Many Latin American cities have religious statues, such as crosses, overlooking them. Antigua’s stone cross is a symbol of its strong faith in God’s love. We take a tuk-tuk up to Cerro de la Cruz, Hill of the Cross, and pay a small admission price. The tourist police are visible and we feel safe. A local warned that if there were no police, DO NOT STAY, not even in daytime!
We are blessed with a decent view of the city and surrounding area.
We strike up conversations with visitors to the park. We ask so many questions that someone wants to know if we’re thinking of moving here. One local tells how she’s from the states, but married a Guatemalan. He works, but his salary is not large, so they live simply. They’d love to live in the states, but wouldn’t be able to make it with her pension. Another, a Canadian ex-pat who married a Guatemalan, is thriving! He’s a business owner and his wife also has her own business. He wouldn’t live anywhere else. They own several houses and their child attends private school. So many with money are living in La Antigua that the locals are being slowly squeezed out.
It takes about 10 minutes to get down the paved concrete walkway that ends near 1st Avenue.
Lunch at Tipical Antiguenos Restaurante is alright, but salty.
We’ve been told Maya didn’t have salt or sugar before the Spaniards came, but now they use both liberally! The restaurant is also very typical of some of the rural eateries in that I have to scoop water out of a barrel to flush the toilet.
Choco Museo gives a history of the cacao bean, holds chocolate making classes, offers free chocolate tastings and chocolate tea!
Dinner at Hector’s, listed as the #2 best restaurant in La Antigua. Seats about 25 and has only one overworked waitress tonight. The food is wonderful, but there’s something wrong about the practice of an automatic tip added to the bill when the service is lacking.
So exciting! Today, we go up Volcan Pacaya. It erupted the week before we came and flights were cancelled. Thank God, everything settled down and we had no problem flying in. I start wheezing as we begin the 1 1/2 hour ascent, so I get a horse for Q100 ($12.50). A group member calls me, “Princess” as I’m the only one riding. I tell Two-Hats Tom to leave me alone, I’m still on meds for an upper respiratory infection!
My horse, Valente, brings up the rear of the tour. His handler stops often along the trail to break off a leaf here, a bloom there, and explains how locals gather resources from the forest. His English is better than the park assigned guide’s.
There’s a constant vapor cloud. We’re not allowed to climb up to the rim, though I’ve seen pictures of people near its lava flows.
Recent eruptions give locals concern as Pacaya sits on a magma chamber, making it very unstable. It produces hundreds of explosions each day, causing more lava to flow down.
A 1961 eruption was unexpected and lasted almost a month! In 1962, a collapse near the volcan’s summit, possibly caused by a volcanic vent, resulted in a pit crater.
Pacaya’s 2010 eruption was so powerful that it caused the main cone to collapse. The volcan is listed at 8,373 ft., but I don’t know if it was re-calculated after that event.
More Pacaya information can be seen at: www.volcanodiscovery.com/pacaya.html, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacaya and volcano.oregonstate.edu/pacaya.
We attend Iglesia Del Camino, the only Spanish to English speaking church in town. It’s 10 years old and makes a “joyful noise unto the Lord!” Ah-h-h, my soul is revived!
After service, we lunch across the street. We see the other Iglesia Del Camino visitor from today’s service. I go out and ask if he’d like to join us and he does! James says he came in last week to teach at a local English school. He’s also from the states. Less than a year ago, he quit a corporate job, took Spanish and TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) classes and applied to teaching positions in Central America. He’s now living his dream!
James heads out and we wander …
Evening in Antigua is beautiful.
Proverbs 25:5 As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.
The minivan shuttle in Guat City drops everyone off in Antigua’s central plaza, Parque Centro. La Antigua is technically a town as there are less than 100,000 residents, but because of it’s importance in Guatemalan history, it’s considered a city.
We grab a tuk-tuk to Casa Cristina. It’s an older property, pretty much like the rest of the city. Our room isn’t ready so Rosario puts us up on the more expensive second floor for a couple days at no extra charge. Nice! The room is small but quaintly furnished with lovely pieces. There’s complimentary coffee and sweet breads in the morning and it’s near Iglesia La Merced, an easy walk to Parque Centro.
