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Guatemala

Guatemala

Curious what backpackers do in Guatemala? Discover travel destinations all over the world of travelers writing a travel blog on FindPenguins.
  • Day320

    The border crossing wasn't as bad as expected. There was no queues of cars - in fact I think we were the only one I saw. We got sprayed (no idea what for), got our passport stamped, and got our vehicle import licence all within an hour. Tried to buy insurance but the guy said not to bother :l

    From there we drove through a narrow and deep valley into the mountains and to Huehuetenango (all the big towns seem to end with ~tenango around here) and started to find our feet. We were told there weren't any supermarkets here but immediately we found one, and we're surprised to see it a lot more expensive than Mexico. We got ourselves a local SIM and made our way to a strange little campsite on the edge of a football field.

    Over a week on and I'm still not feeling right, so we decided to head to Lake Atitlán for a few days R&R before we head to our volunteering place. To get to the lake you summit at over 3,000 metres which was thick with fog, then head steeply down to 1,800 metres in only a few miles.

    The lake is ringed by high classically shaped volcanoes, one of which is active. Unfortunately clouds are sitting on the lake so we only get a few tantalising glimpses of these majestic peaks. We mooched around the main tourist town of Panajachel and jumped into the back of a pickup to visit a small artesanal village further around the lake. We even got invited to a baptismal ceremony held at the campsite, and got called out by name by the priest buy fortunately we avoided the dunking.
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  • Day324

    After a night (or half a night in my case, due to a severe case of my indigestion catching up after weeks of painkillers and antibiotics) in the Xela McDonald's car park we drove down a dusty dirt road until it turned into a rough track. Knowing we couldn't cheat and gain any more altitude we pulled into a farmers front yard. That left us with over 1,300m to climb, and we know from experience that 1,000m is a tough day in the saddle.

    Despite much differing advice we decided to go without a guide, mainly as this was the one volcano with a Google Map route and we weren't overly concerned about the vague reports of robberies. The trail started easily enough and wound upwards reasonably gently through some impressive farmlands etched into the lower slopes.

    After a couple of hours of reasonably hard slog we reached the shoulder, where the nice old man on a horse waited for us to make sure we took the right route, although it was hard to miss the massive conical peak towering above us. The trail soon got even steeper & dustier, and I was glad of my newly acquired hiking poles (which I was hoping would help me avoid my back issues) . We really felt the thin air as we slowly ascended, and needed to stop to catch our breath at almost every switchback turn.

    After 4 really tough hours we finally reached the summit at over 3,700m, and found it covered with flowers and indigenous shrines. It was a truly stunning 360 degree view, with a thick layer of clouds several hundred metres below us. We were expecting cold & windy but it was a glorious day and we spent a good while up there enjoying the view and tucking into lunch.

    Coming down was a breeze as the thin air didn't matter and we were down in about half the time. I was pretty amazed I made it considering how rough a night I'd had, but my back was in good shape, although the rest of me was pretty beat. Unfortunately there was no hot shower to sooth away the ashes and pains, and we had to make do with an authentic farmers shower from the plastic tubs in their outdoor sink.

    Cleaned and fed we collapsed into a blissful sleep, proud of having summited on one of the harder hikes we've done. Fortunately you tend to remember the amazing views rather than the slog it was to get them.
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  • Day137

    After a light breakfast by the river we said goodbye to our gorgeous hostel and boarded the mini bus that would be driving us the '8 hour journey' North to Flores. The journey was largely the same as the others we'd taken so far in Guatemala with one major difference, the first being that all but the first hour of the journey were completed on paved roads - super comfortable after the last couple of journeys!

    An hour South of Flores the van joined a queue facing a river that we would be crossing and while we waited we watched the ferry buzz back and forth a couple of times, each time filled to capacity. Our turn came and along with two lorries, 9 cars/mini-buses and a motorbike it was considered full and then, rather humorously, they used two small outboard motors to propel us across the 40 metres of brown water. Even with the limited power it took less than 5 minutes for us to cross, and then just before 6pm we were pulling into the town of Flores.

    That evening we had dinner in a very rustic restaurant before arranging a tour for the following day and onward transport for the day after that.

    4am and our alarm shocked us awake. We were up so early to travel 90 minutes to the ancient Mayan site of Tikal where we'd be spending the morning. Not surprisingly we both slept the whole way there before exchanging the tickets we bought for wristbands that permit entry to the whole complex.

    At 7am our group of 15 or so were gathered together by Luis, our tour guide for a few hours. Near the entrance there is a scale model of the discovered ruins and this is where we were given an introduction to our first experience of the ancient temples, palaces and cities that dotted Central and South America for many centuries.

