Tikal: Sweatin’ to the Oldies

After a four-hour shuttle ride from Panajachel to Antigua, followed immediately by a short shuttle ride from Antigua to the Guatemala City bus station, followed by some sitting around and finally an overnight bus from Guatemala City to Flores, all I wanted to do was stay in the air conditioning.  After the moderate climates in the southern parts of Guatemala, the heat and humidity of Flores was particularly rough on me, someone who hates heat and humidity anyway.  Throw in some personal discomforts I’d picked up during our vacation thus far, and the siren song of the bed under the air conditioning was strong.  But, there was one reason we’d made the trek to Flores, and one reason only: Tikal.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as one of the largest Mayan archeological sites in the world, any trip to Guatemala would be lacking without a visit.  As is the case with basically all transport in Guatemala, we scheduled a shuttle to pick us up in the morning and take us out to the ruins.  It was about an hour drive to the front gate, where we were dropped off so we could buy our tickets. No one had told us, but we needed ID to get the tickets.  Luckily, we had our driver’s licenses on us, which they accepted, as we had decided to leave our passports at our hotel.

Once we’d gotten our tickets, we had the option of procuring a guide if we so chose (we didn’t), and then our driver took us into the actual park, which is about a 20-minute drive from the gates. We arranged where we’d be picked up about six hours later, got our ticket stamped, and entered the park.

There are plenty of signs written in English along the way, so learning about the various structures, animals, and plants wasn’t a problem.  A guide probably would have come in handy trying to get around the massive park, but we managed just fine –even if we did miss some temples in the way back, we hit all the highlights. A lot of the paths we took were pretty empty, and many of the sites (minus the main courtyard) seemed deserted, so it was easy to feel like explorers ourselves, walking on paths and happening upon random ruins as we went.

We also ran into plenty of local wildlife, starting with a group of at least a dozen cute little pizote (aka white-noted coati or coatimundi), which seemed curious of us but also a bit skittish when we finally went to walk past them.  We also saw a line of leaf-cutter ants, which Kaitie was particularly excited for, as well as a few monkeys and some local turkeys. 

All in all, it was a great day, albeit long and hot.  And while I wasn’t as excited about Tikal as I have been about some of the other archaeological sites I’ve read about since I was a kid (Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, anything in Rome), it’s always impressive to see what people accomplished back in the day (even if they did accomplish it with incredible amounts of slave labor). 

Any trip to Guatemala should include a stop at Tikal.  A guide would give you a little more insight into the place than we got, but it’s not required.  If you do some reading ahead of time, or just stick to the signs, you’ll get as much as you want out of the trip.  I would also suggest camping at the site, which you can do in either rented tents or hammocks for a small fee. Unfortunately, we had to opt out of camping there, but from what I’ve read, it can be an incredible experience.  As can the sunrise tour.

Just be sure to bring some extra deodorant.

La Tortilla Cooking School, Antigua, Guatemala

For me, food is culture and I travel to eat.  I also love to cook and learn as much about the local cuisine as possible, so taking a cooking class wherever I go seems like a no-brainer.  There were a few to choose from in Antigua, but the reviews for La Tortilla Cooking School were excellent, and they also had the option of adding on a market tour.  Markets in foreign countries can be large, bustling, intimidating places with plenty of fruit and vegetables that may not be familiar, so having a guide is always a great idea.

The person who usually gave the market tour was out sick, so we had to depend on Sully, who had handled the English e-mail correspondence.  As seems to be customary (but never necessary), she apologized for her English, which was just fine.  We walked over to the market and she explained to us that Sunday was an off-day for the market, so it wasn’t too busy.  It wasn’t too packed, either, which was a relief, and she showed us around.  Unfortunately, being a non-market day, the produce wasn’t very good so she couldn’t find any samples she’d feel comfortable giving us.  Instead, we went to her favorite coffee shop, Guate Java, and had a coffee before our cooking class began.  The place was top notch.

After the tour, we went back to the school and waited for the remainder of our class—seven people in all—to arrive. La Tortilla offers a variety of classes, from a short two-dish class to the full six-dish class, which is the one we chose (and which includes unlimited wine).  Our instructor, Sonia, didn’t know any English, but her assistant did, and language was not an issue.  We all donned our aprons and lined up around the countertop.  We would be making a main dish (the local stew pepián), three side dishes (a beet salad, a rice dish, and tortillas), a dessert (rellenitos—mashed plantain filled with a chocolate and bean mixture and fried), and atol, a thick drink made of corn flour and seasoned to be either sweet or savory (I made mine plenty savory and spicy).

