BootsnAll Travel Network

Days 694-719: Guatemala and Belize

Guatemala: Antigua, Panajachel, Chichicastenango, Flores, Tikal
Belize: San Ignacio, Xunantunich, Caye Caulker, Orange Walk, Lamanai

Colorful festivities, serious shopping, awesome coffee, huge temples, warty birds, and a whole lot of relaxing. All that and we discovered why people say, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

Really cool temples at Tikal.

It seems like the guidebook and our State Department’s website are really trying to scare people off from visiting Guatemala. Frequent highway robbery, rape and murder in both cities and on hiking trails. We’ll admit that we scaled back our plans for Guatemala after reading this scary stuff. But at the end of the day, we had absolutely zero problems. That being said, we did hide a spare ATM card and cash in our socks and Kelly’s bra just in case.

Newspaper story while we were in Guatemala. The story is titled: “Consulates issue alerts on risks in the country.”

We opted to travel by direct mini-van shuttles most of the time to try to minimize the risk of luggage theft. Our 6 hour ride into the country included at least three hours of Shakira concerts and music videos. Maybe we should have taken the chicken bus after all…

A colorful chicken bus plys the cobblestone streets of Antigua.

Our first stop in Guatemala was the colorful, colonial town of Antigua. This was a remarkably pleasant town, even if heavily touristed. It was particularly crowded on the 4th Sunday of Lent because they were having a 12 hour religous procession through the town. There were tons of folks dressed in purple robes and they carried enormous religous “floats” on their shoulders. It had a neat atmosphere.

Kids with incense diffusers filled the streets with pine smoke during the procession.

A group heading towards the action along a colorful street.

Next stop was the beautiful Lake Atitlan which was surrounded by three perfect volcanoes. (There are actually two on the left.)

We stayed in Panajachel (Pana for short) on the shore of Lake Atitlan. This town has a majorly touristy street leading to the lake that is filled with craft stalls and the most pernicious wandering steet vendors in Central America. Yet again, the best way to make them go away while you’re trying to eat you lunch was just ignore them as rudely as possible. It sounds like a terrible thing. But anything close to a “No gracias” or a head shake would lead to a five minute hard sell.

Now this is our kind of crafts shop – full of great stuff and it doesn’t tug on your arm while you’re having a meal.

As far as Marc was concerned, Pana’s best feature was the Crossroads Cafe run by the amiable Mike from the States. Marc could smell the coffee being roasted at this cafe from blocks away and would immediately start to salivate. The place was always full of the nicest people, most of them expats, and we always seemed to end up staying for hours. If that wasn’t enough, the coffee was great and Mike was full of coffee knowledge and Marc tried to pick up some tips to go with the kilo of green beans he bought. Marc has tried coffee in quite a few places now and he has declared the coffees of Guatemala to be the best he’s had.

Mike puts another batch into the roaster at Crossroads Cafe.

Kelly’s favorite part of Pana were the abundant tortillarias which sold 5-6 freshly-cooked, handmade tortillas for 1 Quetzal (about 13 cents).

Not too far from Pana is the crafts village of Chichicastenango that hosts an enormous crafts market twice a week. Every tour operator in Pana offers transport to this market for $12 each and we figured we could do it for a lot less on the chicken buses. We spent about $2 each on a total of 6 chicken buses. Five of them were comfortable enough, but one of them was so packed with colorful locals that Kelly had to sit on Marc’s lap and he only had one half of one butt cheek on a bench to keep him from falling into the aisle. It certainly had a lot more character than a sterile minivan!

Lots of colorfully painted wooden masks for sale at the Chichi market.

Bargaining at the Chichi market was amusing. At one shop, Marc asked a lady how much something was and she looked him up and down before answering with a price that was not completely ridiculous. Guess our strategy of trying to look scummy in Guatemala was working (we were trying to not to attract the attention of any would-be thieves). Most of the time the prices asked for were astronomical but would instantly drop by 50% or more as you walked away. One shop owner even had her kid chase us down with an item we had made an offer for earlier and she had rejected soundly.

