I’ve run out of gas in the Arizona desert, been on boats at sea with not a spec of land on the horizon and yet I have never felt as remote or cut off from the outside world as I felt in the Jungle of Guatemala. Our scenic journey from Flores to the isolated village of Semuc Champey was stunning as we drove deep into the heart of the country. Passing through some small towns we reached the rural farmlands where banana plantations stretch for miles. When we reached the distant mountains and weaving roads we started to gain altitude. Outside we watched the dramatic change in landscape from farms into mountain views with sweeping Guatemalan coffee plantations and finally into dense jungle canopy. We pulled off the “main road” and our bus bounced along a gravel track for another 2 hours. Then when the bus could go no further we transferred ourselves, gear and all into the back of a 4WD Ute shared by a young Guatemalan family with their dog. 40min of some steep turning gravel roads and we were finally where we wanted to be, in the middle of nowhere and it was beautiful.
Guatemala is the kind of place where travellers get stuck. Antigua is a colonial old town brimming with expats who planned to stay for a week then stayed 6 months or more. The great ruins of Tikal are saturated in rich Mayan history and copious wildlife. Semuc Champey gives the adrenaline seekers their buzz. The intrepid, the action, the eco-tourism and everything else make Guatemala an unforgettable, unmissable destination on any traveller’s bucket list.
Caye Caulker, Belize to Flores, Guatemala – $15US pp
Once you arrive back to the ferry terminal in Belize City you have two options. The budget option is the San Juan shuttle bus. It doesn’t have a bathroom onboard but it does have A/C. We haggled the price down from $20US to $15US. Otherwise you can get a first class coach with bathroom, Wifi and A/C onboard for $25US.
Note – When passing the border to Guatemala you have to pay exit fee of $37.50BZ each. There is a card machine there if you do not have any cash on hand.
When we arrived to Flores we scored ourselves a fantastic deal, we were travelling in a group of four, giving us extra bargaining power. San Juan tours hooked us up with a shuttle bus from Flores to Semuc Champey, 2x night’s accommodation in Semuc (Hostal Zapote) and another shuttle bus from Semuc to Antigua all for Q250.
The journey alone should cost around Q120 depending on your hustle.
Semuc Champey to Antigua – around Q150
This was included in our deal that we booked in Flores, otherwise it costs around Q150 to get to Antigua.
Antigua, Guatemala to La Ceiba/Utila Honduras – Q575
We organised our bus shuttle with Quetzal travel agency (found in the centre of Antigua), we wanted the most direct route to La Ceiba, Honduras. This specific shuttle bus runs only twice a week at 2am on Monday and Friday. The journey takes around 12-13hours and will arrive at the port before the last ferry leaves for Utila (4.30pm). The ferry costs $24US
– Alternatively you can take a Hedman Alas bus with reclining seats, Wifi and A/C from Antigua at 3.30am for Q650. The problem for us was this option arrives at around 5pm after the last ferries departure. This means you will need to stay the night in La Cieba and catch the 9.30 morning ferry.
Flores – Hospedaje Dona Goya, Q40 p/n Dorm bed
This is run by a local family and draws in budget travellers. We choose this hostel as it was very cheap but also had an average WIFI connection, a good location and clean dorm rooms. Hospedaje Dona Goya also have a really cool rooftop terrace, with a great view of the setting sun over the lake, it’s really beautiful!
Semuc Champey – Hostal Zapote, Included in the Q250 package
As this was also included in the tour package we could tell it was fairly cheap accommodation. This hostal is not in the main town Lanquin but half way between Lanquin and Semuc Champey. Right in the jungle you truly in the woop-woops (us kiwis would say). The accommodation itself is quite rustic, we stayed in a dorm room in the attic of one building and truly got the jungle experience.
Note – Be careful with food and water in this area. It could be due to the rainy season tainting the water supply, but the facilities are not up to scratch to compensate. Everyone who we knew or travelled with got really sick from staying here. I would suggest bringing your own food, as it is so remote there is nowhere to go eat out, except your accommodation.
Antigua – Jungle Party Hostel, Q50 p/n dorm bed
One of the cheaper hostels in Antigua, it is right in the centre and has a 26bed dorm or smaller bunkrooms of 4-6. Jungle party offers some great communal area’s to drink and socialise with new people both in the lobby area and on the roof terrace. Jungle party lives by its name so expect loud music and partygoers. The Wifi is decent and they have a lot of tours and transportation you can sort out at the hostel. All the staff were helpful and friendly.