We were all given some prep to take care of, whether it was chopping onions and herbs, peeling and cutting potatoes, boiling and mashing plantains (be sure to drink the water the plantains were boiled in; it’s delicious)—we all had a part in helping to prepare the meal.  We would all also get a turn actually cooking things; some would be blackening vegetables on the comal (a flat metal griddle used in Latin-American cooking), some would make the chocolate and bean mixture for the rellenitos, and some would be mixing the corn flour and water for atol. There were also things we would all do—everyone would stuff their own mashed plantains for rellenitos, and everyone would get a turn making tortillas.

Having taken cooking classes in different countries on multiple occasions, and actually enjoying being in the kitchen, I felt right at home during the class.  Whether it was chopping onions or preparing the tortilla dough, I was having fun.  I’m sure the unlimited wine didn’t hurt, either.  It also helped me get over my intense hatred of doing things in front of people, so it wasn’t so bad when I had to stand in front of the class to cook the rice dish, or stuff plantains, or form tortillas—the last of which I turned out to be the best at; so much so that when there was enough dough for one more to be made, the class elected that I make it.  Thanks, mom and grandma—making pierogi every year at Christmas surely contributed to my success.

After we’d prepared everything, the class sat down for a group dinner of all the food we’d just made.  Our instructors didn’t sit with us, but I’m assuming they ate whatever we had left, because we didn’t even make it through half of all the food we’d cooked.  The class, in addition to being fun and informative, made a very filling meal—don’t plan on eating afterwards, and eat a light lunch beforehand.  For one of my favorite things to do while on vacation, La Tortilla didn’t disappoint.  We were able to simultaneously learn about the local cuisine and cooking methods, as well as eat many of the local foods we’d heard about (which also freed us up to try other things when we went out to eat).  As an activity, if you enjoy cooking (and drinking wine), this is a must-do when in Antigua.

La Tortilla Cooking School, 3 Calle Poniente #25, info@latortilla.com.gt

8 Places to Eat in Panajachel, Guatemala

When we were booking our trip to Guatemala, the most common piece of advice we got was not to stay in Panajachel. It’s a dirty backpacker tourist town, it turns into a huge thumping club scene at night, there’s nothing to do there. I was second-guessing myself, especially after looking up some food options, as we arrived. Luckily, though, all those warning turned out to be for naught and Panajachel turned out to be my favorite stop on the trip. The quiet, calm lakefront and quiet mornings, nice people, and surprisingly good food. It was well worth the two days we spent there.

1. Taqueria Orale

When we first arrived, we wanted to grab a quick bite before we settled in, and then go out for something later.  Taqueria Orale, set back in a small shopping area off the main street (Calle Santander) fit the bill.  The tacos weren’t anything special, but they were tasty—especially with the buffet of sauces, onions, and cilantro up front to choose from.  A solid choice to sit back with some cheap beer and cheap food.

2. Café Loco

We didn’t eat here, but the coffee was top notch. Run by two Korean gentlemen who clearly care about what they do, I don’t think you could find a better cup of coffee in Panajachel. We were trying to kill time and each had two iced coffees (in copper mugs so they stayed cold) and would have gone back for sure if we’d had more time. We also picked up a few bags of beans to take home with us.

3. Mister Jon’s

If you’re missing American food, this is the place to go. Fashioned after an American diner, this will give you all the things from home you’re missing, and a few extras. The service is still Guatemala-slow, but you can get some American craft beers, a decent omelet, free refills on your coffee, and if you’re there on the right night two-for-one margaritas (be sure to get the spicy one). If you happen to be in Panajachel on Thanksgiving, as we were, they even cook a standard American Thanksgiving dinner. If you’re not missing home, though, there really isn’t much reason to stop in.

4. Pupuseria Cheros

Neither of us had ever had pupusas, and we weren’t sure where to eat, so we stopped in here on a whim.  There was a really surly looking guy hanging around out front and the place was empty, so we almost didn’t, but we’re glad we did: it turned out to be one of the better meals of our trip. We found out the scary guy out front was the owner, and turned out to be a great guy.  He corrected our Spanish as we ordered (but not in a condescending way) and taught me the word for “check.” We ordered pupusas with beans, pork, garlic, and spinach (all with cheese, of course) and they came with sauce, slaw, and spicy pickles.  The bar filled up (with people and smoke from the cooking) and we had a great time eating pupusas and drinking Gallo.

