Volcan Pacaya

5 cool things to do in Guatemala

1. Eat dinner in a pretty colonial courtyard

Antigua Guatemala

Throw a stone off a roof terrace in Antigua and chances are it’ll fall into a centuries old courtyard. The buildings in Guatemala’s former capital look more or less as they did when the Spanish ruled this country and they make for a tranquil setting at any time of day, but are especially romantic when lit by evening candlelight.

The one in the picture is at Epicure on the 3rd Avenida Norte and features the original stone washing baths, now used mainly by local birdlife. We also liked Cafe Condesa in the Parque Central for their hearty breakfasts and sinister legend of the murdered lover of the countess who gives the eatery its name.*

For your evening meal, try one of branches of La Fonda de la Calle Real. The food is typical Guatemalan with Antiguan specialties and the courtyards are some of the most charming in the city.

* He was allegedly buried alive inside the pantry walls by the cuckolded count sometime around the 17th century. When renovations were made hundreds of years later they discovered a skeleton, apparently buried standing up which lent credence to the tale.

2. Stand atop a Mayan ruin

Tikal Mayan ruins

No, this is not an impromptu yoga sesh. Franki is actually airing out her lower back sweat after the climb. The jungle is nothing if not humid and the Mayans liked their steps.

Tikal National Park, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites, is an obvious must-do in Guatemala and we’re unlikely to come up with anything original to say about it. But walking around this ancient city, inhabited from the 6th century BC until the 10th century AD, is one of those experiences that makes you stop and wonder at the ingenuity of pre-Columbian cultures.

At its peak, up to 200,000 people lived in Tikal, the centre of which covered six square miles. Meanwhile the 60,000 people that made up London’s population at the same point in history were admiring their brand new city wall – built by the Romans to protect the area we still refer to as The Square Mile.

Aside from the ruins, you can also hang out with monkeys (both howler and spider), tapirs, toucans, tarantulas, and even (Rob, look away now!) snakes.

3. Slide down a waterfall

Semuc Champey

If you’re the kind of person who sees a leaf floating down a stream and thinks “wow, wouldn’t it be cool to be a pixie, riding on that leaf” (just me?) then you’re going to love Semuc Champey.

The national park is a series of terraced limestone freshwater pools connected by mini waterfalls, some of which cascade over rocks so smooth that you can slide down them as if in a water park. Climb up first to the Mirador to view the pools in all their picture-postcard glory before scrambling down for a much-needed cooling off in the clear waters.

Semuc Champey

Most hostels in Lanquin offer a full day trip to Semuc and the surrounding area for around Q170 (under £15) . This includes tubing down the river (while local children hawk cans of beer from the banks) and a swimming tour of the Lanquin caves. This candlelit adventure takes you under stalactites and over stalagmites, through subterranean waterfalls and through dark cave pools. It’s not for the faint of heart but I think we can say hands down this, combined with Semuc Champey, was the best travel experience we’ve had to date. A truly magical day.

Tip: Wear waterproof shoes or sandals to protect your feet from the rocks.

4. Wake up to a breathtaking lake view

Lago Atitlan

Rob has already mentioned the captivating serenity of Lago Atitlán, a volcanic lake about two hours from Antigua. Anywhere you set up camp in the area is likely to afford you a spectacular view but here’s a quick run down of the main places to stay on its shores:

San Pedro – Backpacker central. If you want to party with fellow travellers, this is the place to come. There are hostels, cafes, and bars aplenty tucked down a winding alleyway by the lake. You can take Spanish classes or just laze about in hammocks. It’s also the only place in Guatemala where you can easily buy marijuana if that’s your thing.

San Marcos – Hippies and yoga. This chilled out lancha stop is the destination of choice for anyone seeking to reconnect with the world in a more inspiring setting. It’s busier than it used to be but you’ll still find peace and tranquility.

Santa Cruz (pictured) – Downtime. There are just two hostels here and only one of them has a bar. Perfect if you’re looking to chill out. It’s also one of the best places on the lake for swimming. We stayed at the lovely Arca de Noe (the one without the bar!)

Panajachel – Where the bus drops you off. Bigger and more commercial than the others but has plenty of choice when it comes to hostels and bars and all the lanchas connect from here so you’ll have good access to the entire lake.

5. Toast marshmallows on a volcano

Volcan Pacaya marshmallows

How many places in the world can you cook marshmallows on the lava rock of a recent volcanic explosion? Not many, I’ll bet. But Volcan Pacaya, an hour’s drive from Antigua, last erupted in March 2014 meaning its lava field is still barbecue-hot in places. We kept it simple with marshmallows but our guide got straight down to business with sausages on skewers.

The climb up to the top is short but steep and the loose pumice makes it treacherously unstable in places. On the lower slopes, flowers bloom and the verdant forest is home to abundant wildlife. Near the top, green fades to black as the foliage gives way to volcanic rock.

“How much warning do you get before an eruption?” Franki asked.

