GUATEMALA  WEEK 1: November 1, 2016 – November 7,  2016


Tuesday November 1, 2016 – Guatemala City 

Surprising how  quickly a new place becomes familiar. We were almost a bit sad to be leaving  San Jose.  A slow taxi ride to the airport was nerve wrecking  as our driver  detoured to pick up his wife and drop her off at work. We were crawling  in the  morning traffic. It was a relief to make it to  the airport. 

Our two hour flight to Guatemala  City was uneventful until the plane started to descent and make a few passes  over Guatemala  City. Amazing to see such dense development and suburbs spreading like lava flow on ridge tops below us. 

We cleared  immigration and customs fairly quickly and made our  way to departures upstairs  to find an ATM.  All cashed up with Quetzals (trading at Q7.50 to 1 $US) we got  a taxi downtown to catch a night bus to Flores/Santa Elena in the north of  the country.

A pro-cycling team out on a training ride.

Interesting installation, resembles the Eiffel tower.

First impression on our ride to the city centre was of a clean and modern city. 

As we had a few hours to wait for our bus we walked from the bus terminal to a bustling downtown area where two Metrolines cross in a big open square, Plaza Barrios. A great place to sit and  people  watch. I could not resist taking photos of the beautifully dressed Maya  women. Later we found out that  it is  not OK to take photos  of Maya women without their permission or photos of  men with guns. I was not too obvious so no problem. Just have to be more respectful.

Men with guns. Reminded me of English bobbies.

Traditional dress and modern smart phones, hand in hand.

A whole new meaning for a pick-up truck.

More men with guns opposite the bus station.

Almost sunset.

The streets were very busy especially  just around sunset.  By the time our bus departed the city it was dark and everything looked strangely deserted.

The long overnight bus trip to Flores/ Santa Elena was on a luxury Linea Dorida coach which set  its air-conditioning on refrigerator like temperature. 

Wednesday November 2, 2016 – Tikal

We were warned that it would be cold on the overnight bus but even our down  jackets , which we wore in the Sierra snow, were not sufficient. We got off the bus at Santa Elena while it was still dark. It was nice and somewhat warm and humid early morning. Unexpectedly a small shuttle bus was waiting for us  and we were  transferred to our hotel on Flores Island.  A very short  one hour sleep and we were off to get a shuttle bus to Parque Nacional Tikal to get emersed in the ruins of the city of Tikal and its ancient Maya Kingdom. 

Hammer, the trail guide 😊

View over the jungle from Pyramid IV

Wild jungle turkey

Lou-Seal surveying the view. 

We spent the day exploring the trails through the park. Extensive ruins and many are still buried. Enormous  restoration efforts are being made. But the jungle growth is unrelenting.  It was difficult for  us to get a full appreciation of the enormity of the  site from ground level. A climb up Pyramid  IV, which at 65m sits above the tree canopy, provided  a glimpse  into what  lies below. Such a huge site and we barely saw a fraction of what is here. The sound of Howler  monkeys was ever-present as was the sight of smaller Spider monkeys swinging through the trees.  We were surprised that we could  walk around freely without a guide and also to see so few tourists even though it was busy at the entrance.
Thursday November 3, 2016 – Flores

Flores is such a beautiful town we decided to stay an extra day. The island  is not very big so it does not take long to get around.  From our room we could hear the footsteps of early morning  joggers running laps around the island.  Over a short causeway, is a much larger and more populated town of Santa Elena which we visited briefly. The noise of the traffic and the busy streets with little room for footpaths was enough to drive us back to the quiter Flores.  

Beautiful Hotel Peten

A quickly taken photo of more men with guns patrolling the streets of quiet Flores.

Beautiful coloured buildings.

Flores from Santa Elena.

Men with guns.

Storm is approaching

Friday November 4, 2016 – Lanquin

Today we took a long shuttle bus ride from Flores to Lanquin passing through lush green countryside and a few plantations. Not sure what was being grown, perhaps cocoa  beans. The only ‘town’ we passed between Flores and Coban was Sayexche. A riverside frontier looking town with a couple of sites  of Maya ruins in its surrounds. We had thoughts of staying here for  a few days but decided against  it. It just looked a little rough. 

Leaving Flores/Santa Elena

Waiting to get on the barge to criss to Sayexche.


We passed one school in over 300km, it was empty.

