Despite my lack of dorm-stays, I think I have earnt some travelling points for the number of hours spent on buses…
Antigua to Semuc Champey was another 10 hours. I was one of the first to be picked up again, and two guys, Chris and Dave, were on the same shuttle who had been on my bus back from Lake Atitlan and on the Pacaya Volcano tour.
There is always a sense optimism near the start of the journey that “maybe the bus won’t actually be that full…” and “perhaps we’ll have some room to spread out…” This rapidly faded and then died out completely as the shuttle bumped around the cobbled streets of Antigua, collecting more and more people until it appeared full. But no, we then pulled up outside a hostel with about nine people waiting and realised that they were all also getting on! The infamous ‘small seats’ that fold out into the aisle were all used so in the end there were about 20 of us in the van.
There also turned out to be a dog on board which was so docile we didn’t realise it was there until halfway through the trip. It was a Mexican hairless dog – I’d never encountered a hairless dog before this trip and now I know two!
The journey was then relatively uneventful. We drove through Guatemala City which was as people described: busy, a bit dirty and polluted. We were making great time until we took a “20 minute” lunch break in Coban which turned out to be over an hour. Foolishly believing it was only 20 minutes (when will I learn?) I didn’t order food which I massively regretted given that we didn’t end up arriving until 6pm
The final two hours were on a little bumpy dirt road. We covered 22km in 2hrs, a similar speed to the road to Monteverde in Costa Rica. 11km takes you from the main road to the town of Lanquin, where lots of people choose to stay when visiting Semuc.
I’d decided to make my life easier by booking a little ‘package’ from Antigua which included my bus to Semuc, two nights accommodation right by the park, a tour of the park, and then an onwards shuttle to Flores in the north of Guatemala to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal.
For the final 11km from Lanquin to the park entrance we were transferred over into the back of a jeep for what was an incredibly bumpy and fun ride ending in crossing a super rickety old bridge across the river to El Portal Lodge.
I was worried that because I’d booked through a package the accommodation might be a bit rubbish, which it was on some counts, but really great on others. The setting was superb, we were 100m from the entrance to the park and set on the banks of the river, right in the middle of the jungle.
The remoteness and jungle climate also came with its downsides though: no wifi (although I’m getting used to this); electricity only between 6-10pm (I’d thought that they meant 6am – 10pm!) TONNES of bugs, and because of the weather nothing would ever dry properly there, meaning that all the bedding had that horrid damp laundry smell.
It was the first time I’d used my silky sleeping bag liner and I was so glad of it to avoid touching the bedding.
I even put a t-shirt over the pillow to mask the musky smell. I was especially glad when the next morning at breakfast a French-Canadian woman announced that her bum had been attacked by bed bugs in the night, leaving a neat line of bites on each cheek!
That first night I was shattered, so had a tasty chicken with rice and beans and then went and played cards in my room with two Norwegian girls, Ashild and Lin who’d been on the shuttle too. They’d had a lucky escape as we’d picked them up and driven about 500m from their hostel when they realised that they’d left their passports with reception! They were heading on up north to Belize and Mexico so it would have been a long way to backtrack if they’d realised when we were in Semuc.
It was so lovely just to sit and chat in my room, it felt like I was back at home hanging out with friends.
The girls were on a whistle-stop itinerary so they were getting up pre-dawn the next day to visit the park and then travel on up to Tikal. Luckily for them we couldn’t have a late night even if we wanted as the lights all shut off at 10pm with the electricity!
The next day was an action packed day of adventure. We started by hiking up to the viewpoint over Semuc.
I should explain, the main feature of the park is a natural limestone bridge under which flows a huge river and on top of which are beautiful warm(supposedly) bright blue pools of water. When I heard about this, and even when I saw pictures I didn’t really understand the concept of the limestone ‘bridge’, it’s not like a conventional bridge, I’d more describe it as the river going underground for about 500m.
It was about a half hour steep and slippery hike up to the view point but the view of the pools below was completely worth it.
We slid our way back down and went for an explore in the pools – as the slightly scripted tour guide kept telling us: “you will do swimming, jumping, sliding…” 😂 I felt obliged to do all 3 the number of times he said it.
The pools were surprisingly cold given that they were quite shallow and exposed to the sun all day. It was great to have a guide as we were able to swim, jump and slide our way through all of them without worrying about whether we’d make it back out. We came to a stop where the river emerges from underground in a powerful waterfall and all balanced on some slippery rocks on the edge to peer over :s
The local kids came to show us their skills on the rope swing and joined us in a game of frisbee. When one of them first got the frisbee he looked like he just wanted to cling onto it but we then demonstrated and they were playing in no time.
