10. Chicken buses
Although they are not a very safe way of transportation, every chicken bus is a small piece of art on its own. Even though I have seen hundreds of them so far, I will always be fascinated by them. Just like people, every bus is different. The colors are different, the styles are different, some of them have flashing lights, others have the coolest paintings on them. But what most of them have in common is that they somewhere have a religious quote on them, like “Dios bendiga mi camino” (‘God blesses my way’) or “Bendición de Dios” (‘Blessing from God’). When my mom came to visit me in June this year, she just had to take a picture of a chicken bus. Whenever a bus approached us on the road she would get her camera out and be dissappointed about the blurry picture of a moving bus. No matter how many times I told her we would see hundreds of them in Antigua, she did not want to miss an opportunity to capture the bus. Well, can’t blame her! Although they smell terrible, Guatemalan chicken buses are amazing and they light up the horrible traffic every day.
9. Colonial architecture
For years, Guatemala was ruled by Spanish conquistadores. In the two months before I moved to Guatemala, school made me learn a lot about the colonization of Guatemala. From the early beginning in 1524 until the very end in 1821. With the battle between Pedro de Alvarado and the Guatemalan hero Tecún Umán and all the other things I am not going to bother you with right now. But the most interesting part is that there are many colonial buildings left from the Spanish era. Especially in the old capital of Guate, Antigua, there are many beautiful old ruins to see, but we’ll get there later. In the current capital there are also some amazing left-overs, like the national palace, the national cathedral and some beautiful arches in zone 1. Definitely worth a visit!
My absolute favorite thing about Guatemala: volcanoes! Every morning I walk from my house to the bakery behind the gate to go to work, I see the impressive Fuego volcano. And on my way to work I can see the even more impressive Pacaya and Acatenango volcanoes, rising up above the Guatemalan city. Back at home, the closest volcano is somewhere in Italy, I believe, so these things are incredible to me. Guatemala is the proud owner of 37 volcanoes and I had the honor to see at least 7 of them and to climb 2. While the Dutch team was here, we climbed the Pacaya volcano together and it was honestly one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. One giant mountain of black rocks, roaring and erupting before my eyes, making the ground shake. What a power! Over the past few months I have seen some impressive eruptions from Pacaya and Fuego and seeing those massive things every day will be one of the greatest things I will miss when I leave. And one day… I will climb Acatenango too!
One of the most important elements of the Guatemalan economy is definitely coffee! I am not really a fan of this bitter, dark little drink, but from all the coffee I have had, the Guatemalan was by far the best! Due to the great climate and the volcanic minerals in the earth, Guatemala can produce strong coffee beans with an incredible flavor. Another important factor is that 90% of all the coffee beans grow above 1300 meters above sea level, which makes the plants grow slower and the coffee beans more dense. The combination between high altitude and low temperature makes the Guatemalan coffee beans absolute treasures. Go try it out!
6. Lake Atitlán
If you ever come to visit this beautiful country, you can’t really skip Lago Atitlán. This beautiful lake on almost four hours north west of the city is an absolute must-visit. The lake is surrounded by volcanoes and beautiful villages. There are twelve villages named after the 12 disciples of Jesus and you can take a tour to visit all of them. I have only been to Panajachel, but that is enough to see the beauty of this immense lake. Panajachel is getting a little touristy and there are a lot of hippies trying to ‘find themselves’, but overall it’s a nice town with a great market. We stayed in a pink hotel on the main road called El Chapparal. Not really fancy, but good enough to stay the night. We also went ziplining at the Reserva Natural Atitlán and it was amazing! By far one of the most crazy and scary experiences I have had here in Guate, but it was totally worth it. In this natural park you can find the longest zipline in Central-America and you are soaring above the lake for almost a full minute. Super scary, because you have enough time to look at the beautiful lake and its volcanoes. Lake Atitlán is incredible… don’t miss it!
5. The people
They are so nice! After spending quite some time among the Guatemalans, I find them very welcoming, friendly and hard-working people. Of course, some of them are creeps and criminals, but you can find those anywhere. Especially the Guatemalan ladies are like mothers, very loving and protective. Sure, they stare at you a lot, but most Guatemalans won’t hurt you. Guatemalans are not afraid to invite you into their homes and to share their food with you. They will even make a special dinner for when you come and it is hard to say no. The most beautiful thing about the Guatemalans is that they work so crazy hard! Guatemala doesn’t have a stressful culture, but the people never stop working. No matter how early I get up, the people are already on their way, trying to make a living for that day. No matter how late I go to bed, I will always see people selling their things on the street. For many Guatemalans, that’s the only option they have: to work, and work and work a little bit more. Without complaining. Oh, how I love Guatemalans.
