Guatemala – Norte

After going through several of the stages of grief on leaving Ernesto and our AirBnb in San Ignacio – including bargaining (maybe we can squeeze another day and just lie around here and eat tasty pork tacos again?) – we finally sucked it up and headed for the border into Guatemala.

I was a little apprehensive for my first real non-English speaking border crossing (Mexico doesn’t count as they just let you right in from the US). Also I had heard the town nearby was a sketchy place so I was eager to get through and get moving. Turned out to be about as mellow as the Belize crossing. We got a helper because he seemed like a nice kid and spoke English, but we really didn’t need it. Funny part is when the guys behind the counter hand our helper docs to go copy or take somewhere else. Imagine in the US if the person sitting behind an official desk just handed your official documents to some random person, who then skittered off with them.

Also we met a nice local who had seen my car and wanted to personally welcome me to his country. This has repeated a couple dozen times in Central America. A lot of people are very proud of their country and glad we’re visiting. Many more have US connections so when they see the California plates, they want to find out where I’m from.


We made our way to our AirBnB in Flores, hoping it was anything close to as good as the one we just left in Belize. We got our first glimpse of Lago Petén Itzá, then turned off for our place, which was located on the north side of the lake. Turned out to be down a very very long very very bumpy dirt road – like 40 minutes of washing machine churning. And we’d have to repeat that multiple times to go to Tikal or go into town for dinner. Ugh. Note to self – when the comments complain about a long bumpy road – pay attention. Of course with my car I never know if it’s just some Corolla owner complaining about a nice washboard-y road I can glide over – or if it’s a true 5mph bump and grinder.

When we got to the place – signs weren’t much better. The people working there were cleaning up, but seemed confused as to why we were there and didn’t really help show us around or anything. Both rooms were fine – except a little grungy – and didn’t seem too well sealed against bugs. Note to self: “rustic” = you will probably be sleeping with a few bugs. Shuana didn’t like that her room was across the compound from mine – in case she needed me to fend off a jaguar or something. We did get a few sweet pics from the dock – not that either of us really wanted to swim in the lake.

Such beauty! Such rustic! Such a long-ass bumpy drive!

Luckily we made one really good call. We left absolutely nothing in the rooms, and told the people cleaning we would get some dinner and come back. As we drove around the other side of the lake to the town of Isla de Flores – I began to hatch a plan.

New country, new beer! It’s a tradition now.

After we found a place to drink some beers and get some food – the plan became a driving force. Let’s just stay here – in a place that’s walking distance from the beers and food and not a long drive down a bumpy road – in a room with probably much less bugs. I sprung my plan on Shuana – who immediately became very receptive.

After much wrangling over what our story should be – we settled on saying that my car had a blown out shock and I was afraid to drive down that road again before I could get it fixed. Believable!  Also we added in a few things about not knowing it would be so rustic, so she’d probably understand the real reason – but w/o insulting her place. Shauna engineered all the communication with our host – who in the end agreed to charge us only a $20 cleaning fee. HALLELULAH!  Time for more beer and watch the sun go down.

There is no happier Shauna than “I don’t have to sleep with bugs in my bed tonight” Shauna

I got a little obsessed with these reflections in the water. I have about 80 more pictures like this if anyone’s interested.

Here’s the live scene.

We found a reasonable hotel on the Island – which apparently is the site of Nojpetén – the last Mayan stronghold before the Spanish completely conquered them. Now the island is a nice tourist-friendly town with cobblestone streets. We enjoyed staying there much more than we would have isolated on the north side of the lake.

We decided against one hotel because of a massive racket of birds just outside. Before we went to dinner – Shauna pointed out that my car was parked directly under the tree they were all hanging out in. I decided to chance it that they would move on soon as I didn’t feel like moving my car. Which worked out about as well as you’d expect – two hours later my car looked like a Jackson Pollock painting.

You can see how it would be a good place to choose for your last stand.

Kids playing soccer at night



The next morning we slept in a bit and took our time before heading to Tikal.

Shauna struggling through one of my long blog posts at breakfast 😀

Tikal is my 7th ruins or so of the trip. For most an afternoon is fine. I like arriving late and staying until closing – as the ruins get almost deserted by the end. For Tikal I would recommend an entire day or most of a day. It’s a good walk just to get to the ruins – and there is a huge spread out complex to explore – not just the usual main square and a few side buildings. Also most of the pyramids are very tall and climbable – which takes time.

I’d also highly recommend the package of half-day/night ticket (8pm), then stay at a nearby hotel and watch the sunrise the with an early ticket the next morning. I have some sunset pics below, and some pics from Templo IV – where they watch the sunrise and I bet it’s amazing.

The grand entrance. Am I the first American to drive here in an FJ Cruiser? Yeah probably not.

