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Guatemala to El Salvador

We weren’t too sure how to get from Antigua, Guatemala to El Salvador and more specifically whereabouts in El Salvador to go. So we started with the obvious and went round the tour agencies asking about shuttle buses, coaches etc and were presented with 2 options.

Option 1 San Salvador – take a shuttle to Guatemala City and then a bus to San Salvador, total price $US40 per person.

Option 2 La Liberdad beach area – take shuttle as per above and then buses, total price $US45 per person.

Both options seemed very expensive, especially as we knew a chicken bus to the city was only a dollar, so we looked online and found 2 bus companies that operated from Guatemala City to San Salvador, each for about $US25 per person – Ticabus and Pullmantur.

The Ticabus left at 5.30am from the Ticabus terminal and the Pullmantur left at 7.45am from the Hilton Hotel, so if we missed one we could still make the other.

By 4.10am we were at the Antigua bus station waiting for our bus, however we managed to miss the first one as it took a different exit so we didn’t catch a bus until 4.35am, by then we knew we would not make the Ticabus.

As we headed into Guatemala City the rain season decided to start, perfect as we had forgotten to place our backpacks in their waterproof sleeves, so all we could do was listen to the rain hit the roof and our backpacks above for over half an hour.

When we arrived in Guatemala city we weren’t sure where to get off but we knew we needed a taxi, so we decided to try to find somewhere with a shelter and a taxi. This unfortunately failed as the bus was so full we never seemed able to get off when we wanted to. In the end when the driver announced we were at the bus terminal and almost everyone got off we too decided to jump off.

However, as I made my way out the driver gently grabbed my arm and asked me where I needed to get to as he had seen me getting up and sitting back down. A little surprised I explained we were looking for the Pullmantur bus, which was supposed to leave from the Hilton Hotel. After a little chat with remaining passengers he explained the Pullmantur terminal was actually just a half block away.

This surprised me as there was no mention of a terminal on the website, however as he obviously knew his surroundings and there were no taxis we decided to make our way there and see what options we had.

After thanking the driver for his help we collected our soaked backpacks and head off to the ” International bus terminal”. We made our way in the small terminal to the only desk and asked if there were buses to San Salvador, the man answered yes and that they left at 7.30am.

Surprised we asked if we could buy tickets and how much they would be. The reply left us perplexed, yes there were plenty of seats available and the ticket was just under $US15 per person, $US10 less than the advertised price. Unsure what to make of it we paid the fare and went to wait.

We were slightly worried as to what mode of transport would appear but at 7.15am we boarded a regular bus with reclining seats and TV and set off for the border.

The journey was around 4 hours in total and the border crossing was very easy. We arrived at the border for Guatemala and simply had our passports stamped, no exit charges to pay.

We then got back on the bus and drove 2 mins to the El Salvadoran border, here we simply sat in our seats while a security officer checked our passports, once done we were off again.

We arrived at the Puerto Bus terminal in San Salvador around lunchtime, feeling quite shattered from being up since 3.30am we decided to simply check in to the hotel above the bus terminal!

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Antigua

Travelling south from Coban on the bus, we snaked through the green mountainous scenery of the Alta Verapaz region, followed by the cowboy and ranch region of Sacatepequez before reaching the unmistakable city of Guatemala.

Once in Guatemala City we took a taxi to the chicken bus terminal and took the colourful bus for a further hour’s drive to the old city of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Antigua: the arch

We spent the afternoon looking for a reasonably priced hostel and were amazed to find many places full or simply too expensive for what they offered, proving to us that Antigua is indeed a tourist hotspot. We eventually found a nice hostel called Banana Azul located near the bus station and for a very affordable price.

Despite its obvious affluence, Antigua too has a richer side of town and maybe not a poor side, but definitely a more affordable side of town. The west side is home to the 5 star hotels and expensive restaurants whereas the east side is where you will find the market and more affordable eateries, making your stay a little more affordable!

