I thought I'd write a quick(ish...) review of my two week trip to Guatemala, just in case it can give anybody any ideas or help in planning their trip. I know I found it useful reading other people's reviews. With such a short period of time I had to be fairly picky about where I went, but I still managed to squeeze in quite a bit. For reference, we were a guy and two girls in our early thirties, travelling in March 2014.
I flew in to Guatemala City, but had decided to skip it and head straight to Antigua, based on hearing that it is neither the safest nor most appealing of cities. Having spent next to no time there I can't really make my own assessment. As soon as you leave departures there's a man offering a $10 shuttle to your hotel in Antigua. I was waiting a short while as they won't leave until the minibus is full, but within half an hour I was on my way, past the slightly unnerving, heavily armed military truck guarding the airport. It was nice to know they're on top of security, I guess!
I stayed for three nights in El Hostal in Antigua (private room, shared bathroom, $30 pn), meeting friends there who had travelled separately. El Hostal was a basic, but clean and safe place to be based as we explored the very charming city of Antigua. In El Hostal we met Choko, who agreed to accompany us on a chicken bus ride to San Antonio and Santa Clara, small towns near Antigua, to see real Guatemalan life away from the tourist hotspot in Antigua. Particularly eye-opening was the description of the neighbourhood watch scheme whereby residents will defend each other's properties, going as far as 'burning the criminals alive', such is the complete lack of trust in the police to actually serve justice. Maybe he exaggerated or maybe something was lost in translation, but either way, it was a reminder of some of the social problems that still affect this beautiful country. Choko arranged for us to visit a local school and have lunch in the home of a local lady, for a much more friendly, complete experience. If anyone offers you such a chance to meet the locals away from the tourist areas, take it, it's always fascinating. While in Antigua we also climbed Pacaya, a worthwhile trip (although disappointingly misty when I went) which can be organised at pretty much any hostel or agency in town.
El Hostal also organised our shuttle to Panajachel for our visit to Lake Atitlan. The shuttle dropped us right at the dock, where lanchas wait to transport people around the lake. Immediately we were approached by the Lopez travel agency, whose hut is on prime real estate next to the bus stop. Within minutes of arrival in Panajachel we had arranged onward travel and a trip to the market in Chichicastenango. By and large Guatemala was easy in that regard; everything can be readily arranged on the ground! A lancha took us to Casa del Mundo's private dock in Jaibalito. This was a terrific hotel, with stunning views (although that would be true of anywhere on the lake I suppose!) and excellent facilities. We spent three nights here ($30 pn private single room, shared bathroom), exploring other lakeside towns, like San Marcos (yoga and spirituality), San Juan (weaving cooperatives) and San Pedro (backpackers) and of course the market in Chichicastenango, which is a definite must-see in my opinion. Incredibly colourful and bustling, although understandably full of tourists.
We had bought tickets to Flores on the overnight bus as soon as we arrived in Panajachel. This involved a shuttle to Antigua, then switching onto a shuttle to Guatemala City, before finally arriving at the very sketchy bus terminal where we waited for the ADN line to Flores. Be warned, there is nothing to eat here so make sure you have plenty of snacks before you leave Panajachel! We boarded a 'first class' bus, complete with a worrying bullet hole in the windscreen. We had space to stretch out and the seats were comfortable enough, but the driver's insistence on playing annoying Spanish love ballads on full volume all night, coupled with the winding roads and constant heavy braking to avoid oncoming traffic meant a poor night's sleep. The bus arrived in Flores at five in the morning. We had a reservation at Casona de la Isla for the following night, but they allowed us to leave our bags in safety and use their pool during the day, while we waited for our transfer to Tikal, where we would spend the night. We took the time to explore Flores, a very pretty little town, and to take a brief boat tour of the lake. The archaeological museum, on an island visible from Flores, is worth a visit, even if the artefacts are thrown together somewhat, without too much order. We were shown around by a very friendly lady, whose name I shamefully have forgotten...
