After an incredible month in Antigua studying Spanish, climbing Volcanoes, and running up mountains, it was time for me to say goodbye and make my way to the next stop, Lake Atitlan. A beautiful lake surrounded by yet more Volcanoes – Volcan Atitlan, Toliman, and San Pedro to be precise – and an area with a very rich cultural and geological history, I planned to spend 5 nights there to see as much as possible.
The bus from Antigua dropped me off at the port closest to Panajachel, a rather chaotic looking town which I hoped wouldn’t be a reflection on what the other villages around the Lake were like. As soon as I got off the bus I was approached by 3 or 4 locals trying to sell me various tours and boat rides around the lake, this can be a very frustrating part of travel in this part of the world and you always need to have your guard up, these people were innocent enough but very pushy as they were trying to up-sell tours or boat rides – I done my best to avoid them and made my way to the main dock. Once I was there there were plenty of boats and companies to choose from and it’s funny how the price always seems to plummet when you have the freedom to choose yourself. After bartering a much cheaper rate than I was quoted earlier, I made my way across to Santa Cruz La Laguna where I would be staying for 3 nights at the hostel La Iguana Perdida.
Santa Cruz La Laguna
La Iguana Perdida was just what I needed, having left behind a good group of friends in Antigua, a hostel with a chill atmosphere and scenic views across the lake, the only downside being that it is a bit isolated and they have very limited internet connectivity there, but then that’s the charm of Lake Atitlan – most of it is inaccessible by car and the lack of wifi means that it’s the perfect spot to disconnect from the world, grab a book, and just unwind.
Although the hostel is fairly isolated, there are still a number of activities available, such as SCUBA diving, kayaking, and hiking to name a few. I decided against SCUBA diving as I was planning on taking my open water course in Honduras in the coming weeks, I did however manage a hike up into the hills, which was a great way to see some of the smaller villages up close and there were some awesome vantage points where I managed to get a good view of the far side of the lake from above – I later found out that hiking on your own in this area can be dangerous as there have been a fair few reports of solo travellers being mugged!
I also took a Kayak out for an afternoon, a fun way to see some of the villages further along the coast. Once I was out on the Lake I really began to appreciate just how beautiful this area is and also amazed by the Mayan people living such an isolated existence for so many centuries.
San Pedro La Laguna
From Santa Cruz I caught a boat across the lake to another village called San Pedro, a part of the lake which has become very popular with backpackers wanting to party. I always like a balance so I picked a hostel called Mr Mullets, they had a decent bar but it was also very laid back during the day.
The first night I spent partying with people from the hostel, where I entered a pool tournament which supplied us with unlimited shots of tequila and then after that we made our way to the number party hostel on Lake Atitlan – hostel Fe, where they had a “bad taste” night, which basically involved dressing up in items of clothing which had been left behind by other backpackers over the years – I managed to score myself a flowery Hawaiian shirt at least two sizes too small. The following morning, well afternoon by the time i woke up, I wandered around town and decided to take another kayak out onto the lake, I had heard about a hotel which had been completely submerged underwater due to the rising water levels of the lake, so I had to check it out! The images in my head were quite different from the reality, but it was still fun taking a kayak through an old hotel.
The following morning, I had arranged a hike up the mountain nicknamed the Indian’s nose – named because of the shape of the peaks which look like a face lying horizontally, with the nose being the highest point. The tour I had signed up for left in the early hours of the morning before sunrise so I had to meet my guide in the centre of town around 3 am and as I was the only person doing the tour they hadn’t arranged a private bus to take us, this meant we had to take a chicken bus instead. This bus took forever as it meandered around all of the villages stopping every few hundred metres to drop and pick people up, but when we finally made it to the base of the mountain I was even more excited to begin the climb.
The climb to the top only took 45 mins and when we arrived at the summit we had timed it perfectly with the sunrise – the stunning reflections of the sun on the lake, low-lying cloud, and vibrant greens from the surrounding mountains made it a breath-taking sight, I just stood there in silence trying to take it all in.
