Alta Verapaz

Published: February 22nd 2011
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Sunrise Over Lake AtitlanSunrise Over Lake AtitlanSunrise Over Lake Atitlan

I got up early to see the sunrise with the local fishermen
After two weeks on and around Lake Atitlan I was keen to continue my travels, I headed north into the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala which offers some of the finest examples of natural limestone features in the world, I have spent the past week either wallowing in tropical lagoons or exploring huge underground cave systems.

Lanquìn and around

A days travelling took me north to the small town of Lanquìn and were it not for the picture perfect Zephyr Lodge the place would hardly be worth a mention, perched atop a narrow ridge above a meandering river, the lodge is an idyllic backpacker retreat and affords amazing valley views from practically any hammock you chose to plonk yourself in. It was also an ideal jumping off spot for a day at Semuc Champey.

I opted to go with a guide and a large crowd from the hostel for a full day of activities, the guide was not to disappoint, we started the day with a huge river rope swing (which I intend to replicate on the Greta). Next we headed towards the K'anba Cave and river system which flows for miles under the surrounding hills; dressed in
Zephyr LodgeZephyr LodgeZephyr Lodge

Beautifully situated on a ridge near Lanquin
swimming trunks and flip-flops and armed only with a candle and my underwater camera I spent an hour and a half swimming, jumping and sliding over waterfalls and through flooded tunnels, it was great fun, everyone dunked their light at some point and the trip was timed to last just the length of a candle. The experience by candlelight was almost ethereal as we all swam in line, candles aloft, the light casting flickering shadows off the water and rock giving the caves a strange atmosphere.

That afternoon we visited Semuc Champey, this is a truly extraordinary natural wonder, the large Rio Cahabon suddenly plunges underground at a gaping mouth in the rock called "Manantiales", spanning the river for hundreds of metres is a huge limestone bridge which supports a staircase of six turquoise lagoons separated by curved walls of smooth calcite, quite an amazing place (The Mayan name Semuc Champey literally means "water under rock"). The beautiful tranquil pools above wonderfully juxtapose the raging torrent beneath. We made our way downstream by jumping and diving between the various pools, on occasion a smooth area of calcite even provided natural water slides. The pools ended with a huge waterfall
K'Anba CavesK'Anba CavesK'Anba Caves

We navigated by candle light throughout the tour
where the water rejoined the emerging river below. The warm turquoise pools enclosed on both sides by steep tree clad forest made for a truly sublime location, there is nothing quite like playing on a river.

The next evening I visited Lanquin's other main attraction, the Grutas de Lanquìn, a vast series of underground limestone caverns, clad in vast stalactites it was an amazing sight in it self although I was there to see the enormous bat colony housed deep in the caves exit for the evening hunt. Around dusk countless thousands of bats started streaming out of the cave, moving too quickly to focus on any one individual. I stood in the entrance way and felt like a boulder in a stream, with bats flowing round me on all sides, quite a spectacular sight.

Northern Alta Verapaz

With my new found Spanish skills I thought it was time to exit the gringo trail and go to see some of the lesser visited sights of Alta Verapaz. Throughout this time I was travelling on local 'collectivos', these mini-buses bomb up and down main highways picking up whoever flags them down, for this kind of transport the words
K'Anba CavesK'Anba CavesK'Anba Caves

Mayan face paint!
"no more space" need not apply. I transferred up to Chisec, a small nondescript town where the only point of interest was the complete lack of churches, this area was a hotbed of guerrilla activity during the civil war and they really didn't like religious influence, therefore no churches. On the bus trip north we kept passing these strange geological features, interspersed amongst the farmland were 50m+ high islands of white rock, covered in trees and dance undergrowth, we passed these throughout the region. In Chisec I had really arrived in Guatemala, no Internet and absolutely no gringos. People were much less used to the sight of tourists here and were consequently more polite and openly stared, fascinated by you.

My first excursion was into the Bombil Pec caves two kilometres north of Chisec, I walked several miles with my guide through maize farmland passing more white rock islands to arrive at the first cave, Jul Iq'. The entrance was a sink hole that opened up vertically in forest floor. We descended down into the first chamber which was striated by shafts of sunlight reaching down from the forest above to place spotlights on the stalagmites below, really beautiful.
K'Anba CavesK'Anba CavesK'Anba Caves

We had to swim for long sections holding the candles aloft
Beyond the first chamber we navigated by torchlight and these caves were quite different again to those seen previously, every overhanging surface was covered in pure white stalactites, a lot were just the normal vertical spikes but some were like cosseted material inches thick. Incredibly they resonated when tapped producing clear chimes of different pitch depending on their size, the guide and I had great fun playing tunes on them. The only animal life I saw down there were massive red crabs with excessively long claws, very strange environment.

The second cave was more of a huge sinkhole with a portion overhanging to form a cavern, to enter it we had to rappel 85m off a wooden platform to the floor below, this method of entry gave 360 degree views around the sink hole, one end was open and covered in dense forest, the other was under cover of the cavern so was barren below but covered in thousands of stalactites above. Once back on the ground the guide led me to an Mayan cave where there were supposedly ancient cave painting, unfortunately the entrance was a thin tunnel through the rock that my guide could barely squeeze through,
Semuc ChampeySemuc ChampeySemuc Champey

View from above, Mirador
I pointed out my undeniable bulk and tried to explain that I didn't want to do a Pooh Bear impression getting stuck half way.

