Having well and truly tired of Belize, it was time to move on to the tourist mecca of Guatemala. Guatemala is a must-see on the Central American gringo trail, offering bucketloads of natural and cultural attractions, purportedly friendly people, and a much more agreeable bang for your buck than un”belize-ably” pricey Belize. Guatemala was going to be epic.
Navigating the ruins of Tikal
Having had a great time exploring the caves of ATM in San Ignacio, Belize with Mayawalk Tours, we decided to team up with them again and take advantage of their day trip to the ruins of Tikal, located a couple of hours drive across the border in Guatemala. Doing the same transition on our own was going to be a bitch, requiring us to catch a taxi to the border, jumping out with all our bags, paying a hefty exit fee, trundling to the other side, then grabbing two buses to the nearest large town (Flores), and then another bus to Tikal. Ahhh…I think we’ll pass on that one. For the small (monstrous) sum of US$130 pp, the tour would take us across the border, pay our exit fee, arrange our documents, drive us to Tikal, give us a tour of the ruins and provide lunch.
In theory, it was a good plan. But the tour ended up being a bit of a flop. No food was provided until around 3pm (breakfast being at 7am), the tour guide had atrocious English (rather than perfectly fluent English, as promised by Mayawalk), and he was clearly talking smack half the time. At one point, he pointed excitedly to what he claimed was jaguar poo. I (of course) took a closer look, and noted that it was, in fact, a small piece of black plastic bag. The guide was suitably embarrassed, but not enough to stop talking shit about the history and culture of Tikal.
Aside from the crap tour, Tikal itself was epic. We had considered skipping it, on account of seeing approximately 10,000 Mayan, Zapotec and Aztec ruins in the past few months, but were glad we didn’t. The sheer scale of the temples was impressive, and the archaeologists who oversee the operation have done an excellent job of only partially excavating and “stabilizing” the ruins, giving it a perfectly ancient, lightly disturbed feel. Once again, Tikal was a completely unique experience, and time well spent.
Chillaxing on the island of Flores
After a hugely confusing exchange with our tour guide, our passage from Tikal to Flores was arranged via a collectivo. It was cramped and unpleasant with all our bags and 14 other people in the tiny van, but we got there in the end. Arrival in Flores found me literally running around the island trying to find one of only 2 ATMs to pay our driver, but eventually we settled up and checked into our accommodations in Hospedaje Yaxha (pronounced – I think – “yasha”).
After the miserly conditions of Belize, Flores was a welcome initiation into Guatemala. Flores is a very cool little island in the highlands lake of Peten with a slightly European feel. The streets are paved with cobbles, a single road winds around the island with tiny alleyways interconnecting and leading up to the little cathedral square on the hill, and there are lots of delicious, reasonably priced restaurants. This was our kind of place.
We spent 4 days hanging in Flores, meeting up with old travel pals Stefan, Sandra, Matt and Andrew, essentially just eating well, drinking poorly, and relaxing. We spent an enjoyable afternoon across the lake at Jorje’s rope swing, a local legend and a must-do if you’re new to the area. Jorje’s is accessed by a 15 minute boat ride, and features a rope swing of epic proportions, the sort of swing where if you execute it incorrectly there’s a good chance you’ll spill your intestines across the surface of the lake, thereby soiling the water and spoiling everyone’s fun. Not to be outdone by Andrew’s monkey-like affinity for the rope swing, I followed in his footsteps and scaled a small cliff to access the upper limits of the rope swing. I immediately regretted my decision, but the only way down was via the rope, so away I went.
Getting our adventure on in Semuc Champey
After getting our fill of Flores, we joined forces with our Swiss friends Stefan and Sandra and jumped on a very cramped van headed for Semuc Champey. Semuc is another must-do on the Guatemalan gringo trail. Unfortunately, to get there, you have to endure an atrociously chaotic 10 hour haul on some of the worst roads Central America has to offer. The views almost made up for the cramped quarters and seats which were literally crumbling to pieces, as did the hilarious ferry ride across one of the larger rivers. The ferry was literally powered by two tiny outboard engines arranged in little huts on either side of the boat. They were manned by just one guy who whirred the barge in one direction then had to run across to the other side and give a blast on the other outboard so we didn’t veer too far off course. Classic Central American logic.
