and press on. I should mention that it is still light out at this point. So we scamper off over dried lava fields which at times involve quite a bit of climbing using our hands and the lava is not close. It is now starting to get dark and we are in the middle of one big sea of steep, rocky dried lava as the sun goes down. And this lava rock is not particularly fun, it is very jagged and sharp and when you use your hands to steady yourself you end up with little splinters of lava rock in your hands. Not super fun. We were wearing running shoes and the next say when we looked at them they were pretty torn up, but still wearable, from the lava rock. Now once it gets dark is when things start to make me nervous because it is very difficult to see. We do have flashlights, but that is not really adequate. At this point in time our guide tells us that they have dinner for us and do we want to eat it here or down at the trail head. Thankfully, we unanimously say down at the trail head because it is super dark and there is no where to sit except on sharp lava rock which isn’t my first choice of a dinner location. We do get within sight distance of the lava and I have some pictures where you can see the red glow in a sea of black, but we choose not to try to get closer because it is very dark and it is very steep to get up there.

    Finally we turn back and I have to say it was not a good situation. I was mostly worried about the dad and his kid who he still had on his shoulders so he really couldn’t use his arms that much. Turns out my boyfriend was very worried about me falling and about carrying me down (which given that I am not the most graceful, is not completely farfetched). Needless to say, I think all of us are very relieved when we make it back to the trail in one piece. We then have about an hour to an hour and a half walk down on trail in the complete dark which is still not great, but a walk in the park compared to where we came from. We then have dinner at the trail head and head back into Antigua. I think we got back to the hotel at close to midnight.

    So I guess the big question is would I recommend the Pacaya hike? I think that I would, but that if I knew I would try to get more information. Where is the lava would be a big one. Also, I think, if possible, I would go during the day. Even the trail portion didn’t seem that safe in the dark.

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    Day 3

    Only day 3 and we have been having quite a Guatemalan adventure. We have breakfast at the hotel again and then pack up and wait for the minibus to arrive. It does, right on time and off we go to Lake Atitlan. So I guess we weren’t stupid for paying in advance. Once again Guatemala affirms our faith in humanity. The minibus is totally comfortable. I think that there were 7 or 8 of us including another American couple about our age. Somewhere along the way we find out that this couple lives in DC about 2 blocks from us. And they are headed to the same place in Atitlan for 2 nights to then transfer to another hotel where we also are going for another 2 nights. And she and I have the same first name. Very weird; although, as her boyfriend so aptly points out—we all have the same book. And this was true, it seems that Lonely Planet is the ruling guide book for Guatemala and they spend a lot of time telling you how it isn’t that safe if you go off on your own and so as a result the tourists that are there all seem to be doing similar things. I think that this is very different from vacations to places like France where obviously there will be way more tourists, but also a wider diversity of places to visit and different ways to get off the beaten track. I think Guatemala has all of these things to offer, but remains a little questionable as a travel destination for some people and so people don’t get out and off the main tourist track. And this may just be where my nervous Nellie instincts come in so I wasn’t comfortable getting off the main tourist track and therefore encountered tourists like myself.

    But I digress. So it takes about 4 hours to get to Lake Atitlan and from there we are headed (with the other couple) to the Posada de Santiago in Santiago Atitlan. When we get to the boat dock there are several choices of ferries and private boats. Originally our plan is to take a ferry to the public Santiago Atitlan pier and walk from there because we have very little luggage. But, when we are standing there waiting the boat guys convince us to take a private boat for a bit more and they will take us straight to the Santiago Atitlan dock. So convenience trumps frugality and off we go.

