Guatemala Travel Podcast. Conscious Travel in Green Land
It's travel Tuesday and today we are off to Guatemala. Well known as an Unesco world site thanks to the beautiful town of Antigua, Guatemala, known as the land of trees, with over 35 volcanos including 11 active ones is another great destination to visit in central America., I travelled there in a different way, I hired a Responsible Travel tour agent who crafted the whole itinerary for me, they are called Beyond Tourism, you will have to listen until the end to know if I recommend them and maybe get a discount code. This episode is not sponsored, and even if it was, I always give my most honest opinion. I always
plan my trips on my own but sometimes work gets in the way, and we simply don’t find the time, so it is very useful to have a tour guide as long as it is not one of those big tourists’ buses with 50 people in it, that it is something I will definitely never do, no offence. So we started in Guatemala City where our guide and driver for the rest of the trip was waiting for us to take us to our hotel for the night. The city is reputed to be dangerous, but again like everywhere, you will be fine walking during the day in the historical district and not venturing where you shouldn’t. I didn’t feel unsafe at all,
if anything people are more curious than anything malicious, in my personal experience. Good place to start it is the national palace, it is situated right in the centre of the country then they take you to this place that shows you a typography map of all the volcanos in the country, super interesting to understand all the places you are going to visit. And then, of course, it is time for a market visit and eat some food. 60% of the population is Mayan and 22 languages, with Spanish as the main one, are spoken in the country with 25 different dialects, so imagine how diverse the food is. When someone says to me Mayan food, I immediately think about Mexico, and the ingredients were very similar. A bit of a unique street food experience is from these shepherds with their goats standing in the streets who serve milk straight from the goat, and people drink it fresh and warm. That was not for me, firstly I do not drink milk
and definitely not straight from a goat looking at me…but yeah, if that your thing, go for it, it is organic after all, haha. Ok, back to solid food, the place to visit is Mercado Central, not only for the food but also for everything else, clothes, crafts, fruits, vegetables and so on. To eat they have corn tortillas, chicharron, all sort of tacos and tostadas, Pepian (a Guatemalan stew), guacamole, coffee and chocolate (the best in central America actually). So what are the top things to see and do in Guatemala? In one sentence, the top 3 are Lake Atitlan, Antigua and Tikal with little gems in between. Spoiler, I did not go to Tikal ruins but opted for the
other little gem instead. Now let’s dive deeper. Firstly, you can explore most of the sites in the space of 8/10 days, but I wish I stayed longer, so if you have 2 weeks, you should make the most of it, especially because it takes a while to get around due to the windy mountain roads. And the best time to travel is November to April, I was there around Xmas time for about 8 full days. Number 1: Lake Atitlan After exploring Guatemala City for an afternoon, our guide took us for a 3h drive the next morning down to the city of Panajachel which is one of the main hubs to start your lake adventures. It is the central point for most people
to get on boats and travel to the many villages surrounding the lake. You can logistically drive, but it is quicker and apparently safer to cross by boat and it gives the best views. From there we took a scenic boat ride across Lake Atitlan (about 30min) to the village of San Juan La Laguna where we women’s cooperative that make textiles and source the cotton fabric locally and dies it with natural product such as clay and plants, products are of very nice quality. It
is also a village full of artists and you can visit the studios / homes of local painters. After that we went to the village of Santiago where we visited Maximon, a Mayan God that smokes and drinks and learn about the spiritualism and beliefs of the T’zutujil Maya. The visit consists into going into a suspicious alleyway at the back of the village, and there is shrine where you can provide offerings, the shrine is protected by guardians who makes sure everything is protected and respected around the tradition, the statue is taken out during semana santa for a folkloric ceremony. San Marco is very cool, hippie village. If you are looking to find your spiritual self,
that is probably the place haha. They organise meditation retreats, yoga retreats, Temezcal ceremonies (Mayan cleansing under a sweaty hut, like a steam room but inside a rock, very intense experience but I do recommend it, done it in Mexico, you feel so great afterwards and chanting from the shaman is so beautiful) , all food is vegan, a lot of shamans fake or real… anyway, I did like it, it was interesting, if you are into this kind of things. Of course, you can imagine, it is very…international… I would say, so not the place to immerse in the culture. I mean, spirituality is my thing, but I don’t like extremes, I like a bit of a balance, especially in a new country so I would spend a few days there maybe for a yoga retreat for example and then take all the steam off in San Pedro La Laguna. Just joking here of course, but that village is known to be party central; it is where all the hostels, many bars and most restaurants are.