First look at the Temple of the Jaguar

Main square

This picture caused my buddy Sam to think the Jaguar Templo was only like 40′ tall. Lol perspectives
One of the few not climbable pyramids

Panorama from the top of Templo IV – the tallest pyramid in the Mayan world – great place to watch the sunrise apparently

Climbing up to the top of our 10th pyramid or so. Tikal will get you a good workout.
View from Templo V – that’s Templo IV on the right.
Sunset from the top of Temple V

Howler monkeys add an ominous air to any situation

Wild turkey getting ready to roost for the night
Brown jay

Shauna made another mural of the animal signs leading up to Tikal. We saw the turkey!

Drive to Cobán

The next day we wanted to head a town in the central mountains called Cobán, but also check out something called the Caves of Candelaria on the way (unfortunately we did not have enough time for Semuc Champey – the major tourist destination of the area). First we stopped for a much needed car wash after the pigeon incident. Shauna found some cool street murals near the car wash and made the collage below.

Clean car gets a new sticker!
Remember these things? The old pneumatic tube auto-banks?
Taco Bell makes its triumphant return after going missing all of Mexico – which apparently doesn’t appreciate LIVE MÁS cuisine.
Unexpected river ferry + boat problems = rut roh
Time for a snack
And the boat is fixed and we’re on our way
Now that is a billboard that grabs my attention

Northern Guatemala is one of the most gorgeous drives of the trip

Caves of Candelaria

The Caves of Candelaria are fairly confusing as they’re broken into 4 parks – at least 3 of which offer some form of cave exploring and/or tubing through the caves. We just pulled over at the first one we saw – which definitely felt like a Mom and Pop operation. Nearby people were swimming and doing laundry. I’m not sure if Sunday is laundry day or if there’s always that many people doing laundry in the river.

We chose the exploring option over the tubing option. After a briefing and issuance of some headlights which barely worked – we headed off into the jungle behind our intrepid guide – a perfectly sweet 70s-ish man with all the standard REI gear.

Hipster hiking Doc Martens. Somehow he still had way less trouble in the slippery mud than we did.
Bring your mosquito repellant for this part
This pic cracks me up – our guide was short but this pic makes him look 3′ tall

The caves got bigger and bigger as we went along. This shows some of the places people would tube through. From other traveler stories – I guess some of the other caves involved long stretches of complete darkness and one girl almost got lost in the dark. In this part of the world – you definitely need to keep your wits about you and don’t just trust that guides lead you into anything unsafe.

Fools gold

Shattered ancient pottery

Cave spider!

We both really enjoyed the cave exploring – but were completely unprepared for the gran(d?) finale. We came out into a giant chamber a hundred feet high or so – and a few hundred feet long – with openings on both sides. Definitely the coolest cave I’ve ever been in – and I’m glad I had no idea what to expect. Sometimes doing zero research pays! If someone says a place is cool – and it’s on the way anyway – I like to just go there and be surprised. 

After the caves we were treated to a perfectly adequate chicken and rice meal with way too large portions. Also we were in a hurry to get going so as not to be out driving through strange territory in the dark. So we fed a ton to the dog.

It’s your lucky day buddy
Chocolate drink that both of us were a little nervous about because of the water. I drank half. Shauna drank none and got scolded for it by the cook – lol.

Road to Antigua

We made it into Cobán just about dark – but not after driving through a couple really sketchy Wild West-looking towns that I would not want to be walking around in after dark. 

The next day we headed to Antigua, but also stopped in a few Mayan villages along the way. We really liked Tactic. Although apparently the pic below of the vegetation-covered lake is the only pic I took.

Kids on some kind of singing march in Cobán – I guess it was some kind of local holiday.
That’s a moving boat out there. They seemed to be harvesting this stuff that grows in the lake.

Once we got to Tactic I started driving up a street that got narrower and narrower – then realized there was no way to turn off before the market, nor was there an easy way to turn around. I started to prepare for treacherously backing out – but then asked a local what I should do. He said ‘derecho’ – just keep driving straight through the market. So we proceeded very slowly and watched as people magically began to part to let us through – where there was barely enough room for my car. Shauna took video, while I tried to focus on not hitting anyone or anything.

Unfortunately this video doesn’t really do justice to how impossible this drive looked from 50 feet away before the sea started parting – but you get the idea.

Luckily Shauna took a bunch of pics from the Mayan areas in central Guatemala, and made these cool collages:

After that we headed to Antigua and took a few shots along the way.

Someone’s dream resort that has seen better days
Elizabeht – at long last I have found you!

Next stop – over a month in Antigua! And bonus coverage of Lake Atitlan!


  1. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Super collage, Shauna–I saved it. This is shaping up as one of the great travel blogs, period. Outstanding!

  2. Great job documenting this amazing trip, and thanks for sharing it with us! (I love those reflection shots.)

  3. Hello Matt,

    I used to work at your mom’s immigration law in KS. We spoke on the phone today, and she told me you’re in my country now, Costa Rica. I hope you enjoy your stay and the rest of your adventures, as far as they may take you. Your photos of Guatemala are great, and brought back memories of when I lived there back in 1976. Things sure have changed all around, including in Tikal, since I was there so long ago. I look forward to seeing more photos, especially the ones I hope you post of Costa Rica. Feliz Viaje!!

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