Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Guatemala | Comments Off on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

dockWe had already heard from our friends in Antigua that the towns surrounding Lake Atitlan were rife with hippy drifters, but we weren’t quite sure what else to expect. We arrived in San Pedro after a grueling drive down unnerving roads in yet another rickety microbus on.  I felt so bad for Meghan who had picked up some kind of stomach bug the day before and was sick all morning—even I got waves of nausea from the crazy driving down the mountain. The sun was already setting by the time we unloaded our packs so we checked into the Maria Elena, a hotel nearby on the main road, and ventured out to scope the scene and find some dinner.

The town is small and eclectic; everywhere we looked there were clusters of  “free spirits”— young white people, dirty and dreadlocked, peddling their handmade trinkets or juggling for donations. There were quite a few juice bars and vegan eateries nearby as well as stores selling handcrafted clothes and shoes. We noticed that almost all the establishments had signs written in Hebrew and that most restaurants served Mediterranean food (which was exciting for us because that meant hummus and pita instead of chips and salsa at every meal.)

cashewAnother memorable characteristic of San Pedro was the ubiquitous presence of little girls hustling nuts. Out of nowhere they would come flying towards us singing “cashews! Cashews!” in their sweet little voices. They are all less than 10 years old, in full-length skirts and embroidered tops, balancing their plastic baskets on top of their heads. If you got suckered into buying some (which happened to us way too much, only because the girls are adorable and persistent, not because their snacks were delicious,) they’d take out homemade scales, place a rock on one side and measure out tiny scoops of stale peanuts into the other. We actually fell in love with one particular hustler, Isabel. Every time she would spot Kyle in a crowd her eyes would light up as she skipped toward us in a beeline—she knew she had a sale; there was just no saying no to her! We tried walking the other direction and avoiding eye contact but she won each time.

We were told in Antigua that we absolutely could not miss the notorious recurring party at La Iguana, a hostel across the lake in Santa Cruz. Apparently each Saturday they host a raging fiesta and all the attendees are sent to the substantial costume closet and have to dress in drag for the night. The weekend we were in town happened to correspond with the full moon, so we decided to rally for a surefire good time.  We really didn’t have much other information and got off to a rocky start… We forgot to check the boat schedule and missed the last water taxi by about two hours so we had to hire a private boat to charter us across the lake, which cost us about 65Q each instead of 20Q. No matter, we thought, minor setback. When we arrived in Santa Cruz it was already completely dark, and as we fumbled our way up the dock to the only three hotels in town, we quickly learned that they were all booked up and there were no more boats back to San Pedro. Hmm… Ok, we thought, let’s just grab some dinner and drinks while we figure out a plan. Alas, we found out that in Santa Cruz, everyone orders their dinners before 3PM so the kitchens only buy and prepare exactly enough food for the night.

Our only chance for redemption was that someone named Larry had reserved a big room at one of the hotels and hadn’t showed up yet. The manager told us that if he didn’t arrive on the last boat, we could take his room. He was also kind enough to serve us the extra food they had left for dinner, which was a delectable homemade potato soup and vegetable stir fry. We thanked him by purchasing all the wine and beer they had available and anxiously played cards on the deck, hoping Larry would be a noshow. Every time someone walked up to the lobby, our heads snapped up and we’d shoot them daggers with our eyes, expecting any one to be Larry. Luckily for us, he never came and we victoriously made ourselves at home in the room, which was beautiful, comfortable and had a gorgeous view of the lake. Everything was perfect! Or so we thought…

After settling in, Kyle went to the bathroom and came right back out, terrified. Gigantic spider right next to the toilet. Meghan, our resident spider-killer, went in to take care of it. A couple minutes later I went in and an even bigger spider was sitting right there! Megs went in for man vs. spider round 2 when all of a sudden I spotted something move from the corner of my eye. I looked down to the floor and out rushed a thick black scorpion from under the bed like a bat out of hell! It was charging straight toward me and Kyle, guns blazing, pinching wildly! Finally Kyle took a shoe and squashed it, but it was clear that our room was haunted and infested and there was no way we could sleep peacefully there although we had no choice for relocation. What could we do? Our only option was to get drunk and cross-dress, so we did!

dressTo be honest, the party was mediocre at best. In fairness, it was perhaps especially lackluster due to several other full moon events that were taking place elsewhere that night. We also heard that a large group of Christian missionaries was staying at La Iguana for volunteer trip, so there weren’t very many party people on site. The one hilarious highlight of the night was that an older gentleman was ferociously hitting on Kyle—no matter how many times Kyle laughed it off and said he was not gay, it was extremely unconvincing as he stood there in a low-cut dress.

