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Trip Report Trip Report - Guatemala and Belize November 2008

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Hi everyone,

My husband and I just returned from our trip to Guatemala and Belize. We had a fantastic time! While I was away, I posted periodic updates on my Facebook page and thought these would make an interesting trip report for Fodor's as well.

The general itineray: I spent the first week of my trip with my best friend Laura studying Spanish in Antigua. Then our husbands came down to join us and we all travelled together to Lake Atitlan. After parting ways we went to Tikal and then on to Belize, while they did some hiking near Nebaj. The notes are posted below - hope you enjoy!!

NOTE 1 - Sunday November 2

We left Calgary on Friday, Oct 31 at 9am and arrived in Mexico City around 3pm - we had a 6 hour layover before our flight to Guatemala and decided to go check out the city. Immediately our lack of spanish skills was evident, as we got a taxi but he somehow seemed to think we wanted him to lead us on a guided tour for the entire 4 hours we had to explore. After finally correcting him and having to pay more than we thought we should, he dropped us off in the Zocalo, the main square in Mexico City. Being Halloween (or perhaps, just being Mexico City) there was a huge festival taking place in the square, complete with a cermonious lowering of a giant Mexican flag in the middle. The army marched in and moved everyone back and then a band and a combat regiment marched around the crowd while the flag was lowered. Very cool but kind of scary too - there must have been thousands of people and when the Mexican army tells you to move back, you just do what you´re told so we were kind of stuck there while this procession moved through :)

Anyways, after the procession and a somewhat mediocre meal and a walk around the centro historico, it was time to head back to the airport. Unfortunately the chaos around the square meant that the streets were all closed and taxis were not getting in. So Laura and I headed back up to the main road to try and hail a cab on our own. It was getting dark, the road was busy, and the area kind of sketchy (all of Mex City is, really) and it was a little freaky. But we finally got a cab and headed to the airport. Taxi drivers in Mexico are insane and there are no lines on the roads so it´s just utter chaos and there were a few times when Laura and I looked at each other wondering if we´d make it to the airport alive! This was made even more hilarious by the fact that our driver was playing super cheesy really loud Meixican music, which became the soundtrack to our taxi ride from hell.

We finally made it back to the airpot and boarded our flight to Guatemala. We arrived in Guate City late at night and were met by a driver from our Spanish School, who took us to Antigua. We´re staying in a room in their student guest house, but to be honest it´s pretty drab and kind of creepy, and the bathroom is basically in it´s own building in the back yard so we might move to a hotel mid-week if we decide we just can´t rough it quite this much. The other students staying there seem to have slightly nicer rooms, some with their own bathrooms, so I think we just got the one crappy one. The other students we met are super nice and the school itself seems awesome - we start classes tomorrow.

Yesterday was spent visiting Sumpango, a tiny town near Antigua. November 1st is the Day of the Dead here, and in Sumpango they mark this by making giant colourful kites and flying them above the cemetary where their relatives are buried. It´s their way of making a connection to their ancestors, we were told. Some of the kites are made more for show and are so large (50 feet plus) they can´t be flown and we got to watch them get hoisted up in a small square nearby (one was so large and intricate it almost broke going up). Then we went and walked around the cemetary with it´s multi-coloured headstones and mausoleums, where families, many still dressed in traditional mayan clothing, spend the whole day decorating the graves and eating and burning insence. It was very intersting to see.

Today we are just hanging out in Antigua, which is a beautiful colonial town surrounded by a towering volcano and lush green hills. There are so many neat restaurants and shops and parks in Antigua. It´s really nice here and I think this week will be great!

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    Note 2 - Tuesday, November 4

    Hola chicos y chicas!!

    Me gusta Antigua y me gusta la clase de espanol! I really hope that said what I thought it said "I love Antigua and my spanish class!". There is nothing more humbling than having a small Guatemalan woman laugh hysterically at you after she asks, in Spanish, if you know the names of any vegetables, and you triumphantly shout "caballo!" which means "horse". I meant to say "cebello", which is an onion. This is me this week trying to learn Spanish :) Actually it's going quite well and my comprehension is really, really good, it's just speaking skills and grammar and remembering not to throw Italian and French words into my sentences that's needing some work.

