There is still a place on Earth where everything is still being shaped by volcanoes, ancient ruins, and water. Where what appears to be mountains in the distance is actually an unexcavated pyramid with unknown treasures waiting to be unearthed and where the civilizations of old blend in with the modern day in a way that is seamless and timeless. Although that sounds like the beginning of an Indiana Jones movie, the place I am really talking about is Guatemala.
The entire country of Guatemala is a rainforest. This is obvious from the window of your plane as you get closer to landing and all you can see are the rolling dramatic, green mountains and jungles. Literally, no matter where you are in this country, you will always have a view of mountains and volcanoes, even from the beaches. It rains a little bit almost every day here between May and November and it is welcomed and accepted by all of the residents, as they quickly have adapted their driving habits to navigate around huge potholes or streets that have turned into raging rivers. Everything grows here quickly and people are very in tune with nature.
Whenever I am planning a trip to really experience a country, I try to get a sampling of all of the things that make a place unique or great and plan activities that you can’t do anywhere else but there. I don’t want to just go enjoy the main cities or popular tourist spots. I want to feel the local culture, get lost a bit, and explore leaving room for that accidental travel tip from a local that may alter the entire course of the journey and create an even more magical experience. I found that Guatemala is full of these magical experiences and places. Maybe, because the people here are the descendants of the Ancient Mayan culture who were ruled by the stars and the Earth and even today they live life more connected to nature, or maybe I was the one who was more open to the discovery of hidden treasures and volcanoes.
Regardless, I only had a couple of weeks to really experience this small country in Central America, so I decided to break up my trip into the three themes or elements that I felt really described and shaped Guatemala not only in the Past, but in the present: ancient Mayan ruins, volcanoes, and water.
The ancient Mayan civilization at its peak stretched all the way from Mexico to Panama and there are hundreds of remnants of its opulent past in the form of pyramids and ruins all across Central America, but the greatest and tallest of all can be found deep in the jungle of North Guatemala at a place called Tikal.
Tikal is the most well-known area of ruins in Guatemala, not only because it’s a UNESCO heritage site, but because it boasts the tallest pyramid that exists from the Mayans towering over the jungle canopy at 70 meters tall! Nearby, there are many other smaller ruins like Yaxha which are all unique in their own way and are less touristy, but Tikal is special. Tikal is not just one pyramid in the jungle, but rather the ruins of what was a huge, bustling Mayan Citadel between 200 and 850 AD, with well-manicured roads and walkways and no trees or jungle as you see now. As you walk through the ruins that spread across 10 square miles, you can see what looks like huge moss and tree-covered mountains, which we found out are still unexcavated pyramids and buildings with unknown treasures still buried within. It is so expensive and time consuming for the Guatemalan government to unearth this entire archeological site, that they just haven’t! So the University of Pennsylvania funded a 13-year excavation to uncover only 10 square miles out of 222 square miles of uncovered ruins! It is overwhelming to think about how this place was even built back before there were machines or real tools and how massive it was!
The best, hidden secret about Tikal is that you need to stay overnight in the park at one of their 2 lodges, the Jungle Lodge or Hotel Tikal Inn and not just do a day trip into the park. This is the only way to get access to doing the 4:00am hike in the pitch black through the jungle to the top of a pyramid in order to watch the sunrise. Most people don’t know about this and this by far was one of the most amazing experiences to do first before entering the park during the day, because it really is the most dramatic “reveal” of the ruins you can experience.
Imagine this, your guide wakes you up at 4am and you get into your hiking clothes, grab a camera, tripod, and flashlight and take off on a trek into the unknown having no clue what creatures or landscapes await you. Every once in a while, our guide would stop us and shine a flashlight on a pyramid that was only like 15 feet away from us that we had no idea we were walking next to because it was THAT dark. We were shocked. It was like it just appeared out of thin air! I turned this into a “Painting with Light” exercise, where I would set my camera on a tripod and set it for a one minute exposure and use my guide’s flashlight to “paint” the pyramid with light and reveal in my photo what our eyes couldn’t see at 4am, giant, gorgeous step pyramids and sundials. Then we would quickly continue on our hike, stopping at the next pyramid to do the same, but hurrying because we were racing the sunrise.
