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Trip Report Trip Report: Guatemala Dec 30, 2008 -Jan. 14, 2009

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We just enjoyed two wonderful weeks in Guatemala. I'll post pics later. Thanks for all the help from fellow fodorites--we enjoyed every minute of the trip.

Overall impression:
Guatemala is beautiful. We generally felt safe and had a really enjoyable time. Inguat, the tourism board in Guatemala, is working very hard to make Guatemala a terrific tourist destination. There are helpful staff in both major airports and offices in Antigua and Guatemala city.

The biggest problems we encountered were (I recognize these are itsy bitsy problems in the scheme of life and foreign travel):
-Overnight buses with ADN and Linea Dorada were not running on Dec 31st or the morning of Jan 1st. We ended up flying to Flores instead.
-ATMs run out of cash sometimes—a friend had to drive us to one way out in Guatemala city in order to get cash our first day.
-No ATMs in El Remate or Tikal, get all your cash in Flores or Santa Elena before you head up toward Tikal.
-Getting hassled by kids selling sticks on Pacaya and selling trinkets around Pana and Chichi. I won’t get into the economics and morality that spring up around these issues. I am sure people have strong feelings on both sides. I will simply say it was annoying.

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    What we did:

    Flores:
    Canoed on the lake and walk around town – We did not expect to have time to really explore Flores but a schedule change meant we had a whole day there on January 1. While most things were closed, we were still able to enjoy walking around the island. It’s charming. We really wanted to canoe on the lake but most rentals were closed. Finally, one of the boat taxi operators was able to help us out with the most un-seaworthy canoe I have ever seen. He sponged all the water out of it (which luckily was not there because of a leak) and we were able to rent it long enough for me to sunburn my arms.

    Tikal:
    Tour of the Park – We really enjoyed Tikal. Staying right inside the park was a huge plus. We awakened to the sounds of wildlife all around us. We have been to Mayan ruins throughout the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico so we were worried we were ruined-out. But Tikal is a different experience because it is such a nice, large park. We hired a private guide for 4 hours and had a great, very quiet tour around the most-visited areas of the park. The guide has been at Tikal 11 years and did a fantastic job; particularly with identifying interesting flora and fauna for us. I was glad I wore my hiking shoes for all the walking we did.

    After the guided portion we spent the rest of the afternoon going to the less-explored areas and then back to the main plaza. We saw (and heard ) plenty of monkeys, birds, and even saw a coati run through the main plaza. Outside the park we saw toucans and parrots at our hotel, oscillated turkeys in the parking lot, a woodpecker, and some other bird I have not yet IDed.

    The guidebooks seem out of date on cost, it was 150 Q each to enter the park for non-Guatemalans. The private guide was US $70.

    El Remate and Lake Peten Itza:
    This is a quiet area that is really more of a base for people going to Tikal. We could have cut it from our trip but it provided for some relaxing days. The shopping here is hassle-free, which is a huge difference from Panajachel or Chichicatenango. We were free to browse without anyone bothering us.

    BioReserve Hiking. You could spend as much or as little time as you like walking the paths in this park. We saw more wildlife in Tikal itself but we still saw monkeys and birds and some kind of snake with a greenish-blue head. The hike has some beautiful overlooks and just outside the trial is a clean beach and dock for swimming. Initially, I planned to swim outside the hotel but when I went to the dock families were doing laundry and dishes in the lake nearby so I skipped it and swam here instead. There was an admission fee for the park but it was cheap.

    Antigua:
    Hike Acatenanago/Fuego overnight – After much research we did this and our Pacaya trip with OX adventures. We are so glad we did—they did an awesome job and we had perfect trips. OX provided packs, camping gear, meals, wine for toasting at the summit and warm clothing. This trip involved an overnight in Acatenanago’s crater—which we had to ourselves. We hiked on day 1 up to the crater and the whole day (including stops) was about 7 ½ hours. I was really sore carrying my pack and got really badly sunburned in the thin atmosphere. But it was worth it for the amazing sunset and beautiful above-the-clouds views. The wind whipped us pretty well—I recommend plenty of warm clothing for this trip. When we got up for sunrise we heard Fuego erupt and when we ran up to the crater’s rim to see it we could see a little lava spewing and flowing. It was cool.