Guatemala does not have a national dish but they have certain foods in their everyday diet – Corn remains the staple food.
- Tortillas served with black beans and eaten at nearly every meal
- Rice, eggs and cheese are hugely consumed
- The country’s most popular meats are Chicken, Turkey and Beef. The meats are either served in stews or cooked in chilli sauce and usually accompanied with beans and rice.
- Pepian is a common dish in Antigua, it is a thick meat and vegetable stew. A great hardy meal!
- Seafood prepared in various spices are also common on the coasts.
- Best, cheap street food located next to the lake in the town centre. Tacos, Tortillas, tamales and salads served with your choice of meat and sauces – Q5 each.
- Bella Vista for great coffee and a rooftop view of the volcano.
- Casa Colonial for some traditional Guatemalan food.
Must see & do
Stay in Flores and visit the nearby ruins of Tikal Q150 entry plus Q80 for the transportation
Larger and less concentrated with tourists than the popular Chichen Itza. The capital of the ancient Mayan civilisation is a huge park filled with stone buildings lying in ruin, the tallest standing at 65m high. You spend a day walking through the jungle looking out for Howler Monkeys and Toucans while coming across great pyramids and temples. Some of which you can climb above the jungle canopy and take in the extraordinary view.
Tip – you can pay an extra Q100 to gain entry to the park after hours to get the sun rise or set. Officially the park opens at 6am. We recommend getting there at this time to avoid any tour group crowds.
A beautiful natural phenomenon made of limestone forming a bridge which passes over the Cahabon River. We did a full day tour is a massive really fun day including swimming, rope swinging, ring floating, candle lit caving and of course beer drinking. The tour starts with a hike to a viewpoint followed by a much-needed swim. Once everyone is happy you head deep into a watery dark cave with only the light of a candle. The cave is followed by the rope-swing we all wish we had access to as kids. Next up is a relaxing tire tube down the rapids trying not to spill your beer. Finally for the daring is a 12m high bridge jump, just in case the day wasn’t action packed enough for you.
- Visit the market. Regarded as one of the best markets in Central America you can find everything inside. Meats, fruits, herbs, spices and seeds of all kinds, Clothing cheaper than a thrift shop and souvenirs to keep mum happy when you get home. Spend a day in here and get lost to find some gems.
- Check out Plaza Mayor (central square) and take in its amazing gardens, palaces and cathedral.
- Climb to the top of a volcano. You have three to choose from Acatenango, Pacaya and Fuego which is erupting daily
– I’m going to say what nobody else told us. Be prepared, walking up volcanos is hard work (Especially after a few days being sick). It takes 5 hours of hiking almost directly up slippery scoria to reach base camp. So when they offer walking sticks, TAKE THEM. Bring a beanie, gloves and a WARM rain jacket. It gets below 0 in the night. When you wake up at 3am to ascend the summit and watch the sunrise, the wind chill is immense. Heed our warnings and be prepared!
Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit the lake, but I did do some prior research and talked to a lot of travellers who did go.
- Lake is framed by 3 volcanoes and offers arguably the best spot to watch the sunset in Guatemala
- San Pedro is the main backpacker hangout, more laidback
- San Macros town is small and charming, hippy hamlet situated directly on the lake
- Stay a few weeks and learn some Spanish
- Rent a kayak and go explore the lake
Tips & Advice
- Guatemala city is one of the most dangerous in the world so keep your wits about you. Mind your gear, be cautious not silly.
- If you find yourself sick for over a week you might have a parasite. The pharmacy has electrolyte drinks for rehydration and anti parasitic pills to blast away any nasties in your intestines. This robs your energy and you will need a day or two of recovery. A natural remedy is 5 papaya seeds 4 times a day and young coconut water for hydration.
- Dry season is November to April and Rainy Season is May to October
- Always ask before you take photos of the locals, it is customary to then tip Q5-10
- Haggling is expected at outdoor markets
- If a taxi driver doesn’t have a meter, agree on a price before you ride
Helpful words and phrases
The main language is Spanish in Guatemala
Please Por Favor
Thank you Gracias
You’re welcome De Nada
Pardon me Perdone
English? Habla Inglés?