Guatemala: Lake Atitlan & Antigua

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We loved our time in Guatemala – especially in Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Waking up every morning (in either location) with views of volcanoes was incredible, the colourful houses of Antigua had me stopping every few minutes to take pictures and the laid-back vibe of San Pedro forced us into relaxation (it wasn’t hard ;)). Below are a few of our highlights along with some tips for travelling to these locations.

Antigua

Getting there and Away

We were coming from Tikal, and to avoid a long bus ride we opted to fly from Flores to Guatemala City. From Tikal, there are heaps of collectivos heading to Flores – we took the 3pm service (which I believe is the last one of the day) for 50GTQ pp ($9 AU). Just make sure you tell the driver you are going to the airport, so he doesn’t blow past it and head straight for Flores. Though we’d mentioned it to our driver, he still drove past the airport and we quickly had to get his attention so he would turn around.

The flights from Flores to G.C. are reasonable – we paid $145 AU pp and it looked like all the flights, regardless of day or time, were around that price. The flight itself is pretty cool since it holds less than 20 passengers. Plus it’s only 1 hour, and beat taking an overnight bus.

On arrival in G.C., there are stands advertising shuttle services to Antigua. We walked straight ahead to the first stand to get the price. He told us $10 US to get to the main square in Antigua or $15 direct to our hotel. Since we were staying in a central location we chose the former, and he quickly told us he could take us direct for $11 US pp so the cost of our trip was $28 AU and took just over an hour. One catch is that you have to have a certain number of people to partake in the shared shuttle, otherwise you will have to pay more for a taxi. We met a lovely Brit who had been waiting 3 hours to go to Antigua but no one would take her until we showed up!

Approximate time: 5 and a half hours, including a couple of hours waiting at the airport before departure.

Stay

James did a bunch of research, and ultimately picked The Yellow House which was fantastic. We had a private room with shared bathroom that was always impeccably clean. Seriously, the staff at this place never stops cleaning! They also offer an included breakfast which was delicious. Our only regret was not booking sooner – by the time we booked the rooms on the second floor roof were all taken, and so we were on the first floor. Still a nice room, but the ones upstairs had the benefit of windows and fresh air! The wifi was also good, and worked well in our room. We stayed for less than $25 AU per night.

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We also used The Yellow House to book tours and transportation. One thing to note – don’t book anything in advance of arrival! The prices are often half (or less!) once you are in Antigua.

Play

One of my favourite parts of Antigua was just walking around and marveling at all the brightly coloured buildings! It really is a pretty city. Here are a few other things we enjoyed.

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Hike Pacaya Volcano

You need a guide to go on the Pacaya Volcano Hike, and we found it easiest to book a tour directly through The Yellow House. We paid 60 GTQ ($10 AU) each for the cost of transportation and a guide. You are also required to pay a park entrance fee of 50 GTQ ($9 AU) on arrival. The tour leaves around 6:00am and by 8:00am you will begin your climb. It takes 45 minutes to an hour, depending on your group and guide – most of this is under the shade of trees. Near the end you come to a clearing with beautiful views of Pacaya as well as Volcan Agua and Fuego.

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Your guide will give you some time to take pictures here before continuing. Because the volcano is still active, you do not hike to the crater itself, but rather down and through a field of lava rock which is pretty freaking awesome. At this point, your guide will hand out marshmallows and sticks and show you how to roast them deep in the lava rock. For us, it didn’t really roast (perhaps there hasn’t been enough activity as of late?) but it was still a nice little snack. Your guide will then take you to small “Lava Shop” where you can buy souvenirs, before beginning the journey back. The total time spent walking around, exploring and taking pictures is 45 minutes to an hour, and the descent is much faster than the climb.

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You’ll be back in the shuttle bus around 11, headed back to Antigua for a well-deserved brunch.

Take in the views from Cerro de la Cruz

Antigua is quite small, so you can easily spend one day visiting all the sites in the city. Of course, you’ll want to see the infamous arch that perfectly frames Volcan Agua (tip: go first thing in the morning to avoid crowds), but one other spectacular view is from Cerro de la Cruz. The top is only 1.5 kms from The Yellow House (and the same distance from Parque Central) so it’s really accessible. We’d read that you need to be careful of thieves while walking the trail up to the top, but encountered no issues and saw guards walking the trail as well.

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Hopefully Volcan Agua won’t be clouded over when you go!

Eat & Drink

& Cafe

This Cafe looks out on Parque Central, and was a great place for us to get caffeinated and make afternoon plans one day. The free wifi is great, and the coffee is delicious (though a little pricey at $8 AU for an iced coffee and a cold brew).

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La Casa de las Mixtas Cafe 

We ate at this place twice, and found it to be much better (and cheaper) than the more touristy places in the city. They have a daily lunch special which, regretfully, neither of us tried as we didn’t realize they had it until it was too late. But it looked delicious. We did try the chicken, the burrito and the pupusas – all of which were great.

Tabacos y Vinos

This was a cute little wine bar that we went to on Valentine’s Day (how romantic). The wine is decent, and they have specials for your second glass (i.e. 35 GTQ for your first glass and 30 GTQ for your second).