    On day 2 we hiked down Acatenango, left our packs with the police, and hiked up Fuego for lunch. Fuego erupted lots of ash and smoke throughout this entire day. Shortly after lunch, Fuego erupted like a cannon blast and spewed ash all over where we had been sitting about an hour before. The hike down and around Acatenango was absolutely beautiful although I was nearly too weary to enjoy it. These were two days of hard hiking.

    It was just us and the guide and our two armed police officers. These are actual Antigua police who are authorized to make arrests and who hike in full uniform with weapons. Our guide was one of the most enthusiastic and best guides I have ever had for anything. He encouraged us and seemed himself to be enjoying every moment of the trip. The trip was US $99 per person and we consider it well worth it.

    Hike Pacaya overnight – We went with OX again here and again were glad we did. There was a group of 7 of us plus our guide. We hiked up late in the day, set up camp, ate dinner, and then went to the lava by night. It was terrific. We had the lava to ourselves and commenced with dangerous activities like throwing stones onto it and poking sticks into it. DH even managed to get some lava out with his stick. It was HOT near the lava. We wereglad we had the walking sticks we got for 5Q from the kids at the bottom because the walking is treacherous up near the lava. Our guide brought and toasted marshmallows for us over the heat. The only other people around while we were there were master’s degree students in volcanology who were studying the lava flow. This is an easy hike but it was my favorite because we were able to see lava so closely. OX charges US $59 per person

    Elizabeth Bell Tours, Walking Tour of Antigua – Ugh. I will try not to rant too much about this and the US $20 per person I feel was somewhat wasted on it. Every review I read of this tour was a rave. I even met someone at the bottom of Pacaya who had just taken the tour and assured me it was amazing. DH and I were underwhelmed. Bell’s tour gives only the briefest sketch of Antigua’s history and is delivered in a haphazard way. Every fact was delivered in the manner of an afterthought. Our biggest peeve was that the tour spent time at Jades, SA jade factory, a place you can go on your own for a free tour. The tour ended with what was probably the best part—the museum walk but most museums were closed. Bell got us into the one with pre-Columbian art, though, which was nice. In Bell’s defense, I think the tour has been built up as something it is not (by others, not Bell)—she clearly loves architectural restoration and would no doubt shine if the tour focused on that. She has been integral in restoring and preserving important buildings around Antigua. If we had been a group of architecturally-minded people we would have loved this tour I am sure. As a tour of Antigua, it is lacking. I say only “somewhat wasted” about the $20 per person because Bell gives a lot of it right back to the community, sponsoring schools, art, restoration projects, etc.

    Jades SA – It’s a jade shop but we really enjoyed the talk given by owner Mary Lou Redinger (of National Geographic fame) and seeing people working to make Jade products. The tour and a browse through the store are free.

    Panajachel:

    Chichicatenango Market (Sunday) – We had to shuttle to get here and are glad we did not stay in Chichi. We left Pana around 8:00 and left Chichi around 2:00. This was more than enough time to see the market and church. The market was great for people watching. Mayan women in beautiful garments bargaining with each other over meat, poultry, veggies, fruits, and clothing—it was a fascinating experience. We love to get photos of all the people we see but feel it is intrusive to simply point and click so DH takes clandestine photos holding the camera at stomach level. The ratio of good to bad shots is probably 1 for every 50 but it’s fun and discreet. It rained while we were there and we took refuge in the church and a restaurant until it subsided. I also got hot tortillas off the grill at 2 for 1 Q. Yum. The Mayan women at the tortillas stand did not agree to have their photo taken, much to my dismay because I loved seeing them make the tortillas.

    There are tourist stalls all over though we did not buy anything. Every vendor calls out to you and tries to get your attention as you browse around. Luckily, we are experts at the zombie-stare-of-complete-disinterest. I am amazed how many tourists will buy from someone simply because the vendor approaches them. We stopped for lunch in a restaurant in the market and tourists at tables would buy when children came in to sell dolls or bracelets. Even as we left a girl stood outside our shuttle and the tourist seated in front of us said, “Well, I guess I should buy something,” bought a headband she didn’t even want, and proclaimed she did it only to be nice. I find this amazing.