We finally got to the base of Temple IV, the tallest pyramid in Tikal, and we had to climb the steep face of it in the dark until we reached the very top as the first streaks of dawn were starting to appear. Up there we found a group of tourists, sitting there, cameras in hand in total silence, partly because it was such a meditative experience and that the pyramid had such intense energy to it, but mainly because the entire reason we hiked the pyramid in the dark was to witness the sunrise and listen to the jungle waking up as well. From up there, you could see the peaks of other pyramids poking up through the canopy of the jungle as far as you could see. That was the moment that I realized just how vast and large of a Mayan kingdom this place used to be before the jungle swallowed it up.
As dawn grew, I heard the insects go to sleep as the birds started to wake up. First, the toucans started calling to each other, then the other birds, then the roar of jaguars and sounds of monkey chatter, and before you knew it the sun was up and all of the crazy noise of the jungle was in full effect, including us, and I was able to look around and actually see the majesty of this pyramid I was standing on for the first time. It was truly amazing.
Guatemala has the most volcanoes in Central America with 37 volcanoes within its borders. Three of them still very active; Pacaya, Santiaguito, and De Fuego. This is because it is located along the “Ring of Fire” an almost perfect circle of volcanoes that goes around the globe. So mountains and volcanoes are constantly being created in Guatemala. In fact, volcanic activity is what moved their capital city from Antigua to present-day Guatemala City.
Antigua, Guatemala is my favorite city in the entire country. Still quaint with colorful, colonial buildings and cobblestone streets, what makes Antigua special is that it is completely surrounded by 3 volcanoes in a lush valley. No matter what direction you look in, the backdrop always has dramatic cloud-covered peaks. Back on September 11th, 1541, a devastating mudflow from the Water Volcano (Volcan de Agua) and earthquakes destroyed this capital city, forcing people to relocate. Instead of clearing the rubble to rebuild present-day Antigua, many places built their hotels, shops, and homes around the existing ruins of 16th-century churches and buildings creating a unique ambiance to many of their present day plazas and hotels.
As you drive around you can see a pickup soccer game in a field surrounded by the walls of a centuries-old church or if you stay in Hotels like La Quinta de las Flores or Hotel Cirilo, you can have breakfast in the courtyard and be surrounded by the ruins of a 17th century convent or even have your hotel room share a wall with what once was a church. The history and ruins here are literally embedded into the modern structures of the city, blending the old world with the new and still being shaped by the surrounding active Volcan de Fuego.
My first night staying at La Quinta de las Flores, I heard what sounded like fireworks exploding after dinner. I casually went outside of my hotel room to look at the sky and discovered the Volcano was fully erupting and spouting a fountain of lava 150 feet high into the night sky!
It was SUCH a gorgeous spectacle, but my first reaction was to panic, thinking we had to flee, but as I looked around at everyone else virtually ignoring it. When I asked the front desk, they said that the Fire Volcano erupts constantly, day and night, and this was just another normal evening in Antigua. As an Angeleno, I guess I can understand since earthquakes have become a normal occurrence in Los Angeles, and no one seems to even notice anymore when they happen, but I have to say being able to see an active lava-spewing volcano from your hotel room, is just another reason why Antigua is so special.
If you are really up for a thrilling adventure and you want to get even more “up-close-and-personal” with a volcano, you can attempt to climb one of Guatemala’s active volcanoes, like nearby Pacaya. This hike was voted one of the top 20 most thrilling hikes in the world by National Geographic and after summiting its peak, there is no doubt why Pacaya is on that list. Towering over the metropolis of Guatemala City at 8,373 ft, Pacaya is extremely active and is constantly spewing sulfur fumes and at times lava. It’s last intense explosion that covered a village nearby was only in 2014, so tour companies are constantly monitoring their activity levels before taking people up to the top. This hike will not disappoint!
I had no idea what to expect when I started my 4 hour round trip journey to the summit of Pacaya. We were picked up in a jeep early in the morning that took us halfway up the mountain on an intensely, rocky road made out of black volcanic ash. Once the road became impassable, we jumped out to continue on foot, but not before parking the jeep to head downhill in case of an eruption where we would have to run for our lives and have a quick escape!
