Guatemala: Tikal – Semuc Champey – Flores

As you can see from the subject, I’m back in Guatemala — and I definitely have some fun adventures to recount.  But before the travel log, I’ll vent some of my complaints with a short list of things I would do if I were in charge:

First, I would outlaw Doritos.  Honestly, whoever thought it was a good idea to make those things and sell them to the general public clearly had no taste buds — and had certainly never sat in a 98-degree mini-van stuffed full of 15 Israelis, one of whom was chomping those damned chips in quiet oblivion to the amount of suffering his breath was inflicting on the rest of us.  And yes, by “the rest of us” I mean “me.” 

Second, I would require all people who want to run any sort of business to take a test of minimal competency.  One question on the test would be:  When you have a bus that holds 12 people, should you sell tickets to 14 Israelis and 1 American?  This is a really hard question because it involves both a math analysis and a stupidity analysis — and on both analyses, the answer is clearly NO.  Because when you tell the American, who having sensed rampant incompetence had gotten up early enough to be the first person in line so he could get a good seat, that he is going to have to switch buses and sit on a makeshift, crappy seat for the next 7 hours while the German couple next to him snuggled and the temperature climbed to the above-mentioned 98 degrees, he is going to be VERY crabby and will make little effort to shield you from the brunt of said crabbiness for the next seven hours. 

Third, and finally, I would mandate the distribution of knee-belts to every male member of the population, and would levy a fine upon every male passenger above the age of 6 who is found in a vehicle without said knee-belt strapped about his knees.  I mean really, is it THAT hard for men to sit in a seat without splaying their legs wide open on both sides?  Women manage to sit with their legs nicely straight in front of them.  And I seem to have no problem doing the same thing for hours on end.  Yet every time I sit next to a guy, you’d think he was holding an invisible beach ball between his legs.  So, knee-belts for everyong.  And if you don’t like that, then I’ll require that men wear short skirts until they learn to behave better. 

There.  That’s my rant.  It should give you a sense of the bus ride I just had.  And now for the fun stuff.

After I sent my last email, I took off from Palenque on a day-long trek back to Guatemala — this time to the steamy jungles of the northern lowlands — and when I say it was over the river and through the woods, I’m not kidding.  We drove for about 3 hours through the jungle of Chiapas, until we got to the river bordering Guatemala and Mexico.  Then we got on little boats and sped down the river for about 45 minutes to the next town on the Guatemalan side.  Once there, we got out, had our passports stamped, and then piled into another minivan for the last 4 hours of our trek.  The whole way was through almost entirely unpopulated jungle and countryside.  This is clearly the least developed province of Guatemala — I felt like some colonial traveler journeying toward the Heart of Darkness. 

Not that there was much darkness.  Instead, the thing on everyone’s mind was the glaring sun.  It was SOO hot!  It’s got to be in the high 90s during the day, cooling off to about 86 at night, with as much humidity as you can possibly imagine.  And it’s different from the heat and humidity you’d get in places like Washington DC or New York.  There you might get the same temperatures, but the sun won’t feel so brutal – somehow the humidity makes the sun feel soft.  On the other hand, in the deserts of Nevada or Utah, you’ll get the brutal sun, but at least you don’t have the smothering humidity.  To get a sense of what it feels like here, take the brutal heat of the Nevada sun and combine it with the smothering humidity of the southern US.  Pretty miserable.

But the ruins were amazing!!  Tikal is the largest Mayan city in the world, and was supposedly the most important during it’s heyday.  It’s composed of about 5,000 ruined structures, and it has a network of neighboring ruins that extends across hundreds of thousands of acres in northern Guatemala.  I joined with a group of European tourists and got a guide to take us into the ruins park at 4:30am (had to leave at 3am!) so that we could watch the sunrise from the top of the tallest Mayan temple in the world.  We had to hike through the jungle for about 30 minutes to get to the temple — it was kind of eery to be walking through the jungle, with giant drops of water splatting down from time to time from the trees, and seeing through those trees the black, looming shapes of the pyramids rising up out of the trees.  We got to the top of the giant pyramid just as the sky was turning grey, and we sat in virtual silence until the sun was fully up.  SO amazing! We were much higher than the surrounding jungle treetops, and we could see the tops of other temples emerging here and there from the forest canopy.  And in addition to the beautiful red sunrise, the thing that was most arresting were the sounds:  There were bird cries of all sorts, occasional jaguar calls, and the incredibly creepy sounds made by howler monkeys.  Honestly, the first time I heard the howlers, I thought some prankster was playing a recording of something you’d have on your front porch during Halloween to scare the daylights ouf of trick-or-treaters.  Apparently the monkeys aren’t all that big (we never saw the howlers, just spider monkeys), but their cry sounds huge and can be heard for five kilometers through the jungle.