The bus ride leaving Lake Atitlan heading back towards Antigua wasn’t the smoothest ride I’ve ever taken and coupled with some dodgy street tacos I’d had the night before, I wasn’t in the best place either, so for 4 hours on this bumpy bus ride I was soley focussed on keeping down my food from the night before. Anyway, I eventually made it back to Antigua in one piece where I would be staying the night before taking yet another bus journey towards Semuc Champey the next day – another 8 hours of windy mountain roads in a collectivo! (a small minibus) – I could hardly wait.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect with Semuc Champey, I had been told to go there by a number of travellers I had met in Antigua and as far back as Belize, so it came highly recommended, but I still didn’t really know what it was. Along with a friend I had made at the hostel we decided to avoid the daily tour, which leaves from the hostel every morning, and go it alone by walking into town and hitching a ride in a 4×4 – the downside to doing this is that you have to walk into town and find a ride, but the plus side is that it’s much cheaper to do it this way and it gives you the freedom to stay as long as you want. We jumped aboard a 4×4, negotiated a price, and made our way up the entrance which was a 30-40 minute off-road drive from the town of Lanquin.
Our 4×4 dropped us off at the entrance to the park and in our broken Spanish we agreed on a price for a return journey as well and our driver agreed to wait for us. Walking into the park we were greeted by a tour guide, who was offering a good price to take us on a tour of the area, so we decided to take him up on his offer and followed him in to the jungle. We started with a climb to a lookout which offered the best views of the mountains and turquoise coloured pools which make Semuc Champey so unique and from here you could really begin to appreciate this natural wonder – the whole area is like nothing I’ve seen before and as it’s not on most people’s radar, for travelling in Guatemala, so therefore it is still fairly untouched by tourism. After checking out the view from above, our guide took us back down through the jungle towards the pools, where we were allowed to swim. The water was lukewarm and the whole area was just as stunning up close – we followed our guide from pool to pool, carefully stepping across slippery algae-covered rock and sliding down mini waterfalls between each section. On the way back up we were lead into an underwater cave which was accessed by swimming straight down underwater and surfacing the other side in the dark, this area was not for the claustrophobic with just enough room to breathe, we then had to dive straight down again to swim out of the other side.
Once we had finished exploring Semuc Champey, we made our way back to the entrance where our driver was waiting for us, only now he had decided to raise the price of the return journey as he didn’t have a full car. This was all very confusing and definitely something that you should be careful of when travelling in Central America – the locals will always try and get more money out of you if they spot an opportunity! The driver of the 4×4 wouldn’t budge, so we decided to take our business elsewhere and managed to find another 4×4 full of tourists heading back towards town, this time we managed to agree a sensible price, but had to stand in the back of the 4×4 instead.
The area around Lanquin also has some great spots to go tubing and cave exploring and as we had relative success with saving money on the excursion to Semuc Champey, we decided to walk back into town to find a local who would take us on a private tour. By now there were four of us, so we had a bit more bargaining power when it came to booking a tour.
We found a local kid in town, who had a tuk-tuk and four inflatable rubber rings, so we decided to book with him. First off, he took us to a giant cave which we walked around for about 40 minutes, our guide – another random kid who appeared out of nowhere – attempted to tell us a few stories about the rock formations and how the shapes formed animals such as frogs or eagles, but this was very much a gimmick to give the tour a bit more substance, it was fun exploring the cave so this wasn’t really necessary.
Upon exiting the cave we were lead down to the river where our rubber rings awaited us, we jumped in and began to float at a relaxing pace downstream and ended up a few miles further down. All-in-all it was another fun afternoon and booking the tour with locals, instead of paying the heavy commission taken by the hostel, worked out well for us and we had a much more intimate experience as a result.
My last stop in Guatemala was the bustling town of Livingston on the Rio Dulce (sweet river), I hadn’t done any research before hand as to where I would be staying so as always when I got off the bus, I was approached by a number of locals trying to sell me a boat journey or offering onward transportation to a nearby hostel. This time I had to take them up on their offer and ended up finding a quiet place along the river, which could only be accessed by boat.
The hostel was nice but very isolated, so I decided to take the opportunity to relax, and in 2 nights of staying there, I only left the hostel once to see a nearby Spanish fortress called El Castillo De San Felipe.
The fortress was in great condition as it was recently renovated by the Guatemalan government in an effort to attract more tourists. The location is very picturesque and it was well worth spending a few hours there to explore the site. The history of the fort is fascinating as it was originally built by the Spanish Colonialists in an effort to stop pirates raiding nearby towns and villages.
My time in Guatemala had come to an end, 6 weeks had flown by in this incredible country, I now had a basic level of Spanish to help me on the rest of my journey and I had discovered why so many people love this part of the world. I would now be making my way towards Honduras next, to see the Mayan Ruins of Copan and take a diving course on the island of Utila.
Until next time.
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