My Jungle Adventure at Tikal National Park

My Jungle Adventure at Tikal National Park

Ever since arriving in Guatemala, I knew I wanted to go to Tikal National Park. Temple I in the Great Plaza of the park is basically a symbol of Guatemala. My guidebook went as far to compare it to the Eiffel Tower’s iconic representation of Paris.

Temple I (“El Gran Jaguar”) in the Great Plaza

The problem was that I was living and working in the southern/southwestern part of the country, and Tikal is in the northern part, deep in the jungle. But I was determined to get there.

So, at the end of my project, I left Xela a few days early with two of my friends and we headed for Tikal. We first took a bus to Guatemala City (4 hours), and from there took an overnight bus (10 hours!) to Santa Elena, which is close to Tikal.

We arrived in Santa Elena at 6:30am and at the bus station were immediately harassed by vendors trying to sell us bus tickets to Tikal. But to avoid getting scammed or overcharged, we decided to head towards Flores, a nearby island-town and book our bus and guided tour through Los Amigos Hostel. Best decision we could have made.

Los Amigos was great. The hostel itself has a really cool vibe, and setting up the bus + guided tour with them was really easy and went incredibly smoothly. We also bought a bagged lunch from the hostel’s restaurant to take with us to the park.

We left for the park at 8am, and stayed until 3pm. Our guide, Luis, took us on a tour through the park, leading us from complex to complex and pointing out spider monkeys and tarantulas along the way. He was really knowledgeable about the flora and fauna in the park and made the whole experience really incredible for us. He showed us a plant whose flowers smell like garlic, and encouraged us to eat termites, which he said tasted like carrots (almost everyone declined but a few brave souls actually did it).

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The branches of the ceiba tree, the national tree of Guatemala
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The massive base of the ceiba tree—the Maya believe its four posts signified the four cardinal directions
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A tarantula the size of my hand!

I most enjoyed finally being able to see (and climb) Tikal’s temples and pyramids. I liked spending time in the Great Plaza, which is flanked by two large temples.

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View of the Great Plaza from the North Acropolis
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Temple II (Temple of Masks) in the Great Plaza
A pyramid with sacrificial altars lined up in front
Palacio de los murciélagos (Palace of Windows)

I also enjoyed climbing the Temple IV which is the tallest temple in the park, and actually the tallest remaining Pre-Columbian structure in the Americas. (It’s also the site where they shot a scene of Star Wars Episode IV!) From the top of Temple IV, we had a beautiful view above the jungle canopy , with the temples flanking the Great Plaza poking out between the trees. It was truly breathtaking.

View from Temple IV

After our day at Tikal, we spent a little time exploring the nearby town of Flores. I absolutely adored this town—it’s actually on its own island! I also loved that Flores has this cool Caribbean vibe to it complete with brightly painted houses.

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We ate dinner at Raices Bar & Grill, and sat out on the dock. This gave us a beautiful view of the sunset, and was the perfect ending to a long day.

View from the dock at Raices

I was scared that I would spend so much time trying to get to Tikal and then be underwhelmed by the park itself. But I can easily say that nothing about the park was underwhelming. The natural beauty of the park along with the enormous ruins were truly amazing, and worth the long journey to get there. This long excursion was the perfect end to a wonderful time in Guatemala.

-S

Oh, Antigua Guatemala…

There is so much to see in Antigua Guatemala! We really could have spent a full week there. Unfortunately, we only had the weekend. However, we managed to fit in a little bit of sightseeing (and a good bit of nightlife) into the 36 hours we spent in the city.

Sights

It was pretty drizzly and we didn’t want to be out in the rain, so we skipped a lot of the sights. We started off in the central park, which is huge, with an interesting “Mermaid” fountain in the middle of the plaza.

We then made our way to the ChocoMuseo. This place is part chocolate museum, part chocolate shop, and includes a tasting bar and a café. There are also a few classes each day where you can make your own chocolate (sadly, we just missed the morning class). I sampled some fantastic dark chocolate, and some amazing chocolate liqueur. I was so close to buying some choco-mint body lotion from the gift shop, but I convinced myself not to spend the money (in retrospect, I should have bought it—it smelled incredible).


