I am so grateful for this trip to Guatemala, it’s truly been an experience of a lifetime. It all came together in an add round-about way on short notice, but I am convinced that I was destined to go on at this exact point in my life. Everything fell into place perfectly. I have not had such a long period of time dedicated to one trip and was able to do it all on a tight budget. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything that I wanted to do or have any regrets about the experience. Every moment was beautiful.
There have been so many thoughts mulling through my head the last few weeks. Traveling alone with limited access to technology is such a pleasant way to take a break from the world. There were several days where I was stuck on a bus for hours with just a book and a sketchbook. Or others where I was climbing a volcano with next to nothing. It’s truly enlightening and forces you to dig deep into your own psyche. It brought me a lot of perspective on life. I can’t say that it necessarily brought a lot of clarity, but it’s a beautiful exercise to wrestle with your own mind. It’s somewhere between a dance and a struggle and if nothing else, it for damn sure is entertaining.
I learned a lot this trip. This is the first time that I was truly a backpacker and although I did a ton of research beforehand, I learned a lot along the way as well. I thought it might be interesting to give some of my insights from this trip and maybe someone else along the way will benefit from them.
#1. Pack Strategically
I used almost everything I packed. I kept it very minimal, but there are a lot of things that I did actually need, so I had to be thoughtful. I was going to temperatures from 30-80 degrees, so it was tricky to be minimal and also prepared. Here’s the list of what I brought with me.
- CLOTHES: 4 tank tops (2 moisture-wicking ones), 2 t-shirts, 2 pairs of pants (both warm running pants), 3 pairs of shorts, 8 underwear, 3 bras, 1 long sleeved shirt (moisture-wicking), 3 sweatshirts, 1 rain jacket, 1 PJs, 8 pairs of socks, 1 pair of wool socks, flip flops, tennis shoes, hiking boots, 1 swimsuit, 1 pair of gloves and 2 warm headbands.
- COSMETICS: shampoo/conditioner, face wash, body wash, razor, face moisturizer, sunscreen, hair ties, hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpaste, lotion, chapstick, tissues, hand sanitizer, mini hair straitening iron, and DEET.
- MEDICAL: athletic tape, bandaids, ibuprofen, pepto bismol and imodium.
- OTHER: Small towel, 2 bandanas, flashlight, pocket knife, 2 books, Nalgene, sunglasses, backpack, small blanket, 1 trash bag, 4 grocery bags, sketchbook, laptop, computer charger, cell phone/camera, battery pack for phone and phone charger.
First of all, there were a few things that I could’t have lived without:
- Good hiking boots were INCREDIBLY important – don’t skimp on this
- My backpack was awesome – investing into a good one was worth every penny
- REI’s biodegradable shampoo/conditioner is amazing. I think I used a quarter of the tiny 3 oz bottle my whole two-week trip.
- Pocket knife came in useful for avocados, papayas, camping and opening bottles of wine J
- Blanket – I am SO glad that I had a blanket. There were many cold moments where I needed it, including my overnight at the Miami airport.
- Water bottle – I saved a ton of money by filling up my water bottle at whatever hostel, hotel or restaurant I was at instead of buying bottled water
Secondly, there were a few other things that I realized about my packing:
- I didn’t use bug spray or the medical supplies at all
- I almost ran out of sunscreen – 3 oz wasn’t really enough for two weeks
- I had thought about bringing hiking sandals as well, but it was so dusty that I am glad I just brought boots
- I did run out of books – I brought 2, but wish I had at least 4
- Surprisingly, I didn’t really use my phone battery charger. When you’re on airplane mode most of the time, you don’t really run out of a charge.
- 2 bandanas was a good idea – one helped keep my head warm while hiking and the other covered my face from the dust
- It may just because I am really dry, but I was so glad to have plenty of lotion
- I know it’s girly, but I was actually glad that I brought my mini flat iron to straighten my hair. Some days you just want to feel pretty!
Overall, there was nothing that I missed or had felt like I completely forgotten. In fact, I probably could have cut out 2 or 3 of the clothing items and still been ok. I only had to do laundry once and there were a few things that I am not sure I wore. I did have to rent a big down coat from OX Expeditions for my hike up Acatenango, but I am glad that I didn’t drag a coat with me.
#2. Take Shuttles Over Chicken Buses
I know that a lot of backpackers are on a budget so they opt to take what they call “chicken buses” (meaning they cram as many people as possible into a repainted school bus) instead of shuttles. Truth be told, the shuttles that I took ranged from 1-5 hour trips and usually cost around $10-$15 for the ride. So it’s still not very expensive and it was worth it to have my own seat where I didn’t have to hold my backpack for 5 hours. No matter what, the trip will be bumpy and slow, so you mind as well chip in the few extra bucks to make it a little bit more comfortable.
I would also recommend to take a private car when you get in from the airport, especially if you are traveling alone. Airports are a prime spot to target tourists, so this is one area where it’s worth it to splurge the $40-$50 for a car to Antigua. I was picked up by Adrenalina Tours, right on time, they had a sign with my name on it and we made it to Antigua in 45 minutes. It was so easy, they dropped my right at my door and made sure that I got in ok before leaving. It was worth it to me to spend $45 to make it to my door safely, especially since I had no idea where I was going and did not speak the language.
