We are the only people at the border and we are happy that we have no queue at the counter. However we didn`t take into account the lunch break from customs which lasts exactly one hour. Till we have done all the uncounted copies and have received all stamps it`s two hours later. This seems to be our standard time for border crossings.
There is not much to see on the first 100 kilometers and punctual for the rush hour we come to Guatemala City which was not the best plan. For 10 meters we need 5 minutes and the smog is really breathtaking. To make matters worse the police stops us and we are told that cars over 3.5 tons are forbidden during rush hour. However the guys are really nice and after a longer discussion about German soccer we receive a temporary permit and can move on. Meanwhile it`s dark and the fun factor while driving is close to zero. Two hours and 10 kilometers later we reach our destination, a Swiss Hotel in the outskirts and we feel it`s enough for today. This was one of the days we don`t need very often.
With 16 million people Guatemala is the country with the highest population in Central America but also one of the poorest. 54% of the people are poor and 13% extreme poor. The per head income is $320 per month whereby the money transfer from migrated Guatemala ekes which live illegal in the United States is of high importance. Approximately 5 billion dollars per year are transferred to the families at home. From 1960 until 1996 was dominated by a civil war which costs more than 200.000 lives. Partly it assumed alarming proportions close to genocide on the Indigenes. Today Guatemala is an independent democratic republic but corruption still has a high presence in all areas of the public life. The crime rate is high and the threshold to violence either.
But after 3 years of travelling we don`t lose heart because the country has it´s attraction and is also named the heart of the Maya world. The next morning we leave the greater area of Guatemala City and go on to Antigua a wonderful old colonial town and tourist hotspot. The gorgeous setting is framed from the three volcanos Agua, Acatenango and the smoking Fuego. We can park for free in the city center at the place of the tourist police which is also a meeting spot for overlanders. To improve our language skills we do a five days Spanish course and after this we are happy that school is over for us since a long time. Four hours per day one on one and homework for the next day was not stress less. We stroll thru the streets and have a good time. The most impressive building for us was the Convent Santo Domingo, a luxury hotel embedded in an old monastery with some museums and crypts where you can stay for hours. In the evening we sit together with other travelers, exchange information, play cards and drink some glasses from the good rum of Nicaragua.
After 10 days we continue our journey to Lago Atitlan, a highlight which you should not miss when you travel in Guatemala. Also Alexander from Humboldt named it the most beautiful lake on earth and when you see the scenery with the three volcanos you can hardly disagree. We have a wonderful place direct on the lake close to the main village Panajachel. The location is very touristic and one souvenir stand is next to the other with belongings nobody really needs.
Sunday is market day in Chichicastenango and the farmers come from all over to sell their goods. Meanwhile the market has developed as a tourist hotspot and on some days the proportion to locals is almost equal. We take a bus ride for one hour and off it goes into the crush. It´s strongly recommended watching your belongings. Teenagers are around in small groups and look for victims to polish their pocket money. We stroll thru the narrow streets and enjoy the colorful surrounding. Some people carry unbelievable weights and almost every woman has two or more child’s either under the arm, on the back or on the breast. One of the most interesting buildings is the Church Santo Tomas which was erected over an old Maya temple. On the holy steps at the main entrance old women swear to the old gods with candles and incense. After this they go into the church and pray to Jesus of the Catholic Church. This merger of persuasions only takes place in Guatemala and determines the religious life of the Indigenes until today.
We want to see something from the beautiful surrounding and start for a boat trip around the lake. The first stop is San Marco a small village with strong breathe of esoteric. A lot of dropouts are around and almost every form of meditation is offered. We go to three more villages and all have their own specific attractions. Late afternoon we are back in Panajachel.
After a few days we leave our nice place on the lake and drive via Guatemala City up to Quirigua an archeological site with the highest steles of the Maya world. We stay on the parking lot overnight and visit the ruins the next morning. The ornamented columns are from the 7th and 8th century and the biggest is more than 10 meters high and weighs 65 tons. The steles served as a political instrument to profile the potentate. Besides a portrait you can find hieroglyphics about history and the relationship of the ruler to the gods.
