I recently read one of those “list” articles with this same title and was like “whoa! What a great idea!” Guate has so much to offer beyond the standard Atitlán – Tikal – Antigua tour. But when I read the article I was disappointed because none of the places were actually hidden… so I’m stealing the title and giving you my own version of Guatemala’s Real Hidden Gems. How hidden are these places? I’d bet less than 95% of Guatemalan’s have heard of all 5, and less than 1% of Guatemalan’s have visited even one of them.
I would love to hear feedback and get some controversy going on what other gems should have made the list. So! here we go…
Not “hidden” enough – the aforementioned Tikal (and Yaxhá), Antigua, Panajachel (not a gem, either) / Atitlán and its towns, Semuc Champey, Pacaya Volcano “Lava River Hike”, Chichicastenango Market, Sportfishing in the Pacific, La Reunion Resort and Spa.
Honorable Mentions – Las Conchas, Alta Verapaz; Acatenango and Santa María hikes; Grutas de Candelaria, Alta Verapaz; Finca Ixobel, Petén (www.fincaixobel.com); rafting Río Cahabón; Laguna Lachuá, Quiché; El Cimarrón, Huehuetenango.
#5 – Laguna Petexbatún and Ruinas de Aguateca, Petén
Take a one-hour water taxi from Sayaxché up Río La Pasión to arrive at the pristine jungles of Petexbatún. Stay at Chimino’s Island Lodge, where each of the 4 bungalows seems to be in complete solitude, with thatched roof and mosquito net instead of windows, it’s an intimate way to take in the sights (360 degrees of dense jungle or lake), smells (“de tierra mojada” like we say in Guate), feelings (the humidity of the jungle) and, specially, the sounds (howler monkeys live atop the trees in the island). To round out the 5 senses, the ultra-friendly staff cooks up some of the best home cooking I’ve ever had for breakfast and dinner.
You can walk around the island to find remains of an ancient Mayan site with a “Juego de Pelota” court and sacrifice temple, still standing; or borrow a kayak from the hotel and go for a cool tour around the island.
The Aguateca ruins are a 10 minute boat ride away, a local guide will tell you about the history of the old city and its relationship with the others nearby (Ceibal, Dos Pilas). Although smaller than Tikal and Yaxhá, the city has a special charm from being right on the lake, as well as the large “hikeable” fault that parts it down the middle.
#4 – Volcán Tajumulco, San Marcos
At 4,220 meters, the highest peak in Central America is a little harder to get to than Acatenango and Santa María, but it’s worth it. The 4-6 hour hike is lined with very well kept forests, and the views from the top are simply stunning. The campsite is relatively flat, about 200 vertical meters from the summit, and although sleeping at over 4,000 meters (and subzero temperatures in Jan-Feb) is never easy, the price you pay in comfort is more than made up when you take your first peek of the sunrise from the top.
#3 – Laguna Brava, Huehuetenango
The most hidden of these gems! Stay at Finca Chaculá Lodge, a really really old farmhouse converted into B&B, very clean and comfortable, nice food, and super friendly staff. Take a 2 hour horseback ride down a steep mountainside that reaches a beautiful small river that leads to Laguna Brava: one kilometer of green-blue freshness, with no houses or people, except for the (extremely) rustic bedrooms and kitchen that you can rent for dirt cheap and spend a night there (I didn’t spend the night there because I didn’t know about it before, but next time I’ll bring my sleeping bag and stay there for sure. I’m sure you can get locals to cook for you for very cheap also).
#2 – Cueva de Caxlampón and Finca Paraíso, Izabal
A 30 minute drive from Finca Paraíso and a 45 minute hike will take you to the entrance to the cave, say goodbye to sunshine! Afer a 30 minute hike inside the cave, you find your first real obstacle, a 25 meter drop you must rappel down (in complete darkness), after you catch your breath and regroup with your mates, you restart your trek, going over and under boulders for another hour until you hear something familiar… yup, a river just entered the cave, and you will spend the next 2-3 hours (in total darkness) alternating between hiking, splashing, and swimming, with the eventual 7-9 meter (pitch black) plunge into the river pools below.
After 5-6 hours in the cave, you come out to the beautiful Guatemalan jungle, where you hike downriver for another 30 minutes and then walk a bit to your tent in Finca Paraíso on a beach at Lake Izabal. The next day, walk a few minutes up the same river to a beautiful pool where the cold river meets with a hot-springs waterfall, and you’ll understand where this farm gets its name.
#1 – El Mirador Trek
Arrive in Carmelita before dawn, make sure your guides and mules are ready and your bags are packed with the right things, lie on your sleeping bag in the “tourism office” and get some sleep, this is the most comfortable you’ll be for the next few days. For the next two days, you’ll be trekking through dense jungle, so dense the only moment you see the sun is by summing the main pyramid in the Mayan city of Tintal, your home for the first night. A 7-hour trek later, you’ll see the first remains of El Mirador, the largest Mayan city, whose barriers to access have helped kept it a relative secret.
The only inhabitants of El Mirador (and a 40 Km. radius) are the archeologists who are uncovering the city and studying the ancient Maya. Walk around El Mirador and hike up to its numerous pyramids, including “La Danta” the most massive Mayan pyramid, and larger than either of it’s more famous Egyptian cousins. After a couple of nights, head back on the 2-day hike to Carmelita through the “chiclero” camp La Florida.
Being in the jungle for five days or more will give you a new perspective on what the Maya had to endure, and perhaps, like me, you’ll discover a part of yourself you didn’t notice before.
FOOTNOTES: How to get there and other important information.
- El Mirador:
- Bus or car from Flores to Carmelita is about 1-2 hours (you can also shell out about $5,000 for a group of 5 to get to El Mirador by helicopter… but that would be cheating)
- Contact the Carmelita tourism office 2-3 months in advance if possible, to arrange guides, mules, food and water. That said, I know people that have just shown up without reservations and were able to secure a guide.
- Best time to go is dry season (late March and April), and I highly recommend it, since during rainy season some parts of the rainforest turn into waist-high or chest-high wetlands.
- Make sure you have the right attire and equipment.
- Contact La Rocalla well in advance to reserve guides and gear, they can arrange your stay at Finca Paraíso (or a nearby hotel) and transportation as well.
- I recommend practicing rappelling a little before your adventure, you can do that at any rock-climbing center.
- Make sure you have the right attire and equipment.
- Laguna Brava:
- Contact Finca Chacula Lodge well in advance and arrange the expedition through them, it should be cheap, like Q80 per horse per day.
- To get there, I recommend you rent a car and drive, it’s a 7 hour drive from Guatemala City, but it’s well worth it with enough attractions in the area to fill out 3 days. Maybe you can combine it with Tajumulco.
- Arrange a guide in Quetzaltenango or through Inguat, I don’t recommend you hike it without a guide.
- Best month is November, then December through March.
- You can take a bus from Quetzaltenango or Guatemala San Marcos, then another to the starting point. Drive from Guatemala is about 5 hours.
- Get to Sayaxché on a bus, taxi or car from Flores, about 1.5 hours south.
- Book in advance and Chiminos Island Lodge will arrange everything for you (taxi/bus, water taxi, day trips).
In general: Guatemala is less dangerous than its reputation, but I still recommend you arrange for local guides prior to your trip, buy a local cell phone, don’t carry unnecessary valuables, and be discreet at all times.