Central America trip
week 2 of 4
by Xavier and Simon
I’ve been traveling in Guatemala in the rainforest, and here all these houses are made of sticks. It seems so easy to make one.
photo: mural in San Marco La Laguna.
note: for practical details on transport, fares, travel times, etc check out Simon’s HOW WE GOT THERE section further down.
Guatemala was a great country to visit but has its share of problems, including a fairly high crime rate, poor health and education (we saw lots of very young children working, having learnt enough English to sell cans of beer to backpackers), weak government, and severe corruption. Its recent political history had been traumatic. In a bizarre episode in 2011, the wife of the then President Álvaro Colom filed for divorce in order to get around the provision in the Constitution which limits Presidents to one term, and bans their close family from running for office. The Supreme Court nonetheless rejected her as a candidate, and Otto Pérez Molina was elected President on a platform of cracking down on crime. He, and several of his cabinet, are now in prison after a UN-sponsored anti-impunity commission revealed evidence of their involvement in a large corruption scandal. There was then a further scandal about the allegedly luxurious conditions in which they were incarcerated. In response to all this, Guatemala elected a political outsider, evangelical Christian and former comedian Jimmy Morales, who ran under the slogan ‘Ni corrupto ni ladrón‘ (‘Not corrupt or a thief’), which we saw plastered on billboards around the country. In turn, he has been accused of nepotism and links to dubious right wing ex-military leaders who have committed human rights abuses.
photo from servindi.org
Politics aside, the first stage of our journey into Guatemala was a 9am water taxi from Caye Caulker back to Belize City, en route to Flores. The person who sold us the bus ticket from Belize to Flores said that it left at 10:30am, but the bus company website said 10am… as our boat pulled in late at just after 10am, Simon rushed off to find the bus whilst our backpacks were offloaded, though it turned out the bus was not due for another hour. When the bus did eventually turn up, it resembled a motorised tin can, but by 11:15am we were happily rattling westwards across Belize towards the Guatemalan border.
The border crossing was fairly straightforward, and we made friends with John from Ohio, who was travelling on our bus by himself and had quite an accent on him, but was nice to chat to. Once officially stamped in, the three of us shared a minibus to the centre of Flores, where we said goodbye to John and headed, aptly, to Hotel Isla de Flores, to stay for a couple of nights, with one night in Tikal in between.
Flores is a small man made island on Lake Petén Itzá, across a short causeway from the much larger town of Santa Elena. It is essentially a quaint and pleasant stopover on the way to Tikal, the site of some of the most famous pre-Colombian ruins in the continent, and far more appealing to visitors than Santa Elena, not least because of safety concerns. Santa Elena, however, has the nearest working ATMs if the only one in Flores (inside a convenience store) is out of order, which it was every time we tried – Simon had to hop twice on a tuk tuk to Santa Elena…
Having sorted out our transport for Tikal the following day (we just asked around a couple of agencies near the hotel), we went for a walk around the tiny island and stopped for happy hour at the Sky Bar before popping next door for dinner at La Villa del Chef, which has great views over the lake, is run by a very friendly and welcoming German chap, and where, as well as having a great meal (so good we repeated a couple of nights later), we learned about the muñequitas quitapenas (‘worry dolls‘), a great local custom!
Once the capital of one of the most important kingdoms in the Mayan empire, between 200 and 900 AD, this vast citadel – covering over 500 square kilometres – was abandoned at the end of the 10th century. For comparison, mysterious Machu Picchu dates from the 15th century, and the even more mysterious people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) were still making their famous moai in the 17th century.
Tikal‘s ruins, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, are surrounded by dense jungle, which makes it near impossible to get a sense of the scale – the whole area had previously turned to desert when the Mayans cut most of the vegetation as they built their city, but the jungle grew back over time after the site was abandoned.
video: 1960 fieldwork film by Penn Museum.
On leaving Flores, we chose to join a 3pm guided tour as proposed to us by the agency man who was traveling in our minibus. The fee (200 quetzales per person, about £20 each) would allow us to enter the site again the next day without having to pay again. Once inside Tikal, we dropped our bags at our on-site accommodation for that night, the Jungle Lodge (nice facilities, disappointing service for the price), and joined the group. Our guide, a cool guy Xavier chatted to a lot in Spanish, then took us on a whistle-stop tour of the ruins. As well as admiring the ruins, we took in the wildlife that live at the site: coatis (a type of raccoon) and ocellated turkeys (described by our guide as ‘royal turkeys’ – a literal translation of the Spanish pavo real, which actually means ‘peacock’), several species of toucans and parrots, an orange-breasted falcon (we just saw the one), and so on. We also caught glimpses of, but mostly just heard, howler monkeys, whose impressively loud howls sounded like something out of Jurassic Park – a bit of trivia: these sounds were indeed used in the film, and Tikal itself was used as the location for some well known scenes in another very famous film.
