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Published: November 13th 2013
Guatemala was my first chance to pause after a couple of months of consistent travel up from Panama (oh the woes of the modern traveller!). I headed straight for its second city, Xela, partly because it was the gateway to a two day climb of Central America's highest peak and partly because the language schools were so incredibly cheap. I enrolled with Utatlan, where USD 155 got me 20 hours of private tuition, 7 days living with a family less than 10 minutes walk from the school, and 3 meals a day with the family! It was incredible value, given that by the time I'm next in London I'm sure a round of 4 pints will probably cost about the same!! For the real penny pinchers, I saw the same package offered with some of the smaller schools for as low as USD 125!! Quite astonishing!
It was great to be back in the groove of lessons – and being complimented on the level of my Spanish always helps! I do enjoy the language school/homestay combinations as they allow me to focus on studying in a way I just don't achieve when I'm on the road. It was a pleasant
week of lessons in the morning, lunch with the family, speaking with Erika in the afternoon, then completing my homework tasks and additional study before an early night! Speaking with the family was absolutely no problem, and we got involved in some quite lively discussions about Guatemalan politics (an ex-president has recently been convicted for genocide, and there is a definite feeling among those I spoke to that the current president was also involved during his time serving in the military!!!). Combined with the devastating effect the Canadian mining company Goldcorp is having on the rural communities around its Marlin mine in San Marcos, there was certainly a fair bit of passion on these subjects among my family and my language teacher!
It may have been a week that made a nun's convention look positively rock & roll, but it felt very productive – especially when my teacher and I did some past paper exam questions for the two highest levels of the DELE exam. In C1 (advanced) I was able to answer 13 of the 14 questions correctly, so I seem well on my way to being able to officially achieve this
View from the roof of Central America
Note the number of layers worn and the cool triangular shadow created by the mountain
level. Level C2 (native), was obviously a much harder task with my teacher also struggling to be sure about what the correct answers could be. I'm definitely not there yet – but who knows what extra study in Valencia could achieve!
I did the two day climb to the 4,222 metre summit of Volcan Tajumulco with the volunteer agency “Quetzal Trekkers”.They had come highly recommended, and all profits are re-invested into projects helping street kids so I would encourage anyone to go with them – both for their ethical credentials and the quality of the service.
It was also the first time in a while that I would be doing a trek “unsupported” i.e. we had to carry up everything ourselves – there would be no porters or mules. There were also no water sources on the volcano which meant 5 litres of water per person, which when combined with the individual share of communal food, cold weather gear, tents and cooking equipment meant that at the start of the trek our bags were probably pushing twenty kilos. Thus it was a slow plod, rather than a brisk walk, that led us up the 1,000 metres of ascent
and subsequent arrival at base camp on the first day. It had taken enough out of us that after lunch we retired for a nap – but post dinner energy levels were high and our tent played cards until the small hours (about 11p.m.!!!).
A slightly late start in the pre-dawn darkness meant that at first it appeared we would miss the sunrise, but luckily for a group of our size (11 plus 3 guides) we made good time and we arrived at the summit surprisingly quickly. There it was colder than a siberian ice bath in winter and the wind chill was biting, but with all my thermal gear, plus a superb alpine puffer jacket that I was able to borrow from the agency, I kept easily warm enough (a real rarity for my frail body!!) to enjoy the pleasant rather than spectacular sunrise without discomfort.
The 360 degree panorama was fantastic, with great views of the Tajumulco crater as well as other surrounding peaks – including Santa Higuita, one of the most active volcanoes in Central America. This obliged us by erupting on cue when we were up there!! It had been great to take in
a sunrise from the roof of Central America, and although the sunrise hadn't been picture perfect – the overall experience certainly had been. Luckily, with so much of the water and food consumed, the relative lightness of our bags meant the way down was slightly easier than expected!!
I moved onto Lago Atitlan, created when an almighty eruption (apparently known as the Los Chocoyos eruption) sent the entire magma chamber of the volcano skywards, and the resulting hole filled with water. The eruption was said to be so large that debris arrived in Florida and Ecuador, and to give some idea of the scale, the crater lake that was left behind measured 18km by 8km. Truly enormous!