    Antigua is really, really nice and I am so glad we have a whole week to spend here. On Sunday (the only day meals are not included at the student house) we went for breakfast, walked around, went for coffee, walked around some more, went for lunch, had a nap and then went for supper with the other students at the guest house. It was a pretty tough day. Then coming home from supper we saw the most amazing thing - it was this huge procession that apparently went on for at least 8 hours going through the streets of Antigua (we saw it around 10pm and they'd been going since 4). At least 80 men were slowly carrying (by swaying slowly back and forth rather than walking forwards, since it was so heavy) this 40-50 foot float with a dead Jesus in a clear coffin and a whole bunch of praying statues around him on it through the streets. This thing must have weighed several tonnes at least. A band playing kind of creepy music and a whole bunch of people in dark cloaks with hoods were following them, and the whole town was out on the streets watching. It was the most fascinating thing ever! I got some good pictures and Laura got video. They procession actually came past our guest house and we could hear everything in the room at like midnight, which was hilarious. They might as well have been in the room with us for all the noise. I told Laura to go out there in her pajamas and headlamp and yell at them that she was trying to sleep and had Spanish class in the morning but she wouldn't - total party pooper, that one :) We're still not totally clear what the procession was for - something to do with the Day of the Dead and the anniversary of the town school, apparently.

    Monday morning was the start of Spanish classes. My teacher is named Glendy and she's very nice. It's kind of intense to sit across from someone for 4 hours each day and be taught one on one like this. But it's fun and the tables we sit at are in this nice courtyard with an open roof so it's like being in a garden. Not too bad. Most afternoons, after lunch (back at the student house where we and the other students eat food prepared by Estella, our cook, and watch Spanish soap operas!), Laura and I go to the internet cafe, get a coffee, wander around the shops, etc. We had all these ambitions to do tours and activities but after class we're just wiped it seems. We did go to a salsa/merengue class yesterday though and my belly dancing background came in fairly handy as the hip movements are somewhat similar.

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    Note 3 - Monday, November 10

    Laura and I finished our spanish classes in Antigua on Friday, and the boys flew in that day from Canada to join us. I feel like even though we only had one week, the one-on-one instruction for 4 hours a day really, really improved what very little spanish I knew. I can now ask basic questions, understand a fair bit, and I know numbers and days, seasons etc, which has helped a lot, especially in the markets and such. We had a few drinks Friday night with some people from our student guest house, who we were a little sad to leave because they were a lot of fun! It was nice to be in a real hotel for the night, though, as our room at the guest house was very basic and the sheets smelled funny and the bathroom was pretty run down (i.e. they had an electric device attached to the shower head to warm the water, and when I reached up to adjust something I got zapped! not very safe!). When we moved our stuff over to the hotel friday afternoon Laura and I were so excited to see normal bathrooms and spent far too much time oohing and aahing over the showerheads and the newness of the toilets - it was pretty funny :)

    The boys arrived late Friday night and the next morning we hiked the Pacaya Volcano - this was supposed to be where you get to poke flowing lava with a stick. Unfortunately, the park received notice that morning that the volcano was threatening to erupt and we couldn't hike down onto the hardened lava rock to poke the flows. So we had to be content with looking at them from a ridge. Kind of disappointing, but the volcano was making these huge booming sounds so I guess I can see why they didn't want the tourists romping around on the lava rocks :) Then it was a 2.5 hour shuttle ride through some amazing scenery to Lake Atitlan, where we've been since Saturday afternoon. This hotel is amazing - if you google Casa Del Mundo Atitlan you can see the website - it's so amazing here. It's set into the steep hillside so it's a million stairs to go anywhere but the views are spectacular and at night the dinner is done family style so they convert the restaurant tables to one long table which forces everyone to talk and interact. There's people here from all over the world so it's pretty interesting. There's good swimming and all sorts of stone terraces with sun chairs to lounge around on during the day. Yesterday we went to a little town across the lake and bought some art as they have a lot of local artists at the lake. Pretty cool stuff actually, for very little money. Today Justin, Dan and Laura went to do a bit of scuba diving, but I don't have my certification (and diving freaks me out a bit) so I am just chilling at the hotel. Tomorrow we head to Flores, in the northeast part of the country, to see the great Mayan ruins at Tikal and on to Belize afterwards!!

