We crossed the border into Guatemala and sent about doing the usual ‘new country chore list’. Getting the sim card, doing the big shop, getting the car insurance. Luckily for us, the border crossing was quick and smooth and so was our chore list. The only hiccup was that we couldn’t buy insurance until a town 2 hours drive away, so for now it was just a case of driving carefully!
For our first night we stayed around a gorgeous lake about 40 minutes drive away from Tikal, one of the most famous Mayan archaeological sites in the world, and certainly in Guatemala. We payed our small camping fee for showers, a toilet and a lakefront view. We then took advantage of the lower cost compared to Belize and went to get a drink and some nachos (all in £4 – not too bad!). The view over the lake was brilliant and we went for a dip later that evening.
The following morning we went to Tikal, a UNESCO world heritage site and a national park, it’s a must see on every travellers list through Guatemala. We’d seen a few Mayan ruins previously in Mexico however this time we opted to get a guide as we wanted a bit of a deeper understanding of the site. Also the guides here were a little cheaper than those in Chichen Itza which helped to tempt us to splurge.
We drove our guide – Geraldo – along the 30 minute road from the entrance to the site. They give you a small ticket at the start with a timestamp and then check it at the end of the road to make sure you stick to 40kph in order to protect the wildlife. Whilst a noble cause, it’s incredibly boring driving at 25mph for half an hour! Also made a little awkward by Geraldos fumbling English stopping any form of conversation in its tracks.
When we arrived we piled out of the van and started our tour. The site of Tikal is one of the biggest we’ve been to, which seems fitting considering the size of the buildings there as well. In its former glory it was home to around 130,000 Mayans, quite a city! Geraldo explained how the first modern discovery was made by a brit who dug underneath what appeared to be a funeral temple. What was so unique was how large parts of it had been swallowed back into the jungle which gave it a wild feel. It was equally impressive to marvel at the size of these temples, and also the size of the bricks used to build them – how on earth they managed to get them up there is really something!
We were showed two temples which faced each other and told how this was probably used as part of wedding ceremonies. The bride and the groom would stand at either temple while the ceremony was performed – a pretty long way apart for the first kiss! Finally we got the view from the highest building and it was really stunning, seeing the other temples pop out from the tree line. From there we heard an unbelievable roar which we naively thought might be jaguars but in fact was just howler monkeys – they deserve their name!
It was a long and tiring day in Tikal, and whilst we’re glad we got a guide we aren’t sure we’d do it again. Maybe we were unlucky, but he was trying to find other customers to join our tour once it had started and spoke a very broken English. It’s not that we expect everyone to speak in English to us just that we paid more for an English guide rather than a Spanish one so it would be an easier tour and were a little disappointed.
After Tikal we headed to the tourist town of Flores. Parking outside a transport police station we camped the night for free and felt the car was safe whilst we wandered into town. The heavens really opened on our way – it was the rainy season after all! So although we were aiming for a nice vegetarian restaurant looking out onto the lake we got caught in a storm and hopped into a hostel. We met some nice people there, played some corn dog and had a few drinks. It was a welcome change to not worry about the safety of the van. You can see the effects of the rain in the way some of the roads are completely inaccessible!
After Flores it was a long drive to Rio Dulce. We stopped halfway outside a guarded sports complex for our second free night camping in a row. Mikey even used the running track in the morning all free of charge! Then onto Rio Dulce, a whole community based on one road of markets. We stayed in the middle of a yacht club where we saw the most white people in one place since the resort in Cuba! It was very peaceful and safe though.
We were planning to take a boat ride down to Livingstone, but it would have cost at least £60 for the round trip and a 2 hour boat ride. Whilst the community sounded nice it also appeared similar to Belize in many ways, so we opted to skip it. Instead, we headed to Lake Izabal, spent a night camping there and had a very unique experience. There’s a waterfall which pours down steaming hot water into a cold pool right by the lake! Being fed by a hot spring means that the water is hot all year round and it was a lot of fun diving our heads from boiling hot stream of water into the cold pool. It was the most affordable spa we’ve been to!
Safe to say we have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Guatemala so far, and very much looking forward to our next stop. Semuc Champey is another travellers must visit in Guatemala!