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Trip Report Trip report from our week in Guatemala: Antigua/Tikal/Lake Atitlan

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My husband and I recently returned from a week long trip to Guatemala.
To see our photos, please visit our travel webpage at: www.luv2globetrot.com

I noticed in doing my research for this trip that there is not a whole lot of information on this forum for Guatemala, so I figured I'd add a little bit in hopes that this might help someone else planning a trip to this amazing country!

We traveled from Feb. 12-19, 2008
Our itinerary was:
2 nights Antigua
1 night El Remate (visit Tikal)
1 night Flores (visit Tikal)
3 nights Panajachel

We decided to put Tikal in the middle only because we are kind of worry-warts when it comes to flying into a country then having take a flight intra-country on the same day, so we didn't want to go on our first or last day just in case there were any sort of flight delays.
Putting Tikal in the middle actually worked very well for us.

Day 1-2 ANTIGUA
We arrived at GUA on time at 1pm and start by making our way to Antigua. We did not make any previous transportation arrangements. We just walked right outside baggage claim and there were plenty of taxis waiting for a fare.
The ATM at the airport was broken, so we did have to make sure that the driver would accept US dollars and he did, no problem. The fare was $28US
The traffic was pretty bad until we got out of the main part of the city, but then it went quickly and we were in Antigua by about 2pm. The drive took about an hour.

We stayed at the HotelAurora and were mostly pleased with it. The staff was extremely helpful when we left something behind in our room. You can read more about that and the entire review with photos ('Loved the hotel and kudos to the staff!' by luv2globetrot) at:
http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g295366-d300310-r13870511-Aurora_Hotel-Antigua_Guatemala_Western_Highlands.html

After checking into the hotel we just spent a leisurely afternoon strolling around the city, had a great Mexican dinner at Frida's then called it a night early since we had gotten up at 2am for our drive to the airport. The next day we did a walking tour from our Moon guidebook which hit all the highlights.
We started early, about 8am and spent just about the whole day exploring.

We really loved Antigua! We were really surprised at all the ruins right in town amongst the quaint, colorfully painted houses and shops. It was amazing to see the remnants of the devastating earthquake of 1773 . It was sad to see so many buildings that must have been magnificent in their days of glory, but seeing the crumbled remains really gave you a good idea of what it must have been like.
We really did enjoy strolling through this lovely town.
There are so many great restaurants, bars, and shops. The main plaza is really pretty and a great place to sit and people-watch.
We could have easily spent another day here and looking back we definitely would spend 3 nights in Antigua if we could do it all over again.
With only spending 2 nights (which really only gave us that one full day) we missed out on any coffee tours or volcano hikes. We would have at the very least liked to have taken the walk up to the "Cerro de la Cruz" (Hill of the Cross) to get a good overview of the town.
One day was not quite enough!

Days 3-4 TIKAL
We checked out of Hotel Aurora very early and had a private shuttle pick us up at 6:30am for the drive back to GUA for our flight to Flores. We arranged it the night before at a travel office at the plaza (Cost Q200 ($26US) for 2 people).
Again traffic was pretty bad driving into Guatemala City and the drive took about an hour and 45 minutes. We were glad that we left with plenty of time as it made for a relaxing ride even with the traffic...better to be early than late:)
Our flight to Flores left on time at 10am and we arrived in Flores at 11am. Security lines at the GUA airport were always very short. Counter lines were a bit longer.

We stayed one night at La Casa de Don David in El Remate which is located on the northeastern edge of Lake Peten Itza about a 40 minute drive from Flores.
Tripadvisor review and photos: 'Good choice with A/C' by luv2globetrot:
http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g608642-d325487-r13871049-Hotel_La_Casa_De_Don_David-El_Remate.html

We took a taxi from the Flores airport to the hotel. As we exited the baggage claim area we were swamped with offers to drive us to the hotel in a minivan at Q200 one way (for two people). We ended up paying Q160 ($21US).

I had looked into staying at one of the 3 hotels in the park, but decided that we would be much more comfortable in the jungle with a room that had air conditioning. (None of the 3 have A/C and at least the Jaguar Inn, I know does not have electricity at night. I think this is also true for the Jungle Lodge and Tikal Inn.)
So, that was ultimately why we picked La casa de Don David. We were happy we did, as it was quite warm and very humid...having the A/C made for a much better night's sleep.

The "town" of El Remate does not offer much. NOTE: There are no ATMs anywhere in El Remate OR in Tikal National Park. We learned the hard way and had to exchange US dollars at the front desk...thankfully we had some to exchange. Stock up on cash before arriving.
El Remate is really just a few tiny restaurants and very small lodgings along the road to Tikal. There are no markets. Just a few stands along the road with chips and soda. Stock up on everything prior to arriving. There is not a lot to do at night, so I think we would have been better off staying at the park for our one night.