There was a slightly annoying German man on the trip wearing little budgie-smugglers that were totally inappropriate for jumping and sliding. He kept trying to rush ahead and push past people and consequently kept falling over!
The guide showed us a really cool little place where you had to basically limbo under the rock whilst in the water: you had to tilt your head backwards so it didn’t hit the rock but so you could still breathe above water, and you then found yourself in a mini-cave, up to the neck in water but then with your head out under a rock ceiling. It was a little claustrophobic but we were only in there about a minute, you followed the passage around and then had to swim back underwater under a sheet of rock to get up and out on the other side! Luckily the water was so clear it was easy to see where the surface was.
It would have been a perfect day for the go-pro given all the water based activities so unfortunately I don’t have many pics, but a guy on our tour also had a go-pro so I’ll attempt to pinch some of his when he uploads them.
We had a short break for lunch and to warm back up and then heading for the second part of the adventures: exploring the caves and tubing. I was a little worried that I’d feel claustrophobic in the caves but actually they were pretty spacious.
Our group was about 15 – 20 people and they gave everyone a candle to hold as we walked/swam/jumped/slid through the underground network of tunnels. These candles had some sort of super wicks as no matter what you did (other than fully submerge them) they stayed lit.
The cave was great fun and the sort of health and safety nightmare that would never be allowed in the UK. There were too many people in the group for the guide to be able to instruct us all at once so it relied on a sort of Chinese whispers back through the group…”there’s a giant rock under the water there, there’s a hole there”.
At times you couldn’t touch the bottom under the water so we had to put our candles in our mouths and swim. I had the added complication of having worn flipflops rather than Jesus sandals like everyone else so I had to shove them down my swimsuit to keep them from coming off whilst swimming.
We headed deeper into the caves for about an hour before turning back. There were various hairy points with tiny ladders stuck hanging on ropes from vertical rock faces.
The only bit I didn’t enjoy was when we got to a powerful waterfall gushing about 3m down the rock, we were at the bottom so the guide demonstrated climbing a ladder by the side, clinging to a rope and effectively absailing down the waterfall.
I was behind him so I was first (and last) to try….I climbed the ladder and as soon as I stepped into the top of the waterfall I could feel how strong it was! I tried to edge backwards, clinging onto the rope, but the floor was so slippy that my feet were immediately washed from under me so I effectively had to climb down the rope hand over hand, not being able to see or breathe because I was under the pouring water, all the while being battered against the rocks.
The slightly shocked candlelit faces of the group when I got down said it all and the guide then decided that it would be better if everyone climbed UP the rope instead 😳 or the ladder!
Despite that incident, it was completely magical in the caves, and so beautiful when I looked back and could see a whole load of candles swimming through the water with amazing rock formations above that looked almost like a church organ!
We emerged back into the light just as our candles were burned down to little stubs and then headed down to the river for tubing!
Tubing was a far more sedate affair than when I went in Laos, it was so lovely to just bob down the river, taking in the views. The little kids from the village are evidently quite entrepreneurial as they stood by the river with cool-boxes of beers and chucked them out to us as we floated. They had a colour coding system on the bottom of the cans so they could check who had caught beer from who. They then tubed down the river and walked back into the village with us.
It did make me sad though as basically none of them go to school. Our guide said that they go for a month in February but that’s not enough, I’m not totally sure he understood what I meant – this is when I wish I had more Spanish!
They also all sell chocolate coins that they’ve made locally with cocoa and cardamom. They were slightly funny tasting but I bought a few.
They know lots of English phrases and they remember everyone’s name, there’s no fobbing them off as if you say “not now” they’ll pop up later that day…”Hi Caitlin, it’s Maria remember? You said maybe later”.
I was also amazed that lots of them knew Hebrew! Apparently it has some similarities to their local Mayan language and Michel and Ron (and Israeli couple I met on the tour) said that at certain times of year Central America is super popular with Israelis.
After such an active day we headed back to the hostel, my chicken and rice took about 1.5hrs to be served – I was very Hangry. But we then had a great evening playing drinking jenga and doing the limbo.
It was a blessing that the party is forced to end at 10pm as it was another 7am bus start for me the next day heading up to Flores and the Mayan ruins of Tikal in the north…