4. Handicraft markets
Oh, yes! Handicraft markets are one of my favorite things to visit here in Guatemala, because they are all só colorful and there are a lot of things to buy. My favorite market is the Mercado de Artesanias in Antigua. Although they sell the same things as in the airport and at every other market, it is located in a beautiful old marketplace. It’s a great place to shop for your family members back at home and you can basically find anything you want. Just make sure you skip the front part, because that place is a lot more expensive since that’s where the tourist buy their things first. The part behind the fontain, across the little road is a lot cheaper. But be prepared to bargain! The vendors usually ask for double the price and you can almost take it down with 60%. A good salesman will always make a profit. And if you are not happy with the price, just walk away or look somewhere else… they will almost always lower their prices. Another great market is the open-air market in Chichicastenango, where they also sell a lot of colorful flowers and vegetables.
3. Beautiful nature
Guatemala is full of hidden treasures when it comes to nature. In May this year I got on a trip to Las Conchas, far up north, on the border of the departments Alta Verapaz and Petén. A true hidden treasure, because most tourists think it is too far to travel, don’t know it even exists or they prefer to go the more touristy Semuc Champey. Besides Las Chonchas, I have seen many beautiful places during some hikes into the mountains. Last year I made a long hike into the mountains of Chixoy and the Río Negro. After five hours of hiking we found a beautiful small river and a place to jump from the high rocks into the fresh water. Totally worth the hike! And more recently, while I was hiking for a water project in Baja Verapaz we walked so far into the mountains that we didn’t see a car for hours. On every hike to a new, isolated house, we came across the most beautiful view points where no tourist will ever think of going. And I did not even write about Río Dulce, Monterrico, Lago Izabal and every volcano…
By far my favorite city in the world! It is a small, unique, beautiful, old, magical and colonial little town about 40 minutes outside of Guatemala City. Antigua has a long and interesting history that involves a huge flood due to a breaking volcano full of water and a few devastating earthquakes. The small city is completely different from everything else in Guatemala because it was once the vibrant capital of Guatemala during the Spanish colonization. The old streets are made of cobblestone, the houses are painted in all kinds of colors and the wooden doors are worthy of their own exhibition. It is a safe place full of hippies, tourists and people learning Spanish, but to me it is still a beautiful place. Antigua is located at the bottom of the Agua volcano and it has this characteristic yellow arch close to the central park. In Antigua you can find the most amazing places to eat (check out Luna de Miel – amazing crêpes!), old ruins, stunning churches, colorful markets and interesting colonial buildings. One of my favorite places in Guatemala is Cerro de La Cruz, a view point where you have an awesome over Antigua and the volcano.
1. Mayan ruins
My absolute first reason to visit Guatemala are the many Mayan ruins you can find all over Guatemala. For school I had to study a small part of the Mayan culture and as soon as I started, I was intrigued by this culture. To me, the Mayans were always these mysterious people who developed calendars to predict the end of the world, but now that I live in Guatemala, almost éveryone has some Mayan ancestors. Mayan people are just ‘normal’ people to me now, but they still have their own beliefs, rituals and places to worship their gods. The Mayan culture is still a huge part of the Guatemalan culture and their old ruins are amazing. At about 2 hours outside of the city there is a big park called Iximche, where you can learn everything about this old Mayan city and their habits. And sometimes, when you least expect it, you can find a whole Mayan ruin park right next to the road… something that happened to us when we drove back to the city from Cubulco. A beautiful maintained park all to ourselves! It was a huge park and it was actually too big for us to see in an hour, but it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen (and so quiet!). But when I talk about Mayan ruins, I cannot leave out the elephant in the room: Tikal. Tikal is located in the rainforest in the north of Guatemala and it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Archaeologists predicts that the ruins that are already discovered are just a very, very small part of the total Mayan empire. Imagine what treasures are still hidden in the ground!
And you? Would you visit Guatemala?