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    Note 4 - Sunday, November 16

    After finally parting ways with Dan and Laura after Lake Atitlan, Justin and flew to Flores to visit Tikal National Park in the eastern part of Guatemala. The landscape in the area is noticeably more different - gone are the high hills and forests and women dressed in traditional Maya clothing - the northeast part of Guate looks more like the Caribbean, with dense jungle and lots of wildlife and a very tropical feel. We visited the Mayan ruins at Tikal and they were pretty amazing - these huge temples rising up oiut of the jungle. I managed to work up the guts to climb up the staircase to the tallest one, and got a wonderful view of the jungle tree tops and the peaks of the other pyramids rising out of the rainforest. It was truly beautiful. Of course then I realized how high up I was and promptly got the hell out of there :) Justin climbed some of the steeper ones and got some great pictures too.

    After 2 nights in Tikal, it was off to Belize!!! We arrived in San Ignacio, the jungle part of Belize, and got our rental SUV (you need one there as the roads are so bad). We stayed in a very remote jungle lodge for 3 nights - Black Rock Lodge. Very cool place with good food and lots of trails and jungle to explore. Our first day there, we visited some waterfalls nearby and generally took it easy. Our second day we visited the Rio On Pools, a series of cascading pools that you can swim in (similar to the ones they have in Jamaica, I'm told). Very nice. Then yesterday we did one of the most amazing things I've ever done - we visited Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. Basically you hike into the jungle for an hour to reach this beautiful cave that the mayans used to use as a sacred site for ceremonies and even sacrifices. We had to swim a short distance to the opening of the cave, then waded through various levels of water and climb over different rock formations for the better part of an hour, until you're almost 3/4 of a mile in, and there the guides showed us the very intact remains of pottery and even human skeletons (of the people who were sacrificed). One skeleton is of a 16 year old girl and is almost completely intact even though it's well over 1000 years old. We had to climb up a rock face and up another ladder to reach the chamber she was buried in - a bit scary but so incredibly cool. the guides are very strict about where to step, not touching anything etc. They said the cave is very unique and it's doubtful how much longer the archeologists and the government will allow tourists in because you could literally trip once and smash precious artifacts. So I'm glad we got the chance to go because it was truly amazing!

    Today we traveled to the coast to Ambergris Caye, the island where we'll spend the next 4 days. It's very relaxed and beautiful here, although the weather is bad today so we're just hanging out indoors mostly. We have rented a golf cart, the preferred way to get around here (there really aren't any cars and the streets are sand). We plan to do some snorkeling and fishing and just sit on the beach over the next few days. Then it's back to Guatemala for 2 nights before flying home Saturday!

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    Note 5 - Friday November 28

    We've been home for about a week now, but I wanted to finish the rest of the report and also give some final thoughts on this trip and the countries we visited.

    Ambergris Caye was indeed beautiful. Madonna's song, La Isla Bonita, is about this place and the Belizeans don't let you forget it! There's references to it everywhere. We rented a lovely condo at a place called Coral Bay Villas, and really liked having a full kitchen and living room, especially since the weather kept us indoors a bit more than usual. Unfortunately the weather didn't improve very much (we had one sunny day out of 4) but we made the best of it. Did some spectacular snorkeling at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve on the barrier reef with Alphonse, a local guide who has been snorkeling and diving the waters of the barrier reef for almost 20 years. He was an exceptional guide and was great at free diving down to point at specific things, then come up and explain them to us, etc. Really great. We also went to Shark Ray Alley, where nurse sharks and sting rays are found in large numbers. Alphonse "knows" these animals so well that the sharks and rays actually let him hold them so we could touch them. I got to rub the belly of an 8ft shark - pretty cool! We also did some reef fishing which was fun, and generally just hung out, went swimming when it was warm, and walked the island (we only kept our rental cart for a day as they're very expensive). We met up with some people we'd met in San Ignacio and hung out with them a fair bit too.

    We bid La Isla Bonita goodbye on Thursday the 20th and flew back to Guatemala for 2 nights before coming home. It was really nice to come back to Antigua for 2 nights again - even though I'd already spent a week there during Spanish classes, it's such a great little town and I was excited to come back and do some of the shopping I'd put off till the end of our trip. Our hotel in Antigua was not just nice, it was downright beautiful! One of the nicest places I've ever stayed - Meson Panza Verde. We were in a standard room but the suites were impossibly gorgeous and being "in the business" I of course wanted to check out some of the rooms. A kind cleaning lady let us check some out and we were both just floored. If you ever go to Antigua, stay in this hotel. We paid $90US a night, so still cheaper than a Holiday Inn, and the rooms (and especially the suites, which are about $150 a night) would put the Hotel MacDonald here in Edmonton to shame. Top this off with a cozy courtyard, an amazing restaurant, and a perfect rooftop terrace, and you have hotel paradise :)