Our next destination is Rio Dulce at the mouth of Lago Izabal not far from the Caribbean coast. The village itself is ugly and the trucks which pass the big bridge day and night make an infernal noise when using their motor brakes. This gets topped from music on full blast till long after midnight. Will say we yet have had better nights. Nevertheless the town is a meeting point for circumnavigators and dropouts and the bars around the marina have some charm. But we see nothing from the Caribbean weather. It`s only 20 degrees and rainy. The next morning we make a boat trip to Livingstone on the coast which is 40 km away. The town is a curiosity in Guatemala and different from the rest of the country. You feel like in a Caribbean village and at the pier they say “Welcome to Africa”. Around 1800 the Garifuna settled here as successors of the survivors from a stranded slave ship. We stroll around for a few hours but we find it not very stunning and late afternoon it gets back.
We escape from the noise of Rio Dulce and drive a few kilometers up to the lake shore of Lago Izabal. Here we find a very nice place direct on the beach. We enjoy the heavenly rest till… yes, till the workers continue the construction work on one of the bungalows on Monday morning at 7am. Eventually we can make use of our bicycles and bike a few kilometers to a hot waterfall. We had a hot river in Bolivia and a lot of hot pools on our way but this is something completely new for us. We swim in front of the fall in cool water and when we come closer to the fall it really gets hot. Also underneath are caves where you can dive into. A nice amusement which is only dulled a bunch of begging kids which are hardly outgrown of swaddling clothes but perfectly master the slogan “give me a dollar man”.
We continue our way up North and make a stop at Finca Ixobel. A lot of travelers stay longer here on the huge area with a nature pool but we cannot take pleasure with this location. It`s rainy and wet and a few minutes outside are rewarded with hundreds of bites from all kinds of small animals. After two days we escape and go on to Flores. The small village in the Peten Itza Lake is connected to the mainland with a dam. We must park in front because the dam is not made for vehicles over 3.5 tons. The town is small and can be easily explored by foot. With the colored houses and the stone-flagged streets it looks more like a village in Southern Europe.
We now look forward to Tikal, the first big Maya Site we are going to visit on our journey. The area is huge and the complete National Park is 576sqkm. We drive 20km from the entrance gate to the ruins where we find a nice place on a large campground. When you arrive after 3pm the ticket is also valid for the next day and allows already a first impression at late afternoon. During her long history from 200 B.C. till 800 A.C. Tikal has influenced the complete Maya world and is an outstanding experience. Huge palaces and temples which reach over the top of the trees are hided in the rain forest. In between spider monkeys run thru the trees as there is no gravitation and howling monkeys mark their territory with an infernal noise. It´s perfect weather and we start our visit right away. The huge site was erected in a time frame of several hundred years and has hundreds of temples, pyramids and steles. The central area is the “Gran Plaza” with temple one and two and for the sundown you climb on top of temple 4 with a beautiful view over the top of the jungle. The next morning we start our tour at 7am. At this time not much visitors are around and at many places we are alone. It`s foggy between the trees which gives it a really mystic atmosphere. After 10am the big buses arrive and around lunch time the “Gran Plaza” is crowded. We leave the area at 1pm and drive to Yaxha another Maya Site a bit off track and therefore with less visitors.
With more than 500 registered structures Yaxha belongs to the biggest Maya Sites in Guatemala. The area is not much visited and is next to a beautiful lagoon. We look around until sunset and find a very nice place to camp direct on the lake shore. Unfortunately swimming is not really recommended because crocodiles have their home in the lagoon. But this doesn`t influence the beauty of the location.
That was it with Guatemala. We are very impressed about the country, the friendliness of the people and the nature together with the relicts of the Maya world. Guatemala is really worth a holiday trip. Now we continue in Belize which is different to the rest of Central America because they speak English. But this is then part of our next blog. Until then enjoy reading and watching the pictures and like us on Facebook. Hasta Luego.