We need to learn more of the history of the places we passed. On appearances,  it looks like large number of people live in grinding poverty. It is  heartbreaking to see young children working  rather then attending school. And even more surreal to drive for hours passing through small basic villages  and to arrive in Coban, a large modern city with air-conditioned shopping malls and then to stop  at McDonalds with free WiFi. The divide between the rural poor and some urban dwellers could not be more stark.

Shopping mall in Coban..could be anywhere in the world.

From Coban to Lanquin was only 70km but it took over 2hours. The paved road out of town gave way to a steep narrow unpaved path. The landscape was certainly  dramatic with mist shrouded mountain tops plunging down to steep green canyons. 

Saturday November 5, 2016 – Semuc  Champey

We woke to the sound of falling rain and roosters crowing at nearby houses. Lanquin is really a large village with a couple of paved roads. From Lanquin, it is about 10km to Semuc Champey which is one of the main attractions in the area. Rather then catch another shuttle bus to Semuc Champey we walked a steep winding dirt road passing through  lush green landscape. The rain had stopped and it was warm and humid, the road was very muddy and slippery in parts. But the distant scenery was breathtaking 

We were passed  by  a few pick-up trucks loaded with passengers, mostly locals. A sweaty two and a half hours later we arrived at the bridge over the river. 

Semuc Champey is a long limestone  bridge on top of which is a series of cascading pools of gently flowing water. River Cahabon flows under the bridge in a gushing torrent.   We got our park entry tickets  (Q50 each – or about $US 7) and walked the high Mirador  trail first. This was a treacherous and lung busting couple of kilometres hiking to a viewing platform.  The view was superb and worth the effort. Impossible  to describe how beautiful the cascading pools looked surrounded by towering limestone cliffs  and dense, green jungle forest. Such a spectacular  site.

We followed a slippery, muddy and steep path back down to the river and took a swim in one of the pools. As we had not seen only a few people on the high route, it was a surprise  to get to pools and find a small crowd of mostly local tourists  enjoying the pools.  It was wonderful and refreshing.  It was such a surprise to see soldiers  with guns  watching over the pools – seemed strange to us. 

The river emerges from under the limestone ridge.

Further downstream, the river is an incredible emerald green.

On our departure from the site we ran the gauntlet of local kids selling round disks of chocolate. Impossible  to buy from one and not another so we sadly had to decline their persistent bargaining offers. We started our walk back to Lanquin and a few kilometres along  the way were offered a ride in the back of a pick-up. A family we had met at dinner last night at the hotel recognised us and  stopped. So kind,  Hammer was very relieved.  

Sunday November 6, 2016 – Coban

It had rained heavily  overnight and our walk to the bus stop was on partly  unsealed  muddy  road.  Amazes us how the local women in their beautiful flowing skirts manage to always look so clean. 

Beautiful Imelda did not mind having her photo taken.

We took a more comfortable bus back to Coban and arrived at our hotel in less then 2hours. Coming out of Lanquin we passed such a grand  landscape that it made me wish  I had a better camera and more time.  

We are staying at Alcazar de Donna Victoria in Cabon. It is such a grand building with large rooms opening out to a courtyard. Being Sunday there was a mass in progress at a nearby church and the singing from inside was beautiful and uplifting. So nice to be in a busy and prosperous  city and to get connected to the outside world.  

After checking in we walked  out onto the street, past an armed guard at the  door, to find a very busy market place a few hundred metres along. 

Past the market stall and the city plaza we saw a GuateBurger place across the  road from the McDonalds we stopped at a few days ago.  GuateBurgers were great and at a more  reasonable  cost then McDonalds. We did end up  at McDonalds for coffee and free WiFi. The contrast between the  people in the  busy marketplace we passed through to those  inside  McDonalds could not be more stark. Yet they are merely a few kilometres apart. I am beginning to understand a little about the constrasts  in this country. A cursory reading of Guatemalan  history is heartbreaking.  

Monday November 7, 2016 – Coban

 We liked the hotel  so much we decided to stay another night. And as  I’ve  got some kind  of stomach bug it would make bus travel a bit uncomfortable.  

Rained most of the day so coffee plantation tour was not possible. We walked around town taking in the sites around Parque National Las Victorias. We didn’t  go into the park as it had an entry fee and it was raining. We walked up Capilla El Calvario with a cemetery nearby. So  touching to  see families visiting graves, saying a prayer and lighting a candle for  the soul of the departed. 

We stopped for  a late lunch at Xkape Koban. Great food followed  by cardamon flavoured hot chocolate and coffee.