Cooking lessons, hiking and volunteering as I backpack across Guatemala
I travelled through Central America for five months in late 2018, doing a figure of eight route through five countries. I started and finished in El Salvador, taking in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Belize along the way.
I have the luxury of travelling every winter as I choose to work just the summer months in the UK. I’ve been structuring my life around travel for nearly twenty years now, although I’m not sure if it’s because I love travelling or hate working! I’m aiming to write a Tor’s Travel Tales for every country I’ve visited but having been to around eighty countries now, it’s going to take a while!
Why backpack in Guatemala?
Guatemala is a popular ‘introduction to Central America’ country for backpackers. Although I travelled there as part of a wider trip encompassing five countries in the region, it would be easy to spend a couple of months here.
From volcanoes to Mayan ruins, river trips to deserted coastline, Guatemala has it all. There’s even a few backpacker ghettoes – namely Lake Atitlan and Antigua Guatemala. Not to mention the delicious street food, in particular the chocolate covered frozen bananas!
Itinerary or Guatemala Backpacking Highlights
I passed through Guatemala twice during my five month backpacking trip in Central America. The first time I crossed from Honduras at the Santa Fe – Esquipulas border crossing and spent five weeks in the country, two of them volunteering with a local family, arranged through Workaway. If you’ve never heard of Workaway it’s a fantastic way to combine backpacking and local community volunteering. Have a look at my blog post here, explaining all about Workaway and how it works.
So what was my itinerary through Guatemala? After crossing the border to Esquipulas, where queues of people waited to pay their respects to the revered Black Christ icon in the cathedral, I carried on to Guatemala City. Guate, as it’s known locally, has a poor reputation for gang violence but I enjoyed my three days there.
From Guate I caught a local bus, one of the colourful American school buses used all over Central America, to Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan Highlands. Here I’d arranged to volunteer for two weeks with Carolina and her family on their property in Santiago de Atitlan. This a traditional lakefront town, mainly Tz’utujil, a Mayan tribe, in population. Around 40% of Guatemalans identify as indigenous or Mayan and there are many different tribes each speaking their own language and with their own way of dressing.
Read here about my volunteering experience in Lake Atitlan. In two weeks I helped to build a temple, collected hundreds of avocados and dug a new compost, all in the beautiful surroundings of a volcanic crater lake ringed by three volcanoes.
I was sad to leave my adobe hobbit house on Carolina’s property but it was time to continue on. I had around six weeks before I was due at my next Workaway in Belize and there was a lot of Central America to cover before then!
I headed north to the market town of Chichicastenango, where twice a week people travel far and wide to trade vegetables, handicrafts, woven textiles and more. Here I also hiked out of town to see the Pascual Abaj ceremonial stone, set on an statue altar surrounded by offerings. Traditional Mayan ceremonies are still held here.
My next destination was high in the mountains of the north, the Triángulo Ixil. The Ixil Mayans populate this region and the traditional huipiles, or embroidered blouses, worn by the women are brightly embroidered with bird and animal motifs. I spent a few days here doing day hikes to nearby villages and having a ‘boxbol’ cookery class, a local cornmeal dish.
Before leaving Guatemala for Mexico at the La Mesilla border, I stayed in Huehuetanango to visit the Zaculeu Mayan ruins.
The Mayan civilisation was at its peak around the sixth century A.D and left many traces of the extent of its spread across Central America. Two of the most famous and most visited sites are Chichen Itza in Yucatan, Mexico and Tikal in North-East Guatemala, although there are numerous smaller sites, well worth a look and without the crowds. Today there are five million Mayans, living in scattered tribes, speaking one of seventy Mayan languages, although many are bilingual with Spanish as a second language.
Apologies for the gratuitous ‘foot photo’ of the ruins. Ever since my friend Paula and I read about photographer Tom Robinson’s life documentary of his and his family’s feet, we’ve been trying to outdo each other with photos of our globetrotting feet. Here’s a blog post I wrote about My Travelling Feet Around The World.
The second time I passed through Guatemala was when I crossed from southern Belize by boat to Livingston, named for a 19th century American politician. Because the south of Belize is all jungle the only way to Guatemala is by a tiny boat from Punta Gorda. It’s the most fun I’ve had on a border crossing – five of us huddled under the tarpaulins the two crew members handed out, as the boat bounced off massive waves.
Livingston itself is cut off from the rest of Guatemala, with the only way out a river trip up the Rio Dulce. It’s become a popular town for backpackers due to its Garifuna population, Afro-Carribean people who were West African slaves washed ashore the island of St Vincent in the early 1600s. Also found in Belize in high numbers, the Garifuna influence gives Livingston a Carribbean vibe, with coconut infused curries, live music and colourful cafes. There’s plenty of hiking and low key beaches too.
