5 May – Guatemala city to Lanquin
It must have 5am when Manuel crept into our rooms and woke us up. We had a long drive ahead of today. Lanquin was the destination for the next two days. Lanquin is in central Guatemala and has two famous attractions, the Lanquin caves and the pools of Semuc Champey. We had also been recommended a hostel called El Retiro which according to Karl was the best place to just chill out and meet other travelers. However this was another 6-7 hours away.
After some coffee and toast, we packed our things in the new Guat Mobile and were ready to go. Manuel insisted on almost killing us by wanting to take photo in the middle of the road in front of the hostel. He gave us directions on how to get out of the city and we were off. Once again, the concept of following directions seemed to elude us (or could have been Manuel’s fault, I think we convinced ourselves it was his fault). We got lost and spent the next two hours in Guatemala city trying to get out. After those two hours we gave up and stopped in a gas station to get directions. Miss congeniality, Olivia, was our resident help asker as she seemed the most cheerful when asking for help. She went into the gas station and a couple of minutes later emerged saying ‘The guy we asked for help said he would drive us to the highway as our map doesn’t show the road’. Brilliant. Another friendly soul helping us out on this journey.
So the helpful man drove us out to the highway and went back to work. On the road again (In the donkey voice from Shrek). It really was a long drive which Olivia took on in the morning due to my foot. But after a couple of hours I felt that driving wouldn’t hurt my foot so I took over and gave Olivia a break seeing as she was knackered (she had gone out the night before with the Techeros). Our drive took us to the biggest town close to Lanquin, Coban. Here we stopped to get some supplies at a mall. Back on the road again, this time to Lanquin. The road to Coban was good and paved. The road to Lanquin was a different story. It was a gravel road winding up and down in the mountains. Time to bring out that four wheel drive we paid for.
We finally reached the little town of Lanquin. It was a small town but I liked it. Architecturally it was nothing to write home about, however it had character. We continued to drive until we found El Retiro. After nine hours of driving, this place was a godsend. A hostel in the middle of the forest by the river. Little simple cabins everywhere. Hammocks everywhere. Other backpackers everywhere. We checked in, put our things in our dorms and explored our home for the next two days. There was a tour to the Lanquin caves at 5pm but after speaking to the staff they said it was better I not got with my foot and all. So Leo, Drew and I stayed behind to have a shisha by the river while Olivia and Jacqui went to the caves.
I went to the river and started setting up the shisha when two Mayan kids came up to me to sell me some Mayan chocolate. However they lost all interest in chocolate sales when they saw the shisha. “What is that?” the girl (can’t remember her name) asks. I tell them it’s an Arabic pipe for smoking. “ALL of that is for smoking???” the boy, Gabriel, asks. “How does it work?”. I tried to explain the process to them, but they just looked at me as if I was crazy. So they said “Smoke then, we want to see how this works!”. So Gabriel and his sister sat down and patiently waited while I set up the shisha and got the coals going. Once I got the
shisha going and was blowing out smoke, the kids looked at me and when “All that work for that???”. They had a point. So they said bye and ran off. I moved my little shisha enterprise to the riverside and was joined by Leo and Drew. Moments later a couple joined us. They were a French couple, well actually a French Moroccan, Ahmed, and a French girl. He found it hilarious that I had travelled with a shisha but was more than
happy to smoke some. It was the first time we got the real hostel vibe of chatting to other travelers. We spent a good while chatting to them, I was practicing my bad French and Arabic, which surprised him. After a while we went back to the cabins for some rest and showers.
When Oli and Jacqui came back we had dinner and then shared another shisha with the hostel folks. The shisha was drawing people to our table, we were soon joined by Americans, Israeli’s and some guy who said was Jordanian but seemed to be clouded in self created mystery. But it was a good evening doing what hostels are all about, hanging out with people from all over and just having a fun time. I couldn’t think of anything better, sitting by a river, smoking a shisha, chatting to interesting(some more than others) people in absolute tranquility. Perfect. After the amazing sunset in Casa Palopo, this was my second best evening of the trip so far.
6 May – Lanquin and Semuc Champey
This was first morning we could sleep in and we did. Kind of. We slept in until 8am. Seeing as we had our own car we didn’t have get up early to join any organized tours or anything. We were starting to see the benefits to having the car. We went down to the restaurant and had some breakfast and coffee (the best French toast I’ve ever had!). After that we made our way to Semuc Champey, or so we thought. The lost curse was back as we drove thirty minutes in the wrong direction. So did our little u-turn and headed back the way we came to Semuc Champey.
We arrived at Semuc Champey and broke up as I didn’t think I could hike up to the viewing point due to my foot. Olivia, Leo, Jacqui and Drew went up to the viewing to look at pools while I went to swim in them. I arrived by the pool and was immediately transfixed by the turquoise blue of the water. It was stunning. Not for the first or last time I was silent and just appreciated the natural beauty of this country. I went into the water and just chilled out until the rest of the people joined me later. Lanquin and Semuc Champey were quickly becoming our sanctuary, our retreat from the hustle of our trip. I think I could have spent all day in the pools and we only didn’t because it looked like there was going to be some rain and I really didn’t want to drive in the rain on the gravel road.
Though we did go down to one of the other pools where Leo, Drew and Olivia were swinging into the pools from a vine. Then we made our way back to El Retiro, the retreat in English, but not before picking up two hitchhikers who wanted a lift back into town. They were an Israeli couple. I’d never met Israeli’s before this trip and suddenly everywhere I went there were loads of them! I am very pro-Palestine, however one thing that growing up in South Africa has taught is not to making assumptions based on race, religion or ethnicity and in all fairness to them, every Israeli I met didn’t leave a bad impression on me. However politics never came up and I’m happy it didn’t.
We got back to El Retiro however instead of having dinner at the local restaurant we decided to look for somewhere in town where we could eat something cheap. And once again I became a taxi service as I gave a ride to two Taiwanese guys wanting to head into town. The restaurant we picked was small but the food was fantastic. I had steak… I had dreaming about steak since moving to Libya… It’s sad but hadn’t had a decent steak in Libya since I moved there. This Chapin steak was everything I dreamt of. I was content.
After dinner we headed to the Lanquin caves which Olivia and Jacqui had visited the day before. Leo, Drew and I went into the caves while the girls waited outside. Actually I just went to the entrance of the cave as both Olivia and Jacqui said it was better that I don’t go in due to my foot. So I waited at the mouth of cave while Leo and Drew explored. We arrived at dusk and soon it was dark. But it was in the darkness that I saw something I’d never seen up close and for myself before. Fireflies. There weren’t thousands or anything like that, only a few, however it seemed a fitting end to a great day. The lights flickering in the dark was just magical and once again I was silent and merely smiling inwardly while appreciating at awesomeness of nature.
When Leo and Drew were done, we all sat at the mouth of the cave while the guards put the lights off. Suddenly from within the belly of the cave the fluttering of wings could be heard. It was completely dark and the fluttering grew louder. Then suddenly you could hundreds of bats wiz past. It was a cool but somewhat scary experience, more because of the complete darkness and the inability to see what was flying past you. After our batcave experience we went back to the hostel where we would have a quick drink and head to bed considering our long drive to Tikal the day after.
Tikal and the Mayan ruins. Even though the rest of Guatemala was beautiful and was worth the visit I was looking forwards to Tikal. It was the reason the destination was selected!