It’s 7:09am. I think it’s central time, but I’m flying from Guatemala to Miami, so who could really say. This morning, I woke up at 4:30am in Guatemala City with Josh. We put my bags in a taxi, and I said goodbye to him. While I spend the next six days in New York celebrating my friend’s bachelorette party, Josh will ride on without me. After spending every day together for the last four months, I have a feeling six days will feel like an awfully long time.
Before I answer any logistical questions (“are you going to go back?” “How do you feel about him riding alone?” “Where will he ride?” “How are you going to meet back up?” “Just, what!?”), I want to share as much as I can about our time in Guatemala, as I realize we’ve only written one post in this country, and it deserves so much more attention than that.
I’d like to think we haven’t written while we were here because we enjoyed ourselves so much that we really didn’t have much time to sit down and write about our experiences. I think that’s true, and I also know that we have been using Instagram as a source of storytelling and thoughtful soundbites from day to day. Even so, this blog is still one of my favorite outlets for diving deeper into these stories. Not to mention the ability to share more without the constraints of character limits and use italics & bolds which I so love.
My dear friend Katie said it best: Guatemala is magical. The scenery constantly took my breath away. The land appears untouched: lush and green and well hydrated. Volcanoes decorate the hillsides like classical paintings; hung effortlessly against the sky with an intimidating yet inviting elegance. Rivers trickle beside the roads, weaving intricate patterns between small villages where families bathe or fish.
The people of Guatemala are equally enchanting. Delicate smiles bounce from face to face as their mouths chant cheerful “Buenos dias”-es and “Passen adelante”s. Friendliness—as we found in Mexico—flowed more freely than any other currency.
Our time in Guatemala went as such: Flores to Semuc Champey, Semuc to Antigua, Antigua to Lake Atitlan, and Atitlan back to Antigua. Each of these cities boasted unique qualities: Flores, as we’ve shared, was a small island town on a lake, which most travelers use as a jumping off point to see the incredible pyramids in Tikal. Semuc Champey is cluster of fresh water pools, nestled amongst waterfalls and rivers in a lush and tropical valley.
Antigua boasts a gorgeous colonial-style city with a small population but vibrant and modern social life. Set against an active volcano, travelers flock here to hike it’s steep, slippery back and still enjoy the nightlife and shopping of a great backpacker city.
Lake Atitlan attracts meditating yogis on one end and hardcore binge drinkers on the other. Small boats service the small lakeside towns as public transport, and it is really the only efficient way to get from place to place.
For our first stint in Antigua, we took full advantage of the comforts of its backpacker-friendliness. We ate unbelievable vegan meals, did laundry that was long overdue, and drank beers on the Antigua Brewery rooftop where we witnessed the eruption of a volcano in the distance. Our plan was to recharge before heading to the Lake, where we hoped to find some peace and quiet, practice some yoga, and enjoy the beautiful views.
On a Thursday we arrived in Panajanchel, the “jumping off” town in Lake Atitlan. We stayed there one night to recover from our ride. The next day, we took only what we would need for the next five days, and took a boat to Tzununa, the small town where we had reserved our stay at a Yoga center. We left the motorcycle in a secure parking lot with the rest of our belongings.
Lake Atitlan is absolutely enormous. I imagined a small lake in my mind, one that would take 10 minutes to cross by boat at max. As we boarded the small speedboat, I couldn’t see to the other end of the lake. On my left, across the water, I saw San Pedro Volcano simmering under the fog. The boat hugged the coast to our right, and we stopped at three docks before reaching our port. Every port is the same: one small dock where passengers load and unload, and only a few steps off the dock you’ve arrived at the main road of the small village.
Tzununa, our new home for the week, was tiny. When we arrived there were a few tuk tuks offering rides, and we grabbed one to our accommodation. I realized it was our first tuk tuk of the entire trip, and suddenly realized how easily we were able to get from place to place by having our motorcycle. After asking the 13 year old boy driving our tuk tuk to stop for some bananas, we arrived at Doron Yoga. Besides this retreat center and two others, there was nothing much in the way of activities or even food options in Tzununa. Luckily the center offered three vegetarian meals daily, so we knew we wouldn’t go hungry.
