Trip Report: Guatemala 2014

Guatemala featured copy

Once again tiring of the miserable Midwest winter, in March the 80 Diapers folks set off for a week in Guatemala.

Our first day (which was a loss) was spent re-haggling over rental cars we had already reserved and finally switching rental companies altogether before finally arriving at our home rental in Antigua at 10:30 at night. C’est las vie.

We woke the next morning to a gorgeous sunny spring day and set out to explore the city. Guatemela’s capital for two hundred years, Antigua was almost completely leveled by a series of major earthquakes that shook the area in 1773 and reduced its monasteries, palaces and 40+ churches to piles of rubble.

Now it just so happens that ruined churches are pretty much our favorite thing. We spent a blissful morning exploring ruin after ruin, climbing down into crypts and up onto altarpieces. The largest is the Catedral de Santiago, which was built in the 1500s. After the earthquake, the front entrance hall was restored and rebuilt into a freestanding mini-cathedral, but most of the ruins were left as is. The results are stunning.

Catedral de Santiago ruins

Catedral de Santiago ruins

Other churches are still standing, restored and beautiful, and if you visit during Lent as we did, you might be lucky enough to see some remnants of Mayan culture shining through the solid Catholic front of the city.

In several churches and even in the middle of the freeway, Antiguans were constructing these amazing sand-painting style artworks of crushed flower petals. Featuring many traditional Mayan fabric motifs, they were incredibly elaborate and beautiful, and often surrounded by offerings of fruit and vegetables brought by faithful visitors as a gift to God.

Guatemala 067While in one church, we watched a line of Mayan women crawling the length of the church aisle to reach the shrine of a particular saint near the altar, then prostrating themselves on the floor in front of the shrine in silent prayer. For me, these expressions of faith and culture are always some of the most fascinating aspects of any trip to another country, and I was very glad we had chosen this time for our vacation (or rather, that our kids’ schools’ ridiculously early Spring Break had chosen it for us).

Ruined churches everywhere!

Ruined churches everywhere!

After exploring six or seven other ruined and/or restored churches on a long walk around the city, we stopped for lunch — delicious French-style crepes— and headed back to our fantastic home rental, which we highly recommend, for an afternoon of swimming in our pool, soccer in the backyard with some neighbor girls and a few naps.

"Hotel" with a backyard? Yes, please.

“Hotel” with a backyard? Yes, please.

This is why we recommend staying in homes and condos when possible. Having space for kids to run around and decompress after a day of sightseeing is worth its weight in gold.

In the afternoon we headed for the grocery store to stock up on essentials and then to dinner at a cafe off the Parque Central for a tipico plate of local foods: tortillas, black beans, guacamole, fried vegetables and fresh farm cheese. Yum.

Next morning we headed for the Convent of Santo Domingo, a spectacularly landscaped ruin of a huge church and monastery now housing a posh hotel and restaurant. We spent hours exploring the amazing grounds, which were excavated by an archaeologist in the 1870s, and visiting the many small museums also housed in the convent.

Monastery of Santo Domingo

Monastery of Santo Domingo

The boys’ favorite parts? The enormous macaws climbing trees near the fountains and the crypts, still housing the centuries-old skeletons of unfortunate monks who passed on in the 1500s.

A few of the monks are still in residence

A few of the monks still in residence

Lunch was at Hotel Zoola, a hostel which is very obviously the hangout of the college backpacker crowd, and which features floor cushion seating and great middle eastern food. Unfortunately it also features the world’s slowest service, and the kids were fairly stir crazy by the time our food (delicious) arrived an hour later. Oh well.

Want to hang out with hipsters who want to be hippies? Come to Hotel Zoola.

Want to hang out with hipsters who want to be hippies? Come to Hotel Zoola.

The plan for after lunch was a drive to the Pacaya volcano and hike up to roast marshmallows on the steam vents at the top of the active volcano. However, neither our car nor our GPS was up to the task of guiding us over the ridiculously treacherous roads (which were undoubtedly the wrong roads).

So we instead contented ourselves with a mini-adventure to the tiny village of Santa Maria de Jesus, not found in any guidebook, and then a return to our house for more soccer, card games, and fast food chicken.

Early next morning we set off for our next destination, the Rio Dulce. A four hour drive brought us to the edges of this gorgeous jungle river, and after a good lunch at the Sun Dog Cafe we called our hotel to come and pick us up.

Hotel Tortugal from the boat

Hotel Tortugal from the boat

Hotel Tortugal is located right ON the river, and is only accessible by boat. A short 10 minute ride took us to this amazing jungle lodge, with spotlessly clean thatched-roof bamboo cabins, a fun on-river restaurant and shallow swimming areas on the banks of the river.

