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Thread: Thoughts on vacationing next year in Guatemala vs. Nicaragua

  1. #1
    Registered User monkeylady's Avatar
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    Thoughts on vacationing next year in Guatemala vs. Nicaragua

    After just finishing our current winter's tropical vacation, it's time to start thinking about the next one in January-February 2015. This all because I am a travel research nut. Soooo, we tossing around either a vacation to Guatemala, particularly Antigua and surrounding villages, and maybe Tikal, although the thought of visiting such a popular tourist site is not as appealing. The other possibility is Nicaragua, maybe a week on a finca in the mountains and a week in Granada. Can anyone weigh in with some thoughts? Your favorite sites, even if you only been to one country or the other? Can't miss experiences (no Zip-lining please) in either country? Around Tikal we are sure to see some wildlife. I am less sure about that anywhere else in either country and would appreciate input.
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    Registered User sheeshoo's Avatar
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    I've not been to Nicaragua, but I adored Guatemala. Antigua is beautiful, the architecture amazing and nearby volcanoes are pretty amazing. It's described as having a "eternal spring" weather - lovely during the day and a little chill at night. I'd say a "don't miss" besides Antigua is Lake Atitlán. Panajachel, a city on the lake, is fantastic (you might not want to leave and definitely don't miss the breakfast at Restaurante Jasmin). Panajachel is pretty interesting because there are a lot of US expats who went there to avoid the Viet Nam war draft and then just never left. There's an artist coop supported town on the lake as well (I can't remember the name) that is a short boat ride across the lake. Chichicastenango is a super fascinating huge marketplace for the locals and tourists. Throughout Guatemala, there are many opportunities to learn about indigenous Maya culture and to visit villages - which have a lot of variation, most notable in the type of dress, embroidery and weaving. The food is incredible. It's very affordable. You'll find English spoken in many places, otherwise the Spanish is a very "clean" that is easy to understand and speak if you're not fluent.

    I'm sure you can't go wrong with either country - I love Central America. But here are a few photos I took at some of the places I mentioned in Guatemala...

    This is Lake Atitlán.
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    This is the view from the roof deck at my hotel in Antigua.
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    The famous arch in Antigua.
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    Looking out at some of the market stalls from the steps of the church in Chichicastenango.
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  3. #3
    Registered User monkeylady's Avatar
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    Thank you so much for your input! I have long longed to visit Antigua and Lake Atitlan area. Some questions, if you don't mind....and all about security, security, security. How did you travel around? Rental car, private tour, public transport. Security arriving at airport and getting to a hotel in Guatemala City? I've read so much about car jackings and robberies on the roads, even of buses, that we became quite turned off, so I am very interested in YOUR experience. We have travelled extensively in southern Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and NO problemas, and I know Mexico has a bad, bad reputation of drug violence. Nicaragua, on the other hand is considered the safest country, south of the U.S. It helps so much if we can put this in perspective.
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    I have never been to Nicaragua but would echo everything sheeshoo mentioned about Guatemala with a big +1 to Antigua. To answer your second post's questions, I used tours out of my Guatemala City hotel except the trip to Tikal which I arranged through a travel agent at work. I worked in GC and throughout central America for a while ending in Jan of this year, so I got to spend a lot of time in the region.

    Security is a big concern in Guatemala so check the State Dept website on travel to Guatemala for any late news, listen to the hotel staff and be careful walking anywhere. The US embassy there is kind of ratty and not in the best neighborhood but it would be worthwhile to check in with them if you are there for a while. I personally would not drive but I know many who do. It isn't Cairo but still different enough that I felt uncomfortable. Mopeds in GC are a good way to get around in the safer areas. Honduras seems to be the worst for crime with Mexico City and San Salvador close seconds in the region but GC isn't far behind. My contacts were adamant about taking known taxis, staying off the streets due to kidnappings and most of all letting people know where you were. Pickpockets are known if not Paris-rampant. I met lots of people with direct experience with the crime there. Downtown is much worse safety wise than San Jose, Panama City or Quito.

    That said, GC is a cool place with a few nice shopping areas, a quaint downtown (and my favorite taco place in the world) and easy access to close attractions. The airport is nice compared to most in Central America and I would use the hotel shuttle or the taxi company recommended by the hotel or tour group. The taxi 'take you somewhere else' scam is practiced in GC. I knew several people who were hi-jacked, fleeced of a few dollars and let loose. The real concern with any taxi off the street is kidnappings. I did hail taxis on occasion but never felt comfortable doing it.

