I’m sticking these together as we were only a couple of days in each, and it will help with catching up. Guatemala so far has been pretty impressive, I can see why people end up staying here for absolutely ages because there is just so much to do. We started off in Flores, pretty much everyone’s first port of call coming over from Belize to Guatemala, and then took the very very long journey to Lanquin and Semuc Champey (closest large town Coban, but essentially in the middle of nowhere). I finish these last few days sore, tired, and completely physically exhausted, but we have definitely done some of the best things I’ve ever done in that space of time.
We didn’t get off to a great start with Flores. On paper it’s great; a pretty and small town located on an island on a lake, surrounded by hills. There definitely are some great views, but it took us a while to actually like the town
One issue was our hostel. We had high hopes because we’d heard it was so popular, and had read some great reviews. We just didn’t really like it – it always felt like it was selling stuff to you (it had its own travel agent and restaurant), and didn’t feel very homely, plus it was very dim and difficult to get much natural light. It might have been good if you were a solo traveller as it did seem like it wouldn’t be too hard to meet people in the bar or on one of their trips, but we just didn’t really get on with it and preferred to spend time outside of the hostel.
The town was ok, but mainly full of tourist trinket shops and travel agencies selling the same trip to the ruins at Tikal. It is a very useful base for Tikal and we were planning to head there, but it did give the general feeling that it was the best thing Flores had to offer.
We did find parts we liked though. As I said, the views were lovely and all day happy hour prices meant in most places we could get a mojito for 10 quetzales (86p). We also found the cheapest tacos we’ve come across (3 for 5q, so 43p), though they were by far not the best tasting. On our last night we did have some great barbecued chicken though, as bizarrely it was some kind of Christmas tree celebration in the square and there were lots of stalls selling chicken and a Christmas tree loudly blaring music to the people there.
Tikal (meaning echo, due to the reverberating echo you get when facing a temple pyramid) is a vast area of Mayan ruins in the jungle just over an hour from Flores, and is where we made our way on our second day there. Unlike with previous ruins we booked through an agency so got transport and a tour included, so it was nice to get a bit more of a detailed look at one of these sites.
After having heard some bad reviews of Tikal guides we definitely lucked out – our guide was insanely knowledgeable about all things Maya. We spend our day climbing up pyramids, wandering around the central plaza, and taking a ton of pictures.
The highlight of the day was without a doubt the view from the top of Temple 4. Also the view used by George Lucas in A New Hope for the rebel base on Yanvin 4, the view from the top was breathtaking: jungle canopy as far as the horizon with the tops of temples poking out all around. We could have just stayed up there all day, and all the climbing was definitely worth the muscle pain which followed just for that view.
The journey to Lanquin
I’ve usually skimmed over travel a bit, but this is definitely one which deserves its own subheader. We’d seen Lanquin on a map, and it seemed like it was halfway between Flores and Antigua (where we wanted to head in the South), so we reckoned it would make a good halfway point. It’s a popular stop for backpackers and there are some beautiful natural pools there. We were surprised then, that the transport to Lanquin claimed to take 8 hours when we were expecting around that amount of time all the way to Antigua.
It turns out Lanquin is much more remote than we’d first expected. Thin mountain paths and bumpy unkept roads means travel was slow, and not always comfortable given you were in a packed minibus with very little legroom. We drove from about half 8 in the morning to about 6 in the evening with a couple of baño breaks and one stop for lunch (by a McDonald’s which excited a lot of people, although we went for the cheaper option of a little grill across the road). The further we went, the bumpier and tighter the roads got.
The journey wasn’t over there though. The shuttle brings you as far as Lanquin, but our hostel was about 10 km from the town. When you reach the drop off point, the bus gets absolutely mugged by a throng of hostel reps with pictures of their hostels, and instructed that we needed to get in the back of a pickup truck which would take us where we needed to go. So we jumped up into the back of one of these trucks, started on our way, when we notice that we are going the opposite way to the direction we expected to. This in itself wasn’t too odd – all our drives in Guatemala seem to have started with unexpected detours and stops. But we got very confused when we just started driving about in some clearing filled with other trucks and then stopped for some time. As it was getting dark and starting to rain by this point, it was also getting a bit creepy being out in the middle of nowhere in a place not known to be completely safe.
Our wait was finally broken by being sent out of our truck and onto another half truck half bus type vehicle with open sides, being told to hold onto our bags in case it got stolen from the sides, and finally being driven onwards. This was at least another half an hour of terrifying driving in the dark up incredibly steep and bumpy roads, in increasingly torrential rain, but eventually (5 minutes before Rav was ready to just get out and walk it) we pulled up at a sign which said Greengos, the name of our hostel. Unloading in the pouring rain we raced in, our stuff getting thoroughly soaked in the process. Thankfully the hostel was great and comfortable, and we began to settle in (with a free cuba libre on arrival), but the journey had definitely taken a lot out of us.
Hostel and Semuc Champey
Given that we’d expected staying out in the middle of nowhere (but still tourist heavy) would be pretty expensive, for not too high a cost our hostel was comfortable and friendly. We had a good first night drinking cheap cuba libres and playing cards with some other travellers, and the beds were comfy with rooms arranged in cabins. This involved lots of going up and down steps, which turned out to be a bit of a pain on my bad leg from Tikal, but meant the place had a great look and atmosphere.
The park everyone is in the area to go to is Semuc Champey. Here a natural limestone bridge has formed over a waterfall in a river, and created a cascade of crystal clear pools with caves and the river rushing beneath. We didn’t book on a tour but decided to head over ourselves, and see if we could get a guide just for us.
A side note here is that the whole area was pretty dangerous compared to where we’d been so far. We were warned against wandering alone, and even the park itself had absolutelt no sign of security and some dodgy looking characters with machetes inside. In fact we saw a few too many people with machetes in general around the place, and had heard stories of muggings in the past, so were very careful in our time there.
At Semuc when we arrived we went past a bunch of children hanging round the entrance selling chocolate and offering tours and paid at the desk. When they asked if we wanted a guide, we said yes, and were surprised when the man whistled and one of the children from the front gate ran over (it turned out he was 15 but looked younger). Still feeling slightly safer with someone to follow, we headed into the park with our young guide.
It was a bit of an awkward guiding experience as he spoke no English and our Spanish is still pretty lacking. We just about got by though, and ended up having a great experience of the park. The first thing we did was hike to el mirador (the overlook), a short but very steep climb to see the pools from above. My leg and I were not enjoying this climb, especially as with every step I became more sure I would not be able to make it down again. After a minor meltdown where I was about to cry and decided I was going to sit on a rock and not continue, some sense followed and we did end up making it to the top and the view was absolutely fantastic. Totally worth the mini tantrum and another highlight to add to Guatemala.
After the climb back down (still tricky but by this point I had realised I could actually get down and wasn’t so worried), we then were asked if we wanted to swim in the pools. We did, and this again was great fun, albeit absolutely terrifying. Our mountain goat of a 15 year old might have been quite happy jumping from slimy rock to rock to descend between the pools and jumping off ledges but we did a great deal of slipping, falling, and general crashing about to get down. The views and experience were amazing, and we felt very adventurous, but in Rav’s words, “all of my toes are stubbed”.
We ended the day with an awkward experience of not knowing how much to tip (and not having change), then headed back to the hostel for a restful afternoon. We booked onto a shuttle to Antigua for the next day, as although the trip had been long and the hostel was relaxing, there is not much else to do out there and we decided we’d rather spend some recovery days in a town instead. As I’m posting this from Antigua, I’m (almost!) caught up on the blog, so will be updating from our time here soon. Can’t believe it’s already been a month, time is flying by…