Antigua: Palacio de los Capitanes Generales

The heart of Antigua is made up of 9 blocks by 9 blocks and is filled with beautiful buildings, from postcard perfect houses to baroque styled churches and people relaxing in plazas.

Antigua: La Merced Church

However, the true beauty of the city lies within its history. The former capital of Guatemala, had its title removed following 2 devastating earthquakes in the 18th century as the authorities deemed it too dangerous to maintain as the capital.

Antigua: Cathedral ruins

The widespread damage caused by the earthquakes shows on the many buildings which partially survived, this now creates an awe-inspiring glimpse of the city’s previous life. So much so that you virtually stumble across a piece of history at every corner.

Antigua: San Jose el Viejo

With Vulcan de Agua towering over the city like a quiet sentinel, the paved cobblestone roads lined with brightly coloured buildings and history dotted at every corner, Antigua really is a unique and wonderous city begging to be explored.

Antigua: colourful buldings of Ave 5 Norte

For a truly breathtaking view of the city and the volcano head up to the Cerro de la Cruz, from where you will have a bird’s-eye view of Antigua and the surrounding area.

Antigua: View of city from Cerro de la Cruz

As a note you should ideally make the trip with either a large group or a tour guide as the path up is through a wooded area with not much surveillance. You can pick up a tour guide from the main plaza and the walk is about half an hour each way.

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Chichicastenango

We had heard that the market town of Chichicastenango really comes to life on Sundays, with local people from surrounding villages coming on the day to sell their products. We also learned that all tours to the market go out early morning and return just after lunchtime.

Chichicastenango: Santo Tomas church

With that information we decided we should arrive in the afternoon post the tourist crowd and just a few hours before closing, the logic for this? As we wanted to buy a couple of items we figured the prices would be more favourable just before closing time and post the tourist shuttles. And we were right!

Chichicastenango market: colourful textiles

We had read in the guide-book that market prices in Panajachel would be lower but we found Chichicastenango to be far easier to pick up a bargain, so much so that vendors were instantly dropping 50% on prices the minute you said too expensive.

And even if you weren’t interested they would follow you continuously lowering their price, something we did not find in Panajachel.

Our advice, if you want to some shopping get there from 3pm as the market starts to shut down around 5pm.

Chichicastenango market: local people and their outfits

The market itself is a mix of crafts and groceries, unlike other markets I have visited, so it is not as big as you first imagine when you arrive. It is set up around the church and despite it seeming like a maze if you use the church as your marker you can get around easily in a couple of hours.

Chichicastenango market: stalls and products

Chichicastenango is a very crowded place but we found it to be very safe nonetheless. We arrived from Lago de Atitlan so had one of our backpacks with us but at no time did we feel worried about being pickpocketed or the like. Although as with everything common sense is needed.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Lago de Atitlan

Lago de Atitlan, located a couple of hours from Antigua, can be easily reached by local buses although a change is needed at either Los Encuentros or Chimaltenango. It is also a lot cheaper to get there by bus then by shuttle.

The lake itself is dominated by 2 large volcanos on the southern side, San Pedro and Toliman and 7 main towns around the lake. Panajachel being the largest offers a good base for seeing the other towns, which are easily reached by water taxi.

Lake Atitlan: view of the San Pedro volcano, peak 3000m

We spent 2 nights in Panajachel to see both the town itself which has an extensive arts and crafts market and to visit San Pedro de la Laguna and Santiago Atitlan.

Panajachel: women in traditional clothing

In each town you visit you are greeted with various markets, each selling something slightly different to the last. Various Mayan communities with different traditional clothing still worn today by both women and men can also be seen throughout the towns, bringing bursts of colour to the mountainous surroundings.

Santiago Atitlan: men in traditional clothing

The main transport system around the towns is done by tuk-tuks which are inexpensive and will take you anywhere around town for about 5 quetzales, the plus side being they squeeze anywhere!

San Pedro: tuk-tuk in the narrow sidewalk

We noticed that as younger drivers are taking over the tuk-tuk business each vehicle seems to have received a face-lift from their new owners; from paint work and extra side exhausts, to fake flames along the side and flashing LED lights at night. They really are an amusing sight in the backdrop of the Mayan world.

