From Belize we made our way West towards the Guatemalan island town of Flores, which would be our base for a few days whilst we explored the area and visited the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal.
Flores and Tikal
Once we had arrived on the Island of Flores we searched around the windy streets for our hostel, a few people had suggested a place called Los Amigos and it turned out to be a great recommendation, the staff were friendly and efficient and the whole atmosphere was completely chill. We booked a trip to Tikal through the Hostel’s travel agent, this isn’t always the most cost-effective method, but it was hassle free and they were very knowledgable and helpful – the bus would pick us up from the street outside the following evening so in the mean time we decided to walk around the Flores and see what it had to offer.
Flores is a small town built on an island in the middle of Lake Peten Itza, it is connected to the mainland by a causeway, the buildings have a colonial look, the streets are cobbled and the main form of transport is the trusty tuk-tuk, which carry tourists back and forth between the town of Santa Elena and the island – it’s a very unique place unlike anywhere I’ve stayed before and I’m pleased I paid a visit. However, after completing a loop of the island and walking through a few of the quiet streets, there wasn’t much more to see, Flores is the perfect base for a visit to Tikal, but I wouldn’t recommend spending any more then a few days there.
The bus for Tikal left Flores in the early afternoon, we decided to sign up for the sunset tour rather than sunrise as I’d heard they were equally as good, and I’m always in favour of avoiding an early start if I can. Once we arrived at Tikal our tour began and we were guided into the jungle with an armed guard, I wasn’t sure if this was reassuring or terrifying, but anyway off we went to explore the incredible Mayan ruins. What makes Tikal so amazing is the sheer scale of the site and the size of the pyramids which rise above the tallest trees in the jungle. Tikal is a definite must visit for anyone travelling in Guatemala, it’s a bit isolated from the south of the country, which is the most popular part of the backpacker trail, but the ruins are some of the best I’ve seen in this part of the world.
After staying an additional night in Flores beyond what I had originally planned, I took the overnight bus south towards Antigua, I had to change busses in Guatemala City and if it wasn’t for a friendly Brazilian lady who could see I was lost, I would have missed my connection – the bus station was chaotic and not knowing any Spanish at the time made things very difficult. I arrived in Antigua at the crack of dawn, the streets were deserted but I instantly fell in love with the character and charm of the place as I walked from the main square to The Three Monkeys Hostel – my home for the next few days. As I was so early my dorm room bed wasn’t available, so I decided to explore a bit more of the town. My first stop was the Cerro De La Cruz (The cross on the hill) to get a good view of the town from above, it took around 15minutes to climb the steps leading up to the viewpoint, but wow, what a view! Looking directly opposite across the town, you see the looming presence of Volcan De Agua, at 3,760 metres it is the main focal point wherever you walk in Antigua and Cerro De La Cruz is one of the best places to witness just how epic in scale it is in comparison to everything else.
Whilst in Antigua I had heard about a two day hike which takes you to the top of Volcan De Acatenango, everyone I met raved about it, and to be honest, the thought of climbing a volcano sounded very exciting, so I signed up for the hike on my third day in town. Along with a group of people from random hostels across town, we made our way to the trail head. With a full backpack, crammed with 5 litres of water, food for two days, plenty of layers of clothing, sleeping bags, and tents, we began the ascent. As we climbed the first few hundred metres we were greeted by other tourists making their way back down, having already hiked to the top and stayed overnight they looked tired, myself and other people in the group couldn’t help asking them questions such as “what was the view like at the top?” and the more important ” how was the hike up?” – with which they replied “incredible!” and a rather ominous sounding “Good Luck!”.
The hike up was tough, in fact it was so tough that within the first hour, a number of people in our group nearly decided to turn around and hike back down with a group on the descent. After that though we all managed to get into a kind of rhythm and it actually became much easier. The total climb from the bottom to the camping area took around 7 hours, the hike was steep, but it was manageable and the trail was well maintained for the vast majority of the way.
Once we arrived at the camping area, we quickly put up our tents and a few of us went on the search for firewood. At the base of the Volcano I was sweating in the extreme heat and humidity, but by the time we arrived at the top temperatures had plummeted to around freezing, so a camp fire and hot chocolate was exactly what we needed. Not long after sunset, at around 7pm, the group began to make their way back to their tents for an early night, it had been a long day and we would be waking up around 3:30am the following morning to complete the hike to the summit of Acatenango, which would take at least another hour. Just before drifting off though a few of us stayed up to watch the nearby Volcan Fuego erupt, it’s a fairly regular occurrence, but hearing the rumbles and watching smoke and lava spew from the top, under a starlit night sky is a memory that will last a lifetime – it was an awesome experience.
At 3:30am the next morning, I woke to a very unwelcome alarm, although I had wrapped myself up in 4 layers of clothing, a hat, scarf, gloves, and a sleeping bag, I still felt the cold and my sleep could have been much better, but I was very excited about completing the rest of the climb so none of this mattered. The final hour of the climb started in complete darkness, with only our head-torches to guide us, it was a strange disorientating experience not really knowing what was ahead, but we had no choice but to trust our guides. We were warned before we set off that morning, that we might not get to see much as there was a fair amount of cloud cover around and this turned out to be the case, as we sat at the summit waiting for the sun to rise it quickly became apparent that we would see nothing from the top other than a blanket of white cloud. It was a shame, as I had heard stories about stunning sunrises as you look across to Volcan Fuego and down into Antigua, but at least we had avoided the rain and spirits were high anyway from reaching the summit. As we made our way back down the clouds began to clear, we had missed sunrise, but the views were still amazing.
