We LOVE Guatemala! Everywhere we have been so far in this country we have ended up staying longer than planned. Unfortunately I have been too busy chilling out, drinking coffee, learning Spanish and having the odd adventure, to get round to writing my blog. Lo siento, amigos, but this is the way of the travelling life!
First stop: Flores and Tikal
So we arrived in Flores, which is a few hours from the boarder of Belize. After our experience of Belize, we were happy to leave and also surprised to not be asked to pay the infamous bribe at the boarder – we reckon the boss was there that day! We arrived at a place called Santa Elena and got a little bus over to Flores, which is an island in a lake. Flores was so pretty, it was easy to while away our time drinking coffee at Cool Beans Cafe, our regular spot, and wandering the beautiful streets in this colonial town. Our hotel, Mirador del Lago, did, as the name suggests if you have any Spanish, overlook the lake. The road that was supposed to be going round the back of the hotel had been immersed in water from the lake for about 3 years apparently so we could sit and look out at the view and watch children playing on the road-lake.
We visited the Mayan site of Tikal, which apparently is the biggest Ancient Mayan site in the Mayan world which includes Mexico, Guatemala and down to Honduras. A lot of the things we were told were the same as when we went to Chichen Itza in Mexico, so it was reassuring to know that it was more likely to be reliable info! For example, the pyramids were made with complicated number significances, connecting to the year, seasons, solar and lunar cycles etc. Also the social system and religious beliefs were the same. We chose to do the sunset tour, and watch the sun go down over the jungle from the top of one of the Mayan pyramids, which was pretty spectacular! Lots of people choose to do the sunrise tour, but as this is more expensive and involved a 3am bus, we figured we would prefer sunset. We didn’t regret it! We also saw some creepy crawlies and jungle creatures (luckily nothing too scary but some monkeys, spiders and a baby snake!) This site is also famous for its appearances in films such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones…
In the evening, there was a party in Flores town for the turning on of the Christmas lights! We ate some local street food and moved through the hustle and bustle. The next night too, there was more stuff going on but we chose to watch another beautiful sunset over the lake this time while eating some yummy burritos and the like!
Semuc Champey: Wild Water Adventures
Our next stop was Semuc Champey, which is fairly new to the tourist path and we took some fairly dubious mountain roads in our 8 hour bus journey (on my rock hard seat…) to arrive at this beautiful jungle destination. We stayed at a place called El Retiro in Lanquin, near the site of Semuc Champey which is natural water pools kind of above an underground river. El Retiro was great, and we stayed in this loft thing up a ladder. It was the first time we got to make use of our jumpers, trousers, walking boots and raincoats as, unsurprisingly, it does actually rain in the jungle!! At least it made lugging them around for a month so far worthwhile!
Because of the bad weather, we sat and chilled in the hostel for a day before we visited Semuc Champey, which is better done as a tour. We had high hopes for this place as loads of people had told us it was their “best experience EVER while travelling”. Unfortunately it seemed a few people had had the same idea as us with the rain though, and our tour group ended up being 30 people! This somewhat dampened the experience (haha) as it took ages to do the activities. These were, however, pretty hilarious, and not quite up to European health and safety standards, shall I say! Firstly, we visited a cave with a river flowing through it. It was dark in there so we were given CANDLES to swim along with to see the way…! This wasn’t actually as bad as it sounds, as we could light them off each other when they went out, but if you needed to climb a ladder or something then putting it in your mouth while hot wax drips down you was an interesting experience! They were a nice way to warm us up though as the water was freezing. It was also pretty fast flowing in places, so we all worked together to make sure no one was swept away down some cave waterfall! We made our way to the end of the cave, where we could climb up onto the higher rocks and jump down into a pool. Without really thinking about it, I climbed up and then realised what I had done, but couldn’t turn back! The only way down was to jump, into the dark pool with the guide shining his torch on two places: “make sure you jump there…not there” is not the most reassuring thing you want to hear at this moment! I had no choice and it wasn’t too bad in the end. The second big drop was some rock you could slide down and then drop into the pool below. However again it wasn’t massively safe as Alex landed on a (fortunately fairly small) rock under the water! Anyway, it was definitely an experience!!
We then went tubing down the river outside, closely followed by a few local kids in tubes saying “hey friend, wanna beer!” – if there was ever a time I felt less like a beer in my life I think this was it! The current was fairly strong due to the recent rain so we had to paddle with our hands to make sure we didn’t get swept away and also to avoid the eddies in the river. One guy wasn’t a great swimmer and towards the end he came out of his tube. The guide went in to initially save him but kinda ended up leaving him to struggle back to the shore and went down the river after the tube instead!! I think both of these things would have been better in the sun with a more chilled out (but less chilly) river!
