Where did you go and what made you decide to go there?
I toured Guatemala with one of my very best friends. Originally we were planning to travel around Nicaragua because I have a few contacts who live there.
But after hearing about the current political discourse in that country, we changed gears and thought about Mexico or Belize or another Central American country.
We landed on Guatemala because it offers so much culture, amazing hot spots and most of what we were looking for in a backpacking trip.
Was this trip on your list for a long time?
Once we narrowed it down based on the fact that we could tour Mayan ruins, swim in caves, and do volcano hikes as well as many other mini adventures all in one trip. Then we began the planning around mid-November of 2018.
Our trip was planned for February of 2019 for a few different reasons. February of last year was when my husband died tragically so I knew I needed to plan something to look forward to so I could obtain some sense of happy anticipation while dealing with anniversary grief.
I knew I would be in need of a break from normal life.
February is also a great time to travel, not only to get out of the snow and dreariness in Michigan but also because flights are extraordinarily cheaper compared to most months of the year.
What were your favorite experiences?
Simply the experience of backpacking around the country, staying in hostels, and traveling for hours in shuttles and buses to get from one side of Guatemala to the next is a thrill all in itself. The first hostel we stayed in was in Flores, Guatemala.
We took an overnight bus from Guatemala airport after we landed and when we woke up we had arrived in northern Guatemala to be close to the ruins.
We stayed in a hostel that was more of a secret garden, called “Los Amigos”. I can not recommend this place enough. Random indoor streams, a little walkway bridge, turtles and bunnies.
The top adventure experience was the area Semuc Champay, which is near the center of Guatemala. It’s a remote, hard to get to paradise, hidden in the tropical mountains.
The waterfalls, the multiple natural turquoise pools that flow into each other, the caves that you swim through while only holding a candle to light your way, and the incredible rope swing into the refreshing river is enough to make that a one-stop wonder all on its own.
Cave Exploration by Candlelight
But out of that day experience, the cave exploring was absolutely the biggest thrill for me.
My friend and I went to the signup area on our own, without a bus full of people, so we got extra lucky and received a private tour with just the two of us and our guide.
This made for ample time to really soak the experience in, grasp the wonder of the cave, and be fully present.
At the very end of the cave trek, you come to the exit, where you can either wimp out and take a stairway-or!! squeeze into a small space where you blindly drop fall down into the dark for “who knows” how long, just falling, and then splash land into a deep cave pool where you then have to “swim to the left till you can touch” the cave floor.
Vague and super dangerous instructions?
Sign me up! The perfect adrenaline terror!
Other parts of the 11-day trip consisted of touring the Tikal Ruins, horseback riding in San Pedro to a secluded beach on Lake Atitlan, hiking up Indian Nose volcano at 4am for a breathtaking sunrise, soaking in solar hot tubs filled with water warmed by the surrounding volcanos.
But my friend Rachael was the true adventurer-signing up for the Acatenango overnight volcano hike in Antigua!
She hiked for an entire day, 6+ hours to set up camp at a location where she had a birds-eye view of Volcan Fuego, which is one of the most active volcanos in the world. It is nearly in a constant state of eruption!
She slept in a tent and got to enjoy the sunset and sunrise and the rumbling of the lava erupting all through her time there.
It’s a trek that is grueling for even the most experienced hiker. She survived, even though getting extreme altitude sickness!
I opted beforehand to have a relaxing day in one of the most lovely hostels in all of Antigua called “Barbara’s Boutique”.
I do not regret my decision and was glad she got to experience her desire as well.
What experiences taught you something about yourself?
Originally, I thought this trip was going to be a deeply spiritual and mental purging of the trauma of the one year mark of the father of my children’s death.
And it was. Just not in the way I assumed.
When you’re forced to be in the moment, each day, stretching your physical senses, focusing on surviving each day and where you will be spending each night, there is little time for emotional contemplation.
After the loss of a close loved one, it seems the ruminating never ends.
This journey, instead, gave my brain muscle a much-needed break. Grieving is extremely important, but also detaching and giving your heart a rest, I found, was critical.
This trip taught me that it is ok and even essential to accept my reality and that it is ok to keep living while I am still alive.
There is no other healthy choice.
My husband and I were married for 16 years, I loved him the very best I could, we shared the journey of parenthood together and I shared my entire adult life with him.
And now he is gone.
For me, this trip expanded my reality, opened me up to the world I forgot existed, and broke apart my fears. I am strong, I am capable, and the world is longing to be found.
What did you learn from planning your trip?
I learned that you can be flexible and change plans during your course if you want to!
It’s easy to book a hostel the night beforehand on hostelworld.com or even just show up and get a bed most of the time. All the hostels are super helpful in helping you book a shuttle or a tour.
The people in Guatemala are so friendly and as two women backpacking, we ran into many solo women travelers!
It was very empowering to know, witness, and experience the reality of women backpackers fully capable of traveling on their own. My friend and I never had a moment when we were in any danger.
Just as with any city within the USA, to stay safe, don’t go out at night, don’t tumble drunk out of a bar, keep your wits about you, and be street smart.
And keep to shuttles and safe bussing instead of local buses where bandits can and will board and rob people.
Do you have any tips for saving money on your trip?
Keep your eyes out for cheap plane tickets, stay in the hostels as they are super affordable and do often offer private rooms if you need that, and you WILL save money by traveling to a third world country.
$1.50 Mojitos and plenty of free tequila seemed to be a theme everywhere we went!
You can eat for around $3-$5 for a full dinner meal if you stay local and they are generous in their portion sizes.
There wasn’t a meal that my friend and I could finish alone so we always ended up sharing which was great on the budget as well.
Is there anything that you would have done differently?
Originally we were only going to visit southern Guatemala. But at the last minute, we decided to tackle the northern and mid parts of the country as well and just pack it all in.
We are SO glad we decided to do it all.
If you have enough days, go for as much as you can because you won’t regret the experience!
What advice would you give to someone who doesn’t think their dream trip can become a reality?
Life is short. I promise you.
All the trips that I’ve experienced with my husband and kids in the past, I am now exceedingly grateful for the good memories that were shared, the places we traveled to, and the growth that came from it all.
Everyday life can become monotonous and there is nothing wrong with living a good and consistent life, but waiting for an experience or a trip to plan itself will never happen.
So start putting your dreams on paper and make a concrete plan. As far as money issues, don’t let the initial fear stop you from planning. This trip was very affordable.
If two single/solo parents can coordinate babysitters, dog sitters, time off work and other logistics than anyone can.
Use your Christmas bonus, your tax refund, or save for 6 months slowly.
We all know that when we want something badly enough, the details work themselves out.
Our round trip flights were $270, food was cheap, hostels were cheap and shuttles were $10/$30/$50 to travel 5-15 hours across the country.
Plan the trip.
How can someone stay connected to your adventures?
I’m going to Cancun, Mexico in a few months and also hope to plan pull of trips to the Mammoth caves, Iceland and Belize next!