After our quick jaunt through El Salvador and Honduras it felt good to be returning to Guatemala, though perhaps not so good to be on another mammoth bus journey. Our journey from Copan (Honduras) to Coban (Guatemala) would take seven hours, two buses and one border crossing, all just to change one letter. First we had to catch an early morning shuttle bus – this involved the usual early morning shuttle shuffle as we drove round town picking people up, though as Copan Ruinas is a small town at least it didn’t take too long this time. The multi-cultural collection of passengers included three French travellers, three people from Thailand and a large group of young Americans who were on a weekend minibreak from teaching in Honduras. Consequently it was quite a lively group who headed to the border for the random roulette fee-charging policies of Guatemala’s passport officials. Some people paid their Quetzales, others (including us) didn’t, and again we entered Guatemala not quite sure of what had just happened.
But we were soon back in fairly familiar territory and drove for a couple of hours before stopping for breakfast. When these meal stops work well they’re a model of efficiency, with the restaurant able to feed a coach load of people and get them back on their way in about half an hour. Happily this was one of the good ones, and it even had a small play area for the kids. We then drove on for a while before we had to switch buses – our shuttle bus was heading for Antigua with the giddy teachers so we were dropped off at the dusty junction town of El Rancho, with only the vaguest of instructions that a bus to Coban would be along shortly. However again we were pleasantly surprised as fifteen minutes later a bus did indeed pull up. It was crowded but bearable, though it did stop almost immediately for another meal break. The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful – we drove up over some hills blanketed in cloud forest that apparently provide the habitat for the last remaining wild quetzel birds in Guatemala – however it’s not called cloud forest for nothing, and that’s precisely what we could see: nothing!
The weather hadn’t improved by the time we reached Coban and it was almost like being back in England as we got off the bus – cold, damp, drab and grey. We found a reasonable hostel though, and then found a playground where the girls impressed some of the local adults with their monkey bar antics – we got the impression they didn’t get many fair-haired white kids swinging like chimpanzees in this neck of the woods. We also found a bit of a gem of a restaurant too, called Casa d’Acuna, where white-shirted waiters served fantastic pizza in a courtyard garden – while Coban hadn’t really grabbed us with its drizzle and dullness it’s always nice to eat somewhere that feels both posh and affordable.
The reason we’d come to Coban was beacuse it made a convenient stopping off point on the way to Semuc Champey. This is one of Guatemala’s must-see attractions, and as getting there involves something of an arduous journey we thought it must be pretty spectacular when you got there. While at the hostel in Coban we tried to book accommodation at a backpacker lodge in the small town of Lanquin, the nearest place of any size to Semuc Champey, but were told that they didn’t take children. Now, sometimes you can get thrown off course and things happen that turn your travels into travails – at other times a slight twist or kink in your path can send you in a different direction and throw some fantastic experiences your way, and provide memories worth keeping for a lifetime. That’s what makes flexible travel such an adventure, an unplanned diversion or change in itinerary can lead to something that becomes a real highlight, made all the better by its unplanned nature. So when the lad on reception recommended another place that had only just opened, and two other guests who happened to be nearby also said they’d stayed there and loved it, we booked a room in Utopia: it would prove to be one of the best places we’ve stayed at – if that first hostel had taken kids we would have missed out on one of the most memorable times of our trip.
Getting there wasn’t without incident though, and the promised arduous journey was that, and more. Yet another early start saw us herded onto a creaky charabanc of a bus for the two hour journey to Lanquin. The first hour was ok, on a proper tarmac road; we then turned off onto a rough track for the next hour, down a series of switchbacks as we dropped into a lush valley. We had been told then we would then switch into 4×4 vehicles for the last few kilometres to Semuc Champey, as the road was too bad for the bus; when they then discovered that they didn’t have enough 4x4s for the number of passengers it was coincidentally decided that the road wasn’t in fact all that bad, and we would continue on the same bus. This was despite the fact that this area had suffered the same heavy rain that we’d enjoyed so much in Coban! Sure enough, the road was an interesting mix of muddy trenches and standing water and we were left to admire the skill of the driver in getting a two-wheel-drive shed of a bus up and down the slippery surfaces. Just when we thought we were nearing our destination we hit something of a traffic jam; after some investigation it appeared that a van had run out of diesel while coming up the hill in the opposite direction – as virtually all the road is single track it hadn’t taken long for a queue to build up in both directions. We couldn’t quite understand why somebody would be driving in such a remote area with no diesel, but it didn’t come as a great surprise. Yet again though, our driver proved his worth, as he syphoned some of the diesel from the bus, put it in the van and got it going again. There then followed a lot of shunting back and forth to get all the vehicles past each other – if anyone has played Traffic Jam on their smartphone they’ll have a decent understanding of the complexity involved.
So, after a delay of an hour or so we reached our rendezvous with Remy from the hostel, and a few minutes later we were at Utopia. It sat amongst cocoa trees above the turquoise waters of the Cahabon river, surrounded by verdant hills, and had a huge communal area with tables, chairs and swings, and several friendly dogs. Sometimes a place just feels right, and the girls loved it straight away. They immediately made friends with Ellen, an American girl who helped run the hostel and we spent the rest of the day eating, drinking and chatting. There was a couple from Barnsley staying who’d spent the last year and a half cycling around, and also another English couple, Carl and Becky, who lived in London; however Carl was also from Barnsley, making this the biggest Yorkshire contingent we’d met outside Yorkshire itself.
