Don’t let “rainy season” deter you from exploring one of Central America’s most beautiful countries! At the beginning of September, I embarked on a one week (yes, just one week!) journey through the highlands. And unsurprisingly, my mom tagged along on this trip after getting word that I was headed to Guatemala. We started in Antigua, then spent a couple days around Lake Atitlan, and ended the trip in Quetzeltenango (better known as Xela) . Transportation was pretty easy, so it made moving quickly, possible. Although, I wouldn’t recommend only spending a week in Guatemala since there are days where you’d just want to take it easy after a hard hike the day before.
My plane landed and took off from here…and that was about the extent of my time spent in Guatemala City. I wouldn’t recommend staying there overnight if you can find a shuttle or taxi to Antigua because for one, there’s not much to do in Guatemala City anyway, and secondly, it’s a dangerous area.
From the airport, we headed straight for Antigua. On exiting customs and baggage claim, there are kiosks around the entrance/exit of the terminal advertising shuttle and taxi services to Antigua. I opted for the shuttle service, but waited a bit for the shuttle to gather more people to transport. The cost per person came out to be around $20 USD. It is possible to take a chicken bus (especially if you have time and are in no rush to get anywhere), and is also significantly cheaper than shuttles and/or taxis.
Built at 1,500 m above sea level in an earthquake prone region, Antigua is a charming little city displaying vast influence of Spanish architecture. Antigua was destroyed in 1773 by a devastating earthquake, which has left many remnants of the destruction behind. There are ruins at almost every turn—a chilling, yet beautiful, reminder of Mother Nature’s strength and the willpower of people to rebuild this charming city.
We didn’t spend much time in Antigua, in fact, a day was enough for us to explore what we wanted to explore in the city: Cerro de la Cruz, the market, the churches, and the Santa Catalina Arch. Just aimlessly wandering through the streets of Antigua was pleasing enough that we didn’t need much of a ‘guide’ to see main attractions. I’ll highlight a couple of my favorite spots.
For a nice hike with sweeping views of the city, Cerro de la Cruz is your best bet. The trailhead was fairly easy to find since there was a sign marking the entrance. You will also see some street vendors hanging around the trailhead and at the top. The trail is pretty well paved with stairs—a steady incline all the way up. It’s not a difficult climb, but you’ll definitely break out into a sweat towards the end. Although the trail is mostly shaded, I would highly recommend hiking in the morning before midday. There isn’t much shade at the top, so bring your hats, sunnies, and plenty of water!
The Santa Catalina Arch is located on 5th Avenue North, a busy main street bustling with street vendors and street performers alike. Fun fact: Did you know that within the arch there’s a secret passageway? Back in the day, it was used for nuns to cross the street without being seen.
The locals refer to Panajachel as “Pana”. This is the main gateway into getting around Lake Atitlan. Like most towns around the lake, Panajachel is quite small. You can practically get around by walking or taking tuk-tuks (modified three-wheeled scooters).
There are plenty of places to eat around Pana, especially if you don’t mind street food. In fact, we never stepped foot into a restaurant during the duration of our trip. Street food was super cheap, authentic, and delicious! There was no need to eat at a restaurant!
We briefly visited the Chocolate Museum (Choco Museo). An assortment of chocolate treats, drinks, and trinkets invited us in as we walked through the main lobby area into a charming little courtyard adorned in plants and textiles. Towards the back, there was a group of tourists eagerly watching and learning how to make chocolate from scratch. Behind them was a small room, which served as the museum, featuring the steps in producing, processing, and making chocolate; the significance of chocolate in Mayan history; and so much more.
Street vendors selling textiles, trinkets, and other homemade goods lined both sides of the main street. It went on for at least half a mile.
We stayed at a fairly new hostel called Pana House. It was a tad difficult to find because like most of Guatemala, there are no real addresses. And on top of that, they’re still sorting out paperwork for the hostel, so there is no signage anywhere. It wasn’t super spectacular, but I really enjoyed the open air construct of the hostel and the large kitchen that could be used by multiple guests at once.
Boats or “lanchas”
There are several boats that frequently depart from each town about every 15-20 minutes.
We originally planned to swing by Jaibalito for the infamous infinity pool (because let’s be honest #forthegram), but ultimately decided against it after reading multiple reviews which have report a charge for use of the pool and the extraordinarily overpriced food and beverage. Just wasn’t worth it in my humble opinion, especially after visiting Cerro Tzunkajil in San Marcos. I’ll go further into detail in the next section.
Of all the little towns around Lake Atitlan, San Marcos was probably my favorite town. San Marcos is distinguished by, for lack of a better term, its hippie vibe. Yoga and meditation retreats dot the entire town like sprinkles on a cupcake. Every cafe we walked into had an adjacent garden or open atrium attached to it.
Although there were a plethora of cafes, there was one cafe I was especially fond of. Shambhala Cafe stood out to me and became my go-to cafe for the duration of my trip in San Marcos.