    So now we are at the dock of Posada de Santiago our home for the next 2 nights. This hotel was great. It was $55 a night to stay there in one of their little stone cottages. The way the Posada works is that the dock is on one side of the street with a pool and a hot tub and then directly across the street is where the rooms are and the dining area. The dining area is also where the reception area is and a small lounge area. We check in and head to our little cottage which sort of seems like something out of Hansel and Gretel. It is very cute with a nice comfy bed and a good clean bathroom and we even have a fireplace and wood. The fire actually turned out to be very nice because there was a bit of a damp quality to the cottage and warming it up with a fire at nice was quite pleasant. We also had a hammock right outside of our room. The Posada is run by an American guy who was very knowledgeable about the area. We talked to him for a bit and then decided to walk into town and get some lunch. The town of Santiago Atitlan is very much a little village without a ton of tourist infrastructure which was actually very nice, but a bit challenging in the way of restaurants. We thought that there would be a lot of places, but if there were they were hidden and we ate at sort of a comedor by the water which was fine. Later, I did more guidebook reading and found a few recommendations but not many.

    I think after that we just kind of hung out at the hotel. It was very nice to sit by the water and have a beer and just kind of hang out. I should back up a minute and say that Lake Atitlan is absolutely beautiful. Just amazing scenery and makes me think that if Guatemala can get past the perceived safety issues it is really going to take off as a tourist destination. We were having this debate about whether or not we wanted to arrange to go on a hike the next day. I had read in Lonely Planet that you shouldn’t do it alone, but with a guide so we were considering that when we noticed the sign on the door. It basically read, “Attention guests. Do not take valuables with you when you leave here and do not hike alone. People with machetes have been robbing tourists in the area. If you do go, we only recommend one company because they carry mace and have big dogs.” So at this point, we sort of ruled out the hiking. It just seemed like mace and big dogs and worrying about whether we would have to use the mace and dogs was too much trouble for a vacation.

    That night we had dinner at the hotel which was good. They have a pretty large menu and everything is very reasonably priced and the portions were large. I would say that the food there is good, but generally there was something that kept it from being really good. But really, when you are in such an amazing place and the food is actually good it almost seems too much to ask to have it be great. After dinner, we went back to our little cottage and had a fire in our fireplace. That reminds me that it definitely was chillier than we thought at Lake Atitlan and we really didn’t have too much clothing that was warm so we sort of kept wearing the same thing. I would recommend a couple of sweaters for the evenings there as it can get quite cool. At this point, we also felt like it wasn’t really warm enough to swim either.

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    Day 4

    Another beautiful day in Guatemala. Today we decided to go check out another town on the lake. From the public dock in Santiago Atitlan, we caught the ferry to San Pedro. This ferry was a big enclosed boat and the water was a little choppy so that contributed to some mild motion sickness on my part which made me very glad to get to San Pedro. To me, San Pedro was much more developed than Santiago Atitlan and had more restaurants and shops. We aren’t really big shoppers, but it was fun to wander around and then we had lunch at one of the many restaurants overlooking the water. We were probably in San Pedro about 4 hours or so and decided it was time to head back. So we get to the dock and some guy who says he is the captain of a boat charges us the fare and says the boat isn’t leaving for a ½ hour or so and we can come back if we want to. Now, I am waiting for him not to be the captain and for this to be some bait and switch on the tickets and once again Guatemala comes through and of course he is the captain and we are all paid for and ready to ride the ferry. The lake is pretty rough at this point and so I am a little leery of getting on the boat too early because of the aforementioned motion sickness, but we also want good seats and it is starting to fill up. The urge for good seats wins and we get on. This is a smaller boat and it has a roof, but the sides are open and fresh air is always a good combatant against the motion sickness so I think this will be ok.

    So now we get to the portion of the report that could be subtitled, “The Second Time We Almost Died in Guatemala.” I will say that my boyfriend agrees that the Pacaya hike was dangerous, but he disputes that we were in any danger here. Anyways, it is time for the ferry to depart and it is pretty much us and locals on the boat. We head off across the lake and it is really choppy. We are getting wet, the boat is rolling side to side, I pretty much feel like we are on a very small titanic. Now, I am starting to get nervous (and this is not the shortest ride it is 45 minutes to an hour across the lake), but I really got nervous when the locals on the boat started to say to the captain, “Turn back, I’ll pay you to turn back.” Fortunately or unfortunately, I speak enough Spanish to understand that they are very nervous and then this makes me absolutely terrified. The little girl sitting in front of me starts to cry. It isn’t the best scene. But, obviously, since I am writing this report we lived to tell the tale and the boat didn’t capsize. It was a harrowing experience and I definitely needed to drink some beers after that! Also, I was not looking forward to our boat trip the next day when we were transferring to Casa del Mundo. That evening was spent safely ensconced on dry land in the peaceful compound known as Posada de Santiago. We had another fire and pretty much just chilled out.