*Make friends with locals. Rosario and her daughter are very helpful. They give advice on what to pay for tuk-tuks at various distances, favorite restaurants, acceptable tips to different service people, what to expect to pay and wait time at the only chiropractic clinic in town, etc. Rosario offers guidebooks and leisure reading books. The guidebooks are a little dated, but Guatemala hasn’t changed that much.
“Es muy bonita!” We walk and walk and walk. Everywhere, photographers with big cameras and even bigger zoom lenses stop and drop tripods for gorgeous views.
I don’t have such equipment and am happy to use what I do have. An old Canon and iPhone are my constant companions.
Any direction one turns, history shines.
We stop at Delicias Quetzaltecas Cafe for a snack. The owner hears I have tummy problems and offers a special tea of chamomile, ginger and mint to go along with the best tasting tamal I’ve had in Guatemala. So good and of course l feel better!
We take the shuttle back to Flores. It’s basically a long minivan and really kinda fun. Tourists aren’t the only riders. Locals are picked up and dropped off along the way. Friends happily greet each other, chattering and laughing easily.
Beware taxi drivers that negotiate to take a group of travelers over and drop you all off at the first stop, demanding more money to take you to your hotel.
The streets are cobblestone and sidewalks are uneven. We refused and found a tuk-tuk (three-wheeled motorcycle taxi) to take us to our hotel for Q10.
We had a return reservation with Casa Amelia. It’s named after Amelia and her granddaughter is named after her. There are nicer hotels, but this was affordable and convenient – it’s right by the water and near many restaurants and shops. Well, really, everything is near everything else – walking all the way around the island takes about 15 minutes!
The mall across the bridge in Santa Elena has a dock at the back. Several steps lead down to it – a dock under water. For some years now, the water in the lake is slowly rising. I wonder if this is part of a cycle.
Four days ago, when we first arrived in Flores, we booked our return bus trip from Flores to Guatemala City and a shuttle on to La Antigua. We had walked over to a local travel agency that was near the hotel and had good reviews on Tripadvisor. The owner was very pleasant and stayed open late to work with us.
This morning, we’re chatting with another traveler. She went over to Santa Elena’s mall, found the ADN kiosk and bought a ticket for about half of what our individual tickets cost! We rush back to the travel agent and get a nice big “rebate.” I understand that businesses need to make money, but that was excessive for just making a couple of phone calls. I remember preparing for this trip and reading that travel agents provide a great service and are here to assist travelers, and contrary to popular opinion, are not here to get all they can. Maybe that’s true of the majority of agents.
*This experience just reminds us to do our homework and shop around first!
We’re not sleeping over. At 8pm, we board the overnight bus. Yes, the roomy seats are bigger than the average and there are footrests. No, I do not recommend the supposedly upgraded ADN. When I ask the bus driver a question, he very rudely answers with an “I-can’t-be-bothered” frown.
The onboard toilet is smelly! When I have to go back to my seat to get a headlamp (to see in the dark cubicle) and husband (to hold the door with the broken lock from swinging out) and tissue, it is NOT a good trip.
*There are upgraded buses. Confirm when booking that yours is indeed the executive level.
The first day we’d arrived in the park, we bought tickets and went in after 2:30pm. (The sunset tour started at 3:30pm.) Even though tours for Tikal Inn guests are free, park entry is not. We’d read that you can get tickets and enter the park after that time and be able to use the same tickets to get into the park the next day. IF … you come in the next day during regular hours of operation, that is true. The sunrise tour starts before regular hours so we still had to buy (reduced price) tickets. Don’t let Tikal Inn’s unappealing front entryway throw you. The overhang is sadly in need of major repair, the lobby area worn, but pass through it to see a pristine pool and beautifully maintained lawns leading to the cabins. The waitstaff is very nice, especially Oscar. Complimentary breakfasts and temple tours add value (though the guides could use more English lessons!). The room is very utilitarian and the the tub drains very slowly, but there’s a clothes rod with several shelves. Electricity only works 6am-8am and 6pm-10pm, so you’ll need to be quick about it if coming back from the sunset tour. (Yesterday, we came back by 8pm, went straight to dinner in the dining room before getting back to shower before the lights went out!) A nice touch was the complimentary 1.5 liter of water.
