Published: May 20th 2011March 12th 2011
And now time for something completely different....
The thought of a whole new continent really excites us and after a few days of western comforts in Los Angeles, we are ready to get back on the road again for a complete change of scenery.....Central America beckons! First up - Guatemala.
Having both travelled within Latin America previously (Helen extensively with her previous work), we have really been looking forward to some familiarity again after such a long period in Asia. Except that the reality turns out to be a little different. We thought it would be easy to transition back into the Spanish speaking world, but after 9 months in Asia, we find everything odd, like we don't quite fit in where we use to feel so comfortable. We now miss the roar from hundreds of motorbikes at each road junction we reach...and where are all the food vendors set up along the roadside, with the smells of coconut milk and fish sauce gently wafting in the air? Everything we have known for so long now has been replaced by cobbled streets, brightly coloured houses and huge catholic churches. Welcome to Antigua, our first port of call in
Guate, as the country is affectionately known by the locals.
Antigua is a beautiful colonial city in the picture postcard style, with a compact centre of cobbled streets lined with multi coloured, low rise houses, the lines only punctuated by the many churches throughout the city in various stages of decay. Where the churches have been restored, they are magnificent, like La Merced or San Franscisco. But some of the most stunning are those that remain today half ruined, either from previous earthquakes that have hit the city, or have simply fallen into disrepair due to lack of funds to maintain them. They hang over street corners like relics of a bygone age, precariously balancing statues within their walls, awaiting their ultimate demolition by the next major earthquake to strike the region.
The old city radiates out from the Parque Central, a broad, treelined open square in which locals congregate in the evenings to catch up on the day's gossip. Surrounding this are some of the grander colonial structures in the city, while in the background the conical shape of the currently passive Volcan Agua dominates the skyline, reminding us that we are now
working our way down the Pacific ring of fire.
Mike having arrived a week ahead to sweat over his irregular verbs once again in some Spanish lessons, H's arrival signalled time to stop studying and start exploring. Of principal interest to Mike's inner geologist, was a climb of the nearby active Volcan Pacaya. This fuming volcanic cone has been erupting almost continuously for the last 45 years, but it really went up with a massive bang in May 2010, when a huge eruption showered ash down over most of western Guatemala. The volcano has continued to smoke away since then, but without further lava flows. Walking up the steep path to the base of the cone allowed us to see the extent of the recent lava flows, along with experiencing the power of nature first hand at a vent in the recently cooled lava, through which the boiling hot air is vented off into the atmosphere. Wooden sticks set over the top of the vent burst into flames within seconds in the sulphur rich hot air, while all the time the volcanic cone loomed overhead, gently billowing away highly toxic gases into the atmosphere. It was a creepy, moon
Volcan Pacaya gently brooding
Recent lava flow from May 2010 eruption in the foreground
like environment up there, very little living in the harsh environment, except, it seemed, a family of dogs who have set up home near a hot cave, regularly pinching the lunches of walkers who stop for a rest!
While in Antigua we also managed to catch up with a few friends of Mike's from Northern Ireland who happened to be travelling in the region, so it was an opportunity for Helen to be baffled by thick Norn Irish accents for a couple of nights. After all this time on the road, we really enjoy seeing familiar faces once in a while so the nights out with Keith, Gareth and Sarah were good craic. Despite Antigua appearing dead at night, we did manage to find a few of the later opening places that are hidden away in town for a few Gallo beers.
San Pedro La Laguna - Lake Atitlan
From Antigua we headed further west to the chilled out atmosphere of Lake Atitlan and the small town of San Pedro. Lake Atitlan, a huge lake formed in a volcanic caldera, is simply stunning, step sides rising up to form the 3 surrounding volcanoes. Dotted around the
lake are a number of small, traditional Mayan villages, linked either by road, or by ferries that dart regularly across the lake.
We decided to stay for a while in San Pedro, using it as a base to discover the other villages around the lake. San Pedro is a lovely little town, the tourist area by the lake essentially being made up of two main streets which are dotted with hotels, a particularly good selection of restaurants given the size of the town, and a few bars. The town is another centre for Spanish learning so there are a disproportionate number of foreigners for a town of its size, but this really doesn't take away from San Pedro's charm and relaxed atmosphere. We certainly found the food on offer in San Pedro to be among the best we had throughout Guate, with a much greater selection than the usual Central American staples of chicken, rice, guacamole, beans and tortillas. Although the ubiquitous cheap Cuba Libres were of course still available wherever we went!
We really enjoyed our time on the edge of the lake, visiting nearby towns like San Marcos (even smaller and the centre of hippy activities
around the lake) and Santiago (a busy and colourful little market town dominated by a large church). Being in the highlands, the climate was pleasantly warm during the day, while refreshingly cool at night. Hanging out in the evenings in some of the many courtyards, being visited by one of the regular little Mayan ladies balancing baskets of home baked banana bread on her head, was pretty idyllic. It was a great place to unwind, and try and consolidate some of that Spanish learning into something meaningful!
Semuc Champey - what's so special about a bridge over a river?