The 4 hour climb back down was the worst part for me, I had been fine negotiating the steep incline with my heavy backpack on the way up, but coming down was a different story as my legs ached and my knees threatened to give way on a number of occasions. When we finally made it to our transport at the bottom of the hill – wishing people good luck as we past them coming down – I was relieved to have finished in one piece, later that night I would have the deepest sleep for a long long time.
Learning Spanish in Antigua
One of my goals for this trip was that I would try to learn Spanish and after doing some research I discovered that Antigua had a number of schools where you could receive one-on-one tuition for an excellent price, so I intended to take full advantage of this during my stay. Two of the guys I had met on the Acatenango hike had recommended a school called the Antiguena Spanish Academy and after visiting their office in town, I decided to sign up for a week of lessons, which also included a homestay with a local family, breakfast, lunch, and dinner all for under $200 – an absolute bargain!
On my first night at the homestay I was introduced to the family, the other students who would also be staying with us, and our wonderful hostess Anna-Maria who would be cooking for us and encouraging us to speak Spanish at all times. Later on during dinner Anna-Maria went around the table asking each of us questions in Spanish, a few of the students already had a basic understanding so the conversation was flowing fairly well, however my knowledge was limited to a few words I had learnt on DuoLingo, so when Anna-Maria stopped at me and asked Cuantos anos tienes, Andres? (how old are you, Andrew?) I replied with a blank look and simply said errr “sorry Anna-Maria, I have no idea what you are saying”…. this will be an interesting week or so if I can’t speak to anyone in the house.
Day one at the academy was a 4 hour intensive introduction into speaking Spanish with my tutor Carlos, we started with the basics; numbers, days of the week, months, simple greetings etc before moving onto verbs and then trying to form and understand basic phrases. I wasn’t exactly a natural, but enjoyed being back at school learning again. As the week progressed so did my Spanish and by Friday I had racked up 20 hours of lessons and decided to extend my stay at Casa De Anna-Maria by another week.
Learning a new language can be very rewarding and Antigua is the perfect place to study, you can safely walk around town and enjoy the stunning buildings and architecture, the locals are friendly and aware that many tourists are in town solely to learn Spanish, so are often very patient with you whilst you struggle through asking basic questions in the shops and restaurants. I ended up enjoying my stay so much, I booked a third week, we had an awesome group at the homestay and no one wanted to leave. I met people in Antigua who were supposed to be there for 2 weeks to learn a bit of Spanish before travelling through Latin America, but had decided to stop in Antigua for 3-4 months instead, it is a very comfortable place and a bit of a trap for anyone who is backpacking in the area, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as learning fluent Spanish can be a great skill to have.
By the end of my time in Antigua I had clocked up a total of 60 hours of lessons, a great foundation which would no doubt come in very handy en route south from Guatemala, but I was still by no means fluent – learning a new language takes a long time and practicing every day is essential – but nevertheless I was proud of what I had achieved.
Running a 9k Mountain Race
During my time at the homestay we became very close as a group and we often went out for drinks and food around town, we would also meet in cafes to do our homework together, this was something I hadn’t expected and forming a close group of friends whilst studying together was one of the highlights of my trip up to this point. Along with 3 of the other housemates, Darren, Callie, and Thomas, we signed up for a North Face event called the Coffee X-trail – a 9k run up a mountain! I’m not sure I fully appreciated just how difficult that would be until the day of the event, but after my Spanish lessons each day I got into a routine of going to the gym, mainly to see if I could still run and also to catch up on all that lack of exercise (volcano hikes aside) over the past few months. It turns out I could still run and was surprisingly in fairly good shape, so on the days leading up to the race I was confident I could clock a fairly decent time.
It wasn’t until the morning of the race however, that we realised just how much of an incline there would be over the 9k’s, but at that point is was too late to back out, and if anything the worst case scenario would mean we would have to walk the distance and finish last.
Luckily I found the race much easier than I expected, after catching a second wind on the way up, I managed to overtake a lot of people, the run down could have ended disastrously if I slipped or fell but I decided to go flat out and sprint towards the finish line. Somehow I had managed to finish 17th out of around 250 overall, with a time of just over an hour – not bad given my lack of training and the unexpected climb of 500 metres. It’s something I would love to go back and try again.
Having already completed the two day climb of Volcan De Acatenango, I decided to follow up with a slightly easier excursion to the top of Volcan Pacaya, another highly active volcano close to Antigua. This time things were a little less strenuous – although drinking a few too many beers the night before definitely didn’t help – a bus drove us almost to the top of the Volcano and we would only need to walk for around 1hr 30mins before reaching the summit. This is to take nothing away from the trip though and in my opinion it is well worth visiting both Volcanoes, Pacaya might not be as challenging as Acatenango but it is stunning still the same and the terrain and views from the top are very different.
Volcan Pacaya is still highly active with lava constantly flowing and the tour guides do not shy away when allowing you to get within touching distance of the hot-stuff. In fact one of the highlights of the trip is that you can cook marshmallows at the top!
Continuing my travels through Guatemala, I make my way west towards Lake Atitlan to experience kayaking through a hotel and enjoying the quiet and solitude of the Guatemalan countryside.
If you have any questions about Guatemala or any of the places I have visited then pleased leave a comment.
For more pictures check out my Instagram @intrepidjournals