We made friends with Val and Paul, a Canadian couple.
Today, we move over to Jaguar Inn. It is next door and even closer to the park entrance. Our room is a lovely improvement. We were greeted with a complimentary 20 oz. bottle of water. And, the lights and fan work ALL the time – YAAY! I heard the pool wasn’t up to snuff, but they have a computer for guests and the restaurant’s restrooms with outside sinks are clean and updated (unlike Tikal’s). The dining room is connected to the front desk, updated, roomy and with beautiful picture windows.
We say good-bye to Johanna and Nicholas, backpackers who sat next to me on top of Temple IV yesterday. An Equadorian friend had given them a grasshopper made from reeds. They give Equi to us because they know he would be crushed in the backpack. They’ve hitchhiked all over the world. After a short wait, a ride materializes and they’re gone!
We speak to, Caesar, a U.S. raised park guide not associated with the inn who very helpfully arranges for a canopy tour driver to pick up our suitcases and drop them off at Jaguar, at no charge, before taking us to the ziplines.
After a “Super” zip tour, we cross the road to lunch. There, Equi meets a real live tarantula. Dinner at Jungle Lodge, the first lodgings in Tikal. Archeological teams stay there as it’s closest to the park. It’s bigger, nicer and has fancier food. The rooms are spacious with high-beamed ceilings and mosquito nets (Tikal Inn and Jaguar Inn don’t have nets) and have full electricity 24/7. One of my favorite things to do here is digging around their ice cream case, the only one in Tikal!
We walk back to Jaguar Inn, using our flashlights.
We join the tour in front of the hotel at 4:30am. With headlamps on, we play follow-the-leader through twisting, uneven trails through the dark, silent forest.
Temple IV comes into view and we trudge the many flights of wooden stairs up to the top. I am not comfortable with high places. I’ll go, but not very happily. It’s when we get where we’re going that I’ll appreciate the surroundings. So, ’til then, I avoid looking straight down and feeling rising waves of panic.
If you come to see the sun rise in Tikal, prepare to be disappointed. Yesterday was the perfect morning! People told us it was one of just two sunrises in the past two months. Not today. And I don’t know if it’s because it’s January, but we need jackets against the chilly winds.
We ask why restorations are so obvious. This is so there is no question that there has been a repair. You can see the original work and know where it had to be reinforced and still maintain the authenticity of the original structure.
Temple III is the only temple in the city made of volcanic stone that is only found in North and East Peten. They had to travel far to bring the stone here and no one knows why.
We walk to the front of the park and visit the two museos, a laboratory and the vendors.
I love how there’s a post office in the park! It’s a breeze buying postcards and plopping them down on the counter for that “special” Tikal postage stamp. One of my very favorite souvenirs is a woven purse I bargain for in the vendors’ stalls across from the main souvenir building. It’s zippered, with the same scene woven in slightly different colors on each side.
Happy with the day, we walk back, munching ice cream bars from Jungle Lodge.
We enjoy a nice view from our breakfast table before taking the complimentary shuttle to Tikal. At first, we had thought to do what some tourists do – stay in Flores and take a day trip to Tikal. We decided to stay in a hotel at the entrance to Tikal National Park that gives complimentary guided sunset and sunrise tours at the ruins.
Isla de Flores is calm. Nothing much seems to be happening. Tourists wander around, taking in the serenity and browsing the little shops.
If you’re in a rush to get to Tikal, private transport will be faster than this morning’s shuttle. It’s a little late for our 7:30am pickup. We transfer to another shuttle and then we wait quite a while for the airport group to arrive.
Daylight shines on Tikal as we are dropped off. We’ll stay at Tikal Inn for two days before moving next door to Jaguar Inn for a day. Both are right across the road from Tikal National Park. It’s a bit of a ways to our cabin. Many of the travelers we’ve seen have large backpacks. Maybe we could have traveled lighter …
The sunset tour starts at 3:30pm. There’s no “real” sunset, just the light drifting away toward the East. These ruins could be the largest concentration of restored Mayan temples and buildings in Central America. There are many, many more buildings in Tikal, overgrown with greenery, looking like grassy mounds. There just aren’t enough volunteers to unearth them.
