The Flores bus to Lanquin and Semuc Champey 25/26 Sept

25th September: The bus for Lanquin and Semuc Champey collected us at 9.30am. Hadley was in the back seat squashed up against a mountain of rucksacks with some guy in the next seat falling asleep on him. Last on the bus we got one normal seat and one pull down aisle seat which dug in to the middle of your back the more the journey progressed. We had actually been promised (and shown pictures of) a full size bus with air-con; we got a battered old US style school bus with windows which barely opened. It struggled around bends and up hills, groaning in low gear as the gear box screamed. At some featureless town we had to cross the river on a ferry which looked really small but managed to squeeze on 7 vehicles and a full size truck and was powered by 4 outboard motors on each corner!
At what we gauged to be around the half way mark of a 7 hour journey a passing collectivo bipped at us to pull over on the side of the road. It transpired it was also from San Juan travel agency and insisted that our larger school bus go back to Flores and we continue on our journey by swapping over and squashing into the much smaller collectivo with all of our bags strapped to the top. A ridiculous situation arose where we all refused to budge in the united knowledge that 16 people crammed in to a collectivo was going to be purguatory. We sat on the road side arguing with the 2 bus drivers for a full hour in a Guatemalan stand off! Our driver seemed genuinely pissed off with the travel agency but the younger driver of the collectivo was a cocky sod. He climbed on to the top of our bus to get a better signal for his mobile to phone in the details of the mutiny to his office, intermittently relaying bullshit excuses in Spanish to us. He climbed down still refusing to let us continue on and I climbed to the roof of the bus to retrieve his mobile and handing it to him turned to our driver exclaiming ‘Por favour Senor, vamos!’. The stand off ran its course when our driver, fed up with the situation, jumped back in to the bus and drove us off to Coban.

Around 90 minutes further up the road driving through lush green landscapes and mountain ranges watching Guatemalan cowboys riding or walking by in their huge cream hats with beautiful saddled horses with colourful blankets, we reached the city of Coban in the Alta Verapaz region of central Guatemala. Here we had a much needed rest stop as we’d travelled for over 6 hours (including the 1 hour stand off) without food or a toilet break. Here we did have to relent and swap over to a collective, 16 of us squeezing into 14 seats as the larger bus wouldn’t be able to negotiate the narrow rocky mountain roads the rest of the way to the remote mountain village of Lanquin. We were actually told that 4 people were getting off at Coban but this turned out to be another lie to ensure we got on to the smaller bus!

It was another 2 hours more to Lanquin where we finally stopped; we had given up the idea of reaching Semuc Champey that night as we had already travelled on incredibly rocky roads with sheer drops at the side straight down in to the rain forest, the wheels of the mini bus occasionally skimming over loose rocks which went tumbling over the edge. A small group of 7 of us had joined up, united in our hellish journey; Christopher and Julia from Germany, Amit and Michael from Israel (on honeymoon) and Hadley and Dave and myself.
The infamous El Retiro was full so we checked into Rabin Itzam where £8 got us a very basic room with shower, a resident frog and a pervading smell of damp. Their courtyard styled garden also had its own Manequin Pis, a copy of the cherub statue in Belgium taking a leak. Everything else in Lanquin seemed to seep water so it seemed rather fitting. Hadley opted for a room around the corner above a row of shops where all the other guests were locals.
Our damp £8 room.

Around the streets of Lanquin.

After showering we all headed to El Retiro for the famous buffet served up in a huge barn style building with grass roof bursting at the seams with cash strapped hungry travellers. Stupidly we had forgotten our torches and stumbled the 15 minute walk there over cobblestones slick with rain and mud and got our names on the list for food at 45 quetzals each just in time before they closed it off. Walking in to the eating area we were amazed to find it packed with around 50 or 60 Israelis already seated and calculating the exact cost of their evening grub. I have never seen so many independent travellers of the same nationality gathered in one place so far from home. According to Michel and Amit the Israeli travel network is very strong and they have their own dedicated travel website where they swap tips and experiences. Guatemala being one of their favourite countries to travel in, it explained why our hotel was called Rabin Itzam and the nearby local caff, Shalom. It’s pretty surreal.
The downstairs area was packed out so we got the more secluded and bohemian candlelit loft room accessed by a steep wooden ladder which the owners dog was able to run up and down more deftly than any of us. With striped Guatemalan mattresses and bean bags gathered around low tables we sat and rank our beers and settled in for an evening of good grub and great company. Our table grew bigger as we were joined by Nat from Israel and Brown from Carolina in the US. A bell rang downstairs to announce that the food was ready and lining up to check our names off the list we took the heavy plates and loaded them up (some ridiculously more stacked than others we noted) with piles of different appetizing dishes laid out on the wooden bar in oversized earthenware bowls.

