I called travel agencies I saw on-line and decided that the one who responded quickest whenever I had a question would be the one I would choose. After I emailed, I got a quick response from Alejandro Tez of Turansa Tours. His email was clear and I asked questions and he answered within 24 hours. My next test was to see if they answered their phone calls, and I did get to talk with him. And my tours in Guatemala were all well-arranged and very professionally handled.
The vouchers are sent by email but the originals were given to me once I was picked up from my hotel during my first tour. I also make sure that the agency has a 24 hour hotline and Turansa did have a 24 hr phone at (502) 5651-2284. They do have a nice website at www.turansa.com
I even got to meet Alejandro Tez himself when I went to Antigua since the driver had to go to the office first (5a Calle Oriente #10-A Tels (502) 7832-2928, 7832-4691. It was nice to see an office where people seemed to know each other well and they smile.
There are of course other tour agencies in Guatemala and my hotel offered tours at the lobby. But I noticed that there was always nobody there when I arrived late at 10PM and even when I was back from my tours at about 6 PM. So, I always like to pre-arrange everything for tours before I arrive in a place that I am not familiar with.
Turansa did accept my payment by credit card through their secure website. The other agencies who emailed me wanted me to fax my credit card details I think which I was not comfortable with. I paid about 3,628 Quetzals (I think divide by 7-8 for US dollars – about $432) for both my tour to Tikal (with plane) and then the Antigua whole day tour. In the Antigua tour, I was the only tourists and so I had the whole van for myself (driven by Wilfrido) and the guide (Leo) also did a great job.
UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE!
In 2012, there was talk of the end of the world!
(which did not happen of course,
otherwise you would not be reading this)
So I made a little video of my short trip to Tikal, haha
Hope you like it:
JUMPING NORMAN IN TIKAL, GUATEMALA!
Exploring rural dirt roads (wait for a pickup) that branch off from the highways and seeing where they go.
Fondest memory: Guatemala has a lot of newly settled territory where government services, schools, clinics and administrators barely keep up with the many small settlements, farms and ranches. Small gifts are helpful.
Business travellers, policy wonks, and the more than merely curious will find the CIA Guatemala page succinct and informative.
COPY and PASTE THIS ADDRESS INTO YOUR BROWSER FOR THE CIA PAGE FOR GUATEMALA
Maps and geography
Fondest memory: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gt.html
There's nowhere to file this fact so here it is:
The relationship between mental retardation and iodine has been known for decades. Nearly all countries legislate that salt be iodized. GUATEMALA is one country that DOES NOT IODIZE SALT. Nor does Guatemala import iodized salt.
Salt made from seawater is the only source of this important element available to Guatemalans.
The discerning tourist will notice -especially in the country's mountainous interior- widespread evidence of retardation.
Before you clamber up a pyramid-
Before you get too far up-
Take a good look down and soberly consider your ability to get back down.
You can see here that the width of the step is maybe 10 cm (about 4 inches)
Your view looking up from the bottom is deceiving and you'll discover the view is dizz-ing-ly different when looking down from the top.
The Maya bound prisoners of war and tossed them from the summit of the pyramid to their deaths-
This photo is from IXIMCHE which is on the Pan American Highway about 20 kilometers east of Solola/Panajachel/Lago Atitlan. See the travelogue on my GUATEMALA home page.
We quickly developed a taste for the local beers. One, Gallo, is a light easy-drinking lager that went down very well with spicy food and in the hotter weather. But we liked Moza, made by the same brewery, even more – a dark beer (“cerveza oscura”) with bags of flavour but not too intense for lunch-time drinking. It gets rave reviews on some websites too, so it seems we are not alone!
We sadly never got around however to trying the local “beer cocktail”, Michelada which is a mix of tomato juice, Worcester sauce, Tabasco, salt, pepper and lime juice with beer – a sort of beer-based Bloody Mary, it seems. I saw it on several menus in Antigua, planned to try it sooner or later, then suddenly found we’d moved on to the north of the country and it was no longer, it seemed on offer (or at least not in Tikal’s Jungle Lodge, where we stayed). Something to go back for ...
