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Guatemala parte tres – more fun, frights and amazing sights (or how a little Tikal does you good…)

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Guatemala certainly isn’t the biggest country in the world but it manages to pack a lot within its borders. We’d already seen volcanos, an amazing water park, a beautiful lake, a World Heritage city and the sublime scenery of Semuc Champey, and now it was time to visit another must-see sight in this must-visit country – the ancient Mayan site of Tikal (incidentally, another on the World Heritage list).

Predictably enough though, getting there involved another lengthy journey, the highlight of which was crossing a river by ferry: now this was no ordinary ferry, but was basically a glorified raft with oil drums at each corner, attached to which were four outboard motors. Now you might think there would be some sophisticated steering system in place to coordinate these motors, but you’d be mistaken; instead they only operated one, or occasionally two, at a time and weaved their way across the river. It was only a short journey across and there were signs that a bridge was in the early stages of construction – although we were glad to reach the other side it’d be a bit of a shame to lose such a quirky transport solution.

Riding the rickshaw, and a moment for reflection...

Riding the rickshaw, and a moment for reflection…

So, after eight hours and with numb bums and lethargic limbs we reached Flores, a pleasant town jutting out into the middle of Lake Peten Itza, connected by a causeway to the mainland. This is the main tourist town for visiting Tikal, and some people (and guidebooks) do it down a little but we liked it – it felt like an island, being almost surrounded by water, had hilly little cobbled streets, a few craft shops and a couple of very decent places to eat. It also had auto-rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, which the girls loved; to top if all off it had an enormous Christmas tree in the square, with blaring music and glaring lights, and a chicken on top courtesy of the sponsors, Gallo beer. (Just in case anyone’s confused, we’re so far behind with our blog that we were actually there before Christmas and as such the tree was entirely appropriate, with the possible exception of the chicken).

We had a couple of quiet days exploring Flores, recovering from our bus journey and preparing for a sunrise tour of Tikal – this was to set a new record in early starts as we were being picked up at 3 am. Yes, that’s still the middle of the night, but somehow we were able to get ourselves and the kids up in time. The girls have proved remarkably resilient in getting up early for buses and enduring epic discomfort on long journeys – sometimes the things you think they might moan about are the things they take in their stride with very little fuss.

We left Flores at 3 and arrived at Tikal at 4 am, ready for an hour’s walk by torch-light through the jungle to climb Temple IV for sunrise. On the way we saw a jumping tarantula, which jumped down onto the path in front of the people in front of us – these are canopy dwelling spiders and apparently its quite rare to see them – this didn’t make the arachnophobes in our party feel much better! That aside, it was quite atmospheric walking though the darkness, with vast temples looming out of the gloom and a dotted line of torchlights leading the way. There was then many steps to scale before we could take our place near the top of Temple IV as the first signs of light and life began to appear. Unfortunately there were some people already up there who seemed to expect total silence and at first the main sounds we could hear were tuts, sighs and shushes. Considering there must have been about forty people there and that everyone had just climbed a hefty stairway to get there we thought it was a bit rude, particularly since nobody was making that much noise – that is, until everyone started getting their cameras out. This heralded a cacophony of bags being unzipped, followed by the distinctive ‘der-ding’ noise of digital cameras springing into life. Everyone comes here to listen to the sounds of the animals in the jungle waking up; maybe the monkeys and toucans come to listen to the curious song of the digital traveller, the photo-call of the often-spotted Western tourist.

However, in amongst all this, there was a moment of magic to savour. To hear the sounds of the jungle waking up and to see Tikal’s other temples slowly define themselves against the sky, with mist moving through the trees all around was quite an experience. It wasn’t much of a sunrise but we did get a brief burst of colour before the cloud descended and somehow all the man-made noise didn’t seem to matter so much.

Tikal's temples appear through the morning mist

Tikal’s temples appear through the morning mist

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We then had a guided tour; now we don’t often do guideP1020516d tours, thinking it might be too much for the girls, but this was certainly worth doing, and Luis, the guide was fantastic. We’d already heard spider monkeys and toucans but then we went and found coatimundis, various birds and more monkeys. This was just on the walk between the various temples and ancient ruins themselves.

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And the ruins were pretty amazing too, with huge monumental pyramids soaring upwards at improbably steep inclines. The jungle setting adds a dense green backdrop and the early morning mist adds an air of mystery; it was also really quiet too, with no stalls and very few people, making that 3 am start all the more worthwhile. If all that wasn’t quite enough it also starred in the first Star Wars movie, though George Lucas seems to have had better weather than we did.

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P1020551 P1020588Later, the girls were telling Luis about all the Mayan ruins we’d visited, and counted eight including Tikal. Luis said it was a shame we hadn’t seen nine, as this was a lucky number – we then recounted and realised we’d missed out Tonina, so we’d done the magic nine! We’re not sure that Tikal was our favourite but it wasn’t far off, and we saw another tarantula and some amazing trees, to round off a great trip.

We then headed back to Flores and got back in time for lunch – we’d been on a nine hour trip and still got back in time for lunch! Needless to say we were quite tired for the rest of the day, but still managed to see a glorious sunset over the lake. It’s not all that often we see both sunrise and sunset but then this hadn’t been an ordinary day – we would soon be leaving Guatemala but what a way to leave it. It had become one of our favourite countries, with fantastic sights and friendly people – what more could you ask for?

Sunset over Lake Peten Itza, Flores

Sunset over Lake Peten Itza, Flores

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Guatemala parte dos – fun, frights and awesome sights… (or how Semuc Champey took our breath away)

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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.

Utopia, with Remy, Ellen and the dogs!

Utopia, with Remy, Ellen and the dogs!

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.

Swimming by candle-light, Kan'Ba caves

Swimming by candle-light, Kan’Ba caves

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.

Taking the plunge...

Taking the plunge…

When you’ve surmounted this obstacle you have the opportunity to take things up a notch, adventure-wise, just in case you’d been feeling it was all a little tame! Emerging into a high chamber with a deep pool in the bottom, we watched as our guide scampered up a ten-foot rock face, threw his candle down into the water and then leapt through the darkness into the forbidding water below. Of course we were given the chance to try this and Tilly quickly decided she wanted a go – she climbed up quite a few feet and jumped down into the pool, and we were mightily impressed by her bravery. Pete wasn’t quite so quick to accept the challenge but, with heart thumping, managed the full jump, to emerge coughing and spluttering but exhilarated.
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.

Almost a bridge too far...

Almost a bridge too far…

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…

Can't really think of a caption that does this justice!

Can’t really think of a caption that does this justice!


These crystal clear pools create a natural water park that's impossible to resist!

These crystal clear pools create a natural water park that’s impossible to resist!

P1000948This 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…