7/3/17. Yesterday (Monday) we embarked on the first half of the journey across Guatemala from the south west where Antigua and Lake Atitlán are to the north east to see the Mayan ruins of Tikal. The shuttle bus ride was a lengthy affair (we were told “about 8 hours” but it turned out to be almost 11! At an average speed of about 16 mph for the 175 miles!!).
It was not a great start to the journey when the bus driver and assistant appeared nonplussed to find 4 people waiting at the hotel when they were expecting only 2. Our ticket/voucher prompted frantic phone calls back to base before we were motioned to climb aboard. As we drove around Pana collecting people from other hotels more calls ensued before things were resolved and they indicated that we should move up alongside the driver.
The bus headed slowly out of Pana up the 750+ metre climb to the main PanAmerican highway for a short stretch before heading off to Chichicastenango (which everyone calls a much more manageable Chichi), a small town famed for its ethnic goods market. Here we picked up another 7 people so we had a full (i.e. packed) bus of 15 plus the driver (his assistant having left us back at Pana).
The road was a slow and windy one with barely a flat stretch as steep uphill followed vertiginous descent. At times the road surface was excellent and we could pick up some speed (when going downhill at least) but there were also places where the potholes were even worse than those in Surrey’s roads (difficult though that may be to believe!) and stretches which were unpaved and very bumpy.
The countryside gradually became greener with many more trees but remained surprisingly well populated despite its mountainous nature and we passed through a number of towns and villages. Many of the narrow streets were one way and the route through them was mazelike with non-existent signage.
There was a lunch/toilet stop after about 4 hours which was a welcome opportunity to unwind the kinks that had developed in our legs and rear ends. We set off again only to have to change to an empty bus after another hour, presumably to allow the driver to return to Pana.
In one village we passed some women carrying large plastic jars on their heads and saw water being drawn from a well. Christine also observed that the style of skirts changed from a simple sheet of cloth wrapped round and held in place by a belt to a very pretty pleated, peasant style skirt.
There was another brief stop in the large town of Coban at about 4.30 – at a Mcdonald’s of all places – before we set off on the last 50 or so km. The first 40 km were on a well paved road but, just as night started to fall, we turned off and crept down a very steep gravel track towards the village of Lanquin which cannot be far from the geographic centre of Guatemala. The last 11km took the best part of an hour and we were mighty glad to flop down in the hostel with a drink and a plate of chips (neither of us felt particularly hungry despite not having eaten much all day) before hitting the sack.
The shower was of the same type as the one photographed in Antigua. As the wiring here involved less insulating tape and looked marginally safer Christine decided to risk it but as she was finishing she thought she saw a flash (don’t forget, she wasn’t wearing her glassesl). So Stephen approached it with some care and turned on the water before getting in. Almost immediately there were 2 more flashes so he decided a quick wash in the sink was preferable to being electrocuted!
Having survived our morning ablutions and breakfasted, we jumped on the back of a truck to the main attraction around here – a national park called Semuc Champey which, in the local Mayan language (Q’eqchi), means “river underground”. This is because the river disappears into a sinkhole and flows under a 300m limestone bridge before emerging at the top of a waterfall. On the top of the bridge is a series of turquoise pools fed by lots of springs which is popular for swimming.
Set in a steep sided valley surrounded by jungle covered mountains, it is breathtakingly lovely! Apparently (Rough Guide), until a few years ago there were very few visitors but it is now firmly on the backpacking trail. At the moment Lanquin is a “ real” place where most of the locals go about their lives unaffected by travellers but with some tourist infrastructure for those prepared to “invest” a day’s travel on rough roads each way to get here. We can envisage that in 10 years’ time it will be a real Tourist Town, especially if the road is resurfaced.
But back to Semuc Champey. We hired a local Mayan guide, Hairo, who was lovely! Before going to the pools themselves, he took us to a viewpoint that gave a wonderful vista of the valley. It was an extremely steep climb up a mixture of steps cut into the rock and slippery wooden stairs in very warm and humid weather which Christine doubts she would have completed without holding Hairo’s hand for much of the way up (and down the other side too). He was patient and as surefooted as a chamonix so he made her feel quite safe!
Down at the pools we stripped down to bathing costumes and jumped into the refreshingly cool water. It was crystal clear and we soon realised that the gentle touches on our feet were from the tiny fish having a little nibble!
After a while Stephen and Hairo went to the lower pools, leaving Christine nattering to a Guatemalan lady who worked for Shell and was extremely well travelled and interesting. The rocks in the little streams joining the lower pools were oftern extremely slippery which made for a couple of fun slides down mini waterfalls but also gave Stephen an opportunity to appreciate the steadying assistance of Hairo’s hand at times!
Hairo then took him into what he called a “mini cave”. This was really a very large rock overhanging the water which, at one end, was only a couple of inches above the water level so you walked in with your head tilted righted back to keep your nose in the air. At the other end the rock came right down to the water so it was necessary to swim underwater for a metre or so. At least this was the case for the soppy gringoes with claustrophobia like Stephen! For Hairo there was the more adventurous option involving a much longer underwater passage, emerging about 15 metres further on!
We thought it was an absolutely stunning place and well worth the effort to get here.