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    Day 5

    Today we transfer from one fine Lake Atitlan establishment to another, but not until about noon so we have a leisurely breakfast and then hit the Posada de Santiago hut tub. Now I should take a minute to say we are not really hot tubers by nature, but the hot tub at the Posada is right out by the lake and has this great view and it had been too cold to swim so we decided to go for it. You have to ask them to heat it for you about an hour before you want to get in it so that they have time to get it ready. All in all, it was very nice and I think that we spent about 45 minutes there.

    After packing up and settling up our bill, it is now time to get back on a boat which I was a little leery of after yesterday, but the water was much calmer. Since our fellow DC residents were also moving over to Casa del Mundo we split a private boat with them over there rather than dealing with the public ferry. Casa del Mundo also has a private dock so we just went straight there. When we get off the dock, who do we see but the nice British couple who we almost died with on Pacaya! It is more of that Guatemala small world phenomenon.

    A few words about Casa del Mundo. This place is built entirely on the vertical and would not be good for those with physical challenges, but I sort of enjoyed the exercise. So these very fit Casa del Mundo employees come down to the dock and take our bags up to reception which is probably about 4 flights up from the dock. Our room isn’t ready but we want to have lunch anyway so we do that and just sort of hang out until we can get into our room. Our room is very nice—very bright—which is a bit of a contrast to the Posada and conveniently located just across from the reception area. Over time though, I think we began to see the location as a bit of a negative because it was pretty noisy with all of the staff activities so close to us, but we have a nice balcony overlooking the lake and it is just beautiful so how bad can it be? The answer is not bad at all. Casa del Mundo offers a family style dinner every night and you tell them during the day if you are going to eat there that night (I forget the cost for the dinner, but it was quite reasonable.) I have no idea where else you would eat though since the ferry boats stop running when it gets dark and there really isn’t much else around. I guess if you had a car you could go elsewhere, but if it were me I would just elevate the Casa del Mundo prices to cover dinner and then just include it in the room price since guests really don’t have another option.

    That afternoon we walked over to Jaibailito, the closest village to Casa del Mundo, which is maybe a 15 minute walk. We asked at the hotel if it was safe and they said yes so we went and without incident. Jaibailito is tiny so there wasn’t a whole lot to do, but it was fun to get out. One big difference between Casa del Mundo and the Posada is that it was about 10 degrees warmer at the Casa than at the Posada so it finally seemed warm enough to go swimming. I will say the water was pretty chilly, but it was fun to get into the lake finally. I have no idea if this side of the lake is warmer or if the weather just changed, but the extra warmth was nice. Other than that we just kind of hung around the compound and then joined our fellow guests for dinner. The dinner was good, again probably not great but that is ok. Everyone eats dinner at one big table there so we sat with the other DC folks and had a very pleasant evening.

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    Day 6

    The lake also is much calmer at Casa del Mundo so we decided to rent their kayaks this morning and go paddling around. We had a nice breakfast and then hit the lake in our kayak. For us, this was really fun. We paddled up and down a fair portion of our side of the lake and looked at the small inns and houses along the shore. We probably were out there for about an hour and a half or two hours. Then for lunch we thought we might leave the compound and we headed back into Jaibalito. There was another resort that looked nice and we thought we would check it out. The name is escaping me now, but it is the first thing you hit when you walk from the Casa into Jaibalito. Anyway, it was really weird because the place was totally deserted. It said it was open and we kind of hung out for about 15 minutes before anyone showed up. It all seemed kind of weird and then when the person did show up we felt like we couldn’t just leave so we stayed for lunch. I have no memory of what it was so it was clearly unremarkable, but we lived to tell the tale. The place seemed nice so it was kind of sad to me that the Casa was hopping and this place was basically dead.