Yesterday, Jacqui and Brian left for Tikal. We had breakfast together. With big hugs, we promised to keep in touch.
In the evening, we went down the river to Hotel Vinas del Lago and watched a Super Bowl playoff game with our dinner. It was the first time I’d ever seen a dock covered in real grass!
Today, we leave for Isla de Flores before going on to Tikal. Time to leave the peaceful sweet river. We wait in Fronteras for the bus to Isla de Flores. The lovely colors of contemporary Mayan dress can be seen everywhere.
The daily lives of residents is interesting.
Four hours later we arrive in Isla de Flores. On the ride, we make friends. My new pal was born in Guatemala, adopted and raised in the United States. Years ago, she began coming to vacation in Guatemala. She has an affinity for this beautiful country and her Spanish is improving.
The city is jam packed full of buildings. There isn’t much green space but the island is very clean.
I buy a scarf from Chick Boss, a shop on a mission. Many families benefit from jewelry and accessories made and sold in this shop.
We eat at La Luna. The colorful lights and decor are very nice, the food was alright. I just think the fish was a bit overcooked.
Today, we walk to Fronteras, the nearby town, for breakfast. The path goes from wooden planks and dirt roads through forest trails to asphalt streets.
We eat at Bruno’s before wandering around town. It’s Saturday, so people are out for market day.
In the afternoon, we ride a fast launcha to Livingston. Along the way, the driver slows so that we have a great view of Castillo de San Felipe del la Lara …
a small island with birds …
a small hot spring …
brief stops in a few small coves …
and a ride through the gorge of a limestone canyon on the way. The canyon’s beautiful white limestone walls are covered with rich … green … overgrowth. How disappointing. Well, the walls are quite tall.
Livingston is where the Rio Dulce empties into the Gulf of Honduras. It’s named after Edward Livingston, member of a prominent family that immigrated from Scotland. He was active in the Democratic-Republican political party organized by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1791-93 before it split into two parties. In 1801, he was U.S. Attorney for the district of New York while also serving as Mayor of New York. Edward wrote the Livingston Codes, the foundation upon which the United Provinces of Central America based their law in the early 1820s. The provinces later became Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, Livingston is not a very pretty town. There are restaurants and gifts shops up and down the main street, but the landscape slowly changes as we leave the area and head down to the shore to visit the Garifuna community. There are other communities of Afro-Caribbeans, Maya and Ladino peoples, but I will concentrate on the Garifunas.
In the mid-1600s, a ship or two, depending on which version you have, sank off the coast of St. Vincent. Many slaves survived and blended in with the Carib Indians. They intermarried and became the Black Carib, or Garinagu. They are better known as Garifunas, the name of their culture and language. In 1796, the Black Caribs joined the French to battle the Brits. The Brits won and their enemies were forced to leave. The Garinagu were allowed to go to Honduras. Eventually, many migrated to Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
An elderly gentleman greets us as we pass him. We stop and ask if we are going in the right direction. He says he is going there and can show us the way. We gladly fall in!
Julio is Garifuna and Spanish. He grew up in Livingston. Said he loved growing up there as a child, but the future wasn’t very bright. When the opportunity arose, he left for Los Angeles, then New York – two cities with the largest concentrations of Garifunas in the United States. He made a decent living and sent money home to the family. Thirty years later, Julio retired and moved back, to the memories of his childhood. When he was growing up, it was a beautiful little community with not many people. It has changed.
The air is quiet. Julio says there is a mass for dead relatives at church and many are there today. Waves gently roll over the sand. The peaceful shoreline belies the sad state of this community. It’s like the Guatemalan government forgot about the Garifunas and their needs.
There is no garbage service, so trash litters roadsides and where ever one wishes to drop food wrappers and containers.
A dilapidated nightclub, an abandoned, partially built apartment building and other uninhabited buildings are sad reminders of developers’ dashed hopes.
