22 enero 2014 miercoles
I enticed my kids with the offer… “You know, Mom is still in Guatemala…so if you want one last trip before I leave, you’d better come this Christmas.” This vacation was definitely not planned for the faint-hearted or couch potatoes…however, as I discovered along the way, even I did not know what was written in the fine print of our adventures.
December 21st – Welcome back to Guatemala! My grown kids, Michelle and Alex, arrived after tiring nights in airports and travel. Alex had the additional stress of being abandoned at the airport in Guatemala City when the shuttle service I had paid for decided they had waited long enough. No consolation to him to learn that someone HAD been holding up a sign with his name but then had left. Anyway, he made it safely to Antigua by hopping a cab with other passengers.
December 22nd- Heading North to Lanquin. No rest for the weary. 8am the following morning we were on a shuttle van from Antigua where the adventurous traveler to Semuc Champey can explore caves with underground rivers or bats, jump 20-30ft from swings and bridges into a river, go tubing, hike to a lookout, and finally relax in clear turquoise natural pools. The scenery from our window changed from dry scrub to green jungle in the course of the 8hr van ride. Pulling into El Retiro, a Guatemalan-owned hostel tucked next to the river, we unloaded our bags. Yes, to the tasty dinner being prepared and yes to the Semuc Champey tour the next day, with the cost of 180 quetzales or $23.
December 23rd – Turquoise Waters of Semuc Champey. Wearing swimsuits and smiles we departed at 9am, me inside the pickup…my kids stood with others in the back of the pickup, holding onto the metal framing. After a 45-minute bumpy, pot-holed ride llegamos (we arrived). First stop, the cave with the underground river. Water sandals or crocs are recommended due to the rocks underfoot. Each of us was given a lit candle as we waded into the cold wetness. The guide, Jose, age 21, was competent, athletic and a prankster. Wading into deepening water, we soon needed to swim which was a challenge while holding our candles aloft. Before we had gone very far, Jose initiated us to the cave society…drawing red lines on our faces from the juice of a fig-like fruit and black lines from the smoke residue on the cave walls. Thus adorned, we plunged ahead. Several times we swam in the near darkness; other times climbed ladders to reach other parts of the cave, but generally we waded in waist-deep water. At our turning point, some brave girls climbed up the wall with the guide’s help to jump down into the dark pool.
A girl I met in Mexico had showed me her souvenir scar from this misadventure; she had missed the deep center of the pool and gashed her leg. Jose, however, jumped with ease into the dark pool. Both then and later he delighted in surprising us by popping up his head in unexpected places. The 2nd time he did this, he startled a girl so much that she accidentally kicked him in the face…well, he survived. Finally we reached the entrance of the cave…it felt good to emerge into the sun and warmth after the cool water.There was optional jumping from a high swing into the river. I think only one person executed it well; the others had rather red stomachs from their landings. Tubing was a yes, thankfully putting in AFTER the small falls. Hurrying after Jose on the shore, some chose to jump 25ft from the bridge to the river. Spectating was again fine for us. After a quick snack lunch, we entered Semuc Champey, site of turquoise natural pools. Not so fast, we had to earn our swim. Trekking up to the Mirador (lookout), we climbed wooden staircases and rocky paths for a fantastic view out over the pools below. Descending in the lush foliage, we could hear birds calling out.
My last visit to Semuc in April, our tour guide had blithely left us at the pools with only 40 minutes for bathing. With Jose, it was a follow-the-leader adventure, as we slipped into the first pool behind him. We swam, slid, and/or jumped from pool to pool…exploring about eight turquoise pozos (pools) in total before we headed on home. Pleasantly fatigued from all of the activities, we were guaranteed to sleep well.
December 24th –The Quaint Isla of Flores. A 8hrs van ride was a pleasant rest from the previous day, arriving in late afternoon. Neil, the owner of Chaltunha Hostel, met us in Flores, and accompanied us by lancha (boat) the 15-minute ride to the town of San Miguel on the peninsula which is only reached by boat. This hostel has a fantastic view out to the island of Flores, just what we wanted for Christmas Eve fireworks, a better choice than his other hostel located on the island. Neil is from Belize, so our Christmas dinner included turkey but also the traditional rice and beans of his homeland plus a pudding-like dessert. Midnight brought on the show of fireworks from all of the towns on the horizon, all shot into the air by private citizens…gotta love Guatemalans’ fascination with bombas (fireworks)!!
December 25th – Yaxha ruins, Mud, and Monkeys. At Neil’s suggestion, we chose to visit a lesser known ruin on Christmas Day, about 1hr 45 minutes from Flores. We paid 300 quetzales ($38) for the taxi driver to drive us there and back, quite aware that he had slept little to none the night before. Yes, we dodged some nasty potholes in the pavement now and then, but it was the stern faces on the tourism police stating that the last 11 km were in bad shape that caused us all to think again. Our driver was optimistic. So we pushed ahead, crossing fingers…soon the 10” mud was scraping the underbelly of the taxi as we wiggled and swerved our way down the road. Hmmm…the driver stopped as we started cresting a hill. Could the taxi make it back up if we descended that mucky mess? He and Alex tromped through the deep mud to assess the situation. Optimism oozed from him…sure thing we can make it back. Michelle and I shot glances at each other that said (“I don’t want to push a taxi uphill in 10” mud!”) So slip sliding our way with mud gushing sounds and vibrations under our feet, we finally made it to the entrance. We hired a guide who rode with us the last 500m stretch. Ta dah, we made it! The taxi driver was more than happy to settle into a siesta in his taxi and munch on leftover tamales while we trekked through the ruins. A word of warning. This IS truly jungle and despite some insect repellent, the mosquitos had their Xmas feast on us. The best strategy was to keep moving.
