Guatemalan Interlude – Guatemala

Guatemala has always attracted me for its wonderful scenery and food. I felt the need to revisit the highlights of previous trips and absorb some new experiences. From the Yucatán I planned to stop at Flores and revisit Tikal, then bus across to Antigua and spend a couple of weeks in the Western Highlands before heading north and returning to Mexico to rest up awhile in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

The journey from Chetumal, Mexico, through Belize to Guatemala, ending up in Flores can be done in a day (250 pesos). Some hardy travelers camp out overnight at the bus terminal for the 6:00 a.m. start, or alternatively you can, as I did, stay overnight at Chetumal’s very cheap Youth Hostel. The second class bus goes via Belize City and then westerly to the border station, which is swarming with money changers. Naturally you don’t want any Belize currency, but the authorities insist on some payments (ca US$12) being made in Belize dollars even though you are in-transit for the day. 

Guatemalan chicken bus

Guatemalan chicken bus

The bus continues on to Guatemala, eventually arriving at the town of Santa Elena and then goes across the lake causeway to the island town of Flores, arriving at 2:15 p.m. By the time you have found your luggage, you will be accosted and whisked away to the delightful backpackers called Los Amigos, only five minutes walk up the hill. At the bar you can get a nice cool dark ale called "Moza" which is an excellent brew, for 10 Q a bottle. You are back in civilization again! (US$1 = 7.6 Quetzales = 11 Mexican pesos).

I was very impressed with Los Amigos backpackers. It has a relaxed atmosphere and is full of international travelers. There are hammocks and soft music. On-site is a mini-restaurant producing yummy meals and snacks. In the evenings we drank cheap Spanish red and white wine with our meals, although we always exhausted their daily supply because of the high contingency of Aussie backpackers.

Of course, one must visit Tikal, that fantastic ancient Mayan city hidden in the jungle. Not a problem. Minibuses go hourly from Flores and an early start, say 6:00 a.m., is a good idea. It costs 40 Q return for the bus and 50 Q entrada, i.e., total of 90 Q or about US$12 for the trip. You can stay as long as you like exploring the ruins and then find a convenient bus back to Flores.

There are plenty Internet cafés within a 100 meters of the hostel, but there are no banks on the island. To find an ATM you have to walk across the causeway to the adjacent town of Santa Elena which is bustling and a trite grotty, so ¡Cuidado! The island of Flores is very pleasant and safe and you can go swimming off some of the jetties to cool off.
How to get from Flores to Antigua? Quickest way is to fly, or go by bus. The adventurous can head south by rough roads via Cobán taking a few days, or painlessly you can take an overnight (10:30 p.m. and 180 Q) almost first class bus via sealed roads and Rio Dulce, to arrive in Guatemala City at 6:00 a.m. It meets up with a mini van that takes you on to Antigua and drops you at the door of your backpackers, in my case the Jungle Party hostel.

Western Highlands

Antigua is the tourist hub of the Western Highlands and of Guatemala. It is where everybody goes. The town was established in 1543 and served as the capital until about 1774, when the government administration was shifted to the present site of Guatemala City. Antigua was being constantly racked by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but the new site is not much better in this regard, being very earthquake prone. Nevertheless, Antigua remains a very beautiful Spanish-colonial town and has a UNESCO listing as a World Heritage Site.

Antigua is famous for its many language schools, wonderful colonial architecture and fine restaurants. There are three volcanic cones visible from downtown and not far away is the often very active Volcán Pacaya. Only 2 ½ hours by shuttle (US$10) from Antigua is Panajachel, the resort town at Lago Atitlán. You can get dropped off at the jetty and take a "colectivo lancha" to any village around the lake, in particular, San Pedro.

San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro "on the lake" is a favored spot for travelers wishing to take Spanish lessons for minimal cost from language schools. Also many willing local resident teachers have advertising signs on their front gate. The advantage of San Pedro is its relaxed village atmosphere and cheap accommodations. I stayed at Casa Elena, an extensive three-story concrete complex that extends down to the lake shore via tidy stone paths and terraces to a jetty, convenient for swimming. I had a clean private room with two beds costing 30 Q, or US$4/night (or $2 each if shared). There are many hospedajes (family homes with rooms to rent), and more up-market guest houses and hotels further up the hill and along the beach front (see Lonely Planet).