We arrive at Gamboa Place, an authentic Garifuna “restaurant” to taste a favorite local dish, Tapado. It’s a seafood soup, eaten with a whole fried fish. The woman who owns it is another of those who left to find work and send money home. She went to Belize, where there is a large Garifuna community, before coming home and opening her own business. She said Belize has been making more of an effort to save the Garifuna culture and language, but it’s a struggle. It is said that there are approximately 300,000 descendants around the world, with less than 100,000 in Central America and only 90,000 native speakers left.
Julio is comfortable eating at an outdoor restaurant where I notice that a man is washing dishes in well water. We are happy that the soup will be boiled and the fish fried. It takes a long while before we get our food. It finally arrives and is delicious!
A curious dog comes by to check out the food and is shooed away. One feline visitor is quite upset we didn’t share fish bones.
On the trip back to Rio Dulce, we are like the water taxi. People are dropped off and others are picked up. Brian made a new friend at one of the stops.
What a relaxing environment! Tortugal’s bungalows are rustic and quite charming.
Dining by the water, walking along the dock, wandering the trails, gazing at the bobbing boats …
We hop in a launcha for the short ride to Castillo de San Felipe de la Lara in Rio Dulce National Park. It’s very close – we can see it from Tortugal’s deck. There was a discussion on kayaking over, but it’s a bit windy and I’m not a strong paddler.
The Spanish colonial fort was built in 1644 to protect the port of San Antonio de las Bodegas from pirate attacks. The location is at the narrowest part of the river that travels all the way to the Gulf of Honduras into the Carribean Sea. At night, a chain was stretched across the river from the bank to the fort to keep out uninvited visitors. Unfortunately, that and the moat with drawbridge couldn’t protect it from being destroyed and looted several times.
In 1688, the fort was rebuilt … again. This time, the addition of more ramparts and guard stations stopped the attacks. In 1956, the fortification was beautifully restored. During the restoration, a search for the original cannons found them upriver from the fort! We didn’t know we’d need a light to explore the dark lower level of the fort, so I pull out my phone and use the flashlight on my Camera+ app.
Nowadays, after the tour, you can stroll the grassy lawns, pick up souvenirs and buy some local food before leaving.
The river is beautiful as night falls.
We have pizza & movie night on deck. Watching “Captain Phillips”, a thriller based on the true story of present day high seas piracy, is a fitting end to the day.
The taxi driver we used yesterday is taking us to the Litigua bus station this morning. We’ll be listening to water lapping against the dock in Rio Dulce tonight!
He’s late. We wait. An older man waves at us from his taxi. We shake our heads and continue waiting. I see a pick-up with a mounted machine gun in front of a hotel. Half a dozen black vehicles are lined up in the hotel’s curved driveway. In relatively safe Zona 10, machine gun wielding soldiers/security officers are a common sight, but this group means business!
Ten minutes later, we decide to walk over to the certified taxi line. Our driver walks by. “Hey, Marlon!” He is nonchalant. He says his father is taking us. (How would we know that?!? My internal radar should have kicked in.) He takes us over to the man who waved at us earlier. We get in, all the while his father is chuckling with amusement. (Spoiler alert: His good humor isn’t going to last.)
Tip: Take the white certified taxis. The trendy, late-model taxis are not considered safe.
After about 20 minutes in the mounting early morning traffic, the landscape changes to more mountainous scenery. I shoot my husband a sideways glance and say it looks like we’re headed out of town! We hurriedly tap Marlon’s father on the shoulder and franticly shake our heads – “WRONG WAY!!! Litegua, not Antigua!”
BIG Tip: Going to a foreign country? Learn as much of the language as possible so as to avoid miscommunications!
He pulls onto the side of the road, waits for cars to pass, reverses gears, going backwards to reach a break in the highway to make a quick U-turn. This is a busy thoroughfare, mind you, so it’s a little hairy! We swing into bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling towards town. One recognizable word he’s muttering is “Idiot!” We finally arrive and miss the bus by 10 minutes. The next bus to Rio Dulce is several hours later. When things like this happen, I try to take it in stride. There’s a reason God wants us to experience this – just wait. It may take a while, but something good will come of it.
