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Guatemala with Kids

Guatemala is the land of bold colours, ancient civilisations and rumbling volcanoes. Belize set the bar incredible high, Guatemala had work to do!! Compared with our adventures so far in Mexico and Belize, it seemed that full tourism development hasn’t quite got a foothold in Guatemala yet – not in a bad way! Despite it being the most populous country in Central America, with so much to see and do, it felt incredibly authentic and devoid of tourists, especially families. Even more mad is that Guatemala is extremely welcoming to kids and won’t break the bank either. From lava-roasted marshmallows on an active volcano, to climbing ancient Mayan pyramids, and all the colonial towns and lake swimming in between, here is our summary of our two weeks backpacking through Guatemala with kids. If you are wondering if you should visit Guatemala as a destination for family travel, this post is for you.

As part of 9 weeks backpacking Central America, our route (below) began with 3 days in Flores, where we entered from Belize at the Melchor de Mencos border after the easiest and most chilled crossing (read more about this here). After exploring the colourful island of Flores, our time constraints meant we had to fly from here to embark on our central and southern Guatemala adventure - if we had more time we would have gone overland via Semuc Champey but sadly not this time. We then took in the colonial capital of Antigua, followed by volcano hikes, the glorious Lake Atitlan and the assault-on-all-senses market of Chichicastenango before ending our exploration at the border with Honduras. Here is our route:

If inclined, you can see how this week or so fits in with the wider 2 months backpacking trip here. The day of the overall trip is included within the day-by-day itinerary of our 10-days in Guatemala below.

Day 1: Arrival in Flores (Day 18 Overall)

We crossed the border into Guatemala which put the previous “easiest border crossing ever” (Mexico-Belize) to shame as this one took less than an hour and we didn’t have to open our bags once (?!). I’d been expecting delays, trouble and bribes on the borders but it was very straight forward, safe and easy! In the afternoon we arrived on the colourful, vibrant island of Flores, on a huge inland lake in the north of the country for a few days. Easing into it, we just walked around the cobbled streets taking it all in and enjoying our first actual hotel of the trip.

Day 2: Exploring Flores - Rained Out! (Day 19 Overall)

Sadly this day for us was rained out. We have been lucky in general as this is supposedly the hurricane-riddled wet season and we have had no rain at all nearly 3 weeks in. We actually had our first brief sub-30-degree spell (about 3 hours at 29 degrees!) since we left the UK as the rain really cooled things down. Sadly what started as the usual piercing sunshine, 35 degree heat and 100% humidity (it’s the humidity that makes it unbearable!) developed into a nasty storm which flash flooded our hotel and room. Too manic to take photos of that part but all our stuff survived and the staff were amazing trying to protect us.

Really grateful for our careful consideration of rainy-day room-based activities (you can read more about the toys we generally take away with us here) and spent the day playing games, doing activity books, Mayan quizzes, writing diaries, uploading blogs and only ventured out once for some nice drinks to make us feel better. The upside of rain was Quinn loves her special travelling mac-in-a-sack dinosaur coat so she was very happy. Also quite pleased we tend to backpack flexibly – we always have a fully fleshed out plan but rarely book anything until the day before earliest in the event of illness, bad weather or something else getting in our way! If we hadn’t needed to cancel plans today then we would have checked out Yaxha National Park in the early morning and hit up Jorges Rope Swing just around the lake in the afternoon for a nice swim. Maybe next time! For what we did get up to, you can read about here.

Day 3: Yavin IV…I mean Tikal! (Day 20 Overall)

Today we managed to get to Tikal, the largest Mayan city in the world. It’s around 1,300 years old and its tallest temple, “Temple IV” is 72m high (and used as the set of Yavin IV in Star Wars Episode IV, where we tried to recreate the famous shot!!). Another hugely successful visit, we got there at the crack of dawn and avoided the tour buses once more.

