The magical lake of Guatemala – Atitlán

San pedro volcano at Lake Atitlán

A deep blue lake sorrounded by cone-shaped volcanoes and lush green vegetation. This sounds like a place to check out, right? If I add the twist of a thriving Mayan culture, great food and sunshine to the mix, you would be insane not to visit this five star destination. This place exists, in Guatemala and is called Lake Atitlán. It’s one of the world’s most scenic lakes, a peaceful haven of Central America. If you are exploring this region, don’ think twice, just get your tickets.

How to get there:

It is approximately 150 kilometres away from the capital, Guatemala City at an elevation of 1500 metres. Your trip will take around 3 hours, as you will travel on smaller winding roads. You can always rent a car, of course, but I recommend you the greatest fun ride, a so called chicken bus. It is an old, colorful vehicle that transports not only people, but also goods (like chicken, hence the name) around the country. Safety is definitely not the number one concern of the operators. The bus drivers drive like crazy, but you will surely not forget your ride from the capital.

Where to go:

The 16th church at Calle Principal in Panahachel.

The city of Panajachel is your best bet for a good start. The „capital city” of Atitlán is rather touristy, with all of the advantages and disadvantages that come with it. It offers a nice selection of hotels and hostels, several travel agencies offering a wide range of activities and some awesome restaurants. On the other hand, bagpackers are flooding the streets during the day, and nightlife is loud and vibrant. Anyways, whenever you feel saturated with the city, the lake will compensate you for everything.

Mayans weaving traditional clothes
Mayan ladies weaving a traditional skirt.

I started my day at the local market and main street called Calle Santander. It is a fantastic place to get a good breakfast and to try as many of the local fruits as you can. When it comes to souvenir shopping, this area also offers better deals than Guatemala City or Antigua. There are artisan craft stands with traditional clothes, jewelry, pottery, hammocks and other treats to discover. If you are not too packed up already, take a stroll in the city center. The 16th century church on Calle Principal is worth the visit. An old hotel called Casa Cakchiquel also attracts tourists interested in the past of Panajachel. Today it serves as a cultural center, but being the first hotel at the lake it once hosted several prominent guests like Che Guevara and Ingrid Bergman. One spot I missed in town but heard great things about is the Maya Traditions Medicine Garden, where indigenous guides will explain the traditional use of herbal medicines. For some ideas on where to eat in Panahachel and around the lake, click here.

Boat ride on Lake Atitlán
Boatride on the lake with the volcanoes in the background.

There is no better way to leave town than by embarking on a boat ride. From the port of the city small boats will take you around the lake. These serve as the local way of transportation between the smaller towns around Atitlán. You will have a spectacular view of the three volcanoes on one side of the lake, and the beautiful lake houses and Panajachel on the other. Not far from the city, near Santa Cruz, you will find the Kayak Guatemala Los Elementos. Renting a kayak there was a superb experience for me. For around 10 bucks an hour you will have undisturbed private moments on the lake. If you take the guided tour, the Los Elementos team will take you to the best spots nearby. For more details visit their homepage here.

View of the lake from a mountain
The view of the lake and volcanoes from the top of another mountain.

I chose another great outdoor activity to get away from the crowd – hiking the San Pedro volcano. Leave early in the morning and cross Atitlán by boat to San Pedro. Climbing up to 3000 metres is an arduous hike. The trail leads you into the jungle, and will take around 3-4 hours, so come prepared with water, snacks and lunch. It can be chilly up on the top, so make sure to bring a jacket along. There were absolutely no signs along the way, though, so either rent a guide down by the visitor center, or take an organized tour from Panajachel already. If you are lucky and clouds are not covering the top of the volcano, you can enjoy a stunning view of the lake below your feet. For more tips on how to climb the volcano, click here.

Nature and culture make for an unforgettable mix at Atitlán. Looking back on the lake on my way back to Guatemala City made me smile and think: what a great trip!

