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Published: August 9th 2010
Cobbled streets, colonial buildings and a backdrop of volcanoes.
It hasn't gone unnoticed by those of you regularly reading our blogs that Paul wears his Mr Men t-shirt regularly. Mr Messy has appeared in front of The Kremlin, on the Great Wall of China and has given countless locals a chance to practice their English which didn't stretch to understanding that Paul is really called Mr Birch. But with just a few weeks to go, it has gone to the great big t-shirt heaven on the sky. Mr Messy lives on in our hearts.
Antigua, like other cities which had their heyday in the colonial period only to be superceeded as the capital, is nicer for its old world charm. It's a town full of students learning Spanish, US citizens taking their holidays and tour agents galore. So the flip side of its charm is that it is no longer authentic Guatemala.
One reason for coming here is for its proximity to climbable volcanoes, so long on our Central America must do list, but not yet done. Pacaya would be perfect. Not only is it possible to climb, it is active, so you get to see bubbling lava in the crater.
After settling into our hostel and
Hanging out at Lago de Atitlan.
scoping the town, we found Frank and Alex (erstwhile drinking buddies) in their hostel - the rather hideous Black Cat. They were drinking. Dan was still in tow as were Sophie and Jo who had spent the past week or so traveling with them. Tales were recounted as we caught up on news and we made our way through the stormy night on rum and cola, illicitly stored under the table out of view of the barman. One story explained that Pacaya recently erupted, then cooled to leave only solid rock in place of previously orange liquid and wasn't worth the trip. Bugger!!
They following day we took the advice of our hotelier and visited a wonderful colonial building holding an exhibition on houses built from the "remisas" sent home from overseas relatives. It is thought more than $3bn annually is ploughed into El Salvador alone in this manner. We also snuck into Hotel San Francisco which used to be a convent and the hotel is now built on the ruins of what went before. Most of it is tastefully done and the whole area is lovely.
From Antigua we moved to Lago de Atítlan. The rain
The girls take a relaxing candlelit bath at Semuc Champey.
was torrential and off the back of a tropical storm a few weeks earlier were the bleak reminder of how fragile the infrastructure is here. Our progress was hampered by landslides and missing roads which once traversed the sides of the mountains but now only made up part of the valley bottom far below. The 4 hour journey took nearly 5 1/2, but is nothing compared to the inconvenience that the local population are suffering while trying to rebuild their lives.
San Marcos de la Laguna is described as a place where you can kick back and do nothing. Mainly, as we found out, because there is nothing to do. We took the water taxi to San Pedro de la Laguna first thing next morning.
San Pedro is described as party town on the lake. Wrong again. It may be normally, but a series of drugs raids and a dozen or so incarcerated tourists had put off the influx of guests usually seen here. It felt like we had the place to ourselves, except for Alex, Frank, Jo, Sophie plus Rosemary and Allie. We lounged around the hostel, took kayaks out on the lake, ate some great food
Champagne Pool, Semuc Champey
and drank one or two rum and colas.
Then with a shock to the system, the 8 of us took a 6am bus to Lanquin along with Kate, Sophie and Linsey. Kate was kind enough to point out that the two of us were more mature than most travelers she had met and on ascertaining that we could legally be the parents of more than half the group, we became team mum & dad.
In Lanquin we were delivered to Zephyr Lodge. Overlooking the river below, hammocks in the bar area, giant Jenga and open air showers to watch the sunset from, Zephyr is idyllic spot. Unfortunately they run a tab system. Fortunately they have a happy hour and a playlist to die for after hours listening to Guatemalan radio on a bus.
The only reason for being in Lanquin was Semuc Champey. Unheard of one week ago, we were told of its beauty by a Danish/American combo and changed our course. Before venturing into the national park we visited some caves ... but these caves weren't about stalagmites and stalactites. Instead you take a candlelight swim through an underground river system. Clambering up rocks, ladders and
We wonder if the Mayans were as excitable about Tikal.
even waterfalls you make your way further and further into the caves until you reach a plunge pool where you can take a 3m leap of faith into the unseen water below. Then you hurry out so as to reach daylight before your candle burns through and leaves you in the pitch black.
Semuc Champey was almost an anticlimax after that. The view from the mirador is spectacular in a way that photography can never do it justice and the pools in the river below offer a fun and cooling respite from the jungle heat, but it's all about the cave swimming for us!
Rain put paid to a tubing trip the following day, so hammocks were the done thing. We did manage a half hour venture into the village, but Zephyr's facilities covered the rest.
By now we were getting in the habit of early rises, so an 8am start for the 11 of us was a breeze. If only the bus company could have sorted their act out and we might have left town before 9am. Destination; Flores. For the mighty Mayan ruins of Tikal.
Flores is an island town where you can have breakfast watching the sunrise over the water and less the 400m away, have sundowners during happy hour while the sun sets on the other side of the lake.
It's an hour or so from Tikal and guided tours are in the morning, so another pre-sunlight wake up. However, as the heat was stiffling at 7am, we doubt you would want to climb 70m high pyramids at midday. Like the Egyptians use of Orion's Belt at Giza, the Maya were similarly celestial. They built Tikal to represent Ursa Major (Plough, Big Dipper or whatever else you might know it as) on a fantastic scale. The structures are not strictly speaking pyramids, nor were they tombs for the royalty to reach the afterlife from. They appear to be purely for ceremony at the important celestial periods of the year - a fitting location to shoot "Star Wars" then. Less of an enigma than Stonehenge, but undoubtedly tougher to put together and with Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys and Toucans thrown in to the surrounding rainforest which you can preside over from the top of some of the structures. Magnificent.
Now with a few days back in hand on our previous schedule we got talked into putting more Mayan ruins back a week or so and instead of heading west to Palenque, took the 5am bus to Belize City for a boat connection to Caye Caulker.
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