Panajachel: pimped out tuk-tuk

During our day trip of the lake we found that each town had a particular characteristic to it. The main town Panajachel seemed more of a bustling hub with its crafts market, a surprisingly extensive range of imported products in the supermarkets, and central links back into Guatemala.

Santiago Atitlan although smaller in size and seemingly carved into the volcano with its extremely steep roads also offered large markets but with more of an authentic feel to it, in part helped by seeing so many Mayan people in colourful traditional clothing.

Santiago Atitlan: market stalls near the dock

Whereas San Pedro, although pretty, seemed to be taken over by American ex-pats, so much so that the whole side-walk felt something like Placencia but without the coastline. To us the whole area felt disconnected to the Mayan side of town and although pretty we felt it did not really belong in the town.

San Pedro: sidewalk

During our crossing from Panajachel to Santiago Atitlan we learned from a local that all the towns in the lake had suffered serious damages along their beachfront caused by increased rainfall during the last 2 years.

Santiago Atitlan: former buildings now under water

So much so that we found former docks and buildings submerged underwater in all 3 towns. However, the frightening part is that authorities reckon that the water levels will continue to rise over the course of the next 10 years, to the point of taking out all the lower level buildings, forcing people to re-locate further up.

San Pedro: beach area now under water

It is a sad thought to think that in a decade up to half of these lower level villages and towns could be lost to the lake. And even sadder to know that they are not receiving aid to help them re-locate.

San Pedro: former dock now under water

Unfortunately, when in Central America you are never far from a poverty related story that reminds you just how hard life still can be on this beautiful side of the world.

Lake Atitlan: sunset over the lake

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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The buses of Guatemala

If we had buses like this in the UK I think I would take the bus at least once a week!

Guatemala: The colourful buses in Antigua

I had heard about the colourful chicken buses that roam certain parts of Guatemala but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of a bus station full of them.

Guatemala: Buses parked at station

The best thing about these buses is their frequency, the price and the complete inability to miss one.

Not only are they frequent, some every 10 – 15 mins, but the conductor spends all his time shouting the destination of the place, making it almost impossible to miss. And should you by chance miss one you know the next one will be along soon.

Guatemala: Buses parked at station

One thing we were surprised to find was the friendliness of people on the bus, everyone tries to make room for the next load of people, sometimes to the point where you have 4 people on a seat made for 2 – something that would never happen in the UK.

Guatemala: The colourful buses in Antigua

On all of our journeys so far on these buses we have easily found where to go, when to get off, and even been offered seats on crowded buses, plus with the music playing and the latin american driving it really does make for an interesting experience, so much so that we always arrive with a smile!

Guatemala: Bus at night

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Climbing Pacaya

Located just over an hour’s drive away Volcano Pacaya is the easiest climb of a set of 4 volcanoes overlooking Antigua.

Pacaya is an active volcano with its last major eruption happening only 2 years ago.

Speaking with the local guide we discovered that the villages nestled along the volcano had to be evacuated after Pacaya started spitting out large lava rocks onto the inhabitants houses, causing the roofs and even some houses to alight from the hot lava. This apparently continued for nearly an hour, leaving the locals cowering in their houses fearing for their lives as the volcano threw fire bombs around them.

The 1,000 or so inhabitants subsequently had to endure days of heavy rain and storms that tore through region, the only blessing from this was that the rain dissipated the ash clouds that had formed but leaving behind nearly a meter of ash.

Luckily for us I only discovered this story on the way down from the seemingly dormant volcano…

We had booked ourselves on a morning tour of the volcano as the weather tends to be better than the afternoon, unfortunately despite waiting nearly an hour outside our hostel the shuttle bus never turned up.

After complaining to the agency Onvisa we were relocated to the afternoon tour, not ideal but as we were going to Lago Atitlan the day after it was this or wait a week. So we went.

The shuttle bus took us part of the way up the volcano; from here we would have to walk about 2 hours to get near the crater.

