I hadn’t seen my high school friends, Dave D. and Kelly K., for over thirty years. But when Dave invited me to drive his support vehicle while he and Kelly rode their bicycles all around Guatemala, I jumped at the chance. The funny thing is that when we finally started out on our adventure, there wasn’t a bicycle to be seen.
Yes, the plan had changed. Dave’s new plan was that we were going on a road trip, along rugged mountain roads, through Mayan towns where many people spoke only a local dialect, swimming in turquoise ponds, whooping it up on rope swings, staying in accommodations that could only be accessed by boat, climbing Mayan temples, and eating delicious street food and drinking Guatemalan beer and whiskey.
I kinda liked the new plan.
Our first day started early from Dave’s house in Antigua. We drove all day, along lovely highways that turned into treacherous mountain paths. We drove through crowded Christmas markets, and after losing our way, drove through them again. It’s an eerie feeling being inside a car that is completely surrounded by locals going about their business, driving slowly so that people passed within inches of us. We got one lucky break when a tuk tuk ahead of us cleared a human path.
We arrived in the mountain village of Lanquin well after dark, and after many false turns, we opted to pay a teenager to show us the way to our hostel. When we got to the access road, Dave simply couldn’t coax his car up the steep hill. With the car resting on the edge of the ditch, we all got out and gave the car a push. With the reduced load, Dave made it to the top of the hill without incident.
The next morning in the light, we explored a bit of the town. Over 16,000 people live in the area, but if you were to see how small the town is, you’d wonder where they were all being housed. The plan for the day was to visit Semuc Champey National Park, climb the hills and swim in the turquoise pools. The locals in towns catering to travellers can be quite aggressive in trying to sell their guided tours. It was no different in Lanquin for the tours to Semuc Champey. When we said, “No thanks, we have a car”, they told us we’d never make it without a four-wheel drive.
They were closer to the truth than we thought. The road to Semuc Champey was only nine kilometres, but it took over an hour for Dave to negotiate it. In a couple of troubling places, Kelly and I got out to walk so that the car wouldn’t bottom out.
We finally arrived at Semuc Champey. It’s a 300-metre limestone bridge under which flows the Cahabon River. But on top of the limestone bridge are beautiful turquoise pools which are a favourite place to swim. I loved the ruggedness of the place. Park officials had made no attempt to make the area easier for swimmers. There were no diving platforms or artificial steps to exit the pools. The rock was very sharp and you had to be cautious getting in and out of the water.
After our swim, we hiked a trail that led up into the jungle, overlooking the park. The humidity was such that I was soaked in sweat within 15 minutes of climbing, essentially negating the benefits of my refreshing swim.
Back at the car, we bought some chocolate paddies wrapped in tin foil from some local kids and then headed back along that dreadful road to Lanquin. A father with his four kids tried to hitch a ride, as did a couple of backpackers, but the car simply couldn’t take more weight. Even with the three of us, we bottomed out frequently, and a few times again, Kelly and I had to walk.
After another fabulous night at our mountainside hostel, sleeping in front of a window with views of the river and jungle, and showering in a stall that was open to the forest, we headed from the mountains to Rio Dulce at the western end of Guatemala, where Lake Izabel flows into the Dulce River. The roads again were terrible, with bone-jarring bumps, so when we finally reached a paved road, I checked to make sure I still had all my teeth.
We had booked accommodations on a ship in Rio Dulce, but the owner went out of town, and because it was only a day after Christmas, the owner couldn’t make arrangements with his caretaker. So when we arrived in town, we found a cafe frequented by expats and after a bit of conversation, we found ourselves taking a boat shuttle to Casa Perico, a hostel located down a tributary that makes you think you’re in the Louisiana swamps. It was rustic, with showers and toilets you wouldn’t write home about, but the beds were comfortable, the food was delicious, and the beer refreshing.
We hired a private boat to take us from our hostel to Livingston, a town at the mouth of Rio Dulce where it enters the Caribbean Sea. Our guide was excellent, and although he spoke only Spanish, Dave was able to translate for Kelly’s and my benefit. Getting to Livingston was the goal, but the journey took us past many places, such as Castillo de San Felipe, a Spanish colonial fort built to stop pirates from entering Lake Izabel from the Caribbean. We also flirted around an island trying to find the huge iguanas resting in the trees. Our guide noticed some immediately, but with practice, we were able to spot some ourselves. When I asked how the iguanas got to the island, our guide smiled. Well, they swim of course. Iguanas swimming? Who knew? Learn something new every day.
Our guide also stopped at a dock along a cliff, where hot water flowed into the river. Here, we made our way through a couple of bat-filled cave systems and then sat in a natural sauna, where I lasted about two minutes before gasping my way to the exit.
We finally made it to Livingston, which is about a 60-kilometre boat ride from our hostel. Livingston can only be accessed by boat, but it has a bustling market that caters to the many tourists. Livingston looks very different from other towns in Guatemala, primarily due to the people, who are a mix of Garifuna, Maya, Afro-Caribbean, and Ladino. Here in the market, you can buy shark oil as an aphrodisiac and turtle shells as ashtrays. I opted for a woven bracelet.
From Rio Dulce, we took a lovely paved road to Flores, located on Lago Peten Itza in the north of Guatemala, among the cloud forests. Dave booked us into a high-end hotel, where we could, for the first time on the trip, flush the toilet paper instead of throwing it in a garbage can. Luxury!
One of our goals in Flores was to visit Tikal, a Mayan ruin that once was home to 90,000 people. Tikal National Park was Guatemala’s first national park, and it not only protects the 60 square kilometres of ruins, but it also protects the ancient forests, much of which are being lost to progress in Guatemala. Only 16 square kilometres of the ruins has been mapped and even less has been excavated.
We intended to sit atop Temple IV of the ruins, which, at 70 meters above the plaza floor, is the highest temple in the park. From there, we watched the sun set on New Year’s Eve, which was awesome. However, no one thought to bring a flashlight so we could find our way back to the car in the dark. The walk back took an hour of fumbling our way down root- and stone-filled paths. But what an adventure!
Also while in Flores, we took a boat to Jorge’s Rope Swing, where we dove from a wooden plank into Lago Peten Itza, swung out on a rope, and then enjoyed a home-cooked meal afterward. Just before our boat returned, yours truly voiced the dreadful phrase, “just one more swing”, and a minute later, I hit the rocks instead of the water and sustained a 16-inch gash on my calf. Silly bugger, but nothing a good cleaning and some Guatemalan whiskey couldn’t heal.
On the first day of the New Year, we drove back to Antigua. And although the roads were nicely paved, we still sustained a handful of bone-rattling episodes as Dave hit a few of the many tumulos (speed bumps) along the way. Many are not marked and can be found in places you wouldn’t expect, such as on the curve of a major highway. I’m happy to say, though, that I still have my teeth.
It was a grand adventure encompassing a wide variety of Guatemalan ecosystems. And Kelly and I are grateful to Dave for organizing it.