Guatemala: mixture of stunning nature, indigenous culture and Maya history

Posted on November 15, 2011

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After having debated over which border cross to use between Mexico and Guatemala for a while, Tapachula was the final decision. Going to Belize and then crossing into Guatemala from there, sounded appetizing because of the paradisaical beaches of Belize and the Cancun area, but would have taken much more time. The Yucatan peninsula and Belize are already noted on our wish list to visit in the future.

While looking for a place where we could get a road map of Guatemala, we entered a small travel agency in Tapachula. Leaving Mexico we were going to rely only on paper road maps, we didn’t have nor have now the GPS maps of Central America.

“Why go to Guatemala? Don’t go there, it’s very dangerous! ”.  The lady that talked to us was looking at us as if we were out of our mind when we told her our plans on driving through the border with a foreign car.  She highly discouraged us to go to Guatemala and if we really had to, she recommended instead riding on the bus, which she said was safer because they were escorted.

“Not even Mexicans travel anymore to Guatemala… there is a lot of violence, gangs and people not only carry fire guns but use them as well over there…” she still was insisting on considering the bus option.

These remarks didn’t surprise us too much, we had heard the same about Mexico, and nonetheless, had arrived to the border where we were ending our journey in Mexico without any mishap.

To cross reference the information received, we headed toward the consulate of Guatemala, were we were told we could get the road map.

“It’s safe, just don’t drive at night and you will be fine”, was a bit relieving to here after the previous alarming warnings about safety.

We had the map, now we had to get the paper work done… Canceling the Mexican vehicle permit, paying the taxes of immigration and canceling the tourist cards cost us several trips to the border office, a trip to customs office, which happen to be strategically positioned on the other side of the city, and a couple of long hours.

At around 7 am we were there. It wasn’t easy to get rid of the dodgy characters that wanted to change money or help us with the paperwork, but we finally left Mexico and entered Guatemala.

More chaos. More poverty. Dirtier.

It’s hard to describe the subtle differences between the two countries that are perceivable already at the border.

What was most striking was the huge presence of people carrying guns; it’s a strange feeling to see people carrying fire guns around as if it were entirely normal, especially after hearing about the security problems of the country.

We had made sure to know where we were going to camp the first night in Guatemala. Fuentes Georginas, on the mountain hill rich in agricultural fields, near the town of Zunil, happened to be a perfect place to stop and camp.

The thermal waters, the stunning beauty of the surroundings, our tiredness and lack of sleep all contributed to really appreciate just relaxing while bathing in the hot water that came straight form the mountain. Highly recommended.

Zevita had a hidden enchant. Within the ugliness of the unfinished concrete houses, we found very bright colors in the clothing of the indigenous population and the fruits and vegetables of the market that took place in front of the church.

Market in Zevita

The beautiful scene composed by the mixture of the volcanoes beside the intense blue waters is worth the traveling to see lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America. Adding to its enchant is the surrounding towns along its coast, which preserve their Maya identity.

The presence of other travelers confirm this; we had a chance to talk to a French family traveling through the Americas with an RV, a lady and her daughter from Montreal and a Alberto from Madrid, who was traveling on foot.

View of lake Atitlan

The little town of Chichicastenango, known for its market on Thursdays and Sundays, where indigenous people from other towns gather to sell their handcrafts, vegetables, fruits and other gadgets, was our stopover before getting to Antigua.

The intense colors, the smells, the chaos of this authentic market, made it worth to be there on a Sunday.

 Market in Chichicastenango

Church in Chichicastenango

It’s the only beautiful town in Guatemala, and it’s full of tourists. That was the description of Antigua that we had heard, and it was not far from reality. It had been a long time since we had seen so many foreign tourists together!

We had decided, Tikal was worth the drive, even though it meant crossing the whole country.

It wasn’t easy to plan on where to stay because we had a very vague idea on how many hours of driving it would take. We were relying on what locals told us, not especially very reliable information due to the fact that they didn’t own a car or calculated the time while thinking about bus traveling hours.

It took us a while and some stressful moments to find our way out of Guatemala City, traffic signs are almost nonexistent and locals don’t tend to be very specific while giving directions… but finally we were on our way to Tikal.

Ferry on our way to Tikal

 On board of the ferry

Sunset in Flores Island

Tikal, one of the largest archeological sites of the Maya civilization was worth the drive. We got an intensive class on Mayan culture and architecture while walking through the ruins, a true learning experience!

Harmless tarantula

 Happy family!

Now, after spending a couple of nights in Honduras, we are in El Salvador and heading soon to Nicaragua.

Cheers to all,

Adriana

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