The drive from El Remate to Tikal takes about 45 minutes.
There is scheduled transportation (very cheap) to Tikal but it is hourly and we never actually saw any of those buses. A better bet is minivans which go back and forth from Flores to Tikal stopping for riders who flag them down. They seemed to come by every 1/2 hour or so. Each time they would try and charge 30Q per person. We had heard 25Q ($3.30) was the rate and offered that, and it was accepted each time.

If we could have lived without the A/C, I would've stayed in the park.
If you enter the park after 3pm, your ticket is good for the next day. Tickets cost $20US.
We went to the park after 3pm that first day, but found out that the last shuttle leaves the parking lot at 6pm. The park is HUGE and it takes a lot of walking to get anywhere. To get to the Gran Plaza from the entrance takes about 15-20 minutes.
We started off by going to the north end of the park first and walked all the way to Temple IV. By the time we got there, climbed up to the top and back down, we had to start making our way back to catch the shuttle.
So, we really only ended up having about an hour and a half to explore. Knowing all this now, that's why I think it would be better to stay IN the park, so you could leave at your own pace at the end of the day and not have to hurry back to catch a shuttle.

We did spend the whole next day in the park. It is amazing and not to be missed!
We started out around 8:30am, took a break for lunch (we walked back out of the park and had a good lunch at the Jaguar Inn), then went back to exploring the park until around 4pm.

One of our favorite spots was Temple V which we went to first thing in the morning. There are some really steep steps that you can climb and the view from up there is great! It's a neat view of the Gran Plaza and a different, better view than from Temple IV. Only a handful of people can comfortably fit up there at one time, but that didn't seem to be a problem.

Another area we really liked was the Mundo Perdido...the pyramids are just beautiful and some areas are still covered in moss and grass.
It really gives you the idea of what it must have looked like before they excavated.

The Gran Plaza is amazing and there are lots and lots of pyramids to climb on and around. You can climb up Temple II but not Temple I.
We climbed up anything and everything and were pretty tired at the end of the day, but what a fun day it was!!!
Between the 2 visits we pretty much covered the whole park.

We saw some spider monkeys and howler monkeys on both days, but they seem to be most active in the early morning and late afternoon. We also saw a toucan and lots of birds.
Bring sunscreen as the Gran Plaza area is mostly out from under the shade of the trees. We used lots of bug repellent and never had any problems with bugs.

When you get there in the morning, inquire about what time the shuttles leave. There seemed to be one every hour in the late afternoon til 6pm. You don't need a reservation, you just show up early enough to make sure there'll be room for you. (They seat about 12 people.)

We took the shuttle from Tikal all the way back to Flores and we paid Q50 ($6.60) per person for the hour and 20 minute ride. We shared a van with lots of other people (tourists and locals) but most of them hopped off in either El Remate or on the road to Flores. The van dropped us right off at our hotel.

We stayed at the Hotel Santana on the southwestern side of Flores island.
It is just a 5 minute drive to the Flores airport, which was why we chose it for our stay before our early morning flight back to Guatemala City. This hotel is a very good option if you have an early flight.
Tripadvisor review and photos: 'Fair choice for Flores' by luv2globetrot:
http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g608644-d663067-r13871509-Hotel_Santana-Peten.html

The whole island of Flores can be walked in just a couple of hours (if that) and that's what we did for an hour or so before having drinks at a bar right across from the hotel (Raices Bar) and watched the beautiful sunset! Then we had dinner at a great restaurant (La Lunada) on the east side of the island that sits right over the water. This was a great way to end our amazing day and to celebrate our 11th anniversary!:)


Days 5-7 LAKE ATITLAN

We had the hotel arrange a taxi for us the night before and they picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the airport. The 5 minute ride cost Q30 ($4US)
Our flight from FRS to GUA departed on time and we arrived in GUA at 9am.

For this leg we decided to rent a car for our drive to Panajachel and Lake Atitlan.
From the research I did it seemed as if the pre-arranged shuttles only left at certain times. That could have meant that we'd have to wait at the airport for 2 or more hours, according to the schedules I saw on the Internet. The shuttles are not very cheap, the cost of the shuttles one way to Pana was about $25US per person. That would end up costing $100 total round trip for the 2 of us. We got the rental car for $19US/day and then we had the freedom to come and go as we please. Mandatory liability insurance did add $10 a day to the cost.

Now, allow me to digress for a bit on the subject of renting a car.

