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Trip Report Trip report Guatemala

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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 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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