Cooling off in the beautiful Highlands (Antigua & Lake Atitlan, Guatemala)


(Day 820 on the road)Ask any traveller about their favourite spots in Guatemala, and chances are high that Antigua and Lake Atitlan will come up very high if not first (together with Tikal). And they are right. The charming, colonial city of Antigua and the dramatic, volcanic Lake Atitlan are certainly the two most beautiful spots we have seen in Central America so far over the past two months. Plus their location in the Highlands offered a welcome relief from the scorching heat of the rest of Guatemala (even too much at times, as we were often freezing at night, despite sleeping with three blankets).

From Guatemala City ("Guate"), Antigua is easily reached in an hour on a local chicken bus, but the city couldn't be more different from the busy capital. With its narrow cobbled streets, its beautiful central plaza, its countless amazing churches and its location in a valley flanked by volcanoes, it made for a beautiful place to spend a few days. We were also very happy with our lovely hospedaje that had simply everything we could ask for from a budget travellers point of view - a clean room, hot showers, a rooftop terrace (for a commanding view over the city and to do our laundry), an inner courtyard with a small kitchen, a TV (to watch the football world cup), free drinking water, free wireless Internet - and a lovely caretaker with gold-crowned teeth named Elena.

We didn't do anything dramatic during our stay in Antigua, but simply wandered the pretty streets, inspected the numerous churches, climbed a hill to the Cerro de la Cruz to enjoy a bird's eye view of the city, and marbled at the way the local people dress in their traditional costumes. And even though the city was simply teaming with US tourists, it was still a lovely and relaxed place. And the upshot of the many visitors, locals and foreign alike, were numerous varied restaurants, with us especially enjoying the Japanese ones.

After watching Germany send England home in the world cup with a 4-1 package it was as good a time as any to move on. A full day of travelling in high spirits saw us reaching Lago Atitlan, to the west of Antigua. On the boat ride to our intended destination, San Pedro, we met Maayan and Enav, two lively and interesting Israeli girls, and since we were getting along extremely well from the very first minute we would spend a fair amount together over the course of the next five days in San Pedro.

San Pedro with its large indigenous population (people here don't speak Spanish as their first language but Tzutuhil) was a great place to unwind. The views of the lake from San Pedro's location right by the edge of the lake simply couldn't be any better. Some people have even called Lake Atitlan the most beautiful lake in the world. Whilst I am not able to confirm this, it is safe to say that the lake is absolutely gorgeous - that is if you are able to ignore the rubbish that is floating around the shore, this is Guatemala after all.

A deep volcanic lake, it is encircled by high and steep mountains on all sides, three of these being volcanoes. On top of all that, the village was celebrating its annual San Pedro Day - and us right in the middle as the whole town seemed to gather in the fair grounds. Enav, Maayan and me sampled the local ferry wheel, a scary right to say the least. Not because of the height, but because the whole structure was resting on loose stones and looked like the last safety inspection had been some time before 1970. Maybe Tino was right about giving this one a miss.

Whilst in the past I have been often annoyed by Israeli travellers due to (their often inconsiderate and rude behaviour), things were very different with Maayan and Enav. We talked for hours and hours about the current situation in Israel and the awful "relationship" with Palestine; I understood more about the whole war in four days than I have in the last four years. And I had my first-ever dinner in an Israeli restaurant that the girls took us to (San Pedro is for some reason extremely popular with Israelis). If only I could remember the name of the amazing food they ordered for me, a kind of upgraded omelet served in its hot pan and eaten with freshly baked kebab. Something starting with "Sh" I think....

Especially Maayan was a fascinating person to talk to on the subject of Israel. She had refused to do the compulsory military service in Israel (two years for women and three for men) as a conscientious objector, and had spent time in prison as a result. Brave girl, way to go! As one can imagine, her attitude to Israeli politics and the Palestinian conflict in general were much more levelled than that of many other Israelis I have talked to in the past, which had a much more one-sided attitude. Interesting, and once again I was reminded of just how much travelling contributes to one's understanding of other cultures and customs. Travelling is simply the best cure against ignorance and prejudices by far. Why don't more people travel? And no, a weekend trip to Ibiza does not count I am afraid.