The only other lake town we visited was San Marcos. We were only able to stay for one night, due to time constraints. San Marcos is an extremely inconspicuous and tranquil town. There isn’t much to do there unless you are avidly involved in yoga and meditation, in which case you would be in heaven.

hammockThey do have one park with hiking trails, small ruins, and a “trampoline” which was actually just a platform deck about 30 feethigh that you can jump off into the lake (so obviously Meghan and Kyle were psyched.) Without really checking the height of the jump, Harold took off and launched himself into a flip, but the fall was longer than he expected and he over-rotated, landing square on his ribs. He is still hurting two weeks later! You can actually see the point of impact in the video we posted.

Whew—that FINALLY wraps up our time in Guatemala! We had a wonderful time in the three weeks we explored the country, but the elevation sure made for a chilly climate. We were feeling cold, pasty, and inactive, so we were more than ready to board our bus and head toward the beach in El Salvador!.

Antigua, Guatemala

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Despite the cold, we enjoyed Semuc Champey so much that one night easily turned into four. It was really refreshing to feel completely off the grid, without any communication from the outside world, in a beautiful setting high up in the mountains. We met some incredible people and spent the rest of our time there hiking, reading, and hanging out. The locals who live nearby make their own dark, grainy chocolates and every 5 minutes the cutest little girls came up to us singing “chocolates chocolates, dos por cinco!” They weren’t delicious, but it was hard to say no to such sweet faces. We asked one 7-year-old where she goes to school and she told us that there are none in the area—they don’t have any formal education.

When we were finally ready to move on, we boarded yet another shuttle, this time heading for Antigua. The drive wasn’t too bad, and small city proved to be a welcome burst of urban activity when we arrived. We checked into Hotel Jacardanda, an adorable and spacious place just far enough away from the hustle and bustle.

cerro cruz

Antigua is a lovely vintage town. Very few buildings are taller than one story, and intermittent church ruins sprinkle the city blocks. It’s also extremely difficult to navigate because the streets have no signs and they all look the same. We joked that 90% of our total time in Antigua was spent aimlessly wandering around. Our motto, when trying to find a specific location, was “when you think you’ve gone too far, you’re almost there.”

The most astonishing aesthetic of the scenery was, for us, the massive and intricate doors everywhere. These little rundown concrete buildings— all coated with chipped paint in only yellow, red, or blue—sported the most magnificent thick wooden doors.

We hiked up to Cerro de la Cruz for a view of the entire city and Agua Volcano.

On the shuttle ride from Semuc Champey, Meghan sat next to a girl, Kassie, who told us about a bar crawl that Monday at the Terrace Hostel so we decided to check it out. It ended up being pretty wild. We met a ton of travelers and party people and went to all the fun bars around town. It was a blast!


Of all the cute restaurants in town, our two favorites, by far, were Rainbow Café and H Bistro. Rainbow Café had all the random foods we craved—most importantly, hummus and pita! Kyle couldn’t get enough of their Greek Chicken and Meghan and I loved their homemade soups. Better than the food was the scene inside—every night they had varied live musical performances and they provided lots of board games to play at the table (this is where we turned into Scrabble addicts.) The other place we absolutely loved was H Bistro—a tiny hole in the wall that only seats about 20 people. This was much nicer than our typical meals and a major treat for us, but totally worth it. The food was delicious—Hector (H) runs everything in the joint and whipped us up a roasted tomato and gouda appetizer, filet mignon, mahi mahi, shrimp, and even a couple perfect vodka dirty martinis which we’d been craving since we left San Diego.

There are 37 volcanoes in Guatemala—many of which you can climb—so we decided to hike Pacaya, an active volcano close to Anituga. The hike wasn’t too difficult, although it was pretty much straight up a dusty rockslide for most of the way. Local boys rode up behind us on horseback, waiting for someone to tire and pay 10Q for a “taxi” (which a couple people actually did.) When you get about halfway, the ground changes from dirt and boulders to ash and porous volcanic rock. It was a weird sensation to trek along over crunchy, black, hardened-lava.