After leaving Flores at 9am, we arrived at Greengos Hostel at 7pm, determined never to set foot in a minivan again. Aside from the rather embarrassing name, Greengos was a pretty cool place to hang out, featuring little dorm-style buildings for backpackers on a shoestring and chalet-style cabins for couples and those willing to spend a few extra bucks. We stayed in one of the cabins, accessed by some almost impassably steep stairs.
Greengos was run by a more than slightly insane Israeli man who was quite possibly snorting a heady concoction of mind-altering drugs on a regular basis (he spends his life living in an isolated jungle encampment, who can blame him?), but our new friend Yaya somehow managed to make it work. He took an instant liking to my shitty sense of humour, dishing out free drink passes to us and throwing in free breakfasts and plenty of free, if slightly questionable, advice. The hotel operated on a credit system, whereby you paid upfront for food tickets which would then get cashed in at the “restaurant” (essentially an oversized kitchen woefully managed by a group of local Semuc ladies) when you ordered from the limited menu. The food wasn’t great, and was quite expensive, but it wasn’t any great surprise considering the remoteness of the location.
We spent 2 full days exploring the delights of Semuc Champey, made easy by the fact that the hotel was located close to most of the major attractions. On the first day we hiked up a steep jungle trail to an overlook above a famous stretch of the Rio Cahabon, where far below you could view the utopian stretch of natural pools formed by an aesthetic partnership between the area’s interesting geology and the curious hydrology of the river. We mosied on down the scenic trail to the pools, stripped off, and joined the hordes of locals swimming in the pools and marvelling at the beauty of the area.
The next day we geared up and headed to the privately-run Lanquin caves down the road. Sadly, the electricity at the hotel had decided to poo itself leading up to the cave excursion, so I couldn’t charge up the GoPro and bring it along to the event – believe me when I say that the pictures would not have done it justice anyway.
Upon arrival, we tightened our shoelaces (robust water shoes or just well-fitting running shoes are a must, as you’re walking/swimming/stumbling over sharp rocks in the dark), left our t-shirts behind, and met our guide. He was a young local with basically zero English, so we had to get by with our own atrocious Spanish.
Our guide seemed to enjoy his job, and got right into it, virtually running ahead in his eagerness to show us the cave system. We paused at the cave mouth to light our candles (our only source of light inside the pitch black caves), and headed in. We spent the next hour or so in a hilarious, sometimes slightly shocking daze, creeping below vast limestone formations, swimming one-handed through dark pools with no bottom (the other hand being occupied with trying to keep our candles above the water), and clutching flimsy guideropes. At one point, we were given the option of climbing up a sheer rockface with only a rope and some hidden foot holes for assistance, with a raging waterfall pummelling your face, or just going around on a ladder. Not one to pass up a challenge, I took up the offer and scaled the waterfall, happily managing to keep my hold of the rope and not bash my head on the rocks below. The girls prudently went around, however Stefan valiantly made the climb as well but had to abandon after a dangerous slip.
Upon reaching the end of the cave system, we climbed the cave wall, plummeted into an insufficiently deep pool, and headed back from whence we came. Our guide took us on another route this time, at one point literally pushing us through a tiny, vertical hole in the rocks into a completely dark pool or rushing water on the other side. It was more than a little unnerving being the first to pop through the dropchute into a deep lake in total darkness, but that was soon rectified when he passed through my candle and banished notions of Jurassic man-eating cave dwellers.
