From Belize City it was onto a shady tourist bus, a few hours across the BLZ/GUA border and back into Español speaking territory. We could only hope that Guatemala was ready for our Dr. Ropata jokes. Arriving at the hustly bustly marketplace-come-bus station, we were shepherded into a mini van to take us the final ten minutes across the bridge to Flores, a little island in the middle of Lago Petén Itzá. We were lucky enough to meet an Australian couple with great banter, and in true traveling the gringo trail style, we’d come across these two shags in more encounters to come.
The travel companies claim the Flores island roads are too small for the big bus to come over on, which is possibly true but also rather convenient for mini van man, who tries to persuade us to buy all our transport and attractions from him. Dropped off at our hostel, we’d perfected a bit of a routine in arriving at new accom, and headed straight for the beers. Even more of a novelty to be in a new country with a new cerveza of choice! Gallo (rooster) is the drop, and it ain’t half bad. Much like New Zealand has the Kiwi, Guatemala has the Gallo, and as our travels progressed we found all manner of businesses, products and foods called Gallo. You sure can’t beat a good cock. The Lacandon Hostel, with its glorious view of the lake at a fishable distance from the water’s edge was perfect for beers and sunsets, the hospitality from our young German host complimented with magnificent dinners of burgers and tacos.
Other than the fact Flores is a beautiful little half-sinking, chapel topped and narrow, abstract-angle-cobblestoned-roaded island that literally takes 5 minutes to run around, our main reason we’d ventured here was a great place to stay in close proximity to the country’s pride and joy of the ancient ruins world, Tikal. Having trapsed around a fair few pyramid ridden ancient cities by this point, we were starting to think we knew a thing or two about old rock buildings and our expectations were high. We booked tickets with the tour agency next door for an early morning tour in two days time, set to depart at 4.30am. To add to the excitement of it all, we made a rookie mistake and Googled the tour agency post-purchase to find many a disgruntled customer warning others to steer clear, a couple of recounts of tours gone sour, some evil guy called ‘Scarface’ and one tour involving a robbing at knifepoint which sounded like an inside job. Peeing our pants a bit, we knew we wouldn’t get a refund on tickets bought. We subtly asked around a few people, including our hostel owner, who was suspiciously reluctant to give any opinion, positive or negative, and finally decided that $20 was $20 and by gum we weren’t going to let no dodgy tour agency foil our Tikal dreams. So, with phones down bras (lucky Jimmy’s a D cup), cash in socks, kung fu fists at the ready, we were in the van before dawn had cracked and off to see the ruins, and hopefully not our demise.
It turned out to be a cracker morning exploring a truly magnificient site of ruins led by a thoroughly entertaining English speaking tour guide with a heavy Texan ‘tache and matching accent. Even a coffee stop before take off! Being on site by 6.00am meant there was no bustling with other tourist weeners for prime viewing spots and the chorus of the jungle waking up was truly encapsulating. Tikal ruinas was set amongst a fantastic backdrop of howler monkeys, tall, lanky pyramids jutting out of vast, dry rainforests and magnificent, ginormous ancient trees and is almost impossible to capture the sheer magnitude by camera.
Work is underway to restore the pyramids in places, the structures surrounded at their peaks by miles of tube and clip scaffolding. The masonery ingeniously engineered to be lifted up on a pulley system by a 1980s Suzuki 125cc motorbike, of which we could imagine a Guatemalan foreman straddling the gas tank, revving the rings off of while cracking the whip, watching the countless blocks arise up to the higher levels. We were even pointed out the solo man who sits in shifts with a pair of binoculars and patrols the miles of horizons in search of bushfires. Riveting stuff, nonetheless extremely important for the ecological system, constantly endangered by the slash and burn farming techniques which are everywhere in Guatemala. The view atop the hundreds of staired Temple IV well worth the slog – the rainforest covered rolling hills for miles with the many Tikal temples jutting out the canopies a definite tourist photo op.
Back to the island, we found our new favourite cheap street food stall. A delightful selection of tacos and cakes, an unexpected but winning combination. The next day we bartered with a local boatsmen and rode our way to Jorge’s Rope Swing – a local hangout spot on the lake built by a local family. For a small entrance fee of 10 Quetzales each we were spoilt to spend a few hours in hammocks, riding gnarly rope swings and jumping off platforms into the clear water.
