“One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.”
Travelling from Belize to Guatemala was our first ever boarder crossing by coach bus…or better yet, by foot. We were two hours from Belize City to the Guatemalan border, where we disembarked the bus to go through Guatemala immigration on foot. Another four hours by bus and we arrived in Santa Elena, where we then caught a 10 minute shuttle to the island town of Flores. Because of the narrow and steep streets of Flores, coach buses are not able to make the journey across the causeway from Santa Elena to Flores. Upon checking into our hostel, Los Amigos, we had a quick dinner and called it an early night.
The following morning we had a delicious breakfast in the indoor/outdoor courtyard of our hostel restaurant, surrounded by greenery and good vibes. We were ready for a day of exploring, starting with the town of Flores. It only took us two hours to stroll down nearly every cobblestone street of brightly coloured shops, restaurants and homes; including the waterfront perimeter of the tiny island town. We then hopped on a shuttle, with 10 other hostel backpackers, and rode an hour in anticipation, to visit the ancient Mayan citadel of Tikal. The national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site is 575 square kilometres and covered in crumbling and foliage-covered structures, tucked deep within the Guatemalan jungle. Generally speaking, we’re not ones for tour groups or hiring a guide, but Tikal is one site that would be tough to explore on your own. We spent four hours learning about Mayan history and wandering the grounds, completing the tour at sunset, atop one of the many temples of the site. Being that we skipped out on visiting the ever popular Mayan site of Chichen Itza, in Mexico, we were glad we made the trek to see Tikal.
The next morning we boarded a tiny shuttle, jam-packed full of travellers, to make the long journey, 11hours to be exact, to Lanquin, Guatemala. The rural jungle town does not have much to offer but a look into local life, however it is the outpost for the nature preserve of Semuc Champey. Although there are many accommodation options within the town of Lanquin, we wanted to be within walking distance to Semuc Champey, so we booked at Utopia Eco Hotel, which we now lovingly refer to as, “the commune”. Utopia is located in the heart of the jungle mountains, about 8km from Lanquin, but the drive takes 40min because of how treacherous the unpaved roads are. By about the 10th hour of travel that day we began discussing whether or not this long journey would even be worth it…but let me tell you, it most definitely was!
Utopia stands out as one of the most incredible places we have ever stayed. Often times accommodations are simply a place to rest your head, but Utopia was so much more than that and let me tell you why… For starters, there is nowhere else to eat or hangout within walking distance so everyone that is staying there, at any given time, spends every meal together and is therefore forced to get to know one another and chat. There is one common space, with hammocks, harvest tables and panoramic views of the mountains that surround; there are no tables for two or four, which is what promotes the inclusivity. There is a menu for both breakfast and lunch, but dinner is family style, meaning one dish is cooked and everyone eats the same thing at the same time. Every night dinner turned into drinks, which would turn into board games, bonfires and swapping travel stories with perfect strangers, from all over the world. What may be the best aspect in creating that sense of community at Utopia, is that there is only one small area where wifi can be received, and it’s a bit of a hike to get there. Therefore within the common area all devices are away and people are doing things the old fashioned way, speaking and interacting face-to-face. Utopia, “the commune”, and all the wonderful people we met there, will forever hold a special place in our hearts.
After our long travel day getting there, we decided to take it easy on our first day at Utopia. After a leisurely breakfast and reading in hammocks for a while, we joined the chocolate tour, offered by the lodge. For three hours we learned about how one plant, the cacao tree, completely shaped the history of Guatemala. By the end of the three hours we had made our very own 100% pure chocolates. That night we enjoyed our second family style dinner and drinks with many new friends.
