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6 months on the road – Our Travel Expenses

Nicaraguan Money Cordobas

October 30th marked our 6-month travel anniversary, and while we’re sharing our Travel Tops and Flops and reflection on ‘200 Days on the Road’ on our 200-days travel anniversary on 15 November, the six-month marker seemed the right time to take a look at our expenses so far – including how much we have spent, where the money went, and what our average per day spend has been in each country. Luckily, Dani keeps a very exact expenses sheet calculating our outgoings to the last centavo, with up-to-date exchange rates telling us each day just how much every hotel room, bus ride, and ice cream cone costs in British Pounds (the currency we earn), US Dollars and the local currency. Read on for our detailed 6 months travel budget:

Please note: Our daily spendings are meant to be used as a guide for future travelers, or as a comparison for those of you currently on the road. However, as we work while we travel, we are not stuck to a fixed budget which we will one day deplete. We might spend a little bit more than the average backpacker, but we are guessing that our expenses are quite average for digital nomads in Latin America. Our six months travel budget isn’t a shoestring budget, but it includes some splurges.

Expenses in the U.S.

When we left London for Las Vegas on 30 April, we had no idea how expensive the U.S. would be. Even with the strong British Pound lining our pockets, the U.S. was much pricier than we thought.

By far our most expensive country so far, we spent a mind-boggling $8,333.00 /£5,530.60 in those 70 days. Major expenses within this figure include both our flights from London to Las Vegas and L.A. to Mexico, plus an Enterprise rental car which we had for two months. Excluding these numbers, our actual daily spend was $4,628/£3,071.60, or roughly $1,356/£900 per person per month.

Transportation: Our trusty Chevy Aveo rental ran us $1700 / £1,128 (including optional $560 insurance), which averaged out to $28.33 / £18.80 per day. At first glance (and second, and third) it might seem a luxury, but without the car, we could never have explored the South West, or drive the classic Pacific Coast Highway from L.A. to San Francisco as well as from San Diego to Tucson, making this a totally necessary expense. We drove 5200 miles, and of course the cost of gas and parking fees also added up to be quite expensive.

six months travel budgetAccommodation: During the times we were not reviewing hotels or doing long-term housesits, we paid a higher price for accommodation than we originally expected, as many places that we visited did not have hostels. Dusty roadside motels were cheap ($29 – $39 / £18 – 25), while city center digs ran us upwards of $69. We paid a ridiculous $119 for a tent cabin (!) in Big Sur, and a last minute Holiday Inn Express was $109 in the three-hotel, no-vacancy town of Chinle where we holed up for the night during our visit to Canyon de Chelly in northern Arizona.

Average accommodation per night based on two sharing: $45/£29.

Tip: Accommodation costs might be higher in the US than in Latin America, but there are also incredible deals to be found online which are much harder to come by in the less deal-savvy neighbors to the south. Websites such as booking.com or lastminute.com allowed us to score excellent rates on hotels than just showing up ever did. On a few rare occasions we were able to negotiate a better rate on site.

6 months travel budgetFood: The occasional treat aside, our restaurant choices were of the roadside variety, cheap diners, fast food and the like. The average meal at a cheap diner cost around $25 for both of us. While house-sitting we were able to shop at the grocery store, spending an average of $100 per week during our two house sits.

Regardless of the relatively high costs of exploring the southwestern United States, we managed to do both Los Angeles and San Francisco on a shoestring and kept our spending lower by including house-sits and visiting friends.

Average per day per person: $45/£30 (including car).

Mexico

Our spending dropped significantly once we crossed the border into Mexico – in total we spent $3622.26/£2367.78 in 88 days.

Accommodation: In Mexico, we stayed in mix of hostels and budget hotels. The cheapest accommodation cost $12/£8 for both of us at one of our favorite places– La Candelaria in Valladolid. The most expensive room at Posada Ziga in Mazunte was $35 /£23.

6 months travel budgetAverage accommodation per night based on two sharing: $21/£15.

Food: Our meals in Mexico cost around $12/£8 for dinner for two, and breakfast for about $10.50/£6.90 for two people. As anyone who reads us often will know, however, inexpensive (and delicious!) street food was our main meal of choice and we rarely ate in restaurants.

Culture: Mexico is teeming with cultural options and we visited everything from museums to galleries to both Maya and Aztec ruins. The ruins all have a set price of 51 Pesos, or $3.95/£2.55 per person, with one exception: Chichen Itza, which costs around $14/£9 per person.

6 months travel budgetTransportation: Long haul bus travel in Mexico is much nicer, but also much more expensive than in Central America. You travel in relative style, but you pay for it. The most expensive overnight bus rides tend to cost around $31/£21 per person. The cheapest long-haul trips cost us each $8.50/£5. On average we paid $10/ £6.70 per person.

Average total cost in Mexico per person per day: $20.58/£13.45

Belize

We already knew through the grapevine that Belize was going to be more expensive than the rest of Central America (Lonely Planet suggests US$40 – $60 per day), but we were still surprised that costs were as high as they are for such a sparsely populated and economically struggling country like Belize (read our tips for Belize on a shoestring here). We could’ve lowered our six months travel budget considerably had we skipped Belize.

Accommodation: We stayed in fairly basic accommodation in Belize, no bells or whistles, but always private rooms.

The average cost was US$22.50/£14.20 for a double en-suite room.

Transportation: This is one low cost area for travelers in Belize. Chicken buses, which appear to be held together by masking tape and a lot of luck, cost next to nothing for long distance travel in Belize. A two hour bus ride from Belize City to San Ignacio, nearly completely cross country, costs only $3.50/£2.21 per person. Speed boats between the Cayes in the Caribbean costs about $10/£6.32 to go between them, and golf cart rental on Ambergris Caye costs around $35/£22.10 per day.

Food: Meals in a restaurant both on the Cayes and in San Ignacio cost around $20/£12.60 for two, including a beer or two here and there. Belize is not that big on street food, so sitting down and ordering is a must for your main meals of the day.

Adventure: We took advantage many of the adventurous activities available to visitors in Belize. Snorkeling with Harry and Steve (recommended, just ask around) on Caye Caulker cost US$40/£25.25 each for a full day, or US$20/£12.63. The ATM cave tour was $65 each (discounted). All of our fun over 11 days totals $348/£200.

Average Cost Per Person Per Day: $54/£34.10

Guatemala

Crossing the border into Guatemala after our expensive stay in Belize felt good, and our expenses have been much less here.

Accommodation: On average, we spend $18.43/£11.65 per night for a double room including breakfast. Dorms are cheaper for single travelers, but for anyone traveling with a partner, private rooms only run about Q10 or $1.25 more.

Transportation: Take a chicken bus, and this will be your cheapest expense in Guatemala. Long-distance bus travel by chicken bus costs around $4.00/£2.55 per person – the more comfortable 1st and 2nd class coaches are considerably more expensive – the overnight bus we took from Flores to Antigua was $29.50/£19.50 per person.

Food: You can eat like a king in Guatemala and easily stay on budget. A decent meal for two in a restaurant costs around $10/£6.60, though in Antigua, depending on the restaurant, this average can more than double. If you eat street food, you can eat for much less money, but to be honest, we didn’t love the street food in Guatemala.

Tikal: The highest expense in Guatemala was our trip to Tikal, which was around $66/£42.00 for both of us. This does not include accommodation in Flores, but does include the shuttle service to Tikal, the guide and entry fees.

On average, we have been spending $27.50/£17.58 per person per day, which might seem a bit high to some, but includes pricey medication for Dengue and Giardia, neither of which was cheap.

Total six months travel budget

In total, we spent around US$14,720/£9,646 for the two of us in 6 months, which includes all flights and public transportation, and more than two months in the U.S. We hope our next budget post in 6 months will be much less, with no major flights, hopefully a few more house-sits, and lower expenses in South America than we had for the first 70 days in the United States.

Total cost per person for 6 months: US$7,360/£4,823.00

We showed you ours… now you show us yours! We would love to hear about your budgets and expenses in the comments below to see how our spending compares with that of backpackers and digital nomads. What does your six months travel budget look like?

If you have tips on great deals, cheap but quality accommodation in the US, Mexico, Central America or South America, or other ways to save money, please do share as well!

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The Seven Main Villages Surrounding Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Lake Atitlan Volcano San Pedro

Lake Atitlán has been described as the most beautiful lake in the world, considered a dangerous beauty one could lose themselves in. No matter which of the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan you visit, the views are stunning – the sprawling lake,  green mountains and the looming giant of the San Pedro Volcano. Seated on a kayak in the middle of the lake, you can even see the famously ever-erupting Volcan Fuego, also visible from equally far away Antigua. But is there one village that stands out? Which are the best villages around Lake Atitlan?

“Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but (Lake) Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Aldous Huxley on Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán

where to stay lake atitlanIn our two weeks at Lake Atitlán, we explored several lakeside villages and found it surprising just how different the communities are. Lake Atitlán is mandatory on any Guatemala itinerary, but for those who are short on time or just want to find where you might ‘fit’, read on for a breakdown of the towns surrounding the lake, to help you decide where to stay on Lake Atitlan.

The seven best villages at Lake Atitlan

Panajachel – Buy souvenirs and eat Gringo food

Panajachel is easily accessible from Antigua or Guatemala City, most buses and shuttles end up here and all the boats to Lake Atitlán’s surrounding villages leave from Pana’s docks. As a result, Pana receives loads of tourists of all kinds – Guatemalan day-trippers, package tour groups and backpackers all pass through here. The original village is located up on the hill, whereas the main street towards the docks, Calle Santander, seems to be constructed exclusively for tourists. One market stall lines up next to another, and there are plenty of restaurants and hotels, including an all-inclusive resort right by the lake. This is where to stay at Lake Atitlan if you don’t want to take a boat across the lake.For a more authentic experience, stay somewhere in the ‘old’ town center, where there is a daily market. If you are not staying there, make the hike up there to visit the local market and to get a glimpse of everyday Mayan life. The Saturday artisan market, spreading from the top of Calle Santander down to the docks, brings bus loads of tour groups through Pana on weekends. Rumor has it that Guatemala souvenirs here in Pana are the cheapest in the country.

You can eat any international cuisine, rent kayaks, hike to the nearby village of Santa Catarina Palopo or visit the famous Sunday market in Solola – located on top of the mountain and the spot for breathtaking vistas.best villages lake atitlan

Where to eat in Panajachel:

  • Bombay (excellent international vegetarian cuisine), any of the restaurants right by the lake for cheap breakfast and stunning views
  • Café Moka at the south end of Calle Santander has a great selection of coffees and cakes, plus free wi-fi
  • Tuscani for Italian food
  • Las Chinitas has healthy food in a lush green setting
  • Head to Taquero Mucho to get your Mexican food fix

Where to stay in Panajachel:

  • Hotel El Sol is a short walk from the town center and has super cheap clean rooms (US$6)
  • Selina Atitlan – beautiful new hotel (opened in December 2018) that has both dorms (starting at US$14) and private rooms (from US$48). Close to the lake, and it has a lovely outdoor pool.
  • ABU hotel has dorms and private rooms and a lovely patio with hammocks
  • If you need a larger place, check out Villas Jucanya. They’re fully-equipped lakefront villas, including kitchen. A 3-bedroom villa is US$60.

San Pedro – Chill out, learn Spanish and eat gringo food

A 45 minute trip across the lake brings you to San Pedro. All the ingredients for a super chill out spot come together in San Pedro. There is international food galore (it is both cheap and mouth-watering), bars readily serve up cheap booze during long happy hours, there are plenty of places for a cheap massage, hot pools and spas to relax, and no one looks down their nose at those who wish to hang out in a hammock all day long. San Pedro is the most popular among the villages for backpackers, and the best village at Lake Atitlan to learn Spanish and spend a few weeks.There is enough to do for the more active backpackers – climb volcano San Pedro, go on a horseback ride, kayak around the lake, learn Spanish at one of the highly recommended Spanish schools, spend an afternoon in the gorgeous town center (pictured below) or hike to the neighboring village San Juan. San Pedro is a great place if you want to get some work done too. The large semi-permanent foreigner population has ensured that San Pedro has the best wi-fi at the lake – at hostels, bars and restaurants everywhere.

Where to eat in San Pedro La Laguna:

  • Hummus Ya (Israeli food, vegan and vegetarian friendly)
  • The Fifth Dimension (excellent vegetarian food)
  • Sababa Restaurant (international and Guatemalan dishes and fantastic views over the lake)
  • Italian Bakery (for your carb fix and good breakfast)

Where to stay in San Pedro La Laguna:

  • Sababa Resort – beautiful resort with an awesome swimming pool and patio (US$19 per night)
  • Shanti Shanti – solid rooms at a great price, breakfast included for US$16 a night
  • Amigos Resort has dorms and private rooms and stunning lake views from the rooftop terrace (dorm bed US$6, private room US$19)
  • El Delfin has spacious rooms, a lovely backyard, and a restaurant on-site (US$33 per double room, breakfast included)

where to stay lake atitlan

San Marcos – Meditate, do yoga, eat gringo food

The village of San Marcos, located on the northern shore of the lake, is a place to meditate, refresh your energy and, if you know how, cleanse your aura. The local Mayan inhabitants live high up in the village, separated from the hippies foreigners, who stay in the hotels around the dock.

Should a friendly looking foreigner not respond to your attempt at conversation, do not think them rude. They are currently taking part in their ‘silent week’, part of the program over at Piramides del Ka meditation centre reportedly the best of many such medi-yoga spots. San Marcos is the best village at Lake Atitlan for those who seek meditation, yoga, or a silent retreat.

For those whose auras need no cleansing,  hike up to the Indian’s Nose mountain summit for unparalleled  views over the lake, sunbathe at ‘the rocks’ or have a picnic at the ‘sacred place’ which also offers excellent vistas, but is not as high up as the Indian’s Nose.

Where to eat in San Marcos La Laguna:

  • Fe (yummy food in the center of town)
  • Il Giardino (vegetarian)
  • Circles Cafe & Bakery (amazing breakfast), Comedor Casa Juanita (traditional Guatemalan dishes with superb lake views),
  • Moonfish Cafe (international and Guatemalan dishes)

Where to stay in San Marcos La Laguna:

  • Casa Madera (best budget option – dorms are US$10 and private rooms start at US$13)
  • Lush Atitlan (beautiful rooms overlooking the lake. Rooms start at around US$33 per night)
  • Baba Yaga (gorgeous lakefront bungalows – perfect for a splurge. US$61 per night)
  • Anzan Atitlan, outside of town, is a divine option if you’re looking for a splurge. The property has a private beach, sun terraces, and room rates include a tasty breakfast (US$146 per night)

Note: There is only one ATM in San Marcos, but I recommend bringing some cash, in case it is out of service, which does happen occasionally.

Santiago – visit Maximon, buy souvenirs

The town of Santiago is the largest and most ‘native’ of all the towns around the lake. Located on Atitlán’s southern shore, Santiago is best known for being home to Maximon, Guatemala’s folk saint. As soon as you get off the boat, the local children will offer to bring you to Maximon’s house (he moves house every year). Make sure to bring donations: rum, cigarettes or simply cash are favorite offerings of Maximon.

In addition to the favored saint, Santiago offers great views of volcano San Pedro if you make your way up the hill to the church which sits on the end of a big, empty square. The church inside is lined with wooden saints who are dressed in new handmade clothes every year.

Most of the Maya in Santiago, including the men, still wear their traditional clothes. Though hotel space is limited, floods of daytrippers make for central souvenir market stalls on the main street starting at the dock.

Where to eat in Santiago Atitlan:

  • Pasteria y Cafe Lolita (coffee, pastries and wifi. Try the cinnamon rolls)
  • Quila’s (bar – great for beer, cocktails and bar food)
  • Cetcafe (coffee & crepes)
  • Restaurante El Mana (excellent seafood)

Where to stay in Santiago Atitlan:

  • Casa Josefa – new budget hotel right in the center of town with a small swimming pool, open since 2018. Double rooms are around US$22 per night
  • Hosteria Del Centro – basic rooms, centrally located. They offer both dorms and private rooms. Double rooms are US$22
  • Hotel Tiosh Abaj (10 mins walk from Santiago’s main square. Right on the lake, huge patio & gardens, outdoor pool. Rooms start at US$47 per night
  • Eco-Hotel Bambu (a bit outside of town, cozy bungalows made of carved stone and thatched roofs, plus private gardens, five mins from the lake (rooms from US$70 per night)

Santa Cruz – SUP, kayak, hang out under the radar

Santa Cruz is a small village between Jaibalito and San Marcos, and can only be reached by boat, which keeps visitor numbers low. A few hotels dot the shore, and the main village stretches up the hill behind them. There’s not much to do except hang out, relax or hike in the surrounding hills – or be active on the lake. There are several places that offer kayak and stand-up paddle board rentals. Hotel Isla Verde offers salsa classes on Fridays and daily movie nights, as well as yoga. Santa Cruz is the best village at Lake Atitlan for those who want to get away from other tourists for a while.best villages lake atitlan

Where to eat in Santa Cruz:

  • Cafe Sabor Cruceno (excellent Guatemalan food)
  • JC Bakery is a Maya-run restaurant in the center of the village
  • Restaurant Nimajay (organic restaurant with vegetarian options)

Where to stay in Santa Cruz:

Note: There is one ATM  in Santa Cruz, but I recommend bringing enough cash with you, in case it isn’t working.

where to stay lake atitlan

Jaibalito – find solitude

Other than a couple of hotels, the village of Jaibalito offers nothing for visitors. This makes it, along with San Juan, the most authentic (if not poorest) of Lake Atitlán’s villages. Wi-fi is limited. Mentioning you would like to go to Jaibalito at any of the docks usually means a trip to the popular and moderately luxurious La Casa del Mundo hotel near to Jaibalito. Secluded from the village (and everything else) the hotel has its own dock, and comes with a restaurant, hot pool, lake-view rooms and terraces to hang out. Jaibalito is the best village at Lake Atitlan for those looking for tranquility and serenity.