Obviously, there would be a high peak to be climbed to fully appreciate the views, and so I met my guide Jose at 6a.m. To start the long trek upwards. I hadn't been feeling that well the last few days and we had over 1,300 vertical metres to climb from the lake shore to the peak – so I was a little bit nervous about the task ahead. Luckily the body held together, and we plodded relentlessly up the muddy path
which would have been a nightmare had it not been for the sterling work of the national park putting wooden steps and barricades in place to stop the path sliding off down the mountain. This was certainly one occasion where I could see exactly where my entrance fee was being spent!!
We reach a completely clear summit at 9.15a.m. And as the first to arrive we had the summit completely to ourselves and I had the magical solitude of watching the huge expanse of Lago Atitlan stretch out beneath me! (I truly had it to myself as Jose had at this point stretched out on a rock to sleep!!). Our timing couldn't have been better as at 9.30a.m. The first cloud rolled in, and by 9.45a.m. It was a complete white out with no hint of a view. It was something I didn't have the heart to tell the dozen or so people we passed on the way down who were yet to summit!
I headed onto Antigua, ancient capital of Guatemala, with pleasant cobbled streets that just beg to be aimlessly wandered and a superb location as the metaphorical broth in the base of a cauldron of
Viewpoint over Semuc Champey
The V on my forehead is the natural "warpaint" we were given by our guides made from berries
surrounding volcanoes. Obviously, one of those volcanoes needed to be summitted, and initially I was disappointed when reaching the crater of Pacaya, but then it showed its party trick of a booming eruption reverberating from the jet black peak, with the accompanying cloud of steam contrasting against the vivid blue of the sky, and it had been a worthwhile excursion!
Back in town, I did some of the best eating for a while, given Antigua's reputation as an international culinary hotspot. A sublime pad thai one night, and a brilliant stir fry in the strangely named “travel menu” sated my appetite for Asian food which has been so scarce thus far on the trip. Travel Menu originally tempted me in through the live music, so when the food turned out to be delicious too it was quite the find!
By this time I was well and truly on the “gringo motorway” starting to take shuttles to the out of the way destinations that would have taken an age to arrive at by the ubiquitous Chicken Bus. These ex American school buses that had been painted in the brightest and most vibrant colour schemes yet encountered, bounced and lurched
Quite tricky to get a phot of them!
their way to virtually every destination. The views from their windows were often as just as bright as the buses themselves, as Guatemala seemed to have taken it upon itself to use every colour available in the artist's palette, which is evident in the buildings and especially in the incredible traditional dress worn by the locals, especially the women. I was told that a whopping 60% of the population were of pure Mayan descent (with around 30% Mestizo, a mix of Spanish and Mayan descent) meaning that the traditional dress wasn't just for show, it was an everyday part of life that made walking the streets for a tourist like me all that more enjoyable!
I bumped and bounced my way up to the central highlands to the amazing Zephyr Lodge in Lanquin. The lodge was set on a ridgeline and so had amazing views in both directions, and there was type of communal dinner each night that certainly brings everyone together and creates a great atmosphere.
There followed one of the most enjoyable days of my travels as we went on a full day's adventure at the caves and pools of Semuc Champey. The caving experience was
Sunrise over the ruins of Tikal
Although I think the highlight was listening to the jungle waking up!
great, as we climbed, squeezed, walked, slipped and swam through around 600 metres of caves - made all the more unique by the fact that we were each issued with a candle rather than a torch to complete the adventure, meaning it all had a rather rustic Indian Jones feel to it!
My reef shoes that I had bought in Colombia 3 months earlier for another caving adventure, and had lasted approximately 2 months and 29 days longer than I expected, finally gave up the ghost at this point as a massive hole developed in the front meaning that all the small stones the shoes were designed to keep out just entered anyway, meaning that walking became less and less comfortable as the trip went on!
