WITH A CARY-ON SIZED BACKPACK containing everything I own, I took a speedboat up from Colombia to Panama. I made my way north to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and then finally to Guatemala. Month by month, bus by bus.
Through countless conversations with other travelers, local beers consumed, and travel stories exchanged, there are some common truths that we’ve all come to understand.
Here is one such truth: Guatemala is a haven for backpackers.
Take these cascading pools of Semuc Champey for example, one of many great natural wonders in Guatemala.
In a day’s work we hiked up to El Mirador for a bird’s eye view of Semuc…
…hiked down and relaxed by the turquoise water, and went caving after lunch with a candle. We waded and swam through deep waters, narrow crevices, climbed walls and even cliff jumped inside. It was an eerie and heart pounding experience. All that was missing were ritual markings and some skeletons.
It was only later did I learn a 1000 year old skull laid there until some tourist dropped a camera right through it in 2012.
Afterwards, we calmed our jitters and went straight to tubing through a rainstorm down a river surrounded by mountains. We listened to the pattering of the rain as we watched the wind blew hundreds of yellow leaves down upon us.
A good word to describe Guatemala. A good word to embody the experience sitting 12,000 feet on top of a volcano roasting marshmallows, cuddling by the fire, telling Spanish ghost stories, and seeing another volcano erupt as lightning cracked down in the safe distance.
For the full adventure you can check out this 91 second video I made.
We watched the volcano spew lava all night. At 4AM we climbed to the summit of Volcano Acatanengo to see the sunrise at 13,000 ft. Just sublime.
Guatemala is ripe with adventures, but let’s take a step back. One of the most wonderful things about Guatemala is its people. Often times dressed in traditional Mayan clothing, they’re incredibly warm and welcoming. The day after seeing Semuc Champey, I wanted to get off the beaten path. I took my backpack and started walking to the mountainside farmlands.
Every house I passed, although few and far between, people welcomed me with smiles and waves. As a thunderstorm came underway, a Mayan family invited me in for shelter. Most of them spoke Q’eqchi’, their native Mayan tongue, but I’d say their Spanish was still better than mine.
I told them I left the beaten path to experience real Guatemalteco life, and they told me I was more than welcome to stay with them if I teach them a little English.
The family of 12 slept under a little shack. The women, girls and I spent 4-5 hours daily to make tortillas and beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The boys went to school. To bath, do laundry, and get fresh water required a 15 minute slippery descent down a mountain to a creek.
Life was simple there. Life did not consist of big mortgages, fancy cars and the feeling of never having enough. Those were just distractions from the importance of family and happiness.
On my last day they wanted to pay me for the English lessons and my help. “No way!” I said.
They treated me like family, and by the time I left they all gave me a hug and waved goodbye. It was a goodbye more emotional than most. I thanked them for the humbling learning experience and the hospitality.
I was able to communicate with them thanks to the Spanish I learned in Antigua, Guatemala. For $200 you can get 20 hours of Spanish classes, a homestay, and 3 meals a day for a week. The cheapest Spanish classes in the world!
Antigua is a UNESCO world heritage site with Spanish – Baroque styled architecture. If you want to see more of Antigua and Antiguena Spanish Academy where I studied, you can check out this video I made.
Antigua is a place where you can enjoy lovely rooftop bars, grandiose clubs, exotic foods yet spend only $1 on 8 avocados at the local market. I grew to love the place and ended up staying there for 3 weeks. I didn’t want to leave.
Near Antigua, there is also Lake Atitlan. One can spend weeks or months there enjoying the beautiful nature and its eclectic communities. Perhaps, the most interesting is the hippie community of San Marcos.
Once I got off the boat the first thing I noticed were people paired off braiding each other’s dreadlocks on the grass. The first building I saw was a metaphysical pyramid where some people took astrology, alchemy, and spent 40 days in oaths of silence. Then there was an intuitive healing house, then I saw ads along the walls for mushroom growing courses, and the amount of magical surprises just kept on coming.
Up north there are the ruins of Tikal. Arguably the most majestic of the Mayan ruins. Below is a photo on Temple IV, or in my eyes, Yavin IV from Star Wars.
Seeing Tikal was one of the last things I did in my 4 month journey through Colombia and Central America. When I got back to my $5 hostel, they told me they offered free kayak rentals. I took the kayak, balanced it on my head, and dropped it into the lake across the street. Exhausted from a day of walking through Mayan temples, I relaxed and enjoyed the sunset and watched as lightning pierced through those rain clouds.
In the solitude of being in the middle of the lake, I thought about all my experiences.