#3. Don’t Stay in a Hotel
There are a lot of choices for where to stay, especially when traveling solo. It depends on what you are looking for as to where you might want to stay; I was looking for somewhere quiet with a private room. I didn’t care quite as much if I had a private bathroom as long as there was a hot shower. Although I love the community aspect of meeting other travelers, I opted not to stay in hostels because I was worried it would be party town and I wouldn’t get any sleep. For this reason, Air BnB was a great solution for me. The first place I stayed was a home in Antigua that had three other bedrooms, which housed other travelers and cost me $22/night. I met a Canadian woman studying Spanish, 2 travel bloggers, a couple from Virginia on vacation, a retired gentleman who comes to this same spot every year and of course my hosts, who was a lovely couple in their 70s and their three dogs. They were incredibly gracious hosts and made me breakfast every morning. I also got some great tips of what to do and where to go from other travelers and vice versa.
When I got to San Pedro on Lake Atitlan, I had decided to get a hotel as my “treat” at the end of the trip. This was a mistake. I paid more for my room here and had less service. My water was broken for about a day and a half, so I couldn’t even brush my teeth, let alone flush the toilet or shower during that time. Breakfast was included, but it was underwhelming. They also didn’t come to clean my room once and since I had eaten dinner in my room several nights, it started to smell. It was not worth the extra money in the slightest and if I were to do it over again, I would have chosen somewhere cheaper. The hotel certainly did not live up to the Guatemalan hospitality that I had experienced in a home.
I am sure there are nicer hotels in San Pedro than what I got, so if you really don’t want to do Air BnB or a hostel, you can probably pay extra and get a better spot than what I did.
The last night I was in Guatemala City before my early morning flight, which was also an Air BnB room in someone’s home. Again, the hospitality was impeccable and my host and his puppy Tesha greeted me at the door when I arrived. I hadn’t eaten dinner, so he made me a tortilla with cheese and even drove me to the airport in the morning. It’s so refreshing to be treated like a person and have someone take an interest in your life. He and I chatted for a while (he spoke in Spanish and I responded in English and somehow we understood each other) and I learned that he is an avid hiker as well and loves to play softball. He’s from Guatemala City and has lived there his whole life, but also used to travel for work to California a lot. He told me I needed to do more exploring through California. I might take him up on that idea.
#4. Eat Cheaply, Spend on the Adventures
I had a tight budget for this trip, so I learned pretty quickly where to find the cheap street food. I also had a small bakery across the street from me in Antigua where I could get a pastry filled with vegetables and cheese for about $3. This served as many lunches and dinners for me during my stay, but I cannot stress enough how worth it is to eat cheaply and spend your money on the adventures. I don’t feel like I missed out by avoiding sit-down restaurants. I wouldn’t have remembered that meal anyway, whereas climbing Acatenango is something that will stick with me for a lifetime. I spent between $5-$20/day on food and drinks and hiking with a guide ranged from $70-$150 per trip. Tips for eating cheaply: buy snacks for the road, eat where the locals eat, buy produce to have in your room (I had to eat avocados and papaya at least once a day…), avoid the gringo restaurants and fill your water bottle at the place you are staying instead of buying bottled water. I did gets alcoholic drinks as well, but would buy the local beer from a grocery store rather than drink at a restaurant. A 16oz can of Gallo was about $1.50 from the store. Go for the experiences, friends! It’s worth it.
#5. Stay Safe – Make Friends!
Safety was a big concern for many of my loved ones as I ventured into a country that I had never been to, don’t speak the language and has a reputation for being slightly dangerous, especially in the big cities. I am not a fearful person or a worrier, so it was challenging to take these concerns seriously, however, there are a few street smart things that you can do to make sure you are safe.
First, stay where the people are. This is something that I taught myself early on in life growing up in Beijing. If you find yourself on a street without a lot of people or are walking home in the dark, find a street where the people are. The more people, the less likely that something will happen to you.
Secondly, try not to carry a purse. I have yet to understand why women need to carry around ten pounds of stuff with them at all times, but try to avoid carrying a bag all together. Carrying a purse makes you a target because it’s easy to snatch off of you and run away with, whereas having a few things in your pockets is much harder to get at. Pretty much everywhere I went (expect for my hikes), I only brought a small amount of cash, my phone and the key to my place. That’s all I needed. And if I had happened to be mugged, I would have only lost a few bucks and my phone, which are both replaceable.
Lastly, the best way to ensure that you are safe when you are traveling is to make friends with everyone you interact with. Talk to other travelers. Talk to your host family or the hotel staff. Smile a lot. Start building trust. You might be surprised at how easy it is to form allies all around you just by being friendly. Not only did I make friends with a lot of the other foreigners who were there traveling, but I also made friends with some of the locals just but stumbling through my rough Spanish and asking them a few questions about themselves. I know that an unknown country can be scary, but in my experience, no matter where I’ve traveled across the world, I’ve found that the local people I interact with are kind and have good intentions if you give them the chance.