Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala: When is a Castle Not a Castle?

Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala (5)

If you’ve ever looked at a tourism brochure for Guatemala, you’ll notice that Antigua Guatemala, Tikal’s Mayan temples, and Lake Atitlan occupy front and center.


Occasionally though, you’ll may also notice that included in the brochure is a picture of “castle”, sitting on the shores of a placid lake.  That would be Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, most commonly known as Castillo San Felipe .


Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala sits right where Rio Dulce and Lake Izabal meet, just a few miles from the main road that leads to Tikal and the Peten region.  While not as popular as Lake Atitlan, Antigua Guatemala, and Tikal, Rio Dulce is well worth a visit.


I’d been looking forward to visiting Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala (I make the distinction because there is more than one – in Puerto Rico and in Colombia), for quite some time.


Upon returning from our Belize trip and from the Flores region, we made good enough driving time to stop by Castillo de San Felipe for a few hours.


Visiting Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala


Hours of operation are from 8:00am to 5:00pm, every day.  There’s a 15Q fee per person to get in.  A gravel parking lot sits right outside the main gates, for which you’ll pay about 15Q for the pleasure of using.


Entrance fees paid, you’re handed a small map by the attendant.  You’re then free to wander the grounds at your leisure.


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The long main road leads straight to the castle.


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It’s a pleasant walk and there are good photo-ops along the trail.  Since we visited on a Wednesday afternoon, we had almost the whole place to ourselves.


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The castle grounds has lush picnic areas and a restaurant on-site.  In the picture below, you can see Rio Dulce Bridge in the background, which leads to Peten and the Tikal archaeological site.


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A little-known fact is that Castillo de San Felipe is not actually a “castle”, but a fort.  Only fortified installations where members of a royal family actually lived could be designated as such.


But the “castle” moniker has stuck.  I’m guessing it’s good for tourism.


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The castle’s construction started in 1595, in direct response to disruption of commercial trade by pirates.  The Rio Dulce port was a very important trading post in its time, so the Spanish monarchy though it a good idea to protect the area.


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Ghosts at Castillo de San Felipe?


Besides seeing use as a fort, Castillo de San Felipe later served as a prison.  A very nasty one at that, since prisoner’s quarters were often flooded, making for an unpleasant stay.


Imagine sitting in a pool of fetid water, chained to a wall, with no bathroom access.  Oh, and swarms of malaria-carrying mosquitoes buzzing your head constantly.  Add killer humidity and zero ventilation.


I can’t think of a worst situation to be in, which is why being a prisoner here often meant a death sentence.


I pressed the unenthusiastic guide for any juicy ghost stories, but she had none.  Although, she did assure me she high-tailed it out of there at 5:00pm sharp, since there have been reports of unexplained noises and screams that can be heard throughout the night.


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The castle is built in the typical Spanish-style, with an open-air courtyard and red-tile roof.


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The castle is strategically positioned and closing access to the port was just a matter of raising a chain attached to the other side of the lake.


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Something we didn’t do, for lack of time, was to go on a launch ride around the lake.  One can get magnificent vistas of the castle from the river.


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Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense


A couple interesting artifacts inside the castle are cannons bearing English seals.  These items were confiscated from captured pirate ships.


English cannons were of better quality than the steel-made cannons that Spain supplied for the castle’s defense.


The bronze cannon below bears the English seal of King George III, he who fought, and lost, against the rag-tag band of insurgents of a former colony known today as the United States of America.


It seems that King George III was on a particularly tough losing streak at the time.


Of interest is the French motto on the cannon, “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense“, which means “Shame Be to Him Who Thinks of Evil.”  This motto actually appears on the British passport, Royal Coat of Arms, and many other British government forms.


I hardly think that anyone pointing that cannon at somebody, upon seeing the motto, thinks better of it and waves the other guys over for some tea and crumpets.  Just saying.


The center of the seal bears a “G” and the number “3”, though I’m not sure what the “R” stands for.
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The cannon below bears a similar seal, only this time the letter “C” is engraved in the middle.  The engraving is for a Marquess Cornwallis, Master-General of Ordnance at the time.


Cornwallis is best known in America as Lord Cornwallis, the General who surrendered to American General George Washington during the “Siege of Yorktown“.


That battle was the last major battle between British and American forces.  It convinced the British to give up and led them to ultimately acknowledge America’s independence.


What can I say?  I love history.  And seeing random British cannons in a fort in Guatemala is pretty darn cool to me.


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Compare the shiny bronze cannon above to the junky-looking Spanish version below.  BIG difference.

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My daughter was stoked to be inside a “castle”, the first she’s ever visited.