Outside the caves, we started one of the general themes of the day, which was throwing ourselves off high places into water. The first method was a giant swing, where the guide shouted out at the moment he wanted us to jump off. I think that each time he deliberately waited a fraction of a second too long so that we dismounted at the very top of the arc, went straight up
and then came straight down again invariably entering the water face or belly first!! Now as hilarious as it might have been to hear the repeated slaps of gringo torso against water, it was not so much fun for us participants, so the next time I simply recalled those childhood days of dismounting swings and left the swing in a much more controlled manner to land feet first!
Not done here, we headed onto a bridge over the river with a ten metre drop to the water below. Its hard to describe how high it felt when you were up there, but the hang time was certainly long enough to think several times over that it maybe wasn't such a good idea!
But the main highlight were the pools of Semuc Champey, a natural occurrence unlike anything I had seen before. A crystal clear mountain stream descended to the River Lanquin at the exact point it enters a narrow canyon. Over millions of years rocks falling into the canyon had formed a sort of bridge over the canyon, with the grey torrent of the River Lanquin flowing through the natural tunnel below, and the crystal clear spring water
forming pools on top of the bridge part before eventually joining up with the main flow further downstream.
A happy set of natural coincidences which now meant that your average backpacker can hike up to a magnificent viewpoint over the pools and canyon, before descending to swim in each one – moving between them in various ways from dignified dives, to very undignified (and painful!) slides on chest or backside!
The more I travel, the more I look for events or adventures that are completely unique and can't be found anywhere else. Semuc Champey was certainly one of those and was an absolute highlight of my time in Guatemala.
To round off my time, I was able to do some chilled out river tubing, and then a hike through a bat cave at sundown, when they all start to leave. It wasn't like the movies where seemingly tens of thousands of (I'm sure computer generated) bats leave at once, but at any one time there seemed to be well over a hundred bats flitting and flying through the cave and was certainly a cool experience. Lanquin had absolutely been worth the relatively long journey times to get
there and I would recommend it to any visitor.
I rounded off my time in Guatemala with one of its best known highlights – the Mayan city of Tikal. Construction was between AD 550 and AD 900, and it was “officially” rediscovered in 1848. At its height Tikal's population is estimated at between 50,000 and 100,000 and its sphere of influence could have extended as much as 100 square kilometres. Most archaeologists have apparently reached a consensus that its demise was caused by warfare with neighbouring states and overpopulation which resulted in environmental destruction and drought. The main temples are shrines to the dead, with 6 huge standalone temples and many more buildings spread around the site. The majority of the stonework was said to be original, but large scale restoration projects are taking place to preserve some of the temples. In some areas there were just huge mounds of grass and trees where it was known that a temple lay below but there hadn't yet been an opportunity to unearth the building!
To try and get the most out of the day I opted for the slightly brutal 3a.m. Departure which would allow us to watch the
Traditional clothing and classic architecture
A scene from Xela where I did my language school
sunrise at the complex. This proved well worth it as we arrived at the top of east facing temple 4, the tallest of the temples in the complex, in good time to watch the sunrise and, even better for me (given that I have seen a fair few sunrises on this trip!), to hear the jungle waking up – especially the call of the boisterous howler monkeys! It was this latter part that certainly made the early start worthwhile!!
Our guide “speedy” Gonzales then spent several hours leading us on a very pleasant tour around most of the site, as we walked, listened, climbed and jumped around the ruins! As always with this type of tour, at the time I hung on every word and took it all in – but just a week or two after the event so much of the information has vanished out of my memory! It's such a shame – but I know that the visual images and memories will stay with me a lot longer – especially as post-tour myself and an English couple, Neil and Tessa, took advantage of the free time to go hiking through the more remote areas of the site and visit the emptier, more out of the way temples.
I had been looking forward to Guatemala for a long time – and it certainly lived up to expectations. A heady combination of adventure based activities, great natural beauty, a rich, vibrant and colourful cultural heritage with plenty to see and do just wandering around, combined with a low cost of travelling – especially when it came to the language school – meant Guatemala certainly deserved its reputation as one of the most highly recommended Central American stop-offs!
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