It’s a long drive from Antigua to Semuc Champey. But I’d met a few people on my travels who’d advised me I absolutely needed to get my arse there if I ended up in Guatemala.
A minivan picked me up from my school at 2pm on Friday… I made small talk with the compact Korean girl sitting next to me, and slept on and off for the 9 hour trip.
The last 11km took over an hour. An absolutely nutty fuck-off cobblestone road – and I use that term loosely. Road, that is. Not fuck-off. Shockies are evidently optional on vehicles here.
At 11pm, the driver dropped most of the folk on the bus off at one ‘hotel’ (basically, a few wooden sheds with some camp beds); and then there was just me and a Spanish couple left. He then dropped just me off at a separate hotel. I made jokes to the Spanish couple about how they would be last people to see me alive if i ended up being chopped up into little pieces. I don’t think they saw the humor. And I suddenly realized there was absolutely no one in the world, (who cared) who knew where I was. At least the school would think something was strange if I didn’t come back. Surely.
Clearly. I was. Tired.
The next morning, I woke up, kidneys in tact. I had some brekky and was picked up by the minivan for our tour to Semuc Champey. I was very unprepared as to what to expect. I knew there was going to be some hiking and some swimming involved – but that was it. They don’t believe in brochures or briefings or the like in Guatemala.
It was about a 1/2 hr drive to the entrance of the site where we were greeted by the ferrety Toto, who told us in pidgin English what we were about to do. I got about 1/4 of it.
Semuc Champey sits above the Cahabón River. It’s a decent hike of around an hour through a rough walking trail in pretty dense jungle to the pools, which is why we were here.
The whole time, the tiny Toto was yelling at us, “VAMOS!” which translates to “Let’s go!” I wasn’t the only one sweating bullets by the time we got to a lookout, which gave us an amazing view of what we were about to experience: A series of eight tranquil limestone rock-pools featuring the most luminescent aquamarine waters, have formed over many hundreds of years, between these two massive rampaging waterfalls.
Once we got down to the ‘top’ pool, we stripped down to our togs (that’s bathers or swimmers for you non-Australian readers) and followed the very energetic (read, hectic) Toto.
We’re in one of the most peaceful places on earth and again with the “VAMOS!”
Tranquilo dude. Tranquilo.
Each of the subsequent pools were stepped down a little lower than the last. Toto had us rock-hopping, scrambling, slipping and sliding from one to the other. It was way cool. At one point he and one of his amigos sat us down between their legs, made us cross our arms, and pushed us like a human bobsled down a natural slippery dip into a pool below. It was at once both terrifying and exhilarating.
We hiked back to where our bags and boots were, got dressed and walked back to where we started.
After ordering our lunch from a little cafe, we were then led across a crickety old wooden bridge, which reminded me of that brilliant scene from ‘Stand By Me’ when River Phoenix and Corey Feldmans’ characters dare the fat kid to run across the tracks before a train.
We were given the inner tubes from tires and off we went down a muddy river, following the fast currents, avoiding obstacles and getting yelled at by Toto. It was all over in 15 minutes and in retrospect it was a rather weird little diversion which I suspect was to give the folks in the kitchen time to cook our lunches more than anything.
We had some much needed tucker which was truth be told, pretty average, but better than the MacDonald’s we’d been led to the night before for dinner (WTF!?)
After lunch, we were led up a track to the mouth of the K’an-Ba Caves. We then spent the next couple of hours caving by candlelight! I’m a very inexperienced caver but I coped with the multitude of obstacles nature presented us here.
The water levels varied from ankle deep to neck deep but what made it tricky was holding a lit candle out of the water and trying not to slip over. Anyone that knows me, knows I’m capable of tripping over on a skirting board.
There were all manner of ridiculously unsafe climbing aids made of a variety of materials that would satisfy absolutely zero ISO standards. At one point, we had the opportunity to climb a rope ladder up through a waterfall. I had a crack at it, but missed my footing on the second rock ‘step’. I couldn’t regain my footing. I couldn’t hear Toto (even though I knew he would be yelling at me from somewhere). And I couldn’t see anything but the waterfall in my eyes. I lost my nerve and backtracked down, opting for the far ‘safer’ bamboo ladder instead.
A short while later, “we’re-not-in-freaking-Kansas-anymore” Toto demonstrated how we could jump from some high rocks inside a cavern into a tiny pool. Now that, I knew I could do, having done my fair share of jumping from high rocky ledges into the Georges River on summer days when a bunch of us would decide it was just too hot to go to high school.
We regressed more or less the way we came into the caves. It was a completely different day to that we had left behind: it was CHUCKING it down. Soaking wet, we were ferried back to our respective hotels.
My newly allocated room lacked a towel, a toilet seat (why this is a challenge for Latin America, I will never understand. I mean, they come as a set, si?), oh and hot water. I’ve been a week in Guatemala now and am yet to have a hot shower. Guatemala is not the Caribbean. Call me a princess but if it’s okay with you, I would like a hot shower at least once a week. Thanks. Especially when it’s raining. And I’m wet. And cold. Grrrr!!!
Anyways, a bit later on, we all reconvened at my hotel which conveniently had one of the few bars in town, for some dinner and drinks. Absolutely knackered – we all called it an early night. I slept like a log.
We set off early for the long drive back, and I have to say I’m chuffed we did it during the day. We made our way through windy roads and passed dozens of locals making their way to gorgeous colonial churches in these pokey old villages that were surrounded by these lush green forests and were shrouded in clouds.
The word ”Guatemala translates to ‘land of the trees’. And I now know why. The flora here is among the richest and most varied in the world. There are some 8000 species of plants in this country. That blows my mind.
I also saw skanky chickens and scrawny goats and skinny horses. And more dogs lying in the middle of the road than anyone could possibly count. I saw a big fat boar on a leash getting cajoled up the road, more than likely to the dinner table. I saw many many randoms dressed in colorful clothing just standing in the middle of fields, looking like they were waiting for a sign. Families of four on the back of mopeds. Ancient women catching rides next to 18 year olds in the trays of the Guatemalan equivalent to an Aussie ute.
And all of this was underpinned by the omnipresent marketing, on rocks (now there’s an untapped media!) and makeshift billboards, for the local and presidential candidates. These became more and more frequent the closer we got to the City. I decided the candidates all looked like real estate agents or soap opera stars. Except for one little old lady who looked like your typical Guatemalan granny in traditional clothes. I also decided if I was allowed to vote – I’d vote for the dude that looked like a Guatemalan version of Buddy Holly.
I was beaming by the time we got back to Antigua. I’d had an absolutely amazing adventure. The lactic acid was rapidly building up. My muscles were getting sore. Big time. I had felt like I was a 20 year old contender in Survivor the day before. I felt like I was about 50 now. But I was so so happy. Even happier when I discovered my shower in my apartment had been fixed and I was finally able to have a hot shower. Call me a goddamned princess.
Sunday 28 August