Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World

Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World.jpg

Arriving in Santo Tomas, Guatemala

Guatemala was our first exposure to Central America on this 26 day cruise with Oceania Cruises.  The captain expertly parallel parked the ship in the small fishing village of Santo Thomas.  It was our base to explore Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World.

Sao Thomas Harbour.jpg

Our cruise ship was docked in a commercial port beside a massive ship loading nickel ore. As the day passed, we saw the ship as it sunk further into the water as it was loaded.

Ore Loading.jpg

We waited in the lounge for our tour number to be called.  Then we got our ticket to board the bus and walked through the commercial port to board our bus. While this tour was marketed at a “moderate” activity level, we saw many people struggle as they got onboard the bus.  The large number of mobility challenged cruisers did not let much stop them from any of the tours.

Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World On Our Trip to Rio Dulce

It was an almost 90 minute bus ride to get to the town of El Rellenos.  From there we caught a boat for the next leg of our trip. Our guide Hugo did a great job of talking through most of the drive. He gave us all little “worry dolls”.  These small plastic moulded dolls were in a small bag.  We rubbed them to make our worries go away. We saw the countryside go by us as Hugo filled us with facts about Guatemala.

Countryside drive.jpg

Countryside drive - Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World.jpg

Countryside drive.jpg

As we neared the huge bridge where the Rio Dulce (“Sweet River”) meets Lago de Izabal, the traffic came to almost a standstill. It was the Wednesday before the Easter weekend.  And we quickly learned that the Guatemalans took Easter seriously. It was a 4 day holiday for most people and families took this time off. Commercial trucks were even banned from being on the roads after midnight on Wednesday! It was clear as we came over the bridge into the little town, that many families were starting their long weekend a bit early.

Holiday crowds.jpg

Holiday crowds.jpg

We were told that the best party was held on Saturday. This included a big procession carrying Jesus. We were kinda sorry we missed the big party on Saturday! Other bloggers were in Antigua, Guatemala on Easter weekend and captured great pictures of the processions!

When we got to the little dock, we were split into groups.  We got on our small Lanchas boats and donned our lifejackets. Once we got everyone onto the rocking boat, the driver raced onto the river. We had thought we would get a gentle ride on the river.  But the river traffic had no “no wake” rule and boats raced every which way.  There were seadoos, fast speedboats and a large group of Lanchas that ferried locals and tourists.

River boat traffic - Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World.jpg

River boat traffic.jpg

Castillo de San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala

After a short but exciting boat ride we approached Castillo de San Felipe de Lara.  The boat docked and we went for a short walk around.

Castillo de San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce.jpg

Castillo de San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce - Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World.jpg

The grounds were full of Guatemalan families picnicing and enjoying the sun and the water.  We trooped past them to the well restored fort for a visit.

Castillo de San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce.jpg

Castillo de San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce - Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World.jpg

Castillo de San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce - Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World.jpg

Re-boarding the Launchas, we headed back and went under the large bridge over Rio Dulce and stopped at the bird sanctuary island. Who was watching who?

Castillo de San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce - Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World.jpg

Lunch At The Local Catamaran Hotel on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala

From there we had a short stop at the Catamaran Hotel for a snack and a walk around this very local resort. We had a chance to shop for clothes and fabrics hand woven by locals.

Catamaran Hotel on the Rio Dulce.jpg

Catamaran Hotel on the Rio Dulce.jpg

Catamaran Hotel on the Rio Dulce - Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World.jpg

Hugo had very smartly moved the bus out of the crazy busy town of El Rellenos.  We were picked up at a place on our route out of town.  Hugo again rattled on the return trip to the ship.

One of the key points Hugo made was how different this eastern coast of Guatemala was from the central and western parts. When we transited through Santo Thomas, we noticed how poor and ramshackle much of the town looked.  And this got no better as we moved into the countryside.

Hugo highly recommended we try the town of Antigua if we returned. This was echoed by others we met who travelled to Guatemala before. Apparently when you cruise on the Pacific side, your day trip options include Antigua.

We Had A Good Day In Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World

It was a long day sitting mostly on a bus. We got a little taste test of Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World.  But we would likely not return to this part. But we soon learned that many of the countries we visited in Central America on this 26 day trip (Costa Rica and Panama) were mostly commercial ports.  And they were poorer on the Caribbean side we travelled. I guess that meant we would be back to visit the Pacific side!

A Little More About Guatemala

Some of the things we learned from our knowledgeable guide along the way:

  • Guatemala is a Guatemalian word (not spanish) for “land of trees”
  • It was the most populated country in Central America with 15 million people
  • 23 cultures and 23 languages (20 are Mayan dialects)
  • 45% are natives, 45% are of Spanish descent and the rest are mixed (including black Indians)
  • There is one major archeological site at Tikal (in the north – closer to Belize)
  • Catholic dominated (including politics) but 45% have converted to evangelical religions (big influx of Mormons)
  • Cacao had a rich history in Guatemala:
    • Boast that cacao originated in Guatemala
    • Cacao beans used as money in ancient time
    • Only the ruling class could afford to actually drink it (so cacao was often buried with the rich)
  • Guatemala also claimed that corn originated here – black, white, yellow and red like the people of the region
  • Corn is the most important part of their diet – they are referred to as “men of corn”
  • 33 volcanos face the pacific – 5 active – create great soil for growing
  • Quetzal bird the most spectacular – icon of a Mayan cult as the feathered snake which represents the duality of human nature
  • Apparently they have good rum – their President gives this as a gift – 5 yrs in a row won Caribbean rum contest
  • Currently grow rubber trees to support latex production
  • 22 families own 70% of the land  (the oligarchs). A war was fought for “land for everyone” (enough for each family to plant one years supply of food).
  • Became a democracy in 1985 at which time they started a large investment in education – mandatory for grade school, bilingual so young kids can speak Mayan and Spanish – less than 1% get to college
  • Average 5 kids per family.
  • Minimum wage $10 per day.
  • Trade
    • Main export in colonial times was based on dies and textiles – Cocchia red from harvesting beetles was used as the rich red for red carpets and indigo die made from crushed plant. In the 1860s when synthetic dies created there was an economic crisis that switched them to coffee production.
    • Sugar and cotton were introduced. The Chinese put them out of cotton but they continue to produce the 7th greatest amount of sugar worldwide.
    • Main income is from money sent back from the US by people who leave to work and not from trade. Cost about $7k to leave so start with that debt.

Have you visited Guatemala? What is your favourite part of Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World? Did I miss a key tidbit of info about Guatemala?

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About TravelAtWill 737 Articles
Travel blogger and photographer! Scuba diving, luxury cruising, chocoholic, sea and sunshine addicts, camera attached and just generally curious! Join us on our adventures!


  1. Although I spent long months in Central America, I spent only one afternoon in Guatemala on a day trip from Belize. I’d be really interested in visiting the country for longer, however, that’s definitely one of the destination where I have to be cautious since I’m a female solo traveller and it’s not all that smooth. Yet, as you are pointing out, the heritage and the culture must be just amazing. I’d probably buy yards and yards of this colorful fabric 😉

    • We enjoyed our one day in Guatemala. But talking with our guide we realized that travel would require a bit of extra planning. One day we will see more of Central America.

  2. I’ve been to several Central American countries, but I’ve spent only one afternoon in Guetamala when I hopped across the border from Belize. As you are showing in your post, it must be a wonderful and colorful country. I would love to visit – especially since I’ve seen so many Mayan places in Belize, Honduras, and Mexico. Actually, I might combine it with a trip to Mexico, don’t you think?

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