guatemala

Semuc Champay – a jungle paradise!

At least the drivers get shade!

At least the drivers get shade!

It took a bumpy, eight hour journey with twelve of us cramped in a small van to reach the peaceful paradise of Lanquin – this was for the most part due to the large number of seriously massive speed bumps and even a four Yamaha-powered car ferry!

No wonder it takes eight hours to get anywhere in Guatemala

No wonder it takes eight hours to get anywhere in Guatemala

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arriving into town we were greeted by the Zephyr lodge 4wd buggy, and as we climbed in eagerly, we saw a group of our backpacker friends cruise by smiling and laughing after completing their full day Semuc Champay tour – making it a priority to book this in straight away!

The lodge itself was more of a hotel than a hostel, perched on a steep hill a short walk outside of town – on first sight we wondered how the buggy would even get up there. The promise of a pool to relax in all day, facilities overlooking the valley, and a stunning view to wake up to each morning. I can get used to this.

That pool!

That pool!

Climbing in the back of the buggy for the 10km drive to Semuc Champay, we jostled for our positions and settled in for the next hour’s shake rattle and roll over the steep graded narrow hillside streets, Ben exclaiming and ducking every so often after a low hanging branch came hurtling towards his head. Yes, it took an hour to go ten kilometres!

Each of us was given a candle to light as we entered into the cave system. Safety Sam has clearly not made it to Guatemala yet, with no proper lighting, rickety ladders, and only the guides instruction of where not to step to help us navigate safely. At one point I was asked if I wanted to climb the waterfall, sure did. My candle was extingused and placed into my mouth as I held my weight back on the rope and climbed upwards over the vertical rock.

Heading down into the cave by candlelight

Heading down into the cave by candlelight

Reaching the turnaround point, a few of us opted to jump a few metres off the rocks into the darkness of pool below, with only a vague instruction from the guide as to where we needed to jump – great fun! However, my near death experience came when we had to squeeze ourselves between rocks and drop down behind the waterfall on the way back. Full of confidence, I stepped up and positioned myself, and was told to go when ready. Not quite sure what that meant, I didnt realise the water was literally just below my feet and I did an awkward half step down thingy which resulted in me gasping for air with my head stuck in an air pocket behind the waterfall. Luckily, I’m a confident swimmer and didn’t panic!

Exiting the cave, on the way back down to the river to go tubing, we were afforded the opportunity to try the aptly named “car crash” swing and of course so we of us were not smart enough to refuse. Keeping the swing underneath myself, I drew my legs up close and launched towards the river, however as the seat was not so slippery it took a fair amount of force to push myself forwards off the seat when we reached our destination – only to end up crashing face first into the water and regretting the whole incident for days afterwards.  Ben, too, had a similar dilemma as did everyone else who was game enough to try it!

Me vs the car crash swing! You know who won

Each one of us armed with a tube we headed for the river, followed by some enterprising Guatemalan boys holding small eskies selling beers. Who am I to refuse?

Of course it was Ben’s luck to get the tube with a hole in it, which had completely deflated by the end of the ride!

Arriving at the bridge it was time to take the 12m plunge down into the water below. I stepped up the the railing, climbed over one foot then the other, and launched myself off the ledge.

Leaping into the crystal clear water

Leaping into the crystal clear water

Ben however, liked to stand on the edge and talk about it for ten minutes, by which time I’d made it back up. Bets were made and beers promised if he didn’t jump but still no action. “For Engaaaland!” was the cry but still no action and those beers were looking tasty. Finally he managed to talk himself into it – but only after the rest of us were about to go eat our lunch!

For Engalaaaand!

Following a good feed, we began a short but steep hike up to the viewpoint and we were afforded a great view of the rockpools and their turqoise coloured water, which would be our next adventure.

Semuc Champay rockpools from above

Following a guide through the maze of natural rock slides, we made our way down to the bottom – moving more quickly after we discovered the resident fish woud nibble on your feet if you stood in one place just slightly too long.

Sliding down the rocks

Happily heading back to the hostel, the daily Zephyr happy “hour” took its toll, along with the tequila dice game which no sober person would ever bet on as it was heavily favoured towards the house.

While if you stay three nights at Zephyr you get the fourth night for free, we thought the better of it as we knew we would spend the savings and then some over the bar. We booked our shuttle for Antigua for 8am the following day, and after another killer happy hour, we all managed to make it on somehow! (after a little frenzied bag packing and tab clearing going on, what’s a little help amongst friends!)

Ten hours later after our first tour of the infamous Guatemala city traffic, we would arrive in Antigua, a charming old colonial city that would be my home for the next four weeks.

 

Rising above the clouds, volcanic eruptions and that bag incident… Hiking Volcan Acetenango

I must admit I was feeling nervous as I emptied my backpack in preparation for the Acetenango hike.  Friends who had been in the past few weeks had described how difficult it was, and I knew that I was in for a struggle.