There is a lot of discouragement on this forum (and others) when it comes to renting a car, not just in Guatemala, but in many foreign countries.
After experiencing it for ourselves my husband and I feel very strongly about this subject.
We have rented cars and driven ourselves in many countries:
Ireland
France
Italy
Greece
Czech Republic
New Zealand
Costa Rica
Peru
Guatemala

And what we have found, and more so in Guatemala than in any of the rest, is that unless you are going to fly or take a train (which are not options in Guatemala for the areas like Antigua and Lake Atitlan), you are MUCH SAFER driving yourself than taking public transportation!!

We are not addressing this issue from a "what's the easiest way to get around" viewpoint. Obviously some people will not feel comfortable driving in unfamiliar places for fear of getting lost, or they don't feel comfortable driving on a different side of the road. So they would rather have someone else do the driving. That is certainly their perrogative.
But there are plenty of people who feel comfortable with these aspects of traveling and still people try to dissuade you from renting your own car because they tell you how DANGEROUS it is to drive! They talk about how crazy the drivers are and how fast they drive.

Well, traveling around Guatemala you WILL be in a car, only someone else will be doing the driving amongst those crazy drivers. You will have no control over how fast you are going, or when and if you will try to pass another car, or whether you will give way to someone passing in the opposite direction around a blind curve as they veer into your lane.
And you will NOT have a seatbelt. And you will NOT have an airbag. Without fail, every taxi and shuttle we took did not have seat belts.

We had a brand new Mazda 3 with seatbelts and airbags and we lost count of how many times we saw cars and trucks passing around blind curves only to have another car coming right at them and someone had to swerve to get out of the way.
We felt so much safer that my husband was able to drive DEFENSIVELY, even pulling over onto the shoulder to make sure we were completely out of the way.
Numerous times we would just give way to those lunatics, get out of their way, take it slow and it made us feel so much better than if we were passengers in those other cars.

We have never seen anything like it! It really was the worst driving we've seen anywhere so far.
There's no question about it, driving a car, you are putting yourself more at risk than if you stayed off the roads completely.
But, if you ARE going to be on the roads, the argument that being in your own rental car is unsafe is an irrational one.
Those that say it's dangerous also bring up the idea of "bandits" harming you or robbing you.
While that may actually occur, the odds are much greater that you will get in an accident rather than being attacked by bandits. It's just not a rational argument when you break down the statistics.
If you exercise good judgment and common sense (i.e. use major roads and do not drive at night, be prepared, have your route mapped out) we contend that you are SAFER in a rental car where YOU get to make the decisions.
We certainly felt that way!

OK, enough of that.
Back to the report:

When we left baggage claim there was someone from Dollar Rental Car waiting for us with a sign with our name on it. They brought us to the office a couple of minutes away. They gave us great, easy directions on how to get to Pana and we were on our way.
The drive to Pana took us 3 hours not counting a stop for lunch.
Other than the lunatic drivers, the drive went well (hardly any traffic delays). The roads were well marked and we had a map so we knew what signs to look for (which towns to drive towards).

We arrived in Pana around 1:30pm and checked into the Hotel Dos Mundos. We really loved this hotel! It was our favorite of the whole trip!
Tripadvisor review: 'Fantastic choice in Pana!!!' by luv2globetrot:
http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g292008-d308984-r13871819-Hotel_Dos_Mundos-Panajachel_Lake_Atitlan_Western_Highlands.html

We spent that first afternoon wandering up and down Calle Santander, the main street in Pana, browsing the shops and stalls selling local wares. We also dropped off some laundry to be picked up later in the evening. There were a number of places to do this in town.

The next day was our first full day in the area and since it was Sunday we had planned to go the Chichicastenango for the market.
But first we went to the Reserva Natura Atitlan just a five minute drive from the hotel. We took our car and there was plenty of safe parking.

Our main reason for going to the Reserve was for the zip-lining!!! This was great fun, the views were amazing and it was really inexpensive. It cost $20 per person. There were 8 zip lines and it took about an hour and a half. There were only 4 people in our group including us. I would guess that it takes longer with a bigger group as you kind of have to wait for everyone to finish before moving on to the next line. We got there around 9am. More people were arriving as we were finishing up so I would suggest the earlier you go the better.
This was great fun and if you haven't tried it before, I would highly recommend it...it's a blast!!
You can also do zip-lining (also called canopy tour) just outside Tikal National Park.
We saw a few monkeys here as well as they have a family that lives permanenetly at the reserve. They feed them in a certain spot so you are assured of seeing them. We also saw some pizotes.

After we left the reserve around 11am we began to make our way to Chichi. We didn't get very far up the road when a man flagged us down to inform us that the road ahead was closed.
So we turned around, went back to town and learned that there was a very troublesome situation going on in the town of Solola (which you have to drive through to get to Chichi).
There were some riots and cars being set on fire due to an uprising of the people against the local government. When we asked some locals more about it we were basically told, "This is Guatemala...it happens." So, while it is not a very frequent occurrence, it was not very shocking to them. They told us that it would probably blow over in a day or two.
This was Sunday and we were to drive back to GUA on Tuesday so we were a tad apprehensive. The staff at our hotel was extremely helpful as they kept us informed so we would know it was OK to travel back to GUA for our flight home.
Indeed it was by then.