Actually, I didn’t go there myself, but if you want to be active and looking to hike a volcano, San Pedro la Laguna is the place to be. I just had my dose of volcanoes in Nicaragua and didn’t feel like climbing another one. However, I am off to Indonesia soon, so this type of things will be back on the list, your girl got to get that epic sunrise picture.
Number 2: Semuc Champey and Tikal The second thing that Guatemala is famous for is Tikal National Park, I didn’t really have time for this, but I do recommend it. It is a spectacular Mayan Ruins with temple scattered around the jungle, it is an unesco world heritage site, you can even encounter jaguars sometimes and the setting surrounding it sounds out of this world. However, on the road to Tikal, there is a little gem called Semuc Champey, which are natural pools in the Lanquin region. This is a 6-7h drive from Atitlan, so we stayed about 3 days there exploring the area. First of all, It is the chocolate producing area of the country, so you should definitely book a tour to get some education on cacao beans or just enjoy all the chocolate by booking a specialised cooking class, the recommended place for that is at the Utopia Eco Lodge. Then get up early the next morning for a drive up the rocky mountain roads, for a little hike, observe natural pools of turquoise water from the highest viewpoint and then jump into the mini waterfalls, not from the viewpoint… obviously…you will have to hike back down for that.
So let me describe this: you will have to walk down super steep stairs and you will get to the base of the river but the unique thing about this place, the translation of Semuc Champey, means river that flows beneath the earth. And the water that is on the surface comes from a hole in the mountain that form these pools who then flow into this massive river flowing underneath, I hope it is not too confusing, but pictures are on my website. It’s truly incredible and beautiful landscape, would make a really cool shot to fly a drone there. And these pools of water are of a stunning shade of light green and dark blue sapphire, especially when the sun is out helping to reveal the deep colour and you also have little fishes that come to eat those dead skin under your feet, no need to go to those fish tank where everyone else put their feet in, especially in the current climate… It was a fun day out for sure.
There is also a tour in a dark cave that you can do holding a candle that doesn’t look like it would be lasting until the end of the activity, but I was not interested since a very traumatic canyoning trip back when I was living in Mexico, more on that very soon. Number 3: Antigua After all that adrenaline, it was time for a good night sleep and leave the next morning to the other famous spot to visit, beautiful, colourful Antigua. It used to be the capital pretty much the whole of central America. There is a very rich history linked to the Spanish inquisition that was in place there
as well as several colonial churches which have now been turned into stunning hotels. For example, our hotel was located in an old Covent with a stunning garden, and each room had its unique style. I think this is one of my favourite cities in the world, I know I say that a lot, but Antigua is a mix of colourful houses with these amazing wooden crafted doors, with beautiful cobble streets and a surprise at every corners. I just loved how you had all the mystery doors that would lead to some hidden houses, hotels, bars or restaurant courtyards with live music and super delicious food. What I did for dinner was just getting lost in the city at night following live music, looking at a restaurant menu that would look attractive and then discovering a couple of speakeasy bars. There is a wine bar hidden under an arch that I really liked it was called Tabacos y Vinos and also remember great cocktails Café No Se, if you like Mezcal, this is the place to be and it stays open late into the early hours… Even walking through the touristic sites such as churches, cemeteries, colonial houses is a beautiful experience with so many opportunities to take pictures, amongst those I recommend a visit to the Mayan Jade Museum. The green
colour of jade is the symbol of Guatemala and the stone used to be a mean of exchange in the past along with the currency, Quetzal. The museum takes you through the whole history and you still have workers inside cutting stones, it also has a beautiful garden to relax over a drink. How do they made the tour sustainable and if I recommend them? The elements that made this tour sustainable is that firstly it is relatively affordable, I cannot quote a price here because it depends on how long you want to stay and also the level of luxury you request. The owners have visited the countries themselves, so they are experts and are in contact with local agencies that will send local guides and drivers which makes for the best conversations and tales. For accommodation, we stayed at Eco lodges and
local owned family B&B that employ people from the area and source their food from the vicinity or literally their back gardens. For example, in the hotel we stayed at in Lake Atitlan they grow their own coffee at the back of the property and a diversity of fruits and vegetables, so you can a proper farm to table breakfast when you wake up. The tour takes you to try the food in markets to eat the same things as the locals. For example, we also stopped by a local market on our way to Atitlan, a couple hours outside of town, they sell local crafts, clothes, natural products such as face mask made of clay coming from the local volcanos, anti-muscle pain creams made of local plants. And you will pay the normal price, no need to bargain, you have to be in the known because it’s only open twice a week.