We were so proud of the kids; we trekked over 3 miles through the tropical rainforest in all the heat and humidity for four hours, but they were eager to show their strength and do the absolutely knackering climb to the top of the main climbable temples. They found it really interesting which was a huge relief, mostly because of the wildlife and Star Wars connection but whatever works! I think the early start meant we got a lot more animal encounters too - there were so many mad insects, coatis (including a huge family of babies!), spiders, two spider monkeys lobbing fruit at us and a troop of howler monkeys (their howl is actually terrifying in the distance, sounds like dinosaurs!!). You can read full details on Tikal with kids here.

After Tikal, thanks to our determination to rent a car we drove around Lake Peten and found a quiet (deserted) spot with a beautiful jetty and some abandoned huts. Felt like Mauritius or something, it was stunning! There is more information in our Flores summary here.

Day 4: Actun Can Cave System and Transit to Guatemala City/Antigua (Day 21 Overall):

We spent the morning in Actun Can cave system, the only ones there (Why? How?!). It was a fairly easy cave, way easier than some of what we got up to in Vietnam and Thailand, which made it more enjoyable in some ways. Not as beautiful as some but still wowed the kids. We saw some grim little critters within too, you can read more about it here. We then said goodbye to the tiny colourful island of Flores and travelled 500 miles south to Guatemala City. From there we travelled via Uber (they have Uber in Southern Guatemala, which was £25 for the last 50 miles of today's trip from the capital. When I went out for my birthday it cost £20 one way into town, 7 miles) on to Antigua, a beautiful and brightly painted colonial town surrounded by cobbled streets and volcanoes.

Day 5: Antigua! (Day 22 Overall):

As we broached three weeks on the road, we have been happy with what we’ve managed to pack in each day, and thought we’d celebrate by ramming more stuff into 24 hours than we thought humanely possible!

Surely one of the loveliest towns in all of Central America, we designed a walking tour of beautiful Antigua. Built hundreds of years ago between three active volcanoes (including the continents and possibly the worlds most active volcano, Volcan de Fuego!) it is the former capital under Spanish rule. This enchanting town felt very different to anything we’d done so far as it’s filled with remains of its colonial past – colourful homes, cobblestone streets and dozens of churches, monasteries and convents. A huge part of its charm is it was half destroyed by THREE earthquakes in the 1700's and after being rebuilt and knocked down so many times they gave up and left half of it as ruins.

Over six hours we hiked the observation point at “Cerro de le Cruz”, the cathedral “Iglesia de la Merced” walked through the “Calle del Arco/Santa Catalina Arch” and then fed the pigeons and got ice creams at the Plaza Major/Parque de La central. The ruins at Central Cathedral, then again at Convento Santa Clara were just amazing. Really spooky beautiful and again, deserted. Likewise Santuario San Francisco el Grande was stunning. Finally, a nice touch if I do say so myself, I found during my research that Antigua McDonald’s is constantly voted as the most stunning in the world and is a tourist stop in itself, so why not?! What a day. What a town.

Day 6: Pacaya Volcano! (Day 23 Overall)

How do you get two small children to climb a 3,000m volcano…? Tell them they can roast marshmallows in the lava when they get to the top! They practically raced up! I on the other hand, having hiked volcanoes in the past knew how shit it is (though this is a first for me - giant lava field). Not only is it steep as balls but it’s hugely demoralising, quite literally two steps forward and one step sliding back down, trying to walk up hill on ash. Then later on razor sharp fumaroles and dried lava. In 30 degrees, 100% humidity and carrying a giant baby. Impossible at times. On the way back down you must slide in places, it’s not possible to walk, making this one of the most risky things I’ve ever attempted. It was a challenge, but one we thankfully achieved. With swearing. And marshmallows.

We had also decided I advance to trek through part of the national park on horseback. Quinn was so happy for this, though in addition to knee, ankle and hamstring issues, both adults also had severe bumcheek problems as well! Read more about this family friendly volcano hike here.

Day 7: San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atitlan (Day 24 Overall)

This super cute beautiful town is on the banks of Lake Atitlán which is the freshwater filled caldera of a super volcano. It is now surrounded by “smaller” volcanoes on every side left over from the mother of all volcanoes when it exploded and collapsed 84,000 years ago. It is a nightmare mountain journey to get to but beautiful views. There are 13 villages around the lake, each with their own character and some only accessible by water. We got an air bnb for our time here and there are loads of vegetables and coffee growing in the garden and constant weird bugs, cats and impossible-to-photograph hummingbirds which the kids love!