It was equally interesting (if not to say shocking) to see that those smart Israeli girls possessed a seemingly endless supply of holocaust jokes, which they took great pleasure in sharing with us two uptight Germans on this topic. Holocaust jokes are probably the most unacceptable thing I can think of in Germany by far, and I must say that I have never heard a single one in my life. But my understanding is that these jokes are a way of dealing with the whole horrible issue for Israelis.

Apart from talking, we also enjoyed a fair amount of hiking, including an unsuccessful but still beautiful attempt at climbing Volcano San Pedro. It was the girl's first hike ever (unbelievable but true), so Tino and I made sure they had a proper initiation: 90%!o(MISSING)f the hike there was simply no path at all, so instead we were hiking up muddy chutes, following canyons or tracing riverbeds. Back in San Pedro, sweating it all off in a Mayan sauna (which vaguely resembled a Mongolian yurt with a semi-opened fire in the middle) was just the perfect way to end this challenging day.

More rewarding was the hike up a mountain called Indian Nose, and as you can see from this picture here, the mountain is indeed shaped like a face with a huge nose lying on its back. If it is an indeed Indian nose can be debated however - for me it resembles more the nose of a very good friend of mine in London (no names here however). :-)

After a few days, Maayan and Enav moved on, and Tino and I stayed. Well, we relocated a bit to the other side of the lake to the village of Panajachel. Panajachel is mainly referred to as "Gringotenango" (as many cities in Guatemala end in "-tenango"), and it took only a few minutes of walking the city's main street to understand why. US tourists simply everywhere, many on holiday, but also quite a number of stranded creatures. I was especially fascinated by the 50-something old man in the pink Afghan trousers with the weird compulsive head-nodding that kept talking to himself.

We didn't have any desire to stay in this super-touristy town with its countless souvenir stalls. Instead, we had come here to do some ziplining in the nearby Reserva Atitlan. If you don't know what these are, picture a valley maybe three hundred metres wide and 50 metres high, and the valley is connected by these zip lines, basically robust steel cables.

You get to wear a special harness and a type of carabiner on wheels that attaches to the steel cable, and down you go! There were eight lines in total criss-crossing the valley at various heights, lengths and speeds, but they all shared the most stunning view - Lake Atitlan on the one side, the end of the valley with numerous waterfalls on the other. And zipping down the cables high up in the air with these kind of surroundings was simply amazing!

On our next and final morning, it was time again for more dramatic football action. This time, Germany was ending Argentina's world cup ambitions (4-0 - oleoleoleoleeee!), an encounter that is probably even more symbolic and historic than the old rivalry of Germany-England, with many a game in the past still vividly remembered on both sides (the 1986 and 1990 world cup finals between the two countries being the most dramatic of them all). The sports bar we watched in was packed with supporters for both teams, despite the game kicking off at eight in the morning here in Guatemala. And together with a surprisingly large number of other Germans and Germany supporters we celebrated a fantastic football fiesta.


Next stop: Quetzaltenango (Guatemala).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


5th July 2010

great jouney - great homepage
I wish you all the best on your jouney!
5th July 2010

Gosh, I'm surprised that the locals saw a nose in that mountain. I wonder how long they had been staring at the mountain (and taking in some 'medicine' to accelerate the creativity) before they came up with that one. I mean, I do see the nose but only because its called that way... Your trip sounds ever more amazing. The environment reminds me of a beautiful spot in the middle of Bali. There was also a big lake, a bit misty, traditional houses, little tourist, and much colder so that I needed to take a hot shower! About the Israeli... I met an israeli who explained it as follows. As they are from Israel most countries reject them to enter the country for travelling. South America doesn't have this policy (not islamic) and so most Israeli come to South America. Imagine how many people come out of military service each year and that's about the amount of israeli in south america :-) Keep on writing those beautiful blogs!
5th July 2010

the name of the israeli egg dish
5th July 2010

Good to know your still going strong. Keep them coming!
6th July 2010

thanks for another enjoyable and enlightening read.
10th July 2010

oh and thank you
for all the compliments you gave me on your blog. i just read it now.
10th July 2010

Always wonderful story, Ben. But what did you mean with chicken bus? And, Germany was stopped by Spain with 1-0 :-( but I hope will beat Uruguay few hours ahead.
24th July 2010

Valcano Pacaya, Gautemala
Watch out. the Valcano Pacaya is erupting again. Be carefull. Ecuador's Valcano Tungurahua is erupting.

Tot: 0.49s; Tpl: 0.021s; cc: 42; qc: 168; dbt: 0.0421s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.9mb