Back out into the light, we checked to make sure everything was still attached, attempted to warm ourselves up, and headed for the infamous river swing operated by the same tour company. This was a terrifying contraption indeed, involving a high steel frame at the top of which was fixed two long ropes leading down to a piece of wood – essentially an epic seat swing. The problem was, you had to swing in between the sharp, narrow steel frame at high speed and once the swing reached its apex launch yourself off into the freezing cold, fast flowing river – there’s no going back. I went first once again, gravely acknowledging the man’s warning not to chicken out and jump off the swing, as if I came back on it I would surely damage something vital.
The swing shot out faster than I expected, and before I knew it the man yelled “jump” or “ahora” or something signifying that it was time to abandon my seat and launch my arse into the water. Luckily, I timed it right, and after a long fall I was gasping in the water and kicking back to shore. Stefan came next, similarly timing it well but hitting the water at a slightly less agreeable angle. No harm done. Next, in an act of impressive braveness/foolishness, Liivi decided to give it a shot. Things didn’t go so well this time, and she launched off too early. The vast forward momentum of the swing sent her skittering at high speed, headfirst into the water. Needless to say she was not a happy chappy.
Once we fished her out of the water and checked to see if her vitals were ok (a raging headache and possible concussion, but otherwise all parts intact), we looked around to discover that the tour man had made a run for it. Obviously he didn’t want to deal with a bunch of angry white tourists.
Cold and wet, we dragged ourselves back toward our lodgings, stopping first to chat to Matt and Andrew who just happened to be in the area at the same time as us and were floating down the river on innertubes with cans of beer, then to eat dinner at an unofficial food stall where you had to barter with little child demons who blatantly tried to rip you off without a hint of embarrassment. We slept well that night, and got up at a ridiculous hour the next morning to catch the shuttle to Antigua.
Living it up in Antigua
After yet another hellishly long ride (this time in a slightly larger bus, luckily), we arrived in the glorious little colonial city of Antigua and set up camp in our Airbnb room. Antigua was hands down the coolest city we’d yet encountered on our Central American travels, featuring cobbled streets, picturesque buildings, crumbling cathedrals and convents, and fantastic restaurants in every direction. We spent longer than intended in Antigua, hanging with Stefan and Sandra, occasionally meeting up with Matt and Andrew, strolling the streets, sampling the restaurants, and generally just relaxing.
The city was made all the more unique by the vast, almost caricature-esque volcanoes towering in the distance. Antigua is literally surrounded by volcanoes, many of them still active, making one wonder about the logic of locating a large settlement in what would appear to be a natural disaster waiting to happen.
It was one such volcano (Acatenango) that I was determined to climb, and after convincing Liivi we once again teamed up with our Swiss travel buddies Sandra and Stefan to make plans for the climb. From our research, it became apparent that, for many people, climbing Acatenango was easily the hardest thing they’d ever done, but also completely epic. A once-in-a-lifetime kind of scenario. There were only a few tour companies around offering the experience, all of which provided varying degrees of food, guides and camping equipment, but with some seriously huge differences in price. Old Town Outfitters, for example, offered the tour for around US$120 while Tropicana hostel offered essentially the same service for $40. After asking both tour companies what they offered, it seemed there was nothing Old Town offered that Tropicana didn’t, so we went with the cheaper option.
The next day, we checked out of our lodgings, somehow piled all of our bags into a miniscule three-wheeled tuktuk, and headed for Tropicana. Here, we stowed our bags (they provide a locked room for people like us, so you don’t have to pay to store them somewhere else while you camp on the volcano), ate the provided breakfast, and packed our hiking gear. We had spent the previous afternoon traipsing around buying snacks, water (it was recommended that we bring 4 litres per person – we brought 5 each just in case), gloves and hats. It was going to get very cold and windy up on the summit, and we didn’t want to spoil the fun by freezing our arses off. Liivi hadn’t managed to find a jacket in time for the next day, so she rented a rather sad looking jacket from the hostel – it didn’t even have a zipper, but was still better than not having one.
