By Lindsay Bolingbroke
I once traveled for three months through Central America, along the “Gringo Trail”, which is a common backpackers route through the tropical continent. Travelling from Belize to Guatemala was my first ever border-crossing by coach bus…or better yet, by foot. It was two hours from Belize City to the Guatemalan border, where I disembarked the bus to go through Guatemala immigration on foot. Another four hours by bus and I arrived in Santa Elena, where I then caught a 10 minute shuttle to the island town of Flores. Here I checked into hostel, Los Amigos, complete with every type of room you could ask for, as well as one of the very best restaurants in the area, known for its “huge portions and fresh, natural taste.” The food and drinks served up here were nothing short of amazing!
The following morning I had a delicious breakfast in the indoor/outdoor courtyard of our hostel restaurant, surrounded by greenery and good vibes. I was ready for a day of exploring, starting with the town of Flores. It only took two hours to stroll down nearly every cobblestone street of brightly coloured shops, restaurants and homes; including the waterfront perimeter of the tiny island town. I then hopped on a shuttle, with 10 other hostel backpackers, and rode an hour in anticipation, to visit the ancient Mayan citadel of Tikal.
The national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site is 575 square kilometers and covered in crumbling and foliage-covered structures, tucked deep within the Guatemalan jungle. Generally speaking, I’m not one for tour groups or hiring a guide, but Tikal is one site that would be tough to explore on your own. I spent four hours learning about Mayan history and wandering the grounds, completing the tour at sunset, atop one of the many temples of the site. When in Mexico I skipped out on visiting the ever popular Mayan site of Chichen Itza, so I was so pleased to have made the trek to see Tikal.
The next morning I boarded a tiny shuttle, jam-packed full of travelers, to make the long journey, 11 hours to be exact, to Lanquin, Guatemala. The rural jungle town does not have much to offer but a look into local life, however it is the outpost for the nature preserve of the pristine and epic…Semuc Champey.
Although there are many accommodation options within the town of Lanquin, I wanted to be within walking distance to Semuc Champey, so I booked at Utopia Eco Hotel, which I lovingly nicknamed, “the commune”. Utopia is located in the heart of the jungle mountains, about 8 km from Lanquin, but the drive takes 40 min because of how treacherous the unpaved roads are, however the journey is beyond worth it!
Utopia stands out as one of the most incredible places I have ever stayed. Often times accommodations are simply a place to rest your head, but Utopia is so much more than that and let me tell you why. For starters, there is nowhere else to eat or hangout within walking distance so everyone that is staying there, at any given time, spends every meal together and is therefore forced to get to know one another and chat. Instant-besties all round!
There is one common space, with hammocks, harvest tables and panoramic views of the mountains that surround; there are no tables for two or four, which is what promotes the inclusivity. There is a menu for both breakfast and lunch, but dinner is family style, meaning one dish is cooked and everyone eats the same thing at the same time. As a result of its remote location, all of the food served at Utopia is grown on site or locally sourced and it is the most incredible vegetarian cuisine I have ever tasted. Every night dinner turned into drinks, which would turn into board games, bonfires and swapping travel stories with perfect strangers, from all over the world. What may be the best aspect in creating that sense of community at Utopia, is that there is only one small area where wifi can be received, and it’s a bit of a hike to get there. Therefore within the common area all devices are away and people are doing things the old fashioned way, speaking and interacting face-to-face. Utopia, “the commune”, and all the wonderful people I met there, will forever hold a special place in my heart.
After our long travel day getting there, I decided to take it easy on my first day at Utopia. After a leisurely breakfast and reading in hammocks for a while, I joined the chocolate tour, offered by the lodge. For three hours I learned about how one plant, the cacao tree, completely shaped the history of Guatemala.
I had the opportunity to pick the cacao fruit right from the tree on the Utopia proprty, eat it fresh, and learn about the entire process of making chocolate. By the end of the three hours I had made our very own 100% pure chocolates. That night after another family-style dinner and drinks, I enjoyed my homemade chocolates for dessert.
The following day I visited Semuc Champey. This stunning natural wonder is hard to describe in words, you really must see it to believe it; and it’s still quite unknown in the travelers realm, which means it is not all that busy and quite unspoilt.
After passing the front gate, paying the park fee and writing my name down on the log book, I first climbed 750m up a mountain to get the postcard view, and then ventured back down. Upon reaching the bottom, I spent the next two hours swimming through every one of the tiered crystal clear pools of fresh water, which flow on a limestone bridge, overtop of the Cahabon River. The entire day was something out of a dream, but the highlight might have been tubing down the river, through rapids, with beers in hand, all the way back to Utopia. Semuc Champey is easily one of the most stunning and enjoyable, natural wonders that I have ever had the privilege to see.
The next day was another long, hot and crammed shuttle bus ride from Lanquin to Antigua, Guatemala. I was ecstatic to finally arrive at my traditional Airbnb hacienda in the colonial city and had four days ahead without gas station lunches, motion sickness and being too close for comfort to other sweaty travelers.
I spent that first day and night roaming the streets of Antigua, snapping photos of the beautiful colonial architecture of the once capital of Guatemala, and looking for patios with cheap beer and the best eats in town. This was not a task because the city is filled with incredible places to eat and drink.
The next day I shopped at the local markets where I sampled local produce and treats: Mercado de Antigua and Mercado El Carmen. I completed the day at Porque No? Cafe, a local favorite recommended by my Airbnb host. The teeny restaurant only has about five tables and some standing room. I was lucky to get there when I did, as the place was full to the gills with equal parts travelers and locals. Justifiably so, as the food was delicious.
A relaxing day prior was just what I needed to give me the energy for my final day in Antigua when I did the short, but upward, hike to Cerro de la Cruz, a viewpoint overlooking the entire city of Antigua. I sat at the lookout, enjoying the view of the town and its three surrounding volcanoes: Aqua, Fuego and Acatenango. Most travelers hike, at least one, of the volcanoes whilst visiting Antigua, but I decided to opt out, as the views of each of them, just from within the city, was enough to satisfy me. Fuego is still active, and from time to time you can hear it crackle and pop, or watch a plume of smoke billow from its top. I did the lookout hike on a nice clear day and arrived at the top just as Fuego was puffing. That evening I sought out happy hour at Lava, a rooftop bar with great evening views. From there I headed to a bonfire on the back courtyard at Angie Angie CafeArte for dinner, which turned out to be my favorite spot in the city. I spent my last night in Antigua sipping on Argentinian reds, sharing many dishes and enjoying the company of new traveler friends. It was a wonderful ending to my time in Guatemala.
It was six years ago that I traveled to this incredible country and when I’m asked about my travels there now what still stands out to me most is the incredible food that I experienced, not just ate, while in Guatemala. I was fascinated to learn that it was all grown locally and I could feel my health improving with every bite, as I spent time there and indulged in the local cuisine, which was all so fresh.
Each country has its own unique methods for health and wellness and in Guatemala the focus is on fresh and local…and of course the incredible healing powers of the cacao plant. Don’t ever pass up the opportunity to truly live off the land…in Guatemala!