We also made it over to the famous Arco de Santa Catalina, which was quite beautiful. Unfortunately it was so dreary outside that it was hard to appreciate the color of the arch and hard to see the volcano in the distance.

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We also made a pit stop at Nim P’ot, which is a huge hall full of artisan handicrafts. It seemed a bit overpriced to me, but I enjoyed wandering around looking at the wide variety of artisan goods that were for sale there.

Finally, before the rain, we headed to La Merced church. I was amazed by its intricate yellow and white facade, which includes carvings of lily vines and sculptures of priests. Inside the church, curtains of pale and golden yellow were draped from the ceiling behind the altar. To the right of the altar was a massive sculpture of Jesus bearing the cross, encased in an intricate gold structure.

Food*, Drink, and Party

We ate at Mono Loco the first night, which was kind of pricey (for Guatemala, at least), but pretty delicious. They have huge plates of nachos that are plenty for two people to share. The second night we tried Paddy’s BBQ, which was absolutely amazing. I had a burger with fries and it may have been one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.

*I’m planning on writing a separate post about my favorite restaurants later, so I will elaborate on these restaurants even more then.

We had a great time going out in Antigua. Two of our favorite spots were Lucky Rabbit and Reilly’s En La Esquina. But what happens in Antigua stays in Antigua so I can’t share any details (lol).

Although we didn’t get to explore any of the ruins in Antigua, or spend a lot of time just walking around and getting to know the city,  I really really enjoyed this trip.

-S

Quetzaltenan–I don’t wanna–go

I spent a total of two and a half weeks in Quetzaltenango (AKA Xela), and almost every day I discovered something new about the city that I absolutely adored. And since I’m realizing now that I never gave Xela its own blog post, I decided to come up with a list (in no particular order) of some of my favorite things about the city.

Parque Central and Pasaje de Enríquez

My Spanish school was close to Xela’s Parque Central, so I spent plenty of time around this lively park. There were always people in the parque hanging out, whether it was day or night, and during the day vendors sold ice cream, souvenirs, nuts, and plenty other things. I also loved the architecture in the central park, especially the “kiosk” in the center of the park.

 

View of Xela’s Parque Central from El Balcón de Enríquez

Right next to central park, is Pasaje Enríquez. It’s full of restaurants and bars, and is always a fun place to go at night for dinner and/or drinks. Good times were had here.

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El Pasaje de Enríquez

The people

Xela is full of so many nice and interesting people. A lot of young Guatemalans come to Xela for university, and there are also a lot of spanish schools in Xela, which draw a lot of foreigners to the city. This gives Xela a fun, youthful vibe, and we always met really cool people whenever we went out.

The food

While I didn’t eat out much when I lived in Xela because I stayed at a homestay, there were plenty of delicious (and affordable options) in the city. I’ll do a more detailed post on food later, but for now just know that there is something for everybody in Xela, whether you are looking for a café, a taquería, a burger spot, or Asian cuisine.

Tacos from TaCorazón

The climate and scenery

Fall is my favorite season, hands down. The crisp, cool air is perfect for me because I love wearing layers. Despite the fact that it was June/July when I visited Xela, it felt like fall, because we were almost 8,000ft above sea level. I loved it. Also, having views of mountains and volcanos (and even seeing one erupt!) was pretty darn special.

 

Santiaguito erupted during my Spanish class!

Xela is truly a fun, lively city that I would love to have the chance to visit again.

-S

 

Life in Santiago Atitlán

Life in Santiago Atitlán

This post is long overdue, as I’m actually leaving Santiago Atitlán in a few hours to head back to Xela (Quetzaltenango). But I lived here for almost a month, and this little lake town definitely deserves its own post.

Santiago is nestled in an inlet between three volcanos on the southern part of the lake. It’s a decent-sized town, but feels a lot more quaint than some of the other lake towns because it is not as overrun with tourists and foreigners (like Panajachel and San Pedro).

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View of Santiago Atitlán from a boat

On market days (especially Fridays), the main street of the town and the area around its Central Park is bustling with vendors selling everything from socks to tiny fish to mangos to blenders. A lot of shops sell gorgeous huipiles (traditional tops worn by women) and fabric for cortes (traditional skirts). The huipil design native to Santiago is striped with birds embroidered along the neckline.