The climb itself is around 4km and can at times be quite hard going, especially as the soil feels more like sand and you find yourself either sinking or stumbling on the rock littered path.

Pacaya: Lava stones on our path

You are given the option to hire a horse for the climb and if you choose not to you are constantly tempted for the whole hike with the local guides calling out “taxi” and leading the spare horses next to you. It takes serious will power to not succumb!

Pacaya: One of our guides

When you do reach the top of the path the landscape changes dramatically and you are surrounded by black and red lava rocks littered along black cracked paths, which at times sound hollow as you walk.

Pacaya: Path to the crater

Once at the highest point you can climb you are rewarded with freshly toasted marshmallows on the hot lava rocks. It is quite an incredible experience to be standing on hot rocks and knowing that the volcano beneath you could erupt.

Pacaya: Lava stone

Unfortunately for us the weather was not on our side for the climb and it was impossible to see any views from the volcano due to the constant misty clouds surrounding us.

However, it was a good climb and it probably wont be our last on an active volcano!

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Semuc-Champey

Located near Lanquin, Semuc Champey is a natural water wonder consisting of several limestone pool formations along the Cahabon river. The pools are filled with turquoise water and form little waterfalls as each pool is above the next.

Semuc Champey: Pools

We opted for a tour of Semuc Champey which also included the Lanquin caves, we had wanted to go with the bus but it was difficult to get information on how to get there exactly.

The town of Lanquin is located an hour’s drive on unpaved tracks from the main road and seems to be the last place for provisions before you get to Semuc Champey, which is then another 30 minutes away.

Semuc Champey reminded us of a smaller version of Agua Azul in Mexico. In fact the pools are a total of only 300m compared to the 7km of Agua Azul.

Semuc Champey: Waterfall

But what makes them different is the very fact that they are so close together, allowing you to easily go from one pool to the next.

Semuc Champey: Main pool

The area also feels very secure and there are both security guards and life guards.

After Semuc Champey we taken to the Lanquin caves for a quick tour. Although highly impressive in terms of rock formations and the fact that the caves are still used as a Mayan church with animal sacrifices, the slippery surfaces and lack of proper handrails throughout make it a beautiful yet dangerous place to go.

Lanquin cave: Jaguar altar

Even with our Vibram soles we were struggling to walk across the wet rocks without sliding, the only saving grace was the fact they had added electricity to the caves so you didn’t need to worry about using one had for the torch and only one for your hanging on.

The caves are also covered with bat excrement as there are thousands who reside there so ensure you take wipes as your hands at the very least will be filthy by the end.

When you are able to stand still and look around, the caves are spectacular, the numerous altars, now black with years of candle smoke are unlike anything I have seen and the knowledge that they are still in use does bring a certain awe to them.

Lanquin: Mayan altar

If you have the chance to do the combined tour I would recommend it, just be very careful and ensure you go prepared!

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Coban

Prior to discovering just how far apart places are in Guatemala we had planned to travel through the mountains to Coban and then head west towards Huehuetenango with the intention of heading to Todos Santos.

This would have allowed us to take in the beautiful mountain scenery of the Alta Verapaz region, and give us a little respite from the heat.

That was before our 5 hour (yet only 197km) journey in a small packed shuttle van, being sped along winding roads at break neck speed, all the while having the speakers blaring at full volume – for the full 5 hours…

We decided there and then that we would have to amend our plans.

We arrived in Coban a little after 6pm with no idea as to our whereabouts in the town and with no idea of where to stay.

We were approached and eventually persuaded by a hotel owner to go to his place, partly due to it being already dark and partly due to the price being cheap.

The hotel (Hotel Ecologico) turned out to be a small place with concrete blocks as rooms, we stayed the night but as there was no hot water in our room we found an alternative place for the next 2 nights, a nice little hostel called Don Jose on the other side of town.

Coban: Town centre

Coban itself is not really worth visiting, it is a good place if you plan to do local tours like we did, for example, to Semuc Champey but if not then you could happily skip it.