The colourful costumes and lively street scenes are not only a source of fascination but will also inspire you to want to take innumerable photos – or at least they did me. Bear in mind though that not everyone wants to be photographed just because of their interesting outfit – after all what fascinates us is just normal to them. Your options are:
1. ask nicely and if refused walk away
2. ask nicely and offer a small tip, or if your subject is selling handicrafts, make a small purchase in return for the photo
3. photograph from behind, as the costumes can look just as good that way (see the photo in my “Carrying the baby” Local Customs tip for an example)
4. use a good zoom and look for opportunities to take candid shots
I admit I did all three, and for option 4 I found the best chances came when people were absorbed in another activity, usually commercial – either selling their crafts to tourists, or haggling over prices in local markets.
The photos here reflect these different approaches. Photo one was taken in Santiago Atitlàn and is an “option 2” shot – the lady posed for us and we bought a key ring from her. Photo two is clearly an “option 3” shot, and photos three to five were all taken furtively with a zoom!
As we only had two weeks available in which to see something of both Guatemala and Belize we decided to pre-book accommodation and transfers rather than spend valuable holiday time making arrangements on the ground. OK it can cost more that way, but at least we would know for sure what our costs were going to be (apart from the inevitable shopping and even more inevitable drinking!)
Through UK-based Journey Latin America we were able to access the services of tour agency STP in Guatemala, and we were so pleased with everything they did for us. If we return to the country we will certainly use them again, and will book directly with them.
In fact I would say that STP were probably the best local tour company we've dealt with during many years of travelling. All their representatives were polite, friendly, informative and couldn't do enough to help. They had helpfully changed our Lake Atitlàn hotel after some problems with the one we had booked (refurbishments after a hurricane had affected the service and other clients hadn't been happy) and we were very satisfied with the alternative they found us, the better-located Posada de Don Rodrigo in Panajachel. Transfers with Jorge, Xavier and Miguel were all efficient and enjoyable, and Xavier even took us on an unscheduled whistle-stop tour of Guatemala City en route to the airport for our Flores flight, while Miguel turned our half-day tour of Tikal into the best part of a day, taking us to several places where we were the only visitors.
Overall the STP reps definitely helped to make our visit to Guatemala even more of a pleasure than it might have been, and I can’t recommend them too highly. Please have a look at their website below if you are considering a trip to Guatemala.
Guatemala is a land of volcanoes, at least in the south, where the Guatemalan Highlands form part of the Ring of Fire along the Pacific Rim. Some are extinct, some dormant but some very definitely active. In May of this year Pacaya erupted, killing at least two people, injuring more than 50, and covering parts of Guatemala City in ash up to 7cm (2.7in) deep. Although we didn’t experience anything that dramatic (thankfully) we did see Fuego, near Antigua, puffing away quite vigorously at times – this photo was taken from the road to the north of the city.
Fondest memory: When not posing a threat, Guatemala’s volcanoes are beautiful additions to the landscape. You will see three of them encircling the old city of Antigua, offering tantalising glimpses from almost any street corner (see photo two), and another three standing guard over Lake Atitlàn (photo three). Antigua’s threesome are Acatenango, Agua (“water”) and Fuego (“fire”), while Atitlàn is home to the volcano of the same name as well as San Pedro and Toliman.
If you’re interested in reading more about Guatemala’s volcanoes check out the Goto-Guatemala website for much more information about them, or see the good map here.
The unit of currency is the Quetzal, plural Quetzales. When we were there (November 2010) the exchange rate was roughly 10 Quetzales to £1, making quick calculations about costs very easy for us. However taking sterling isn’t a good idea as few places will change it. Indeed, one of our local guides asked if we would do him the favour of changing some pounds he’d been given as a tip by previous British clients into Quetzales as he hadn’t been able to do so (we were happy to oblige, simply withdrawing some Quetzales at an ATM and bringing the sterling home with us).
