The Guatemalan Highlands

Published: July 27th 2016
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Dear All

Greetings from Lake Atitlan, a stunningly beautiful high altitude lake in the Guatemalan highlands, surrounded by steep lush forested slopes, and flanked on its southern edge by three perfectly conical volcanoes – this could be paradise, it feels wonderful. I am currently writing this one from my hillside cabin at the Hotel Isla Verde, an eco-lodge perched up one of the lush forested Northern slopes of the lake, with a stunning full window vista right in front of me of the bluest of lakes, the bluest of skies and the hazy clouded peaks looming in the distance. The vista is framed by the lushest of vegetation, croaking cicadas and chirping birds. And the cabin’s attached private bathroom has a large completely open, glass-free “window” so you can do your ablutions pretty much in the thick of the lush vegetation and stunning view of the lake – looking forward to my shower “au nature” later. This really is idyllic, and a wonderful place to be writing my next blog entry from.

In fact, it is Lake Atitlan which gave me the inspiration to make this Central American journey, way back in September 2015. I’d just arrived back from India and was wondering whereabouts in the world my next journey would take me, when I watched a travel programme featuring Stephen Fry, and his Central American journey which brought him to this very same lake. I believe I booked my flights the same week. It is so nice to be here, the place which inspired my trip (thanks Steve!), and I’m having a wonderful time on my trip so far.

I believe I last wrote from Mexico City, towards the end of my stay with the fantastic Ernesto and his lovely family in the peaceful suburbs west of the city centre. It was great to see Ernesto again, and re-visit the city which began my journeys all of those 18 years ago. But it was also great to begin my travels proper on Saturday, when I took a flight from Mexico City direct to Guatemala City. I flew with Interjet, the most popular budget airline around these parts, and it definitely put the budget airlines we have in Europe to shame – free checked-in baggage, free choice of seating, and free snack and drink on board – a breath of fresh air indeed. The cabin crew seemed as nonchalant as European budget airlines though, so nothing different there…! And two hours later, on Saturday afternoon, I touched down in Guatemala City. For some very strange reason though, despite heading east from Mexico to Guatemala, we gained an hour on the journey, and the clocks actually went back in time not forward – this is the first time I’ve ever travelled east yet put my watch backwards. Perhaps Guatemalans like to wake up earlier than the Mexicans, certainly the dogs and roosters do at least…!

So here I am in Guatemala, my 72nd country! It is so good to be counting again, it’s been four years since I’ve visited a new country (country number 71 was Burma in 2012), as I took a pause in my country-counting to buy a house and then take my second Masters degree, this time in Religious Education, part-time while working (I passed, with three As and two Bs by the way :D). And so I renew my hobby of country counting again – though rather than visiting all 195 countries in my lifetime, I may have to re-think this – perhaps a more realistic challenge might be to visit 100 countries by the time I retire…? We’ll see…

So I decided to spend two days in Guatemala City, before continuing my journey through the country. Despite what all the statistics say about Guatemala City being one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with high homicide rates based on its ever-present gangland culture, I thought it would be nice to get a flavour for the country by stopping first in its capital. I also always enjoy visiting places which other travellers avoid, and this was no exception. Whilst certain areas of the city are certainly off-limits to visitors, given the high incidences of robberies, kidnappings and murder, I was told by the hotel I was staying in that the areas I wanted to visit were in fact relatively safe, and provided I be careful with whom I speak I should be fine. Now I’ve been to Caracas, currently the world's most dangerous city apparently (having overtaken San Pedro Sula, Honduras, this year, with 120 murders per 100,000 people!!), and that was dodgy – the city oozed a menacing air, and I felt the negative energy throughout the place – anger, and the fear in the people. Very very sadly indeed, the gentleman who arranged most of my travels in Venezuela for me, as it’s a tricky country to travel in independently, Thomas Berry (mentioned in my blogs from Venezuela) was murdered only two years ago, along with his wife, a former Miss Venezuela, Monica Spear. It made headline international news. Very sad indeed. I mention this point about Caracas now as in comparison, Guatemala City felt quite ok (actually, it only ranks as the 25th most dangerous city in the world, with "only" 47 murders per 100,000) – it certainly didn’t ooze negativity. I’m sure it has its dangerous areas, but the places I visited were really nice, the people super-friendly, and I enjoyed my two days there.