Where to eat in Jaibalito:

  • El Indigo is fantastic and close to the pier
  • Club Ven Aca has solid food and cocktails (plus lake views!)
  • Cafe El Escondido has good cheap Guatemalan food

Where to stay in Jaibalito:

  • Hotel Y Cafe La Casa del Mundo has its own dock and gorgeous lake views. Rooms are around $56 per night
  • Posada Jaibalito is the cheapest option right in the village.
  • Casa Pamakanya is an Airbnb that consists of three houses that sleep 10 – 13 guests, a 15 – 20 mins walk from Jaibalito. The houses are surrounded by lush gardens, fruit trees, and there are multiple patios and hammocks. Stairs lead down to a dock and kayaks are provided. Perfect if you’re traveling with friends or family and want nothing but peace and quiet for a few days. If you don’t have an Airbnb account yet, use my referral code to sign up and get up to $40 off your first booking.

Note: Jaibalito does not have an ATM either, cash only.

best villages lake atitlan

Santa Catarina Palopo – explore and hike off the tourist track

Santa Catarina is only 2.5 miles (four kilometers) south of Panajachel and makes a great day hike from Pana. There are several trinket vendors on the road down from the village square to the lake shore, and a few shops in town, but other than this is a town for locals and a great way to see exciting vibrant Lake life. From here, take a hike to San Antonio Palopo, six kilometers to the south and famous for its traditional clothes (especially of the men) and hot springs or hop in a pickup back to Pana. This village is the best village at Lake Atitlan when it comes to fancy hotels – you don’t really find much in terms of budget accommodation here, so you’ll be able to escape the backpacker crowds.where to stay lake atitlan

Where to eat in Santa Catarina Palopo:

  • Restaurante Palopo (lakefront restaurant)
  • Cafe TUK (coffee shop serving artisanal coffee)

Where to stay in Santa Catarina Palopo:

  • Villa Santa Catarina has a large outdoor pool (US$65)
  • Hotel Villas Balam Ya (Robinson Crusoe-esque boutique hotel with fabulous lakeviews and lush gardens, private dock, kayaks, hot tub. Outside of town on the road to Panajachel. Double rooms incl breakfast US$99)
  • Hotel Casa Palopo – beautiful spacious & stylish rooms, each one has a balcony and a stunning view over Lake Atitlan. Deluxe rooms are around US$221. The hotel is a short walk from town, but there is an on-site restaurant.
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Street food junkies on the hunt in Guatemala

Guatemala Banana & Strawberry Mix

The Globetrottergirls are street food junkies, and we were not afraid to shout it from the proverbial rooftops during our 11 week stay in Mexico last summer. Embracing the local cuisine, in its most local forms, deepens the traveler’s relationship with the country and its culture, and it is fun to sample foods from food stands which essentially form an unofficial outdoor buffet in central parks throughout Latin America. Guatemala was no exception, of course: We couldn’t wait to eat our way through all of the street food in Guatemala. We were especially excited when we arrived in Antigua and discovered street food vendors galore lined up in front of La Merced church. This excitement was quickly put in check, however, as street food in Guatemala is very meaty. Lucky for the veggies, however, there are also loads of vegetarian options. Find a round-up of our street food favorites below:

Must-try vegetarian street food in Guatemala

Pupusas

This El Salvadorian staple is, as it turns out, also a very popular street food in Guatemala. The thick corn tortillas are stuffed with either refried beans, cheese, a bean-cheese combo, or cooked pork. A marinated cabbage and tomato salsa are added on top. Despite their popularity in Guatemala, this street food doesn’t begin to compare to the delicious originals made in El Salvador, where the cheese is tastier and the shape and quality are far better than most in Guatemala. But if you’re veggie and in a hurry, a pupusa will fill you up easily. Price: Q12/US $1.50.street food guatemala

Elote

Another typical dish is elote, or corn on the cob. In Guatemala, elote it is not served with mayonnaise and chili powder as in Mexico, but rather salsa, salt and sometimes lime. Corn is the basis for the Guatemalan diet, and this cheap and not entirely unhealthy snack can be eaten any and everywhere. Price: Q10/US $1.25

Tacos

The word ‘taco’ in Mexico and Mexican cuisine means something different to what the word means in Guatemala, where a ‘taco’ is similar to the Mexican ‘Flauta’. One major difference is that in Mexico, corn tortillas are stuffed, rolled and then deep fried. In Guatemala, the rolled corn tortillas are first deep fried, and then stuffed with either potatoes or meat. This makes a difference as they are usually stuffed with more inside than in Mexico. As almost all the street food in Guatemala, tacos are topped with cabbage and cheese. No matter how they serve ‘em, or what they call them, tacos or flautas are one of our favorite street food items. For the best we found in Guatemala, head to Lake Atitlan’s village of San Pedro la Laguna, where, just up the road from the Pana dock, a little street vendor sells the best tacos in the country.*  Price: Q8/US$1

*the exclusive opinion of Globetrottergirls and though not official, trust us in judging their awesomeness.street food guatemala

Tostadas

Tostadas are very similar to the Mexican ones – a crunchy, fried corn tortilla topped with refried beans (though in Guatemala, these are black beans, not pinto beans) and/or delicious guacamole plus lots of lettuce, tomoatoes, onions, white cheese ‘powder’, plus beets, cabbage, and, sometimes, a slice of a hard-boiled egg on top. A salad on a tostada for under a buck! Price Q6/ US$0.75

Rellenitos

Literally meaning ‘little fillings’, a rellenito is just that – boiled/fried plantains stuffed with refried black beans and sometimes cheese. Mixing the sweet plantains with the savory black beans might seem a little exotic at first, but plantains and black beans are major elements in both breakfast and dinner dishes and it is very common to eat them together. These little wonders are delicious, filling and very veggie friendly. Price: Q6/$0.75

street food guatemala

Corn Tamales

Tamales are familiar to any fan of Mexican food, but the Guatemalan version varies slightly. These tamales are just plain old tamale corn flour base with pieces of corn inside, wrapped in a large green leaf. They normally come all wrapped up, dry and with no sauce. Dani hates corn tamales, and won’t eat them. They are certainly not my food of choice, but they do the trick, plus they are everywhere. Price: Q10/$1.25

Buñuelos and other sweet street food

Street food in Guatemala is big on sweets. There are the multi-colored popcorn balls, biscuit rings, something similar to peanut brittle, and loads and loads of donuts, but Dani’s absolute favorite are the Buñuelos. We’ve come across this word a few times to describe very different dishes. In Guatemala, fried dough balls, usually three, are served up with lots of warm, if not overly watery, syrup. Apparently they are a typical Christmas dish, but we found them already in early October. Price: Q10/US $1.25 for threeFor the meat-lovers out there, the street food options in Guatemala triple. The meaty varieties include salchichas (sausages), chicharrones (fried pork skin), cheveres – hot dogs (apparently there is a delicious type with avocado). What’s more, cheap fried chicken, burgers and fries rule the streets of Guatemala. Sandwiches are another popular item, with baguette-like white bread stuffed with lettuce, mayo, onion and usually fried, breaded pork.guatemala street foodIt has been especially recommended to us that you sample the garnachas, small fried corn tortillas which are stuffed with shredded meat and cheese and usually topped with cabbage, and the chile rellenos. The smaller sweet red peppers (similar to bell peppers, but smaller) are stuffed with beef, dipped in egg and deep fried, squeezed flat and then put on French white bread, to which cabbage, beets, carrots and a special sauce are added. Of all the meaty street food, we most wanted to try these chile rellenos, but there is never a cheese variety, always meat only.street food guatemala

Before you try street food in Guatemala

We did find eating street food in Guatemala a bit riskier than in other countries in terms of belly aches and less ladylike bowel issues. It is especially important in Guatemala to pay attention to who is eating where – seek out the popular food stands. If 20 locals are surrounding the street food vendor, jump in line there too. Locals want clean, healthy food as much as visitors do. Do not feel deterred by this warning, but do make sure you choose your street food wisely.

street food guatemala

Have we missed any delicious Guatemalan vegetarian street food items? Feel free to make suggestions for others in the comments below. What are your favorite Guatemalan foods?

