We have been car-free on our early retirement travels. Most of the time we do just fine with public transportation or cabs. However, we wanted to spend a day on our own schedule on a trip to the Pacific Ocean from Antigua, Guatemala, so we rented a car.
Antigua has a few rental car places. We went with Budget right off the main town square because they offered my spouse Tedly 24 hours for just $40 – so we splurged. If we had used a shuttle service, which is common for this kind of beach trip from Antigua, it would have cost about $12 each and we would have been on someone else’s schedule. Plus, Tedly would enjoy a drive – it was something he hadn’t done since his trip to Cleveland, Ohio, ended in October 2016.
Also, we wanted to take our Guatemalan friend Marvin and his niece Hazel for the day trip. It had been a long time since he was at the beach – and we later found out he’d never been to Monterrico, which was the main beach we wanted to check out.
The road out of Antigua towards the beach started off with twists and turns out of the volcanic region. We lost elevation at a steady pace until we got to the straight highway leading to Port San Jose – Guatemala’s big shipping port. Once at the port, we continued south. The heat and the salt air at sea level felt amazing – we’ve been at higher elevations for rainy season since early April, and we both love the beach.
The first beach area is Iztapa, known for sport fishing. You can’t see the ocean from here unless you take a panga boat across a small bay. On the other side of a small barrier beach is the ocean.
We decided not to go over to the ocean at this point, but we did stop at a restaurant on one of the streets we turned down for refreshments on the bay. We went to Pacific Fins Resort and Marina. This was a bad idea.
The ceviche was bland, the drinks were overpriced, and we were charged 95 quetzales for Tedly’s quick jump into the pool! He wasn’t in the pool more than three or four minutes. There were no indications on the menu for that charge – and there were no signs announcing the charge near the pool or on the surrounding grounds. But our bill had a handwritten fee for poll use. A total rip off!
We are savvy travelers who’ve been around awhile, and we’ve never experienced anything like this. What to do other than pay? It’s not our country, and we didn’t want any problems. There was a guard with a gun by the parking lot where we put the rental car. So we paid and left, but I’m here to tell you don’t bother with this place if you ever visit Iztapa in Guatemala. It’s an overpriced, dishonest rip off, in my opinion.
We paid and continued on towards Monterrico. It took another 90 minutes or so on a two lane road that runs parallel to the coast. There is a toll for the equivalent of $2 USD to drive on this road. It’s paved and in good condition.
Eventually, the small barrier beach disappears and opens up to the ocean by the time you get to Monterrico. It’s a small town with a lot of shops and restaurants. We went on a Saturday, and there were not many visitors, perhaps because it was rainy season.
We had a wonderful time in Monterrico. We decided to enjoy the beach from the porch of a restaurant attached to Hotel El Mangle. It was a pleasant place where we spent the entire afternoon, minus trips to the water and walks down the beach. They make wood-oven pizza there and it was tasty because we were hungry by the time it was served.
The beach itself is beautiful. The black sand is super hot in the sun. We were so lucky to have a sunny day – because we went in June, which is typically the wettest month of rainy season in Guatemala. I’m even more grateful because this was the first time our friend Guatemalan Marvin had ever visited Monterrico, and it was also the first time for Hazel. To watch them play at the shore with crashing waves, as they wore huge smiles and had wide eyes, is a priceless memory for me.
There were a few vendors trying to make a dollar or two. We didn’t buy any souvenirs, as usual, but we did give some money to a boy who offered to sing for us. He looked hungry and he was polite and intelligent. We are suckers for the kids trying to make money wherever we go. And that’s ok. We won’t miss a few bucks and we hope to show them Americans aren’t all greedy bastards.
We had such a great time that we stayed all afternoon and left just before dark. This was another not-so-great idea. The two-lane road from Monterrico back to the port area is a nightmare to drive in the dark. People, slow cars and slow mopeds, stray dogs — they all use the road at night as if it were a sidewalk. It is difficult to see them so there is no way to drive fast at night. And someone like me, who can’t see at night, would have a difficult time driving this road even at a slow speed because it’s not lit in most parts. There also are speed bumps with no warning.
Once we got back to the main road leading away from the port, we discovered many cars and even semi trucks don’t use lights. We would come upon an 18-wheeler and only knew it was there because of a reflector at the bottom of the trailer. Or we would come upon a pickup truck filled with people in the back that we almost didn’t see until we were right upon it.
I would not recommend driving at night in Guatemala for anyone who isn’t a risk taker. My spouse is an excellent driver, and even he was a little miffed by the night obstacles.
Monterrico is definitely worth a two-and-a-half hour drive from Antigua. In fact, I’d go back there to stay for a spell. For a day trip, I’d recommend an early start on a clear day. It would have sucked to have gotten to the beach on a rainy day – but we took a chance and we were so lucky!