At the base of Pacaya, you can find the famous, quirky Lava Store run by Lava artisans David and Fernando who make jewelry out of petrified lava rock. I didn’t expect to do all of my Christmas shopping at the base of an active volcano, but here I was swooping up a bunch of goodies for all of my family and friends. They have such an amazing story and have had to relocate their store 12 times since opening in 2010 due to the eruptions of Pacaya and lava flow taking out their store! If you don’t see yourself hiking to a volcano anytime soon in Guatemala, no problem, because you can buy their goods from the safety of your home at www.novica.com.
From there we had a guide take us straight up through the rainforest, then across the rocky, barren landscape that looked like a black version of Mars, and then the very peak was an intense, steep climb on shifting, slick lava stones straight up until you reached the smoky mouth of the crater.
What I witnessed was beyond words and so overwhelming, not only because the hike was hard, we were out of breath, and we had the fear of losing our lives in the back of our minds, but because the view at the top was literally breathtaking! Inside of the crater the new volcano is forming and is bright green constantly spewing sulfur and other gasses that are not safe to breathe for too long. Swarming around this huge crater were thousands of colorful insects feeding off the fumes. For this reason and the obvious one of fear of an imminent eruption, we decided against lingering too long at the top, but it was one of the most epic, beautiful moments of my life. I sat on the edge of the crater and dangled my feet over the lava and fumes and tried to take it all in.
You can actually hear the volcano “breathing” in and out of its funnel, like a sleeping giant. From up there over a mile up in the clouds, you can see the peaks of all three volcanoes in a row that surround Antigua and you literally feel like you are on top of the world.
Where there is fire, you will always find water. Over the centuries, volcanic craters formed by these amazing volcanoes in Guatemala have collected rainwater and created some of the most beautiful lakes, my favorite one being Lake Atitlan. Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America, shaped by three volcanoes to the south and filling up an enormous caldera with water. Imagine the landscape of Lake Como, but surrounded by dramatic volcanoes, that is the beauty of Lake Atitlan.
Here in the western part of Guatemala, is an immensely culturally, rich region with up to 23 different ethnic groups and an amazing biodiversity with natural reserves covering 30% of the landscape. The Mayan culture has remained strong here and traditional clothing is still worn, which makes it even more of a photographer’s dream to go visit. It is no surprise that a lot of the indigenous communities have chosen to live around Lake Atitlan, a tranquil place that is considered “off the grid” to Guatemalans.
Some of the villages around the lake like Santa Cruz La Laguna and Jaibalito can only be accessed by boat or by hiking through the mountains because there are no roads to get there. Some of the communities are so isolated and separated from the rest of Guatemala that they don’t even speak Spanish there, but rather a dialect of the Ancient Mayan language.
Here, you can find many artisans that are still practicing ancient cultural arts the way their ancestors did. We spent our days relaxing on the water, or exploring some of these local villages along the banks of the lake and checking out their weavers, ceramic makers, and painters. I had the pleasure of spending the day with a Novica Artisan’s family seeing how they weave and cook and even helped to prepare tortillas with them to sell. Life in Lake Atitlan brings you back to a simpler place in time where you will forget your cell phones and embrace the feeling of being disconnected, yet fully connected to life at the same time.
True to the cycle of life, Lake Atitlan brings us again to the beginning from volcanoes, to water, back to ancient ruins. Several Mayan archeological sites have been found around and in the lake by local fisherman who noticed there “appeared to be a city underwater” and so much has yet to be uncovered or discovered along its banks. I think that analogy best sums up my experience in Guatemala; There is still SO much yet to be discovered.
There are endless treasures and beauty to find in Guatemala, whether they are buried inside of a pyramid or found in the form of people who are keeping the Ancient Mayan art and cultural heritage alive. Guatemala blends the modern world with the ancient world in such a simple, pure way that it makes you feel like you are the first explorer to step foot in some of these places and witness some of its rare, physical beauty. I felt like Indiana Jones hiking ancient pyramids, active volcanoes, floating in the world’s most beautiful lake, and listening to the people speak an ancient dialect of a language that doesn’t exist anymore, but I still left there feeling like there was so much more to do and eager to come back for more!