5. Guajimbo’s

We wanted to go to Guajimbo’s for our “Thanksgiving” dinner, but they are closed Thursdays so we had to settle for it being our last lunch in Panajachel before moving on, and it was worth the wait.  The meal included huge portions of perfectly-prepared food.  Easily the best meal we had in Panajachel and one of our top in all of Guatemala.  We split the chicken and avocado soup (Kaitie was feeling a bit under the weather) and the avocado, tomato, and heart of palm salad (sorry, environment). We both finished with orders of kebabs; I ordered the beef and she the chicken.  Everything was cooked as it should have been, and was delicious besides. I’m glad we were able to stop here.

6. Taco Stand

I don’t think this place has a name, but if you’re walking on Calle Santander between 6 and 9 pm, you’ll see the crowd.  Both nights we were there, these folk were posted up at two long tables on the corner of Calle Santander and Calle El Chali (right next to the Romantic Fashions boutique), often with other vendors near them.  A tortilla topped with goodies is 7Q (about $1) and you’d do well to buy a few.  From what I could see, this was the most popular street food stand in the town.

7. Super Tacos Bell

I’m not sure where the name came from, but this street food vendor at the top of Calle Santander serves up some great pulled-pork tortillas with slaw and sauce.  She has a cool-as-shit contraption that looks like a sombrero with hot, flavored oil on one side that she cooks onions and tortillas in, and then a hunk of pork for shredding on the other side.  Cheap and delicious.

8. Humo En Tus Ojos

Translated to “Smoke In Your Eyes,” this outdoor grill cooks up some great-looking steaks and vegetables; and yes—with plenty of smoke.  We didn’t actually eat here due to stuffing ourselves multiple places, but the small table they had was packed and the smell coming off the place almost made me want to job a few laps up and down Calle Santander to make room for more food.  I would definitely consider it if you’re in town.

I’m not sure why people seem to shit on Panajachel so much—when we went on a tour of some of the lake cities, it didn’t seem any better or worse than any of the others (and it DID seem worse than Santiago).  The streets were calm and quiet, the temperature was excellent, the lake views were superb, and the food was worth eating.  I couldn’t have asked for a better stop, and would surely make that stop again.

Pacaya: Hiking an Active Volcano

Like many people who visit Guatemala, hiking an active volcano was at the top of our list of things to do.  Unfortunately, the one we wanted was a little too active.  We had originally planned, months in advance, to do an overnight hike on Acatenango with Gilmer Soy and Soy Tours, who I had read nothing but good things about (mostly from Bex at The Ordinary Adventurer).  The plan was to hike Acatenango and get a great view of the uber-active volcano Fuego right next to it.  The night before, from our hotel balcony, we were able to watch Fuego spew lava into the air and got more and more excited for our trip.

Fuego, the morning of our original hike

Unfortunately, the next day, Fuego was shooting out a ton of ash.  There was an evacuation order for the towns below as of 5:30 that morning due to Fuego’s recent activity, and as we waited to be picked up for our hike at 7:30 we got an email from Gilmer saying the government had shut him down from the hike that day.  Perfectly poor timing on our part, but what are you going to do? All in all, it’s a pretty bad-ass reason to miss a hike, and Gilmer offered to take us the next day when everything cleared up—we couldn’t go because it would have gotten us back to town after our shuttle was scheduled to leave, so we had to part ways.

A quick visual guide to the leg pain we’ll be experiencing

We scheduled a hike to Pacaya (the easier of the local volcanoes) for the following day (see below for more information on this)—we were determined to do some kind of hiking and not waste the gear we brought—and were picked up at 2:30 to make our way about an hour out of Antigua to the easier of the volcanoes.

Before you get into the park, it should be noted that there are a bunch of kids out front selling walking sticks for 5Q (about $0.75 US)—buy one.  It’s not only a great investment, but it helps the locals.  There are also people with horses that they will rent you to get you through the toughest part of the hike, which is about 1,600m of climbing in less than three kilometers, repeating “Taxi! Taxi!”and following most of the way up in case you change your mind.  And while I’m not in the best shape—once two other girls in our group rented the horses, I was pulling up the rear—I never fell so far behind that I felt I needed to get on a horse.