It’s a pretty impressive and tightly run set up and the vegetarian Italian food was excellent and welcomed after a long day on the road. We donated our second servings to a late arriving Israeli couple who were on our bus earlier that day and were too late to get on the list. Back in our rooms we crashed out to the droning voices of 2 Australian guys trying to pull some Israeli girls travelling in a group of 3 and who all sat directly under our window playing the soppiest selection of music from an I-pod we have ever had to endure. Thank god for wax earplugs.

Me with Michal.

26th September: After breakfast next door at Shalom; scrambled eggs, maize tortillas, fried plantain and bloody refrijoles (mushed up gloopy black beans) our little gang met outside Hotel Rabin Itzam for a 9.45am pick up to Semuc Champey 9 kilometres away. What we didn’t realise was that it was 9km crushed on to the back of a Toyota pickup with 14 other people hanging on to the overhead roll bars for 40 minutes on the rockiest switchback mountain road we had experienced to date. It was really hard work as we rolled and bumped and bruised along to our first stop the Las Marias caves.

Stripped down to swimming gear we skipped the part where you swung over fast moving river rapids on a swing and jumped in …and headed straight for the caves where 5 minutes later we were wading neck deep through freezing cold water holding bloody candles over our heads for light. For an hour we waded, swam the deeper sections and climbed impossibly angled steel iron ladders attached to the rocks, through 3 kilometres of cave system that the most hardened of potholers wouldn’t have contemplated without first tooling up in all the right gear. We were doing it the Guatemalan way which appears to be simply winging it and hoping you don’t come a cropper. Negotiating sharp stalagmites underfoot with flip flops secured to our feet with a couple of bits of green nylon string handed out by the guide before we went in.

All this whilst trying to keep your candles alight as it was pitch black inside the caves and you didn’t want to risk scraping your head on the overhead stalactites or tripping up and being pulled by the sporadic pockets of current in to the underground river that flowed out to the waterfall. We emerged over an hour later into daylight following the same route back; freezing cold and spattered with bat shit….relieved but also enjoying the bizarre sense of achievement accompanied by doing something you wonder what the hell you signed up for in the first place. Personally I was pleased that even with my bad leg and dodgy shoulder I had completed what could only be described as an endurance test!

And the endurance test went on. I opted out of being thrown down the fast moving rain swollen river in an old inner tube whilst being dragged by strong currents around jagged rocks, but Dave and the boys thought what the hell and went for it anyway…joined by Julia who I really admired as Michal and myself skulked off for a drink at the loosely termed cafe; it’s menu seemed to be coke and that old staple chicken, rice and beans. Apparently the guys also jumped off this bridge!

Another hilarious entrance sign. Does this mean you can’t bring giant rats in with you?

After an hour being chucked down a river Dave and the rest of them turned up happy but knackered to meet us for the walk down to the crystalline waters of Semuc Champey limestone pools. These naturally formed pools run in a tiered system one flowing down in to another and fed by the Rio Cahabon.

A thundering flood of water powered by recent heavy rains rushes down the rocks and is swept under the pools out of sight exiting further down stream into a large waterfall. The pools dazzle from turquoise to emerald green, fringed by rainforest and hanging vines.

We swam in this beautiful natural setting for a couple of hours being careful not to slip on water worn limestone as we crossed from pool to pool.

This is the man whose job it is to blow his whistle if you ventrue too near the edge – not sure what the pink bristle brush is for – maybe to scrub you down?

As the sun went down the day grew cooler and a couple of us headed back to the cafe to wait whilst the rest of the group including Dave went off for their last adrenaline rush of the day to climb down and then back up a fast flowing waterfall on a dubiously attached rope ladder. Dave said it was crazy as the torrent of water rushed down battering and blotting out your view so you could hardly make out where the next rung on the ladder was. Bloody glad I skipped it! He climbed down the waterfall to access a cave full of stalagmites and stalactites and to see where the water rushing under the limestone pools exits in to the main river.
Knackered and dripping wet we snacked on locally made cinnamon chocolate wrapped in tinfoil and sold by the local kids. It was bitter, gritty and dark but a welcome sugar rush. We had a hellish 40 minute drive back in the pickups to our hotels where we warmed up by showering in water as hot as we could stand before meeting up and heading to El Retiro (it was fish night) where we stuffed our faces again in our candlelit loft; all of us completely knackered but high from a great day out. Being dry again was short lived as it absolutely chucked it down just in time for the 15 minute walk back up a really steep hill on slippery cobble stones in the dark getting soaked to the skin yet again.

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