Upon arrival, I checked into the Hotel Patricia, a cosy little Bed and Breakfast literally nextdoor to the airport (they arrange free airport pick-ups, a boon arriving in a new city by air for the first time) in a gated urban area guarded by policemen with rifles and fenced off with barbed wire – certainly one of the city’s safer areas I think! The hotel was nice, but a little too cosy for my liking. The bathrooms were shared (I’m not really that type of traveller any more, en-suite being much more my cup of tea, I’m past queuing for a shower…!), and the walls separating rooms were made of plasterboard. I chose it though for its excellent reviews on TripAdvisor, and because most other hotels in Guatemala City seemed either really unfriendly, not so safe, or really expensive. The place was very friendly, and Patricia herself was a delight, but I didn’t get too much sleep due to its crampedness and the late check-ins of the newly arrived visitors at the airport. Still, it was a good base, and offered its own transport around the city.

The first day I explored the City’s “Zona Viva”, roughly translated as “Lively Area”, or I guess the area which has the bars, cafes and street life. It was nice to walk around, surrounded by glitzy shopping malls and Hilton hotels, though once I stepped out of this area I immediately realised it, there was a foreboding, empty atmosphere with a mother and child begging (apparently robbers are just as likely to be women and children there), I decided to return to the Hilton-zone, and dined in the Holiday Inn before taxi-ing it back to Patricia’s.

The second day was a full day in the City, and I spent the morning in the most amazing of zoos I’ve been to. Guatemala City zoo is supposedly one of the better-run zoos in the region, and I thought it was brilliant – the animals looked very healthy and well-cared for, and it felt similar in style and set-up to the Singapore Zoo, one of the best zoos in the world, and for only 30 Quetzales, or £3. They had an amazing variety of animals, including lions, wolves, brown bears, elephants, giraffes, zebras, and an enclosure with four tigers. This latter one was just amazing, as I’d just arrived at feeding time, and got to see the four tigers zoom out of their den once it was opened, jump up to a high column which held the meat left for them, and squabble amongst themselves with loud roars for the choicest cuts. This was incredible, and I managed to film some of it and put it on my Facebook page. After three visits to India to include numerous attempts, I never did get to see a tiger in the wild – this experience at the Guatemala City zoo was pretty good enough.

There was also a wonderful family atmosphere whilst there, with lots of family groups including grannies and kiddies, all enjoying an outing at the zoo, and all very excited to see the animals. Indeed, the Guatemalans (“Guatemaltecos” in Spanish) I have met so far have all been extremely friendly, beautifully cordial and smiling people, very welcoming, and with one of the clearest of Spanish accents I’ve heard, the people really complement this stunningly beautiful country.

In the afternoon I took a taxi to the central area of the city, focused around its “Parque Central”, which in fact is not a park, but the name the Guatemalans seem to give for their main city squares. This was flanked in typical Spanish colonial style to the north by the presidential palace, and to the east by the metropolitan cathedral. The square itself was filled with Guatemalan families, it being a Sunday, ice-cream vendors, market stalls, and public speakers – there was a great atmosphere. I was approached three times, however, by an older gentleman who didn’t give me a good vibe at all (travel experience has thankfully blessed me with a fairly good gauge of who’s a genuinely friendly person, and who might be a dodgy) who firstly wanted to know if I was there to see the cathedral. Twenty minutes later he found me again to ask me the time and sit next to me, upon which I promptly resumed my wandering. The third time he approached me five minutes later, I told him firmly and politely that I didn’t want to speak with him. Feeling a little perturbed, I entered the cathedral again, just in time for mass – it actually was a blessing in disguise!

After the wonderfully peaceful and calming mass, I walked down the central city’s main shopping street, the “Sexta Avenida”, or “Sixth Avenue”, which is pedestrianised on a Sunday, and again made for a wonderful ramble amongst the city’s populace, all enjoying a day out with the family, a stroll, a shop and a bite to eat. I enjoyed a Whopper meal and a delicious Reese’s peanut butter cake from Burger King. From there, it was a ride on the city’s TransMetro system. Similar to Bogota, rather than having an underground Metro, Guatemala City built in 2007 a more formal bus service, with green buses
Gandhi Quote, Guatemala CityGandhi Quote, Guatemala CityGandhi Quote, Guatemala City

"Be the change you wish to see in the world"
which stop only at certain stops, travel in their own lanes, and don’t carry cash. It also has an easy-to-navigate metro-style map, with stop names clearly visible at each stop. This makes for not only an easier journey, but also a much safer one for everyone, as Guatemala City’s buses are notorious for robberies – I believe a travel documentary I saw on it last year mentioned that an average of two Guatemalan bus drivers are killed each year in bus robberies. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable journey though, as it was just packed, and took about 30 minutes to queue for the bus, but at least it was safe. It took me back to the Zona Viva, from where I took a taxi back to the Hotel Patricia to settle in for the evening.