My last days in Guatemala were spent taking the river launch up towards Rio Dulce to stay one night in a river lodge, before catching the cross-border bus to Santa Ana in El Salvador, where I had two weeks to explore before my flight home.
Transport – getting around Guatemala
Although many travellers choose to use tourist shuttles, which are private minibuses running between the main tourist hotspots, I stuck with local transport. This was partly because I wasn’t really hitting the main backpacker areas, partly due to cost but mainly because to me a whole lot of the fun in travelling is taking local transportation.
There are long distance buses in Guatemala linking the main cities. I used these twice, when I travelled from Esquipulas in the south to Guatemala City (a distance of 240 km) and from Rio Dulce town to Santa Clara in El Salvador (410 km). Like in any other country, these buses operate from a bus station, have ticketed seating, an organised timetable and are generally quite comfortable.
I spent the most part of my time though, on colourful American style school buses. In fact most of them are disused USA buses that are considered beyond their useful life in the first world. This should tell you something about how uncomfortable and unreliable they are in Central America!
Termed chicken buses by backpackers, due no doubt to the random assortment of travellers that get crammed on, they travel between towns and can be flagged down on any corner, junction or dusty highway. They don’t tend to do long distances and I often had to take three or four in a day to travel any distance. Each time I needed to change buses, the bus driver or assistant would take me across the road to the next waiting bus and explain where I was trying to get to!
I found the buses easy to use, really cheap and generally a lot of fun. My top tip is to start your journey early, especially if it’s a long one, take some snacks and be prepared to be very uncomfortable.
I also always travel with a small bag which fits under the seat on a bus – there’s hardly any spare space on a local bus! Read a blog post here about how I pack for a three to five month backpacking trip.
Accommodation for Travellers in Guatemala
There are hostels and guesthouses at every main tourist destination in Guatemala. I use booking.com to get an idea of what’s on offer in the area and to book through, if I’m going to be arriving late. I stayed mainly at backpacker hostels in Guatemala, as generally hostel staff are more likely to speak some English and have an awareness of the sort of information backpackers need to know. I also self cater a lot when I travel, as I’m vegetarian and hate fried food, so having access to a kitchen is key.
In almost every hostel I stayed at in Guatemala, breakfast was included and it was always pancakes! In the supermarkets you could buy massive 10 kilo sacks of pancake mix – it’s clearly popular! With plenty of chopped fruit and a few rounds of jam and toast, these breakfasts set me up for the day.
When I went off the beaten path, I stayed in local guesthouses, half the price of a for a bed for a private but basic room. These guesthouses aren’t on online booking sites, you just turn up, but I found them reviewed on Google or sometimes mentioned in travel blogs.
My favourite was in Huehuetanango, where a row of rooms opened onto a courtyard with a grubby bathroom at the end. Each room was identical with just a low bed, topped with dusty blankets, a chair and a wastepaper basket. Outside benches lined the walls and a grumpy receptionist sold pot noodles and coffee sachets. There was free WiFi though!
Food and drink in Guatemala
I feel that I literally ate my way through Guatemala! There are so many street food snacks to try, fantastic fruit and vegetable markets and mouthwatering bakeries.
Frozen chocolate covered bananas became my favourite snack, sold out of front rooms all over towns. Just follow the school kids!
The best place to find street snacks in usually outside the market or in the town square at sunset. From ceviche (seafood ‘cooked’ in lime juice), to tostadas (corn tortillas spread with guacamole and black beans), you’ll never go hungry. And you can’t knock an ‘elote loco’ or crazy corn, which is a corn on the cob smothered in mayonnaise and powdered cheese then dribbled with green, yellow and red glutinous sauce.
The markets sell plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs which is fantastic for self caterers. I topped this up with tinned beans and rice bought from supermarkets. You can also buy dried beans and rice by the kilo or half kilo from markets. Great if you don’t want to be carrying too much. Tiny sachets of dried herbs and miniature bottles of soy and chilli sauce also make self catering easy.
Top sights and experiences in Guatemala
I loved all of my time in Guatemala and wish I’d had longer to explore. I missed out on climbing an active volcano outside Antigua Guatemala and also the ruins of Tikal in the Peten forest.
My time Workawaying with a local family was great. Workaway is such a fantastic way to get to know a local community better and understanding local ways of life. I also enjoy the physical work, great for working off all those frozen bananas and giant cookies I couldn’t resist from the bakery! Hanging out every afternoon at the lake, watching the local ladies wash their laundry and the kids dive bomb each other was also magical.
Going off the beaten path in the Ixil region was also a highlight for me. Hiking alone in the hills around Nebaj, passing villagers working in their fields, made me feel like an intrepid explorer after the routines of life in Lake Atitlan.
Central America was one of my favourite trips to date. It’s definitely a place I’d return to and I don’t say that about everywhere!