Just before dusk, our group and quite a few other people climbed up one of the tallest temples, over a ‘DANGER – NO ENTRY’ sign, and balanced somewhat precariously on some crude scaffolding on the side of the temple, from where we could just about see the sun set over the jungle. We were then treated to a spectacular scene when the moon – almost full – shone over the most picturesque part of the site, after which we all hiked back to the entrance with the help of torches, stopping briefly every now and then to admire the big spiders that had come out to hunt and were scurrying across the path – our guide even picked up a small tarantula and let it sit on his arm for everyone to take photos and for Xavier to have a mild panic attack.
The tour took about three hours and in hindsight would probably had been enough for us, but we had booked to stay overnight in Tikal to enable us to visit again for sunrise. Our tour guide had told us that it is often cloudy in the mornings and the chances of actually seeing the sunrise are much lower than seeing the sunset, and lo and behold the morning turned out to be cloudy, which somewhat defeated the point of getting up at 5am and trekking all the way to the farthest temple, and then up it. However, this did at least give us the chance to explore the site on our own early in the morning when it is both emptier of tourists and free from the suffocating afternoon heat. Our stay in Tikal got further extended because our transport back to Flores decided not to show up as promised – we had been told there would be pickups at 12:30pm and 3pm, so we planned our day to return on the 12:30pm, which didn’t turn up, so we found ourselves having to wait for the 3pm – or pay for another vehicle to drive us back to Flores. A spot of lunch at one of the other lodges made the wait a bit more bearable – Xavier thinks that the businesses in the area are missing out big time by not offering ‘Chicken Tikal’ in their menus; he also thinks he’s not the first to make this joke – and eventually we were on our way back to Flores. Apparently we are not unique in having had problems with San Juan tours, but all is well that ends well, and a few hours later we were enjoying another great dinner by the lake at La Villa del Chef.
Arguably the most famous symbol of Guatemala, at least for travelers, is the ‘chicken bus’, former US school buses heavily decorated and adapted for cheap public transport. They seem to have no limit on the number of people that can be squeezed inside, and perhaps for that very reason don’t appeal much to tourists, so there is a parallel network of minibus shuttles run by travel agencies which link the most visited places.
We set off on one of these shuttles the next morning – along some familiar faces, including our cheerful friend from Nottingham – for a mammoth 10 hour journey to Lanquín, where we had to change vehicles to get to our hostel in Semuc Champey.
a chicken bus – we didn’t have the pleasure.
In the course of our travels we have been on some pretty bad roads – the Trampolín de la Muerte in Colombia springs to mind (pun intended) – but nothing has come close to the road from Lanquín to Semuc Champey: 11 kilometres of steep (both up and down), winding, bumpy, rocky track peppered with potholes which we did standing up on the back of a shaky pickup truck for about 45 minutes, with six other travelers and some locals, hanging on to a metal frame for dear life… a bit like these happy people in the photo, but less happy, more cramped, and in the dark.
photo from Guatemala, Through My Eyes
However, the (literal) pain of the journey melted away pretty quickly when we arrived at the aptly named Utopia hostel (they call themselves an ‘Eco Hotel’, but it’s really a hostel, albeit a really good one), deep in the jungle about a kilometre from Semuc Champey itself. A wonderful place to relax for a few days, run by great staff (here’s looking at you, Meghan). We didn’t mind the bugs – ok Xavier minded the big scary spiders quite a bit – the lack of wifi, or the exclusively vegetarian food. We definitely didn’t mind the stunning views, the great company, and the drinks at £1 – ‘happy hour’ indeed!.
In the morning, just after breakfast, we headed out on the obligatory tour, which we booked directly at the hostel. The first part of the tour, after a short drive, was a candlelit visit of the Kan’ba caves, which really wasn’t as quaint as it sounds. The caves are narrow, very narrow in parts, water runs through them, and it’s pitch black inside. We all first had to strip down to our swimming shorts, no phones or cameras lest they got damaged or lost entirely in the caves; no glasses either, for the same reason – after obvious protestations, Simon had to get his glasses on a makeshift string before going in; and no helmets or torches. The only concession to health and safety – clearly not top of the agenda – was that our guide, a young local man called Elder, recommended that we kept our shoes on. Once inside the caves we waded, swam, climbed and crawled our way through, often holding on to ropes attached to the side walls or hanging above the water over deep pools, going up and down narrow ladders, each of us carrying a candle to light our way – and half expecting to bump into Gollum at every turn (at least Xavier was). After a kilometre or so, we reached a cavern where our guide encouraged us to climb the side wall and then jump from a ledge into the watery darkness below. While we both declined the invitation, as we are determined to be able to withdraw our pensions one day, the other four members of our group, three young Germans and a young Canadian, did take the plunge, literally, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but they seemed elated by the experience. The journey back to the entrance involved a shorter but terrifying plunge, sliding in a corkscrew fashion through an impossibly narrow gap in the rock and dropping into the darkness below. Risk assessment notwithstanding, it was an amazing experience – here is what others thought of it.
video from Tarik Lebaddi’s YouTube channel – we didn’t take our cameras or phones with us.