From Lake Atitlan, we moved north into the centre of Guate to stay in the tiny village of Lanquin, not so much for the village itself as for the enticing nearby sight of Semuc Champey. We visited Semuc on a day trip from our hostel which involved an initial 8km ride standing in the back of a pickup, along gravelly trails up and down steep hills, something of a feat of endurance in holding on and ducking low hanging branches.
The trip started out with a visit to some caves near Semuc, however, this was a cave
Semuc Champey from the mirador
Pools form on the limestone bridge over the river
trip with a difference. Once changed into our swimmers and sandals, we were given a candle each as we waded into the dark abyss. Water quickly reached waist level and very soon after we were swimming through the caverns, precariously holding our candles aloft, dripping hot wax, above the water level. We spent an hour and a half clambering up rocks and the occasional rope ladder, jumping off ledges and wading between stalagmites, all dimly lit by our candles which gave a very gothic feel to the experience. After the initial weirdness of being in black water and getting used to the damp darkness all around, it was absolutely ace - hugely exhilirating.
Following a short walk from the caves, we climbed to a view point to get a good feeling for Semuc Champey. It's hard to describe as we have never seen anything like it but we'll give it a go. A limestone platform forms the base of the Cahabon gorge. At the bottom of the valley, the Cahabon river roars down, eroding its way under the limestone platform which covers the river for 300m before it reappears down the valley. On top of the limestone bridge are
a series of stepped pools that are filled with clear blue and green water. From above, at the viewpoint, these form a spectacular sight at the base of the valley, however, back down at the bridge level, it's possible to swim in the clear pools on top of the bridge that have been warmed by the sun. It's a really lovely place to spend an afternoon lazing around in the warm shallow waters, taking in the huge valley sides that tower overhead.
Sweet River - not so sweet weather
We decided to forgo other trips we had planned around Lanquin, particularly river rafting and tubing, due to the heavy rain in the few days that followed our Semuc trip. In search of better weather we headed north towards the Rio Dulce, a beautiful tranquil river that winds its way through the tropical rainforest towards the Caribbean. We found an idyllic, wooden lodge along the river called Finca Tatin where we hung out for a few days. This was a fantastic jungle lodge with little huts built throughout the mangroves, all linked by pathways to an airy dining and lounging area near the river. A rope swing into
Sittin' on the dock of the bay
Chilling out at Finca Tatin, Rio Dulce
the river provided plenty of chances to cool off (See the video at the top), especially so after using the lodge temazcal
which was fired up every evening.
The weather was still very wet during our time along the Rio Dulce and we only managed one excursion in a two-person kayak upriver to the Biotopo Chocon Machacas, a protected area of river and mangrove swamps where we tried, unsuccessfully, to see the manatee who live there. You would think it would be easy to spot something the size of a cow lurking near the river edge! It was a really scenic kayak through calm, totally undeveloped areas along a beautiful stretch of river, lined by trees containing hundreds of herons, pelicans and cormorants. The lack of man's intervention in this part of the world makes it a truly special place.
Livingston, I presume
On the 30 minute boat journey from our Finca on the Rio Dulce to the small town of Livingston, the scenery along the river got even more spectacular, large limestone cliffs towering above the river, trees and bright green tropical plants clinging to them, their roots hanging 10's of metres vertically down into
the river for a much needed drink. The concentration of birds along the banks increased as we approached the point where the river emerges into the Caribbean at the town of Livingston, a sign that the fish life in the river was increasing. As we travelled along, recent rain clouds clung to the sides of the valley, adding a really atmospheric dimension to the whole journey. It's a truly beautiful stretch of river.
Our final stop in Guate was the small town of Livingston on the Caribbean coast. Livingston is quite different from other towns in Guate due to the mix of its inhabitants, mostly of African origin, who were brought over as slaves, and their Garifuna culture that is unique to the Central American Caribbean coast. Walking around the town, the feel is much more that of a Caribbean island, the pace of life is much slower and the coloured timber buildings have the feel of an old fishing town, which of course it is. The tropical fruits and coconut bread on sale throughout the town only add to this feeling. The only thing lacking is a Caribbean quality beach as most of the ones around Livingston are
not especially scenic.
Livingston by day was somewhere that was very relaxing to lounge around, having lazy breakfasts on the waterfront while looking over the busy harbour. However the atmosphere at night was a little different and we didn't really enjoy walking around too much. We had heard they have pretty wild parties in town, but in our experience (admittedly on Sunday and Monday nights) it was pretty quiet at night, except for the gangs of kids who would hang around the main street, giving the atmosphere a vaguely threatening edge.
And so our time in Guate at an end, we prepared to move from Livingston eastwards into Honduras. By the morning we were boarding the speedboat to cross the mouth of the Rio Dulce to Puerto Barrios and our onward journey out of the country, we were starting to feel much more at home in Central America. The Spanish language was starting to sound more normal to our ears and a more familiar latino way of life was starting to take hold again. In a way, we finally felt we had come home. ¡Viva Central America! ¡Viva Guate!
There are more photos below