You’re not able to climb all the way to the peak, and we didn’t get to see any actual lava, which was a bit disappointing; however, we had read online that you can roast marshmallows over the hot rocks toward the top, so we came prepared with s’mores materials! We made some new friends and together we stacked pastel marshmallows on twigs we had picked up along the way, stuck them under lava-filled stone before smushing them into graham crackers with chocolate. I must say, those were the best s’mores I’ve ever tasted! We decided that from now on, we only want s’mores made from volcanoes.

The way down the mountain was quite steep and we actually skied down the black rock in our tennis shoes. By the time we got to the bottom we looked like dirty little ragamuffins and had black boogers for days.picaya sun

The last—and probably most astonishing thing we encountered in Antigua—was the main marketplace… I’m not even sure I can do it justify in description. From the outside, there is no way to gauge the depths of the craziness. In fact, when walking down the main road, it would appear to the untrained eye that there are 2-3 lines of outdoor stands, much like a typical farmers market. But there are several openings where you can duck inside and once you commit to going in it’s a whole other world and down the rabbit hole you go!

The inner workings of this marketplace are an overwhelming labyrinth of stalls teeming with everything you could imagine from phone chargers, winter coats, nail polish, fried iguana, DVDs, vegetables, Batman book bags, etc. There is no marketrhyme or reason (as far as we can tell) and once you make a couple turns your chance of an easy exit diminishes rapidly. We got lost in there for hours at a time, just perusing the myriad tchotchkes and food items (most of which were intriguing and nauseating at the same time.) We ended up on the butcher strip, lined on both sides with strung-up animal carcasses, which was unsettling for us vegetarians. Kyle said he kept turning corners and ended up in the same Hello Kitty school supply section. It was so visually enthralling that we each went back several times to just look around and search for random items (which we almost always ended up finding.)

Overall, we loved Antigua and felt comfortable in the little antique city, but, as always, it was time to move on to our next adventure….

Semuc Champey, Guatemala

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We got to Semuc Champey after 8 hours in a van filled to max capacity, driving through a rainstorm. To be fair, the drive was beautiful as the local landscape is remarkably luscious—countless shades of rich green stretch up and out as far as the eye can see with fog dripping down the tops of mountains like fresh icing on hot cinnamon rolls.

rainSporadic farm animals— horses, cows, pigs, goats— were tethered to the side of the road and every now and then we’d roll through a strip of civilization with shops and eateries about the length of a city block before barreling back into the mystical mountains.

My only clues to the inhabitance of the dilapidated huts amidst the overgrown fields of tall grass and haphazard young palm trees were the laundry lines strung up outside, perpetually full of clothing in all shapes and sizes, and clearly worse for the wear. Still, the level of poverty didn’t pull at my heartstrings since all the locals look healthy and happy. Young boys ran alongside our van waving fanatically and women in traditional Guatemalan dresses smiled timidly as they washed their clothes in the fresh rain puddles outside.

We ascended up the mountain until we were floating above the fog like an airplane flying over clouds. After several hours, we made a sharp turn and the road sloped downward, morphing into a savage terrain of uneven rock and rubble for us to cautiously bobble down in the minibus.

image_3In true Guatemalan etiquette, our driver honked and flashed his headlights at every single car, scooter, and pedestrian on or near the road.

It was dark when we pulled up to our hostel, El Portal, in Semuc Champey, so we really couldn’t get a feel for our surroundings. After dinner and a couple rounds of gigantic Jenga, we went to bed… When we woke up we couldn’t believe our eyes! El Portal is a treehouse-style hostel, nestled up in the remote mountains. They only turn on the generator for electricity from 6-10PM. Outside of those four hours there are no lights, Internet, chargers, etc.

image_6Unfortunately for us, the bad weather followed us all the way from Flores and the higher we climbed in elevation, the colder it got. We were FREEZING! Multiple layers of pants/sweatshirts/socks were barely enough to stop our teeth from chattering. This was especially unlucky because part of Semuc Champey’s allure is its cave spelunking—water underground that you can trek through with nothing but one small candle per person. We really wanted to participate but couldn’t commit to standing waist-deep in ice cold water for that long; however, there was plenty more to keep us entertained!

