Tag Archives: Lake Atitlan

Highlights of Latin America

I had such an awesome time in Latin America it’s pretty hard to pick out favourite moments. But I’m going to give it a go anyway. Here are the best things I’ve seen and done over the past six and a half months, along with links to what I originally wrote about them.

Favourite City: Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso

Runner-up: Guanajuato, Mexico
Hilly cities with lots of colourful houses are clearly the way to keep me happy.

Favourite Capital City: Mexico City

Mexico City Cathedral

Runner-up: Santiago de Chile
Quite a contrast here between enormous, chaotic, slightly crazy Mexico City vs Clean, calm, orderly Santiago. But I could live in ’em both, I reckon.

 

Favourite Food: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
Best street food in Latin America from the Mexicans, whereas the restaurants were at their finest in Peru.

Best course: Learning Spanish in Guatemala
Runner-up: Learning to Dive in Honduras
Who knew learning could be such fun? Learning Spanish enriched my whole experience in the continent, and diving was way more fun (and way easier) than I ever thought it could be.

Favourite activity: Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru
Runner-up: Cycling tour of the wineries, Mendoza, Argentina

Favourite Hike: The Huayhuash Circuit, Peru

The Cordillera Huayhuash

Runner-up: The Lost City, Colombia
Again, quite a contrast. The Huayhuash took me to the most stunning mountain scenery I’ve ever come across, and was the toughest walk I’ve ever done. The Lost City was less visually appealling and easier on the legs, but made up for it by being with the best group of people I’ve me on the whole trip.

 

Favourite Natural Wonder: The Copper Canyon, Mexico

The road to Batopilas, Copper Canyon

Runner-up: The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Sorry Colca Canyon, you may be deeper but Mexico’s is way better. It also gave me my favourite journey, along the Copper Canyon railway. Meanwhile, Uyuni was like a trip to another planet.

 

Favourite off the beaten track place: Mexcaltitan

Calle Venezia, Mexcaltitan

I feel like a bad traveller. I was pretty firmly on the gringo trail the entire time. Except in Mexcaltitan, tough to get to, not a lot to see, but one of my favourite stops so far.

 

Best Night out: Sargento Pimientas, Lima, Peru
Runner-up: Mazatlan, Mexico
My last night in Lima was a chance to say goodbye to two good friends I’d been travelling with on and off since Colombia, accompanied by the best music I’ve heard in ages. Mazatlan on the other hand was an entirely random night out with three Mexican women who I was introduced to by a clown.

Favourite Beach: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park

Runner-up: Mazunte, Mexico
Sleeping in a hammock on the beach in Colombia was pretty close to paradise. Meanwhile the waves in Mazunte kept me entertained for hours.

 

Favourite Market: San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Runner-up: Oaxaca, Mexico
A pretty small hill town in Guatemala with the biggest, most sprawling market I’ve ever seen. Oaxaca was my favourite of the Mexican markets, especially for the crammed, smokey food section.

Favourite weird religious spectacle: Semana Santa in Guanajuato, Mexico

Semana Santa in Guanajuato

Runner-up: Meeting Maximon in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Catholicism may have its heart in Europe, but the way they do it in Latin America makes our version look pretty tame.

 

Favourite Country: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
I’ve probably bored everyone I’ve met on this trip to death by going on and on about Mexico. But I don’t care. I love it.

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Impressions of Guatemala

My first trip to Guatemala in 2007 was extremely brief – I spent just two days there on a brief visit from Mexico to see the Mayan city of Tikal – but it remains probably my best travelling memory. Tikal is the most amazing place I’ve visited, and viewing the sun rise over the jungle from the top of Temple IV was an experience that truly merits using the travelling cliche of ‘magical’.

Sunrise over Tikal

Sunrise over Tikal

That brief stop made me hungry to go back and see more, which is why I made it my second stop after Mexico. This experience was a very different one to the first – Tikal is in the remote, sparsely-populated Peten region of Northern Guatemala, whereas this time I spent my entire time in the highlands further south, where the majority of the population live.

In many ways Guatemala has a lot of similarities with Mexico, especially the southern state of Chiapas (both share a high indigenous Mayan population). The food is pretty similar – lots of tortillas, rice and beans, although the quality and variety of streetfood was nowhere near as good as Mexico, and the chili sauces disappointingly mild. The volcanic landscape of the highlands in many places looks similar to Mexico. The Spanish colonial cities share similar histories and architecture (in particular Antigua looks very like San Cristobal de las Casas).

In other ways the two countries are very different. The indigenous population of Mexico is very much in the minority, whereas Guatemala has the highest indigenous population of any country in the Americas, and it’s very noticeable (one of the plus sides to this for me was that Guatemala is the first place in the world I’ve ever felt tall, which is saying something). Probably the biggest difference for me was the number of other tourists – after swine flu and the drugs war kept Mexico pretty gringo-free, it was a shock to the system to visit somewhere where there were so many.