    Bike Around the Lake – Our guidebook said we could rent bikes or book a bike tour at our hotel, utz Jay. This is no longer the case. So we went out into the street and eventually found Roger’s Tours and booked a short bike around the lake with Roger. We had a fabulous time. We boated (with bikes) to Tzununa then biked to San Pedro and ate lunch, stopping along with way for some outstanding views and a refreshing swim. Roger’s equipment is very nice (trek bikes) and he provides helmets. His English is terrific and he knows a lot about the local villages and Mayans (he is himself Mayan). We highly recommend Roger’s tours—he does more rigorous bike trips and other adventure activties, too. The tour was US $60 per person.

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    Hotels:
    Posada Belen Museum Inn, Guatemala City – Adorable little place in zone 1. We picked it for convenience to the bus lines (which we didn’t need). The staff is exceedingly helpful and pleasant. Clean and convenient. US $49/night, includes breakfast.

    Jaguar Inn, Santa Elena – An unexpected stay when we skipped the overnight bus and neeed a place for the night. It’s nothing like its sister hotel in Tikal. It’s a basic and serviceable place with private rooms and hot water. US $25/night.

    Jaguar Inn, Tikal – The cheapest in-park hotel. It had lots of charm. Most rooms are duplex bungalows with hammocks hanging out front. Electricity and hot water are limited to certain hours of the day. The restaurant is good and the staff are helpful. We loved staying here for early/late park access. We awakened each morning to the sounds of birds and monkeys. On the grounds were monkeys, toucans, parrots and many other birds. US $60/night.

    La Casa De Don David, El Remate – They have a terrific website and a beautiful hotel. The grounds are gorgeous and right near Lake Peten Itza. There’s a dock behind the property for swimming although I didn’t swim there as families were washing clothes and dishes in the lake. The staff is friendly but we were disappointed—they don’t seem great at helping with less-well-known tourism stuff. For example, we wanted to go to Ixpanpajul park, which is mentioned on the don David website but the staffer didn’t have a suggestion for how to get there or know how far it was. The on-site restaurant was great (but I was disappointed, they ran out of the vegetarian special on a night I really wanted to try it). US $36/night (for a non-air conditioned room) includes either breakfast or dinner special.

    Casa Cristina, Antigua – Clean and quiet this is quite a gem. Thanks to the Fodorite who steered me here. There is a rooftop terrace and rooms with views of the volcano Agua. The person who corresponded with me is the most patient woman on earth—she was completely gracious when I had to change the reservation twice due to my own errors. Deluxe room US $40/night.

    Hotel Utz Jay, Panajachel- Again, thanks to the fodorite who recommended this place. A quiet place on a side street with the two sweetest German Shepherds. We were missing our dogs and these two filled the gap until we got home. The place is clean and friendly with nice grounds. I am glad we stayed in Pana rather than one of the quieter villages. We liked being able to book a tour easily and we got a glimpse of the other towns on our bike ride. Pana wasn’t relaxing but it was good for being a tourist.

    Notable Food:

    Fernando’s Coffee, Antigua - Chocolate Covered Cacao Beans – I think they are actually called chocolate “Oh my God…” and that pretty much sums it up. Both the regular chocolate and the chocolate with chiles are amazing.

    Luna de Miel, Antigua – A variety of delicious crepes and smoothies. We went here twice it was so tasty. I would have gone again if we stayed longer in Antigua.

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    Thanks for your trip report. I am leaving for Guatemala in just a little more then a week so I really enjoyed hearing about your travels.
    We only have a week so we won't be able to experience as much as you were able to.
    I am also taking the Elizabeth Bell walking tour. I also thought it was going to be great because of all of the great things said. Hopefully we will enjoy it a bit and if not.. at least she does put the money back into the community.
    Again, thanks for such an informative report

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    Adding another food favorite:

    Dina's Chocolate, Panajachel - Delicious homemade Mayan chocolates in a variety of delicious flavors.

    Hm, I think my food raves give away what a sweet tooth I have!

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    Thanks for the chocolate trip. I'll be in Panajachel near the end of the trip I'm leading and just days before I meet an extended family group for 3 weeks in Belize - they'll enjoy the chocolate (if there's any left!). Happy trails!

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    WOW those are great pictures and a great trip report! I am happy that we chose to go to Guatemala this summer. I think I will contact OX Adventures to see if we can arrange a private hike up to Pacaya.

    Thanks, Heather

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