The Litegua bus is comfortable, but the restroom doesn’t work. It’s going to be a long 4 to 5 hour ride. Unclean/pay-to-use restroom stops along the way to Rio Dulce are a discouraging foretaste of what to expect the next two months. *Sigh*
It’s dusk when we arrive in Frontera, the town the Rio Dulce (“Sweet River”) flows by. Most people refer to the town as Rio Dulce. The river starts here after streaming out of the east side of Lago de Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake.
Tip: There are a couple of ATMs in Frontera, but you might want to go to one of the guarded ATMs in Guat City (or the big town you’re coming from) before arriving. If you decide to use U.S. dollars, merchant exchange rates will be in their favor. Dollar bills must be relatively new, with no folds or tears, or merchants may refuse them.
Now I see why we were destined to miss the first bus – God wants us to have company! Another couple (who missed their bus too!) is also going to the same hotel, Tortugal (“the place of the turtle”) Hotel & Marina. Jacqui and Brian are Australians and we work together to get a launcha to the hotel, not far across the lake. There is a footpath, but it’s not recommended for tourists after dark. A local is kind enough to call the hotel for us and the boat is coming. Darkness rolls across the water as we sit and get acquainted. By the time we all arrive at the hotel’s dock, we’re comfortable with each other. At dinner overlooking the river, Jacqui comes over to our table and suggests we all go exploring together during our stay. Yay – God is good! If we had not missed the first bus, we would have been eating separately and not had the wonderful opportunity to enjoy new friendships!
We arrived yesterday and don’t plan on spending much time in Guat City as it’s like #12 on the list of “Most Dangerous Cities in the World.” God willing, as long as we stay in the touristy areas, guard our belongs and are aware of our surroundings, it’ll be fine. A young woman researcher living outside Guat City says to stay off our smartphones in public – phone snatchers are watching. Even her locally purchased phone was stolen.
*Tip: If getting quetzales at the airport – walk out the airport door, cross the drive to the parking lot side and take the elevator on the right, up to the third floor location of Banrural. Kiosks inside the airport exchange rate – 6.51. Banrural exchange rate – 7.78!
A taxi picks us up to go to the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura (National Palace of Culture) in the Parque Central. I pull out my camera and start snapping away. The driver glances over his shoulder and quickly tells me to put it down! (Later, I find out that thieves on motorbikes have been known to drive up to a vehicle, point a gun and grab purses and other valuables before making a speedy escape.)
I have to say that when we arrive at the palacio, there are no English speaking guides. We’re told there ARE no English speaking guides. Reading Tripadvisor, many mention English speaking guides. Oh well, I like researching interesting places …
The palace was once known as the most important building in Guatemala as it’s the point from which ALL the roads in the republic originated – amazing! It looks to be centuries old, but was completed in 1943 when Presidente Jorge Ubico was in power. Forced prison labor toiled many years to build the residence. The bricks are green(-ish), Ubico’s wife’s favorite color.
From what I’ve read, this presidente was a totally self-absorbed despot. He had a thing about the number “5.” Wonder if it started when he noticed his first and last names have five letters each. The building has five main pillars, five fountains, arches in fives, there are five stories, etc.
He even had his fingerprint imprinted onto all 500 door handles in the building. Thankfully, in time, he was removed. He later died in exile in New Orleans.
There are many detailed murals depicting various stages of Guatemala’s history. Can it be true that the stair rails are made of spent bullet casings?!?
We walk across the plaza to Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago (First Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago). Building started in the late 1700s, with full completion 86 years later. (I apologize for the poor quality of this photo. I couldn’t get a clear shot in the bright sunshine.)
The Metropolitana is not just another cathedral. It holds immense meaning for Guatemalans.
It has survived three major earthquakes within two centuries and weathered countless events, including a bloody prolonged war, coups, and a revolution.
It houses the country’s oldest icon and its very first pipe organ.
The twelve pillars in front are etched with thousands of names, a heartrending tribute to those who disappeared or were murdered during Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war. It is still recovering and will take decades to do so.