From Huehuetenango to Chichicastenango
After the first ‘highway’ experience in Guatemala we are concerned that our itinerary might take much longer than we anticipated. As we take off from Huehuetenango the plan is to take a backroad towards Chichicastenango, a town renowned for its enormous market that spreads across the entire town twice a week. By now we know that our navigation app is always over optimistic, so we count on hours to get there, but to our surprise this backroad turns out to be in good condition and more importantly the number of ‘tumulos’ (Guatemala’s topes) is very low. This means we actually arrive at the market in the morning still, to fully enjoy its energy.
Chichicastenango is a small town with the characteristic grid-managed streets, and on market days (thursday and saturday) it gets filled to the rim with people from the entire region trying to sell their ware. In every corner something else is sold, from live animals (cats, dogs, geese, turkey, but no guinea pig this time) to all the fruit and veg you can think of (and then some). From artisanal touristfare to the typical market eateries (including shaved ice stalls), but also a street filled with electronics and hardware. The prettiest stalls however are those that make this region and its people so incredibly photogenic – the clothes and thread stalls. Traditional dress is still very common, and embroidery basis and their thread are sold across the market, making the ladies look colorful and classy. We stroll back and forth along the streets for a few hours, taking in the atmosphere and getting our bearings in Guatemalan life. From here, we drive on to another beautiful site;
Laguna de Atitlan – Panajachel
The drive down towards the lake is quite a looker, as you get hit for the first time with some proper volcanoes. They stand out like pyramids on the horizon, as the backdrop op of the blue Atitlan lake, and even with clouds gathering it is beautiful to see them slowly disappear from sight. A bit too cold to swim in the lake we enjoy the bay and look at the boats coming in and out, after which we have dinner and a good night sleep. The hotel provides breakfast on the rooftop terrace, so we relax a bit there before heading out to the lake for that much needed swim. The water is very clear and warm, and the rocks around it perfect to build a fort. Back to the hotel ride the tuktuk, a tight affaire with the 4 of us, but of course a great experience for the boys as they put their heads out of the ride like a dog in a truck :-).
Antigua and its volcanoes
The drive from Panajachel to Antigua leads again through hilly green terrain and along a fantastic road. Over excited about the quality of the road we trod on at a good speed, where we do hit some washed away parts where we need to cross the water. Thankfully it has not rained recently and the cross-over is easy to do, otherwise a long detour would have been the only option to move forward. After this again the road is in fantastic shape and we make good progress towards Antigua and the town next to it – San Miguel las Duenas. Our Airbnb is in a gated community and the prettiest house we have been staying in ever. Extra bonus is that from the street you can see El Fuego, the volcano that erupted violently in 2018 and to date is still puffing smoke and lava every 5-20 minutes. Some outbursts heavier than others, but an amazing experience to see this happen right in front of you.
As climbing the volcanoes is not an option with kids, we think of another activity we have been keen on doing, which is taking a cooking class. Especially the market visit before cooking our own meal is really great, as we have seen so many markets with food that we could not name or understand how to make, that the trip there is a good opportunity to ask everything we wanted to ask. Our guide and cook Pedro really takes time to answer and along the visit buys small amounts of things we would like to taste after. Turns out that especially all kinds of squash are a real staple in Guatemala, and there is a range of exotic fruits that we have not heard of or tried. We also get a taste of the ‘natural candy’ stand, which is fruit and vegetables drenched in syrups and honey to create a tasty sweet snack.
After the market, we go to the house of Tonno – another guide – who has a big kitchen we can work in. After putting our aprons on we are all ready to go, and especially the boys are really enjoying the fact they get to work with very large knifes! We work on a 4-course dinner, including Pepian – a typical Guatemalan stew – , create our own tortillas – difficult! – and a desert which is a deep fried plantain mush with a bean/chocolate filling. Time flies by as delicious smells fill the kitchen, making us very hungry, and the time to taste the fruits of our hard work has finally come. Together with Pedro and Tonno we have a fantastic dinner, topped off by some small fireworks. As we drive back to our accommodation we see El Fuego spit out big amounts of lava against the black night sky… better fireworks you can not find!
The unpredictability of Guatemala’s roads
We knew the drive to Rio Dulce was a long one, but enthused by those in the know saying the road south is one of the better roads around, we head out early and take the drive head on. After about 2,5 hours of decent progress, we hit a traffic jam. After 10 minutes of not moving at all, we see a few cars actually crossing the road and driving against the oncoming traffic on the side of the 2-lane road. Having integrated well in the crazy driving style here, we decide to follow suit, and cover about 4km of traffic jam this way, weaving in and out of traffic and even getting away from a police traffic controller. All the trucks however are not moving and when we ask, a driver says he has stood still already for 3 hours (!!!), apparently due to a massive truck accident down the road involving 3 trucks.
