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!
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
After our belated ferry crossing ride back to Belize city, which included a complimentary sea shower (especially for the poor soul sitting right up back in the stern starboard side), we arrived back on the mainland just the two of us once more, Ben and I. But it wouldn’t be for long as we met a friendly couple to share a taxi to the nus station with, who we would randomly bump in to many more times over the coming weeks.
Our intention was to get to the bus station and make the trip south to Hopkins, a small fishing village, to experience more of Belize and the Creole culture. Arriving at the bus station, things however changed very quickly when we realised the bus to San Ignacio was right there leaving now, or we could wait hours (?) for the next bus south to Hopkins only to be dropped at some indesciminite location on the highway 7km from town. With a quick glace of unanimous approval shared between us, both hungover and looking for the easy option, I’m sure you know which option we chose 😉
Our first chicken bus ride was quite the experience, backpacks piled high in the back, and me crammed three on a seat just in front of Ben. Not far out of Belize city, he mentions his need for a rest stop – there was no time for pleasantaries as we’d tushed to make the bus. The ayudante (bus attendant) tells us it’s not far, not far, however an hour later we are still yet to stop. You know someone is desperate for the bathroom when they jump out of a chicken bus just outside of Belmopan, with their bag remaining on board, on the promise that we would return “in five minutes”. I think we were gone just long enough for the poor guy to think he was stranded on the side of the highway, but crisis averted we were soon back on our way.
Arriving in San Ignacio with old friends Orio and Mikey, we set off up the hill to the Old House hostel only to discover they were full for the night. However, if it was okay with us, the very relaxed owners offered us to sleep on the rather comfortable looking couches for the night – offer accepted and a large number of the Caye Caulker crew were reunited once more!
We set off early for the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave adventure. At the end of a beautiful ride through the countryside, we geared up and were quickly up to our necks in freezing cold water as we trekked our way through the jungle to the cave entrance. Hanging on to your buddy or walking like Rambo was mandatory to hold your balance in the current of the river.
Descending down into the cave we weren’t quite prepared for what we were about to experience. Headlamps on, we made our way over and under rocks sumberged in the water, climbed up rickety ladders and squeezed through tight gaps until we eventually reached the inner cathedral chamber where our guide explained the Mayan rituals which were undertaken there, including leaving offerings inside large clay pots and even human remains which are still in place from human offerings to the gods (some of which were babies and children). Unfortunately, no cameras are allowed in the cave following an incident where a French tourist dropping a handheld camera and fracturing a 1,000 year old human skull.
Some three hours later, we finally emerged from the cave!
According to the guide books, no trip to San Ignacio is complete without a visit to the local market, the biggest in the region. Somewhat underwhelming, the highlight was observing the Amish people who inhabit nearby Spanish lookout, and giant Ben (who had to stoop to fit underneath all the tarpaulins) being told by the market stall lady not to walk around on his own as it is dangerous about here!
We decided on the way to the Guatemalan border that we would stop by the aptly named “tuna sandwich ruins” or Xanantunich. Climbing into two taxis with seven people and seven backpacks was an interesting feat, and afer completing the hand powdered ferry crossing and a short hike, we were able to climb the ruins and admire the 360 degree views.
Crossing the border was simple enough, however as soon as we left Belize we were immediately surrounded by young children selling us shuttle services, they start them young here! Fortunately for an unaware English girl on the same shuttle, we happened to mention to her on the bus that an entry stamp to Guatemala was necessary, she had only officially left Belize but not entered Guatemala, luckily for her there was time to go and make amends!
A short time later we arrived at Los Amigos hostel in Flores (to be continued…)