    That afternoon we decided to embark upon the 45 minute walk in the other direction to Santa Cruz La Laguna. The hotel staff assured us it was safe and the other DC people had done it the day before. The village was cute and very laid back. I think it would be a good place to stay. We had an afternoon beer and then happened upon an impromptu concert given by the local elementary school. It turns out a bar/hostel in the town gives a fair amount of money to the elementary school and they used it to buy instruments so they wanted to come show their skills. The kids were really cute. We couldn’t figure out if they got to choose which instrument they wanted to play or what because the band was almost entirely drums! After the show, we walked back to the Casa and did some more swimming and then lounged around until dinner time.

    I almost forgot that today is Thanksgiving so our dinner that night was—take a guess—turkey. Personally, I would have preferred no turkey and given that many of the guests were European it seemed a wee America-centric, but that is the way it goes. After dinner we retired to our room to find that ants were parading across it to get somewhere (who knows where). In retrospect, we should have just let the ants continue their course, but we said something at the front desk and so a guy showed up with a broom and killed many and scattered many more. The result was that instead of an orderly parade of ants along the ceiling and the wall, we now had ants everywhere. And then right after the guy left the remaining ones went right back to where they had been. They were clearly following a very set course and then were completely gone when we woke up. So lesson learned—if orderly ants are passing through your room in Guatemala just let them do it.

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    Day 7

    Good bye Lake Atitlan. Today was a sad day because we really loved it here. Both hotels we stayed in were great and the little villages and outstanding scenery made for a really pleasant stay. We spent a lot of time comparing the Posada to the Casa and in the end I think it is a toss up which one we liked better. We liked the warm weather, calm lake, and the general grounds and facilities better at the Casa, but I think that we liked rooms and the food better at the Posada. Either way though you really can’t go wrong. They are both completely charming.

    So we decided to get a last swim in and then had breakfast before we caught the ferry back. The people at the Casa del Mundo had called for us to reserve space on a minibus back to Antigua. They also hailed the public ferry for us so we took that back to Pana and then waited probably 15-20 minutes for our minibus. The ride back to Antigua occurred without incident and once again we were checking into the Hotel Aurora.

    We did a little wandering around and then had dinner at La Fonda de la Calle Real before calling it an early night since we had a very early wake up call to go to Tikal the next day. (Plus that good cable was calling our name!)

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    Day 8

    So last night we talked to the night manager about the fact that we would be getting picked up really early (4 am) to go to Tikal overnight and that we wanted to leave most of our stuff at the Hotel since we would be back. He graciously offered to wake us up at 3:30 which he did and then he took our bags into their office until we returned. This was one of the good things about coming back to the same hotel. We went to Tikal with just our little day backpacks and it was nice not being encumbered.

    For our Tikal trip, we just booked an overnight tour through Turansa. I did it ahead of time from the States because I wanted to make sure there was availability, but I think that all of the people who say that you can do it in Guatemala are probably quite right. Also, I used Turansa because they seemed to be big and reputable and I didn’t want to book a tour that wouldn’t happen. Looking back, I might have just booked it all myself, but this worked out fine with only one glitch which I will get to.

    Back to the trip, we get picked up at 4 am and driven to the Guatemala City airport. It is just the 2 of us in the minibus and we get there at about 5 am. But it turns out we are going to sort of a private hangar where the charter flights go from and not the normal airport part. And, this part of the airport isn’t even open so we just sit in our minivan with the diver for about a half hour. (This is one place where booking it yourself could give you some extra sleep.) Then the gate opens to this portion of the airport, but the TAG hangar isn’t yet open so our driver just kind of leaves us there. Fortunately, the first staff person shows up about 5 minutes later. We are definitely the first people there and others (more savvy than us) continue to show up just until flight time. It is mostly bigger tour groups and some individuals. There was this hysterical group of older French people who just randomly spoke in French to people. Now I happen to speak French so it worked, but when I am not in an English speaking country I don’t usually just make casual conversation with strangers in English and assume they will understand. They also sort of oddly refused to get on the plane for a while and had to be coerced by their guide. They were fun to watch, in general.