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Reflections: 300 days on the road

Jessie & Jaime cycling along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast

300 days on the road… almost exactly 10 months of backpacking, or flashpacking, as it were. Looking back on Day 1 arriving in Las Vegas back in April to where we are now, we still can not believe how much life, experience, adventure – and work! – we have been able to squeeze into these 300 days. Although the distance covered takes up a tiny amount of space on a world map, the quality time we have spent in the 8 countries has given us a deep understanding of Central America, Mexico, and Southwestern USA.

The most recent 100 days starts way back in Guatemala, where we finished up a ten week stay – including a much longer stint at Lake Atitlan than we had intended. We also finally said goodbye to Antigua for good (well, for now) and experienced the relaxed vibe on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast, worlds apart from the rest of the country.

After Livingston we spent a couple of weeks in Honduras, including Christmas and New Years. With the exception of Copan Ruinas, the very popular Maya ruins, we felt that we had the country to ourselves, as very few fellow travelers pass through there it seems. We enjoyed the country’s colonial towns of Gracias and Santa Rose, plus the well off-the-beaten track Lake Yojoa. It was here where we spent New Year’s Eve, with nobody but the owners of our hotel, their family, and the 377 different kinds of birds that live around the lake.

Then it was on to Nicaragua, which is Guatemala’s main contender as our favorite country in Central America. We spent six weeks here in January and February and would gladly have stayed longer. We fell in love with the city of Leon (click here our guest post on Suzyguese.com), boarded down a volcano, saw the first wild monkeys on our trip, and ticked the little known Corn Islands off our ‘1000 places to see before you die’ list. We snorkeled off of Little Corn island, and discovered that Belize is still by far the best snorkeling in Central America. We also learned that Honduras is still far from being a tourist-friendly destination whereas Costa Rica is almost an eco-Disneyland.

Costa Rica has been the most surprising country on our trip so far. I first came to the land of Pura Vida back in 1996, returned to live one year here from 1999-2000 and have made a few visits since. Although changes in Costa Rica were always evident, it has been shocking to see just how Americanized the country has become in recent years. My favorite beach in the world and former hippie paradise Montezuma has been overrun by the over 60s no-hablo-espanol crowd wearing socks and sandals. Manuel Antonio was even more of a tourist destination, but at least this area always has been. While you’re spoiled for choice in terms of activities here, and the quality of goods and services in Costa Rica are leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of Central America, the high prices and influx of U.S. ex-pats and their imported US culture has completely altered the easy-going uber-eco-friendly country I fell in love with all those years ago.

Into the Swing of Things

The period of travel fatigue we felt at the 200 days mark seems forever ago, and we are now fully ‘acclimatized’ to the rhythm of balancing travel and work. Our travel skills (trip-planning, awareness, alertness) have massively improved, so that we managed not to have a single terrible travel experience in the past 100 days. As we write this post on our 300th day of travel, the digital nomad lifestyle is so fulfilling that we have no desire to stop and can not wait for the next 100 days.

Globetrottergirls.com – The Re-design

Our website developed the longer we were on the road, and we realized that in order to create a useful resource for budget travelers and tell our own story along the way, Globetrottergirls.com needed a re-design. The site has also become an additional income stream, and we needed a layout which was compatible for ads, as well as optimized for readers to share our posts and participate in conversation through a much better comment system.

Thankfully we found Bundled.co, run by Joanne and Jon, who as digital nomads themselves really understood our needs. We had mentioned using Peopleperhour to land remote gigs in order to support your work & travel habit, so we posted our ad there and could not have been happier with our decision. The pair was always available for us, got back to us quickly, and perfectly understood what we wanted. We can highly recommend them to any bloggers who are looking to re-design their site.The site overhaul was easily the best decision we could have made, as our readership has been steadily growing, we have been able to begin the monetization process, and we have been contacted by countless readers who find our site useful and appreciate our tips, as well as new friends and business partners looking for collaborations on a few exciting travel projects. Watch this space for info on our most recent e-book contribution, coming soon.

Meeting fellow travel bloggers

Since setting off last year, we have met loads of travelers along the way, several of whom we ran in to again even two or three countries later along this Central American Gringo Trail.

However, our tweet-ups with fellow travel bloggers are the most memorable. We all share so much in common, combining a lifestyle of long-term travel and a lot of hard work. We have been lucky to meet up with two great bloggers in the travel community so far in Costa Rica.

We stopped by Playa del Coco, where we had drinks with The Traveling Philosopher, Spencer Spellman, before we meeting up with Nomadic Matt on the Nicoya peninsula and traveling to Manuel Antonio together where we spent our days working, hiking and seeing who could get tanner faster. (Anyone care to guess who won…sorry, I’m gloating…)

In the next couple of weeks, we are hoping to have two more tweet-ups and we’re very excited for both. In Panama hopefully we will spend some time with Breakaway Backpacker, Jaime, before meeting up with Erin and Simon from NeverEndingVoyage (a fellow digital nomad couple who left England for good!), in Panama City before we hop on a plane to Munich.

Change of plans

Yes, that’s right….we’re headed to Europe in our next 100 days. While we originally thought we would move on to South America after Panama, our plans have changed rather unexpected. A huge advantage of this digital nomad deal is that there are no rules. We have no set itinerary, and we are free to change our plans whenever we’d like. A fantastic house-sit opportunity in German Alps came our way, and after 9 months straight of Central America travel, we were more than ready for a spontaneously refreshing change.

We will use the house in the Alps as a base to explore Newschwanstein Castle, go up on Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, eat hundreds of pretzels, see some more of Austria and breathe in buckets of fresh spring air while hiking in the mountains. Oh, plus catch up on a million and one projects, ideas, and blog posts we have on our minds.

After our house-sit we’ll travel to Italy and Spain before returning to North America in June, when we are headed to Canada, we are doing another house-sit, and exploring Montreal, Toronto and the Canadian countryside. From there it’s New York City mid-August….and then our plans are not certain. Road trip through the U.S. South to New Orleans? Down the eastern Seaboard? Will we continue our journey through Latin America afterwards or go to Asia first? We don’t know! But then again, we don’t know if any of these plans are certain. If there is one thing we have learned in the past 100 days, is that we are free to be anywhere in the whole world the two of us would like to be!

Continue here for our tops and flops of our last 100 days on the road.

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The Tops and Flops of 300 days of travel

Dani at work on Little Corn Island Nicaragua

Last week we celebrated our ‘300 days of travel’ milestone and reflected on the last 100 days, which we spent in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Here’s where talk about the best and the worst things to happen to us in the last 100 days. It’s not all suntans and glamour (although, most of it actually was this time!)

Top travel moments

Hiking volcanoes
The Central American isthmus is located on what’s known as the Ring of Fire – a chain of volcanoes which stretches down the pacific side of each country. The volcanoes, some active and some dormant, can often be climbed, and in the last 100 days we climbed two volcanoes. First Dani conquered Pacaya, the popular active volcano outside of Antigua. She saw glowing lava and amazing views of other volcanoes after the intense climb.

Two countries later, in Leon, Nicaragua, the both of us climbed Cerro Negro volcano. Twice. In a row. We signed up to go Volcano Boarding with Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit organization who offer two runs for $30. We took the ‘deal’, but didn’t realize that volcano boarding down twice would mean climbing up the steep black giant twice in the blazing ninety degree sun (35 Celcius). The heat, the climb, the speeding down a volcano on toboggans we schlepped up the volcano was an intense, but one-of-a-kind experience.

Going on vacation
This part might confuse those readers who think we are on a permanent vacation…but we took a week-long vacation during the last 100 days. Traveling and working full time can be exhausting, and especially after speeding through Eastern Guatemala and Honduras, we were in need of some rest and relaxation when we arrived to Leon, Nicaragua. So we went to a good old-fashioned travel agency and booked two hand-written tickets to the Corn Islands, off of Nicaragua’s Moskito Coast in the Caribbean. We spent a week on these tiny remote islands in the Caribbean, doing nothing but relaxing in a hammock, exploring the islands and swimming in the ocean (and worked a little bit, we have to admit, but really only a little…each day).

