Travelling with hand luggage. Only hand luggage. When you tell people about this idea, they expect that you’re ‘going’ for max a few days. When you tell them that you’re going to travel around (AKA backpacking) for 2,5 weeks with that amount of kilos, they simply tell you you’re out of your mind. Nevertheless, the more I thought about it, the more excited I became to test whether I could do this with ‘less’. And the more people I told, the less choice I had. Face it: I couldn’t back out anymore.
A fluctuating 8.5 kgs, 2.5 weeks Guatemala and a lot of bucket list items later: Here’s my top itinerary and learnings.
~ By Yessica Ypma ~
1. First stop: Antigua
Antigua is the best choice you can make once arriving in Guatemala. Leaving Ciudad de Guatemala as quickly as you can to escape concrete jungleness, you’ll enter mountainous roads with stunning landscapes, and within 2 hours the beautiful former capital: Antigua. The streets there don’t really allow you to settle into your seat, since it’s a very very bumpy (cobblestone) road. Not very good for vehicles with seats – neither for the persons’ seats in there, but it suits the entourage of beautiful colonialness in buildings and squares. That and the fact that Antigua is surrounded by three volcanoes, contributes to a magical scenery wherever you’re situated in Antigua. Hike to Cerro de la Cruz to enjoy the view of Antigua as a whole.
A home away from home
Antigua a great location to go back and forth to in order to travel to the Pacific coast, Lago Atitlan, Rio Dulce, Lanquin, Flores, to do day trips from, and on top of that: it’s also a great place to just BE. To stroll around, admire the daily life on the squares, all the churches (yes, there are a-lot) – ruins and functioning ones, to indulge into the Guatemalan life, befriend the lovely locals, and put the Eat of the famous Eat Pray Love-story in practice. Numerous restaurants, coffee spots, bars, rooftops, and even a beer brewery, are definitely worth testing for yourself. Hip eateries and street vendors offer yummy food all day long. Highly recommended in terms of eating here: Samsara. Vegan minded or just love to eat? Check out their menu here and go. You won’t regret. Not with your mouth, not with your mind, and neither with your wallet – even when you’re on a backpacker budget.
Now where to sleep in Antigua?
- Selinas, if you’d like to take up some space – in every sense. With a big lush garden, onsite restaurant and loads of hammocks and chillout spaces, and on top of all: sustainable business goals. It’s a chain, but one with a pure and true backpackers heart.
6a Avenida Norte 43A, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
- If you’re up for some boutique vibes, opt for Cucurucho’s Boutique Hostel. Somewhat smaller, but still very spacious. A rooftop to do yoga practices, workouts or just chill-out, a great breakfast, extraordinary clean and your own private bunk bed with a little curtain included. Very well located, right behind the central park.
3a Avenida Sur, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
- When you’re on a budget but in for a quiet night in your very own dorm, go to Hostal Girasol. Very small, very quiet. Nothing fancy, but everything that you need. And on top of all: lovely employees, breakfast, and good deals for any service that you could need. Laundry, shuttles, advice: trust me, you get the best.
2a Avenida Norte, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
Day trips from Antigua: conquer some volcanoes
With as many as 37 volcanoes, you’d better put one of these natural giants on your bucket list.
Volcan Pacaya 2,552 m
For a day, go climb Volcan Pacaya. Leaving every day twice, at 6AM or 2PM, returning six hours later. A shuttle takes you and your crew away and up from Antigua, for an on average two hour drive. Hike for an easy two hours before it’s time to roast some marshmallows close to the top. Yep, Pacaya is still active. Returning around noon, or 8PM – if you went for the sunset option, you’ll feel satisfied but not completely exhausted.
Prices are quite similar at every tour operator/each hostel (+/- 11 USD)
Volcan Acetenango 3,976 m
Now here a baby you’ve gotta prepare yourself a bit for. Mentally first, but definitely also physically in terms of warm clothing and a bit of fitgirl vibes. Most tours leave in the morning and offer overnight trekkings, covering two days of hiking and one night sleeping close to the peak to enjoy amazing views, admire sunset and sunrise, see the eruptions of firy El Fuego from ‘closeby’ and give your legs some rest in the meantime whilst chilling out around a campfire.
One of the best tour operators in my experience is Balam Tours. With one guide accompanying a maximum of eight people, you can expect to be looked after carefully. Our guide, Isiais, a friendly guy of 25 years old guided us passionately. Even though he did not speak much English, he was capable of spreading his enthusiasm nevertheless. Cooking dinner and breakfast, he he woke us up at 3AM to hike to the peak and see the sunrise. Unfortunately, it wasn’t safe to go the day I went – with rarely happens. It was extremely bad weather all night long and it wouldn’t be safe nor would the peak or any views even be visible. A bit of a downer, although safety should come fist.
Balam Tours provides great big strong tents – already set-up close to the peak- suitable for 8 people per tent, a chill-out outdoor space with camp fire and a very funny outdoor toilet, with the most amazing view you can imagine (details sound shit like this – literally, but the view is jaw dropping; with starry skies and seeing the red lava burst out of El Fuego, though).