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Santiago Atitlán’s Parque Central
Monument in Parque Central of the 25 cent Quetzal coin. The coin features the profile of Concepción Ramírez, who was born in Santiago Atitlán.
A statue at the entrance of Parque Central depicting the traditional dress of Mayan women in Santiago Atitlán

As you walk away from the central park towards the dock, more of the shops sell souvenirs in addition to huipiles and cortes. The variety is outrageous; you can buy bags, shoes, beaded jewelry, embroidered tapestries, wooden carvings, tablecloths, blankets, hammocks, and so much more. I did my fair share of shopping in Santiago, and bought tons of souvenirs for friends and family (and plenty for myself).

Artist Diego Morán in his shop. I couldn’t resist buying one of his portraits.

One thing I love about Santiago is that you have a view of a volcano from almost anywhere in the city.

San Pedro volcano

As for where I’ve been living, I’ve been staying in a bakery. Yep, an actual bakery. There’s a room with a huge oven and racks of bread, and people from all over town come by to pick up bins of bread. They also make yummy pastries, cakes and donuts.

Our host family is extremely kind and welcoming. Our host mom was generous enough to send us off with some fresh banana bread, a couple of donuts or apple turnovers as we headed off to work. Also, she is an incredible cook.

Our host mom decorating a cake

We also have three “brothers” (the youngest of which loves to show off his latest Lego creations), a cranky pet parrot named Manolo, and two pet dogs.

Manolo, the most temperamental animal I’ve ever met

While Santiago is definitely a lot quieter than Xela was, I’ve really enjoyed living here over the past month, and I’ll definitely miss the town (and my host family) when I leave.

My host mom giving me a lesson on how to make tortillas

-S

“Indian’s Nose” sunrise hike

“Indian’s Nose” sunrise hike

After a wild Saturday (full of horseback riding and dancing the night away at Sublime, see my previous post), I woke up crazy early on Sunday to go for a sunrise hike. I crawled out of bed at 3:15am and sleepily got ready. Three of my friends and I headed for a mountain near San Pedro known as “Indian’s Nose” or “El Rostro Maya” (“The Mayan Face”). It gets its nickname because the mountain looks like the profile of a man’s face.

We got picked up in an old travel van and headed for Santa Clara. I wanted to sleep on the way there, but that turned out to be pretty impossible. It was a bumpy ride, and the van had been pimped out with some neon green lights on the inside that lit up every time the driver hit the brakes (which was often).

After about 45 minutes, we arrived in Santa Clara, pulled over in what seemed like a random part of town, and got out of the van. Our guide, José, asked us to turn on our flashlights and follow him. In the darkness, we walked down an alley and then through cornfields. My friends and I were really confused as to where we were, and also so so so thankful we decided to pay for a guide, because otherwise we would have been terribly lost. We eventually reached the base of the mountain, where we finally saw a well-travelled trail.

Now the hiking began. We went up some stairs, and then zig-zagged back and forth up the mountain. The hike itself was pretty short–maybe 30 minutes, including breaks. But I was hiking against medical advice (I’m having knee surgery in the fall), so I was in a good bit of pain.

But the views were definitely worth it.

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When we reached the top of the mountain (well not quite the top, we were at the “mouth”, not the “nose” of the face), the sky was just beginning to light up.  The view of the lake was incredible, and the lake looked so still it almost looked frozen.

 

We could see almost every volcano around the lake. The towns below us were still in the shadows, with their street lights twinkling. We watched the sun rise up over the mountains; the sky changing from pale blue to pale pink, to light orange. I can’t even put into words how beautiful it was.

 

Naturally, we took a million pictures (which will never ever do the views justice), and José was smiling and laughing at us as we posed for “candids” and held an imaginary Simba out over the lake.


Even though waking up for this hike (and actually hiking) was pretty painful, this was one of my favorite experiences so far in Guatemala.

-S

 

Horsing around in San Pedro

Horsing around in San Pedro

I know, I’ve been slacking on the blog posts lately. But I have a pretty good excuse: I spent almost three days completely out of commission due to some horrendous stomach bug. I’ll spare you the details, but just know I was struggling. However, with lots of Gatorade, Immodium, sleep and prayers, I made it out alive.

