GUATEMALA -EL PETEN
GUATEMALA WEEK 1: November 1, 2016 – November 7, 2016
GUATEMALA CITY – FLORES -TIKAL -LANQUIN- SAMUC CHAMPEY – COBAN
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.