Guatemala is the first Central American country coming from the North. But a lot of people who travel around here, skip it or don’t even think about going there because it’s said to be too dangerous. But except some areas, it’s actually not that bad. The capital, Guatemala City is said to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but can usually be avoided by going to beautiful Antigua, just one hour South.
The International Airport is right in the middle of the city and if you have an afternoon or evening flight out, it’s easy to kill time in a shopping mall and you can go there by cab or even by local bus. But hanging around the bus-stops at night might not be the best idea.
It’s a country that isn’t on the map of most surfers, as there is Mexico on one side and El Salvador on the other. Both blessed with countless point breaks. But that doesn’t mean there is no surf. It’s the same stretch of coastline, facing the same direction as its neighbors. Looking at it on a map or on google earth, make you realize that the coastline is pretty much straight. This means it has not as many perfect right points as Mexico and El Salvador. If it comes to surfing Guatemala and finding waves, you have to look for other factors. It’s mostly river mouths, piers and jetties that offers you waves. Plus the endless potential for fun beach breaks everywhere.
But let me tell you first about a few other places/ things to do in Guatemala. If you’re only interested in the info about surfing Guatemala, scroll down a bit, you’ll see it.
Doing a trip in this part of the world, you should go and see at least a bit of the remaining of its old culture. Tikal is one of the most amazing sites ever discovered, and it’s not only a must do, but worth to travel for. There are so many more ruins in Guatemala and if you do your research, you’ll find out about other places that are great, often for free and no one else goes there.
There are three places in Tikal to sleep. They are bit pricey, but you pay for the location, and not for the hotel. In one of them, you can camp or sleep in a hammock, what makes it cheaper. But most people stay in the town of Las Flores around 90 minutes away. Las Flores is a little island that is connected to the mainland by a street and the whole island is just tourism, or at least that’s how it feels. It has countless hotels and hostels, restaurants, mini markets, cafes and bars and of course Tour organizers.
It doesn’t matter with what organization you book your trip, as they put all the groups together on arrival in Tikal and assign them guides. So ask around how much other people pay for their tour and find a good deal. You don’t have to book a guided tour, you can go there and walk around by yourself. But as it’s really big, I actually enjoyed having someone telling me everything about it. And after three and a half hour, I’ve seen and heard enough, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have read it all in a brochure.
They sell you an afternoon tour and one they call “sunrise tour”, where you can see and hear the jungle come to live. As they leave Las Flores around 4:30 am and arrive in Tikal around 6 am, when the site actually opens, you have to ask yourself what time the sunrise is in that time of the year?
As we arrived, they told everyone what group they’re in. There was one group with an English speaking guide and twenty-seven people! The Spanish speaking group had only six people. I choose the Spanish group and was happy I don’t have to walk around with such a crowd and to always have thirty people in my pictures. But there was one “Mr. know it all” in our group, who was so unbelievably annoying that I hope the guide would not only talk about human sacrifice, but actually show us how it’s done!
Guatemala City is a night bus away from here, but as I told you before, better not to hang around there at night. I recommend you to go to the colonial city of Antigua one hour South, or to Lago Atitlan around three hours to the West of Ciudad Guatemala (Guatemala City). There are a couple of beautiful places to stay (and so do most tourists for some days). San Pedro is probably your best bet if you want to meet other travelers and have a couple of beers at night. It’s easy to take a bus to Panajachel and from there a boat. From San Pedro, the next stop towards the east is Quezaltenango, another few hours in a minibus. Or you find an agency that brings your stuff there and take you on the three-day trek.
Quezaltenango is with Antigua the most chosen city in Guatemala to learn Spanish. The locals don’t call it by its long name, but simply Xela (pronounced: Sheela). That is what you have to listen for at the bus stop in Guate city, in Antigua, San Pedro or from where you’re coming. It sits on an altitude of more than 2300 meters, what gives it a fresh climate. That doesn’t mean it can’t be hot during the days, but it gets cold at night. It’s a great place to have some Spanish classes for around 100-120 US$ a week (that was a few years ago, let me know if this has changed), including one-on-one teaching for four to five hours a day and staying with a local family (including three meals a day).
There are a lot of different schools. Walk around, talk to them and choose the one you like most. They’ll organize the homestay family for you and everything you need.
With so many students in town, parties are good here. But be careful, the altitude can give you a bad hangover if you’re not used to it! And make sure you don’t miss to drink some of the fantastic Rum up here. Zacapa was awarded the best rum in the world a few times. It’s actually not from here, but from the eastern highlands, however, try it.