No, I didn’t have the heart to tell her it’s actually a fort.  Hey, Santa Claus is cool with me too, man.


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Unfortunately, the dungeons and dark tunnels are super-hard to photograph.  If you want to see those pics, just close your eyes for a second or two.  You’ll get the same effect as if you were looking at them here.


At least I got to take a pic of the Master’s quarters, which are spacious and somewhat lit, which is the nicest thing that can be said about them.  No wall-to-wall windows with vistas of the beautiful river outside.  For shame!


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In all, we spent a good 3 hours there, which was plenty of time to see the castle up and down twice.  It is definitely worthwhile to visit, as well as other attractions in the Rio Dulce area.


What’s your favorite castle you’ve visited?

And no, Cinderella’s at Disney doesn’t count.

Lago de Amatitlan: Lake Atitlan’s Oft-Forgotten Little Sister

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Lake Atitlan gets all the attention from foreign visitors, and rightly so. But less than 16 miles south of Guatemala City lies Lago de Amatitlan (Lake Amatitlan), a beautiful lake with a volcano for a backdrop. And also a sad reminder of what happens when industrial pollution and waste are ignored for years.

Lago de Amatitlan is a really popular place for Guatemalans to visit on the weekends. Much smaller than Lake Atitlan, it has a more down-to-earth feel to it.

Food and candy stalls line the street leading to the shore and open-air shacks serve freshly-fried “mojarra” (silver perch) to awaiting patrons. It’s about an hour ride by car from Antigua Guatemala

While half of the people I saw walking on Panajachel’s Santander Street were of the blue eyes, blond hair variety, I was hard-pressed to find a single person that looked like a tourist. Well, other than myself, who stood out because of the fancy camera I was carrying around.

Once we got past the street stalls on the main street, we found a parking spot near the shore’s access path.

To come here by bus is a little difficult. However, all one needs to remember is to ask for the bus to the “teleferico” (funicular), a cable car that takes you to the top of the mountain next to Lago de Amatitlan. The teleferico offers expansive views of the lake.

Unfortunately, the teleferico was shut-down for repairs on that day, so pics from up top will come at a later date.

Radioactive Lake?

Lago de Amatitlan has an odd green color that makes for pretty pictures but is likely very hazardous to one’s health. Industrial buildings located by the lake used it for years to dump their industrial waste. Runoff from rivers feeding Lago de Amatitlan also added to the pollution.

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Piers at Lake Amatitlan

The lake almost died, if not for the efforts of volunteer groups that dedicated themselves to cleaning up the lake. Today, the lake is much cleaner than before, but still not suitable for swimming in.

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While not completely clean, there were no foul odors and the lake’s shore was a very agreeable place to sit by and enjoy the view.

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Today, Lago de Amatitlan’s main attractions are the small boats that are available for rent by the hour. You can also take a 15-minute tour around the lake on a shared boat.

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Plenty of stalls selling traditional Guatemalan candy and knick-knacks outside.

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Lunch at El Rocarena

We were starving, but not enough to dare try the local fish at one of the stalls nearby. Much later, I learned that the mojarras sold by the food shacks are farm-raised and not lake-caught. We decided to head to a popular hotel/restaurant/spa named El Rocarena.

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It’s about a 5-10 minute walk uphill, near the lake. El Rocarena has fresh water pools as well as a restaurant with great views of the lake.

Lunch was nothing to write home about. The main attraction was the view.Lago de Amatitlan (24)

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Always a great time for an impromptu photo-shoot :)

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Below is my favorite house by Lago de Amatitlan. Great garden and awesome views!

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Taking a Boat Ride Around Lago de Amatitlan

After taking enough pictures to almost fill the camera’s memory card, it was time to head down and take a little boat ride.

But first, we stopped for some coconut water.

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People still fish here, though I bet it can’t be all that healthy to eat fish caught there.

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After going back and forth with the launch owners on pricing (haggling is a sport in Guatemala), we were able to get on the launch for Q10 each, rather than Q30 each.

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Lakeshore houses are usually owned by wealthy Guatemalans, who come down here on weekends to relax.

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View of my favorite from lake level.

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It’s not Venice, but it’s a beautiful spot to take a girl out for a nice afternoon.

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The boat returned to shore about 20 minutes later.

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The mojarras looked tasty, but I still wasn’t biting. Probably will go for it next time, when we visit the funicular – if it ever reopens.

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Visiting Lago de Amatitlan was much nicer than I had expected. There’s definitely a different vibe there because of the crowds. City folks are the norm here compared to the Mayans that live near Lake Atitlan.

If the teleferico is running, is well worth it to come here on a day trip.