    As we left the entry museum behind it took only a few minutes walking along the jungle-lined pathway before Luis stopped us and began pointing into the trees and bush. This moment repeated itself a dozen times more before we'd reached the first Mayan ruin, every time with the whole group fascinated at what he'd spotted for us. The highlights of the wildlife we were experiencing would be the very colourful Quetzal bird that gives it's name to the nation's currency, with a sleeping howler monkey just before this. The monkey wasn't sleeping long as Luis banged the trunk of the tree far beneath where it was resting and as soon as he began we learnt why they have their name - they have such a powerful shout and yet they're so small! Our first animal encounter, however, was probably our best. Coatis are common here and for locals are comparable to a rat, but when a pack of 20 or so were found in a tree next to the path they quickly ran to the ground to curiously sniff around us and each other. They look like foxes in size and colour, and apparently deliver a nasty bite so we carefully enjoyed the lucky, close experience we had of them.

    An hour or so after we'd set off from the museum we arrived at the first Mayan ruins of the day, a 1300 year old sacrificial temple. Luis gathered us around a clearing in front of the temple and after silencing the group he began clapping and this echoed through the clearing and off the temple to create a sound like a bird's call, which was incredible. Equally incredible was the view from the top of the temple, across the jungle canopy to the very top of Temple I that peeked upwards beyond the trees. From there we followed an ancient limestone causeway that, at it's peak, was a few thousand feet long and led to one of the most highly excavated and restored areas of Tikal, the Gran Plaza. Here are two of the larger temples, one of which we climbed using a wooden walkway that hugged the outside of the stone. From the top we had a view over the jungle canopy and down onto the plaza where the North and South Acropolis' could be seen. This series of ancient structures are very well restored, having been dug out of the jungle. This meant the view down was a taste of how the area would have looked during it's peak. We also had a walk around the Acropolis' which, along with the temples, commemorated a great Mayan king named Ah Cacao - a good name, if you remember how valuable cacao beans were!

    We rejoined our tour group at the base of Temple II that we had climbed, and within 30 seconds of starting walking we were in thick jungle and the only thing we could hear was the sound of the forest, although whatever animals were nearby stayed out of sight. It was only a short distance through the forest to Temple IV, the largest of the whole complex which appeared in front of us. We'd seen the very top of it from the previous temple we'd climbed but now we were standing at it's base it's size was really impressive, standing nearly 50m tall. Another staircase had been built onto the side of the structure and thankfully it was largely in the shade, which made the climb up bearable (it was only 10.30am but already was incredibly hot and humid!)

    Once we'd reached the top we sat on the steps that made the final ascent into the inner chamber and looked out across the jungle, which was now much lower than we were. Sadly the inner chamber is closed off because of previous visitor's defacing and graffitiing it, but the climb was still worth it for the view. It was also a view lots of you will recognise, as George Lucas used the spot for filming some scenes for Star Wars! Our tour ended here and although we were given the option of returning to Flores at that point we were far from finished, as the Tikal site is HUGE and we wanted some time to explore ourselves.

    Once we were back at the base of Temple IV we had our lunch under a gazebo - the early morning had thrown our body clocks out completely and we realised it was only 11am! We set off toward a structure we'd seen from our viewpoint. 'The Sloped Temple' is different from almost all the other structures at Tikal as it's a pyramid with a flat top, but as it was built to facilitate star-watching and other astronomical purposes the construction made complete sense. I climbed to the top and found a couple of small roofed buildings made entirely out of stone, a considerable feat for the time. We also learnt that this was the oldest ruin at Tikal. Well, not quite. The inner layer of the pyramid is, and the outer layer that I'd climbed was a more recent addition, at only 800 years old instead of 1400 that the inner is!

    We continued along a path following signs for 'The Lost World' and explored another handful of temples until we reached our main destination, the Plaza of the Seven Temples. The area that this complex covered was much larger than the Gran Plaza and contained more individual buildings, like a three-doored building used to play a Mayan game like football, an acropolis and of course the seven temples. They were all restored incredibly, although this process wasn't complete which meant we could see the work that it takes to make them tourist-ready. Incredibly we'd been told by Luis that every large mound in the whole area of Tikal is in fact a Mayan structure that has simply not been unearthed yet! What we found as incredible though is that, apart from a guard, we were the only people there! During Mayan times the plaza could have held thousands of people for festivals, meetings and sacrifices yet now there were only three enjoying it.