If you are using it as a jump off point then there are plenty of places to stay although prices vary greatly, there are numerous eating places and supermarkets, most of which are centered around the cathedral at the top of the hill.

Coban: Central Plaza

A downside though was the fact we could not find any accommodation which offered cooking facilities, and am sure we asked almost everywhere, so we had to yet again eat out for every meal.

After 2 days in Coban we decided to move on to our final main stop in Guatemala, Antigua, but not by shuttle!

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Yaxha

We had originally wanted to visit Yaxha and La Blanca together as a full day tour, but as the low season was in full swing it was a struggle to get numbers together for a tour. Plus, it also turned out that the archeologists working on La Blanca weren’t due back until September. So a half day trip to Yaxha it was.

The site itself is located within the cultural triangle national park along with 2 other sites, Naranjo and Nakum. Entry fees to the park include access to all 3 sites, however they are not a stroll apart and you would have to camp inside the park if you wanted to see all of them on your trip.

The national park is located an hour and a half from Flores along a good paved road until you arrive at the park which has an unpaved entrance road.

Although this site was one of the smallest we visited, it still offered impressive views across the park from various temples.

Yaxha: Grupo Maler

You really have to observe your surroundings as you walk through Yaxha as a lot of the site has been left unexcavated or partially excavated on purpose. Once you start to identify all the hidden structures you get a feel for just how big a site it had once been.

Yaxha: Unearthed Structure

A nice thing about Yaxha is that it has a very laid back feel to it and you are able to climb nearly all the structures, allowing you to walk around without feeling you are held back from immersing yourself.

Yaxha: Acropolis Norte

We were especially lucky during our visit to be sharing the site with only 2 other tourists, leaving us to only come across the odd bored looking guard on our walk.

Yaxha: Calzada del lago

We decided to visit Yaxha in the afternoon, as the site only requires a few hours to view, but the real bonus is you can sit on temple 216 and watch the sunset over the lagoon.

Yaxha: Sunset from Temple 216

One thing we did realise during this visit was that for us, we had now seen enough Mayan sites for the time being and that it was time to see more of modern Mayan culture, so we decided to head towards Antigua.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Tikal

Tikal is located about an hour and a half away from Flores and can be easily reached with a shuttle bus, tickets can be bought from any of the agencies or hotels and are around 60 quetzales for a return ticket.

The only thing to check is that you have a late return as there are 2 companies that run services and one has returns at lunchtime whereas the other allows you to come back at 5pm.

We took the 5am shuttle and arrived at 6.30am at the entrance to Tikal. There are several places to eat around the entrance but they are obviously more costly than outside the park. As you will need at least 8 hours to see the site it is wise to bring lunch. Drinks can be bought at several points within the park and are not too expensive.

View of the West Plaza:

Tikal: West Plaza

In terms of size, Tikal is the most impressive we have seen. Still set amongst the jungle you really have no idea of the sheer size of the place until you have spent the day walking it. As every group of structures is hidden from the next until you reach the end of the path it is hard to imagine what is around the next corner.

Temple 5:

Tikal: Temple 5

We had the added luck of being there during the low season which meant we saw very few people and were able to climb the temples without having to compete with tours.

View from the North Acropolis:

Tikal:Temple 2 from North Acropolis

Most of the site is accessible either directly or via wooden ladders attached to the sides of buildings, allowing tourists to experience the temples even when the steps have long since deteriorated.

View of the Gran Plaza:

Tikal: Gran Plaza

The most impressive temples for us were the Jaguar temple and temple 4 due to their views, with temple 4 offering a panoramic view of the whole site.

View of Tikal:

Tikal: View from Temple 4

As well as the ruins of Tikal the park itself is host to numerous jungle animals from wild turkeys to screeching monkeys jumping from branch to branch above your head.

Wild Turkey:

Tikal: Wild Turkey

Spider monkey:

Tikal: Spider Monkey

A pizote (like a brown raccoon):

Tikal: Pizote

Howler monkey:

Tikal: Howler Monkey

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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