    I didn't stay the night in Antigua (day trip from GC) but it seemed safe for the most part. I had a tour guide to keep me from the worst parts of the area but the markets, the churches and the oldest sections were awesome.

    Tikal and the trip up was uneventful and I never felt concerned about safety but again I was part of a small tour group. It is my favorite Maya site and definitely worth a trip up. It's not a day trip, you really need to overnight, I think. But, the park is great. There are also eco-tours in the area and short of a hurricane, the wildlife is everywhere. Lots of parrots, some toucans, monkeys, and lizards of all sorts. We saw one sloth there which I gathered wasn't common like Costa Rica but still cool. Yes, I caught the remnants of a hurricane... more a tropical depression but the rain and strong winds make the park all that much more exotic. :-)

    The coffee (sadly, I don't drink it) is amazing as the bags and bags I brought home were scarfed. If you are there Dec-Feb, you could probably find a coffee farm to sample. The beans are quite different evidently between the different zones in Guatemala.

    I did make it down to a few Pacific beaches but they were just ok. Nothing breath taking to me.

    The area around Lake Atitlán seemed safe but YMMV. We did a relaxing weekend there and loved it.

    For safety, any city is a problem in that area with the gangs, human and narcotic trafficking and general lack of safe zones. Be careful and enjoy the area. I know this wasn't what you asked, but while I liked Guatemala, if I were going back, I would choose Peru, Colombia or Panama. Let me know if you have any particular questions...

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    Registered User monkeylady's Avatar
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    What a helpful response! Thank you for your thoughts and information. You know, I'm an old lady and don't want to be that anxious about security so I think we'll skip Guatemala this time around, at least until I get a courage transplant. We don't like travelling in tour groups; we like doing our own thing. This style doesn't seem to fit with what's best in Guatemala. Nicaragua is supposedly knock your socks off beautiful with abundant wildlife, but still not much infrastructure for eco tourism except in a few areas along the Pacific coast, Ometeppe in Lake Nicaragua, and, of course, Grenada. I think we've decided to spend two weeks in Oaxaca and get to know the Zapotecs a little, visit Monte Alban and villages surrounding Oaxaca City. Been there? So goes our trip planning. It can be all over the place...but still fun.
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    I have never been to those places so I am appropriately jealous :-) Good luck and happy travels.

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    Oaxaca is supposed to be beautiful and it is the home of mole so you know it has to be good.

    I've been to Belize (and various parts of Mexico). Belize is beautiful and something I'd also recommend looking into. English is also their official language so it is friendly for those that are a bit timid about traveling to a country and not knowing the language.

    One of my best friends in college was a refugee from Nicaragua and although she didn't have a lot of nice things to say about the country, her parents used to reminisce a lot about it. Although they hadn't been since the coup in the 80s.

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    Registered User sheeshoo's Avatar
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    I can pretty much echo what has been said. Guatemala seemed as safe as southern Mexico to me, but I was traveling with a group through Gadventures who I highly recommend - not your typical group travel because there are tons of opportunities to do your own thing. Our travel leader gave us an "orientation walk" in new cities and advised us of areas where we might want to do a trip with a local guide out of the city. In Antigua, and in a local taxi to the airport (recommended by the hotel) - I felt totally safe. Lake Atitlan was even more relaxed.

    Compared to Costa Rica (the Ticos are SO laid back), I felt I needed to be maybe a little more vigilant and aware of my surroundings in Guatemala, but didn't feel particularly unsafe at any time. I didn't spend any time in GC other that the airport.

    Oaxaca is on my "list" but in Southern Mexico, I can say I fell in love with and adored San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas - so much so that I would consider living there.

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    Registered User monkeylady's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sheeshoo View Post
    Oaxaca is on my "list" but in Southern Mexico, I can say I fell in love with and adored San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas - so much so that I would consider living there.
    We, too, adore San Cristobal de las Casas. We spent a week there in Feb 13 after visiting Calakmul, Yaxchilan, and Bonampak. One of our very best vacations ever, except it was a little too much in-country travel for Mr. Monkeylady who starts his vacation tired and exhausted due to his work. We're hoping two weeks in Oaxaca fits the bill for this year.