    We were glad we made the 30 minute walk to the plaza and could have continued exploring more of the temples but now it was midday and the heat, combined with the early morning, was getting the better of us so we began making our way back to the main entrance. As the part of the site is less visited the signs weren't so great so we were using a map, and as we walked along what we assumed was a regular path through the jungle we realised we were actually walking along one of the lower levels of a huge acropolis that hadn't been excavated yet. Each level was about 15m high and 100m long, built in levels like a pyramid. The dense jungle all around us showed how nature reclaimed even this enormous building given time and before we arrived back at the entrance we passed another dozen structures that were in a similar state. We'd be so curious to have been at Tikal during the Mayan Era so we could experience the buzz that would have accompanied the city.

    By the early afternoon we were back in Flores and spent a while relaxing in the garden courtyard of our hostel. After sharing a huge platter of nachos fully loaded with salsa, guacamole, cheese and sour cream I had a much needed nap before at dusk we went for a walk around the path that leads around the perimeter of Flores. There were lots of people out enjoying the warm evening and we saw families splashing around in the water and couples canoodling on benches fringed with flowers. We sat on some steps with our feet in the water and watched the sun set beautifully. We'd loved our first taste of Mayan ruins and Flores was a perfect and very beautiful base from which to visit Tikal. It was definitely our favourite place in Guatemala and we could have spent longer there easily, so if you're in that part of the world we can definitely recommend a few days there.

    Phil
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  • Day323

    We headed back around the top of the lake to Quetzaltenango, fortunately known as Xela (meaning surrounded by 10, referring to volcanoes). We were supposed to be volunteering here, leading treks up the volcanoes, but within a few minutes of arriving they were pretty clear the dog was going to be a problem. We were a bit confused as they trotted out wierd reasons like dogs wouldn't be allowed on the buses (they are), couldn't go into the restaurants (we've only come across a couple of our whole trip, and they were posh ones), the guests might not like it (really? Who doesn't like puppies?!). They wouldnt even let us go on a hike with them.

    Anyway we soon gave up on the idea, and we are actually pretty glad. The town itself was pretty grotty without much to keep you interested for the 3 months we would have had to commit to. Also I couldn't believe they were preparing things like tomatoes and cucumbers for food - when we hike we go as weight-light and carb-heavy as possible, with things like pasta & noodles.

    Although we don't really have much of a plan for our trip, this was the one thing we were basing things around so it had thrown us into disarray a little, and we felt a little let down that day. To cheer ourselves up we had a nice lunch of ribs, and they spent an hour checking out the town.

    We do have two other ideas - the sister charity in Nicaragua seems much more well organised and were very receptive to us (and the dog). Also we love scuba diving so we could possibly look for somewhere to do our Dive Master certification, which basically means you lead the dive trips underwater.

    To sum up this town, the only photo we could find was of a bin lorry that we got stuck behind for 30 minutes. I think we dodged a bullet here!
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  • Day332

    After reaching our limit at the Tourist Police camp spot we had a choice of either the coast or the top of a volcano, so we chose the difficult option! Volcan Agua had been hovering over the city with a permanent cloud cap so we knew it was was going to be a bit of a change of climate.

    It was only a short drive so we arrived in the afternoon & arranged with our guide Hector to start the next morning, so we had a night to acclimatise to 2300m. Our crazy Estonian friends arrived a bit later but they decided to go up starting at midnight!

    We set off in lovely morning sunshine although carrying many layers of clothes as we were warned to expect extreme cold - in fact 6 people died on this mountain in January from hypothermia and we didn't want to take any chances! We were lucky enough to have as guides not just Hector but his 10 year old son Mina, who was on Easter school holidays and was climbing the volcan for the first time. Of course he & Maya virtually skipped up as we trudged arriba arriba arriba (up up up) first through farmers fields, then into cloud forest & finally through barren volcanic landscape. It was a hard hike & we were relieved to get to our campspot, quickly setting up our tent which Maya immediately crawled into and nestled into our sleeping bags, as sun had been replaced by freezing fog whooshing down from the top of the volcano above us. Hector told us we were facing Volcan Fuego & the fog should clear at night... fingers crossed.

    Héctor made a big campfire & we all chatted with some Guatemalans from nearby Guatemala City who were also doing the hike. We ate our pasta 'n sauce dinner & huddled into our tent with all our layers, plus with Maya in the sleeping bag :), and still felt cold. After managing to get maybe an hours sleep I woke to see that sure enough the fog & clouds had lifted, the wind had died & the smoking peak of Fuego was in front of us surrounded by twinkling stars & lit by the full moon - stunning.

