lanquin

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.

 

The Absolute best of Guatemala – ten things you have to do

After spending six sensational weeks in Guatemala, its hard to decide what was the best of the best! The guide books weren’t wrong when they advise that it’s easy to fall in love with this magnificent country, and you might stay longer then you may have originally intended!

1. Lake Atitlan – spending time relaxing or partying around the many towns surrounding the lake. Each has it’s own personality and vibe – personally I loved the atmosphere and food choices available in San Pedro, and spending time during the day at San Marcos swimming and diving from the raised platform on the cliffside. Admission is 15Q, and take your own food/drinks or buy some in town as there is none at the swimming hole. You can also hike the Indian Nose or Volcan Atitlan if you have a little more time, or study Spanish by the lake. Shuttles to San Pedro cost around 65-90Q and boat trips across the lake are usually around 10-20Q return.

2. Acetenango hike – one of the most rewarding but physically and mentally challenging things I have done in my life. Sunset above the clouds watching the nearby volcano erupt was just magical. I did my tour through NEWay tours (300Q) plus park entrance fee of 50Q

Looking out over the cloud

Looking out over the cloud

Read more and see the stunning photos in my post about the hike here.

3. Semuc Champay/Lanquin – the natural beauty of the national park is just breathtaking. Spending an afternoon swimming in the rockpools was the best after exploring the underground cave system, and hiking up to enjoy the beautiful view. We stayed on the mountainside at Zephyr lodge, treated to our own pool and magnificent views of the valley from the facilities! A day tour of the national park costs around 150Q (cheaper if you book in town rather than at the hostel). Hear the story.

Heading down into the cave by candlelight

Heading down into the cave by candlelight

4. Antigua – I spent four weeks in this old colonial town, studying Spanish and soaking up the atmosphere. It has so much to offer – culture, history, architecture, great food, nighhtlife and of course a beautiful backdrop of mountains. Over Semana Santa it becomes a hub for both national and international tourists to see the colourful and vibrant parades that snake down the cobblestone streets, over beautiful ‘carpets’ laid down by the locals. The food markets at Iglesia La Merced leading up to easter was a definite highlight, as was my host family mother’s home cooked Guatemalan food. A week at spanish school, homestay and three meals a day cost approximately 1300Q. Last but not least, the nightlife is buzzing, and if you are female you are in luck – it’a always ladies night somewhere! Rotating between establishments on a nightly basis, you can get free drinks and even a free massage on a Wednesday!

 

5. Tikal– spending a day climbing the ancient Mayan ruins of this old city, taking in the scenery and the wildlife. For the brave, you can camp overnight on the ruins if you manage to talk the security guards into it with a small offering, but be prepared for a cold night! Another hidden Mayan ruin can be found at thr lost Mirador, however to reach it incolves a six day hike through the jungle from Flores. Admission into the park costs 150Q (extra for sunrise tour).

Tikal

Tikal

6. Flores/ rope swing – this lovely little town is quaint and peaceful, you can walk around e island in around 15 minutes. We took a day trip over the lake to the rope swing, where you can spend time swimming, relaxing in a hammock or launching yourself off a dive platform (as some of us did). You are actually able to stay overnight there (hammocks or cabins), which I imagine would be amazing! The owner will come and pick you up in their boat (70Q per boatload) and it is 15Q for admission.

7. Pacaya hike – for those who aren’t quite willing to put themselves through the pain of the overnight Acetenango hike, Pacaya is a nice compromose. The hike is a relatively gentle 90minute climb to the crater rim, where you can roast marshmallows on the volcanic molten rock. There are two tours a day, 6am and 2pm, cost is 60-80Q plus 50Q park admission fee.

8. Breakfast/dinner at Cerro San Cristobal – affording an amazing view over Antigua, this cliffside restaurant has great food as well! Just be sure to ask them when it closes, as we were served a second bottle of wine after dinner only to then be told they were closing in ten minutes – at 8pm on a weekend! The return sttle can be arranged through Nim P’ot craft mark underneath the Santa Catalina Arch, and costs 10Q. In my opinion, the mirador is mich better than that at El Tenedor (reached by free shuttle from the Hotel Santo Domingo).

9. Yoga class at Hobbitenango – I was lucky enough to be introduced to this great place by Yoga by Lewis. It’s a short drive from Antigua and an amazing way to start your day. Transport, yoga and a fruit breakfast included for 120Q.

10. Monterrico – who can go to Guatemala without seeing a volcanic black sand beach? To be fair, I was short on time so didn’t visit El Parédon which is more of a surf beach. Staying at Johnny’s place, the service was great, and I never had to leave as I had everything I needed right there – food, drinks, pool, beach, billiards and even a beach soccer goal. Return shuttle 140Q and dorm accomodation with fan was 45Q (includes breakfast). Could easily have spent more time there!