Cooking Indio Viejo with Doña Ana
While in Leon, we signed up to learn to cook a traditional Nicaraguan dish, Indio Viejo (veggie version minus the chicken). We went to the market and bought those strange ingredients we never know what they are for (little bags of red powder, for example, which turn out to perfectly flavor and color the dish we made). We learned next how to make tortillas at a very busy but basic tortilleria in Leon’s indigenous neighborhood before bringing the tortillas up the street to the welcoming Dona Aña’s house. We had a great time not only learning to prepare and cook the dish, but also spending quality time chatting away with her and her daughter while enjoying the fruits of our labor.

Favorite places

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
More than once we have proclaimed our love for Lake Atitlan, the most beautiful lake in Central America. We have see many of the lakes in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, but hands down, Lake Atitlan is the most beautiful and peaceful lake of all.

Leon, Nicaragua
Leon, Nicaragua is not only one of our favorite places in all of Central America, but on our trip so far. The second biggest city in Nicaragua after Managua, Leon has all the mod-cons you would expect from a city of nearly 200,000, but you could easily forget what century you are in when joining the Nicas in their circle of rocking chairs watching the sunset behind the constant stream of horse and buggy transportation galloping by.  The spirit of the Sandinista revolution still can be felt among the people and from the bullet holes in buildings, the murals around town, and the fact that this city has completely blocked out any big American fast food chains.

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
A little town on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast just over the border to Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur’s wide streets, clean well-constructed beach promenade, colorful little beach houses plus a mix of blonde-haired surfer boys and dark-skinned locals make San Juan del Sur feel like a Nicaraguan version of Venice Beach. Gringo ex-pats who love that California feelin’ have stayed to open several breakfast spots, restaurants and bars. The locally-owned, most seafood, eateries are geared toward Costa Rican weekend tourists. The vast beach in town is set within a large cove, which keeps waves to a minimum for easy dips into the water while sunbathing, and the string of beaches outside of San Juan are even more stunning with perfect surfing. The sunsets on all the beaches are heaven.

Samara Beach, Costa Rica
Looking back, we have spent time on quite a few beaches over the last 100 days – the Corn Islands off Nicaragua’s Caribbean, Poneloya and San Juan del Sur on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, and a stint on Honduras’ stretch of the Caribbean, but the best has been the beaches of Costa Rica. Our personal favorite, so far, is Samara Beach, located on the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean. While the ex-pat community has moved in, the relaxed small village feeling remains. Samara beach is set in a picture perfect bay, with its sprawling white sand lined with palm trees stretching for miles so you can walk for hours. This is a great spot to play in the waves and to relax for a few days.

Most disappointing places

Omoa, Honduras
According to our 2009 guide book, Omoa is a cute little fishing village off the tourist track with perfect, deserted Caribbean beaches. Sounds right up our alley, and shortly after crossing the border from Guatemala, we arrived with high expectations. Beach? What beach? Due to construction of the oil and gas company nearby, the beaches in town were completely eroded, with water coming right up to the edge of beachside restaurants. Beaches outside of town down ‘lush, secluded paths’ actually wind through shady, litter-strewn neighborhoods. The beaches here are deserted, but this is due to the piles of garbage all over the beach. After a 10-minute rest and water re-fueling, we left without dunking so much as a toe in the water, back into town.

Granada, Nicaragua
Granada is almost always referred to as the prettiest town in Nicaragua – and its well-manicured town center, freshly painted cathedral and colonial houses are certainly the best maintained in the country. Taking all this in takes, at most, two hours – stroll through the park and up the Calle La Calzada restaurant strip, around some of the nicer hotels. Other than that, we couldn’t find anything special about Granada. Gone was the authentic charm of Leon, filled with passion and enjoyment of life. With everything in Granada geared at impressing tourists, we found tons of over-priced tourist traps, supersize tour groups and harassing, greedy street vendors. Had we known what to expect in Granada, we probably would have spent more time in Leon.

Montezuma, Costa Rica
The year is 1999 and Montezuma is a tiny hippie town at the very base of the Nicoya peninsula with roughly ten hotels, a string of beaches each totally different and equally beautiful, and an average visitor/local age of 25. Fast forward to 2011, and the hippie factor has doubled, but the old American geezers in socks and sandals factor has gone from 0 to in the dozens. There is a supermarket with German chocolate, American chips, Italian wine, even two different kinds of tofu. Hotels, of which there must now be 50, have room rates reaching well into the hundreds, and the once tranquil town is now choked with rental SUVs and 4x4s. The long walk along all the beaches is still gorgeous, and we had the best beach day swimming in the waves, but the bliss was bittersweet.

Travel recommendations

In addition to Samara, Leon and San Juan del Sur, we recommend the following places which we visited during our last 100 days:

Livingston, Guatemala

Only reachable by boat, Livingston is home to Guatemala’s Caribbean culture, a world away from the Maya culture prevalent throughout the rest of the country. Combined with a boat ride from Rio Dulce along a lush, animal filled jungle scenery, followed by impressive white cliffs of the Cueva de la Vaca gorge and finally reaching the estuary to the Caribbean sea Livingston makes a great trip, even though it doesn’t have any spectacular beaches (though there are some nicer beaches a half hour boat ride north of town).

Corn Islands, Nicaragua
If you are looking to combine an affordable Caribbean island vacation with a trip to an off-the-beaten track destination, the Corn Islands are the perfect place. Located about 70 km off Nicaraguan’s Caribbean coast, the two tiny islands of Big Corn and Little Corn offer endless, empty white-sand beaches, adequate snorkeling, hundreds of palm trees and friendly locals who hook you up with fresh coconuts or fish fresh out of the ocean.

Worst travel moments

Getting sick in the Honduran fishing village, Omoa
Omoa (see ‘Most disappointing places’ above) is so tiny, it doesn’t have a supermarket, or even a bank. It was a Sunday when Dani began to suffer the wrath of tourist sickness, which meant that if there was a pharmacy, it certainly wasn’t open on a Sunday. Plus, we were about to run out of money, already depleting our limited emergency supply of dollars. Luckily, after two days, Dani was able to take the bus, and we left for Copan, where we knew there would be a clinic, but it sucked being stuck in a place like Omoa when sick.

Bug bites
Bugs love me (Jess). You name it, and if it bites or stings, that bug is aimed at me and my ‘sweet blood’. In Granada, mosquitoes ate me, more specifically my legs, alive. The mosquitoes are so bad in this city on a lake that some of the restaurants keep Off! bug spray on hand for diners. During my time in the city, however, I would imagine incidence of bites for everyone else was at an all-time low as these little vampire sucked my blood exclusively. Especially after the Dengue incident in Guatemala, I am especially spiteful toward mosquitoes. Luckily I dodged dengue this time around, but the scars on my legs will long remain.

Top travel mishaps

Bad planning: Stranded in Tegucigalpa on New Year’s Day
On 1 January we packed our stuff and left the beautiful lake Yojoa at 9am in hopes of reaching Esteli, Nicaragua by nightfall. An ambitious journey, but doable in a day. Not on a Holi-day however. First we waited an hour on the side of a highway for a bus to take us to Tegucigulpa. From there, we jumped in a taxi to where the buses to the border leave – but not on holidays. After all the to-ing and fro-ing, and re-planning, and locals telling us without a doubt that we couldn’t make it before dark, we accepted our fate of spending the night in Central America’s least safe capital. The first budget option in our guide book was shut down and the second one may have been a by-the-hour type place. We ended up overpaying for a mid-range hotel and an over-priced pizza as we comfort-ate a Pizza Hut and waiting for trip to Nicaragua to start again in the morning. The next morning we headed out to grab a coffee and have a look around the city center, and Tegucigalpa turned out not to be as scary as we thought (aside from all the gun shots and subsequent police sirens all night).

Top food moments

Gallo Pinto
This dish of rice and beans, cooked together with peppers, onions and Salsa Lizano, is the typical dish of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. It is mostly eaten for breakfast but can also come with lunch or dinner. We both cannot get enough of it, no matter what time of day it is!

Baleadas
Baleadas are traditional Honduran food – a big flour tortilla, filled with eggs, refried beans, cream and sometimes avocado, it is usually eaten for breakfast and actually very similar to a breakfast burrito. Dani loved baleadas, but they didn’t do much for me.

Pizzeria Monna Lisa in Granada, Nicaragua
Spoiler alert: This is not street food, it’s not cheap, and it’s not even local. However, Monna Lisa serves the best pizza in all of Central America. Dani, in her love-induced post-pizza haze, would even go as far as saying the best pizza outside of Italy. The pizzas are thin crust with mouth-watering dough, baked in a real Italian stone oven. Monna Lisa also invented to-die-for dessert: Chocolate Calzones. Sure, they call it the Monna Lisa special or something, but it is pizza dough formed into a long parcel, filled with nearly an entire bar of melted chocolate and served with more chocolate sauce on top. Dani would have stayed in Granada just for this dish!