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Views from the shores of Lake Atitlán

 

Atacama – Your time alone with nature

Salar de Tara

Pure nature is more and more difficult to find these days. Tourists invade the well-known sites and landmarks of the world making it impossible for others to discover the unknown in its privacy. This is the reason I love those destinations where I can catch a few hours alone with nature and enjoy its untouched beauty for a while. The north of Chile, better known as the Atacama desert is one of these few places. The name doesn’t do it justice! The Atacama is so much more than an arid piece of land… Volcanos, deep blue lakes, geysers, hot springs make it a super interesting place to visit.

Salar de Chaxa saltflats
Arid landscape at the saltflats near San Pedro.

To get there you need to catch a flight (most likely from Santiago) to Calama. It takes around 2 hours to get to San Pedro de Atacama from El Loa Airport. There are organized tours, regular buses that take you to the city, but I definitely recommend renting a car. Distances are big, and the most important sites are not near the city. My advice is to go for the miners’ pick-ups, because most places of interest are not even near paved roads. You won’t regret it as you will drive on bumpy dirt roads for looong and tiring hours. To see your options and prices just click here.

San Pedro itself is a small Andean town with lots of hostels to accomodate the growing number of tourists. It’s fun to walk around in town souvenir shopping, drinking jugos and eating ceviche in local restaurants. Discover some options here. You might feel it’s a bit overcrowded there, but once you leave town, you will mostly be by yourself on the road. The UV radiation is unusually high in this area, so be careful when you go out exploring.

Sunset at Valle de la Luna
A sunset on the Moon-like landscape

Either for your first sunset or sunrise head to Valle de la Luna – The Valley of The Moon. One of the most renowned places in Atacama, this is a truly wonderful area to visit. From the top of a ridge you will be able to see the valley and bare mountains around you, shining in shades of red and grey. The feeling is unearthly – no wonder the comparison to a walk on the surface of the Moon.

My absolute favorite trip, though was to Laguna Miñiques and Miscanti. Leave right after breakfast, as it is around two hours from San Pedro. At the elevation of over 4000 meters, you will find stunningly beautiful mountain lakes by perfectly shaped volcanoes. As there are herds of llamas eating their life away by the lakes, this is an abolsutely picture perfect spot.

Altiplano lake and volcano
The beautiful scenery of the altiplano lakes and volcanos.

If you are lucky you will see foxes and rheas by the road while driving up the mountain. Also, on your way back to San Pedro make sure to visit the salar (salt flat) at Chaxa or Tebinquinche for the flamingo colonies. You can also chill at Laguna Cejar – a lake near the city where you can simply float on the surface of the water because of its salt content.

Another fantastic experience is a trip to the geysers of El Tatio, the third largest geyser field of the world with over 80 active geysers to check out. Tours usually leave extremely early (at around 4) in the morning to arrive for the sunrise. They say the steam is more visible at that time. I got there before sunrise, but regretted getting up at 3:30. It was so cold and still dark when we got there. I guess it is fine to leave a bit later. You will still be able to enjoy the spectacle a bit later. A warm coat is a must, though, even in the hottest summer days.

A good way to recharge the batteries after such long road trips is to visit the Puritama springs. The warm volcanic water forms lakes when it emerges from the rocks. Every lake is of different temprerature as the water cools off when it flows from one lake to another. If you are lucky you will be sitting in your private natural pond, surrounded by tall, dense vegetation, as in an oasis in a desert. Make sure not to arrive too late, though. The ponds are situated in a gorge where the sun won’t shine after around 6pm.

Puritama springs
Private pools at the Puritama springs.

Although these are my favorite places to visit in the Atacama region, you could find several other activites interesting – stargazing at the ALMA Observatory, or visiting some archaeological sites of the region. (More info for visitors about the ALMA Observatory here.) One thing is for sure: no matter how long you stay, you will regret not having booked a longer trip.

