With a full week of San Pedro Spanish school behind me, I hugged my gorgeous host-family goodbye and boarded a shuttle bound for Semuc Champey. Getting to the destination is always 95% of the battle, and long days of travel are never really a “fun” time. An experience, yes. But actually fun? Heck, no. And yet, I still boarded the battered minivan at 4:00 a.m brimming with positive thoughts and a goodie bag of snacks. My enthusiasm was short lived when we were delayed due to construction just outside of San Pedro. In Guatemala, this means that our shuttle driver parked on the roadside and jumped out to chat with the driver’s of the other waiting vehicles – leaving us to wonder what was going on – for over two hours. Thus, my zeal for a road trip quickly wore off. We did stop for lunch where I found this stunning display of nuts and dried fruit. Take that Trader Joe’s.
Lanquin, the gateway to Semuc Champey, welcomed us with torrential rain and gushing, flooded streets. A hostel tout guided me and an Australian couple I had befriended to a waiting pickup truck and we were tossed in the bed along with our backpacks, some burlap sacks, a couple bunches of bananas, and a few extra riders hanging off of the sides. What followed was forty-five minutes of bone-numbing, body rattling as our transport traveled the final 7 km up and down a very uneven, gravel side road to Semuc Champey. By the time we arrived at Utopia,nighttime was upon us, and the jungle had encroached it’s oppressive cloak until morning.
But…the journey was well worth the bruises.
Semuc Champey is a set of sun-kissed, aquamarine pools over the Río Cahabón in Alta Verapaz Guatemala. In an odd flaw of mother-nature, the Caharbon River actually passes under a natural 300 meter limestone bridge. At the exact spot where the rushing river drops into hidden caverns arrives a fresh mountain spring that feeds a series of stepped, crystal-clear pools. The basins gradually flow into one another, creating mini waterfalls, water slides, and rock outcroppings that, to any swim savvy adventurer, become natural diving boards, of course.
And swimming at Semuc Champey is both a reward and welcome respite from trekking in the jungle. Most people choose to climb the towering Mirador first, a feat that once accomplished awards a panorama of Semuc Champey in all it’s glory; translucent, cerulean pools surrounded by verdant jungle.
It is simple travel to Semuc Champey on your own, or several of the local hostels offer full-day tours that include the pools and a guide through the K’anba caves. I walked to the park, paid the Q50 entrance fee, and spent the afternoon swimming on my own schedule. Luckily, I ran into several of my friends from the previous day’s shuttle ride, and we enjoyed some much needed sunshine after the chillier temps around Lake Atitlan.
Having seen the local sites, we caught a shuttle for Flores the following morning…another ten hour shuttle ride all the way to Northern Guatemala. Though uneventful, we did ford a river at one point. That was the highlight of the day.Flores island sits on Lago Petén Itzá, and is connected to land via a causeway to the town of Santa Elena. I was still traveling with my Australian friends at this point, and we had picked up a lovely Israeli couple along the way. Together, we found a semi-clean hostel, dumped our bags, and went in search of food and beer. Flores was a cute stop, and offered plenty of cafes for coffee and “internet’ing” when the sun proved too hot to be walking in the streets. After a day of rest and laundry, it was time to see the magnificent Tikal ruins.
Spectacular Tikal lies amidst the lush rainforests of northern Guatemala, and the site has long been regarded as one of the most impressive architectural achievements of the Maya civilization. Sitting among towering forest canopies are several pyramids, each exceeding 60 meters in height. The five main pyramids were constructed during the eight century A.D, and less than a century later, the site was abandoned.
I booked a round trip shuttle from Flores for Q60, and was picked up at 4:30 a.m. for the ninety minute ride to the National Park. Though I was quite happy to buy a map and traipse around the ruins, another option is to hire a guide to take you around the main plaza, and then do another couple of hours on your own. The cost to enter Tikal is quite steep (in backpacker money), but the Q150 entrance fee is well worth a trip back in time to the era of the Maya.
I was amazed at how deserted Tikal’s grounds were on the day that I visited. At times, I was entirely by myself. This was particularly nice after I climbed up to Temple IV and had a panoramic view of Temples I, II, and III popping up through the forest canopy. The only downside to the day was that I didn’t have azure skies and puffy clouds to serve as a backdrop in my photos. On one hand, I loved having a rainy, mystical atmosphere for the weather truly represented a “jungle” aura. However, my photos are rather bleak and don’t accurately portray the grandeur of Tikal.
I was also surprised to find out far apart some of the groups were from the main plaza. At one point, I hiked for about thirty minutes along a path full of spiders, fallen trees, and thick undergrowth to the North Group where, again, I was the only person there. It was quite surreal to experience such historic landmarks alone.
Six hours at Tikal was plenty, and we were on our way back to Flores by 1:00 p.m. Following a much deserved nap, a caffeine break, and an afternoon run around the city, I had dinner with my favorite street food ladies and called it an early night. Tomorrow, I’m heading to Belize for some caving, hiking, and snorkeling.