Trip report Guatemala

Old Mar 8th, 2009, 08:35 AM
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Trip report Guatemala

My husband, two sons (ages 23 and 18) and I spent 7 days/8 nights in Guatemala from February 22 through March 2nd. As I woke up this morning and realized that a week ago I was waking up in Antigua, I felt quite depressed so figured I would spend some time reporting on and remembering the trip.

In general we had a great time and saw many amazing places. The main problem was the time spent driving. Tikal was a must-see for our family and the plane trip for four from Guatemala City seemed expensive so we decided to rent a car. We figured we would be able to see some interesting things on the way including Quiriguá which was a priority for our younger son. This was true. We also feared the driving would be difficult and unfortunately that was also certainly true—bad roads, bad drivers, animals in the road, horrific speed bumps in many villages, bad signage. I thought our guidebooks minimized the problems and would certainly not recommend driving for everyone. Fortunately my husband is an excellent driver with nerves of steel. We also had some trouble finding good rates with low insurance deductibles—eventually we rented from Alamo. Finally, we did not have a very good map although we bought one that seemed to be widely available. I supplemented it with local maps in our guidebooks and with some city maps to Cobán and Antigua that I grabbed as we went through the airport when we arrived.

We used the Rough Guide and Fodors Guide to Guatemala (I got the latter for free because I was quoted in another guide), and the combination was good for us.

Sunday Feb. 22—arrived 10:15 p.m. via Boston and Dallas/Ft. W. We managed to get out of Logan before a major snowstorm. We stayed at a simple bed and breakfast very near the airport, Hostel Los Lagos. The owner picked us up even at that late hour and was very pleasant and helpful and spoke good English. We were operating with pretty limited Spanish with my husband and older son reasonably proficient for basic tourist purposes and my younger son and me knowing very little. The hostel is a very basic place but was fine for us. Guatemala City is organized by “zones” and the airport is in zone 13, a mostly suburban area in the southern part of the city, nearer the new city than the old historic area.

Monday Feb 23—after the first of many breakfasts of eggs and beans my husband and I picked up our Alamo rental car. The Alamo office is in the New City, not the airport area so we had our first experience navigating G. City traffic to get back to the B & B and pick up our luggage and kids. We managed to get out of G. City with only a minor unintended detour and headed east on the Carretera al Atlantico.

Our main destination was the Mayan site, Quiriguá, in the Montagua valley several hours away, so we didn’t stop along the way except to buy some groceries including agua pura and some fast food chicken. The latter was actually not too bad. There were many comedores along the route in small towns, and it was frustrating to limit our diet but I was worried about hygiene and getting sick so we were cautious the whole trip.
The first part of the drive was not too interesting—the Rough Guide calls the landscape “inhospitable” and the main attraction seems to be a big water park. Once the road winds its way down into the valley there is a much more attractive lush floodplain with mountain ranges to the northwest and south. There are many kinds of fruit sold at roadside stands. This used to be United Fruit Co. territory.

Quiriguá is an important Mayan site known mostly for the carved stelae and zoomorphs (altars with interlocking animal and human figures) which are in excellent condition. It is about 4 km from the main road, and the short drive there takes you through a banana plantation. Of course it started to rain as we got about 15 km from the site but by the time we were actually parked and had gotten out our rain gear and walked in to the archeological area it had stopped, leaving mud and quite a few mosquitoes. There is a good description with pictures in the Wikipedia article so I won’t try to give a lot of information
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quirigu%C3%A1. Unfortunately the museum was closed when we were there (no explanation).

From Quiriguá we headed on for our overnight stop on the Rio Dulce to the north. We arrived late afternoon, parked our car and called the hotel to pick us up. We stayed at a “Fodor’s Choice” listing, the Catamaran Hotel. This is a simple resort on small private island on the north shore of the Rio, reached via free launch. It is a very pretty place with a marina, a small pool and tennis court. The dinner was good with several seafood options including tapada, a stew with coconut milk, bananas and tomatoes. A very good breakfast buffet was included in the price. We stayed in a simple 4-person bungalow.
The Rio Dulce area had a lot to see and do and is definitely a place we’d like to visit for several days but we had to press on.

Tuesday February 24-- we drove from Rio Dulce to Tikal. There are a lot of cattle ranches along this part of the route. We stopped in El Chal (more fast food chicken supplemented by some great fruit) so we could see the small Mayan site just off the road. It is largely unrestored but was interesting to see. The guard came out with his guest book and really wanted to show us around but my husband had gone back to the car (worried about vandalism in this isolated spot) and my sons and I declined. We heard spider monkeys high in the trees and the guard was very disappointed that we wouldn’t go with him to try to get a glimpse. We did see a black bull that ambled through the ruins from the nearby village—somewhat disconcerting.