We spent the night in Tikal at Jaguar Inn (triple room, $90), a basic, but perfectly clean and functional room for the few hours sleep we'd be getting before our sunrise tour. I'd booked an overpriced shuttle from Flores to Tikal with the hotel, for $30, which was convenient, but we could've saved some cash if we'd just looked for a colectivo. If you follow this sort of itinerary be sure to arrive after 4pm, so that the ticket that you must buy to enter the park remains valid for the following day.
I'd reserved a sunrise tour with Jaguar Inn, so we were up at 4am to meet Cesar, our guide. He was clearly a knowledgeable man, and he gave a very good overview of Maya culture, but he didn't really go into too many details about any of the buildings. For that I should've signed up for the day time tour, I guess. A pretty thick mist covered much of the view from Templo 4, so we didn't really see the sunrise, per se, but hearing the sounds of dawn in the jungle, really was a great experience. We stayed on in the park for another couple of hours, to see the park in daylight, before taking a colectivo (of which there are several waiting in the car parks outside the archaeological area) back to Flores. Looking back I regret not staying longer in Tikal; I 'saw' it all, but should've spent more time taking it all in.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool in Casona de la Isla, sharing a triple room ($70 pn, w/bathroom), before heading to Rio Dulce the following day. Again, there are umpteen tour agencies around Flores who can organise onward travel, so very little advance planning is actually required, in transportation terms at least.
Rio Dulce immediately appears a lot less developed for tourism than Antigua, Panajachel or Flores, so we actually had to think for ourselves, albeit only for about five minutes, receiving directions to the dockside Sundog café, who called the Tortugal River Lodge to advise of our arrival. Within minutes a lancha had arrived which took us to the lodge, a delightful place to stay, with wooden rooms set among the trees. Essentially we were staying in a tree house ($55 pn, triple room w/bathroom). We spent the afternoon using their free kayaks and sunbathing on the floating wooden dock next to the hotel, although the latter comes with a safety warning as I cut myself fairly badly on the leg as I tried to climb onto it. The 'wound' looks like a claw mark so I've been telling people I was attacked by a jaguar. No-one actually believes it...
Having heard from a few sources that Livingston is an untidy place not worth the four hour round trip in a day we decided against visiting it on our one full day here. Instead we walked up the path behind the lodge to the main road where we waited a few minutes for a colectivo to pass, heading to El Estor, which could drop us at Finca Paraiso, a hot spring and waterfall. This was definitely worth a visit, an attendant looking after all your belongings while you take a refreshing dip and an exfoliating mud bath, all for the combined price of about 50Q (colectivo return, entry to the finca, tip for the attendant).
The following day, my friends headed back to Antigua for their flight home, while I headed to Copán Ruinas. It's possible to use public transport, but it can apparently take all day, going on a bus to El Florido, the border, then a minivan to Copán, so I opted to take a private shuttle with Otiturs (email@example.com) for $70, which for a four hour journey in a private car, with border crossing assistance, was pretty good value. The speed of my transfer gave me the afternoon to explore the very quaint and tranquil town of Copán Ruinas. I stayed two nights in a private room in Hostel Berakah ($30 p/n w/bathroom), using the full day after to explore the ruins themselves, a mere fifteen minute leisurely walk from the town. While not as expansive and grandiose a site as Tikal, Copán was fascinating in its own way, with many excellently preserved stelae and other sculptures the highlights.
As ever, various agencies around town offer transportation options and I found a shuttle to take me back to Antigua at 6am, meaning I had the whole of that afternoon to relax and enjoy Antigua again. For my last day of the holiday I splurged slightly, eating a superb steak at El Arco Restaurante and staying at Casa lo de Bernal, a very nice hotel, decked out in Spanish colonial style, with a suit of armour in the foyer. A private taxi to the airport the following day for $30 meant the end of my trip.
So, a wonderful stay in a wonderful country. If you're having doubts, don't, just go! It's beautiful, fascinating, easy and, as long as you follow all the usual precautions, it's safe as well. I didn't feel threatened at any stage and only have positive memories!