    In the dark at 4:30 we started the brutal final ascent, pretty much straight up some very loose volcanic soil. We were rewarded with a spectacular sunrise at the top of Acatenango & to top it off a big smokey eruption by Fuego only a kilometer or so away.

    As you can imagine going down was much easier, apart from one little tumble! We said goodbye to Hector and his son (who immediately went off to play football with his mates!) & drove to Antigua dreaming of a hot shower. The shower nearly didn't materialise as the hostel we usually have one in was full so turned us away... (even seeing our filthy state & desperation). Luckily the next hostel we tried took pity on us & we had a wonderful hot shower which they wouldn't even accept any payment for.
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  • Day130

    On arrival into Guatemala City airport at 5.15am we both agreed that in hindsight doing yet another overnight flight was a mistake. We staggered our way through the customs and immigration process, which after the US seemed a breeze but that's largely due to the fact that every form and check point we went through the officers seemed just as half-asleep as we did! As we climbed into a shuttle bus to take us to Antigua the sun was appearing and as we drove out of the smoggy, traffic clogged roads of Guatemala City we got our first taste of the countryside - it's naturally very beautiful!

    An hour later we arrived into Antigua, a town of approximately 35,000 people with cobbled streets, rows of pastel coloured buildings and more churches, convents, parks and squares than you can shake a tortilla at! Even in the short drive through the town to our hotel we both agreed the town is every bit as beautiful as we'd been told and read about in blogs, guidebooks and tourist magazines. We were excited to explore it, but first we needed sleep!

    Fast forward to midday and still bleary eyed we went for a walk, passing through the cobbled lanes and under Arco de Santa Catalina (an arch that passes over the road, built so the nuns of the convent could cross without being seen by the public!) before we arrived at Parque Central. Here there were dozens of locals chatting on benches in the shade of the blossom-filled trees with the splashing of the fountain in the background. It's a really beautiful place and is ringed with governmental buildings, not that you'd recognise them as such. We took a staircase up to a balcony of the city hall which gave a brilliant view of the square, through the arched walkway.

    Having explored some more of the centre we stopped for lunch in a quaint restaurant that we believe either doubled as a shop, or it was a shop before becoming a restaurant - our Spanish isn't good enough yet to ask or figure it out! We had a good surprise in the menu and couldn't not order the cheese fondue, which it turns out is sold everywhere and is amazing! For dessert we crossed the street to Chocomuseo (no prizes for guessing their specialty) where we had brownie, local coffee and a DIY hot chocolate while sitting in their shaded courtyard. It was a good place to relax and we enjoyed a couple of hours there, before we made for the roof terrace of our hotel to watch the sunset. Sadly it began to rain so the sunset wasn't really to be, and I was feeling very rundown with man flu so we called it a night.

    The following morning after a light breakfast we went back to Chocomuseo for their discovery class. Our tutor, Edwin, began with teaching us the history of cacao, from the Mayan era right up to the 19th century European adaptation that is what we would now recognise as chocolate. This background set us up well for what we'd be doing next, which was to prepare locally grown cacao beans and then to create three drinks from it. First we roasted the beans over fire on a comal, a round clay disk which is more commonly used to cook tortilla. By hand we then removed the husks which is best compared to removing peanuts from their shells - these were then added to boiling water to create a simple cacao tea, which whilst bitter, tasted great and had the aftertaste you get from dark chocolate.

    The second drink we made used the cacao beans which we ground using a mortar and pestle. Edwin gave commentary to the race between our group, and with his expertise his water the smoothest by far although Beth's was also pretty good! A reward for the hard work was a sample of a few of the chocolates their chefs had made - delicious! All of our cacao pastes were added together and rolled into a small log like shape. Edwin explained that when famous conquistador Herman Cortez arrived into Mayan lands he was presented with something similar to what we had just created, as cacao was a very valuable commodity (1 bean = 1 tomato, 3 = 1 small rabbit, 10 = the service of a lady-of-the-night). Cortez refused the gift however, as the cacao looks a lot like an animal's poo! The Mayan's would also add blood to their chocolatey drinks as part of ceremonies - no thanks!

    Anyway this didn't put us off and it was added to hot water, then cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, chilli powder and pepper were added to it to create the drink that all Mayan people enjoyed. Even with all the spices the overriding taste was of chocolate, with a very definite spicy aftertaste. It was very tasty, but the third drink was our favourite as this was simply cacao paste combined with hot milk, water and sugar - European style hot chocolate. An important part of the process for this was to froth it up using a wooden whisk-whisk like instrument that is spun between the palms of your hands, which was good fun.

