It’s early New Years Day when I hit the border from Belize to Guatemala. Checking out of Belize goes smoothly, stamping out in immigration then cancelling my vehicle permit. Down the road to the Guatemalan border, no problem at immigration but at customs they need all the usual copies of my documents plus a copy of my passport page with the Guatemala stamp that they just stamped. Which I obviously do not have in advance. Usually there is a copy store right next to any place that you might need copies, but on New Year’s Day morning they are closed. I ask the lady behind the counter where to get a copy and she just shrugs. I grab one of the border fixers (who I usually avoid like the plague but I’m stuck) and ask where can I get a copy? We set off across the bridge towards Guatemala, when he says Bienvidos a Guatemala I realize that my Land Cruiser is in Belize but I’m in Guatemala. We walk along the main street in this border town looking for something open that makes copies. After almost a mile he flags down someone on a motorcycle heading the other way. I jump on the back of the motorcycle and we ride all the way back to the border bridge, where he opens up his internet cafe and makes the crucial copy. I give him and the helper a generous tip and walk back across the bridge with my copy and finally get my Temporary Import Permit for Guatemala. 10 meters further there are a couple of cones across the Official Border but nobody is around, being New Year’s Day morning. I just move the cones aside and escape into Guatemala.
First stop is the amazing ruins of Tikal, had lunch at a nice lakeside hotel on the way.
At Tikal I camped in the parking lot of one of the fancy lodges just outside the gates. Early next morning I was off to the famous ruins.
As with most other ruins you walk a ways into the site, makes it much more dramatic. Lots of wildlife on the way, a little eerie hearing howler monkeys right overhead
and plenty of Coatis walking around
and an Agouti, looks like a giant guinea pig running around.
Finally at the ruins the main temple of Tikal looms out of the mist
This early nobody else is around, just a couple of guys and a turkey on the main plaza.
After spending the morning at Tikal it’s off to western Guatemala. One road sign on the way from Tikal to the main highway.
It takes a couple of days across Guatemala but finally I arrive at Lake Atitlan, the town of Panajachel. I spend three days here at a little hotel enjoying the views and tourist food.
The hotel has secure parking in a little courtyard and rooms with a fan, but at first I thought there was a problem with the shower. It’s covered in a plastic bag. The lady at the hotel said no, that’s the shower head. OK I guess.
Panajachel is the most touristy of towns around Lake Aititlan, after a few days I drive to San Pedro la Laguna which is known as more of a backpacker town. The roads up and down the volcanoes around the lake are crazy steep. This sign is not an exaggeration. The rim is around 9,000′ and the lake is around 5,000′ and the roads take the most direct route.
Arriving at the Corazon Maya Spanish school in San Pedro I finally meet up with Todd and Chantelle, the Australian couple whom I picked up the package for back in Tulum. They treat me to dinner and many drinks. I’ve been meaning to get some Spanish lessons and this seems like a good place so I sign up for a couple of weeks.
The weather here is amazing, between the altitude and geography every day is a perfect fall day, about 78 and sunny in the afternoon and low 60s overnight.
The school has some organized activities every week, first week we walk up into the hills to visit an ancient religious site in a cave. Along the way we see lots of coffee plants and people harvesting the ripened beans
Another evening we all pile into a van and drive around the lake to San Marcos de la Laguna for the basketball finals. Apparently there is a long standing rivalry between San Pedro and San Marcos and tonight is the big night. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a basketball final as your average Guatemalan is about 5′ 0″ but the teams were very good. The announcer made a special point of welcoming us gringos from San Pedro to the game. Pictures from below are from the first game, women’s teams, as once the men’s teams took the court we were so jammed in I couldn’t raise my arms to get a picture. The San Pedro women’s team won but the men’s team lost.
Another weekly activity was cooking traditional Guatemalan dishes. I was pretty excited as the first week was pupusas, which I had always thought of as a Salvadoran dish. We learned how to pat out tortillas by hand, along with plenty of chopping for the salad and pico de gallo.
The finished pupusas were delicious.
I accompanied Todd and Chantelle to a nearby chocolate factory. It’s pretty simple. they take cacao beans roast and shell then add milk and flavorings. They roll it out then add any flavorings. The best one was coffee, it had roasted coffee beans rolled in with the chocolate.
There is a central San Pedro which is pretty traditional, and a gringo San Pedro on the waterfront which caters to gringos. There’s a good market in central San Pedro on the weekends, although the main product seems to be shoes I found a guy who sells cheese with jalapeno (most Central American cheese is a pretty bland white cheese). He wraps up the block of cheese in a banana leaf. Along with some fresh bread it makes a good lunch.
Another week at Corazon Maya we make tamales frijol. They roll out and flatten the corn meal mixture on a table top then spread black bean paste on top. After rolling and cutting the pieces are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.
You have to wash and tear the banana leafs to size first
The steamed tamales with a little tomato sauce and parmesan.
My bungalow at Corazon Maya. There are others with bathrooms and showers but for $35USD per week I can’t complain.
A restaurant in gringolandia, great food and cheap drinks.
A walk through gringolandia
Nachos Americanos. Turns out nachos are a strictly American dish, no Mexican or Central American restaurant serves them, except for gringos. This plate had probably 1/2 lb of guacamole under the meat and salsa, very good.
View from another restaurant near the docks
The lake is fed only by rainfall, being so high up and surrounded by volcanoes. In the past the water level was much lower and there are ruins of buildings underwater. Lately the water has been receding and these ghost buildings are showing at the waterline.
More gringo nachos, I can’t help myself.
Finally, after four weeks at Corazon Maya it’s time to move along. I have learned a lot and feel much more comfortable with Spanish now. Time to test it in the real world.
Driving out the super steep road back to the PanAm highway, one last look back at Lake Aititlan. San Pedro on the right.
I spent three days in Antigua. Camping at the Tourist Police compound, which is free but has no amenities whatsoever. Every day I was up early and walking the 3 blocks over to McDonalds for bathroom and breakfast. It’s the nicest McDonald’s I’ve seen, with a beautiful courtyard looking out over a ruined church and a volcano. Plus they have free wifi.
One day the police brought in this guy that they had arrested and all took turns posing for pictures with him in cuffs. Not sure if he was a famous criminal or what.
Antigua is a very picturesque town, with lots of modern amenities.
Nice to enjoy more modern places after a month in San Pedro, even though there were a lot of tourists they seem to have a good balance between tourism and local life.
There is a volcano on the outskirts of town that has been erupting for awhile. I wasn’t able to see it earlier but everything has been covered in volcanic ash all week. Finally on the way out of Antigua i was able to see the volcano in action.
I’m headed for the small town of Cuidad Pedro de Alvarado on the border with El Salvador