El Desayunazo in Leon, Nicaragua
This little breakfast place is a hot spot in Leon, especially at the weekends you have to come early to secure a table. Equally loved by locals, expats and tourists, El Desayunazo deserves the crown for Leon’s (or even Nicaragua’s) best breakfast place. You can choose between a large variety of Nica breakfasts (gallo pinto, eggs, cheese) and ‘Gringo’ breakfasts such as pancakes or waffles. And the best: bottomless coffee!

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33 things we love about Guatemala

Chicken buses lined up in Antigua Guatemala

No matter how well you know a place, there is always so much more to discover. Though Jess lived here for two years, the 10 wonderful weeks we spent in Guatemala led to some of our most magnificent discoveries and experiences of our travels so far. Read on for a list of 33 things, in no particular order, we absolutely love about Guatemala, including some interesting Guatemala facts – things you may not know about this small Central American nation.

1 The impressive Maya ruins of Tikal – We had visited several ruins in Mexico and Belize, but Tikal is by far the most spectacular of them all.

2 Lake Peten Itza – Unlike the more famous Lake Atitlan, swimming in Lake Peten Itza is perfectly fine. Jump in off one of the many piers and dry off tanning on the dock. If you see Miguel (a highlight all its own – below) ask him to take you to the zoo on a little island in the middle of the lake. You’ll see all wildlife native to the region.

3 Our friend, Miguel de San Miguel

4 The boat ride through the jungle on the river between Rio Dulce and Livingston.

5 The children of Chichi who were our friends and guides throughout our time there.

6 The Mennonite Bakery in Xela – Open Tuesdays and Fridays only, this tiny bakery outside the center in zone three offers up fresh homemade breads, pastries, butter, peanut butter, jams and yogurt made by the Mennonite community based outside of Xela. Get there early, as the goods go quickly! (Check on Google if the bakery is still around, if you happen to find yourself in Quetzaltenango).

7 Women carrying giant baskets on their heads – Although this happens in many parts of the world, in our own experience, Guatemalans seem to do it the best. It is unbelievable how big /full these baskets can be.

8 The colorful ‘trajes’ or dresses of the Guatemalan women – We loved this in Mexico, too, with the difference being that in Guatemala the traditional dress is just so vibrant. Plus the little girls are so darn cute in their miniature versions!

9 The volcanoes – Volcanoes in Guatemala, which jut aggressively out of the verdant countryside, smoke, erupt and shake on a daily basis. All that volcanic activity is even more intriguing when you climb one yourself.

10 The Maya village of Todos Santos in the Western Highlands, although we ask you to please not go there.

11 Yellow House hostel in Antigua – After trying out a few other hostels and hotels in Antigua, we finally found Yellow House, which is the perfect combination of light, spacious rooms, huge free breakfasts and super cleanliness for under $20 a night.

12 The huge, cheap licuados (freshly blended fruit juices).

13 The beautiful colonial town of Antigua.

14 The craziness of a chicken bus rideAlthough some people warned us of their safety, we traveled Guatemala almost exclusively by chicken bus. We will never forget hanging on for dear life, smashed in between families of six on either side of us, marveling at the ‘ayudante’ or helper as he squeezes with ease through the packed bus collecting money, exiting through the back door with the bus still in motion, climbing up the ladder to the top, and getting exactly the right bags down for the passengers disembarking before the bus has even come to a screeching halt in the middle of what appears to be deserted countryside, wondering where the people who got off even live, and also how the helper made it back in the bus so quickly?!

15 Hiking between villages along Lake Atitlan.

16 The colorful cemeteries, such as the one in Xela or Chichi.

Guatemala facts

17 The Caribbean feel in Livingston, completely unlike anywhere else in Guatemala.

18 Eating steaming hot Buñuelos.

19 The way that traditional indigenous life becomes a part of the everyday experience. It is amazing to ‘get used to’ such a different lifestyle, but in the end, we are all very much the same.

20 D’NOZ antipasti platter & huge bagels in San Pedro La Laguna. (Update: Sadly, D’NOZ has permanently closed.)

21 The amazing markets – Guatemala has an incredible market culture, and we love to visit  both the food and handicraft markets to soak up the atmosphere of the busy traders bargaining prices.

22 Canoeing on Lake Atitlan under that shadow of the impressive San Pedro volcano and the Indian’s Nose mountains.

23 Cowboys – Most of the men in Guatemala have long ago shed their own traditional ‘trajes’, but the cowboy culture is very much alive amongst the men complete with hats, big belt buckles and horses.

24 Watching Volcan Fuego erupt from a rooftop terrace in Antigua

25 Marimba music, the traditional music of Guatemala.

Guatemala facts

26 The many fiestas all over the country – including traditional dances, masks, voladores and lots of fireworks.

27 The ruins of cathedrals and churches in Antigua.

28 The island town of Flores in Lake Peten Itza – With its red roof tops and church on a hill top, Flores seems more like a town in Turkey or eastern Europe. The people in this small island village are some of the friendliest we met in Guatemala.

29 Lush green gringo-safe, amoeba-free salads and fast wi-fi at Sundog Cafe in Rio DulceThe town itself, also known as Fronteras, is more of a stopping off point for onward travels. If you do stay, eat all the roughage you want here.

30 The exotic flowers for sale in the markets and along the highway.

Guatemala facts

31 Visiting Maximon in Santiago Atitlán – The popular Mayan folk saint who is worshipped in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, and the figure in this Lake Atitlan town is the most celebrated of all those scattered throughout the region.

32  Fact: Guatemalan Coffee.is.the.best.

33 The Israeli restaurant Hummus-Ya, and especially their Shakshuka dish, in San Pedro La Laguna. We think we would go back to the Lake just to have this one more time…

Guatemalan food

If you found this interesting, why not check out what we love about Mexico and Belize.

Have we forgotten something spectacular about Guatemala? Do you love something we haven’t mentioned? Please add to our list below!

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What we learned from the cemetery in Xela, Guatemala

Cemetery view

Ceremonies surrounding death in Central America are as intensely sorrowful as vibrantly cheerful. There is a relationship with death which balances a process of deep mourning followed by colorful celebration. It begins with a dramatically slow funeral procession with hundreds of people dressed in black following a hearse as it winds through town from the church to the cemetery. The scene forces even unrelated bystanders to contemplate the sadness of death, if only for a few minutes.

Yet cemeteries are vibrant places where celebrations like the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) see floods of people celebrating the dead among freshly painted and decorated pink, turquoise, mint green and bright yellow graves. These jovial events can be so casual that between family picnics and kite-flying on top of the graves, the dead below seem to play second fiddle to a good old fashioned family day out (we say ‘seem to’, as in reality, there are quite a few tears in remembrance of family and friends as well.)

QuetzaltenangoThe style of burial, like so many aspects of life in general in Central America, has shifted from the sprawling decadence of large scale mausoleums to compact slabs of cement. One hundred years ago, families buried their loved ones in grand mausoleums in the shape of Roman-style buildings, gothic tombs or even Egyptian pyramids. While following generations moved away from such grandeur, the tombstones remained beautifully ornate and the surrounding space was roomy enough for eternity.

Today, the most recent plots in the cemetery of Quetzaltenango resemble apartment blocks, where anywhere from 6 up to 30 people are buried, bound to spend eternity in their own cramped ‘apartment’.

Quetzaltenango cemetery

Maybe this results from financial hardship (death is costly) or perhaps out of decreasing space. It could also be cultural result that hinges on a slowly growing middle and working class who demand that cemetery plots are no longer reserved only for the rich and their immense mausoleums.

Quetzaltenango cemeteryA more major difference in the cemeteries of Guatemala can be found toward the back, where the Maya population traditionally buries their dead. Here, dirt graves marked by wooden crosses with the name and birthday scribbled sloppily in permanent marker fill rows and rows of unkempt land.

The festivities also take place here, on top of these piles of dirt that children play, vendors sell ice cream, and families picnic next to knocked-down signs which try to warn families of the dangers of eating with unwashed hands in this particular section of the cemetery. There is surely no area of the famous Parisian Père Lachaise cemetery (our favorite cemetery in the world so far), or any other U.S. or European cemetery, with graves like these, no matter how poor the family of the deceased.

Quetzaltenango cemeteryEven more shocking was the mass grave in the cemetery of Quetzaltenango. Exploring beyond these dirt graves lead to a mass grave where bodies are moved when surviving family members who could not afford to buy a plot do not pay the rent. The mass grave is also where hundreds of bodies were buried in 2010 after the torrential rains and mudslides killed and displaced countless villagers in the countryside.