Next, we went to the site of Semuc Champey itself and hiked up to a viewpoint (or Mirador) to see it overhead. We were now dirty and sweaty, but the view was well worth it!
We then went down and swam in the clear blue waters, explored some smaller cave things, jumped off other things etc. This bit was most chilled and relaxed, just exploring around. Again, the water could have been a bit warmer, but it was still nice after that massive hike! I practised my Spanish with a couple from Spain who couldn’t speak much English, so it was great to discover I could kind of hold a conversation still! Overall a good experience, but it would have been better with a smaller group and nicer weather I think!
Antigua: back to school time!
Our next stop was the beautiful Spanish Colonial town of Antigua. Cobbled streets and pretty buildings painted in different colours, often looking like nothing from the outside and when you go in they were massive with courtyards or terraces overlooking the three nearby volcanoes, one of which is still active (we felt a few tremors and saw huge puffs of smoke rising out of it!)
We were only planning on staying here a couple of days but ended up staying 2 1/2 weeks! We started off in the Yellow House hostel, literally the cleanest hotel/hostel I have EVER stayed in! You practically had to fight the cleaners to get in the toilet after the previous occupant, or they would rush in and quickly mop and clean so it was ready for the next person! After a couple of days there, we were wandering around the corner to our fave coffee place and came across the Antiguena Spanish Academy, one of the well respected Spanish schools I had been researching online, and which had already been recommend to us by some other travellers we met in Belize. We went in and got prices, and it worked out about £15 each per day to study for 5hrs in the morning, with staying in a local home stay including 3 meals a day, and free excursions in the afternoon! This was well within budget and something we had been wanting to do at some point so we agreed and embarked on 2 weeks back at school, with the second week in our own apartment! (Our first place of our own!)
We had our lessons one-to-one with the teachers which was quite intense but well worthwhile. Alex’s teacher, Aurora, could speak English well enough to give him a good grounding in the basics of Spanish, while my teacher, Rosario, could speak it but we barely used English and spoke loads in Spanish about culture, religion (I taught her the 5 pillars of Islam…in Spanish! You can take the teacher out of school but you can’t take the subject out of the teacher eh!), ethics and various things, while improving my use of grammar as well (and discovering that what I thought meant car, as it does in Spain, coche, in fact means pig here! There are a few things like this I need to watch out for!!) We went on a couple of excursions with them, to the market and a nice local spot to visit, and now both feel a lot more confident.
We generally spent afternoons drinking coffee, doing homework (or in Alex’s case, moaning for ages about homework and eventually doing it!) wandering the town and chilling. It was nice to be away from the “travelling scene” for a bit and have a routine. Alex also enjoyed being able to cook again! One time we visited a house where they process chocolate and another where they made local “wine” (it was rank, like home brew, but cost loads! Was kinda funny though!). We also had a couple of Salsa lessons! Arriba!!
I am also, again, SO glad I had the chance to learn Spanish at school and even though my A level grade was *ahem* not the best, it has still come in very useful as I can amazingly remember quite a lot! I would definitely recommend this experience though as the school was well run and the lessons has built up my confidence loads in speaking, which came in useful particularly when Alex had to go to the non-English speaking physio for his dodgy hip (randomly v painful with no apparent reason why!)
San Marcos la Laguna, Lake Atitlan (land of hippies)
Despite the fact that we could have quite easily stayed in Antigua for the remainder of our trip, we wrenched ourselves away yesterday as we felt that we should probably move on. So here we are at the beautiful Lake Atitlan in the small village where hippies dwell and do yoga, meditation, reiki healing and all sorts. We only arrived yesterday at San Marcos Hostel (basic rooms at good price inc breakfast) so haven’t done much yet or taken any photos but I will add some at some point. Not sure how long we will stay but as it is my birthday tomorrow (27 – what the hell happened?!!) we thought it would be a nice place to come and, um, relax in a new location!
Well that’s pretty much it for now. Hasta luego, amigos!
PS for those of you on beardwatch for Alex, he says: “beards are cool but you end up constantly feeling like you’ve got hair in your mouth” so it has now gone! He did enjoy stroking it in contemplation and “being manly” but in the end it had to go. A good thing too as the day after, the oven exploded in his face (literally a fireball!) and singed his eyelashes and arm hair (fortunately no lasting damage!) so I dread to think what it would have done to the beard!!