Lake Atitlan

We stayed on Lake Atitlan for 5 nights, 3 in San Pedro and 2 in Panajachel. We stayed in Pana because we were leaving from there to go to Utila (via one night in Puerto Barrios) but to be honest, we probably should have spent 4 nights in San Pedro and only gone to Pana for 1. If you are thinking of going to Utila from Lake Atitlan, it could easily be done directly from San Pedro if you get the first boat over to Pana.

Stay

As we’re learning with most places in Central America, you don’t need to book anything in advance. That being said, we did book in advance for Hospedaje Lolita since it looked decent and appeared to only have one room left on Booking.com. We booked a private room with bathroom for $23 AU per night. It was pretty basic, and at one point in our trip I said it looked like a drug den (this was a combination of the pepto bismol pink walls, beds with a single sheet that was continually sliding off and our stuff being scattered all over the room – but still). They don’t offer maid service, so you’re on your own if you want your bed made 🙂 Speaking of beds, they were extremely uncomfortable. The wifi was a bit shoddy – when it worked it was fine, but it was often down. There is a shared kitchen which we used to make tea, but the equipment is really old. So, for $23 AU not too bad – but I’m sure you can do better.

Play (and learn!)

Spanish lessons at San Pedro Spanish School

Learning Spanish in Guatemala is really cheap! Most people will stay for a week in Antigua or Lake Atitlan and complete a 3 hour lesson each day for 5 days (no lessons on Sundays). If you are keen, you can also do a homestay where you live with a Spanish family and practice with them. Since we were only staying for three days (one of those being a Sunday), we opted to take 2 three-hour lessons for about $75 AU.

Our instructor was Francisco and he was awesome! Right off the bat, he pretty much only spoke with us in Spanish; we have a little knowledge from random trips and playing Duolingo. But he didn’t make us feel stupid or bad if we couldn’t understand him. He asked us what we wanted to get out of the lessons, and we told him we really just wanted to be able to have basic conversations with locals and also learn words and phrases that will help us with our travels.

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I couldn’t believe how much ground we covered in such little time – if you’re traveling around Central or South America it’s well worth taking a lesson or two. And the location is stunning, right on the lake. I couldn’t think of a better way for us to spend our afternoons.

Hike Indian’s Nose 

We wanted to go on at least one hike while we were there, and after reading about the differences between hiking Volcan San Pedro and Indian’s Nose, we decided on the latter because of the sunrise views. You don’t technically need a guide to do this hike, but we’d also read that there are banditos that will harass you to pay a fee (there isn’t actually a fee) and wanted to avoid having a bad experience. And having completed the hike now, I would use a guide for sunrise since you are hiking in the dark.

We walked all over town getting prices for the hike and every shop was the exact same – 100 GTQ (about $17 AU) per person. No one was willing to bargain. This price includes transport and a guide.

The van picked us up at our hostel at 4:00am. One other thing to note – it doesn’t really matter which tour company you book with, they all share the vans and guide, so the van was packed by the time we picked up the last passenger.

The hike was very easy. If we were looking to get a workout that day, we were at a loss. It’s probably my only critique of this hike, though the views soon made me forget. There is a steep incline, but you’re hiking for a half hour max so I think most people would complete it with ease.

We started the hike around 5:00am, and were sitting and relaxing by 5:30am waiting for the sun to make its appearance. We brought our tripod and got a few nightshots from our lookout, but the pictures don’t really do it justice.

The sunrise was spectacular, especially with Volcan Fuego erupting in the background – you can see the smoke trailing from the crater. We spent about an hour watching the sunrise, and then it was time to make our descent (with a few photo ops on the way down).

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Relax in the Solar Pools

We were back from our hike by before 8:30am, just enough time for us to grab some breakfast before our reservation at the Solar Pools. They require at least an hour’s notice to get the pool ready for you, and we had booked the day before.

We arrived, ready to soak our muscles (though we didn’t feel as though we’d earned it due to the short hike!). You will walk past a building and through a garden where these pools are scattered. We booked a 2 person one, and it was basically a large outdoor bathtub. If you’re looking for privacy, it probably isn’t the best option – the pool beside us had 3 American high school students who had just finished exams (and made me feel like a fossil!).

The water stays hot for a long time, and you are able to stay as long as you like. After an hour and a half we felt sufficiently relaxed and headed back to our hotel.

Eat

San Pedro La Laguna had some delicious options – more than we had experienced in Belize, Antigua and (I can say now) Honduras. If you’re vegan or vegetarian you have a lot of choice, or if (like us) you just want to eat a bit healthier this is a great spot.

Shanti Shanti II

So there are actually two Shanti Shanti locations in San Pedro; we spent our time at Shanti Shanti II which, for some reason, gets better reviews. This location is on 7th Ave. near Tzunun’ Ya’ Museum. They have the best falafels I’ve ever tasted! It’s no wonder we came here three times in three days!

Fifth Dimension

This vegetarian/vegan restaurant was on the pricier side, but to get a salad that I knew wouldn’t make me sick was well worth the price tag in my opinion! We came for lunch one day and had a salad with tofu and tempeh (the tempeh was particularly delicious), and came back the next day for kefir smoothies.

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Comedor Mary

This spot is just down the road from Shanti Shanti, and serves up delicious breakfast as well as fresh juices. Our favourite was the Israeli breakfast with eggs, salad, avocado, hummus and pita. And the beet, carrot and ginger juice was delicious!

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Have you visited Guatemala? What were your favourite places? Would love to hear from you in the comments.

–Catie xx

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