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So that’s how we spent our afternoon–wandering the beautiful boardwalk trails around the river, swimming on the banks and playing pool in the top-story game room of the hotel.

Oh, and in Cletus’ case, accidentally kicking his shoe out the second floor window into the river below. Still can’t figure that one out. Luckily, one of the very helpful and friendly staff immediately took out the boat to track it down .  . and brought it back safely. He owes that man a very big gracias.

Sleeping at the hotel was fun and a bit difficult. The cabins’ windows are not glass but mosquito netting, so you can hear all the birds and wildlife in the jungles surrounding the hotel. This is exciting, as you feel like you are sleeping right in the jungle, but also makes for a  bit of an unsettled night for light sleepers. Especially since many of the bird calls sound remarkably like the cries of a human baby to the well-trained ear of a sleeping parent. Bring earplugs if that’s you.

The shores of the Rio Dulce

The shores of the Rio Dulce

The next morning we had booked a private boat tour down the river from the gorgeous Lake Izabal (where our hotel was) to the Caribbean coast town of Livingston. Our driver took us on a leisurely tour of the river, stopping at hot springs, underground caves (claustrophobes beware–I had to back out halfway through), “bird island” (which is just what it sounds like), and through the astonishing gorge that separates the river from the ocean.

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Fort built to protect the river town from pirates.
Sadly, it did not succeed.

Swimming in the hot springs along the river

Swimming in the hot springs along the river

Lily pads in the shallows of the Rio Dulce

As the boat enters the gorge, the river narrows and deepens, and the jungle foliage gets brighter and more lush.

Rio Dulce Gorge

Rio Dulce Gorge

As the river nears the coast, more houses and hotels start to pop up, and the town of Livingston appears. Livingston is much more of a Caribbean town than a Guatemalan town, and its population is mostly made up of the Garifuna people, descendants of African and East Indian slaves shipwrecked in the area in the 1700s and the Caribbean peoples of Honduras and Belize.

Livingston

Livingston

Wandering the town was a fascinating glimpse into another culture and another aspect of Guatemalan society, and the mixture of languages, skin tones, cultures and histories is beautiful. After a delicious and cheap lunch at a little one-woman restaurant in town, and a little shopping by the kids for gifts and souvenirs, we headed back to our boat for the ride back to our car, and the 4 hour drive to Peten and the Mayan city of Tikal.

Leafy Isaac lounges in the boat. Stylish.

Leafy Isaac lounges in the boat. Stylish.

Arriving at Hotel Mon Ami in Peten tired and hungry, we were dismayed to find that though the hotel HAD our reservation written down (twice, in fact) they did NOT have the room we had reserved. Though the restaurant was beautiful (jungle hut from Hollywood) and the cabins were picturesque and charming in a beautifully landscaped sloping garden, our cabin was 1) very, very dirty and 2) missing one bed. After nearly an hour of watching the friendly but unempowered staff dithering, phone-calling the owner and waiting, Matthew finally offered to carry the extra bed up to our cabin himself. So he did. He carried a bed up a very steep hillside to our room.

This made it an acceptable, if not very pleasant, room.  We were only staying two nights and didn’t plan on spending much time in our room, so we invoked Rule #5 and decided to edit on the spot.* We would laugh about this someday (guests carrying their own bed up mountains?  Come on! Of course we would!) and we might as well start now.

(Wait, so we are now those people who quote their own blogs out loud to themselves? Yes. Yes we are. It happens a lot.)

But I still can’t recommend the hotel. Eat dinner there. Stay somewhere else.

There is a great swimming dock right across the street, though.

There is a great swimming dock right across the street, though.

However, one part I won’t edit out. The creepy and delightful experience of being awakened by a howler monkey, screaming RIGHT OUTSIDE our window, at full volume, for an hour. If you’ve never heard a howler monkey, there’s no way to describe how disturbing it is. It’s a combination of lion, ghost and  . . . I don’t even know. Seriously loud. Seriously disturbing.

Early next morning we were off for the main event of the trip–the Mayan ruins at Tikal.

Now I am, if you haven’t already discovered this, a dedicated archaeology nerd. I actually majored in it for a while. We were all very, very excited for this part of the vacation, to the point where I was slightly worried about over-anticipating and ending up disappointed.

I shouldn’t have worried. Tikal was even more amazing than I could have expected, and even the youngest was enthralled.

Ziggurats on the main city square.

Ziggurats on the main city square.

First of all, the place is HUGE! So many temples and monuments, and spread over such a huge area. We spent six glorious hours there without a food break and still couldn’t see it all. I had completely underestimated the scale of the place, and we were all amazed at the majesty and power it still somehow possesses.

