Guatemala, a quintessential Central American treasure and surfers' best kept secret.
It’s winter in Northern hemisphere… and for the first time in a while, I don’t have an escape planned, and nothing to look forward to. But if unlike me, you are wondering where to go in February and thinking about sunnier places, Central America is a great adventure travel destination for this time of the year.
One of my favourite countries in Central America is Guatemala. A land of Mayan civilization, with post-colonial heritage, natural beauty and genuinely amazing people.
Perfectly positioned to combine with visiting Mexico, Belize, Honduras or El Salvador. If you are lucky enough to have more than two weeks at your disposal for your adventure travel, I would combine Guatemala with Belize. Both so close, yet so different. Guatemala has more Latin American vibes, Belize feels more Caribbean. However, if you are limited with time, Guatemala on its own should be enough for a shorter trip, living you lusting for more Central American escapes and adventures.
Is Guatemala safe?
As a solo female traveller, I was a bit concerned how safe Guatemala would be for solo travel. Am I adventurous enough to venture there on my own?
Well, it’s as safe and as dangerous, as your appetite for danger in any country in the world. As long as you are sensible, there is no reason to think you won’t be safe there. But… it’s always good to travel with other people, and there were times I felt lonely and longing travel companion, especially at evenings. Having a travel buddy can also make the commute between different places more bearable, as with any less developed country, the roads aren’t great and it takes a really long time to go from A to B. Plus, sharing the adventure is another benefit of having a travel partner, not to mention feeling more secure and safe if you are solo female traveller.
My lust for adventure goes as far as venturing solo 8,000 miles to another part of the world, but then having a driver to pick me up from Guatemala City airport to deliver to remote village on the Pacific Coast – El Paredon, where I started my adventure holiday.
I have put together some of my favourite and worth visiting Guatemalan destinations, which should be enough to build however long itinerary, and add some extras, if you are thinking of visiting this beautiful country.
El Paredon, surfers' best kept secret and a true ‘off the beaten track’ destination.
El Paredon village, around three hours’ drive from Guatemala City, or two hours from Antigua, is surfers’ best kept secret. Still undiscovered, still remote, with miles long beach on a doorstep, and beautiful surf conditions, empty line-ups and perfect waves. A wave for every surfer… Did I say remote? If you ‘no hablo espanol’, you better learn some basic Spanish words, otherwise you will have trouble finding ‘aqua’ and ‘cerveza’, as English isn’t spoken there. And if you venture deep in the village, is as rural as it gets, with wild pigs roaming free in the streets…
I spent a week in El Paredon, in a charming Paredon Surf house, living in a beachfront bungalow, waking up every day to the entirety of the Pacific in front of my eyes. Even though, my first words were ‘what’s your wi-fi password?’, I did manage to detach completely from the outside word, spending days surfing, swimming, reading, chilling and feeling alive. And it doesn’t matter if you are a surfer or an adventure seeking sun chaser in a need to detach from the world. There aren’t many places that are truly remote, without too much Western influences, but El Paredon village is one of them.
There is more to Guatemala and that’s why it’s one of my favourite countries so far. From visiting ancient Mayan sites, to volcanoes, rain forests and embracing cultural experiences of Lake Atitlan or Antigua.
Antigua, a vibrant UNESCO heritage city
If you start your journey landing in Guatemala City, I would head for Antigua, a historical heritage city, about one hour’s drive from Guatemala City. Surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, slightly cooler (1,530m above sea level), this post-colonial town is a vibrant cultural delight, with cobbled streets, ruins, cathedrals, palaces, parks and amazing cafes. Antigua is small and compact to walk around, and most hostels and hotels are located within walking distance to all the cultural and historical attractions worth visiting. Walking the streets, surrounded by colourful buildings, art galleries, array of cafes and local people, has some mysticism to it.
It’s a city made for walking, drinking coffee and soul searching. I would spend a couple of days in Antigua, to fully enjoy the atmosphere of the city, before heading further.
Lake Atitlan, a stunning scenery and indigenous Mayan culture
Less than three hour’s drive from Antigua, is another ‘must visit’ Guatemalan iconic destination – Lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The vibe of Lake Atitlan, is mixed of indigenous Mayan culture, with that of hippie towns, as the place is popular amongst backpackers and travellers, as well as expats who settled in surrounding villages.
