I have been to Guatemala twice, the first time we came in through Belize. I will cover Belize in a separate post but you certainly can get a flavor of both countries in one trip, our goal was to see Tikal. We were a little nervous because you cannot drive your rental car across the border so we had to leave our car at the border and pick up a taxi to Tikal. From the border it was about an hour drive and the taxi driver charged us about $30. When we got to the ruin we hired a guide to show us around (another $30), I highly recommend hiring a guide when experiencing any historic or cultural site. If you try to do it yourself you miss out on so much history and insight. Note: There are a lot of money changers along the border; I always stick to a strict rule of never using money changers after getting ripped off in Zimbabwe one time; always change money at a bank.
Tikal is one of the largest Mayan sites has been excavated. It was the capital of one of the most powerful Mayan kingdoms in the area. Tikal can be found about 40 miles from the Belize border or 188 miles north of Guatemala City. The ruin has many more excavated structures than I have ever seen at one archeological site and Tikal is absolutely worth seeing. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered by many to be a very spiritually powerful site. Certainly one of the “must see” works of man, I personally feel if you have seen Machu Picchu (Peru), Tikal, the pyramids (Egypt), the Great Wall (China – one I have not seen yet) and Petra (Jordan) you have seen the best ancient man has to offer.
After visiting the site we had the taxi take us to Flores, a sleepy little Guatemalan town 40 miles south of Tikal. Flores is on an island connected to the mainland by a causeway. Our goal was to soak up the Guatemalan culture and Flores delivered. We stayed in a quaint little hotel, Hotel Casazul. Now don’t expect luxury here, the whole idea is to enjoy the culture in Flores. If you want luxury stay at the La Lancha Lodge but expect to pay for it.
After watching the local kids play soccer, the sun go down on the lake, a few cervezas and some armadillo for dinner we called it a day. The next day we caught a cab to the border and made our way back to Belize. Definitely a winner!
The second time to Guatemala we took a group of high school students through our non-profit organization Dustin’s GreenHouse (www.dustinsgreenhouse.org). We went to Coban to build houses for Habitat and then took some time to enjoy Antigua. Working for Habitat is always a spiritual experience and Coban was a neat little town. Not much to see as a tourist but a great place to help local people who have little or no income.
Antiqua is awesome; it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The town is a series of cobblestone streets, surrounded by three volcanic mountains (Volcan de Agua, Acatenango and Volcan de Fuego) and full of nice restaurants, shops and hotels. The town is bustling with all kinds of people and has that “throw back from the 60’s” feel.
One of the most memorable experiences I have ever had was climbing Volcan de Fuego, “Volcano of Fire”. This is not a trip for the faint of heart or couch potatoes. The climb to the top is fairly long and not an easy climb. When we reached the base of the peak I figured we were done but nooooo.
The last half mile is straight up and the footing is like a black sand beach, two steps up and slide back one. Pretty soon you realize that walking sideway is the way to ascend the last part of the climb. When you get to the crest be prepared to see something that will amaze you as you peer down into an active volcano. Here I am standing on the crest of an active volcano, you can see the lava flowing and popping, when the wind blows in your direction the sulfur smell overwhelms you, the ground is so hot you have to keep moving your feet. Now I’m thinking one wrong step and you are barbequed Martin. It was a scary but exhilarating and reminder of how very powerful nature and God are.
One more note on Antigua; during Easter they have a really cool tradition where the local people paint the streets with colored sawdust. Each house takes a section of the road and creates a piece of temporary art; temporary because as they carry the priest through the streets in the processional they mess up all the art. I plan to experience this incredible cultural event at some point.