So, this changed up our plans a bit. We decided to take a boat over to San Pedro.
We took one of the many tuk-tuks over to the dock. These tuk-tuks are convenient and plentiful and basically have a set rate of Q5 ($0.67) per person to take you anywhere in town.

The public lanchas (boats) to the other villages don't have any real set schedules. They basically just leave when they feel they have enough people on the boat to warrant the trip. They even have people that will go find tourists off the street to try to fill up the boats. You may get lucky and it might leave within 10-15 minutes, which happened most of the time for us. But one time we had to wait almost an hour.
The cost to San Pedro cost Q50 ($6.60US) for 2 people, one way. The trip took about 25 minutes to San Pedro.

San Pedro is very small and we walked through just about the entire town in just a couple of hours.
The word "village" might conjure up images of quaint, neat little towns with flower boxes on the windows.
This is not the case. As the Moon Handbook states about San Pedro:
"If you're not already feeling decidedly immersed in the Third World, you soon will as you walk along some of the (roads) leading into the heart of the village from the main road through town."
The poverty is very difficult to witness.
We found this to be the case with Santiago also, as well as Santa Catarina which we went to the next day.
We have seen very poor areas and neighborhoods on many other trips, but usually from the seat of a bus or train as we headed outside of a large city and through the outskirts on our way to somewhere else.
This was the first time we were actually walking THROUGH the actual area, where you could see right into the houses, see the little children not in school in the middle of the day, the refuse, the hardship, right there in front of us.

The whole issue of poverty is a tough one when traveling. Here you are on your vacation that you have the luxury of affording, amongst these people with so much less, and such a lack of opportunity. It is a hard thing to come to terms with and we had many discussions about it throughout our trip.
But what we take away from it is, that awareness is a very valuable thing to have. It makes you act differently. It gives you a sense of connection and a deeper level of caring.
It makes us try to do what we can whenever we can, whether it's volunteering or donating to an organization that focuses on aiding people all over the world in these types of situations. And whether it's impact it substantial or not, we hope that by being there, staying in hotels, buying food, drink and crafts, etc, that in some way we are adding a little bit to the economy and that it might just help a little.

I don't want to focus too much on that aspect of the trip, but it did leave a very big impression on us. We talked about it a lot, while we were there and even well after we were home...and still.
But, I just wanted to put it out there so that others would know what to expect. If you are an emotional type of person like me, you will find yourself crying. Maybe in some small way it could help someone to be better prepared.
And I don't say any of this to try and dissuade anyone from going to this beautiful country!
On the contrary, we believe that it can only make the world a better place if we understand the plight of our brothers and sisters around the world.
And being amongst these warm, friendly people and all that their beautiful country has to offer has only made us want to recommend this as a destination even more!


So, guess I went off track a little bit again.
OK, back to the trip report:
The next day we headed to Santiago around 8am. The public lancha cost the same as to San Pedro (Q50 ($6.60US) for 2 people, one way.) The trip took about 25 minutes.
This was a much larger town than San Pedro. We got there early as the town was just starting to come alive. As the morning went on, it got more and more crowded, people started setting up their market stalls and there was a lot of hustle and bustle. The sights and sounds were amazing! There were lots of people in traditional dress. We really enjoyed this aspect of the town.
After about 3 hours we headed back to the boat, but had to wait almost an hour for it to fill up with enough people so that we could leave.

We had lunch in Pana then decided to drive to the next village southeast of Pana, Santa Catarina. This was only about a 5 minute drive.
We parked on the main road into town. We didn't stay long here as it is pretty small. We only wandered around for maybe half an hour then headed back to our hotel.
This was our last night, so after dinner we decided to call it a day, went back to the room to get everything packed up and ready to go for our drive back to GUA the next morning.

Day 8 Heading home

We had been told that the drive back to GUA could take longer than usual due to lots of construction on the roads, so we gave ourselves extra time, leaving Pana at 6am.
We got through Solola with no problems at all.
We did indeed hit some construction delays and the drive took about 4 hours (1 hour more than on the way in).
We made it into Guatemala City around 10am, had a bite to eat before heading into the airport, and got to the airport a very safe 2-1/2 hours before our flight left.

The departure tax for the GUA airport was only $3US.
Getting out of the airport was smooth and we were on our way home.

I sure hope this information is useful to anyone planning a trip to this amazing country!

Again, to see our photos, please visit our travel webpage at: www.luv2globetrot.com

Happy, safe travels :)>-

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