Grand Guatemala

Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Fly to Guatemala City from Atlanta
  • Day 2: Fly to Flores from Guatemala City for a day tour of Tikal. Fly back to Guatemala City in the evening and transfer to Antigua
  • Day 3: Exploring Antigua
  • Day 4: Fly to Atlanta from Guatemala City

Dates: March 3-5, 2017

Our Odyssey

Sitting at the Atlanta airport about 5 hours in to a 15 hour day of airport purgatory, I’m reminded, as I often am, that travel is actual not glamorous at all. It masquerades as glamour – champagne and first class and fancy luggage…but that’s just to hide the reality that most of travel (at least, the actual “traveling” part), is navigating crowds of people and their bags, waiting in lines, waiting in seats, waiting in general…

So today is a waiting day because of many flight delays (and now cancellations) on our weekly business flight from Atlanta back home to Madison.

And today while I wait, I decided I’d also write – and really this just gives me a productive excuse to reminisce. Specifically – about our most recent big adventure weekend to Guatemala.

The third country on our winter itinerary of visiting a different Central American country for a weekend each month, Guatemala was one I was particularly excited to experience. My best friend Tracy is half Guatemalan (her mother is from there), and traveled there often to visit extended family. She and her husband Stefan recently took a vacation there where they hiked volcanos, explored Tikal and visited Lake Atitlan. When Tim and I sat down to craft our weekend itinerary, we were spoiled for choice and therefore incapable of deciding on our own how best to spend our short time in a big country. At times like that, having a friend who is also an expert in the country is quite convenient.

Tracy’s advice – fly in to Guatemala City Thursday night, spend the night near the airport there, fly to Flores (hub for visiting Mayan ruins of Tikal) in the morning and back to Guatemala City in the evening, and then make our way an hour outside of the city to Antigua, a charming Spanish colonial town surrounded by volcanos. We would spend the rest of our weekend there before heading back to Atlanta on Sunday afternoon.

But Tracy even warned us – a weekend is not enough time in Guatemala. And she was so very right.

When we got in to Guatemala City Thursday night, we took a taxi to the Hilton hotel we had booked for the night. We went straight to bed in order to get up bright and early for our sunrise flight to Flores. At the Flores airport, we met our guide for Tikal and our fellow travelers before heading out on the 2 hour drive past lakes and jungle to the entrance of the national park. Yep, that’s right – to get to Tikal, we flew an hour from Guatemala City, and then rode 2 hours in a van, and yep, we were doing this all as a day trip.

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Caught this amusing site in the town outside of Tikal

When we arrived our guide shared with us some historical background on the city. The city of Tikal is the largest excavated Mayan site in Mesoamerica, and thrived for about 1500 years (from 600 BC to 900 AD) before being abandoned. At its peak, the city spread over 50 square miles and was home to as many as 100,000 people.

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Tikal

The pyramid remains that you can see there today served one of two purposes. Some were driven by the Mayan calendar; others were “temple” pyramids that marked burial places of rulers. Before we would see any of these for ourselves, however, we’d have to walk about a mile through the jungle, with our eager guide leading the way.

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Cieba tree and  (comparatively) tiny Tim

On our walk, we saw countless unique bird species – yellow fly catchers, wood thrush, black headed trogon, an oscillated turkeys, and garden trogon, just to name a few. We also saw over a dozen coatis (like a Central American raccoon) prancing about among the ceiba trees and heard howler monkeys in the distance. While no humans are living in Tikal today, the place is absolutely teeming with wildlife. This was part of the joy of exploring here – in addition to learning about the history, culture and archaeology of Tikal, we also got to immerse ourselves in a Guatemalan jungle with all the trees and wildlife that comes with it.

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Vibrant yellow flycatcher

Eventually we arrived to the main plaza of the city and our enthusiastic guide asked us to look down at our feet so that our first view of the area would be from a certain vantage point, giving us the full visual effect all at once. He did this trick several times on our tour, and each time, he was so excited for us to see the ruins and to point out certain details. It was as if he was seeing everything for the first time himself – his enthusiasm was so much bigger than what you would expect from a man who comes to this place every day.

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Coati

Our tour was balanced with just the right amount of free time to explore and climb some of the pyramids on our own, and guided/informational time with the group. We were also lucky in that the site was not overcrowded with other tourists- we were able to comfortably explore without battling through masses of people.

While we got to climb to the top of several of the pyramids, climbing Pyramid IV (the largest), sitting on top of it, and admiring the surrounding jungle treetops and temples I, II and III was an unparalleled highlight of the day. From this vantage point, I couldn’t help but contemplate the transience of civilizations. All around were signs of a once-great metropolis, but over time, the abandoned manmade structures succumbed to the ever-growing Mesoamerican jungle.

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The view from atop Pyramid IV

This contrast is most notable on one of the smaller pyramids we walked by towards the end of our hike. It was half excavated, exposing the rocky sides and steps, and half still buried under a mound of dirt and grass. You could mistake it for a large hill if it weren’t for the visible piece of the pyramid.

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Half hill, half uncovered pyramid

Our tour ended with a half hour hike back through the jungle to return to the tour van, during which we were fortunate enough to see several spider monkeys, including a mother with her baby, swinging in the trees above. We got to spend some time watching these animal cousins of ours frolicking among the branches, and it was a magical way to end the day before our long drive back to the Flores airport!

