It’s easy when you spend a large amount of time in a section of a country to start to forget that there is so much more to a place than its tourist centers. The US is not just New York, the Grand Canyon and Orlando just like Australia isn’t just Sydney and Ayers rock and Guatemala certainly isn’t just Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Two weeks ago we headed north from Atitlan towards the next destination on our Guatemala hit list, Semuc Champey. The 14 hours of bus rides (including breakdowns) took us through a completely different type of country. Steep rolling hills of dense jungle, rusted corrugated steel and wood shacks perched precipitously on cliff sides and children carrying 50lb loads of firewood from headstraps trudging up mud roads. This is what much of Guatemala still is. For a country with so much natural beauty and such amazing history and culture, government mismanagement and instability has left the country way behind other developing countries in infrastructure and education. A surprising 75% of Guatemalans still live below the poverty line. The primary roads through the country between major cities and landmarks are largely unpaved and a trip that would take an hour on a US freeway takes 8 hours on dirt roads littered with potholes, rocks and ruble. The next phase of our adventure was beginning and it was obvious. To Lanquin we traveled.
The town of Lanquin is a small rural town at the end of a long winding gravel road that takes an hour and a half to traverse its 9 kilometers. Not quite at the end of the road actually. At the end is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, Semuc Champey. As the river Chabon comes down through the mountainous jungle, it crashes furiously into a subterranean cavern for a quarter mile before resurfacing. Atop that cavern are a series of limestone pools filled with turquoise waters that tier one into another like emerald steps down the mountainside via dozens of cascading waterfalls. A sacred place to the ancient Maya for good reason, we spent our day at Semuc climbing a nearby mountain to view the beauty from above before cooling ourselves swimming in its cool waters and exploring its various lagoons and grottoes. As if that wasn’t a good enough day, we also visited the amazing Kan Ba caves nearby. This tour involves swimming through the cave systems water filled chambers while holding candles overhead to view the stalactites and other structures in the same flickering glow its original visitors must have seen. It was spectacular. Climbing rope ladders up subterranean waterfalls and sliding down nature-made chamber to chamber water slides by candlelight the Goonie in us came out full force and that childhood sense of adventure and wonder boiled inside. It was our time.. down there.
Leaving our thatched hut riverside hostel and heading north we went deeper and deeper into the Guatemalan jungle. Our destination… The Mayan ruins of Tikal. Us both being huge history buffs, big fans of Indian Jones and having recently read The Lost City Of Z, we were ready to experience the Mayas lost city in the Jungle. Machetes in hand (not really) we headed into the ruins midday to avoid the crowds and sure enough our group were the only ones in the entire preserve. Wandering from step pyramid to step pyramid on dirt paths through dense jungle in the late day failing light was awe-inspiring. We climbed to the top of Temple 4 and watched the sun set over the jungle with the orange glowing tops of other pyramids staring at us over the field of green. The Mayans aligned everything astronomically and as we walked through the ruins at night under the stars you just felt a sacred sense of in-tunement with the world around us. It was awesome.
Leaving Guatemala after a month we definitely felt a bit of sadness but Belize and the beach were in our immediate future and that put an internal smile on our faces as we boarded yet another bus for another unpredictable overland journey. This morning we swam in the Caribbean on the island of Caye Caulker. But that’s a story for another post. Until next time.