    Oh, and I think that this is going to be one big flight, but it turns out they have several small planes and they load us up on those and we head to Flores. We get to Flores with no problem and we have been told by Turansa to check in at the Jungle Lodge booth at the airport. The airport is tiny so this is easy and our names are there so we are all on track. We wait for all of the flights to get in and our Jungle Lodge guy takes us to a bus and the tour starts. We have a guide who speaks very good English and looks quite a bit like Anthony Bourdain. He tells us some facts about the area as we drive to the Jungle Lodge in the Park.

    Another reason I booked the tour is that I knew I wanted to stay in the Park for maximum access to Tikal. I have read that Flores is pretty cool and maybe on another trip we might stay there, but for seeing Tikal staying in the park is the way to go. In the Flores airport, we actually ran into someone my boyfriend went to college with (who he had not seen in at least a decade—bizarre) and she was staying in Flores. We ran into her several times at Tikal and she agreed with us that staying in the park would have been better.

    Back to the Jungle Lodge. We arrive there and check in and who do we see but the intrepid British couple from Pacaya. I am starting to think that about 15 people are traveling in Guatemala and I know all of them. My general impression before coming to Tikal was that all of the places to stay in the park are pretty mediocre, but the Jungle Lodge is one of the better ones. I didn’t see the others, but I can attest that the Jungle Lodge is a bit mediocre. It is clean and fine, but it has a bit of a Holiday Inn Express character about it which isn’t horrible, but a stark contrast to all of the completely charming places we had been staying. It also had some of the worst food I have had in a long time. Pasta primavera is not plain noodles with undercooked carrots sprinkled with Parmesan cheese—it just isn’t. But really, who cares at the end of the day when you are staying spitting distance from Tikal which is an absolute marvel!

    Our room is available so we are able to dump off our stuff before we head out with our guide on a morning tour of Tikal. This was really great and if you go to Tikal I recommend that you go for part of the time with a guide. The British couple actually came on our tour because they had booked the trip themselves so they just paid that morning to come along with us. So I think it is easy to get some guided time in regardless of how you book your trip. Our guide (Mr. Bourdain) spoke perfect English and had a very thorough command of the history of Tikal. He took us around to some of the major temples and then recommended other places we could go on our own. He also offered up a sunrise tour that we decided not to do. If you do the sunrise tour with a guide you can get into the park an hour earlier than it opens, but we still decided to go it solo for the rest of our Tikal time.

    The guided tour finished up about noon. (I know you are thinking how is it only noon, but remember we had gotten up at 3:30.) We headed to the Jungle Lodge to have some lunch. I wish I could remember what I ate then, but it was pretty sub par. (Lunch was included in our tour price so at least it was sort of, but not really, free.) Then we decided it was time for a well deserved nap before heading back into the park for sunset.

    We went back into the park at about 4 pm and did a lot of wandering, climbing and taking pictures on your own. Still to this day, I can’t get over how amazing this place was. I took a million pictures and none of them do it justice. Everyone should go there at some point—it is just incredible. Being in the park in the late afternoon is a real treat because there are very few people there. The day trippers are gone as are the people staying in Flores. It was pretty cloudy so we didn’t get much of a sunset, but as we were atop one of the templos in the late afternoon we could hear the jaguars roaring in the distance. It definitely did not make me want to stay there after dark! We headed back to the Jungle Lodge for dinner. That is when I ate the truly horrible and previously described pasta primavera and we called it a day.

