Guatemala: Part Two
The morning of our travel from Semuc Champey to Antigua, we got a ride back to the town of Lanquin hoping our pre-arranged shuttle would pick us up. We had already mentally prepared to have to stay an extra night at Greengo’s. We did not have much faith in the travel agency all the way back in Flores. We tried to flush those thoughts from our mind, at least temporarily, as we bounced around in the back of a pickup, listening and watching the jungle around us wake up.
As we pulled into town, we were prepared to make multiple fruitless calls to the travel agency and to scramble to find accommodations for the night and transportation for the next day. Before the truck even came to a complete stop, a man approached, shouting “Dos a Antigua?” We held up our tickets and the man nodded without hesitation. He loaded our bags into the van and after waiting for a few more people, we were heading to Antigua.
Our buddy back in Flores had delivered on all three of his promises. We made sure to issue apologies to the unknowing recipient of our many verbal and mental threats and insults. We had wasted more than a few minutes planning a future violence-filled trip to Flores.
Upon arriving in Antigua that night, we checked into our AirBnb ($93.71 for 4 nights), walked around town, and went on the search for good food. We ended up at Rincon Tipico, an unassuming eatery that we would find ourselves at multiple times over the next few days. Essentially, you just choose a meat, two sides, and help yourself to as many servings as you’d like of the drink of the day, usually tamarindo or jamaica ($9.54 for 2 meals). We almost always went with the chicken, which could be seen roasting over a wood-fire on the other side of the room. We both agreed that this was some of the best chicken we’d ever had. The skin was so perfectly crispy, you have to try real hard to fight off the urges of becoming the Buffalo Bill of poultry.
We spent the next day walking all over town, admiring the colonial architecture and enjoying the cooler mountain weather. We figured our short time in Antigua would be our autumn for the year. After weeks of carrying around hoodies and long pants, we were glad to have them. That afternoon, we made the short hike to Cerro de la Cruz, a viewpoint that overlooks the city with an amazing view of Volcan de Agua.
Each of the next two days started the same: hanging out in the city and searching for cheap food. Guatemala is a bit strange when it comes to food. It’s often very hard to hunt down local food in the areas frequented by travelers, unless you’re willing to go to the overpriced places that cater only to tourists. It was easier for us to find a Burger King or Little Caesar’s than it was to find real-deal Guatemalan food. The other thing about Guatemalan food is there is a large overlap between the cuisine and that of the surrounding countries. Empanadas, tacos, and tamales can be found just about anywhere down here, but we had a small list of dishes that were unique to Guatemala. The problem was trying to find the places that served them. Luckily while we were in Antigua we found a place, without even a sign, that we had read served the best Jocon in Antigua. Jocon is a tomatillos and cilantro based stew, that basically tastes like a soup version of the sauce used for enchiladas verde. This was definitely one of the best dishes we’ve had and was worth the effort to find it.
Our second evening in Antigua, we arranged to take part in a chocolate-making class at ChocoMuseo ($48.84 for 2 people). During the two hour class, we learned about the history of chocolate and the chocolate making process. The highlight was getting to make some chocolates ourselves and concocting three different chocolate drinks, which each represented a historical version of the way chocolate was consumed at various points in history. It might have been a bit on the touristy side, but...chocolate. We also ended up being the only ones in the class that evening, so we got to know our instructor much more than we would have during a 10-plus person class.
Probably the activity we were most excited for during our stay in Antigua came our last evening there. We set out that afternoon to hike the nearby Pacaya Volcano ($34.39 for transportation + entrance fee). The hike was a bit steep at times and included some sections of loose volcanic gravel, but the view of volcanoes Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango made up for any suffering.
After trekking across an endless field of rough volcanic rocks, we arrived at our destination. Straight ahead pouring down the side of Pacaya was a river of lava. Our guide then pushed aside some of the volcanic rocks and found a spot where the heat could be felt emanating from the ground and pulled out a bag of marshmallows. Our group took turns roasting the marshmallows right over the heat coming from underneath the piles of rocks. Once warmed up from the ground heat, our group was prepared to brave the cold winds a bit longer as we started our descent during sunset, only to get a better view of the lava further down the trail.
