Following the Beaten Path in Guatemala – Stuck in Fucking Paradise

I found it really hard to write this post. Somehow I think I did Guatemala wrong. Thinking back I feel like most of my experiences there were somewhat insipid and vacuous. I got sucked into following the beaten Path, the trail. In Central and South America it is known as the Gringo Trail, in Southeast Asia it is called the Banana Trail. It follows all the must see sights and leads to all the must do “adventures”. The backpacker community inevitably works like that, with the main conversation between people being, where do you come from and where do you go. The thing is, I actually don’t think there is anything wrong with following the beaten path. Its really hard not to these days. Is it that I hate “backpacker culture” these days? I think not. Some of my best friends are backpackers. So where did I go wrong?

Semuc Champey

I left the Guatemalan coast to board a shuttle to a place called Semuc Champey. It is a seven and then some hours bus ride along a bumpy mountain road. The Shuttle is a means to carry tourists from one Gringo Trail attraction to the next. They can be booked in your hostel together with your next tour. This means that you never, ever have to leave the safety of your heard. When we arrived in Lanquin it was late in the evening and we are greeted by several people trying to get us to stay in their respective hostels. A little boy had mounted my bag on his back and was running towards a pick-up truck. Before I could realize I was on the way to a hostel called Utopia, which is half way between the town of Lanquin and the natural monument of Semuc Champey.
When we arrived some blond girl greets us saying “Welcome to Paradise”. It soon becomes clear that the setting of this hostel truly is heavenly. It is also run by western “volunteers” with little respect for the local staff or anyone else. Everyone speaks English, the food is overpriced vegetable curry. Their website promises, that everything is within your reach when you stay at Utopia. But really nothing is. I soon realized that I was stuck in fucking paradise!
The next day me and some other travellers hiked to the Natural Monument of Semuc Champey. We followed the road that winds through jungle covered hills and offers stunning views of the Cahabòn River. Along the way we saw a lot of local women that greeted us friendly. Most indigenous people in the area are Maya Q’eqchi, an ethnic group with their own distinct language. They wear long dark skirts and colourful lace blouses and they carry their baskets with a tumpline that is placed on top of the head. Guatemalan men in general wear rubber boots and a machete. We also met a lot of local children that wanted to sell us home made chocolate. They held up the chocolate bars saying: “Two for five Quezales” and when I shook my head they say “Maybe later, no?” They have learned just enough English to sell us stuff.

View from the Mirador

View from the Mirador


We entered the park and find ourselves in a canyon, the steep mountains on each side covered in dense forest. We embarked on the steep climb up to the lookout and soon we were dripping in sweat. The ensuing view was worth the struggle though. It was breathtaking. Semuc Champey roughly translates to a place where the river disappears. It now flows under a set of limestone pools that are filled with crystal clear turquoise water. Now and then the raging river still rises over the top, and thus keeps these wonderful pools filled for us to swim in. There were little fishies eating of our dead skin, waterfalls to massage your weary travellers back and natural slides leading from one pool to another. It is a magic place. Soon to be overrun. Big tourism often reaps the rewards of backpackers paving the way. I am thinking as soon as they are literally paving the way the big buses will come.

Not a bad place for a swim.

Not a bad place for a swim.

Cobán – Messi or Ronaldo?

From sleepy Lanquin I made my way to Cobán, which is Guatemala’s third biggest city. I went to an Orchid Farm where I learned some fascinating facts about these weird creatures. Like Vanilla is part of an orchid and the Maya have used it for thousands of years. And there was some Orchids that had dense woody root systems, which could be used as building material. The Monja Blanca is Guatemala’s national flower and symbolizes peace. One Orchid my guide mentioned only blooms for half an hour once a year and has to procreate within this time frame. Mind blown.Orchid
In the evenings me and some other travellers made our way to the central square where food trucks were serving up carne asada (grilled meat) and chorizo. Some local guys started talking to us. When I asked them about the statue on the Square, which commemorates a guy named Manuel Tot, they shared stories of a proud tradition of rebellion in the region. Tot was a Q’eqchi leader of the independent movement in 1813 and he was also a symbol for the local rebels during the civil war. They told us how recently they unearthed graves of civil war victims in the area.
You can read up on the Guatemalan civil war anywhere on the internet. And you should. In short it is the sad story of the CIA and the American Government bringing about a coup. The United Fruit Company, also known as Chiquita Brand International, was scared to loose its property in the country. This was due to social reform policies, initiated by a democratically elected government, which would have helped the countries poor peasant. Thus the UFC sought the help of the US government. The coup ultimately lead to decades of fighting between repressive military regimes and leftist rebels, mainly indigenous Mayans. In the course of this some 200.000 people were killed or “disappeared”. The CIA and the Eisenhower government thought the whole coup was a hug success. There is a lot more I wanted to know about the rebels and the “disappeared”, but the conversation had moved on to the ever important question Real or Barcelona. In Central America it is a question of faith whether you support Real Madrid or Barcelona. By question of faith I mean fights will break out. “Messi or Ronaldo?”, they asked me and when I said that its of course Messi they were pleased.