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Spider monkey momma and baby hanging out

Back at the airport, we had some downtime to play cards and basically wait for our flight – this airport has no shops or concessions. Since the airport was so tiny, I didn’t expect our plane to be large, per se, but I was not prepared for just how small this flight actually was- fifteen cramped seats, 3 across and 5 back, with barely room to squeeze down the aisle. Not even our carry-on bags (we each had one small backpack for the weekend) could fit, and we had to ask the pilots to stow them under the plane for us. Speaking of the pilots – the normal locked door separating them from passengers was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was just a curtain. And of course, on such a small plane, every slight breeze felt like we were spiraling to our deaths. It was a white-knuckled 45 minutes for me. Tim, on the other hand, slept.

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Greetings from the smallest plane ever

Back on the ground, we then made our way via private driver to Antigua, our final destination for the night. It was a long drive, as traffic was at a standstill leaving the city, and having gotten up at 4am to spend the day trekking through the jungle, we were exhausted. It was nearly 10p when we finally got to the apartment we rented on Airbnb.

Upon checking in with the security gate, we learned, through broken English and Spanish exchanges, that the key to our unit was apparently gone. They gestured that they were going to go look for it and left us waiting. Fifteen minutes later, one of the gentlemen returned and said the secretary had taken it home with her. He brought us to the door of the unit and then proceeded to fashion a paper clip in order to essentially break in for us.

This effort was futile, and after about fifteen more minutes he then dashed off briefly, returning with a screwdriver. He proceeded to then try to remove the door knob and lock altogether. This also did not work.

Eventually, sometime around midnight, after they decided to call the secretary and have her bring the keys back, we got into our room, sleepy and grumpy from the ordeal.

But on a weekend getaway you don’t have much time to mope, so by 8am the next morning we were up and ready to venture out. We were taking a walking tour of the city and some of the museums with historian and now tour guide Elizabeth Bell later in the morning, so we decided to get breakfast beforehand somewhere along the main square.

And what a breakfast we had. Tim ordered fruit, yogurt and granola, while I ordered a traditional Guatemalan breakfast of eggs, grilled plantains, refried beans, queso blanco, and Guatemalan coffee. Now, I don’t typically drink caffeine, but I decided to make an exception for the world-renowned brew. We decided we would make a point of going back to the exact same place the next morning before leaving for our flight.

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One of Antigua’s surrounding volcanos

After breakfast we joined our walking tour group by the fountain in the square. I immediately liked Elizabeth – she was no-nonsense about keeping the group on pace and had a low tolerance for stupid questions. You could tell she was an academic first and foremost, and that her primary drive was to teach us about Antigua’s history and culture – not to answer questions about the best places to buy souvenirs.

Antigua, you’re so pretty!

Antigua itself is a strikingly beautiful town. Pastel colonial buildings are surrounded by volcanos, and in the spring, the main square is surrounded by purple flowering trees. Elizabeth led the way through cathedral ruins, a jade factory, and an amazing complex of museums, restaurants and lodging that used to be a monastery. This last spot in particular is one of the coolest places we’ve toured. The entire area is open to walk around and explore – there are gardens, fountains, art museums (one showcased pieces of ancient art next to contemporary art, drawing a fascinating comparison between how humans viewed objects and bodies then and now), archeology museums, and a wedding venue all tucked in to what is, commercially speaking, a hotel and restaurant.

Cathedral ruins

After our tour Tim and I had a few hours to pass before our afternoon chocolate-making class at the Choco Museo (yes, this should sound familiar – we also visited their Granada location while in Nicaragua). We spent most of this time in the central square on a park bench. Tim read while I wrote a draft for a piece I was submitting to a writing competition. While our weekend itinerary was certainly fast-paced, the fact that we had hours to leisurely spend in the square is a reflection of how simply calming and serene this city is. We were falling more in love with it every minute.

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This kiddo had so much fun!

At our chocolate-making class, we got to play and taste chocolate in many forms – cocoa beans, chocolate tea, hot chocolate, and more- before pouring our own melted chocolate into molds (we made some Easter bunnies and chocolate squares) and decorating. Midway through the class, a young boy and his mom and grandmother came in. We loaned the kid one of our spots at the counter, and the look of joy on his face when he was grinding cocoa beans was one of the highlights of the whole experience. He had a blast, and we did too!

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Just two new expert chocolatiers!

After the class, Tim and I returned to our apartment to rest and wash up before heading out for dinner and drinks. For dinner we returned to the old monastery to eat. The food was great and the atmosphere even better. We then headed to a bar called Café No Se (which we had read about in Outside magazine just earlier that day). This bar is famous for having been a source of bootleg mescal when it was illegal in Guatemala. And for us on that Saturday night it was the inspiration for one of the most memorable and fun conversations Tim and I have ever had (and as a note, I love so very much that I have a partner with whom, 7 years in, I can still have amazing, NEW conversations). Everything in this bar was just right – a friendly bartender, a crowded ex-pat scene, an edgy musician performing an intimate show in the corner, and lights just dim and red enough to make everyone look golden. What if, we wondered, we came back here for a month, after our current contracts are up, to learn to speak Spanish at one of the famous Spanish schools? What if we made this amazing town a temporary home? Our friend Sarah was currently doing it and after the weekend we were having, we felt so inspired to follow suit.

Foggy-headed from tequila, beer and mescal, we returned to our apartment very late in the night. We had time for one last delicious breakfast at the same spot as the day before (as adventurous as we are, when we find food we love, we are creatures of habit) before our driver picked us up to head back to the Guatemala City airport. And so we said goodbye to Guatemala and charming, beautiful Antigua. For now, anyway.

 

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