Travel guide part 3: Guatemala

Tikal

After five days in paradise (we were meant to stay for three days in Caye Caulker but couldn’t prise ourselves away), we went to Flores in Northern Guatemala, an hour and half shuttle bus journey from the ancient Mayan city, Tikal. The journey from Caye Caulker (boat to Belize City, bus to the border and another to Flores) took around 8 hours in total, which we booked as a package on the island.

Exploring the Mayan ruins, deep in the rainforest, was magical. The structures go back as far as the 4th century BC and cover approximately 16km square metres. There are six main temples and countless smaller structures to see, so make sure you leave plenty of time to make the most of your visit. All of the guide books warn that the site is heaving with people however, we found this to be a grave exaggeration. We were able to explore some of the temples completely alone, which was actually quite eerie! When you book your transfer to Tikal from Flores (all of the tourist offices offer pretty much the same price), make sure you book a return journey; there is nowhere to buy a return ticket once you are there and there were very few taxis available.

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If you can, book your accommodation in advance. We ended up staying at Hotel Casa Amelia, which I do not recommend; it was overpriced and not great quality. Make sure you stay on Flores Island, which has a large selection of hotels, hostels and restaurants. For pizza, go to Restaurante San Telmo (they also serve good breakfast), which is decorated with a collection of vintage typewriters, telephones and sewing machines. Flores is no more than a base to visit Tikal and while it was pleasant enough, only stay here for one night if you can (although we had to stay for two due to arriving late from Caye Caulker).

Semuc Champey

From Flores, we headed to the beautiful wilderness of Semuc Champey. We took a shuttle bus to the town of Lanquin and your accommodation will usually pick you up from there. We stayed at Utopia, a magnificent, remote jungle eco-lodge, situated on the banks of Cahabón River. With unenviable views of the jungle canopy, dinner and drinks are served on the open-air terrace. There is only one option for dinner (meat-lovers beware, it is vegetarian only), but the food was pretty good. There is also a happy hour and a great selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

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We chose to stay in a private cabana, which had its own bathroom (hot water is rare) and you could hear the sounds of the fast-flowing river from your bed. There is also the option of staying in a hammock, dormitory or a nook in the main lodge for less money. Book in advance as Utopia is very popular. If you can’t get a bed, Zephyr Lodge was also highly recommended by friends.

The next day, we went on an adventure-packed full-day tour, which we booked through Utopia. In the morning we set off to go caving. We were in the pitch-black caves for just over an hour and the only light to guide you is a candle, which you carry with you. You go deep into the caves, pulling yourself up rope ladders and contorting your body through tiny gaps in the rocks. Disclaimer: if you are claustrophobic, this is not for you. We were also warned not to swallow the water, which contains bat faeces. After the caving, we went swimming in Semuc Champey’s stunning staircase of turquoise blue pools (this natural wonder has occurred because a 300m limestone bridge runs over the river). The last activity of the day was tubing down the river. Grab a beer, enjoy the scenery and float back to Utopia. Those who dared could also jump off the 10 metre bridge!

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Antigua 

Our last destination in Guatemala was the colonial town of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former Guatemalan capital.

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Spend a day admiring the Spanish colonial architecture, and you won’t believe Guatemala City is less than an hour’s drive away. For shopping, visit the Handicraft Market, where you can buy everything from cushion covers, table runners and blankets to woven bags, dolls and iPad cases.

Antigua is also renowned for its vibrant drinking and restaurant scene. We enjoyed amazing food and cocktails at Cactus restaurant, whilst listening to a live band. We had a good meal at Casa Troccoli, but the crowd was a bit older and less atmospheric.

Most of the hostels were booked up already, so we stayed in Posada La Merced, a quiet, cosy guesthouse with breakfast served in a pretty courtyard.

For our second day in Antigua, we hiked up Volcan Papaya (2,552m), an active volcano which last erupted in 2015. The hike took an hour and a half and wasn’t particularly demanding (there is the option to go by horse though) and before watching an unforgettable sunset, we toasted marshmallows over hot lava! Remember to take a torch with you…you’d think the tour guide would tell you this when you book it, but they don’t. For more seasoned hikers, you can do an overnight trip to Volcan de Agua (3,716m), which is a painstaking 13 hour hike. Make sure you do a guided tour, as during our time in Antigua, sadly two deaths were reported as unaccompanied hikers got lost in the fog and suffered lethal hyperthermia. You can book both trips through the many tourism offices in Antigua.

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Guatemala City 

Having been warned about how dangerous Guatemala City is, coupled with the lack of worthy sightseeing spots, we  only stayed a night in order to reach the airport. Although it was basic and felt a bit like a prison, we stayed in In and Out Hotel because of its close proximity (three minute taxi ride!) to the airport.

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