Antigua – Saggy Rear Ends and Giant Jenga

In Antigua I wandered the cobble stoned streets, which were filled with tourists admiring the colonial architecture. I accidentally ended up in the Jade Museum, aka Jade Shop, where bus loads of tourists are guided through. There was a guy yelling “We only have 20min until lunch”. Then some archaeologist lady held a speech about Jade, that was really quite informative, but that I retained nothing of. So that’s the other side of tourism right there. Saggy rear ends following some guy with an umbrella. They were being shoved back on their bus and driven to the next easily accessible sight. Their not so different from me being jostled in the next shuttle and brought to the next not so easily accessible sight. I do have all the time in the world though and I can eat whenever I want. So I feel slightly superior.
At night I sat on one of the many rooftop bars. Antigua is surrounded by Volcanoes, so I could watch Volcano Fuego spit out a fiery cloud of ash and smoke. In the dark it looked like a dragon is occasionally blowing out fire in his sleep. It is magic. There was a pub crawl for backpackers passing by, keeping them in the heard, safe. I joined them and ended up in a bar where people are playing giant Jenga. Its a backpacker drinking game thing. Every tile has a rule written on it, like swap clothes or down your drink. It is really silly and I went upstairs and talked to some people.

San Pedro la Laguna – Center of Debauchery

San Pedro

My next shuttle brought me to San Pedro la Laguna at beautiful Lago Atitlán. More Hostels run by western volunteers. Hippy backpacker with colourful bloomers and dreadlocks, who were selling their jewellery on the street. Nothing wrong with that except when your doing it right next to the Guatemalans, who sell the same type of jewellery. Some were practising their juggling and their hula hooping. The streets are filled with tour company’s, hostels and a variety of backpacker friendly food options. Every night there is a big party in town and copious amounts of cocaine and other drugs are being consumed. At some point in the night I looked around and wonder why everybody is talking and no one listening. That’s what cocaine does, but they sure were having a swell time. When all the hangovers are cured lake Atitlán is a beautiful place. Steep Mountains are rising right from the lakes shores. I hiked up to the Indian Nose (La Nariz de Indio). I opted for going with a tour, as there is little information about how to find the path by yourself and many reports of robberies. This sadly is true and not only around Lago Atitlán. Unemployment is a big problem in Guatemala and my tour guide told us that a lot of rural youngsters just sit in the bushes, getting stoned, waiting for tourists who try to climb the thing by themselves. Unfortunately he admitted this is good for his business as well. It keeps the backpacker in the heard. Shuttle, hostel, tour, shuttle, hostel, tour. I soon regretted the decision to take a tour. I am simply a very slow hiker and my guide was jumping up the mountain at staggering speed. Nevertheless it is a beautiful little hike. We went very early in the morning when it was still dark. The moon was lighting our way through the fields and up the steep hill. Up top we awaited the sunrise and watched Mount Fuego erupt in the dawn light. It was wonderful.

Volcano Fuego and Lago Atitlán

Volcano Fuego and Lago Atitlán

After the debauchery that is San Pedro I have had enough. I boarded one last Shuttle that was taking me to El Salvador.

Where did I go Wrong?

So where did I go wrong? I think the problem is that I didn’t take the best of both worlds. For example, there was this English man who woke up on a bed of banana leaves, missing most his clothes, after taking acid at this Psy-trance Party by Lake Atitlán. Sounds like your average backpacker nightmare. A self-entitled brat. One of those “Cancers, Parasites. Eating up the whole fucking world”. Well the truth is he wasn’t and I kind of wish I had a story like that to tell.
I got sucked onto the gringo trail and I got uncomfortably comfortable. Being shoved from one false utopia to the next, always slightly hating where I am, I forgot that maybe we can have it all. There is no more Utopia and if you find one you are probably bound to destroy it. So just follow your own path and keep your eyes, heart and mind open. When you are in Guatemala I suggest you go sit by the square and talk to some locals (I wish I had done it more often). Go somewhere where no shuttle has gone before (I wish I had). I suggest you climb that mountain by yourself and get robbed by a man with a machete (I wish I could have told you that story). And maybe you play some drinking game Jenga or take some acid and wake up not knowing who you are. No life changing experience ever started with somebody feeling comfortable and you can only learn very little about a culture from your hostels hammock. If you are in that hammock though, you might as well enjoy it.

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