Once you’ve traveled to several different countries, especially those within the same region, they start to blend together. For example, when I traveled throughout Southeast Asia, it seemed every country had the same temples and statues. This is why every country I go, I’ve tried to find 5 unique places or things that make that country stand out from the rest. This list is solely based on my experience and may not cover certain well-known traditions or tourist sites.
Antigua-Once the colonial Spanish capital of Central America, Antigua is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located about an hour bus ride from Guatemala City and many travelers prefer to base themselves here rather than the aforementioned. Antigua is the type of city where one would find a 1400’s colonial building house a modern Wendy’s Restaurant. There is plenty to see and do in Antigua and it would be the highlight of any trip to Guatemala. While there, I participated in a chocolate making class for about $20 USD which I would highly recommend to anyone with a sweet tooth.
Chicken Bus-Imagine Pimp My Ride designed the buses for your hometown school district and you would probably see a Guatemalan chicken bus. While they don’t have the amenities, chicken buses definitely have the flare found in the cars from the popular MTV show. Chicken buses are not only stylistic but are incredibly cheap as you can travel across the country for as little as $20 Quetzal ($2.70 USD). The longer the trip, the more space you are likely to have as buses with shorter routes tend to be standing room only.
Lake Atitlan- Located in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, Lake Atitlan has something for you whether you are a backpacker passing through or looking to settle down for a few weeks. The lake is surrounded by several small towns that are all accessible by lanchas (small ferryboats). Many travelers take a bus to Panajachel, the busiest town on the lake, and go from there. A one-way trip on a lancha will cost you between $10-25 Quetzal ($1-3.50 USD) depending on where you go. Lake Atitlan has the perfect mix of adventure through activities such as kayaking, hiking volcanoes, and bird watching as well as trendy bars where happy never seems to end.
Tikal- Described as one of the largest cities of the Mayan Empire, Tikal is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Guatemala. Many travelers base themselves in the nearby city of Flores and book a day tour through their hotel or hostel. A ticket to the park costs about $150 Quetzal ($20 USD). However, the park is way out the way, so it would be better to book a tour with transportation about $35 USD. There are also several ancillary parks around Tikal, such as Yaxha, that provide unique tours of their own. If traveling through Belize, you can make a quick trip across the border from San Ignacio but there is a stiff $25 USD border tax imposed by Belize customs when leaving the country.
Traveling Entrepreneurs- When traveling long distances using public transportation in the developing world, you are guaranteed to stop one or two times at a market where the owners are friendly with the bus driver. The bus driver is given a kickback for bringing in potential customers. However, in Guatemala, the market comes to you. Whether going across town or across the country, various people will jump on your bus selling everything from chewing gum to their daughters’ hand in marriage. During stops in larger towns, 7-10 vendors may come on your bus at a given time. As long as you don’t make consistent eye contact, they won’t bother you. However, I did find them extremely convenient when I was traveling to (the wrong) San Marcos 1. and a lady hoped on to sell me a piece of fried chicken and 3 tortillas for $10 Quetzal ($1.35 USD).
After going to the wrong San Pedro. I made my way back towards Lake Atitlan. My first stop was Quetzaltenango, Guatemala (as referred to as Xela). Xela is a city in Guatemala’s western highlands that is set against a backdrop of volcanoes, including towering Santa María with its active Santiaguito lava dome. As the video shows, the city has plenty of hustle and bustle to it.
I thought I was heading to a town called San Marcos La Laguna, which is a little town right off Lake Atitlan. Unfortunately, the chicken bus driver misunderstood me and after a 5 hour bus ride I ended up in another San Marcos in Northern Guatemala, 12 hours from my intended destination.
If you are like me and like to save money while traveling, public transportation is the way to go. In Guatemala, you can literally take a "chicken bus" across the country for $2 USD. However, as seen in this video, it is not always the most comfortable experience. (Note: For those that don't understand Spanish, the guy speaking in the video is attempting to sell ginseng to the people around me. Everyone ignored him for 45 minutes before he finally gave up.)
A view of the afternoon sunset inside Yaxha National Park outside of Flores, Guatemala.