As I now sit in a hot & humid, fly infested room in Cuba, wondering why I decided to travel during the hottest month of the year and the month when Cubans decide to have their holidays, my mind has been wandering back to the cooler climes of the Guatemalan Western Highlands and wishing I had written a blog post when it was fresher in my mind. Maybe I was too busy enjoying myself.
Guatemala was the first step in my Central American adventure and I really did not know what to expect. First stop was the colonial town of Antigua. I had been warned that Antigua was not really the “ real “ Guatemala but my experience was different. Perhaps the fact that I visited in the low season was the reason. There were travellers about but they were certainly not in the numbers I had been warned about. Antigua reminds me a lot of Trinidad in Cuba, complete with colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, a nice mix of locals and travellers and plenty to see if you want to get out and about. I was also lucky enough to bump into the colorful folks at Café No Se on my first day in town and subsequently had some great nights there, chatting with the staff and travellers and listening to some great live music.
Typical street scenes
The main attraction in Antigua though, is the opportunity to climb the extinct volcano Acatenango, camp the night there and head for the summit in the morning complete with ( hopefully ) views down upon the erupting and very active volcano, Fuego.
The trek up the mountain was not really my cup of tea but I did manage to view the Fuegos fireworks display from the terrace of a nearby hostel, maybe not quite the same view, but certainly a lot less effort !!! J
Antigua is also well known for its Spanish Schools and I decided to give that a go for a week or so. Lets just say though that after 16 hours of card games guessing different types of fruit, my Spanish was totally still useless but at least I am now ok at the food markets !!
Despite what I had been told about Antigua and its touristic nature, I really loved it and would go back in a heartbeat.
I had been forewarned of the deceptive beauty of Lake Atitlan and the small towns that line its shores and after 2 weeks in the little village of San Pedro, I was fully aware that it would be a very easy place to just stay and stay.
The waters of the Lake have no inlet or outlet and rise and fall due to rainfall and evaporation and human uses. This disused building used to be well above the Lake levels and is now flooded and derelict. makes for some nice reflections though 🙂
After a few days getting in the groove of San Pedro village, I thought I might try my luck with another Spanish School ( after the waste of time in Antigua ) and see if I could learn more than the names of fruit. I stumbled upon the San Pedro Spanish Speaking School that nestles beside the lake and arranged a week of tuition with a Mr Francisco. Through no fault of his own, Francisco had his work cut out as the distractions of Hummingbirds, Woodpeckers, Monarch Butterflies and other sundry birds and animals kept me distracted, not to mention the simple beauty of the garden and the Lake itself. Francisco seemed happy that I had actually moved beyond fruit. It’s all about little steps.
Old guys sit and chat under the local school verandah in San Pedro
A view down a typical San Pedro street with the famous Indians Nose mountain in the background
The ubiquitous ” Chicken Bus ” legendary throughout Latin America
But as always, all good things must come to an end and so it was with San Pedro. After 2 fabulous weeks and a round of long winded goodbyes to the local travellers making it their home, I had to drag myself away and on to the wonderful, isolated pools at Semuc Champey.
I was in two minds about heading to Semuc. It seemed to be a difficult place to reach in a small uncomfortable shuttle but the word on the trail was it was really a sweet spot and worth the trouble. I decided to bite the bullet and give it a go.
My fellow travellers were right on both counts, it’s a long uncomfortable trip over some seriously rocky roads, it’s also particularly beautiful.
Semuc is reached via the small village of Lanquin and is a further 40 minutes very uncomfortable minutes or so along a rocky and windy track ( as you hang on for dear life in the back of a pickup ).
Limestone pools at Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is a series of limestone pools that have formed naturally as a 300m bridge over the Cahabon River. The river basically filters into the pools and then gushes from under the pools downstream. I really is an unusual natural feature and well worth the trouble getting there.
Adding to my already happy decision to visit was arriving at the totally unexpected and very groovy hostel known as Utopia. This chilled out place was down by the river, walking ( a long one ) to the pools and also had tire tubes to float away a relaxing day on the river. Maybe it was the remoteness or the chilled vibe of the place but I was happy to meet some interesting travellers here who were beating to their own drum and away from the well worn backpacker trail.
Hannah & Danielle
Hannah and Danielle arrived at Utopia about the same time as me. I expected them to have the same sort of story as most the other travellers as to where they had been and were going. I was however, very wrong.
Hannah is a small 25ish year old Englishwoman who was hitchhiking her way through the Americas. She seemed fearless and had found her way alone through some very dangerous and potentially hostile places. Her method was very simple, pick a destination, hang out her “ Norte “ ( north ) sign, wait for a ride and see where you end up. This, apparently ranged from orchards and parks, to ambulance stations, fire stations, schools and homes. She carried a tiny backpack and small hammock. She was regularly taken in by strangers who were fearful for her safety. When I met her, she had the princely sum of $ 35 USD to her name and had not eaten for 2 days. She was getting by making small beads and bracelets etc etc. I admit to being both impressed and scared for Hannah. If she gets to the end ok, I am sure a book and a movie should await.
Danielle was on a similar tack to Hannah, but instead of hitching, she was riding her bike. She had a small tent to pitch where she landed and made use of her trusty ukulele to barter for a meal and a beer or two from the hostel owners.
I mention these two ( and I have met many others ) simply because I have always admired folks who beat to their own drum and are doing things in their own way. I really liked them both.
Hannah & Danielle, the offbeat travellers
Hannah the hobo heads off to who knows where !!!!!!
The riverside wonderland of Rio Dulce butts up against the border of southern Belize. The series of waterways here actually reminded me a little of the Kerala Backwaters in southern India. Just some nice quiet backwater canals adjoining the Rio Dulce river as winds its way through a steep canyon and on into the Bay of Honduras at Livingston.
Rio Dulce has a lot of wildlife in the area and trips to see Howler and Spider Monkeys, Manatees and a plethora of bird speices are easily arranged. It was also here that I first experienced the great Central American collectivo, basically a shared old banger of a car or van which operates as a hop on / hop off system. You just hail it down. It’s a fun and cheap way to get around the smaller places. My record was 19 people in a small minivan !!!!
Kids inventing the latest in floatation devices in a canyon at Rio Dulce.
Flores and Tikal
I was initially uncertain of whether to make the trek over to Flores from Rio Dulce or just head straight up into Belize. The famous Mayan ruins at Tikal are however a big ticket item and I thought I should at least try and get there to see them. Thankfully I convinced myself to go. Flores was a totally unexpected delight as were the ruins and National Park at Tikal.
The little town of Flores is basically a small island surrounded by Lake Peten Itza. It makes a nice relaxing base from which to explore Tikal. It also has some really delicious and super cheap street food and is a super chilled out little place.
I had fully expected to find Tikal a tourist laden spot with little to see other than the famous ruins. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of people in the early morning there ( it was low season ), as well as the large amount of nature in the surrounding park.
I had not expected to be able to sit and listen to the roar of two male Howler monkeys as they fought over a female and I was certainly not expecting a Tarantula to emerge from a hole as the guide explained the wonders of Mayan astrology !!!
All in all, Tikal was a very pleasant surprise.
The very surprised Tarantula
The Castillo at Tikal
The Tree of Life
Flores unfortunately signalled the end of my time in Guatemala and further adventures in Belize awaited. I would soon come to find that the surrounding countries just didn’t capture my heart as Guatemala had. Its raw beauty and history, Mayan people determinedly clinging to their traditional lifestyle, and oddbod fellow travellers and locals captured my heart in a way that the more developed neighbours did not.
I don’t think Guatemala has seen the last of me just yet !!!!