We then continued on to Tikal where we checked in to the Jaguar Inn, the cheapest of the three hotels in the park. We definitely felt it was worth staying overnight in Tikal rather than commuting from Flores/Santa Elena or El Remate although Flores looked like a great place to explore.

We bought tickets to Tikal in the late afternoon (good for the next day, too, if purchased after 3) and headed inside. We concentrated on a few of the minor temples and the central plaza that first day and were suitably impressed. It is an amazing site. There are very few other people there late in the day (the park closes at 6) since most of the tour groups arrive in the morning and have left by afternoon.
The wildlife is also incredible especially late in the day and early in the morning. I had been worried that we might not see spider monkeys easily after passing up the chance in El Chal but we spotted three within about 20 minutes of entering the archeological zone. Coming from rural Vermont, we were amused that deer and wild turkeys seemed so interesting to other tourists—although I have to admit that the turkeys had much more exotic coloring than the ones we see here. This area is also fantastic for bird watching but none of us knew enough to appreciate this.
We had a simple dinner at the comedor nearest the entrance to the ruins and went to bed early when the electricity went off at 9.

Wednesday February 25-- This was our full day at Tikal. We got a later start than I would have liked because our kids did not want to get up early. We had breakfast at the Inn and cobbled together a picnic lunch of sandwiches from the comedor, some not-bad spice cookies at the Inn counter and dried fruit left over from the plane trip.
After seeing the park layout the day before we figured walking in and out several times would be time-consuming. The Jaguar Inn also sold sandwiches in the early morning –not sure about the other hotels. Surprisingly, you can buy drinks inside the park near Temple IV. Of course we also carried in water. I am not sure how the tours handle the lunch issue.

We decided to supplement the Rough Guide/Fodors information with the most detailed guide we could find for sale at Tikal It was written by William Coe of UPenn and was helpful but is somewhat outdated and not exactly gripping prose. I am not sure whether there are other better options. I just ordered a book called The Lords of Tikal by Peter Harrison but it doesn’t look like something that would be easy to schlep along through the park.

My husband and sons have seen some of the major Mayan ruins in Mexico but Tikal and Quiriguá were my first. We basically explored the whole park which involved a lot of walking—I have read it is six miles to tour all the temples. After the fact, I read in the Fodors that the walk we took to Temple VI at Tikal is not recommended w/o a guide because it is so isolated but we had no problems. Sitting at the top of Temple IV above the jungle canopy and looking out over the other temples was incredible.

We had dinner at the Jaguar Inn and another early night.
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Old Mar 8th, 2009, 11:15 AM
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Enjoying your trip report so far.
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Old Mar 8th, 2009, 12:02 PM
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Thanks. I enjoyed your recent report a lot.
I am afraid I've spent too much time detailing the bad features of driving, but we found very little information about renting a car in Guatemala so I figured I would share our experiences.

my husband, son and I just watched an old PBS documentary about the Mayans. It had lots of footage of Tikal and Palenque so got us planning another trip to Central America.
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Old Mar 8th, 2009, 02:43 PM
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Thanks for posting!
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Old Mar 9th, 2009, 05:31 PM
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Thanks for the trip report. I had considered renting a car for our trip coming in May. I think you have convinced me this is not a good idea as I am traveling with an inexperienced travel sister and probably too cute 20year old daughter. Can't wait to hear the rest.
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Old Mar 10th, 2009, 01:34 PM
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kmh7--After I posted about how awful the driving was my husband sent this in an email to a friend (who is German by the way)
"Too much driving (rented a car), but it was the
best way to get around. I actually rather enjoyed the crazy Guatemalan drivers -- sort of like Italians rather than Germans. Good-natured about passing you on curves, with everyone ultimately watching out for everyone
else. I don't think I saw a raised middle finger [despite all the] driving on truly challenging roads."

He did say right after an experience being stuck in G. city toward the end of the trip that that had been the worst driving day of his life.

One point I forgot to mention was that there are many people on motorcycles who add to the general chaos by weaving in and out of traffic. We saw one very bad accident involving a motorcycle.

Maybe other people will weigh in on driving experiences.

I hope to finish the report by tomorrow.
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Old Mar 14th, 2009, 07:03 AM
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Here's the second half of the trip report:

Thursday February 26— a travel day between Tikal and Cobán. We visited the small archeological museum at Tikal and bought some souvenirs before heading off in the late morning. There are several handicrafts stalls right by the museum.
The drive to Cobán was long with some difficult mountain driving and beautiful scenery. We drove through Sayaxché and would have liked to stop in that area to see Ceibal and/or the ruins around Lago de Petexbatun. So many ruins, so little time. We stayed at a small very basic bungalow on the hillside outside Cobán with a great view of the city.