One consequence of its isolation and cheap accommodation is that San Pedro has more than its fair share of hippies and weirdoes who relish a peaceful existence away from the European rat-race. Some eke out a living by making silver jewelry and other craft items and selling their wares from street stalls or blankets spread on the ground. All new boat arrivees get accosted at the jetty by locals with information about accommodations and the ready availability of locally grown marijuana, the latter not being of interest to me.

The locally grown coffee beans are a different matter. The several coffee bean processing plants in the village are fascinating for visitors.
Another attraction of San Pedro is the gourmet-style dining available at bargain-basement prices – great breakfasts and lunches for US$2 to $3 and dinners for $4 to $5. It seems the village has become a haven for trained chefs from Europe and North America who have fled their snowy northern homelands to do their own thing, i.e. start a restaurant in a laid-back idyllic part of the world.

Within a stone’s throw of the jetty there are some remarkable eateries – D’Noz (Brooklynese) and the Elegre Pub, an English-style pub started a couple of years ago by two guys from the UK offering imported beers and a roast dinner on Friday evenings. And then there are dozens of other intriguing restaurants around the lake front and inland just waiting for their courses to be sampled.

What else to do in San Pedro? You can hike up the forest trail to the summit of Volcán San Pedro (3,020 meters) at your doorstep to get a glorious view of the lake or go fishing around the lake shore.
The fishing I found disappointing. The numerous "pescado blanco" readily took a fly or spinner, but were of small size, although in quantity they are a favored Indian food. I did watch a local guy catch a black bass (17 incher) by spin fishing off the shore, but you really need a boat to tackle them. Why don’t they stock the lake with rainbow trout? Maybe Lago Atitlán could become a Mecca for trout fisherman like Lake Taupo in New Zealand.

Another disappointment was the pollution, which unfortunately is typical of Latin American countries. The village streets and lake shore are littered with garbage. Still there is hope. One day when out fishing, I encountered a boy scout group from Sololá. Their scout master had organized them to spend the morning picking up rubbish and putting it in plastic bags. Wow! What a difference it made to the landscape!

Lago Atitlan at Panajachel

Lago Atitlan at Panajachel

Lago Atitlán

In Panajachel, the Museo Lacustrine Atitlán housed in the Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo is well worth a visit for travelers interested in the origin of Lago Atitlán. Guatemala has 37 volcanoes of which three are classed as currently active (Pacaya, Fuego and Santiaguito) and all are located in the Western Highlands. The latter have barren cinder cones and, when not erupting, (i.e. sending up ash plumes and or producing lava flows) are quietly smoking away. After a few hundred years of non-activity, the Guatemalan volcanoes become covered in vegetation and jungle, even though most are of over 3,000 meters altitude.
Geologists tell us that on the Pacific Ocean side of Guatemala, the Los Cocos tectonic plate is pushing itself under the Caribbean plate (which includes Guatemala) causing partial fusion of the rocks at depths of about 80 kilometers. Periodically this molten material (magma) is squeezed upwards along zones of weakness and may burst forth at the surface as a volcanic eruption.

Volcanic eruption seen from Xela

Volcanic eruption seen from Xela

About 150,000 years ago, a large magma chamber developed at modest depth (Batholith de los Chocoyos) from which volcanoes began to appear in the region. Then, about 85,000 years ago, there was one "super-duper" eruption (like a pressure cooker exploding) causing the whole batholith to discharge over a short period. Volcanic ash was spread all over Mexico and as far south as Costa Rica. In the central region the ash deposits were one to three meters thick. A cauldron some 18 kilometers in diameter formed and all previous volcanoes collapsed or disappeared. The huge depression soon filled with water to form Lago Atitlán, whose area has since been modified somewhat by the eruption of new volcanoes around the periphery (e.g. volcanoes San Pedro, San Marcos, Cristalina, Tolimán and Atitlán).

The wonderful lake vista that we see today is thus due to a cataclysmic volcanic explosion which, no doubt, caused appreciable global climate change for many years afterwards. The Los Chocoyos super-eruption is named after the chocoyos parakeets, which nest in the holes left behind from charred tree trunks buried in the volcanic ash deposits. Such a geological event happens all too frequently. In New Zealand, in the volcanic region of the North Island, beautiful Lake Taupo (full of trout) formed in the same way, and only 1,800 years ago!

Back to Mexico

My route, with stopovers, was Antigua, Panajachel, Xela (Quetzeltenango) to the border town of La Semilla, was done mostly by "chicken bus". It was with a sigh of relief that I crossed the border into Mexico and found waiting a modern four-wheel drive colectivo waiting to whisk me through to San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

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