All we did was wander for the morning. We visited Iglesia Catolica which happened to have a trampoline out in the square! Bonus! What also made our day was a genuine authentic mariachi band, hats and everything in a dark corner of a market when we went out to get ingredients for cheaper homecooked meals. What an atmosphere - Quinn loved their sound and they loved her moves! Read the full run down of 3-4 days for Atitlan with kids here.

Day 8: Chichicastenango Market (Day 25 Overall)

None of these photos do justice to Central America’s largest market without being able to capture the smells and sounds of this intense place. It was so busy with thousands of people, a real sensory overload with loads going on around every corner including a beautiful graveyard we wanted to check out.

Until today haven’t really experienced the celebrity status that followed us around Asia on account of Maxs blonde hair and blue eyes and Andrews height. We figured this was because the kids were older and it’s just not like that here, but today we were stopped and photographed hundreds of times! We also had the same experience of Willow just being taken off us and handed around several families for photos (enabling a nice hands free lunch for us parents!!) just like when Quinn was small in Cambodia etc - so friendly and Willow loved it.

On the crazy drive over the mountains to get there we took too many photos of volcanoes and also stopped in San Juan, an artsy, hippie town with a honey farm, which was beautiful. More details on the market and the various villages such as San Juan can be found in our Atitlan blog here.

Day 9: San Marco and a Weaving Class (Day 26 Overall)

Today we went to a Tzankujil nature reserve at yet another village around the gorgeous lake Atitlan. Regardless of forgetting to bring the swimming costumes they couldn’t resist the opportunity for a swim! What’s the harm when there is no one else here. In the afternoon we booked into a womens charitable cooperative to do a bit of weaving. We decided to make a family piece. Amazing skills, much more complicated than expected, compared to the loom-style in Asia. It gave the kids a real appreciation of the effort and skill involved. Again, this post will give you more details.

Day 10: Transit Day #1 (Day 27 Overall)

Guatemala is a big-ass country and we have three really awful travel days during our 2 month adventure. The 48 hours that began today is the worst one: a 7-9 hour epic drive across Guatemala. There are no stops, “just” primary rainforest and stomach-churning mountain hairpins from lake Atitlan all the way to Copan, Honduras. Everyone coped amazingly on the mental hairpin bends up and down mountains during the first leg today (Atitlan to Antigua), supported by some excellent audio books!

Before we set off this morning we did manage to finish our coin purse weaving project and have our first 6-in-1 tuk-tuk ride which everyone loved. We randomly/accidentally stopped at a surprisingly swanky hotel on the Pan-American Highway for lunch and a play in their deserted park which was in keeping with todays theme - we got a nice hotel with pool in Antigua to balance out the crappy driving late afternoon.

Day 11: Transit Day #2 (Day 28 Overall)

Transit Day #2 Antigua, Guatemala to Copan, Honduras. Nothing more to say here except that this drive went as well as it could do. We did 3 hours 9-12 noon, stopped for lunch, continued throughout the babys lunch time nap, and arrived at the border around 4pm. We loaded up ipads and laptops with films and brought fully charged battery packs and they did incredibly well! And thus ended 10/11 days in the glorious Guatemala.

In Summary:

Guatemala had a fantastic vibe; laid back, beautiful, tasty, welcoming and safe. Everything was so colourful and bright, everyone we walked past said hello to us, which felt genuine and friendly. It was easy for us to get by with our attempts at Spanish. Andrew claims Tikal as the highlight of our month on the road so far. For me it will be the stunning views every five minutes and the kids are sure it was the marshmallows and horses of Volcan Pacaya. I would say that it is very upsetting that we had to miss Semeuc Champey, but with all the wild swimming, caves and waterfalls we have managed so far, and so many still to go in this adventure, I don’t feel like we missed out to a terrible degree – the 15+ hours of bumpy buses over the mountains just meant we couldn’t attempt it (this time…?). Till next time you beautiful beast of a country!

Total spend: coming soon

Total distance: 1,466 km

Number of funerals: 2

Number of banditos: 0

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