Most of Yaxha has yet to be excavated…there are about 500 known structures and only 27 unearthed, so we saw many dirt mounds of different sizes with jumbled stones as we walked into the park. The twisting roots of trees anchor the mounds, showing how the jungle has reclaimed this ancient Mayan city. We climbed up several pyramids, and marveled at the view of the lagoon from the tallest structure. Our guide said that there had been commerce between Tikal and Yaxha, although Tikal was the more populated of the two cities. A special treat was watching and listening to the territorial battle between the spider monkeys and the howler monkeys in the treetops above us, resulting in a standoff. We humans did not concern them in the least.
With a constant watch of the sky for possible rain which could signal doom for our return trip, we finally called it a day and headed back to the taxi. Refreshed, our taxi driver was ready for the challenge to make it out to the main road. Our guide implied he would help us if we got stuck… Alex was put in the front passenger seat to give more weight and holding our breaths, the driver took a running start up the mud incline. With a lot of sliding and prayers, we made it through the worst of the mud…passing by a parked car at the crest; that driver had chosen to walk instead. Piece of cake, the driver indicated as we slurped the 11km to the highway. Nope, I hadn’t seen the hazardous road conditions in the fine print for that day. Safely back at our hostel, we shared our adventure stories with Neil and that he warn future visitors that road conditions could be tricky.
December 26th - Tikal Rises From the Jungle. Other visitors told us that a 3:30am departure for the sunrise tour was not worth the lack of sleep. We chose 6am which was early enough to experience the jungle waking up. First sight as we neared the entrance was a huge group of Coati, with their ringed tails pointed upright like masts. They foraged for food and then trotted across the road, some approaching to sniff at us and then scampering off. Colorful wild turkeys who looked like a cross with peacocks sauntered about in small groups, rather oblivious to our presence. A guide said three days are needed to fully explore Tikal…we aimed to see as much as possible in one day. The grounds are indeed extensive, so there are 15-25 minute treks between some groups of ruins. Morning was the best time for weather and less crowds. Temple II an IV are open to climb with the latter being the tallest. It is amazing to glance out on the jungle canopy with the tops of pyramids barely poking higher. So easy to see how these structures could be lost within nature’s cloak. After the fall of Tikal, the Mayans moved away and forgot about this place until it was discovered in 1848 by the governor of Peten.
Alex sat down to sketch these ancient structures, to render another perspective besides our photos.
December 27th – A Rest Day in Flores and Overnight Bus. By now we each sported a rather impressive collection of zancudo (mosquito) bites, hoping that no one looked too carefully at our legs for fear we might be thrown into quarantine! During the past three weeks it had rained heavily and steadily (hence the mud) but also resulting in flooding along the lake shore. Some streets on Flores actually resembled swimming pools, and I spotted a zillion tadpoles enjoying their new territory. Neil commented that the lake level had risen 20 cm in one week, which is an incredible amount of water. This is the largest lake in Guatemala with no natural outlet, so residents have to pray for sun and let evaporation bring the lake level back down.
Alex rented a kayak and promptly the end broke off his oar. With a new oar in hand, he paddled around some small islands. Michelle and I enjoyed internet time and exploring. As the sun set, we filled our stomachs at a lakeside restaurant, enjoying the last view. At 8pm we boarded our two-level bus bound for Guatemala City. Primera clase (1st class) was upstairs where we settled in and lujo (luxury) which reclines a bit more was downstairs. After picking up more passengers in Santa Elena, the larger nearby town, we pointed south and snoozed our way to the capital. Around 6:30am we arrived in Guatemala City at a bustling but tiny bus station, then transferred to a shuttle to Antigua, where once again we changed for a shuttle tide to Pana (Panajachel) at Lake Atitlan. Marathon travel, but we had a lot of distance to cover in a short time.
December 28th – Ziplining Madness at Lake Atitlan. Ziplining or called “canopy” in Guatemala was my intended Xmas gift to Alex and Michelle, but I signed on also when I learned that my entrance fee was nearly the same and I would not be able to follow them along at ground level. Gulp!! This was the first time in Guatemala that I had ever signed a safety waiver form, but I felt more reassured by the numerous safety precautions. The ziplining was within 20 minutes of Pana, and yes, there were fantastic views of the lake….better to look out rather than DOWN! We were issued heavy duty gloves and when the guide waved a red flag we were to press heavily on the cable with our gloved hand to brake. Well, Michelle and I sometimes arrived a bit faster than desired, so we boinged rather fiercely at the end. At least I found my glasses lens in the nearby vegetation which had popped loose from the quick stop. There were seven zipline runs….all stretching across vast open spaces at the tree canopy. Thank goodness, we did not sign up for super extreme which had even longer runs. This was enough flight time for me. Photographing was not possible while shooting across the cable, because we needed to concentrate on when to brake, but those ahead got snapshots of the others in invigorating flight (or fright).
