Rushing Around Guatemala

I don’t know whether it was the relative comfort compared to the previous few nights but our accommodation in Rio Dulce was one of the nicest places we have stayed for a while. A nice big bed (for a change), a mosquito net which didn’t hang round your face making you feel like a mackerel on a bad day and, lord be praised, hot water! El Tortugal, if you ever end up there, is the place to be. Talking to the people that were running the place was fascinating too – a couple in their 50’s from Texas who had bought a yacht a few years previously which had become their home, meaning they could pitch up wherever they liked (within watery reason) and stay for however long they chose. Having stayed for five weeks at the hotel, the owners asked if they’d look after the place while they went away so here they were, chatting to the guests and generally enjoying their lives. Very inspiring. We met a couple of English girls in the evening, sunk a few beers and had a really great time.

Sadly, time waits for no man (or woman) who’s this close to the end of their travels and staring working life in the face and, by lunchtime the next day, we were on our way again, this time managing to experience that rarest of things when travelling like this – a whole minibus to ourselves! The driver didn’t stop to collect anyone else or wait around to try and coerce bystanders into accompanying us – he just loaded up our bags and drove us to our destination. Bizarre.

We did pause half-way to collect what appeared to be the driver’s three daughters but they were no problem at all and were, in fact, quite a lot of fun, squirting water at each other and playing games. The journey, predictably, did take much longer than we had been told, however, and by the time we were dropped at our hotel in Lanquin, the six and a half hours of bumpy track had rendered my rear end almost completely numb and non-functional.

Our hostel was a crushing disappointment. Many gringos, drab food, nowhere to sit and eat it – these were all problems we could deal with. But the staggeringly stark and depressing wooden room which smelt of stale cabbage combined with the long, dark, outside walk to the shared toilet and bathroom convinced us that one night here would be enough.

Early next morning, we set off for Semuc Champey, choosing to avoid the organised tour (which included wading through caves filled with water, tubing and leaping off bridges into rivers) and simply hitching a lift on the back of a truck up the 9km track, through the jungle, to the river.

Semuc Champey is a stunning part of the country, where the Rio Cahabon has carved out a tunnel under a long section of limestone which has thus become a bridge over the river, which receives some of the river water, creating several turquoise pools on top. We began by struggling up one of the steepest climbs of my life to a view point high in the jungle-covered mountains where we could look down onto the bridge and take some photos. The pools, once we got to them, were stunning but a little too cold for my liking so I settled for dangling my feet in for a refreshing hour after our sweaty climb.

As we left the park, we noticed a nice-looking hostel set in the trees and, once we saw the rooms, decided to book in for a night. The place was like a different world compared to El Retiro in the village and we spent a pleasant evening sipping beer and talking to a French couple and an American guy who spent a little too much time trying to convince me of God’s ‘good news’.

Once again, we checked out after one night and headed off in a minivan, this time to Flores, in the North. The van, having done the usual tour of the town and return to base, filled with some extremely amiable chaps and chappesses, and everyone got chatting as we leapt and bounced along the unmade road to Coban. You do meet a lot of people on these trips and it’s not often that everyone in the van gets on but this time was different. By the time we limped into Flores, after nine hours of the five hour journey, we’d all had as much fun as it is possible to have during such arduous trials and agreed to meet up when we visited Tikal after a day of rest on the Sunday – maybe God’s good news had sunk in after all?! One of the highlights of the trip came during a short ferry ride across a river in Sayaxche. The ferry carried around 20 vehicles, including a huge truck, itself carrying a bulldozer and was powered by a simple outboard motor operated by a ‘Dude In A Tin’ (as the Aussie contingent described it) – a man sitting in a round, metal, errr, tin which could swivel to enable steering of the enormous cargo.

We were actually booked to stay in a hotel halfway between Flores and Tikal in a small village called El Remate so our journey had another, exhausting leg which, inevitably, involved dodgy collectivos and interminable waiting whilst they filled the van with passengers. Still, it was worth it and we found our hotel to be suitably junglified and very comfortable.

Our day of rest was relatively unremarkable, save for a trip to a nearby biotropic reserve which claimed to be home to a bewildering array of animals including howler monkeys and snakes. We got out of bed too late though and that, coupled with some adrenalin-pumped Guatemalan lads who insisted on running screaming through the reserve, frightening any potential fauna back into the jungle meant that the most exciting things we saw were some ants – and a lizard. You can’t win ’em all.

Tikal is one of the largest Mayan cities to have been discovered and, as such, is one of those places which can get overrun with tourists. So, as usual, an early start is required. We arrived at the park at 6am, met up with our new vanfriends, hired a guide and followed him off into the jungle, unsure as to whether he would be of any use. He turned out to be absolutely brillant and really made our visit worthwhile, showing us various plants and animals including the tree used for making chewing gum, pepper trees, monkeys, woodpeckers and some of the biggest ants I have ever seen as well as explaining all the various temples and structures which are scattered throughout the park. Climbing up some of the steep edifices revealed some incredible views as many of the temples are much higher than the canopy of the jungle and can be seen poking out of the vast surrounding landscape of nothing but green.

Our guide left us to it, we spent a while wandering around on our own and have now returned, sunburnt, sweaty and exhausted to the hotel. The others are off to Belize tomorrow so we have decided to join them and spend a few days on the beach in Caye Caulker, an island just off the Caribbean coast. There may well be beers (it is my birthday next week) but I feel we have earned them.

The fat lady is beginning to clear her throat in preparation for some vocal exercise – we have been travelling for 28 weeks and only have a single week to go. No more long bus journeys. No more getting up at the crack of dawn. No more touristy tours. We are going to relax.