The view from one of the lookouts on the first part of the hike

The first part of the climb up, while the easiest of the volcanoes, was still a bitch.  It was mostly sand and volcanic ash, so getting any kind of decent grip was a challenge to say the least.  It didn’t help that there was a horse behind me, nudging me to go faster.  Clearly, he didn’t know what people from Philly do to horses.  But I huffed and puffed—glad to have quit smoking a year ago—and made it to the top, sweating my ass off and wondering why I brought along a jacket.  After we got to the highest point we’d reach,we went back down and ran into the Lava Store, a small shack with snacks and souvenirs (and beer).  After that, down more sandy ash-covered paths, we arrived at a field of lava rocks.

This wasn’t just like walking into a different landscape—it was like walking onto a different planet. The lush forest that had been shading us the first part of the hike was now replaced by an endless field of lava rock, black and bleak. Heavy fog was rolling in above us and the sun was beginning to set, giving the area an even more eerie feeling. We hiked up a path through the rocks to a small vent on the side of the volcano where we did the most touristy thing possible and roasted marshmallows over the heat, all while catching a few glimpses of actual lava rolling down the mountain above us.

As the sun dipped farther, we made our way back. Luckily, I had a light and Kaitie had a headlamp, so we were fine on our walk. After the rocks, we descended via a sandy path down to where our van was waiting, by now in pure black darkness. We arrived back in Antigua around 8:30, so a six-hour round-trip, tired, happy, and ready for tacos.

Post Script: The owners where we were staying suggested Alex at A Viajar Guatemala if we wanted to book a different hike, so we went there to do a hike up Pacaya for $30US each correction: $15US each for a total of $30US. While we were easily able to schedule the Pacaya hike, Alex tried to push a bunch of other stuff on us, and then even though we had already paid him for the service and were using his company, he started to badmouth Gilmer Soy for no reason, even claiming some random guy sitting next to him was Gilmer’s brother and they didn’t get along, as if that had some bearing on Gilmer’s ability to lead a hike. The whole exchange left a bad taste in my mouth, but we were determined to hike.

The cost ($30US each correction: $15US each for a total of $30US) included a guide but not the fee to get into the park (50Q per person), and a lot of people on our trip seemed extremely unprepared not only to pay the fee, but to do the actual hike (no warm clothes, no snacks, no idea where we were going). Once we got in, our guide turned out to not know any English, but we were able to follow along just fine for what we needed.

Seven Places to Eat in Antigua, Guatemala

For a small town, Antigua packs quite a punch when it comes to places to eat—but as a tourist town, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that every other door seems to lead to either a restaurant or some kind of shop.  This helps to keep things fresh, though; even though there is plenty to do in Antigua, you wouldn’t want to keep eating at the same place over and over.  Or maybe you would, if it was good enough—there were certainly plenty of places that made me want to go back for the following meal.  We resisted, however, so we could bring you a quality list.  Hopefully when you go to Antigua (and you should go to Antigua), you’ll have as good a variety of meals as we did.

Quick tip: don’t be put off by the service. The restaurant culture is basically to take your order, bring your order, and then ignore you until you flag them down for another drink or the bill.  Even making eye contact isn’t enough to bring someone to your table like in the states.  Some places will add on a 10% tip, but if not, that seemed to be the standard for gratuity, if anything at all.

1. Iglesia de la Merced

Yes, this is a baroque church in town that is well worth a visit when you’re not hungry, but if you’re in town on a Sunday, there is always a small farmer’s market set up with a bunch of street food vendors.  Whatever you’re looking for, they’ve got it here: Guatemalan enchiladas, tortillas with delicious grilled meat, grilled corn, warm cups of atol or cool cups of juice—if you want to experience Guatemalan food, this is a great introduction.  And it’s all cheap, so you can get a little bit of everything. 1a Calle Poniente & 6a Avenida Norte


2. Rincon Tipico

Our friends at These Foreign Roads recommended this stop, and it didn’t disappoint.  Well, it did a little, but only because it’s mostly a lunch joint and we went for dinner, when they’re only serving half the menu.  But the half we got was great, with some smoky grilled pork and some local slaw and potato salad.  They were the one place I couldn’t get a Gallo (the popular local shitty lager), but I was still able to load up some delicious tortillas and did not go back to our hotel hungry. # 3, 3a Avenida Sur