“About an hour,” answered our guide. Plenty of time for those marshmallows, then.

Marshmallows on Volcan Pacaya

San Francisco houses

San Francisco: The Debrief

What we did and what we reckon you should do too…

Eat: Oysters.

Regularly named as one of the world’s top oyster towns, you can’t come to San Francisco without sampling this iconic dish. If you’re anything like me, you tried an oyster aged about 13, decided it tasted of sea water and snot and have refused to touch the things ever since. Trust me: it’s time to have another go.

There are dozens of bars and restaurants vying for the coveted top spot and if you’re interested in trying out more than one, there are some good round-ups HERE and HERE. I’d have loved to do the research for you but I was already on a mission to review every coffee shop in SF so the oysters had to take a back seat. We went to the Hog Island Oyster Co. housed in the old ferry terminal on the Embarcadero where a dozen mixed oysters for $36 (£23) slipped down a treat.

Hog Island Oyster Co

Drink: Coffee.

Were you really expecting us to say anything else? For Franki’s full guide to San Francisco coffee houses, see HERE. A special mention also goes to breakfast cocktails, as detailed in Rob’s recent Booze of the World post. From Bucks Fizz to more potent combinations, we found that no weekend brunch was complete without a cheeky tipple.

Try: Cycling up a hill.

The locals make it look easy but don’t be fooled. We rented bikes for $25 (£16) each a day in order to see the city parks and to cross the Golden Gate Bridge – a thoroughly awe-inspiring experience which we sincerely recommend – but even our supposed ‘flat route’ was chest-clutchingly difficult in parts. I’ll be honest, we got off and pushed more than once.

Cycling San Francisco

It was well worth the effort, though. We picked up our bikes from San Francisco Bike Rentals in the morning and headed straight to the bridge before making our way back, via the Beach Chalet brewery and restaurant at the Pacific end of Golden Gate park where we stopped for lunch. The afternoon was then a leisurely meander back through the park to Haight-Ashbury and the bike shop.

Cycling San Francisco

Buy: Shoes. A MUNI pass.

SF is undoubtedly a good place to buy shoes but on reflection we felt the transport tip was of more use to the general travelling public. A boring one, admittedly but getting a week’s travel card on the MUNI public transport system really opened up San Francisco for us. Seven days costs $29 (£18) and covers all buses, trams (Franki’s personal favourite – see HERE for details) and cable cars. The network is excellent and you really can get to pretty much any part of town – and that’s coming from a Londoner!

And if you do happen to find yourself in a footwear emergency, Haight Street is the place to go.

Do: Familiarise yourself with the local sports team.

We were lucky enough to be in town to see the San Francisco Giants win the World Series. As someone who’s never had more than a passing awareness of baseball, it turned out to be a truly fantastic experience and a privilege to witness. For Rob. who’ll watch pretty much any sport as long as it isn’t American, learning the rules and getting into the strategy of it proved engrossing. Plus, asking about the rules helped endear us to people in bars.

The impromptu street party in Lower Haight:

San Francisco Giants World Series

And in the Mission District:

San Francisco Giants World Series 2014

Don’t: Say no when people offer to pay for your drinks.

I’m not saying this will definitely happen, but on two occasions – TWO – the people we were talking to insisted on buying our drinks. And you know when I say insisted I mean it because we’re British and “oh no, please, you really mustn’t, honestly no, please, don’t be silly, that’s quite unnecessary… [ad infinitum]” is something we don’t tire of easily.

Overall San Francisco was a place where we really witnessed the renowned American friendliness. We met people from New York, Boston, somewhere in Philly (in town for a Pearl Jam gig), a couple who’d just moved to SF from Cambridge, Mass, (envy!) an elderly couple who’d lived in the city all their lives, and countless groovy bartenders, waiting staff and baristas. And most of these seemed genuinely happy to help us out, give us tips, share their own stories and occasionally get the drinks in. As the first stop on a round-the-world tour it was a fantastic lesson in shaking off the characteristic reserve and getting stuck in chatting to people.

Plus it meant we had conversations with people other than each other which can only be a good thing for our sanity.

And not forgetting…

…when a man got on the bus with a live snake in his bag. It started out innocently enough. An odd-looking chap in dirty clothes, a slightly vacant air, and apparently talking to himself under his breath, sat down opposite us on the Number 5. So far, so San Francisco. But then he proceeded to fiddle with the zip of his holdall from which we suddenly realised was protruding a rather long, pale yellow, and distinctly reptilian tail. Next to me Rob, whose one major phobia is snakes, tangibly froze in horror.

Mumbling words to the effect of “better put him back in” the man then proceeded to ineptly stuff the curling lengths into the holdall while fellow passengers looked on, half in fascination, half in mounting terror. Finally he got the thing contained and zipped up but it’s safe to say we couldn’t get off that bus fast enough.

Til next time, friends!

Cycle Golden Gate Bridge