Prices: +/- 55 USD
2. Lago Atitlan
From Antigua, it’s a mellow two hour drive towards the famous Lago Atitlan. Surrounded by not one, not two, but three volcanoes and a few Mayan villages, you find the stunningly beautiful volcanic lake. Praised for its yogic vibe and special energy, I based myself in San Marcos la Laguna. Quite a special choice, to be honest. Even though I’m quite a yogi myself, San Marcos was ‘awareness all over in the streets’ and ‘finding yourself’ on itself.
Book a yoga class at Eagles Nest for yoga with a view and spend a budget night with walls as thin as a curtain BUT with the most amazing views at Villa Tzankujil.
3. Beachtime: Monterrico
From Atitlan I took a loooooong drive to the coast. Not necessarily because it was a long drive distance wise, but because of the stop in Antigua and my (mis)calculation that I could go to Monterrico via El Paredon (never trust a tours salesman who tells you ‘it’s quite close’. That could be a two hour drive).
So it was a two hour drive with a private cab to Monterrico. A great journey nevertheless. If you love travelling, views and some quality time with the locals: this would be the top trip of the week. Two shuttles and an improvised private cab later, the trip from Atitlan to Monterrico took me around twelve hours. Again – not because of the distance. Arriving at Monterrico, I was facing a complete different world. Humidity, the sound of waves, intense heat and the darkest black sand: that was what I was looking for, and I found it. All that, with true Guatemalan vibes and without a lot of tourism – how surprisingly.
Searching for a hostel named ‘Black Sand Beach House’, I found it on the black sand beach – what’s in a name, right? If you’re up for heat, watching the sun rise above the sea in the early morning, as well as big big big waves, and ticking some boxes off on your reading list: this is the place to go. The hostel provides everything you need and more: a small infinity pool with sea view, enough seats and space to throw a very hospitable or chilled party, me-time spots, happy hours, a good cuisine with friendly cook, and on top of that: a treat for the design loving eye. Nature meets industrial meets sea vibes. Even though the temperature is way less cool than in Antigua or Atitlan, I slept like a baby. With the sound of waves closeby and a remote control for the air conditioning, a good bed, a yummy kitchen downstairs and loads of time to kill getting a suntan in the burning sun: what’s more to wish for right?
Black Sand Beach House, Calle de los Hoteles 1, Monterrico 06024, Guatemala
With too many days ahead to just spend chilling at the beach (or just too much energy?), I was debating whether to visit Lanquin or Flores. After Monterrico, I went back again to Antigua, to climb Acetenango and spend another night to rest from that, and decided to challenge myself to see the other side of the country and dive into some history: off to Flores and Tikal.
Peten is famous for the Tikal Mayan temple complex. In order to pay that sight a visit, Flores is a great place to base yourself. Basically a little island, Flores is surrounded by Lago Peten Itza and connected to the mainland and sister town Santa Elena by a causeway. By bus you’ll arrive in Santa Elena, and a tuk tuk or taxi takes you for a few dollars into ‘town’. Within 20 minutes it’s easy to walk around Flores as a whole – yes even for slow walkers. Although the island is packed with hostels, hotels, restaurants and bars, it doesn’t feel touristy at all. It even feels slightly undeveloped in some kind of way.
Travellers don’t seem to spend such a long time in Flores. Most arrive, visit Tikal and go back in the direction Rio Dulce and Guatemala Ciudad, or forth to Belize. Nevertheless, it’s actually quite nice to just take a rest after a long bus trip, enjoy the cuisine (visit Maple & Tocino for breakfast – great waffles and a good view! – and all over green and blossoming San Telmo for a chilled sunset dinner – try the Falafel).
Take some time to enjoy the temple complex of Tikal in a well rested mode. ‘Cause wow – that is impressing. Covering more than 575 square kilometres and numerous temples – covered and uncovered by archeologists – within the rainforest, Tikal is considered the mother of the Mayan empire. It’s one of the largest and oldest sites of the Mayas, the capital of the Mayas and part of UNESCO world heritage. Want to learn more? Book a tour with a guide (only a few USD more if you book it all at once in Flores) and dive in.
Reflecting and building towards the end
Even though Flores is quite a trip from Antigua, it’s really worth the trip. The journey allows to see a bit of the country, and the contrast with could not be bigger – naturewise, climate wise, life wise. And as a bonus: there’s a history and biology class in Tikal included on top of it! After Flores, an overnight bus took me back to Antigua. Yes, back again. Two days before my flight back to Amsterdam I had to stock up on souvenirs in my favorite town of Guatemala.
2,5 Weeks later and 8,5 kgs (minus a bit due to ‘ditching what’s not needed – anymore’)
What did I learn?
- 2,5 weeks in Guatemala is perfect to see the highlights – although you could always fill more time
- It’s extremely easy. You really don’t need much and wherever you go you can do laundry or buy what you need
- Warm and lightweight thermos clothes are essential. Evenings and nights can be quite chilly
- Packing and travelling is way less hassle. Nothing got lost in my backpack, and hopping on and off busses and airplanes has never been so comfortable and quick.
- Wearing the bulkiest and heaviest pieces of clothing whilst traveling is very handy. Not only because it can be quite cold in busses and airplanes, but also since you don’t have to pack it in your limited space for luggage either. Pack a foldable extra bag when things get sweaty et voila.