    We spent our last evening having dinner with some of the people Laura and I met at Spanish School, then Saturday began our journey home. We had a layover in Mexico City again, and decided to hire a guide to take us to Teotihuacan, an ancient city of pyramids, near Mex. City. It was a great experience and really made the layover time fly by. Alex, our guide, was really good too. While he certainly wasn't cheap, it really reinforced to me the benefit of spending money on good guides. It makes the whole time you spend at a historical site much more valuable. Then we flew to Calgary, picked up my car at the airport and drove home.

    Some final thoughts on each of these countries, for anyone considering a visit:

    Guatemala - I think Guatemala seeps into your soul after awhile. When we were first there I remember thinking that everything was really cute, the scenery beautiful, and the culture was really interesting but unlike places like Italy or Greece or Egypt, there are no massive monuments or super famous historical sites (aside from Tikal and other mayan ruins in the Eastern part of the country). But after being there for 2 weeks I realized how comfortable I felt there, and after Belize I was so excited to go back to Antigua for 2 nights, so that says something. Other thoughts: the people are a bit reserved, not really shy but not outgoing either. There are people trying to sell you things, but it's not like being in some countries where you're constantly hounded. There is poverty, for sure. They're used to tourists but it's definitely not an over-touristy place. There is vibrant colour everywhere - in the lush green hills that are everywhere, in the fabrics woven by the local women and sold at market, on the colonial buildings and churches in Antigua. Antigua has a little place in my heart now - it's such a nice place to just be. And for not very much money you can treat yourself to a great time. Lake Atitlan is full of dramatic scenery and is a great place to relax and I think if we'd had more time there, the villages around the lake would have been fascinating to explore.

    Belize - I had heard mixed things about Belize before we went, some people liking it and some people saying it was expensive and overly touristy. What's my verdict? I think I agree a little with each. It is a beautiful place, but it is expensive and they know the tourism business pretty well by now. The jungle area of San Ignacio where we spent our first few days was great, and there is certainly a lot to do. The ATM cave tour was one of the most amazing things I've ever done. Our lodge was great and very remote and I love that we truly stayed in the jungle, with all it's associated creepy crawlies (some of which appeared in our room at night). Ambergris has the white sand beaches, the turquoise water, and wonderful snorkeling and diving. These two countries together made a great complement and contrast to each other, especially since Belize feels more Caribbean than Latin American, despite it's geographic location. I will say that Guatemala was my favourite of the two, but I greatly enjoyed both and would recommend them to anyone.

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    Thanks for taking the time to post. I'm heading back to Guatemala (7th visit) and Belize (2nd visit) this summer. Can you tell me if you did the ATM tour with Pacz or Mayawalk? We're planning to do that this summer and would appreciate a recommendation if you have one.

    Of the 2, Guatemala is my favorite, too, though I'm a diver so Guatemala alone doesn't satisfy that itch. 19 years ago on our 2nd visit to Guatemala we brought home the best keepsake ever - our son Carlos, 4-years-old at the time. He'll be joining me this summer as I lead a 2+ week study program there with other local educators (Carlos and I work at the same school) and after the group heads home we'll meet family in Belize for another 2-3 weeks. I agree that Guatemala and Belize are a good combination as are Guatemala and Honduras - better start planning your next trip now!

    Happy trails!

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    Hi Hopefulist,
    We used Mayawalk for our tour - our guides were Martin and Ted (we had a big group so two guides went). I was so impressed with both of them, Martin in particular. You could tell both took a lot of care with the site itself, making sure we didn't step in places that might harm the sediments in the cave or the artifacts themselves. Martin also had a lot of fantastic information about the geology of the cave, Mayan culture in general and the artifacts we saw in the cave. At one point he actually had us all turn off our head lamps and go for about 5 minutes walking with our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us, in total darkness. The water at this point ranged from knee to waist deep but the ground was very flat the whole time and Martin obviously really knows the cave. He said we were doing it to get a sense of the life of the cave itself, what it's like when no one is there, and to have respect for the cave. He was truly spectacular, and later back at Black Rock Lodge, talking to some of the other guests and hearing about their experiences, we realized how superior our tour really was. I would highly, highly recommend them.

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