Ya. Basta. Enough adventure for the day….we had slept on an overnight bus, journeying from the jungles of Peten in the north to the capital city and then partway across the country to the lake. But when Alex heard about the ziplining gift it had to happen TODAY and not tomorrow as planned. We probably had doused ourselves with some bug spray, but not enough to ward off the new predators of biting flies. More red spots added to the collection. Now it was time to stroll down the main street of Pana, size up the merchandise and scout for good deals. As the sun descended in the sky we rushed to the lakeshore, just missing the sun setting but still enjoying the beauty left behind.
December 29th – Lifevests and Prayers for Boatride to San Pedro. Sleeping in was a blessed treat, followed by last shopping in Pana. I kept an eye on time, saying we needed to leave before 4pm before the winds on the lake picked up. We popped into a TukTuk or mototaxi to arrive to the other pier for lanchas to San Pedro. Well, too late. The winds were a hefty gale at 4pm.
The pier rocked back and forth so much that I just wanted to be on the boat. After settling into the pitching lancha, the boat pilot advised all to put on their life vests (chalecos)…Whoa, I have never been asked to do that. Trying to look calm I signaled for the kids to do the same. Hang on, folks! It was a very choppy ride, with passengers screaming out in amusement and surprise each time the bottom of the boat abruptly hit a wave. I ducked down behind two girls in front of me, but not much spray came into the small cabin. Nearly ¾ across the lake we came across another lancha with engine troubles. Those passengers did not want to stay adrift in those waves. With the two boats tied up and knocking against each other, the two pilots did some exchange of boat batteries that resulted in both being operable. Let’s go already…the sky was darkening and the waves were pounding us.
December 30th - Summiting San Pedro and Surviving Scorpions. Still dark when our alarms went off at 5:30am, drawing clothes onto our still sleepy bodies, Michelle asked “Will it be cold?” Bundle up I suggested. Our driver promptly fetched us at 6am at the hostel, safely shepherding us past menacing dogs. Slowly the sun joined us. A breezy TukTuk (motor taxi) ride took us to the base of Volcan San Pedro where we met our friendly guide, Bartolo. A guide is required and groups are kept small, and at Q100 or $15/each I appreciated the company and security of a guide. Checking watches, we started at 6:30am and made our way steadily up the steps carved into the path. At times I rested to calm my heart rate. A “Big Stairmaster” is the description someone gave of this climb. Yes I agree. At 9,908 feet it provides a good challenge.
Bartolo was very kind and kept praising my “ritmo” (rhythm) that it was strong and steady. Some young Guatemalan men definitely were the rabbits, springing ahead and then resting, finishing their water early on. We arrived at the same time; a personal triumph. The view from atop was indeed fantastic…with the lake villages sprinkled around the lake and the volcanoes of Antigua on the horizon. With a sigh, we left our perch after numerous photos and headed back down. 3hr 10 minutes up and 3hrs down to be gentle on my knees. As we neared the end, hopeful hikers just beginning the trek would ask, “Are we halfway yet?” Not wanting to disappoint, I suggested they ask their guide.
Exploring San Pedro and picking up dinner supplies let us walk off some soreness…well, I speak for myself. Another TukTuk ride took us back to the lakeshore hostel. Generally I am easygoing about accommodations, but I will say that Hostal Punto de Oro did not live up to its internet image. As we prepared our dinner in the rather scuzzy kitchen, my eye caught the sight of something black on the counter. “THAT’S a SCORPION!” I yelled and grabbed a clear glass to plop over it. Now we had an unwanted kitchen companion, glancing nervously at the insect circling in the glass cage. We had been told that there might be scorpions, so we now believed the rumors. Alex made a sign, “Animalito Peligroso” with a drawing of a skull. We quickly took our dinner into the dining area and warned others about the scorpion. One of the hostel assistants got a box to catch the scorpion, and likes to freeze them and send them once dead to her grandson in the USA. We gladly accepted her offer to wash our dishes. “That’s the least I can do since you climbed San Pedro today.” We did NOT want to go back in the kitchen. Before going to bed, we checked our beds and clothes since the assistant had said scorpions had been found in the rooms and bedding. Yikes! We were ready to leave the next morning; so glad to have had survived the hostel’s hazards.
December 31st - With a BANG 2014 arrives in Antigua. Fond memories of the fiesta two years ago drew us back to Antigua to ring in the New Year. Michelle’s imminent departure on Jan 1st also figured into that plan. Guatemalans crave the bang of fireworks and firecrackers for any celebration. Safety? Well, just jump out of the way. The men galloping leisurely under butterfly or toro (bull) wooden armatures affixed with various fireworks which shot into the happy spectators. Surviving the pyrotechnics definitely welcomed in the New Year with style!!