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    Day 9

    I now can’t remember if the park opens at 6am or 7 am. I think it was 6 am and our goal was to be there at the gates when it opened. I think we actually got there at about 6:30, but that really turned out to be just fine since we were about the only people there. I have a picture of my boyfriend standing in the middle of the grand plaza and he is the only person there. It is amazing to be able to see sights like that with so few people around. We climbed to the top of templo 2 and just sat there taking it all in for a while. We then did a fair amount of time exploring Tikal until it was time to go for another meal at the Jungle Lodge. So you don’t think that we are complete suckers, this also was included in the tour. I think that I got the Guatemalan breakfast this time thinking that might be better and it wasn’t.

    After breakfast our plan was to spend the rest of the day at the museums on the grounds. The museums were interesting (one thing to note if you pay admission at one you have them also paid for admission at the other—we almost paid twice), but didn’t take very long. I think we were done with both in about an hour. Perhaps we don’t linger like some in a museum, but I think most would be hard pressed to fill a day with them. So our ticket for Tikal was good for the whole day so we just headed back in. It seems like when you are that close to such an amazing sight you might as well take advantage of it. I think we pretty much covered the whole park in our four visits. We hit some out of the way corners where we were the only ones there even at mid day. Once again, the guide books do talk about crime at Tikal sometimes, but we never encountered anything.

    Sadly, it is time to leave so we do our travels in reverse. Bus to the airport, strange charter flight with confused French people to Guatemala City, etc. This is where we have our only glitch in booking the tour. We are scheduled to have someone come pick us up when we land. The flight was actually about 40 minutes early so I was thinking that they might not be there yet. When we land and go outside there are several minibuses there as well as several taxis hoping to pick up a fare. Our minibus (as well as the minibuses of most passengers) is not there yet. The lucky ones with minibuses waiting hop in and are off. Then the rest of us wait around as minibuses slowly straggle in. Basically, by about 30 minutes later (still 10 minutes before our flight was due to land) everyone is gone but us. And the taxis also are gone since everyone waiting around is waiting for a pre-arranged ride.

    At this point, a nice TAG employee calls TURANSA for us and they are surprised that we have been waiting, but say the driver is 5 minutes away. At this point, my boyfriend says that they forgot us and are just sending someone now. Ever the optimist, I say no someone will be here soon. Well, shortly after that the TAG employee leaves, but a janitor is still there and tells us not to worry we can wait as long as we want. So an HOUR later we still have no minibus. We call TURANSA again (with the help of the kind janitor) and they apologize and promise that he is on his way. At this point we decide to give it another 15-20 minutes and then we are calling a cab which the janitor has agreed to help us do. Finally, right before we are calling a cab the TURANSA people call back and say that he really is coming and probably another 20 minutes after that he arrives. So we end up waiting 2 hours after our flight was scheduled to arrive (and about 2 hours and 40 minutes after it actually arrived) for our minibus driver. We were not happy. So this is where as someone who doesn’t usually book tours I sort of thought it would be better to just book things myself. In the case of getting picked up at the TAG hangar, there were others who had no rides who just arranged with a minibus driver who was taking others to take them as well. Or, there also were cabs there that we could have taken. It had also gotten very dark by the time our driver arrived and it was a little disconcerting to be stranded at this deserted hangar not in the main airport. If it weren’t for the incredible kindness of the janitor (who I believe was just there so we would have someplace to be—he was watching television the entire time) we would have been just stuck there. Although, in fairness, if the TAG people were completely closing up shop and we had nowhere to go I would have just had them call us a cab and left so everything would have been fine either way. We did get an apology from TURANSA when we returned to the States.

    The result of this is that instead of getting back to Antigua at about 7 pm we got there after 9 pm. I think that we had planned to try a restaurant a bit farther away from things (I don’t remember which one), but given that it was so late we just decided to eat at the Café La Escudilla because it was quite close to the hotel. The food was pretty good and they had a band so the place was pretty hopping. Not a bad final evening in Guatemala after all.