image_5We entered the park and hiked up the El Mirador— which was pretty challenging—but gave us a beautiful birds-eye view of the turquoise pools below. After we descended we ran back to our room to change into bathing suits so we could return and jump into the water, regardless of the outside chill. We splashed around, jumped off rocks, went down natural slides and swam through secret underground spots where there was barely enough space for your head between the water and the land above. Once we got back to camp, Meghan and Kyle were still feeling frisky and decided to jump off the bridge that leads up to the area! I was too scared and too cold, but if you haven’t had a chance yet, check out our video so you can see all the action!.

Flores, Guatemala

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By the time we arrived in Flores we were tired, hungry and otherwise irritable. Upon finding that our first choice hostel was completely booked, we threw in the towel and checked into the next hotel we saw. It was ludicrously overpriced at $20 per night, but we were dripping sweat and desperate to ditch our backpacks. By then it was early afternoon and we decided to take a walk around the town to get a glimpse of our new surroundings and find a place to eat.

image_1Instead of strolling along the lakeshore, where bars and restaurants line the road, we unwittingly lumbered up the hill to the town center where there is very little aside from a church and schoolyard. Kyle and Meghan succumbed to their growling stomachs and became petulant, bickering kids, so I shuffled them into the first eatery I saw in an attempt to keep the peace. This turned out to be quite a mistake, and I suppose I have only myself to blame for the devastating food poisoning that hit me at about 2AM that night and kept me out of commission for the next 24 hours.

When I was finally released from intestinal hell, Megs and Kyle showed me around the adorable island. Our new (and budget-friendly) hotel, the Doña Goya 2, had a rooftop terrace and cozy denim hammocks where we’d curl up and read or take afternoon naps. The actual lake is quite large, and has a petite museum on an islet you can swim or canoe out to. Boutique hotels and curious eateries occupy the wealth of colorful but slightly worn-down buildings and the passing traffic primarily consists of cartoonlike tripod taxis and scooters bearing 3-4 people each.

When we initially arrived in Flores, we weimage_2re informed of a festival taking place, but we had no idea what the locals were celebrating or what the occasion entailed. It took us a good four days to figure out what the heck was going on, and even now we’re not quite sure. We were undeniably entertained by the unpredictable parades that would overtake the streets at capricious hours, once or twice each day. At first they were civil, unruffled throngs of people simply walking together in a slow procession down city streets; however, by the afternoon they’d loop through again, riotously wasted and cross-dressing, which we found confusing and hilarious.

It seemed to us that the majority of the festival revolved around the act of setting off fireworks. For 96 straight hours, the boom of explosives rang through the air, regardless of their invisibility in the light of day and loudly peppering the otherwise silent nights.

On Tuesday we took a 5AM shuttle to Tikal, one of the largest archaeological sites of ancient Mayan civilization. We opted to forego guided tours (and even declined a map) and set off on our own to explore the ruins and discover the diverse species that inhabit the area. We became convincing jungle explorers, rushing ahead of tour groups so they would not have the chance to scare away our prey and coming to random halts in the middle of trails to watch the tops of trees and listen for scurrying creatures. We spoke in hushed whispers for four hours, even when those around us were speaking at normal volumes. To our credit, we turned out to be skilled and successful! We encountered no less than 20 Spider Monkeys, camouflaged crocodiles, skittish rainbow turkeys, baby squirrels and teeny tiny frogs.

image_4Our biggest conquest by far was the Howler Monkey. We could hear them whooping throughout the park, but were forewarned that they were near impossible to actually see. That wasn’t going to stop us. We trekked out along the exit road, following the sound of their vehement barking. We quietly forged off the beaten path and stopped exactly underneath them, at which point they became dead silent. It was like the cops showed up at a college party, and we pictured them putting their beers down, turning off the lights and pressing a finger to their lips encouraging silence until we left the scene. All but one had the routine down pat and managed to sneak into the figurative closets. The three of us stood rooted to the spot, straining up through jungle branches until finally we spotted him! It was a standoff—we just stayed still as statues and stared at each other: Primate vs. Homosapien. At that point there was nothing left to do but walk away with our heads held high. As soon as we walked away the party started up again but we were satisfied..