The sink hole was surrounded by vertical rock faces on all sides and until recently there was an steep wooden ladder leading back up to ground level, unfortunately this had completely collapsed leaving a 40m high vertical rock face with a few vines to cling onto. The guide, despite not mentioning this at the start, said it was no problem and continued to shimmy up the vines like bloody Tarzan, I made it 10m up got scared and made him fetch the rappelling rope to help me climb, he was a bit put out but I really didn't fancy dangling off skinny vines 40m up a rock face in the middle of the jungle, must be getting old. The guide did mention that a new ladder was being built the following week, humph.

Laguna Lachuà

My next destination was a bit of a mission, I wanted to go to the Laguna Lachuà National Park, three hours on horrendous roads beyond Chisec this is one of Central America's least visited but probably one of
Semuc Champey - ManantialesSemuc Champey - ManantialesSemuc Champey - Manantiales

This is where the river dropped under the limestone arch
its most beautiful national parks. At the centre of a ecologically preserved island of primary forest in a sea of deforestation it is a 2km wide, 220m deep almost perfectly circular sulphurous lagoon which is presumed to have been created by a meteorite impact, it sounded too good to miss (in Mayan 'Laguna Lachuà' literally means 'the lake that smells'). I was travelling with a french couple and we arrived at the park entrance carrying enough food and water for two days, we had to hike for 4.2km to get to the lakeside lodge - hard work when your bag weighs over 20kg - along the way we saw snakes, huge funnel web spiders and various lizards. Eventually we arrived at the simple accommodation and immediately downed bags and went for a well earned swim. The Lagoon's watershed is within the national park boundary so the crystal clear water is teeming with life, there is no fishing permitted so the fish have no natural fear of humans, in fact they consider them rather a curiosity and all swimmers have a entourage of small fish throughout their time in the water, great fun with a snorkel. Another trick was to leave
Semuc ChampeySemuc ChampeySemuc Champey

Looking back up the lagoons.
your feet still in the water for a couple of minutes when loads of little fish would come and nibble off the dead skin, very funny and a little odd. The lake was ringed by trees but near to the shore were strange circular stone bathtub formations that rose a couple of feet above the water surface, I can only assume they have something to do with the phosphorous in the lake? We had dropped down to 173m altitude so the climate was perfect for swimming and lounging around by the lake shore, I did make a couple of excursions into the forest, apparently there are Jaguar, Tapiar, Armadillos and Howler Monkeys in the forest but they all proved elusive to Bigfoot as the latter could probably be heard further away than the monkeys, I did see a couple of large rodents the size of terriers called Cotuzas. This really was a staggeringly beautiful place and made all the better for being free of gringos. (The lake is shown in the panorama at the start of the blog)

Candelaria Caves

After Lachuà I transferred back to Chisec and then north toward Flores, but I had one stop to
Grutas de LanquinGrutas de LanquinGrutas de Lanquin

These caves had amazing huge stalactite formations that were like natural organs
make on the way. Sited as the largest and most impressive caves in Central America the Candelaria Caves were to be my last subterranean excursion. Discovered by a Frenchman in 1974 these caves extend for over 22km underground but my visit was only to the largest and most spectacular section, in places 92m high these caves truly had a cathedrelic feel, especially with the light shafting down form the openings in the forest floor above, we walked for an hour through these spectacular spaces marvelling at there size. Along some of the walls were stalactites which looked like some kind of organic organ, combined with the smoothed natural feel and vaulted ceilings it felt very reminiscent of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Interestingly the ancient Mayan city of Cancuèn lacked the substantial temples typical of the Mayan world because these caves provided an ample centre for worship, the caves are still used for this purpose today. I can really see why they have the same sense of peace and grandeur of any cathedral I've visited in Europe.

So, that was my week.

Additional photos below
Photos: 18, Displayed: 18


B'onb'il Pek Caves - Jul Iq'B'onb'il Pek Caves - Jul Iq'
B'onb'il Pek Caves - Jul Iq'

Shafts of light permeated from the rainforest above
B'onb'il Pek Caves - Jul Iq'B'onb'il Pek Caves - Jul Iq'
B'onb'il Pek Caves - Jul Iq'

The only life i saw in the caves were these funny crabs
B'onb'il Pek CavesB'onb'il Pek Caves
B'onb'il Pek Caves

The second cavern was huge, 80m high
Laguna LachuaLaguna Lachua
Laguna Lachua

Weird circular calcite basins just above the water surface
Laguna LachuaLaguna Lachua
Laguna Lachua

Mirror Lake - those clouds got worse and it peed down over night
Laguna LachuaLaguna Lachua
Laguna Lachua

Free pedicure...
Candelaria CavesCandelaria Caves
Candelaria Caves

More beautiful cathedrelic like caves, 92m high in places

22nd February 2011

FM was panicking as we have not heard from you for a while but you have made up for it, great account of the area, I am so pleased have have a good time. Snow, rain, cold here.
1st March 2011

Hi Will, this was an amazing week, I am so glad you are doing it! Wondrous places, thank you for sharing the fascinating photos. There is so much beauty in this world. Enjoy it all, Suzanna
4th March 2011

Travelling to Lanquìn
I'm travelling to Guatemala in a few weeks. How did you travel from Lake Atitlan to Lanquìn?? Was it a long journey? A few friends have recommended Zephyr Lodge and I'm keen to go! You blog is great to read, thank you already for the great info! - Jocelyn

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