We hit a police detour in the end, which is another adventure all together on a potholed road through water and a tiny town with only a one way track (thankfully we were going in the right way :-)), but manage to get back on the highway with some very slow going but in the end moving away from the accident again. 1.5-2 hrs delay in total, we pass the 13km long traffic jam going the other way feeling sorry for those still standing still and not knowing what they are getting into. Later at night we see 2 people who took the same route by bus, and their entire delay was more than 4 hours!
Rio Dulce & Livingston
Rio Dulce turns out to be a town filled with sailors, who hide out here to avoid hurricane season. The town itself is up the river from the sea and a haven for those riding out the storms that pester the waters up north. We get there at the end of the day right before sunset, and have a quick bite to eat at the water front. To get to our accommodation we need a short boat ride, but arriving there it feels like you are far away from civilization. Stilted huts, a river, a dog…. and the sounds of the jungle all around. Our room has open windows covered in mosquito net which gives you the feeling you are sleeping outside.
To explore the surroundings you need to of course travel by boat, so for the next day we book a boat trip to Livingston, the town at the end of the river mouth out to sea. On the way there we have plenty of beautiful stops, the San Felipe fort, hot water sources that flow right into the river, and the last part of the ride goes through a canyon like setting filled with all kinds of birds. Livingston itself is a small town (no roads lead there) with a rich Garifuna culture, but due to Covid it seems to really have quieted down. We spend some time looking at kids activities organized at the main square, before taking the boat ride back to Rio Dulce. A great day spent on the water and topped off with some proper splashing in the water with the swing rope.
Driving away from Rio Dulce with a full tank of gas, we realize (a bit late but they drive with their lights on continuously so we were not paying that much attention to just the blinking lights) that the police car behind us actually wants us to stop. Exciting! Sven is asked for his drivers license which is in the trunk, so gets out, and I have a conversation with the other cops (4 in total), apologizing for not stopping fast enough and telling them Sven does not speak Spanish. Interestingly they also ask for the passports of our boys, and we realize that stories of child abduction are a real thing. That actually made us feel safer believe it or not, and after some pleasant conversation we are on our way again. Bucketlist item ticked: getting pulled over by foreign police – CHECK.
The drive northbound is actually much faster than we expected (still slower than our navigation said though ;-)), which in part has to do with good roads, and of course in part that we have fully taken on the Guatemalan driving style after a small week here. As we roll into the town of our accommodation around 1pm, we decide to go on and tick of Tikal straight away. Tikal is another archaeological site with Mayan temples, set in a jungle setting and of course run by the Guatemalan government. The drive up is slow going (45kph which is checked by them writing a time of entry driving in on a receipt and the gate at the end of the entry road checking how long it took you to get there) and the surrounding area is a National Park at the end of a dead-end road, so it was a detour we had to take anyway.
After having seen several Mayan sites, we have to say this really is our favorite so far. The jungle setting actually means you see dozens of spider monkeys and the screams of howler monkeys fill the air. At one of the temples a massive family of coati come say hi to us, and iguanas run away as we approach. Added bonus here is that many temples have stairs built on top of them which means you can actually climb on top of them and have a stellar view across the ‘sea of green’ dotted with other temples. It also helped us see a massive downpour coming our way, so we could run down the stairs and find cover. After a few hours of exploring we head back out to El Remate town for the night.
Crossing into Belize
As we have already gone to Tikal, our day today is purely focused around getting to Belize. To the border is 1 hour, and the border town of Melchor de Mencos turns out to be a very pleasant town – very different from our Guatemalan border crossing experience, which is funny to realize how different that would have been if we would have done this trip the other way around. The exit on Guatemalan side is very quick, some debate around the bridge fee – they wanted to charge more for the ‘international plate’ but could not provide an official fee list and thus still let us pas for 20q iso 50q – but stamped out and ready to go on in 5 minutes or so.
The Belizean side has some more protocol, most importantly the required antigen testing for Covid. We have all had Covid of course, and apparently you can still test positive after a while so we were nervous about the outcome, but thankfully we all tested negative (except for Bo who was exempt from testing) – pfew! After receiving the negative test results it was on to immigration for the necessary paperwork, again filling in many forms along the way. Then on to the customs officer for the car, which luckily this time cost us no money and paperwork was faster here. As we wanted to leave there was a ‘parking fee’ that ‘the guy in the green shirt’ will collect, but as the respective guy did not seem interested the customs officer opened up the gate for us and let us into our last Central American destination: Belize!!
Next week: Belize & Mexico – Our last Central American week