Stashing 5L of water, some nuts, choccy biscuits, bananas, snickers bars, and the essential cold weather gear in my backpack and I was set to go. On arrival at the base of the hike, Jade and I met our guide Luis, hired our walking sticks and filled in the registration forms. S#!t was getting real.

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I think it was only five or ten minutes in and I was already feeling it, step after step the loose gravel gave way underfoot and I was not helped by the ~20kg pack on my back. Both a good and a bad thing, it was just us two girls Jade and I with the one guide but this meant between us we had to carry our tent, sleeping bags and mats. There were no strapping young men to assist!

Jade loving the serenity

Jade loving the serenity

Our first rest stop arrived after only 25 minutes in a nice grassy area overlooking the valley. At least the view was nice! After a short rest we pushed on, climbing with corn fields to our left, up a steep set of stairs carved in the mountainside.

One hour in and we had reached the registration hut. We’d been told the first part was the most difficult, and my friends were not wrong.  However from this point on, the ground became harder which was one consolation. The climb was steep, and there were rest stops each half hour. We had started to feel some effects of the altitude above 3,000m – sharp headaches in the temple, and a tingly sensation in our fingers and toes.

We stopped for lunch over half way, at a hut where Luis says you can normally see an amazing view of volcanoes and the valley. We were treated to low lying cloud, which we very much hoped would clear by the time we reached the campground!

Luis did not speak much English, so he and I chatted and I tried my best to translate for Jade. He guides the climb around two times a week, and no more as it is so hard on the body. The rest of the time, he helps farm crops such as corn and beans, staples for his family – he has five sisters and five brothers! I’m told that the volcanic soil and ash is very good for the crops because of the minerals if it is in smaller doses, but Luis says that a large amount at one time can be toxic and wipe out the crop.

The last hour I’ll admit I struggled, by now I had the tent strapped to my pack as Jade had carried it for two hours already. One section as closer to be decribed as “rockclimbing” rather than trekking, and at the top of this steep rocky section Luis relieved me of the tent for the final half hour climb.

We made it!

We made it!

Reaching the base camp (3800m) after 4 hours and 40 minutes, we were both exhausted and relieved. Though I felt kind of guilty, we offered to help set up camp but the able guides thankfully did most of the work. I really didnt feel like putting up a tent at that point in time!

The weary hiking crew getting warm at base camp

The weary hiking crew getting warm at base camp

As the sun went down the clouds began to clear and little by little we could see the active volcano nearby.

Sunset through the cloud

Sunset through the cloud

It did not disappoint, as many times during the evening and night a plume of red hot lava danced in the sky, met with loud cries of excitement from the groups caming on the mountainside.

Watching her erupt

Watching her erupt

At 4:30 in the morning we were woken by Luis for the hike to the summit to see the sunrise. At no stage were we warned about the pain which we would be about to endure on the early morning adventure up to the viewpoint. Jade, having no light and struggling with the cold, decided to turn back to base camp, however I felt i’d come so far it would be a shame not to see it.

My tired legs struggled in the volcanic pea gravel, scrambling up steep sections of rock. Luis and I had fallen behind the rest of the group who had camped next to us overnight. I kept asking him “cuánto más? How far?” Only to be met with, i’m sorry it is still a little far. I couldnt see the summit and I was really beginning to feel exhausted and my muscles were sore. Still we pushed on, Luis grabbing my hand and assisting me uo the steep sections.

Some 45 minutes later I was at breaking point – “no más” I said to Luis, only to be met with a gentle “puedes subir chica” – you can climb it! Not far now, I promise. The sun had started to rise already and I looked around to be rewarded by am amazing view of the valley below. Ok, we will continue.

A well deserved sunrise

A well deserved sunrise

Reaching the top it was almost a surreal feeling – we were above the cloud line and the view was stunning.

Looking out over the cloud

Looking out over the cloud

Without going into too much detail, be it for the altitude, the food the night before, or some other reason, about 15 minutes into the walk I had searing pain in my stomach and I knew my body was telling me it needed me to find a place to go, right now. So I took off my backpack and rested it securely up against a rock, while I climbed a little back up the hill to find some bushes to hide behind. They may have been blackberries (!) – yeah I told you I really needed to go. There was a big group coming down behind us and I needed to hurry.

I heard loud shouting and looked up from my cruched position to see my beloved backpack tumbling down the hill toward the cliff below. Not much I could do but watch. Luckily for me, at the very last moment it got caught in some bushes which stopped it from vanishing into the never never. On retrieving it with a smile, one of the guides told me I was lucky, if it had dropped over the edge there was no way I was getting it back! Said guide then proceeded to ask me out that night, a lovely offer but I unfortunately had to refuse.

To this moment I am still unsure if one of the group behind touched my bag to send it flying, or if the wind was really that strong… It could have been an interesting travel insurance claim thats for sure!

The descent took two hours down mostly steep, stony, gravelly and slippery terrain and both Jade and I fell, more than once. We were extremely excited to reach the safety of the bottom, and my shower that day felt absolutely amazing.

It was an experience not to be missed, well worth every mental fight, the physical exhaustion, every sore muscle, and all the stones in our shoes!