Visiting one of Guatemala’s colorful cemeteries is a learning experience like no other. Especially larger cemeteries like that of Xela or Chichicastenango are reflective of the wider community in general, but in such a definite way. It is here, scrambling between the dichotomy of dirt graves and majestic mausoleums that things like the extreme class differences, treatment of the poor, and the country’s history and culture (in the form of festive celebration and mourning) become abundantly clear.

 

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Go Beyond: The Chichicastenango Market

Boys of chichi

Along with Antigua and Lake Atitlan, most visitors to Guatemala will include the famous Chichicastenango market to their itinerary, and with good reason.

The market, held twice weekly on Thursdays and Sundays, is the busiest, bustlingest market in Guatemala. Half the market is specifically aimed at tourists, with the sale of handicrafts typical of the region, from indigenous masks, wooden flutes and handmade jewelery, to the countless ways to work the colorful Guatemalan textiles: shirts, tablecloths, notebook covers, bookmarks, you name it, you can buy it at the market in Chichi. Because the majority of tour operators lazily promote the market as the town’s only tourist attraction, the majority of visitors make only a short day trip here, loading onto cheap shuttles from any of Guatemala’s main tourist centers. Thousands of shoppers shuffle at snail speed through the streets, and between negotiating through the massive crowds and endless bartering, at least one the five hours will be spent recovering from the intensity at one of the cafes or restaurants in the town center.

Chichicastenango marketDo this short day trip, and you might miss things like a rooster sacrifice (which we saw, see below) or the other half of the massive market, where locals trade everything from fruit, vegetables, eggs and flowers, to limestone to make tortillas, kittens, live cattle, chickens and turkeys. Plus you might miss the chance for a quiet moment in incredible Santo Tomas church, a hike in the incredibly green hills, the feeling of a truly indigenous Mayan town and for you true capitalists out there – the deals are much better on ‘down’ days too.

Come the day before the market and marvel at the Maya people descending on the town, carrying more on their heads than you could in your car, setting up the intricate maze of wooden beams that hold the market together. Since there is not much to do in this traditional village at night, wake up with the roosters (literally) and start the shopping spree before the shuttle bus invasion.

Stay a day or two longer and discover even more. The town center is essentially a permanent market, anchored by two churches. The main white church, Santo Tomas, is crammed on market days, sometimes employing a one-in-one-out policy at the side entrance like a trendy NYC night club. The line is at the side entrance because the steps leading up to the front entrance are actually considered holy, and the locals burn piles of incense on its steps. On an off-market day, you can sit and watch the locals without cringing every time a pack of camera-toting ‘gringos’ clambers up the holy steps to the front entrance.

ChichicastenangoBecause the majority of the 49,000 inhabitants are indigenous, Maya tradition is very much alive in Chichicastenango, and Santo Tomas church, although constructed as a Catholic church, is ruled by Maya rituals inside: pine needles and candles cover the floor, as do offerings of sodas or liqueur to the gods. Sitting opposite the Santo Tomas church is the equally intriguing Calvario church. To reach the Calvario, pass the mural painted along the entire wall on the east side of the plaza (completely masked by stalls on market days), which presents a clear, if simplified, understanding of how the civil war was perceived by the indigenous population here.

On a hike through the hills outside of town during our visit, we walked upon a private ceremony of a traditional rooster sacrifice taking place to the Maya sacrifice stone, Pascual Abaj, a shrine to the Maya Earth God Huyup Tak’ah. Made of a large black rock surrounded by stones, the shrine is said to be thousands of years old. Here the Mayans hold sacrificial rituals to pray for health, good fortune, and women can ask for a ritual to find a sober and good husband. Though as two veteran vegetarians we wouldn’t usually endorse cutting off of innocent rooster heads, the scene was fascinating to watch. (Have a look for yourself below!) Along with the ceremony leader and his two daughters/assistants, there was a man, around 20 years old, who was the focus of the ritual. We were the only visitors. No one had a problem with our presence at all, though we would recommend asking permission to film or take pictures.

Even without the live ritual, the site is littered with items from past sacrifices, such as flowers, liquor and Coca cola bottles, pine needles and thousands of candles which were lit on the site. Because Chichi is so open to foreign guests, you too can search for a sober husband or health or good fortune by booking your own ritual for $7.

While on the road to town from Pascual Abaj, stop by La Academia de Arte y Cultura Maya Pop Wuj, a gallery/project space bursting at the seams with Maya art. Sponsored by Project Guggenheim, the cultural space seeks to provide courses for Guatemalans of Maya Quiche descent, in order to increase pride in their heritage and modern day identity. Brothers Juan and Miguel Leon Cortez are incredibly welcoming, so step inside for a chat, and even learn about all about your Mayan astrological sign. Both of our signs were scarily accurate, down to the smallest details of our personalities.

For spectacular views of Chichi and the surrounding mountains, head to the cemetery up on a hill on the western side of town. Filled with colorful mausoleums, including a pyramid-shaped tomb, and simple Mayan graves, the cemetery is rich with history and culture. Some say the cemetery can be dangerous. We avoided this by befriending six of Chichi’s finest young street vendors. The boys protected us through the cemetery, taught us how a bit of the local Quiche language, and provided us with their very own, very interesting, semi-fabricated history of Guatemala.

Chichicastenango

Fast Facts: Chichicastenango – the market and beyond

  • When to go: The Sunday market has more stalls than on Thursday, plus processions and parades are also held.
  • Accommodation: Chichicastenago has a range from budget to luxury accommodation. All room rates spike on market days, discounts are often available for two nights or more, since most only stay the one night.
  • Budget options: Hotel Tuttos and Hotel Belen have double rooms for around $15/£9.50.
  • Splurge: Hotel Santo Tomas has double rooms for $128 /£83, the Maya Inn for $160/£103.
  • Key Celebrations: In addition to Thursday and Sunday markets, festive days in Chichicastenango include November 1st, All Saints Day, and November 2nd, the Day of the Dead, when hundreds of families gather on the cemetery to drink and eat together, celebrating and mourning the dead, and kids let their kites soar.
  • On December 7th, the Burning of the Devil, garbage is burnt in the streets to release evil spirits, and on December 8th, there are dances to celebrate the ‘Feast of the Immaculate Conception’.
  • From December 13th to 21st, the town’s church, Santo Tomas, is celebrated with dances and voladores.
  • Transport: Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Xela or Guatemala City for roughly $5 each way.
  • Location: Chichicastenango is located roughly 3.5 hours from Antigua, 3 hours from Guatemala City, 3 hours Xela and 1.5 hours from Lake Atitlan.

Chichicastenango

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Pacaya: The day I became a volcano climber

34 Dani at Pacaya

It’s not like I woke up one morning with the burning desire to climb one of the world’s most active volcanoes. In a country like Guatemala, however, where over 30 volcanoes all but define the national landscape, opportunities to climb both dormant and active volcanoes are everywhere. Even not-so adventurous visitors can become volcano climbers here thanks to the countless deals pushed by infinite travel agencies. This is how I found myself packed into a shuttle with ten fellow climbers, a mix of Canadians, Americans, Dutch and British tourists one recent afternoon, as we set off to hike the famous Pacaya volcano.

Pacaya is the most climbed of Guatemala’s active volcanoes, thanks to a combination of its close proximity to tourist-hub Antigua and the relatively easy 2550m climb. The nearby (inactive) Volcano de Agua and Volcano San Pedro at Lake Atitlan, both popular with climbers, soar 1000 meters higher into the air.hike PacayaWe arrive 90 minutes later to the village of San Vicente, the start of the volcano trail. Within nanoseconds local children engulf the mini-van, trying their best to sell home-made walking sticks for the climb ahead. I decide to invest the 3Q ($0.38) for the stick, mostly for the way back down in the dark. There are two climb times at Pacaya, leaving either at 8am or 2pm. I chose the afternoon climb to experience sunset on the summit and see the lava glowing in the dark.

At this point, we are still far from the top; Pacaya’s peak still out of sight. We won’t actually be hiking straight up Pacaya, starting first at the base of Chino, one of the three summits that make up the Pacaya volcano complex (they are: Cerro Chino (2260 m), Cerro Chiquito (2460 m) and Cerro Grande (2560 m). The path leads first to Chino’s crater and then transfers over onto the path to Cerro Grande, the highest summit.Pacaya horsesStick in hand, I begin the hike near the back of the pack, with six horses trotting directly behind me. Their owners hope to serve as taxis for those who can not make the climb alone. Since I don’t think of myself as much of a mountain climber, I feel a little pressure with the thundering hooves in my ears. The hike starts off easy enough, though the paved path quickly disappears and pretty soon we find ourselves walking through dark volcanic ash. We push ahead, and soon after we get the first glimpse of Pacaya’s peak spouting steam in the distance. hike Volcano PacayaThis is the first time that I realize that despite the countless package deals,  this hike involves some serious potential danger. Pacaya has erupted around 20 times since 1565, and has been continuously active since the mid-1960s. The last major eruption, on 28 May 2010, killed a journalist who, ignoring all warnings, climbed Pacaya to get the first images of the eruption. Even on guided hikes, climbers have been injured by falling ash and hot lava streams. Continuing our uphill climb, I silently plead with the volcano not to wake up during today’s climb.

hike volcano Pacaya

The path gets steeper and steeper until eventually, clearly unneeded, the horses stay behind. We make our way through a patch of trees which still show signs of the most recent eruption. Plants are partially covered in ash, treetops are burnt, and the normally abundant wildlife – birds, pumas, wild cats, snakes and other animals – have deserted the area, taking with them all signs of life.