The Chichi market wasn’t just for tourists. The place was packed with local Mayan folks wearing very colorful outfits. Even the guys had really colorful cowboy-like outfits (although we have no pictures of them).

The guidebook warned us that folks don’t like having their pictures taken and that tourists have even been killed by mobs for taking photos of children. So we were careful to ask if we could take photos of people’s shops (with them in it) and got a whole lot of “no” responses. The mask shop above was the only “yes” we got, and you’ll note that there are no people in it.

There was a very colorfully-painted cemetary on the outskirts of Chichi.

We went back to Antigua and were there for the 5th Sunday of Lent. There was an even bigger procession this day and the town was totally packed. This time they were making colorful carpets of dyed sawdust, flowers, and pine needles that the procession would then walk over.

Folks making a colorful sawdust carpet not far from La Merced church. They used stencils to lay down the intricate patterns.

The cathedral in the central plaza surrounded by a sea of purple. This was shortly before the floats showed up and the cardinal came out to give a sermon. Nice light too!

The main float had an image of Jesus carrying a very ornate cross and a group of sinners burning in hell.

Our last stop in Guatemala was the island of Flores in Lago de Peten Itza. Like everywhere in our scaled back Guatemala trip, this place was really touristy. But it was an okay base for visiting the Mayan ruins at Tikal. This is also the place where Marc had the worst beer ever made and a delicious mixed drink that looked so girlie that he had to push it near Kel so that nobody would think it was his.

We got to Tikal pretty early while it was still shrouded in mist. The site is quite large and it was cool to see the temple tops peaking above the jungle canopy. In the morning, the trees were filled with colorful birds, like green parakeets and keel-billed toucans. But the coolest bird we saw was the amazing wild turkey below.

You never would have believed us if we said we saw a wild turkey with iridescent feathers and a pale-blue head covered in flourescent-orange warts!

Temples poking above the jungle canopy. Temple IV in the background is the tallest at 64 meters in height.

The Jaguar Temple at Tikal with Marc in front for scale. They have closed off those steep stairs because too many tourists have fallen to their deaths. Other temples now have ridiculously-steep wooden ladders with handrails that you climb to get to the tops.

Weird bird with a toupe in Tikal.

Overall we enjoyed Guatemala and was glad that the worst thing about the place was the pervasiveness of “stinky bathroom syndrome”. We had to put a plastic bag of water over the shower drain in every hotel we stayed in to try to block out the stench.

We took a locals’ minivan to the border with Belize and there was only 1.5 seats available for the two of us. The ride was alright except for the cute baby that kept pulling Marc’s leg hair and the girl who got car sick and tried to puke out the window but managed to get it all over the place (including Kelly’s pants – and she was a row back!).

First stop in Belize was San Ignacio. It took quite a bit of adjustment to speak English again. We could tell that Semana Santa (Holy Week leading up to Easter) was starting up because places were full and prices were high. We were glad that we had booked rooms for this week in advance, even if we had to pay an arm and leg for them.

Not far from San Ignacio were the ruins at Xunantunich (Stone Maiden). The coolest temple was called El Castillo and had a pretty neat relief on the side that had been reproduced.

Our main stop in Belize was the coral island of Caye Caulker. To get there, we had to go through Belize City. We’re glad we spent as little time as possible there. The short walk from the bus station to the boat terminal was pretty gritty. There were angry people swearing at each other and lunatic cyclists. It felt like there was a lot of pent-up tension and we didn’t want to be on the receiving end of it. So we walked really fast.

Caye Caulker was pretty little island without much to do. Drinking in public is permitted and it seemed like everyone was walking the streets with an open drink in hand. Marc took advantage to try and cool off with a Belkin.

We thought we had done well to reserve our room at the Rainbow Hotel a month in advance. But our first night there was easily the worst night of the entire trip because we were attacked by an army of bed bugs! These guys were really nasty. They came in two types: tiny red ones that were almost invisible that left incredibly itchy welts and much larger ones that sucked a lot of blood – even through multiple layers of bedding. We knew they only come out at night and kept the lights on, but that didn’t seem to help. By morning, the sheets and walls were covered in bloody squashed bugs and we were covered in bites. Note to the reader: avoid room number 5. We moved upstairs the next morning and no more problems. It was funny to hear the owners telling us about “travellers from Guatemala” bringing the bugs when we had no problems there and stayed in hotels a heck of a lot cheaper than this one.