3. Guate Java

Now, we didn’t get any food here, but we did get some of the best coffee of our entire trip, and it was one of the only places we stopped by twice.  It’s a little out of the way if you’re hanging around the city center (meaning it’s about a five-minute walk from anywhere), but you’ll be glad you went.  It’s small, but the rich smell of roasting coffee fills the place and it’s an excellent spot to hang out for a bit and enjoy some down time.  They also offer a coffee roasting class, and it’s a great place to pick up some beans for a souvenir. 7a Avenida Sur & 6a Calle Poniente

4. La Tortilla Cooking School

I always take a cooking class when I go somewhere, and this one was excellent.  There were seven of us total, and everyone got to participate in some way in the preparation of each aspect of the meal, which turned out to be a large one: a standard local stew called pepian was the main attraction, along with a beet salad on the side, a rice mixture, and a warm cup of atoll (prepared however you’d like: sweet or savory).  We made rellenitos for dessert, which are a mixture of beans and chocolate stuffed inside mashed plantains and fried, as well as the ever-present tortillas. A very informative and filling experience. #25, 3a Calle Poniente


5. Saberico

After traveling all day to get to Antigua and not eating much, this was our first stop, and we wanted to pile on the food.  We tried their famous sky-high Guatemalan enchiladas, which were worth the price (55Q, or $7, for two), as well as a trio of guacamoles, some portabella rellenos (four portabella caps topped with vegetables and parmesan), and gallina en chicha, a chicken stew made with tomato sauce, herbs, nuts, and fresco de suchiles, a local fruit drink that is slightly fermented.  This turned out to be one of the best things we ate the entire time we were there.  Saberico is also worth going for its expansive back outdoor patio, though if you’re in the right spot you get a lot of noise pollution from the hostel next door. #7, 6a Avenida Sur


6. La Cuevalita de los Urquizu

La Cuevalita was at the top of my list for places to eat in Antigua, and I’m glad we made it—it turned out to be one of the best meals we had our whole trip (thanks, Andrew Zimmern!). There’s a large selection of meat stews out front, and you start by selecting one.  The workers will explain them to you, but unless you know Spanish, you’re on your own.  We picked based on some keywords—Kaitie got the one they described as “picante” and I chose the one where the guy pointed to his face and stomach, as if to say “this is all the face and guts.” Next, you get to pick from two side dishes that are lined up behind the stews, which helps with pointing.  Finally, they throw in a tamale for good measure, you pick your drink, and you sit in the back and enjoy with the omnipresent warm tortillas. The stews were delicious (though Kaitie’s was decidedly not picante), and while mine had a nice underlying flavor of offal, it was never overpowering or off-putting.  And there were so many textures. Definitely a must-try when you visit.  #9D, 2a Calle Oriente


7. McDonald’s

I’m serious—kinda.  Even if you don’t want to eat here, be sure to swing in to check it out.  Having the money they do, McDonald’s was able to but what seems like the nicest place in Antigua, with a massive and beautifully manicured courtyard, complete with fountain and a stunning volcano view.  The Taco Bell across the street is pretty nice, too, if you get sick of real Latin-American food and need a quick crunchwrap. #21 4a Calle Oriente


BONUS: Ta’cool

After a volcano hike, we got back to town late and needed a quick meal.  Ta’cool, right off the main square, took care of that.  What clearly seems like a chain, or at the very least a slick spot aimed at tourists who need recognizable food names, the tacos were actually pretty solid, and their sauces were very tasty.  They also, of course, had Gallo, which was a selling point for anywhere.  While I would never drink them at home, there is always something about vacation—especially in warmer climes—that makes me crave whatever local, shitty, mass-produced lager is available.  4a Calle Oriente, between 3a & 4a Avenida Norte

Before our trip, I hadn’t heard much in the way of praise for Guatemalan food, but after watching Andrew Zimmern’s Delicious Destinations in Antigua, I was pumped to get there and eat.  I was not disappointed.  While a lot of the food was simple, we didn’t have anything that stood out as not tasting good, and their extensive use of avocado is in-line with our interests.  My only complaint is there wasn’t a lot of spice to be found, but we can save that for another trip.