We emerge now above the tree line and reach the first stop – the rim of the Cerro Chino crater, 300 meters below Pacaya’s peak. We circle the rim and descend onto what is now the side of Pacaya itself, with views of Volcano Agua and Volcano de Fuego and the double summit of Volcano Acatenango. I am happy to be climbing in November, as it is dry season and the sky is clear of clouds so that the entire landscape can be seen far into the distance.Active Volcano Steam

Finally on Pacaya, the hike leads directly into the sunset. The winds, which can be quite cold, are not very strong. Rough, sharp volcanic rocks crunch beneath our feet. Quite suddenly, the penetrating smell of sulfur invades my nose, and we reach a field of steaming soil. We have arrived at the summit.

We will not actually climb to the very top, an undertaking far too dangerous considering the volcano’s activity. Instead, as the setting sun dyes the clear sky pink and orange, our guide leads us to a two meter-wide gorge where we see glowing hot lava. He tosses a tree branch into the gap. It sets on fire immediately, before even falling in, from the heat of the lava below. This is a perfect spot to roast marshmallows, but I take a step back from the edge, just in case. As I do, the powerful heat pops the lens cap off my camera. It really is incredibly hot.

Pacaya lavaHeading to slightly higher and cooler ground, we sit down to take in the breathtaking views of the surrounding volcanoes in the changing light of the descending sun. Something about sitting on top of one myself makes me feel more in awe of the many other volcanoes around me.

Despite the steep uphill walk, the 90-minute hike did not feel strenuous, even for the less active members of the group. The way down, in the dark and on an unlit path, proves more of a challenge. Those with a flashlight are definitely better off, though my trusty walking stick saves me a few times from sliding down in the loose ash.volcanoes in GuatemalaAs make our final descent back to the village, the kids swarm us again, and I give back the walking stick, feeling proud of my accomplishment. I watched the sunset at 2500m, next to the boiling hot lava and steaming soil of an active volcano, something I never expected of myself before the trip began.

Hike Volcano Pacaya: Practical Information

When to go:
There are two guided climbs per day: one leaving Antigua at 6am, and one leaving at 2pm. The afternoon tour is usually the better one, as it brings you to the summit at sunset, whereas the morning tour reaches the top around lunch time, when it is mostly covered in clouds.

What to bring:
Wear proper hiking boots, not sandals. For afternoon climbers, bring a flashlight for the descent. Bring a jacket, water, sunglasses and a snack – Marshmallows can be toasted over the lava for some S’mores action.

 

Cost:
Guided tours from Antigua are around Q55 ($6.90), plus entrance to the national park Q50 ($6). Tours are available at every travel agency in Antigua but all feed in to only a few actual tours, so shop around for the best price.

If you want to book your hike before you arrive in Antigua, check out the tours above. Make sure to read some recent reviews before booking your Pacaya hike online – the quality of different tour operators varies drastically.

hike Pacaya

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Hotel Tip Of The Week: El Amanecer Sak’cari in San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

hotel tip of the week

Welcome to our weekly series Hotel Tip of The Week. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the dingy, disappointing budget digs, there are as many budget accommodation gems. We post one hotel tip of the week, every week, of places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves to show you how budget travel can be done in style. This week: Hotel El Amanecer Sak’cari, a gorgeous budget hotel in San Pedro La Laguna.

As we enthusiastically outlined in our Seven Villages of Lake Atitlan post, Guatemala’s most popular lake one of the world’s most beautiful, and imagine our surprise when we were able to discover a hotel gem to match this great beauty. El Amanecer Sakcari is located in San Pedro La Laguna, which competes with Panajachel as the most visited of all the lake’s villages.

budget hotel San Pedro La LagunaWell-known as a party town, many budget hotels in San Pedro tend to be run down, no matter how charming the character of the place, but between all the piles of concrete bricks, we found ourselves one morning in the beautiful gardens of Sak’cari hotel, which means ‘sunrise’ in the local Mayan language.

Hotel El Amanecer Sak'cariSuper shoe-string backpackers won’t find a bed in a hostel here, as Sak’cari is beautiful little hotel with several spacious double rooms in two categories. The most affordable rooms around the yard are $19.50, while the more expensive rooms, at $32, look out over the lake through huge picture windows and have terraces out front.

Hotel El Amanecer Sak'cariEach of the rooms has a private bathroom with high pressure hot water showers – no electric showerheads spitting out low-pressure water here. Fluffy towels and soap are laid out nicely on the beds, which are hard, wide, and invite you to spend hours watching the cable TV, which is also included in the budget price.

Hotel El Amanecer Sak'cariThe hotel is made up of three buildings – one at the back near the entrance, which is where the cheaper rooms are located, and the two at the lakefront, which are laid out around a meticulously kept two-level lawn. The above is open to the sun, the below space is covered by a roof. Rather than being strung between two trees, the hammocks here at Sak’Cari are held up by a sturdy base and two would fit comfortably on these superwide hanging mats. The hotel is right at the lake front, and those who rent kayaks can leave right from the back yard out onto the water. Sak’Cari also has a sauna down at the lower level (see below in Stand Out features). In the backyard area nearer to the entryway, there are two covered sitting nooks perfect for working and the wi-fi works best here.

budget hotel San Pedro La Laguna

Hotel El Amanecer Sak’cari – Stand Out Features

The view
This hotel might fit easily into the budget range, but the views over the lake rival even Atitlan’s most luxurious hotels. The higher-budget rooms all have direct lake views, as does the entire grass section of hammocks.

Hotel El Amanecer Sak'cari

The Sauna

The best ‘extra’ we’ve ever had in a budget hotel stay is the small on-site sauna here. Budget travel can make you skeptical of extras like ‘free breakfasts’ (might just be coffee and a banana), ‘free wi-fi’ (which only works in a 1ftx1ft square while you stand on your head in the lobby). But for US$6.50, guests can rent out the clean, if small, sauna, which was just renovated when we stayed there. The sauna didn’t get steaming hot because the ceiling was too high, but this is what was being adjusted during our stay and should be even hotter than when we used it. The Guatemalan Highlands can get chilly, and spending a few super relaxing hours in the sauna and then relaxing in your king size bed can’t be beat.

Room for improvement

Sak’cari doesn’t have a kitchen and doesn’t offer breakfast. This is a no-frills hotel that puts all the money back in to fresh coats of paint on the building, replacing tiles, renovating saunas and overall making the hotel as comfortable as possible. It is a hotel, after all, not a hostel and with the cheap and delicious food and giant take away coffees around town, the lack of food facilities doesn’t feel like a true flaw.

The only aspect missing to make this stay a perfect ten is that the hotel wi-fi does not reach the rooms. To be online you need to sit outside at one of the covered tables which was not a problem at all during our stay.

budget hotel San Pedro La Laguna

Overall: Hotel El Amanecer Sak’cari

Visiting a popular tourist area is a double-edged sword when it comes to budget accommodation – while there is bound to be a gem in the bunch of hostels and budget hotels, there are going to be countless other make-shift hostels to dig through in order to find it. We have unearthed this one and can whole-heartedly recommend El Amanecer Sak ‘Cari as a peaceful, relaxing getaway that somehow manages to make a budget holiday feel like a luxury vacation while you eat your way through the international cuisine, hike around the lake, learn Spanish next door at the San Pedro Spanish School and take day trips to other villages around the lake.

Hotel El Amanecer Sak'cari

Location: 7a Avenida (closer to the Santiago dock than to the Pana dock)
Price:
Q150 (US$19.50) for a double room, Q250 (US$32.50) for a double room with terrace & lake view
LGBT Friendly:
A resounding yes (one of the few hoteliers who understood we were together from the start!)
Amenities:
High-speed wi-fi, hammocks, garden, kayaks, TV
Digital Nomad Friendly:
Yes, outside only
Book this hotel:
Hotel Sakcari on Booking.com

If you found this useful, check out our Hotel Tip of the Week series for more hotel recommendations.

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