It’s better instead to take US dollars. They are easy to exchange, and many places that cater to tourists will accept them as an alternative to Quetzales, although at a rough and ready exchange rate. In Antigua we changed money in a bank on the Playa Union, in Panajachel we used the exchange facility in one of the small shops on Calle Santander, and in both places we got a very similar exchange rate (and with the bonus of no commission in the shop). ATMs are also reasonably plentiful in the towns, but don’t count on finding one in smaller places.
My recommendation would be that you study Spanish in the city of Quetzaltenango rather than Antigua. Quetzaltenango or Xela (as it is known locally) is a great place to study, a lot less touristy than Antigua, and much more 'real Guatemala'. It's much cheaper to study in Xela and they say that Guatemala in general is one of the cheapest places to study Spanish, so great if you are on a budget.I have studied in both cities but much prefer Xela.
In Xela I studied at Utatlan, a smallish Spanish school right in the center of town (http://www.xelapages.com/utatlan) I totally loved it, I had great teachers, and we did loads of other great activities in the afternoons and weekends like hikes and visits to other towns and villages.
Quetzaltenango is a city of 200,000 people and is very diverse, there are a lot of things to do and you can travel to some other, equally beautiful, areas of the country at weekends (like the stunning Lake Atitlan). It's easy to meet other foreigners but at the same time, you can avoid this and it is a town where you will be forced to practice your Spanish!
Wherever you end up, enjoy Guatemala, it's an amazing country.
Fondest memory: Going to Lake Atitlan with a group of people from my Spanish school, a couple of days of great food, chilling out, kayaking, and just soaking up the atmosphere. The lake is unbelievably beautiful and i can't wait to go back.
There is no doubt that Guatemala is a very rich country in history, traditions and arts. In October 2009 I traveled to Antigua, Tikal, Chichicastenango and other places. In all you can find all sorts of insteresting things to enjoy.
Something you may not like however, is the very "inflated" fees the visitor has to pay to visit some of the sites and museums. In some instances up to 10 or more times the fees pay by the locals. These may not bother many people, and in many cases when you travel in organized tours, you may not even notice them. But the independent traveler will certainly be aware of them. It is understandable that some benefit should be obtained from the visitors, but the tourists should be "squeezed" in such ways.
The fact that these differences exist is annoying enough and the excessive amounts only agravate them. I wish these small bothersome details did not exist. It would make Guatemala a more enjoyable place.
Favorite thing: Take a peek at www.youtube.com and enter a search for Guatemala. There are enough homemade videos to give you a hint of what you will see and hear. Why stop with Guatemala? I wonder what India would show. All things considered, why leave home at all. ;) YouTube puts the whole world on your screen.
Flores is built on an island in the Lago Peten Itza. The first time I visited Tikal I came by plane from Guatemala City to Flores. From the air I had a nice view at Flores air and the 500m long causeway which connects Flores with its sistertown Santa Elena at the lake shore (pictiures 1 and 2).
I didn't visit Flores, though it must be a nice and tranquil town. The second time I visited Tikal and was in the area, I only got a glimpse of Flores from the lakeshore (picture 5). This time I came by bus and had a short stop in the main street of Santa Elena for visiting a bank (pictures 3 and 4) before heading to Tikal in the dark.
INGUAT's colorful, greatly improved and well designed tourist page is worth a click when planning your trip.
Besides a number of links to activities and events you will find that
ASISTUR provides useful travel assistance ranging from emergency phones, foreign embassies, current flight schedules at Aurora airfield, museums, maps, group services, Semana Santa, travel tips and more, such as a sophisiticated presentation about Guatemala's Coffees.
Don't forget to ask for a free map.
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