Huehuetenango

The Pyramids of Zaculeu

The Pyramids of Zaculeu

My first stop was Huehue, the closest big city to the border withe Mexico. It was instantly obvious that the city was much poorer than anywhere I’d experienced so far, and one symptom of that was that when we went looking for a bar to have a relaxing drink after a hard day of traveling, we were amazed to find there is only one in the entire centre. Which was obscenely expensive – which came as a surprise, seeing as I’d expected Guatemala to be cheaper than Mexico. In fact, it generally is, the biggest difference being that beer and other alcohol is generally double the price of its northern neighbour. The other expensive thing in our time there was our visit to the Mayan ruins of Zaculeu – worth a visit because the restoration carried out by the United Fruit Company in the 1950s actually makes them look far closer to how pyramids would have looked originally than in other sites with more sensitive restoration – but which were more than double the cost to visit of any of the far more impressive ruins in Mexico.

Xela

Chicken Buses

Chicken Buses

Getting from Huehue to Xela was pretty cool, as it was my first experience of the legendary chicken buses, old US yellow school buses that have been shipped down south, painted in glorious technicolor patterns and put to service plying the steep and winding highways of Guatemala. I loved Xela too – my first impressions weren’t that great, but over the couple of weeks I got to spend there I fell in love with the place. There were very few tourists there, instead most of the foreigners there are language students, giving the town a bit of a college town feel.

One of the other great things about the town, unlike the places I would visit later, is that ther gringos don’t hang out in gringo ghetto bars, instead everywhere I went had a good mix of Guatemaltecos and foreign students (most noticeably at Bar Rumba, where it was always entertaining to watch the locals salsa-ing away expertly while most of us foreigners spent more time tripping over our feet trying to copy them).

The market of San Francisco el Alto

The market of San Francisco el Alto

It’s also a great city to base yourself for a while, as there’s loads to do nearby, including the volcanic hot springs of the Fuentes Georginas (the water was so hot it was like being in a bath), and treks to the variosu nearby volcanoes. Probably most interesting of all was getting to visit the nearby market of San Francisco el Alto, the largest market in Central America. Unlike the more famous market of Chichichastenango, which specialises in artsenias and therefore is quite a tourist magnet, this market is very much a general market, selling pretty much everything under the sun in stalls crammed into the narrow winding lanes of this mountain town. Highlight for me was the main square at the highest point in the town, where locals were selling sheep, goats, pigs, turkeys, cows, dogs, cats and geese, none of them kept in pens, giving the place quite a chatoic feel. It was quite and impressive sight watching little old indigenous women struggling to wrestle a newly purchased (and very reluctant piglet) into a bag to take home.

Lake Atitlan

View over Volcan San Pedro & the Lake

View over Volcan San Pedro & the Lake

There’s no other way to describe it, Lake Atitlan is simply stunning. High up in the western highlands, the lake is completely surrounded by high mountains and extinct volcanoes, with pretty little villages, each with a different character clinging to the sides. Being this beautiful, it’s no surprise that bit’s very much a tourist magnet – in fact I saw more tourists around the lake than I had anywhere so far in my trip. I stayed in San Pedro la Laguna, the backpacker village (others include Panajechal, the most touristy; San Marcos, full of new age types and therefore the best place to go if your aura needs a good cleaning ro you have wonky chakras that need aligning; and Santiago Atitlan, the most indigenous of all the villages), and spent a very pleasant few days, chilling by the lake, kayaking across it to San Marcos and back, and hiking up the Nariz de Indio (Indian’s nose), which gave spectacular views across to the volcanoes and over the lake.

Antigua Guatemala

On the streets of Antigua

On the streets of Antigua

Antigua is a very different place to the rest of the country. It was the colonial capital until late in the 18th century when a series of earthquakes nearly destroyed the city. Now, most of the colonial buildings have been restored and are painted in bright colours; meanwhile many of the huge former convents and churches still lie in impressively ruined states dotted around the city. As the obvious tourist highlight of the country, the government has ensured the city is cleaner and safer than the rest of the country – it’s been said that this is what Guatemala would be like if it was run by the Swiss. I must admit that despite its stunning beauty, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had the colonial cities of Mexico, mainly because the city seems to be mainly populated by foreigners, giving it quite an un-Guatemalan feel compared to Xela. Don’t let that put you off though – I think I’ve just been spoilt by elsewhere.

Mayan weaving in Santiago Atitlan

Mayan weaving in Santiago Atitlan

One of the best things about the country is that so much is crammed into such a relatively small space (the whole country is about the size of England), and if any of you back home are jealous of my travels, Guatemala would make a pretty perfect place to take a two-week holiday, as in that time you could see one of the best preserved colonial cities in the Americas, see one of the world’s most beautiful lakes, hike active volcanoes, get to see amazing ruins, as well as seeing how the descedents of the Mayans who built them still have a traditional culture that’s very much alive to this day.

You can read any of my posts about Guatemala here and see all my photos from the country here.