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El Tatio geysers

 

Colombia – “The only risk is wanting to stay!”

One of the most underrated places I have ever visited is without a doubt Colombia. In every drug-related Hollywood movie somebody is surely Colombian. If you ask people who have never been to Colombia to name a few things about the country, probably Escobar would come up on top of their list. International media only mentions Colombia when talking about the FARC. As a result of this „bad press” the country has a negative image and tourists are afraid to go and visit. They coudn’t be more wrong. Colombia is a country of great opportunities and fantastic people. Here is a list of 10 reasons I think you should visit Colombia.

  1. Colombia boasts a great diversity of landscapes. A short domestic flight from Bogotá will take you to the Caribbean to the north, the Pacific to the west, the Amazon to the south or the Andes in the centre of the country. One day you can enjoy a boatride in the rainforest, the next day dance to the vibrant beats of Cartagena. Every day something completely new might come along your way.

    Bogota main square with cathedral
    Bogota old town with the cathedral.
  2. Colombia has been named the happiest country in the world several times. The people just feel happy about where and how they live and they are not afraid to show it. They are humble but kind, open and extremely helpful. Their love of life is contagious. As a foreigner you will never have the difficulty to strike up a conversation over there.
  3. The variety of its ecosystems makes Colombia one of the countries with the richest biodiversity of our planet. More than 50% of its territory is a natural forest. No other country has so many bird species like Colombia. For sure it is one of the best vacation spots for nature lovers.
  4. The bigger cities are safe, developing fast and they offer a wide array of fun activities. The capital, Bogotá is a booming metropolis. Its hip dining and party zones offer great opportunities for the ones looking for entertainment. The sightseeing tourists can dive into the historic centre’s museums, colonnial buildings and lush squares.
  5. The proximity of the equator guarantess a year-round fantastic weather. The climate is ideal in the bigger cities also, because either the altitude or the sea moderates the heat. Prepare yourself for some humid days, though.
  6. Colombian food on the table
    An authentic Colombian lunch at Andrés Carne de Res.

    Colombian gastronomy is one of the biggest surprises along the way. Different areas of the country bring in distint flavors and themes to the national cousine. Grilled meet products are a big favorite, and get ready for beans, avocados, plantains in large quantities. I was astonished by the number of different fruits you can ask local restaurants to make a „jugo” (juice) out of. Lulo was my absolute number one.

  7. Coffee culture has never been stronger than now. And I don’t mean Juan Valdez only. Make sure to visit the Eje cafetero (coffee producing area between Bogotá and Cali) where you can enjoy the serenity of the plantations and try different brews of authentic, hand-picked coffee. For coffee lovers I recommend reading the Colombian Coffee Company blog here.
  8. Colombia has deep roots in the past and culture of Latin America. For those trying to understand the pre-colombian centuries, or interested in the history of the independence movement of Bolivar will just as easily find this place spectacular as the fans of García Márquez or the modern art of Botero.
  9. Bogota bullfight with rainbow
    Bullfights are still popular in Bogota, despite constant protests by the arena.

    Life is music and music is life in Colombia. Everywhere you go, you feel the latin beats of cumbia and vallenato around you. May it be a summer festival on the streets of Medellín, a dinner on the beaches of Santa Marta, or a party in Bogotá, you will surely immerse in the rhythm of the country. If you feel like listening to some latin beats, get some taste of it here.

  10. One of the greatest things about Colombia is that it already caters to the needs of the rising number of foreign visitors but it is still not a touristy destination. You can easily find places where you will not feel you are following the footsteps of hundreds of other visitors. Colombia still gives you the chance to feel like you are discovering something new in this world.

These reasons explain well why the Colombian National Tourism Board chose once the slogan “The only risk is wanting to stay!” I am grateful I also got to discover this myself during my visit to one of the best vacation spots on Earth.

If you are still not convinced, just watch this video about Colombia:

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native lady south america colombia
A native lady walking the streets of Villa de Leyva.