Friday February 27 – another day with a long drive from Cobán to Antigua. In the morning we took a tour of the Dieseldorff coffee plantation at the outskirts of Cobán which was very interesting. This is a major coffee producing area. Many of the plantations were started by German families; Dieseldorff was established in 1888. Cardamom is another major export.
The route south from Cobán took us past the Biotopo del Quetzal which was another wish-we-could-stop-there spot. (We had read Bird of Life, Bird of Death by Jonathan Evan Maslow, a book I really recommend.) The Verapaces region is very beautiful with fewer tourists than other areas we visited.
Unfortunately the last part of the trip was horrific because we got lost/stuck in Guatemala City due to a combination of poor map, bad highway and street signs and difficulty turning around when we got headed in the wrong direction on a divided road.
Eventually we got out of the Guatemala City mess and reached Antigua where we checked in at the Hotel Posada Los Búcaros. I had picked this hotel from our Fodors guide because it was moderately priced and had parking, a feature that is not always available in the less expensive hotels. We really liked our stay there. I think the review in the Fodor’s destination section describes it pretty well although I would not consider its location much of a “con.” Everything in Antigua is pretty close, and Los Búcaros is close to the church of Nuestra Señora de la Merced even though it is a longer walk to the central plaza. The hotel does not serve breakfast but it does have coffee, and there is a big kitchen guests can use.

We ate pizza that first night at Quesos y Vino. We enjoyed having beer selections other than the ubiquitous El Gallo and my son and I especially liked the darker Mozza.

My husband and older son walked down to the central plaza while the younger son and I returned to the hotel. As we reached La Merced, a large religious procession was entering the church plaza. It made me think that Semana Santa in Antigua must be truly impressive.

Saturday February 28—full day in Antigua. It is a fascinating and beautiful colonial city in a spectacular setting. My husband, older son and I really liked it. The younger son was somewhat less enthusiastic, largely because he kept insisting we should have gone to Copán instead. (He is fascinated by the Mayan sites and is considering majoring in archeology in college.) After a good night's rest he was a little more receptive to Antigua’s charms.

We had a good breakfast with good coffee Saturday at Fernando's right near the hotel We had interesting Guatemalan food at La Fonda de la Calle Real and Cafe Colonial (the latter is much simpler, cheaper). I was finally able to sample some Kaq'Ik, the spicy turkey soup that is a specialty of the Verapaces.

Because we were only in Antigua for a day and a half, we did not do day trips, just wandered the city. I would have gone out to the museums of the Centro Azotea cultural center if we had had more time. These are in a village 2 km from Antigua. Our older son would definitely have opted for a hike on one of the volcanoes.

In the city we especially enjoyed touring the local and handicraft markets, the Convento de las Capuchinas and the San Francisco monastery with its shrine to Guatemala's saint, St. Pedro de San José Betancur (1626-1667). Unfortunately the Casa Popenoe was “cerrado” so we missed seeing that colonial mansion.

Sunday March 1—Antigua to Guatemala City. My husband and I got up early to revisit the handicraft market and the central plaza while the kids slept in. We had a good late breakfast at Dona Luisa Xicoencatl and another stroll before packing up and heading back to Guatemala City. This time we navigated the city better although not perfectly and returned the car in the early afternoon.

The Alamo shuttle dropped us off at the Hotel Aeropuerto where we stayed for the last night. We had an early morning flight and this place is even closer to the airport than Hostel Los Lagos was. We took off for the archeological museum which is in Zone 13 and managed a quick tour through it before it closed. It has a great small collection but very little explanation in English. I am embarrassed to say we decided to eat at the food court at the airport rather than dealing with taxis to/from decent restaurants in the city.

Monday March 2—travel day from Guatemala City back to Vermont. There was a foot of new snow at Logan, a rather rude return to winter.
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Old Mar 14th, 2009, 10:44 AM
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Thanks again for writing - I really enjoyed reading about your trip.
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Old Mar 14th, 2009, 11:39 AM
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Thanks, hopefulist--I have enjoyed reading about your experiences in Central America both before and after our trip. The Guatemala/Belize trip you are organizing sounds great.
My husband would really like to go back for a week-long Spanish course in Guatemala. A friend's son is there now at a language school in the Highlands so we are waiting for his report.
My copy of Harrison's The Lords of the Maya just arrived in the mail so I have been skimming through that.
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Old Mar 14th, 2009, 12:16 PM
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Let me know if your husband needs some school recommendations in addition to your friend's son.
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Old Mar 14th, 2009, 12:26 PM
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He'd be interested in anywhere you'd recommend in Antigua. We really enjoyed the city and would like to spend more time there
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Old Mar 14th, 2009, 02:06 PM
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I'll be studying at the Academia de Español Antigüeña with a group in tow this summer. It gets great recommendations, though I think the school itself isn't the fanciest looking. It's in a neighborhood I really love near La Merced church. My son studied there in 2006 and had great teachers and homestay hosts. I haven't studied there yet so can't recommend it personally. Here are links to the school's website and the guatemala365 site recommendation:

http://www.spanishacademyantiguena.com/
http://www.guatemala365.com/index.ph...func=show&id=8