And of course, tours of clothes making factories that uses natural product to die the fabric shows the interest in sustainability. Also, the fact that we are taken to see the spiritualism to understand the country and different tradition is a good way to let us immerse into the culture and understand boundaries. Yes, I completely recommend using The Beyond Tourism Company. All the transfers and tours were private, accommodations were of exceptional choice and the communication with Simon, one of the founders was outstanding. You could ask any questions and he would kindly respond, even before I had fully paid and confirmed the trip, he was always there to respond to any questions and not putting any sales pressures at all. He was even suggesting and capable to arrange a transfer from the San Cristobal, a border town in Mexico, where I was planning to be at the time. But I
ended up arranging my own flights from Mexico City due to changes in my plans and itinerary. Even when you are in location you are given a local contact if there are any issues, in any case you can also ask your very knowledgeable assigned guide or driver. I am planning a trip to Ecuador soon and this is who I will be going with. So, if you are interested in exploring further what Beyond Tourism has to offer, I have linked their website in the description and don’t forget to fill in the form so I cand send you the code to get a discount on your first booking, no need to be based in the UK. Feel free to fill in the form with any other questions you may have.
Now some practical tips: Money: Guatemala is relatively cheap compared to the rest of central America, especially Costa Rica. They use Quetzales, a currency represented by a bird. They take USD but probably better to have the local currency, as I mentioned in the Peru episode, things will be cheaper if you have cash. Use a card that allows to take cash
abroad such as Revolut and always use ATMs inside big bank branches, don’t use random ATMs on the street. The good thing about Revolut is that you can load the money you need, take the cash out and then freeze the card until you need it again. As a result, nobody can copy your card number and try to pay for things online with it, this feature has saved me money many times during my travels. Getting around: fly into Guatemala City is the only airport and then you can take a shuttle or hire a driver or even uber to take you around the country but it takes a long time to drive because the roads are windy and can give you motion sickness on top of the altitude sickness. That was definitely a great advantage of having an experienced driver through the trip
as he was a local guy who knew the roads very well and he had a well-maintained car. Lucky for me too, because on top of the altitude sickness, I had a stomach bug, surely caused by one of my adventurous trip into a local dive bar… let’s just say I couldn’t wait to get out of that car. I have heard of people renting cars, the roads are fine, just a lot of speed bumps here and then. If you want to do that, you will need an international driver
permit and car rental insurance. Don’t waste your money on the insurance that they try to sell you at the counter of the car rental company, you can get this type insurance here in the UK for like £90 a year. There are many other ways you can get rental car insurance as part of your travel insurance, but this will take a whole podcast to explain. Drop me an email if you are interested and I will send the guide. Safety: as I said earlier, it felt safe, you must be cautious like in any other big cities in Europe or the States. The advice stands the same for all Latin America, do not get involved in drugs, prostitutions or any other trafficking and you will have a peaceful trip. What to pack: the weather is Spring like in the middle of the country, but it was a bit cold at night in the highlands. So, I will for sure take the usual hiking boots,
combo trousers, my favourite Patagonia jacket, sun cream, sunglasses, hat and obviously the camera. For the rest, you can find most thing locally, if you get cold, you can get a poncho, a scarf etc at the market and it makes a great souvenir to bring back. Well, that’s it, I hope you get the chance to visit that amazing country but if not, forward this podcast to your friends, I am sure there is someone who will want to go. But leave a review telling me where you want to go so we can start a dialogue.
In the next episode, we are going to Mexico with very interesting guests, so press follow and here is a quote from Dolores Cannon to keep motivated until then. Don’t be afraid of shining a light. Don’t be afraid of being powerful. Don’t be afraid of being more special. There are no limitations, unless you create them yourselves. Anything is possible.
You are only limited by your own imagination.