A wicked setting, shared by another smart local entrepreneurial fellow capitalising on the array of tourists looking for a bit of excitement and a cool down from the dry season heat. Rather than mastering the swing, the swing mastered Kim with a graceful few belly flops and a spot of rope burn for good measure. To top it off, upon arrival back at the island she took an unwisely placed step out of the boat and somehow managed to fall right out and into the lake for another swim
No real rest for the wicked, it was time to move on to our next Guat location, and we set off on a very bumpy, long 10 hour bus ride to Semuc Champey. The ‘air-conditioned’ ticket price got us open windows, and after a bit of a fuss in our ever-improving Español, a discount on the false advertising. The roads were on the sketchy side, so we tried not to look at the drop down the hill and hope that our driver was a good one. Arriving into the small town of Lanquin, our hostel dude was waiting for us, along with the whole neighbourhood it seemed, to coerce those without reservations to stay with them. One local guy, who was not a big man, proceeded to carry both of our packs simultaneously up a considerable hill to the hostel, despite our (half-hearted, yet impressed) insistence we could carry them.
El Muro Lanquin took hospitable and fun times to the next level. What a place! Set amongst the trees, it was cheaper and easier to get to than some of the other lodges within proximity to the legendary Semuc Champey. Great people and great times, we enjoyed plenty of beers, rum, and singalongs into many an early hour. El Chapo the resident sausage x daschund pup always around for a scratch. Days were spent tubing down the river (not recommended when the river is low, many a bumpy rapid, scratched Go Pro lens cases and one deflated tyre) and on the main event big day tour. Semuc Champey is known for its beautiful tiered crystal blue pools set amongst a green valley, a true beauty of nature – 100% worth that long, butt numbing drive in.
We’re driven into the valley on a giant truck, all 20 of us herded into the tray on the back. It’s a tightly packed tourist fest and Jimmy draws the short straw to ride on the roof (!) of the cab. Knuckles white and breakfast uncertainly lurching in bellies, we hoon up the excuses for roads to our day’s starting point. The day is not for the faint of heart, mildly claustrophobic, nor the health and safety conscious.
Our guide thinks it appropriate to crush up berries and war paint our faces up for good measure. Our Survivor style initiation ensued – candles in hand shoulder to shoulder with aussies, brits and europeans. That one candle serves as our precious light source and is to last us the next two hours of navigating and manoeuvring tight, narrow, winding maze into the cave. Splashing through pools one behind another, hoping that slimy thing was a human and not an amphibious bat, knocking shins and knees on unseen rocks, and climbing some precarious waterfalls on rickety ladders. The odd candle outage rescued by fellow cavers. Covered in war paint, in the depths of a cave in Guatemala, basking in minimal candlight – the stuff dreams (nightmares too) and great yarns are made of. 1.5 hours into the cave we reach the climax of the situation where we of course are all invited to climb a large rock surface and jump into a black hole of, hopefully water. A few ballsy peeps get amongst the action and live to tell the tale.
Out of the caves the sunlight never looked so good! We were accosted by the young locals, never shy of a commercial venture and ready to sell us all the Brahvas we could drink in time for our tube down the river. A quick stop at the most brutal water swing on the planet, the type that if you don’t jump off at the exact time old mate tour guide yells then you can kiss your unbroken bones goodbye, but you probably won’t even be able to form a kiss cause your face will be messed up too. Of course they’d scratched their initials onto the bottom of the cans so you knew who to pay post float.
More waterfall jumping, bbq lunching and a strenuous hike up to the most gorgeous viewpoint of the turquoise pools of the Cahabón river. Followed by a welcome descent and a couple of hours swimming in the glorious waters. Naturally formed water slides and choruses of the Lion King in the truck ride home the icing on the cake for an epic day with great peeps.
Post rum o’clock we get cooerced into staying an extra night and the party continued with our Guatemalan hosts and our newfound Swiss and Aussie mates. By the time we left we surely felt part of the family. Such a special place, with familiar elements of New Zealandish beauty that we cannot reccommend enough. Nonetheless it was onto our next journey – Antigua.