Like many of the other cafes, it offered a beautiful garden space to hangout and relax. There were people meeting up for coffee, bloggers busy writing, and people meditating in this serene spot. I stopped in for afternoon coffee and got a latte with a mix of coconut milk and macadamia nut milk—at no additional charge for swapping out *real* milk! I noticed that other cafes charged a dollar or two extra for non-dairy substitutes. The barista was also incredibly knowledgeable and kind. Where possible, Shambhala Cafe uses ingredients from Shan Ren Farms. Organic foods and coffee are grown in a small monastery on the volcanic Lake Atitlan where monks, nuns, and volunteers pass their days fishing, farming and, making products to sell. Every aspect of farming at Shan Ren Farms is done entirely by hand! No machines or vehicles, no chemical pesticides or herbicides either—isn’t that amazing?!
Let’s pause for a second and process just how darn adorable this puppy is!
(Okay. Obsession over. Continuing on…)
Cerro Tzankujil was easily one of the highlights of this trip. This beautiful nature reserve is tucked away in the corner of San Marcos, close enough to walk to from wherever you stay in town. Like many other places, there aren’t any signs pointing you in the right direction. In fact, you walk down a small street that tapers into a narrow alley, then opens up to a beautiful dock on the lake. On the immediate right is a danky little sign that points you in the direction of the nature reserve. Walk down the narrow path alongside a rocky wall until you reach the entrance of the reserve. If you have difficulty finding it, ask any of the locals and they’ll point you in the right direction. Just a heads up though, some of the local children might offer to lead you there, but they expect payment in return. I suggest asking the local police who routinely patrol the streets as they are really kind and willing to give you directions.
Make sure you bring plenty of water and a swimsuit with you! There’s a spot called the ‘Trampoline’ even though it is firm platform that perches off a cliff. The platform sits about 30 feet above water, and is a thrill to jump off of! You won’t want to miss it!
After a refreshing swim, continue walking down the trail and it’ll lead you up towards the top of the hill for a partial view of the lake. The trail will eventually loop around back to the entrance.
The next morning, we woke up at an ungodly hour to start our 4am hike up Indian’s Nose. We booked our trip the night before with a travel agency, but looking back, it would’ve been easier to book through the hostel or a nearby cafe. Other hostellers told us they booked their trip through Circles Cafe and paid about 50Q less than we did, and also took a van up to the trailhead. We walked to the basketball court in the city center to meet up with a tuk-tuk driver that would drive us up to the trailhead. It was about a half hour uphill ride on bumpy roads—sometimes paved, if lucky. Most of the dirt road was riddled with unsuspecting potholes and large puddles from overnight heavy rainfall. With careful avoidance, we made it up just in time to join the rest of the groups hiking up Indian’s Nose. I’m so glad I dressed in layers because it was windy and cold on the way up. It was also still pitch black when we began hiking. Weirdly enough, none of the guides provided light or headlamps for us. Luckily me and a couple of other hikers brought our own, which quickly became a commodity amongst all of us. Some people were using their phones to light the way, but it was so dark that you could maybe see two or three feet ahead at a time with the faint light. The path was paved for the eighth of a mile, then quickly transformed into a rugged dirt path the rest of the way. You gain elevation very quickly, and because of the overnight rainfall, most parts were muddy and slippery.
For some, the combination of high elevation and rough terrain made this a difficult hike. But honestly, it wasn’t that bad compared to some of the other hikes in Guatemala (i.e., Santa Maria Volcano). My 57-year old mom made it up faster than some of the people half her age! That said, you can still take your time going up because they don’t expect you to race up there like we did. Once we got to the top, it was around 5:30 am, and we still had to wait at least another hour or so until the sky began to light up. I really enjoyed sitting on the platform, sharing stories, and just kickin’ it with some of the other young hikers like myself.
As the sun rose, I noticed that there was another platform just a tad higher than the one we were on. It was just a quick 5 minute hike up there—which was the actual nose of Indian’s Nose. There, the locals prepared hot coffee for us to enjoy. Most people stayed on the lower platform below though. The views are basically the same so go to whichever spot floats your boat! The sunrise over the lake is incredible…*cue the Lion King song*
The hike down was actually more challenging than the hike up, mostly because the trail was incredibly slippery and steep!! We took our time coming down and enjoyed the views we missed on the way up.
This was definitely my favorite hike! Needless to say, it was worth waking up for.
Things you should wear/bring on the hike:
- Good pair of hiking boots or shoes
- A light jacket
- Headlamp or flashlight
- Snacks (trust me, you’ll be starving by the time you get up there!)
- Camera/GoPro (and tripod if you do time-lapse)
San Juan La Laguna
From San Marcos, we took a day trip to San Juan, adjacent to San Pedro, its neighboring town. Unlike San Pedro, notoriously known as the ‘party town’, there’s not much going on in San Marcos, and that’s what makes it such a lovely place to visit. San Juan is home to many local cooperativas—from beekeepers to coffee plantations, and backstrap loom weavers to chocolate artisans.
We were fortunate to meet a tuk-tuk driver that took us to five different cooperativas. At merely just 130Q (about $17) for two people, he took us around each cooperativa and patiently waited for us as we went through each demonstration/tour.