Once you are used to the climate and the altitude, you can hike up one of the many Volcanoes around Xela like Tajumulco (the highest point in Central America) or the perfect coin shaped Santa Maria. This one is just outside the city, and from the top, you can see another ten or so volcanoes.
But that’s not all… One of its neighbor craters is still active and as you are around a thousand meters higher, you can look inside the crater and see the lava.
Some hot springs are close too. There are a few cheap ones or the slightly fancier ‘Aguas Georginas’ where they have a pool that is hot enough to boil eggs.
The Terminal (bus stop) is next to the market, always super busy and always fun to absorb how the locals live. There are only chicken-buses here. The cheapest way to travel around Central America, but not the most comfortable one. They are called chicken-bus because it’s more common than not, that people sit in them with living chickens! I’ve even seen one with sheep strapped to the roof! The great thing about those buses is not only the price but also how close you get to the locals (usually three people on a bench for two). There is always loud music, and always the same. Better get used to it and sing along. Everyone is chatting and they stop wherever you want. The downside is, as said before, the lack of comfort and that they take much longer than other vehicles. But when you’re here, I guess you have no fixed appointments and traveling is more about getting out the comfort zone, than getting somewhere as quick as possible.
They say you are either a chicken-bus person or not. Easy as that. And Guatemala is a good place to find out which of the two groups you belong to, as the people here are unbelievably friendly and helpful.
Champerico is one of the closest beaches from Xela and one of the first surf spots after Ocos, if you come from Mexico. It’s not a secret that you’ll find waves here, and it’s one of the most crowded surf destinations in this country.
There is a long beach break with different peaks but if you pass the big pier and keep walking on the beach to the North, you come to some jetties that produce good waves. The main wave is a left that breaks of the second jetty. This wave never gets big, it just gets heavier at some point. If the size and tide is right, it barrels from the takeoff and ends up in a fun wave. It can be super crowded, and the locals know how to surf their wave. But they are at the same time super friendly and as they don’t have a lot of Gringos surfing with them, they’re happy to share. Go and surf early, most the locals are still in bed, and if they come, don’t steal waves from them, be respectful and friendly, they gonna give you waves and you make friends easily.
Puerto San Jose
Puerto San Jose is probably the worst beach town you can go in this country. It has again a long beach with potential as well as a pier and a river mouth that can give you waves. But it has other things that are slightly less pleasant. There is a strip club, one of the bad looking sort, and on the other side of the street is a shop for weapons and ammunition. Right next to it is a 24h liquor store and a lot of drunk and drugged people in the street. Even at midday! BUT there can be quality surf and the waves are often uncrowded. Nevertheless, there are a lot of surf spots within maybe 15 minutes driving from here. However, not a place where I would really want to go back.
Iztapa is around 30 minutes down the coast and a much better place to stay. Here again, you’ll find super friendly people and local surfers who are willing to show you their secret spot. They maybe didn’t understand the idea of “secret spot” or maybe we just forgot the idea that surfing should make us happy. After all, sharing is caring, and making people happy should make us happy, right?
There is a river mouth here in Iztapa that can produce nice barrels and some other peaks down the beach. Plus the four or so secret spots around here. Well… as just said, not secret spots. Just lesser known. But it should be alright to surf there. It’s a small town with not many people and only a couple of surfers and everyone is helpful and friendly. All you need is a good swell and the ability to entertain yourself, and you’ll enjoy it here.
In El Paredon, you’ll find another beach break, actually more of a shore break. The only difference is, there is a place to stay here that is run by an Americano. Because of that, you find out about it online. It’s a bit of a mission to get there and not as cheap as the rest of the country. And most probably more crowded, as other foreigners go there to surf as well.
This town is actually how you imagine a beach town. Maybe not the sand, because the sand is dark as in the rest of the country, but all the other things. A fair number of travelers, local holidaymaker and expats, and of course restaurants and bars that are owned by foreigners and prices more adjusted to those as well. Here you’ll find something to do if there is no surf. Lay in a hammock and read a book (in English) that you just exchanged or talk to other travelers. You are most unlikely to do this in any other beach town here, except maybe El Paredon.
The surf in general is not too crowded and the locals are so friendly that you don’t know if something is wrong with them, or maybe with the rest of the surfing world. But it needs a good swell to work. To be honest, the surf is not as good as in the countries North and South, but it still gives you the chance to explore a bit and find uncrowded, perfect waves. The whole coastline has potential, just go and find out. And don’t be shy to ask local surfers, they are happy to chat and help.