Eventually, we met up with the rest of the group who’d also be torturing themselves on a steep volcanic slope for the next 36 hours, threw our bags on the roof, climbed in the motley van and set off for base camp. The volcano was around 1.5 hours away, and we wound through the slightly less picturesque outskirts of Antigua for a while, then cruised through the slightly more picturesque hills, passing by fields, stone walls, hedgerows, and disdainful local farmers. Upon arrival, our bags were thrown off, we were given sad little brown paper bags containing what would be our meager food rations for the next 1.5 days (lucky we had bought those snacks!!), and told to walk up the hill to where we would meet our guides. The van zoomed off without another word, leaving us all standing around wondering what the hell we’d gotten ourselves into.
Base camp consisted of a small Guatemalan house, some oversized and underfed dogs, a cute but noisy kitten, and a group of local guys standing around looking amused at the bunch of silly gringos. Eventually, we met our guides (no English spoken, which was to be expected), and tents, sleeping mats and sleeping bags were handed out and shoved, with difficulty into our bags (this was no super-light, ultra-compact, hike-friendly gear, either – the sleeping bags were just cheap summer-weight things rolled up and secured with string). I didn’t have a chance of getting everything inside my bag, but luckily managed to find a length of twine with which I could hang my sleeping bag on the outside.
Eventually, we set off up Acatenango, walking between ridiculously steep agricultural fields and immediately filling our shoes with volcanic sand and ash. It took a couple of hours to get out of the fields and into the cloud forest, and already a number of our group members were lagging. They’d underestimated their level of fitness, the steepness of the ascent, and the fact that we were climbing at high altitude (I think we started at around 2000 metres, and we were walking all the way up to a lofty 4000 m). Over the course of the day, the group began to spread out, with one guide dropping back with the stragglers and the rest of the group charging on ahead, stopping occasionally to gasp, nibble some of our meager rations, and admire the fantastic views of volcanoes marching away into the distance and the interesting ecology of the volcano slopes.
The day had begun to wane and still we were nowhere close to our campsite – we could tell the guides were starting to get a bit antsy, and a trifle frustrated with the stragglers. We found the required energy surge when, at one point, we rounded a corner to get our first glimpse of neighbouring Volcan Fuego – Acatenango’s active younger brother – and the sight of it spewing forth great billowing clouds of ash and lava spurred us forwards. We arrived at our camp, perched precariously close to the top of the volcano and directly overlooking Fuego, in time to watch a spectacular sunset, witness a few more eruptions, and set up our tents and other camping paraphernalia. The views were out of this world.
An hour later, Team Slow arrived, was applauded, and we sat down to eat dinner. This involved instant noodles, any snacks we hadn’t yet eaten, warm tortillas and hot chocolate. Not really sufficient to replace the epic consumption of calories during the day, but the mood was nonetheless a good one. Things were cooling off near the summit, so the four of us busted out our matching Guatemalan animal hats and retro gloves, sat around the fire for a bit, then went to bed.
Luckily none of our little crew suffered too badly from altitude sickness, although one British guy in the larger group stayed curled in the fetal position in his tent the whole time due to a crazy headache.
If we were hoping to actually sleep, we were sadly mistaken. The ground was merciless through our thin mats, and nearby Volcan Fuego erupted every 20 minutes or so, shaking the ground and jerking us awake every time. I was almost relieved when we rose at 4.15 am to make the last harrowing climb from the camp to the summit in time for sunrise. The climb was in the dark and footing was treacherous, so it wasn’t an overly enjoyable ascent, but when we made it to the top all that was forgotten. Hordes of people were gathered across the summit, gaping at the 360 degree view and watching the patch off to the east where the sun was beginning to show itself. To complete the visual ensemble, Fuego sent forth a few energetic bursts of black clouds, and all of a sudden we had probably one of the most epic views in the world.