The next day would turn out to be one of the best. We’d decided to do a tour with the hostel, partly after speaking to an American family who’d done it the day before. This would involve a visit to the Kan’Ba caves and to Semuc Champey itself. Weeks ago, a Canadian girl in Merida had told us about these caves where you go swimming with just a candle for light and she said it was one of the best things she’d ever done. We’d been unsure of how the girls would enjoy it, but as the American kids were only a couple of years older we decided to go for it. We still set off with a certain amount of trepidation though, and this would turn out to be well-founded. Almost immediately after entering the caves you are plunged into almost total darkness, with only a spindly candle each to light the way. You are then plunged into icy-cold water, and it’s quite a feat swimming with a candle in one hand and a child in the other, leaving only the feet for propulsion. Just when you’re getting used to swimming for a bit and then picking your way over rocks for a bit, you are then presented with a new challenge – either climbing up a knotted rope through a waterfall, or climbing up a metal ladder through the edge of the waterfall.
We then had to make our way back to the entrance, meaning a climb back down the waterfall and then a slide down a natural chute. Pete went first and the two girls were sent next – however the three of us couldn’t see which way we were supposed to go as our candles had gone out, and we had a bit of a moment’s panic before our guide climbed down and handed us some new candles. By this time though the candles were down to a stump, meaning boiling hot wax was dripping onto our hands and as we swam through a narrow chamber these candles too were extinguished, leaving us in total darkness with two screaming, and by now freezing, children. The rest of the group quickly caught us up though, and we soon emerged back into the daylight, blinking and feeling like we’d had quite the adventure. The girls warmed up and calmed down, and we were left with a thrill of exhilaration as we tucked into a well-deserved snack. Faced with the next challenge, this feeling must have gone to Pete’s head, as he then agreed to do a mad bridge jump. We’re not sure just how high above the river it was, but suffice to say the time in the air went on for far too long for comfort. That feeling of exhilaration was quickly replaced with screams, a feeling that this was crazy, then wondering why the water hadn’t arrived yet, then just why was I still in the air, then ooooooaaaarrrgghhh, as body hit water, knocking breath and sense away – even the swim back up to the surface seemed to take an age, then whoops a-plenty on emerging fully intact. If the guide and Carl hadn’t done the jump first it would have seemed a crazy thing to attempt, but it was another high in a day of glorious adventure, and we still had Semuc Champey to come.
After a bit of lunch we then climbed up to the viewpoint above Semuc Champey with Carl and Becky and yet again our breath was taken away…
This was truly spectacular – the main river disappears underground, flowing under a vast limestone bridge before emerging hundreds of feet downstream. Some water still flows above ground and runs down over this bridge, creating a series of impossibly inviting pools, linked by little cascades and waterfalls. It also provides some natural water chutes, to add just a little more excitement to the day. And that was our day at Semuc Champey – seldom has a beer tasted as good as the one back at Utopia that evening!
We then had a bit of a mad, and maddening, day on the following day, just to even things up. It would take too long to recount all the details (in an already lengthy post!) but a combination of a 4×4 truck that wouldn’t start, a spare wheel that had been removed in order to fit in the Barnsley couple’s bikes, a group of hippies who couldn’t be bothered to turn up for their lift to Lanquin, and a tyre as flat as a pancake meant that we weren’t able to make it to Coban the next day as planned. Hence we had to stay an extra night at Utopia, and this time the change in our plans provided memories of a more challenging variety. Just as Rach and the girls were going to sleep they had an unwelcome visitor in their room – a visitor of the hairy, scary variety! Pete was in the next room and heard Tilly screaming “TARANTULA!!!!” Thinking it would just be a slightly larger spider than usual he went to investigate and found three females entwined together, all screaming, while above their heads a very real, very large arachnid crept along the ceiling.
Just to try and convey the full horror of this imagine you’re in that drowsy, trance-like state somewhere between sleep and consciousness; you’re lying in bed beneath a low, sloping bamboo roof: now imagine that just as you’re about to finally drift into dreams you take one last, lazy glance up and see a gigantic tarantula a few inches above you. Even if you weren’t a fully fledged arachnophobe you may let out a small scream. The girls let out blood-curdling screams of a magnitude you wouldn’t think they were capable of. The staff and all the rest of the guests came running to see what the commotion was – all apart from one girl in the dorm just outside the room, who somehow managed to sleep through the entire incident! Rach and the girls left the room, vowing never to return again; Pete managed to take a photo before the tarantula disappeared back behind the bamboo ceiling – knowing it was still in the room there’s no way any of us were going to be able to sleep in there, so we were moved to a different room for a night of uneasy sleep, and eight-legged nightmares! We promised not to put the photo on the main post, for viewers of a particularly nervous disposition, but if you want to see it its in the accompanying post, along with some other snaps.
The next day we did finally leave Utopia and Semuc Champey- it was one of our favourite places, and had certainly provided plenty of incident! Next we were on our way to another of Guatemala’s amazing places, but that will have to wait for another day, and another post…