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    Day 10

    Last day in Guatemala. Today is definitely a sad day; our vacation is coming to and end and we have to leave Guatemala. Our flight is at noon so we get up and have one last breakfast at the Hotel Aurora. We settle up the bill and play with Cujo for one last time. At around 9 am we head out to the plaza where cabs always sit and hire one to take us to the airport. This cab driver was very friendly and nice and we had some extra money left over after we paid him so we just gave it to him—it wasn’t much, but was more than a typical tip would have been.

    We have a bunch of time at the airport and unfortunately there is almost nothing at the airport, but there was one place to buy some sandwiches and water. Then, since we were headed back to Miami, we had to go through additional screening and had to be in compliance with the U.S. imposed liquids rules so we had checked our bags again (why waste all that sunscreen and bug spray we didn’t finish). There was this goofy guy at the additional screening point who had an enormous bottle of mouthwash that he was really attached to and had to give up. He stood there fighting with the guy because he had just bought it and it wasn’t even open. But, as anyone who even gets within 100 miles of an airport should know you can’t take that stuff on anymore and it certainly isn’t the fault of airport security in Guatemala. I spent most of the time wondering why he had bought 72 ounces of mouthwash in Guatemala? Is it a bargain item there? Souvenir of the trip? The whole thing was weird. Then when he got through security to the gate area he spent the rest of the time bad mouthing the security guard. It is too bad because I think that the majority of Americans out there traveling around do not fit the “Ugly American” stereotype, in fact I think that there are just as many “Ugly Insert Country Name here” tourists from around the world, but Americans receive more scrutiny and when we have someone like that it just pulls us all down.

    But I digress. We have an uneventful flight to Miami except we land a little late and we don’t have the longest connection time so we are starting to get a little nervous. Then our bags are about the last ones off the plane and, of course, since we are coming from Guatemala we have to each one of us pass through customs. There was a flight coming in from Heathrow at the same time and they were told just to go ahead and we all were stopped. So by the time we get through that it is only 20 minutes until our flight leaves and we can’t recheck our bags so they told us we could just go up to security and see if we could get through in time because our bags were small enough. We go up and the security line is miles long so at this point I am just sort of accepting that we have missed our flight and will probably have to spend the night in Miami. We go over to the ticket counter and explain what happens and the guy looks at us and says the flight hasn’t left and those bags are carry ons, let’s go, so he takes us over to the airline staff screening line and we quickly dump the sunscreen and bug spray and sprint to the gate. We are the very last people on the plane and they basically shut the doors and push back right after we take our seats. The moral of this story is if you have to clear customs have a longer layover. I don’t know what I was thinking when I booked that flight.

    And then soon enough, we are back in DC. Another great trip was over. We really loved Guatemala. It is definitely less developed than a lot of other places I have been, but I liked that.

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    I enjoyed reading your report! We're planning a trip to Guatemala in January, and I'm really looking forward to it. We're planning to have 2 weeks, hitting the same areas as you, with maybe 1 extra place (possibly Rio Dulce).

    I know what you mean about seeing hte same people throughout the country. Same thing happened to us many years ago in Costa Rica - it seemed as though everywhere we went, we ran into the same small group of tourists. As I said, that was a long time ago, and CR is much more developed now.

    Thanks for posting.

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    Excellent report, sm827! So you actually heard jaguars roaring in the distance at Tikal? How amazing is that?!

    I enjoyed your sense of humor and good info about hotels and restaurants, etc...

    I have not been to Guatemala yet. I'm sort of in Costa Rica-obsession mode at the moment, but I do have a few other Central American countries on the eventual 'to do' list. Tikal is a place I would definitely love to visit.

    Thanks for sharing your impressions and experiences! :-)

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    I have spent quite a lot of time in Guatemala, mostly at Tikal, and am thinking about a return visit. I loved reading your report: you write well and have a wonderful sense of humor.

    Sorry to hear that the Jungle Lodge still has dreadful food. Oh well . . . I understand that tour buses are now allowed into the park. I can't imagine such a thing--the tranquility of the site was so amazing. Did you encounter these buses?