And finally, yesterday morning I began my overland travels properly by hot-footing it to my second destination in Guatemala, and as mentioned, the achingly beautiful Lake Atitlan. Travel in Guatemala seems really easy for tourists, there are private shuttle buses operated by tourist agencies that can take you and connect you to onward travel to pretty much anywhere else in the country. The Hotel Patricia dropped me off at the airport, from where I took a shuttle which made a connection in the former colonial town of Antigua (more on that in my next, as that is where I plan to stop off after Lake Atitlan) to another shuttle bus which took me, along with two American tourists, and three missionary sisters from El Salvador (we discussed Oscar Romero, amongst other things, on the journey, a courageous man indeed) to Panajachel, the lively gateway town to the Lake Atitlan region.

I arrived in Panajachel yesterday afternoon and checked in to the Hotel Playa Linda for one night, to get a feel for the lake’s main town and the region. The Lonely Planet describes the town as “Paradise Lost”, due to its tourist hubbub, travel agencies, bars, restaurants, hotels and tuk-tuks (yes, the south-east Asian beloved form of transport is quite popular over here apparently…!). I enjoyed it, though for one night only. The hotel was wonderful, and I appreciated the spacious room and private bathroom more than I would have done if I’d not stayed at the Hotel Patricia (you can’t have the good without the bad…!), though barking dogs did wake me up in the night a couple of times, as well as a couple of annoying roosters which seemed to think 3am was an appropriate time to do their thing… But in all, a good night’s sleep in a peaceful hotel, and good food in nearby restaurants.

And this morning, took a small motor boat (my backpack placed on the roof-top of the boat, giving me visions for the whole journey of losing most of my current worldly belongings to the depths of the deep blue, which fortunately were not realised) 20 minutes west along the northern shore of Lake Atitlan, beyond a traditional Maya village called Santa Cruz, to this wonderful eco-lodge with its own private jetty, and my cabin room a steep 200 metre walk uphill with this breathtaking vista. If Panajachel is Paradise Lost, this place really is Paradise Found – in fact, I just saw a hummingbird hovering outside my window…! I am writing this one just before I have a pre-dinner beer to start winding down for the evening. Looking forward to tomorrow, as I plan to make my own independent way by boat around the traditional Maya villages which ring this lake, to hopefully take in San Marcos La Laguna (famed for its new-age spiritual vibe), San Juan la Laguna, San Pedro la Laguna (the haunt of counter-cultural, fire-twirling, African-drumming western travellers apparently) and Santiago Atitlan (with the strongest indigenous identity of all lakeside towns). This afternoon I already walked along the scenic lakeside path, mostly along a beautiful but rickety boarded walkway above the edge of the lake, 10 minutes to the east, and then 600 metres up a very very steep hill to the beautifully-perched town of Santa Cruz. The town has a local training centre for children, teaching them how to sew and create traditional indigenous handicrafts, which also housed a school for budding chefs specialising in traditional Maya food. It is called Cecap, and I bought a couple of lovely cushion covers for my spare room, and enjoyed a wonderful ice coffee on its breathtaking terrace.

So indeed, my travels appear to have begun properly now, and I am having the most wonderful of times in this little slice of paradise. Up next, and as mentioned, a trip around the lake tomorrow, before heading back to Antigua to spend a couple of days there. After this I’ll be descending from the highlands towards the country’s north-east and north, the jungle regions of Rio Dulce and El Peten, to include a visit to the ancient Maya site of Tikal. I plan of course to update again in the next few days or so, and in the meantime, I wish everyone all the best and hope all is going well back home.

¡Saludos desde Guatemala!


Additional photos below
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28th July 2016
Lake Atitlan

Gorgeous Atitlan
I don't think I will ever tire of this view :)
28th July 2016
Lake Atitlan

Indeed, give me a wooden pier over Atitlan, a cool evening, and a beer in hand and I think I'd be in paradise!

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