Following our four days in Antigua, we took the short three-hour shuttle ($21.16 total) ride north to Lake Atitlan. The lake is surrounded by small towns, some of which are solely inhabited by locals, while others have multiple Gringo bars and hostels. We chose San Pedro as our base, a town with a good mix of resources for budget-conscious travelers and authenticity.
The first obvious observation we made about Lake Atitlan was that, no matter where you were on or around the lake, you were able to take in an unforgettable view. This is exactly the reason we chose to stay in an apartment with giant windows and a rooftop terrace ($141.13 for 4 nights) overlooking the lake. Everyday before sunset, we would drop what we were doing and head to the roof to watch the hues of pink and purple take over the sky. It was also from this roof that we saw the most vivid shooting stars of our lives.
Aside from simply staring at the lake, we took some time to check out a couple of the other towns nearby. From any town, you can grab a boat to take you to another along the lake. Some of the direct routes across the lake could take as much as forty-five minutes. The lake is pretty big…
On one specific day, we headed across the lake to, what we thought was, the town of Santa Cruz. We found a specific restaurant that served a couple Guatemalan dishes we had yet to try and were going there for lunch. Halfway across the lake, we realized it was Sunday, the only day of the week that the restaurant was closed. Regardless, we figured we would see what food we could find in Santa Cruz. Only problem was that we ultimately got off at the wrong town and ended up in a village, where only Mayan was spoken and there seemed to be no places to grab food. Luckily, the village was connected to the next town, San Marcos, by a dirt road, so we were able to pay a tuk-tuk to take us there and figured we would get to Santa Cruz another day.
San Marcos has a reputation of being the hippie town. It’s essentially just one single walkway lined with small stores, eateries, and crusties selling bracelets they’ve spent everyday of the last year of their spiritual journey crafting. Unless you’re big into yoga, vegetarianism, or hate personal hygiene, there’s not much to see here. “Yeah man, we think we have a pretty good grasp on what happiness is too. We still shower.” Hey, do you. We ended up eating some uninspiring burritos and headed back to San Pedro. Afterall, sunset would be coming soon.
A couple of days later, we actually got to Santa Cruz and made it to Cafe Sabor Cruceno, the restaurant we had hoped to visit on our previous failed attempt. At Cafe Sabor Cruceno, we were able to enjoy the view of the lake from a different vantage point. We should mention that we had to work a bit to get there. Santa Cruz is known as the "vertical town," due to its location halfway up the side of the mountain. From the dock, we refused a tuk-tuk ride and walked the steep road up to the town. The food and view made the hike worth it. We ordered Kaq’ik, a tomato/chili-based stew, and Pulique, a herbed corn-based stew ($21.54 for both meals + drinks). We made sure to savor our dishes, pairing each bite with a glance out at the lake.
Finding Guatemalan food along Lake Atitlan was a bit easier than Antigua but still required some research and planning. Our regular spot in San Pedro was a restaurant named Jakuu, a short walk from our apartment. At Jakuu, we were able to again enjoy Jocon, as well as Pepian, a pumpkinseed-based stew (notice a trend about Guatemalan food?) we had previously tasted in Antigua and back in Chiapas. Plus, they had happy hour specials on Cuba Libres (2 for $1.32). Probably a deal that will never be beaten.
We came to Guatemala primarily for the sights, but we fell in love with the food. Pepian, Kaq’ik, Jocon, Pulique, and something about the way they cooked rice all seemed to have a familiarity to it that gave it a comfort food feeling. Plus, it was all so hearty and filling, especially when served with the thick tortillas that seem to be ubiquitous with the area south of Mexico. These things more closely resemble a pancake in size than the tortillas you’re used to getting from a taqueria.
When our four days at Lake Atitlan ended, we were convinced we had done enough to imprint the views of the lake in our minds. We headed back to Antigua for one night to avoid the direct 4:00AM shuttle to El Salvador and make for an easier travel day. Of course, we got chicken at Rincón Tipico one last time that night.
Sitting in the shuttle to El Salvador ($47.95 total) the next morning, we couldn't believe how quickly our two weeks in Guatemala had passed. We had heard so many people declaring Guatemala as one of their favorite countries to visit, and we did not entirely understand why until after our two weeks there. Natural beauty, delicious local food, still-intact traditional cultures, and probably the most incredible ruins we've seen are enough to ensure that the country stays near the top of our list of favorites for years to come.
...plus, we made it through the two weeks without getting scammed.