We spent the next few days exploring different towns around the lake: San Pedro was erupting with plastic signs and mildewed billboards offering cheap beer and awesome WiFi. Santiago confused us with its maze-like road of never ending fabric sales and craft shops. San Marcos attracted the yogis and foreigners who’d traded their 9-5 jobs for selling handmade jewelry on the street, and we spent the most time here as it had the majority of vegan food options on the Lake.
When we weren’t stuffing our face with food, we were lounging at Doron Yoga. We were there between retreats, so it was only us and the 5 work-exchange volunteers who lived on the property. We practiced a little yoga and a lot of hammocking. After 5 days, we were ready to be reunited with our bike.
I never thought I would miss a motorcycle. But when we got back on the bike and rode out of Pana, I found myself fist bumping the morning air and howling in my helmet. Who am I, Josh? I was so happy to have the freedom back that our bike brings us. I knew logically that having the motorcycle offered us a kind of flexibility that many backpackers don’t have, but I never fully appreciated how much freedom she provides us.
Being back on the bike, I realized how lucky we are to be able to see the world this way. To come and go as we please. To not be at the whim of any bus or boat schedule. To stop when we want. To change our plans in an instant. I believe this luxury has been a huge reason we’ve been able to sustain travel for this long. If we don’t feel comfortable in a city, we can leave. If we don’t want to travel in the dark, we don’t. If we love where we are, we stay until we’re ready to go. I felt a deep sense of gratitude for our bike in that moment, and ever since.
Once we left Atitlan, we rode back to Antigua for our final week in Guatemala. We planned to take care of some logistic items like what I would take with me, what paperwork Josh needed for his upcoming rides, and general loose ends before we parted ways. We also hoped to climb Acatenango, the 6 hour, grueling overnight hike that would allow us to see the eruption of the active volcano, Fuego. As we continued our research, Josh learned of a different hike, Pacaya, that included less exertion and equal lava sightings. He also started to feel a nagging sensation in his knee (the one he injured while getting a little too low at a friend’s wedding many years ago), and felt a shorter hike might make things easier.
When he went to book our overnight trip with the travel company, they informed him we were the only ones going and therefore they couldn’t do the trip. Even though we had been assured the day before that if it was just us they would still do the hike, they regrettably said no, and suggested we do the Acatenango instead. Having only his sandals and converse for footwear, Josh scoured their gear closet for some type of shoe that could make the 6 hours doable. Nothing. The guy working at the shop told him he had a pair of Vans Josh could borrow, and smartly, Josh told him he’d have to talk to his wife first.
We talked at length about our options. Josh was in pain simply going up and down the hostel stairs. If we hiked the volcano the next morning, he risked injuring his knee more, potentially badly enough that it could ruin the rest of our trip (and lives! Just kidding). If we didn’t, we would both feel severe disappointment in not doing the one activity in Guatemala we had been told not to miss.
Since Mexico, we had worked up the hike in our heads. It would be the culmination of our time in Guatemala. It would take place on the day of our 8 year dating anniversary. It would happen just days before I would leave for New York. Symbolically, it would be the perfect way to round off this chapter.
We knew what the smart thing to do was. We knew what our future selves would thank us for. And still a small voice inside us suggested we do the hike anyways. Don’t be a sissy. What would your friends think? You came all this way and DIDN’T hike the volcano? It’s just your knee, suck it up. Other people have done it! You’ll regret it.
This is the sneaky traveler voice that creeps in. The one that wants us to think there is a “right” or “best” way to travel and see the world. But our guts have grown strong. Our egos have been checked regularly. Our intuition and sense of perspective has developed wisdom. We chose to forgo the hike, acknowledge our disappointment, and simply say, “we’ll just have to come back, won’t we?”