The following day we visited Semuc Champey. Utopia has several tour options available, but we opted to walk there and explore the nature preserve ourselves. This stunning natural wonder is hard to describe in words, you really must see it to believe it; and it’s still quite unknown in the travellers realm, which means is not all that busy and quite unspoilt. After passing the front gate, paying the park fee and writing our names down on the log book, we first climbed 750m up a mountain to get the postcard view, at which point I accidentally kicked one of my sandals over the edge of the cliff. Needless to say it was a trying climb back down, for both of us, as Jeff took his sandals off in solidarity. Upon reaching the bottom, we spent the next two hours swimming through every one of the tiered crystal clear pools of fresh water, which flow on a limestone bridge, overtop of the Cahabon River. The entire day was something out of a dream, but the highlight might have been tubing down the river, through rapids with beers in hand, all the way back to Utopia. We both agree that Semuc Champey is easily one of the most stunning, and fun, creations of nature that we have ever had the privilege to see.
The next day was another looooooooooong sardined shuttle bus ride from Lanquin to Antigua, Guatemala. We were ecstatic when we finally reached or traditional Airbnb hacienda in the colonial city and had four days ahead without gas station lunches, motion sickness and being too close for comfort to other sweaty travellers.
Our first day in Antigua we met up with some friends we had made in Belize, and kept in touch with. When we parted ways with Matt and Sabrina at the end of our time in Caye Caulker they didn’t have a plan set in stone, but they knew they wanted to visit Antigua. We told them the dates we would be there and we were lucky enough to have aligned plans with them once they sorted out their dates. We love making new friends on the road, especially when they’re fellow Canadians. That being said, it’s rare to make true and valued friendships on the road, but the more time we spent with the honeymooners the more we became, “…the four best friends that anyone has had…”. We spent that first day and night roaming the streets of Antigua, snapping photos of the beautiful colonial architecture of the once capital of Guatemala, and looking for patios with cheap beer and the best eats in town.
The next day was a bit of a right off, as we were all feeling slightly under the weather and in chats with Matt and Sabrina we decided to meet up the following day. Jeff and I had a lazy morning around our Airbnb followed by strolls around town that afternoon to eat anything and everything in sight. In addition to eat, we shopped at the local markets, Mercado de Antigua and Mercado El Carmen, and spent time eating ice cream and people watching at Plaza Central, the centre square of he city. We completed our day of indulgence at Porque No? Cafe, a local favourite recommended to us by our Airbnb host. The teeny restaurant only has about five tables and standing room only. We were lucky to get there when we did, as the place was full to the gills with equal parts travellers and locals. Justifiably so, as the food was delicious.
A restful day prior was just what we all needed to give us the energy for our final day in Antigua when we did the short, but upward, hike to Cerro de la Cruz, a viewpoint overlooking the entire city of Antigua. The four of us sat at the lookout, enjoying the view of the town and its three surrounding volcanoes: Aqua, Fuego and Acatenango. Most travellers hike, at least one, of the volcanoes whilst visiting Antigua, but we four decided to opt out, as the views of each of them, just from within the city, was enough to satisfy us. Fuego is still active, and from time to time you can hear it crackle and pop, or watch a plume of smoke billow from its top. We did the lookout on a nice clear day and arrived at the top just as Fuego was puffing. That evening we sought out happy hour at Lava, a rooftop bar with great evening views. After a few drinks there we ended up bonfire-side on the back courtyard at Angie Angie CafeArte for dinner, where Jeff and I treated Matt and Sabrina to a congratulatory honeymoon dinner. The four of us spent our last night in Antigua sipping on Argentinian reds, sharing many dishes and laughing at the memories we had made in our short time as friends. It was a wonderful ending to our time in Guatemala.
Each time Jeff and I leave home for a new adventure a few of our friends back home jokingly say, “No new friends!” Which is endearing, as it shows their love and their want for us to return home. Although Jeff and I will likely never live the expat life, or permanently move outside of our beautiful homeland of Canada, it’s still nice to make and develop friendships while travelling and we made many friendships in Guatemala. It’s a unique experience to meet people that you can really connect with and laugh with so far away from your comfort zone. Making friends on the road fulfills that innate feeling to have human connections. Or maybe travellers enjoy travel friendships so much because it gives us a taste of home and reminds us of our friendships back there, especially when the new travel friends are from your homeland. Whatever the reason, we hold our travel friends, and those who travel with us, in a special place in our memories and in our hearts.