A more pleasant rainbow in Caye Caulker.

We took advantage of the clear, blue water at Caye Caulker to go swimming and snorkelling. One of the highlights of snorkelling was the group of huge, friendly stingrays (okay, so the boat guys feed them). If you could stop thinking about Steve Irwin, you could get close enough to touch them (very soft and slippery). There were also shy nurse sharks that felt like sandpaper (you have to sneak up on them from behind) and big barracuda with frighteningly-large teeth.

Marc having a dip in the crystal blue waters.

Belizean food will never be confused as health food. A common food was the “fry jack”, which are deep fried flour tortillas that were greasy as heck but tasty with jam or sugar.

The most common mode of transport on Caye Caulker was golf carts. They were used as taxis and by both tourists and locals to get around. The funniest scene we saw was a mother instructing her two kids standing on the back of the cart to strap themselves into to two loops which are used for holding golf club bags onto the cart.

After Easter, we headed up to Orange Walk and took a day trip to the Mayan ruins at Lamanai. The trip was by speed boat on a river and we saw a bunch of cool birds: snail kites, green herons, big kingfishers, and a cool night heron. The river also had a Menonite community, which the guide told us were like the Amish but these guys used machinery. So we were confused.

The national flower of Belize is the Black Orchid.

The stairs on the High Temple at Lamanai were scarily steep. We were thankful for the rope.

Kelly in front of a jaguar mask on the side of a temple at Lamanai.

Marc giving some scale for the enormous roots of a fig tree at Lamanai.

Blue dragon fly at Lamanai.

And so ended our jaunt through Central America as we entered the final country of our trip: Mexico. Almost home!

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9 Responses to “Days 694-719: Guatemala and Belize”

  1. Mom Says:

    Love the turkey – much to pretty for Thanksgiving dinner!nrnrSounds like the chicken bus is by far the way to go… provides many memorable experiences I’m sure!

  2. Posted from United States United States
  3. zcookes/Mom Says:

    So, Marc –

    Now that you have tried coffee from all over the world – which would you prefer on your next visit here? Folgers, Maxwell House or Hills Brothers?

  4. Posted from United States United States
  5. ¡Viejo Papá De la Inflamación! Says:

    ¡Excepto algo del mejor café de ese mundo dulce para mí compinche!

  6. Kirsten Walsh Says:

    I really liked the fig tree and the orchid. Seeing the ruins reminded me of my childhood. I can’t wait to see how your Mexico trip goes!! Can’t wait for the photos. I received your postcard. That was very sweet!! Have a safe trip through Mexico. Kirsten

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  8. crazy aunt lori Says:

    the orchid was spectacular…the lake a”tit”lan reflected all 3 of mine well…the masks..what colorful things to scare the neighborhood kids with…but i must ask…marc..did you color coordinate your wardrobe to be better rooted in that pic…martha stewart would be proud

  9. Posted from United States United States
  10. Merrilee Fellows Says:

    Your trip has been amazing–far better than having my own National Geographic. So many good insights and incredible photographs.

    When might we get to see Kelly in USAR again?

  11. Posted from United States United States
  12. quaggi Says:

    Your trip is FABULOUS.. reminds me of Chiapas, Mexico when I explored there 35 years ago. Ahhh the ‘Gypsy Road’, it’s the BEST and I know you are having the BEST TIME EVER.
    This sounds dumb, but when you are old.. you will remember this feeling you have now… a feeling of adventure and freedom and you’ll wonder how you ever let it go.

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  14. nick Says:

    is that the chichen itza? (first picture)

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  16. Kelly & Marcus Says:

    Hey Nick. Sorry for the late reply. No it’s Tikal in the first photo. Only pic we posted of CI is here: the 6th photo down.


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