Our first stop was at a textile cooperativa run by all women. It was fascinating to watch the textile-making process from start to finish. The women used many organic sources such as plants (i.e., beets, basil, banana leaf, carrot, and more) to dye the cotton.
Next, we visited a bee farm. They led us to what seemed like the backyard of someone’s house, set up with a small seating area, the apiary, and a makeshift shop of bee products (i.e., bee pollen, wax, honey, lotions, lip balms, and so on).
Chocolate-making is a cool, but tedious process. After watching the demo, it makes eating chocolate just that more enjoyable. Did you know you could make chocolate tea? It’s tea brewed from cacao husks, which is the shell of the cacao bean! I didn’t think it’d taste good until I tried it. And now I’m addicted. Cacao is one of the highest plant-based sources of magnesium and funnily enough, the cacao husks boast many of the same health benefits as the cacao bean itself; thus making the chocolate tea rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
We visited a small, but densely organized medicinal garden featuring a plethora of medicinal plants native to Guatemala. The tour guide explained the benefits and uses for each plant as we hopped from one planter to another. This information actually came in handy later on when we went for a hike in Xela. More of that in the next section.
Lastly, we had an unofficial tour of the coffee plantation led by none other than our driver. He drove us up to a large coffee plantation and abruptly stopped on the side of the road where we got off and walked through rows of coffee shrubs as he explained the growing process. As we walked back towards the tuk-tuk, we noticed tons of fallen avocado around the shrubs and trees. I picked one up, and that started a twenty minute scavenging adventure for avocados. After that, we headed towards the processing center where they clean, dry, and sort the coffee beans. Because it wasn’t harvesting season, we weren’t able to see the process in real-time, but I could just imagine the large amount of work it required.
We didn’t spend much time in the city of Xela itself. We mainly used Xela as a base for our day excursions outside of the city to surrounding towns or nearby hikes. We stayed at Casa Seibel in Xela, which was less than a five- minute walk from the central park.
This hike is doable without a guide, and is also walking distance from town. Let me preface by saying that this is a local spot and not catered towards tourists—so don’t expect state-of-the-art facilities, amenities, and spa services because you will be very disappointed. On our way into Xela, our taxi driver handed me a card for a tour company whom I contacted and was able to set up a last minute “tour” to Los Vahos with a local. After throwing our stuff down at our hostel, we quickly ate lunch and then met up with Carlos, our local tour guide. His boss, the owner of Monteverde Tours, scooped us up in his truck and drove us closer to the entrance which actually saved us about a half hour of walking.
We hopped out and began walking along a dirt road, lined with wild plants and flowers on both sides. Carlos would occasionally stop to collect leaves or seeds that have fallen from trees and snip pieces of plants for us to smell or rub on our joints. We collected samples of different plants, which either had medicinal properties or were common ingredients in everyday products.
We definitely took our time going up, enjoying the sights along the way, and appreciating nature. When we finally arrived at the entrance, we were met with silence—not a single soul was to be seen, granted, it was a weekday after all. But we were pleasantly surprised and low-key excited we had the entire place to ourselves!
Carlos gave us a quick tour around the property, inside the makeshift facilities, dodging in and out of the rooms, introducing us to the uses of each room. The grungy steam rooms were small and dark, only lit up by sunlight peeking through a small square cut into the ceiling. Don’t be fooled by the two-feet wide hole in the ground. The steam weirdly came in waves, and at times, it was so hot that I almost felt suffocated. It is incredibly hot! As Atlas Obscura puts it, “one can get up close and personal with the volcano itself in dark, dungeon like rooms which belch steam from the bowels of the earth.”
For 20Q, you can use the facilities for an hour. Pretty good deal if you ask me! If you can, avoid going on the weekends because that’s when it’ll for sure be crowded with locals.
Don’t miss this hike! If you only have a couple days in Xela, be sure to put this at the top of your list. Santiaguito Mirador was an awesome and fairly easy hike–that is, if you know where you’re going. Most people will recommend a tour guide for this hike—which after doing it, makes total sense—but it is very possible to go without one. However, I highly recommend to do your research if you decide to go without one! There are parts where you can easily get lost because there is no clear trail, no signs, and too many turns that could lead you astray if you take just one wrong turn. I have Xela Who to thank because although the directions were a tad bit outdated, it was good enough to get us there without getting too lost. We only made one wrong turn, but quickly figured it out! I will include the *updated* directions for this hike in a separate post with pictures.
- Addresses are basically non-existent in Guatemala. Your taxi driver is very likely to get lost even when using a GPS! Hostels are not clearly marked either. Most exist within an alley or somewhere obscure. Landmarks are key!
- Weather – As I mentioned before, don’t let “rainy season” deter you from visiting during this luscious green period! It is usually clear and sunny in the early mornings until noon when the clouds start moving in. By late afternoon, cloud coverage is at almost 100% and you can expect spurts of heavy rain throughout the evening and throughout the night.
- Shuttles are the best way to go if you’re not traveling on a super tight budget. It can range anywhere from $10-40 USD per person depending on the distance and time of travel.
I hope this was helpful and fun to read! If you have any suggestions or comments, please feel free to leave them in the box below! 🙂