    Thanks so much for sharing your adventure in an entertaining and informative report.


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    Thanks for the kind words on the trip report. It was very fun to write.

    White Pelican- I misspoke when I said that the Jungle Lodge was in the Park. It actually is right outside of the entrance so you do have to walk to get into the actual park (but it is just a short walk as opposed to taking a bus from Flores). So no, there were no tour buses inside Tikal. What a horrible thought! Let's all hope that never happens.

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    sm827 - Fascinating report about a place I've never given too much thought to visiting. Unfortunately, safety does seem to be an issue; reports indicate Guatemala has been plagued by some horrific violence this year linked to the upcoming election as well as some directed at tourists. Glad you all had a great trip though.

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    Great report! I did the Tikal/Jungle Lodge bit about 15 years ago. Question: Does the Jungle Lodge still only have electricity for selected hours? About 4am [no electric], pitch black, I too heard the jaguars and checked doors, etc with my little flashlight. No more sleep, so when they started the generator in the kitchen about 5am I was numero uno at the door. Turns out the "jaguars" I heard were in fact howler monkeys but they will raise the hair on the back of your neck. As soon as it began to get just a bit light I was into the park and like you, watched the sun come up from the top of, I think, Templo 2. The last 20 feet to the top were a bit hairy as it was simply a completely vertical iron ladder with a heck of lot of freefall below. One can really get your mind and imagination going sitting there alone. A moving experience. After about 30 minutes, a Swiss guy clambered up and we took turns taking pictures of each other standing at the "no rail" edge. Truly one of the memorable moments of all my travels.

    BTW: I see the Lodge still has the same cook!

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    What a great trip report. We too fell in love with Guatemala and have been back 2 years in a row and looking forward to going back again. Tikal is my favorite although Antigua and Atitlan are not far behind. Wow, you heard jaguars! I have only heard howler monkeys roaring. Like you we really liked walking around after most of the other tourists left. I wandered around by myself while my husband and our friend Luis who is a guide there went off to look at an old mayan quarry. It was so peaceful. We had mostly been walking around in the forests surrounding Tikal that trip so it was nice to be around the temples.

    Fortunately, like us, you were there before the election problems popped up. We are waiting to plan our next trip down there until things calm down.

    Thank you for such a detailed trip report.

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    OK, upon reflection and hearing from others that they are probably howler monkeys, I am starting to think that maybe they weren't jaguars. Shoot. That really doesn't make as good of a story now does it?

    Basically, there were about 10 of us on top of a temple at dusk and we started hearing this fantastic sound and the consensus of the group was jaguars. Not being a zoologist I thought that sounded good to me. My guess now is howler monkeys. Sigh.

    As for the electricity, yes the Jungle Lodge still has several hours without electricity. This didn't really bother us much, but if you don't plan it right you do end up with a cold shower!

    I have also been reading about some of the new problems in Guatemala and it does seem like the safety issues are a growing concern. It is too bad because it is such a wonderful country, but I can't blame people for staying away when you hear some of the reports.

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    Thanks for a great trip report. We went last year at Xmas and just loved it.

    Spent a few days in Antigua then move to Lake Atitlan and Tikal.

    I too have read recently of the violence occurring before the election and it's just so sad.

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    Very well-written, informative and amusing report. You have a real talent. A few questions about Tikal: how bad were the mosquitos that time of year (especially around dusk)? what kind of bug repellent did you take with you and did it work? did you take any anti-malarial meds?

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    Thanks, cobbs1! There definitely were mosquitos at Tikal at that time, but we largely managed to avoid bites. We wore long sleeves and pants and had some time release bug spray--I think it was Sawyers. We also had some super duper spray on your clothes only spray that we also used (on our clothes, obviously).

    We also did take malaria meds which I felt a little silly about since we were only there for 24 hours, but I decided that I really don't want malaria.

    Hope that helps.

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