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  10. #10
    Registered User sheeshoo's Avatar
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    You might find some ideas for Nicaragua in this G Adventures itinerary - Essence of Nicaragua and/or in their forums - The G Adventures Wateringhole.

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    Registered User monkeylady's Avatar
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    Thanks for the links, sheeshoo!
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    First, I really enjoyed sheesho's awesome photos. They are as I remember Guate.

    Guatemala is a great mix of beautiful scenery, cool climate in the uplands, and indigenous culture. Makes for fantastic photos. Unfortunately mine are from the days of film, so I can't upload them here.

    It's probably been seven or eight years, since I was in either country, but I did travel frequently to Guate on business and less frequently as a tourist, and to Nicaragua on business. When I say business, I work in agriculture and conservation so I was probably visiting places that you would not normally plan to visit. Not always the nicest places either, but different.

    Guate is a gem for tourism, as you can see from Sheshoo's photos. I really wouldn't stay long in Guatemala City. You should head to Antigua for a couple of days. Great mission architecture, shops, lots of foreign hippie-organic type (not very PC on my part, but you'll see what I mean) selling arts and crafts and jewelry. Good food, good nightlife.

    A good one week trip can be made by a couple of nights in Antigua, a couple in Panajachel by Lake Atilan, and two nights timed to coincide with market day, I think Thursdays, in Chichicastenango. Panajachel is beautiful, and also has decent restaurants and night life. I recommend taking the trip across the lake in the boat or ferry, which puts you in a smaller town (Santo Tomás, San Mateo? I don't remember.) where you can see residents of other indigenous villages with different clothing and hats and weaving. Chichicastenango is a regional market, and you get stalls and stalls of crafts and agricultural products. It has two churches, and residents burn incense on the steps on market days. I can still picture it in my mind.

    I would recommend Tikal if you have the time. You can stay in Flores, which is a town on an island, and take the first express bus to the park (about 45 minutes if I remember correctly). Get in early so you can see wildlife. I've seen howler and white-faced monkeys, guans, toucans, and falcons that nest in the ruins. Warmer than the uplands. Flores is touristy but small, and has some of the architecture of Antigua but not at quite as grand a scale.

    Nicaragua is also a gem, but for different reasons. You can still find great bargains there, especially on some great beaches. I've never been as a tourist, but I would recommend going down the San Juan River to the town of El Castillo. It is wedged up against the Costa Rican border and without road access so there are no cars, at least not when I went some 12 years ago. There are also parks around volcanoes that are supposedly beautiful.

    One interesting spot is Selva Negra, a working coffee farm with a hotel (Selva Negra Ecolodge and Coffee Estate Matagalpa Nicaragua). When I walked in their forest a number of years ago I had to stop and wait while a family of wild boars (peccaries), mom and 7-8 piglets, crossed the trail about 50 yards in front of me. The place has its idiosyncrasies, but it is off the beaten path and worth a visit if you are up for it.

    Safety. I agree, Guate City is not safe. Even 10 years ago people in hotel chains said not to walk the streets around there (Zone 10, supposedly a better one) with anything that looked like a laptop case. Once away from the city, Antigua and the other spots should be okay. My advice is never stop on a corner and look at a map (go inside a building or store or cafe), keep the valuables to a minimum, no jewelry, no camera around the neck. Walk like you know where you are going, even if you don't, and stay towards lighted public places. People are friendly and will help with directions.

    Nicaragua is probably marginally safer, except some areas of Managua where you will not stay anyway. Nicaraguans are friendly, and when they say "come over to the house for a drink" they mean it.

    You really can't go wrong with either country, although you need to plan a bit more for Nicaragua. They are both beautiful in different ways. My family and I love Guatemala, and we never had a problem sticking to the places I mentioned, even going with my kids when they were from 2 years old on up to 14.

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    Registered User monkeylady's Avatar
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    Thank you so much for the information. I am intrigued with Nicaragua, and, of course, Guatemala. A Costa Rican naturalist once told us that if Nicaragua ever got it together in the tourism infrastructure department, it would leave C.R. In the dust in the wildlife department. Judging from the eco lodge website that you cited, this appears to be true. Thanks again!
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