Archaeology Nerd in heaven, er, at the "Acropolis mount"

Archaeology Nerd in heaven, er, at the “Acropolis mount”

The fact that it is all still enveloped in the jungle adds to the experience of mystery and excitement. Winding your way thorough narrow trails in the forest, you never know when you might turn a corner and find another temple rising through the trees in front of you. In fact, we realized, most of the hills looming over the winding paths are actually buildings still unexcavated. A glimpse of cut stone here, a too-sharp angle there are your clues that you are actually surrounded by ruins everywhere you turn.

IMG_3868Many of the temples are climbable, some via new wooden stairways and some directly up the dizzyingly steep stone facades. Acrophobics beware, these are some seriously high climbs.

Way, way up on Templo IV

Way, way up (200 feet) on Templo IV

Another thrilling (especially for the kids) aspect is the wildlife that lives in the park, among the ruins and right out in the open. Signs warning us to watch for jaguars, snakes and wild boars added a thrilling, if unfulfilled, promise of adventure, and real-life sightings of howler and spider monkeys, orioles, coatamundis and the bizarre and beautiful Oscillated Turkey added a Kipling-esque Jungle Adventure joy to the day.

If a turkey and a peacock had a baby . . .

If a turkey and a peacock had a baby . . .

The smartest move I made on this trip? Bringing along a compass/emergency whistle for each of the boys. Temporarily removed from our emergency kits, they proved a huge hit with the kids, especially with Leafy Isaac, who is the least tolerant of extensive sight-seeing.

After several stern warnings about NEVER blowing the whistle unless they got lost (these are really, really loud) they launched into the fun of Orienteering, informing us which direction we were heading, which way the next temple was, and if we were getting off track. Leafy loved them so much he insisted on taking dozens of photos of his compass pointing in different directions.

I will spare you these photos.

Suffice it to say, it was brilliant distraction and a reassuring tool in case someone wandered off into the (apparently jaguar and wild-boar inhabited) jungle.

IMG_3892When we had finally had enough, we headed back to our hotel for more swimming, more card games, more food and more howler monkeys.

Early next morning, back into the car for the drive over crazily-potholed roads back to Rio Dulce. Yes, I know this is a blatant violation of Rule #4. I can only plead necessity, as there is no way to get from Antigua to Tikal without an 8 hour drive. We split it halfway, and we did stay in the same hotel, and eat at the same restaurants both times in Rio Dulce. We absolutely knew where the ice cream was, and ate it. A lot. It was still exhausting, though.

After we returned to the River, and after lunch (again) at the Sun Dog, we spent the afternoon hiking and kayaking in the gorgeous river shallows around our hotel and doing some more swimming (and some more eating.)

Seriously. Shallow. The kids can touch. Nobody yell at me about lifejackets.

Seriously. Shallow. The kids can touch.
Nobody yell at me about life jackets.

And therein endeth our trip, really. The next day was spent driving to Guatemala City and reading and napping in our (very roomy, very helpful, very friendly) hotel there, getting ready for our flight back to the states early the next morning. I don’t think I would change anything about our itinerary (other than choosing a different hotel in Peten), as action-packed and tiring as it was. Guatemala is an incredible, beautiful, sometimes frustrating, always surprising country, and I highly recommend it for adventurous family travelers. Go!

 

*Want to know what else was edited out? Lots of vomiting (as always), a fair amount of sibling-fighting, two shirts ruined, one coat lost and found again and lots, and lots, and lots of potholes. So many potholes.

Need to Know Before You Go

Visas needed? (US Passport holders) no
Best time to visit

Anytime but June and July

 Want more? Read our other trip reports here!

 

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7 thoughts on “Trip Report: Guatemala 2014

  1. 80 Diapers Post author

    Cletus. It’s (almost) always Cletus. Winding, bumpy roads and unsafe water are a bad combo for those prone to motion sickness.

  2. 80 Diapers Post author

    We didn’t this time, but we did eat some fair amount of fruit and veg. They were just too tempting!

  3. Bob nydam

    I love your trip blog to Guatemala. We are planning a very similar trip with our 2 kids. Having done it would you recommend driving to Tikal from GC or flying? Thanks!
    Bob

    1. 80 Diapers Post author

      If you can fly, I would do that, it’s a looooooooooooooong drive. However, stopping at Rio Dulce on the way for a night each way made it doable, and it is much cheaper . . . The roads around Tikal are crazy potholed, but you will face that on the drive from Fortuna even if you fly. If you can find affordable flights, I’d fly.

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