Last weekend, we took a short trip over to San Pedro La Laguna. We started off with a brunch buffet at Mikaso Hotel ($5 all you can eat).  The food was pretty good, and the buffet included made to order omelets and crepes. However, service was a bit slow because I don’t think Mikaso was ready for 11 hungry college/grad school kids to descend on their buffet. The views from the restaurant (third floor of the hotel, right on the lake) were fantastic though.

Mikaso Hotel Restaurant

Next, we decided we wanted to go horseback riding up San Pedro volcano. Sounds kind of crazy/dangerous/fun, right? It turned out to be all three. All 11 of us rode through the cobblestone streets of San Pedro and headed along the lake towards the volcano. The last time I rode a horse was at some fair of some sort when I was a child, so I’ll admit I was pretty nervous. But the trip through town was really fun, with people coming into their doorways when they heard horses and waving at us as we rode by.

But then things got a little wild once we left town. The horses started running. In the streets. For no apparent reason. They would run for a good 100 feet or so, and then walk, and then start running again. I had no idea how to make the horse (her name was Muñeca) slow down, so really all I could do was hold on tight and focus on not falling off.

We made it safely up to a viewpoint on the volcano, where we got off the horses for a while, rested, and took pictures. I really enjoyed our afternoon horseback riding adventure, and it ended up being a pretty fun way to “hike” a volcano.

We ended Saturday night with dinner at Bar Sublime. The food was absolutely amazing, and we got there in time for happy hour, which included $0.66 Cuba libres (no, that’s not a typo). We met the owner (and the DJ for the night, DJ Fernchild) and stayed for his set. Bar Sublime was a ton of fun, and I’d definitely go back again.

Once again, a Saturday in San Pedro well spent.

-S

Lost weekend at La Iguana Perdida

If you’re a true Gossip Girl fan like I am, you’ll remember the “lost weekends” that Chuck and Nate used to have. These weekends were wild, party-filled getaways to random locales and were probably full of trouble. While I’m sure my past weekend getaway to Santa Cruz La Laguna was much tamer than a Chuck and Nate Lost Weekend (although there was a party), I think it still should classify as a “lost weekend,” even in a slightly different sense of the phrase. Mainly because the weekend was full of losses:

  1. We lost power
  2. I lost most contact with the outside world (no wi-fi)
  3. I lost my umbrella
  4. I lost the opportunity to kayak on the lake at sunrise because I couldn’t charge my phone and thus didn’t wake up until 9:30am

And to top it all off, the place we stayed at was called La Iguana Perdida, which means “the lost iguana.” (I forgot to ask where the name came from, I didn’t even see any iguanas.) So the “lost weekend” title fits and I’m sticking to it.

But the weekend was also full of wins. La Iguana Perdida was an amazing place to stay. It’s a fun, colorful hotel/hostel right on the lake with a wide variety of rooms. There are dorm-style rooms as well as huge suites with balconies that overlook the lake. There’s a bar and restaurant, which every night serves a family-style dinner to guests. There’s plenty of outdoor lounge space, including hammocks and a pool room. This place was so relaxing and tons of fun at the same time.

The balcony outside of our room at La Iguana Perdida

Friday night we went into the tiny town of Santa Cruz and had dinner at Café Sabor Cruceño, which was fantastic. This place had an unbelievable view of the lake, and the food was amazing, right down to its presentation. It was actually the first night that they were serving dinner so we also got free dessert (#winning). Between the gorgeous lake view and the delicious food, this place could be easily one of my favorite spots I’ve eaten at in Guatemala so far.

 

Dinner with a view at Café Sabor Cruceño 
Fried Eggplant Sandwich at Café Sabor Cruceño

The sad part about this weekend was that it stormed really badly on Saturday, and we lost power. But this meant we had a candlelit dinner accompanied by live guitar music, which was a pretty cool experience.

Saturday night is also the night that La Iguana Perdida has their cross-dressing/costume party. They have a closet full of hideous dresses, obnoxious blazers, and animal print onesies that people can borrow to fulfill their wildest dress-up dreams. Even with the power out, the show went on. And although I didn’t have time to get my outfit together, some of the other guests were able to put together some fabulous outfits.

I will say, despite the many losses, this weekend was definitely a fun time. I loved loved loved La Iguana Perdida and would go back if I had the chance.

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Lake view from La Iguana Perdida

-S