Lake Atitlan is huge, so there is plenty of choice where to settle and make an exploration base of the area. How many days to stay there, depends on your further travel plans, so if you are on a strict timeline, stay a few days. If you have plenty of time and are in no rush, stay a couple of weeks to have a chance to fully experience the vibes of the place. Lake Atitlan is one of the most popular places to visit in Guatemala, so I would recommend more thorough research on where to stay, if you don’t want to fall into an expensive tourist trap. It may overshadow the experience of staying in mesmerizingly beautiful place on earth.
Panajachel, even though tiny, is the busiest and the most popular (and touristy) place around Lake Atitlan. If you stay there, it’s a good starting point to take a boat and visit some of the truly authentic Mayan villages. If you crave more authenticity, head to Santa Cruz, although you will be less spoiled for choice there, and deeper into the village, more native it gets. San Pedro is a great place to meet fellow backpackers, and if hippie is your thing, head to San Marcos for some yoga, massages and spirituality. Lake Atitlan, is a great stopover to get acquainted with Mayan culture, as well as the nature. Surrounded by three volcanoes, a trekking and hiking trip, I’d say is a must for an active adventure traveller.
Chichicastenango, a bit of mystery, a bit of ‘real’ Guatemala and an ultimate stop-shop
Heading North from the Lake Atitlan further into the country, in a jungle covered mountain region of Guatemala lies Chichicastenango (Chichi), one of the biggest local markets in Central America. The market is held on Thursdays and Sundays. If you are making Guatemala your Central American adventure travel destination, experience Chichi and spend some Quetzal buying something authentic and handmade from indigenous Mayan people.
Lago Izabal, Rio Dulce and Livingston, Caribbean vibes and ‘abandoned’ Garifuna people
Lake Izabal, is Guatemalan largest lake and a stopover before heading via Rio Dulce to the Caribbean town of Livingston. I personally found Lake Izabal a bit sedated and boring, with not much to do around for an adventure traveller, but it’s a good spot to venture further, taking a scenic trip through Rio Dulce towards Livingston, which is worth visiting.
It couldn’t be more different to Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango… you almost forget you are in Guatemala and want to start singing reggae and drinking rum, as if you were in transported to a completely different country.
Livingston is a fascinating little town, with no access by road from the mainland. You can either enter it from Rio Dulce or from the Atlantic Ocean. And its history is captivating. The town is mainly occupied by Garifuna people, Afro-Caribbean descendants, said to be washed ashore or escaped from two Spanish slave ship-wrecks in the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Moved by Spanish in the 18th century, from island to island, through Belize, they finally found peace in Livingston and settled in Guatemala.
Life in Livingston is slow, and the town itself is quite small, but it’s an interesting cultural experience, and something that I did not expected to find in Guatemala.
Tikal, a place where time stopped and top spot on Guatemala’s ‘must see’ list
If you follow the order of places I mentioned earlier, you already have a trip itinerary, which will inevitably lead you to a number one place you must see in Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal. The largest archaeological site and urban centre of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization, located in Tikal National Park.
Set deep in pristine jungle, Tikal National Park is huge, measuring more than 220 square miles (575 square kilometres), and Tikal archaeological site is spread over 6 square miles (16 kilometres), containing over 3,000 buildings.
I must say, I felt like Lara Croft, exploring the temples, tombs and pyramids, walking in the jungle, watching wildlife and listening to the story of rise and fall of Mayan civilization. Much of the Mayan ruins were reclaimed by the jungle and remain hidden, yet to fully experience the complex available to public, you would need at least couple of days and that would just scratch the surface.
Best place to stay whilst planning to visit Tikal, is nearby Flores and head for the Tikal Mayan ruins from there. Tikal is located around 100 kilometres North from Lago Izabal and only two hours’ drive from Belize.
There is certainly more to Guatemala than these places, from cultural and natural experiences, to its people, food and history. You can definitely build your own itinerary, mixing more remote and ‘off the beaten track’ locations, with the top ‘must see’ spots of Guatemala. And if you end your Guatemalan adventure in Tikal, why not visit Belize. A land of a coconut rum and the most beautiful jungles, where you can continue your adventure travel, and even be like Bear Grylls, walking through underground caves from nearby San Ignacio (he did walk those caves, so they say).
But, I will live that story for another blog....
Travelling the world solo can be overwhelming and lonely at times. But you can always download Tribd on iOS and see who’s heading in the same direction and connect.
Follow @tribdapp on social media for travel stories and travel inspiration and join our group of solo travellers on Facebook!