I packed my bags and said goodbye to Guatemala the moment I graduated high school, never thinking I would ever want to come back. Maybe it was the political atmosphere, maybe it was the hypocrisy I was surrounded by while in school, or maybe it was the fact that what I wanted in life would not be found in Guatemala. Yet, here I am writing about the country that birthed me, raised me, and allowed me to leave it to chase my dreams. A country that welcomed me back with open arms, and allowed me to fully appreciate its beauty.
Ever since I can remember, it has been my dream to go to college in New York City and make a living there. Well, that dream came true. Is it everything I hoped for? It is, and much more. Yet, whenever I explore the city I find the lack of real nature disappointing. Do not get me wrong, there are amazing things to do in New York but you can only do so much. It was when I finally explored Central Park in the summer when my sense of adventure finally woke up. I realized that I could not wait to go back to Guatemala and really see my country.
Over the course of the past few years, I have been trying to go to new places in Guatemala as well as going to my favorite spots. One of the most visited places, and one of my personal favorites, is Antigua Guatemala. This is where the city used to be located before it was flooded by El Volcan de Agua. Antigua is known for its gravel roads, its beautiful churches, amazing authentic Guatemalan food, and its nightlife. Some of my favorite things to do in this place are: going to the cafes and having that amazing Guatemalan coffee that cannot be compared, it simply is the best. Walking La Calle Del Arco and going inside all the stores where you can purchase handmade paintings that will leave you speechless. Having breakfast at the top of the mountain with a view of all of Antigua and other towns. And one of my most recent additions, going to the SPA at Casa Santo Domingo. This SPA is only $20 for entry and use of all amenities, which includes the saunas, an outdoor pool and an indoor cave-looking jacuzzi. For an additional price, you can also get a milk bath or a jade massage and I definitely recommend the latter.
If you have not heard about Guatemala, maybe you have heard of the Mayas. The Mayas were an ancient civilization that ruled most of Latin America before the Spaniards came to America, they were known for their astrological studies and their stone pyramids. In Guatemala, you can find the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, it is located in the North of the country in Peten and it is one of the county’s most visited places by tourists. I have been to Tikal twice, once when I was about 14 years old and the second this past year, at 23 years old. The first time I visited Tikal, it was exciting but it was not exactly what a teenage boy wants to be doing, especially if that said boy was not into adventure at all.
The second time I went, it was different; the desire to explore was running through my veins… yet, I was terrified. I have always considered myself a city type of guy, and the reason why is because I feel in control in a city. When I am in another environment, in this case a jungle, I am invading the territory of many animals and I would not know what to do if a wild animal came at me. Fortunately, Tikal is a very safe place and the only likely encounter you will have with wild animals will be with howling monkeys. There are two main attractions at Tikal: El Gran Jaguar, which is the most iconic Mayan pyramid and going up El Templo IV. An activity I would definitely recommend is to climb El Templo IV before sunrise, and appreciate all the flora and fauna from above while the sun greets a new day.
You can also go to La Ciudad de Flores, which is in the middle of El Lago de Peten Itza and enjoy a boat ride around the lake, meals by the lake, and some great nightlife as well.
Panajachel. If there is only one place you could go when you are in Guatemala, it has to be Panajachel. This is the location of what some people like to call the Eighth Wonder of the World, Lake Atitlan. I had been here when I was very young, but I had forgotten the beauty of it and learned to appreciate it when I went back. I went twice to Panajachel in less than a month, once with my family and once with the Physician Assistants from my college for a medical mission trip. Going with my family enabled me to scout all the surrounding towns around Lake Atitlan, and figure out fun things to do when I came back with the PAs. There are numerous activities: you can hike the inactive volcano (this is not for the feint of heart, since it does require you to be in good shape), go ziplining, kayak in the lake, go on a boat ride and visit all the surrounding towns, or go into town and shop for beautiful handmade art, clothing, and accessories, or enjoy a nice meal by the lake.
My favorite thing that I did was to get on a boat and go to San Marcos La Laguna, which is a town known for being the home of many foreign hippies, and go cliff jumping into the lake. The nightlife of Panajachel is splendid as well, you are guaranteed to spend a great time anywhere you decide to go. But the one image that will never escape your mind, is the view of the lake and the volcano, it is something taken out of your dreams.
A new place I recently visited was Semuc Champey, known for its beautiful clear waters and its caves. The main attraction at this place is the leveled-pools of spring water where you can go for a swim. You can also climb to El Mirador where you can get a great picture of the entire place, but just like climbing the volcano at Panajachel, it is best that you are in good shape.
The other fun activity is to explore the caves at Semuc Champey, you will have a guide with you at all times that will help you get through the cave. You are required to have a candle with you to light the way, and sometimes you have to go into head-deep waters to make it through the cave. I must say, this was my favorite thing to do since I was overcoming one of my fears which is to go inside a place where bats live. After you are done exploring the cave, the next best thing to do is to jump from a giant swing into the river and tube down the river.
Guatemala is not all jungle and ruins though, the country also has some beautiful beaches. You can either go North for white sand at the Atlantic Ocean, or South for black sand and the Pacific Ocean. I have been to both coasts, but I spend more time at the south coast, in Monterrico. The beaches at Guatemala are known for its resort-looking hotels, the lavish houses owned by the upper class, and the parties for Semana Santa and New Year’s Eve. But most importantly, they are know to me for being a place where I can go relax, get some color, and forget all my worries.