Post-sunrise, we made the perilous descent back to camp and nibbled on the last of our rations. Food was scarce and water was even scarcer, so everyone was keen to get back down the volcano ASAP before we all starved. If the climb was tough, the descent was probably even tougher, absolutely ruining our knees and seeing someone slip over about once a minute on the slippery trail. Thoroughly bedraggled, we made it back down around 1pm and gratefully slumped on the ground, awaiting our ride back to Antigua. Acatenango = conquered.
Hanging with the hippies in San Pedro
Upon our return to Antigua, there was time only for a quick nip down to our new favourite restaurant Cactus, who made hands-down the best shrimp & bacon burritos in town, an even quicker shower, and we were back into a cramped minivan headed for Lake Atitlan. Unsurprisingly, what should have been a 2 hour drive took closer to 4 hours, and as usual upon arrival we vowed never to set foot in another Central American tourist shuttle again. After following a number of dead-end trails into other people’s backyards (it was dark and Google maps was having a brain fart), we eventually found our way to the large house the four of us (Sandra and Stefan having become our permanent partners in crime, by this point) would be staying in for the next week. The lady who owned The Titanic, as it was apparently called on account of it’s ship-like structure, was a complete wacko, and she spent what felt like hours giving us instructions and issuing warnings about potentially exploding ovens, marauding house intruders, water shortages and rubbish collections (the water tank was filled only 3 times a week for some reason, and rubbish collection didn’t come on any allotted day but we’d know when they were outside by the loud booming of some sort of foghorn). We would also be looking after Negrita, a former stray dog who now resided in the Titanic as its doggy mistress.
Aside from an overabundance of hippies, or perhaps because of it, San Pedro La Laguna was awesome. Perched on the side of the famous Lake Atitlan, it was once again surrounded by towering volcanoes but also retained a charming small-town feel, with a sizable American expat population keeping things from getting too chaotic. The restaurant scene was somehow even better than Antigua, with a vast range of delicious food for the cheapest prices we’d found since leaving Mexico. Which was lucky, as there was essentially no supermarkets anywhere in town – presumably the food was so cheap and good that tourists didn’t even bother trying to buy and make their own food.
We spent a lazy week chilling at the house, working on our various online enterprises, and strolling the streets and alleyways of San Pedro. One afternoon, we caught the “ferry” across the lake to San Marcos La Laguna, San Pedro’s smaller, more hippie-riddled sister town. When I say “hippie-riddled”, it’s no exaggeration – it seemed like the only reason San Marcos even existed was to cater to the vast hordes of hippies which converge there year-round. We walked past countless yoga studios, cleansing centres, incense dens and bongo congregations. I almost felt the need to don some saggy-crotched pants, rub some dirt on myself and grow a dread or two, such was our minority state in this town. We hurried through the narrow alleyways, averting our eyes from the hairy female legs and armpits (some were even hairier than even the average man, as Stefan kept pointing out, how is that even possible??) and dense clouds of B.O., starting to regret our decision to leave our only moderately hippie-populated digs in San Pedro.
We walked along the road and back down to the lake, where we eventually discovered what we sought – Cerro Tzankujil, a horribly named ecological and archaeological reserve where bored tourists can go to jump off what the reserve labels a “trampoline”. The trampoline ended up being a 10 metre high platform constructed solely to jump off, and I spent the next hour or so doing just that. The other three refused to partake in the cliff jumping, and chose instead to just chill by the water and go for a quick dip in the lake. It was very pleasant indeed. After a disappointing post-swim lunch (it had nothing on San Pedro restaurants!), we returned to San Pedro.
Onwards to Nicaragua
After a week in San Pedro, we reluctantly returned the house keys to crazy lady, said an emotional goodbye to our new furry pal Negrita, and caught a pricey but worthwhile personal shuttle back to Antigua.
Here, we chilled for a few days longer, witnessing a monstrous overnight eruption from Volcan Fuego and gathering our energy for the long, expensive haul to our next destination – the island of Utila, in Honduras.