I love Guatemala.
Admittedly this is only 4 days in, but despite the grim welcome I am really loving it.
I’m trying to work out whether it’s because of the country itself, or because I’ve organised more in advance, and booked into better accommodation, making my travelling experience more enjoyable. I think it’s a combination of the two.
Hotel y Arte was lovely. The reason I didn’t see it at first was because it looks like an art gallery/shop from the street. Only once you walk through you find yourself in a peaceful courtyard, with paintings all around.
It had only been open 3 months, hence the lack of info online. The owner, Carlos, grew up in Nicaragua, then lived in Manchester for a couple of years (we bonded over Manchester) and then moved back to Guatemala and opened the hotel. His aim is to turn each room into a little art gallery, all unique from each other with works by local artists.
I washed off my 18hours of travelling, asked Carlos for a restaurant recommendation and stepped out into the Antigua night.
I had just rounded the first corner towards the Central Park when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was none other than drunk-Stefan from the shuttle bus. He opened with… “I was behind you and I thought ‘oh my gad, zat girl smells so clean!'” 😂
Sadly he had not had the opportunity to shower yet.
We suddenly noticed that we were part of a crowd along the pavement, and suddenly little kids in bright neon T-shirts came steaming around the corner, little feet pounding on the cobbles, it was some sort of night race!! The kids were followed by people on bikes, I think that they was just excited spectators risking their tyres on the cobbles. Then came the adults, hundreds of men and women, all in day-glo tops all powering towards the Central Park.
I wish I’d known about it in advance. I would totally have looked the part in all my ridiculously bright gym stuff. Although I’m not sure that an 18hr bus ride is the best warm up for a race! We grabbed some popcorn from a street seller to tide us over while we watched a bit of the race – I was SO hungry, I was basically pushing small children over to get my popcorn.
Stefan accompanied me to Carlos’ recommendation: Calle Fonde de la Real. Although I saw about 5 places in town with the same name so who knows if I got the right one!
The next morning I got up early and went sightseeing. I had a weird 3D map of the city which was pretty difficult to read without doing the whole Joey from Friends thing and stepping into it! 😊 that would definitely have put the ‘I’m a tourist’ flag up.
Antigua has tonnes of old churches, and the famous yellow arch was so that nuns could cross between buildings without being seen by the outside world. My complete favourite building so far was the ruined Capuchina nunnery. Apparently the nuns used to be passed food through hatches in the walls!
It was being set up for a wedding when I went in and it was absolutely stunning. I love exploring ruined buildings: the hidden passageways and rooms that suddenly appear from what looks like a dead end corridor.
That afternoon I made the journey to Lake Atitlan (estimate = 1.5hrs, actual = 4hrs) where I’d booked into La Iguana Perdida in the lakeside town of Santa Cruz. All the shuttles from Antigua drop you in the main town of Pana and you then hop on a little lancha boat to take you to the final destination.
On the boat I got chatting to a French/American couple about my trip. They asked whether James was going to come to Australia and I explained that he’d just started his MBA this year, they asked where, and it turned out that the man’s son started in the same MBA class this summer. Such a small world to bump into these two people on a tiny boat in the middle of a lake in Guatemala who there was this random coincidence with!
It reminded me of when we used to go on family trips when I was younger and we would be in a totally remote place, like a little cafe on the far side of the Arran islands that we’d cycled all morning to get to, and suddenly someone would pipe up….”Stewart, is that you?” and it would be someone that my dad knew through work at Oxfam.
La Iguana Perdida had been a recommendation from a Guatemalan friend of a colleague. He’d sent such a helpful email with all sorts of things to see and do in Guatemala, and in capital letters was…”I would DEFINITELY RECOMMEND La Iguana Perdida”.
Having stayed there I can see why, it had such a great atmosphere, setting and staff! I booked into one of their ‘luxury’ rooms for the night before and the night of my birthday with the intention of doing absolutely nothing but relaxing. Especially as I knew I’d have a busy week ahead travelling up to Semuk Champay and Tikal before heading back to Guatemala City to fly to California.
My room was gorgeous, it had a GIANT bed that I could sleep on normally or across-ways (yep I tried) 😊 and a big balcony overlooking the lake with colourful chairs and a hammock.
They served three course ‘family style’ dinners each night around a long table. The night I arrived virtually everyone seemed to be hungover from ‘BBQ and fancy dress’ night the evening before so it was a quiet one.
I woke up on the morning of my birthday and was so happy to be in such a beautiful place. I hadn’t realised that the lodge didn’t have wifi and when they told me that at check-in at first I was panicked…”what will I do? I can’t speak to anyone on my birthday!” but actually it turned out to be pretty nice, it meant I just enjoyed the day rather than constantly checking up on who’d wished me happy birthday online 😉 and when I popped to the restaurant next door for a sunset mohito at the end of the day it was so lovely to get birthday wishes.
Throughout the day I felt like I was really happy right there, and if anyone else had been there with me that would have been a massive bonus, but I was still happy as it was. Which was actually such a nice way to feel.
The lodge had a diving school on site, and at dinner the night before I chatted to a couple of people who were doing their PADI course there. I spoke to the diving teacher, Pete, who said that they could arrange for me to do a ‘try diving’ session on my birthday if I wanted.
I was a bit hesitant, mainly because I didn’t think it would necessarily be the best place to try diving for the first time (cold water, poor visibility, no animals to see), and I didn’t want to put myself off doing it again. But when Pete came in from his morning lessons, and I’d already had a few hours of relaxing, I thought why not give it a go! And it’s better to try it before I go signing up for a 4 day course.
I’m really glad I did it! I didn’t love it the whole time, and got a bit panicked a couple of times when I felt like the equipment was in control of me rather than me of it. The last time I went down though I just felt like I was swimming around like normal except a few meters under the surface, and then I got the appeal. So I’ll be trying it again, just in warmer, clearer water!
That evening they brought out my slice of cake first with a candle in and everyone sang happy birthday to me 😊
“Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you,
HAPPY BIIIIRTDAY DEAR…. kate?/kaity?/caitlin?,
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOOOO”
We then had a poker tournament, and I won!! Granted they probably let me because it was my birthday but it has definitely given me dangerous false hope for Vegas at New Years!
I’d managed to source a bottle of prosecco in Antigua so we shared it over poker. It was both the most expensive and the worst prosecco I’ve ever had, but hey it’s the gesture right.
I was really sad to have to leave early the next morning, and I definitely want to go back to the lake one day.
I had booked onto an afternoon hike up Pacaya Volcano so once I got back to Antigua I had about half an hour to find some lunch and to book a flight back from Flores to Guatemala City for my penultimate day in Central America. Luckily every other shop in town is a travel agency or a cafe so I ticked off the errands and got home just in time to get into my snazzy volcano climbing get up.
The Pacaya hike was harder than the Masaya one in Nicaragua, but only 4km up so it was very do-able. At the top we roasted marshmallows in the lava vents (and I did a snickers too because I am greedy) and then we walked down to a beautiful sunset!
After the couple of hours drive home in the dark I was shattered, and had a long sleep ready for another big bus journey up to Semuc Champey the next day…