Once out of the caves, and as if there hadn’t been enough death-defying thrills for one morning, the next exhilarating adventure on offer was to hop on a very long rope swing and jump off it into the main river from a considerable height, the trick part being to have the presesence of mind to let go of the swing at its highest point to avoid swinging back at speed towards the rocky shore… Surprisingly, not all the young ones felt like it, but even more surprisingly (and likely overtaken by a sudden desire not to be outdone by a bunch of carefree twentysomethings) Xavier was swinging away and head-diving into the thankfully deep river before anyone could shout ‘travel insurance!’. Sadly, there is no evidence of this feat as Simon had a senior moment caused by the worry and forgot how to operate an iPhone, and there was no encore, so you’ll just have to take our word for it – but here is somebody else’s video of it:
video from nursekassandra’s YouTube channel.
After a well earned lunch, our next stop was Semuc Champey itself. This strange formation is, in effect, a natural 300 metre wide, 50 metre long limestone bridge over a river, on which have formed a stepped series of turquoise pools. We first made an exhausting and very sweaty hike up a mountain, all the way to El Mirador, a viewpoint high above the site, and then clambered down and spent some time swimming in and jumping between the pools, which was really cool – except for the fish in the pool, which would swim up and take a nibble when they thought they could get away with it.
The final stage to the day, just after some jumping off a bridge, why not (only the Canadian girl and her German friend did this), was to float down the river, back to our hostel, on rubber tubes – which was billed as ‘extreme tubing’ and not one but two guides were accompanying the group. Thinking about it afterwards, we probably should have skipped this. The sky had clouded over by the time we got in the cold river and we were pretty tired after the intense day, so it wasn’t great. For most of the time river flow was really slow and everyone was getting cold. At one point, looking at the ten or so shivering people floating down with us, it was reminiscing of the scenes towards the end of Titanic.
Just as we were wondering why they called this ‘extreme’, we hit some lively rapids and we all certainly perked up (during a particularly bumpy bit Simon lost his sunglasses) and though we were in the water for just over an hour of mostly drifting down gently, it was a good idea to keep up with the guides and heed their warnings.
After an action packed day, followed by quite a few drinks at the hostel and some card games with a really lovely Dutch couple we met, we spent the next day as far from adventures as possible. Simon went on a ‘chocolate tour’ within the hostel grounds, where he made chocolates from the cocoa beans that grew there, whilst Xavier just sit in the sun reading a book and watching out for big spiders. It was a great few days, and, as usual, we would have stayed longer had we had more time, but we didn’t, so at 5am the next day (seriously) we set off for our next stop: Antigua.
👉🏻 HOW WE GOT THERE
The practical details
Belize City to Flores: there is a daily direct bus operated by Fuente del Norte, which leaves at 11am from the water taxi pier; journey time 5 hours; fare US$25. The ticket can be bought either at the water taxi pier in Caye Caulker or from one of the travel agents on the island. We took the 9am water taxi from Caye Caulker to connect with the bus. We then had to pay US$20 each to leave Belize. We were then transferred to a minibus for the final ride into Flores. The guy on the minibus talked to us about where to buy the tickets for whatever our next tour or transfer, and indeed the minibus drove us to a tour agent in Flores, rather than to our hotel, as we had expected. The prices quoted were much higher than what we found out later on browsing around other agents, so our advice would be don’t buy anything from the first travel agent you are taken to, they will try to rip you off.
Flores to Lanquín for Semuc Champey: a tourist minibus shuttle leaves daily at 8am. We bought our tickets in advance from a travel agent in Flores after shopping around, different agents were quoting between 90 and 200 quetzales, but looks like regardless of the agent everyone ends up on the same vehicle, so may as well pay the lowest price. Our ticket included hotel pickup in Flores, the shuttle then took 10 hours to get to Lanquín, stopping a few times. On arrival in Lanquín we got a transfer to our hostel by pickup truck, which in our case took almost an extra hour as the road was so rough.
note: all details correct at time of publishing.