My favorite place to study in Guatemala so far is in San Pedro La Laguna, Atitlán - heading there this summer, too. There's a great school in Copán Ruinas, Honduras also if that appeals. Lots of photos of both in my flickr collections:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/collections

Happy trails!
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Old Mar 15th, 2009, 04:33 AM
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Thank you for the recommendations. They all sound like good options. My husband sends a special thank you, too, for taking the time to give such a detailed reply. He always wants to have a good trip in the planning stages and is especially interested in the Spanish language schools so has started a new travel folder. I would also like to acquire at least a little Spanish. I can read a fair amount and understand some but can't speak more than a few words.

The Academia de Español Antigüeña sounds as though it has a great program. We also really liked the neighborhood around La Merced in Antigua. On the other hand, staying at the school on Lake Atitlán would give us a chance to explore a different area of Guatemala. On the third hand, the Honduras school might work well for us if we could coordinate with our son-who-wants-to-visit Copán.

I will try to find out the name of the place our friend's son is studying. I believe he picked it because he had heard it was organized to help the economy in a small village.
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Old Mar 15th, 2009, 06:11 AM
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Many schools around the lake have community projects. The school I've fallen in love with is the Cooperativa School which donates heavily, both money and time, to their community. The school grounds are gorgeous, excellent teachers, friendly, interesting host families, quaint town. I can't wait to head back there this summer. www.cooperativeschoolsanpedro.com

I've studied twice in Copán, 2 weeks each time (last year with a group in tow), and my son studied for 3 weeks and volunteered in public health. He learned enough in that time to test out of a full year of college Spanish (obviously he has a knack for languages, though). Lots of great activities in the area if you love the outdoors, the town is cute, and the ruins (as your son predicts) beautiful. www.ixbalanque.com

I consider the directors of both schools to be personal friends. If you contact either school be sure to tell them Stacey from Oregon misses them and says hi. Happy trails!
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Old Mar 15th, 2009, 07:30 AM
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Our first morning in Guatemala City, we met a retired carpenter from MO who was returning from a six month stay in Monjas where he is helping to build a school for an orphanage there. He has been doing this for several years. It turned out one of my son's high school friends had worked on the same project one year.
There seem to be many good places to volunteer.

It would be important to us to go to a school that pays good wages and is involved in helping the community.
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Old Mar 15th, 2009, 10:57 AM
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When I stay in San Pedro La Laguna I volunteer in a community-based program for individuals with disabilities. I direct centers for grade-school kids with autism and multiple disabilities back home so it was an enriching experience for me and I felt I had something to contribute. At the Cooperativa school the teachers make far more than they did at other schools before setting up up the cooperative, they pay their host families twice what many schools pay, and they donate nearly a third of the tuition to the community kids they sponsor. It's not unusual for schools to be aligned with social projects but, based on my research, the teachers and homestays are often underpaid. Keep me posted!
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Old Mar 16th, 2009, 09:40 AM
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My husband and I spent 2 weeks in Guatemala in Feb. We liked Guatemala so much that we plan to go back to language school next winter either in Antigua or on the Lake..We met many people in Antigua who were studying at different language school, and all highly recommended their schools and teachers. We also spoke to several teachers who were out and about with their students (at useums, markets, ect.)and all seemed very patient with their students, and seemed to genuinely like what they were doing. From this very small sampling I got a really good feeling about the language schools in Guatemala, and feel that unless you are really unlucky, you will probably have a good experience. For us, the decision on which school to choose will be partially based on location, or maybe we will decide to do some weeks in Antigua and some on Lake Atitlan. Either way, we are looking forward to returning to Guatemala.
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Old Apr 26th, 2009, 05:05 AM
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This is an update for anyone reading this report who is interested in language school options. I finally had a chance to talk to our neighbor's son who has recently returned from a three month trip to Costa Rica and Guatemala. He spent three weeks studying Spanish at the Xela PLQE (Proyecto Linguistico Quelzalteco de Espanol) and is very enthusiastic about the school. According to its website, it places an "emphasis on human rights and social justice." There is a smaller rural sister school called La Escuela de la Montaña.
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Old Apr 26th, 2009, 06:42 AM
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Thanks for the update and school recommendation. I've read good things about that school on the Thorntree Forum. On the www.guatemala365.com site it's the highest rated school in Xela (and most expensive). I didn't find Xela (Quetzaltenango) to be very appealing, so wouldn't be apt to pick it for a multiple week study option. The surrounding mountains are beautiful, though, with some interesting traditional villages in the area and the sister school is an interesting option.
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