Once the sun was up, we took off on tours through the site.  This one is MUCH bigger than the one at Palenque.  We couldn´t go inside any of the structures, like we could in Mexico, but we got to climbe up a lot more.  The archaeologists have restored enough of the site that it was easier to get a sense that this really was a sophisticated, thriving metropolis at one point.  And at the same time, there was enough still to be excavated, that it was hard to take in the sheer scope of it all.  I took lots of pictures, so hopefully I’ll be able to convey a sense of it when I get home.

After seeing Tikal, I took three days and struck off into the center of Guatemala.  A friend of mine had gone to a place there called Semuc Champey, and swore that it was the best place in Guatemala.  Not wanting to miss it, I took a seven-hour bus ride to a little town called Lanquin — and proceeded to enjoy what was certainly a major highlight of the trip so far.  First of all, there was the lodge I stayed at.  It’s called El Retiro, and it was situated at the bottom of this gorgeous ravine.  It was made of all wood buildings on stilts with thick thatched roofs of palm leaves.  There were massive tropical flowers everywhere, with long lawns and hammocks hanging from trees, and a river flowing by that you could swim in.  It was the sort of place you could just hang out and relax.  The lodge organized tours during the day, and so I signed up for one that would take me to some local sites and then to Semuc Champey.  Okay, get ready for the tour:  The first thing we did was drive up the river to a major rope swing (kind of like Ashley’s, but bigger, with a faster, deeper river).  We all got to jump off it a few times.  Then we climbed out of the river and headed up the hill, following a little river to the cave it poured out of.  Here, our guide handed out a lighted candle to each of us and plunged into the water and darkness.  We followed.  We started out about waist deep in pitch blackness (water and air), but once our eyes adjusted to the feeble light, we saw the amazing limestone rock formations.  We worked our way into the heart of the mountain.  At first we just walked along up to our knees, but then it got deeper and we alternated between swimming and wading.  Eventually we came to a series of waterfalls and chutes we had to climb up or down or around.  The last waterfall was by far the coolest, because the only way forward was going straight up it — there was a rope hanging in the middle of the torrent, and you just had to grab hold, try not to breath water, and march up the side of the waterfall!  Once at the top, the cave opened into a series of three tunnels, each one getting deeper and deeper. We swam through the first two pools (having relit our candles that had obviously gone out during the ascent of the waterfall), until we got to the last pool.  Then the guide had us climbe, one by one, up a steep cliff-like side of the third and final pool — and then one by one he told us to jump off!  Holy Cow!!  It was one thing to jump off a giant rope swing into a river.  It was quite another to relinquish the trusty candle and jump off a ledge into pitch blackness of the cave, with a waterfall roaring nearby!  But I did it and it was fantastic.  Definitely a rush of adrenaline.  After resurfacing I swam over to the side of the pool where the water rushed in and waited for the others to finish their plunges.  By that time we had been in the dark, cool water for about an hour, so we were starting to get pretty chilled.  So we made our way back out the way we had come in (having lost some of our candles along the way).  It was an incredible experience.  I kept thinking of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, or Indiana Jones the entire time.  Really, it looked just like the movies when people make their way through dark caves.  It probably would have been more convenient to have had a head lamp or something, but there was something really exciting about using candles.

After the cave, we went tubing down the river — enjoying the warmer water and the even warmer sun that quickly banished the shivers we’d had by the time we were done in the dark.

Finally we made our way to Semuc Champey.  This is a series of pools formed in the limestone riverbed.  The amazing thing is that they are incredibly clear and blue.  Think of the pictures you’ve seen of Caribbean lagoons (or even backyard swimming pools for that matter), and you’ll have an idea of what these pools were like.  They were incredibly beautiful and perfect for swimming and sunbathing and relaxing in the afternoon. 

And through all of it I had been hanging out with some fun other travelers.  In Tikal I hung out with an Italian/French couple (who lived in Brussels), a Dutch couple, and two Dutch girls.  On the way from TIkal to Lanquin I had met up with another Italian/French couple, a French guy, and a British guy.  So we hung out a lot, enjoying each other’s company, and switching back and forth between French, English and Spanish, depending who was in the conversation and which was the language most of the people understood.  These polyglot conversations are tons of fun – i remember them from when I was living in Europe – and it’s so much more fun now that I am one of the people who can switch between three languages.  It’s really flattering to have Europeans (most of whom speak at least three languages) be impressed by my ability to converse in multiple languages — even after only a month, my Spanish is better than most of theirs.

Okay, the internet cafe is about ready to shut down.  And I need to go to bed anyway, since I have to leave at 5am tomorrow.  I’m heading to Belize tomorrow — I’m hoping to make it all the way to the Cayes so I can go snorkeling for a few days before heading to Honduras.  I’ll keep you posted…

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