Guatemala is a country with a violent, tragic history, both during the Spanish conquest in the 1500’s and more recently in a civil war that lasted from 1960-1996. Despite it’s brutal past and the fact that many people still live in poverty today, Guatemala is a beautiful country to visit with wonderful, friendly people.
After crossing the border from Mexico into Guatemala, we drove through the highland mountains to Lago Atitlan, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. The lake is enormous and is rimmed by three volcanoes, one of which is still active. We camped on the lake just outside of Panajachel, the main tourist town, but unfortunately it was cloudy so we were not able to see the volcanoes that make the lake so picturesque. Actually, during our entire visit, Guatemala was enveloped in a low, grey blanket of clouds, hiding the country’s magnificent volcanic landscape from our view.
We made our way to Antigua, the old capital city of Guatemala. The capital was moved to Guatemala City after a series of earthquakes shook Antigua, the effects of which can be seen in crumbled colonial churches throughout the city. A handful of the old churches have been beautifully restored or rebuilt.
The grounds of the tourist police in Antigua kindly allow free camping and although not the most picturesque campground, it’s safe, central location and the fact that we could stay for nothing made it well worth it . From our home base in what looked like the rubble of a bombed stone building, we explored the city’s streets and contemplated taking cheap Spanish lessons which Antigua is famous for. Spanish lessons didn’t happen but we are hoping to find a nice coastal location where we can surf and learn Spanish at the same time.
From Antigua we drove north to visit the famed emerald green pools of Semuc Champey. The pools lie deep in a dense jungle canyon that required traversing a rocky, dirt road with extreme uphill climbs and steep drops. While most people leave their vehicles in town and take a 4×4 shuttle into the canyon, we decided to drive the van. Bouncing over rocks and bucking up the steepest hills it has ever seen, the van valiantly earned the name “The Golden Stallion”. After about an hour of being pushed to its limits, the Golden Stallion couldn’t go any farther. We found ourselves stuck on a little dirt road in the middle of a jungle canyon with nothing around and dusk quickly approaching. After trying to start the van back up to no avail, Aron demoted the van’s name to “The Golden Pony”. Luckily, after resting for an hour, the van was able to gather enough strength to give one final push to our destination. We only hoped that the Golden Pony would be able to get us back up out of the remote jungle canyon and prayed that it wouldn’t rain which would make the road impassable and strand us for an indefinite amount of time.
We camped under chocolate trees (dreams do come true!) at Hostal el Portal where we met lots of other travelers and took a tour of the area in which we did every imaginable activity in one day. We hiked up to the mirador (view point), swam in every emerald pool, visited waterfalls, climbed through underground caves, and went tubing on the river.
Semuc Champey has been declared a natural monument due to it’s extraordinary natural beauty and uniqueness. The Cahabon river enters the ground, passing under a natural limestone bridge and forming a series of clear pools above before it exits the ground as a waterfall. The photos below show where the river enters the ground as well as a view of the pools from the mirador.
After the van miraculously got us out of the remote jungle, we made the trek north to “El Peten”, the flat, hot, steamy jungle region of Guatemala. Unfortunately, the Peten region of Guatemala is experiencing rapid deforestation due to families trying to make a living off of the land. Using the “slash and burn” technique, farmers cut down the forest, burn it, and grow crops on the land until the nutrients are depleted within a few years, after which they move on to a new plot of forest and do it all over again. Deforested land is also used for cattle grazing to meet the demand for cheap burgers in the US and other countries. Below is a drive by photo of a newly deforested land, now a tree graveyard burned to cinders.
The temperatures in the lowland jungle of Guatemala were extremely hot and muggy, making it nearly impossible to camp in the van without killing each other. We stopped in Flores, a little island town on Lago Peten Itza, for two nights of luxury in a hotel with air conditioning. Taking a vacation from our travels, we sipped ice cold jamaica and agua de sandia as we walked around the island and indulged in a fancy dinner of white fish (a type of local perch) that is only found in Lago Peten Itza.
After dragging ourselves out of our nice air conditioned hotel room, we drove an hour north through the jungle to Tikal, the largest and most extravagant excavated Mayan ruins to date.
Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the national park it is in hosts a variety of wildlife. As we camped in the park just outside the entrance to the ruins, we were awoken in the middle of the night by an immensely loud noise that sounded like screaming aliens. We had been told about the eerie sound of howler monkeys but not in our wildest imagination could we have anticipated what we heard. Here is a sound clip Aron recorded so you can see what I mean:
The ruins of Tikal were spectacular. We paid a little extra to enter the park before it opened and were escorted through the pitch black jungle night by a shotgun wielding guard. As we watched the dawn approach from the top of the tallest temple, the jungle came alive with the sounds of its inhabitants. We had the park to ourselves as we walked around and explored the ancient Mayan city in the misty jungle morning. As we wandered we saw spider and howler monkeys, black scorpions, coatamundis, toucans, parrots, and other colorful birds.
Apparently, there are ruins even bigger than Tikal in the remote Guatemalan jungle to the north. El Mirador has been hidden in the jungle for centuries and has not yet been excavated. It’s main temple, La Danta, is said to be even bigger than the pyramids of Egypt. To get there requires a six day trek through the wild, steaming jungle with a guide. Perhaps one day we’ll return for another adventure when it’s not the hottest month of the year.
After nearly a month away from the beach, we happily made our way south to the coast of El Salvador.