    Finally we used melted chocolate to create our own chocolates, adding to it caramelised orange peel, Oreo, cacao nibs and other tasty additions. An hour in the fridge and the chocolates were ready, Beth's smiley faces and my pineapple, strawberry and apple shapes. They're all delicious and look professional, of course, although they taste entirely different to European style chocolate as there is very little sugar and milk in it! Interestingly we learnt that white chocolate contains only cocoa butter and no cacao, so technically it's not chocolate at all!

    We spent the afternoon exploring more of the town as even just walking down their 'normal streets' was an experience in itself. We discovered another couple of squares where locals were meeting to relax, chat and enjoy food from carts that set up from the mid-afternoon onwards. Dusk was clear skied so we sat on the roof terrace, with the colourful town feeling very small when we looked out at the volcanoes that ring the town. The sky changed colour through a palette of oranges, reds and purples before the town began to light up welcoming our final night in the town. A short walk from the hotel took us to the courtyard of a restaurant that was lowly lit by lanterns and candles, with hundreds of flowers in thick garlands overhead. The ambience was great, but the food wasn't however. We've learnt very quickly that a strong Spanish vocabulary is needed as English is very limited and this meant the Guatemalan dishes we ordered tasted unusual to us and we're still not entirely certain what it was we ate!

    We'd still enjoyed our final evening in our first Guatemalan town and the next day as our shuttle bus arrived to pick us up we didn't quite feel ready to leave Antigua, but partly that's due to the bumpy journey ahead of us!

    Phil
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  • Day132

    A two and a half hour bumpy drive from Antigua is Panajachel, one of the main towns that surrounds Lake Atitlan. This lake is actually a giant volanic crater that has since filled with water and is surrounded by other surviving volancos. Around the lake are many towns, many traditional Mayan towns that have been there for hundreds of years. Of course they develop and change, especially to welcome tourists. However they still have a lot of locals who still wear traditional clothing and hold that original lifestyle.
    We arrived in Pana around 4pm and after checking into our hotel went for a walk to the lakes edge to check out the view. Rather misty now but still very impressive. We ended up having a delicious early dinner and booking onto a tour for the following day to go around some of the towns on the lake.

    The following day we were on the water at 8am and enjoying a beautiful clear and still morning. Our first stop was San Marcos. An adorable small town full of yoga, massages, alternative medicine and vegetarian cafes. We loved the vibe. We had a very tasty and healthy breakfast in a secluded garden and enjoyed a wander around. We felt we could have definitely had more time there.

    Our next stop was San Juan, a small steep town full of local artists and handicraft merchants. Safe to say we got a few souvenirs! We loved the vibe here which was friendly and relaxed.

    Next stop was San Pedro, or rather the party town where a lot of backpackers go. Although there was some fun bars and cafes with cracking waterside views there wasn't much else to see in the time we were there, and we found it dramatically more manic in vibe. Maybe with more time we would have found more hidden gems.

    Our next stop was a town called San Atitlan and the biggest on the lake. This also had a steep walk up to the centre which we clambered up. We'd clearly arrived at prime market time and navigated our way through the vibrant street stalls and madness. We heard the sound of drums and appeared out into the main square where there was some sort of performance and lots of families about. It created a pretty fun atmosphere, if a little chaotic. At this point we spotted the church which was recommended to visit. It was incredibly old and had a very close view of the neighbouring volanco so we enjoyed seeing it. By now we stopped for a late lunch and watched the world go by. It was humbling to see people working so hard including a boy who must have been only six years old carrying a huge bunch of firewood up the steep hill and clearly struggling. The desire to help was there, but we also didn't know how that would be perceived as we're foreigners.

    Soon after we left here and jetted across now a rather choppy lake, we were relieved to get back still partly dry!

    We thought about staying longer here as we would have loved to have spent more time in the towns but equally had quite a full plan for the last leg of our trip so booked onto a bus ready for a mammoth journey ahead across the country to a town called Lanquin.

    Beth
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  • Day134

    The journey from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin was a tough one. We hopped on a private bus and headed off on an incredibly bumpy journey. The trail leads all through the mountains, constantly up and down and around. Sometimes we were so high up we're looking down on other mountains... did I say that these roads were unpaved? As they were, which made the ride bumpy and precarious going round tight bends on the hill side. There were so many times I thought to myself how is this vehicle still running!? As it was pushed hard on all of those terrible roads. Some roads are paved but even then full of potholes and they swerve all over the road avoiding them. Every time I fell asleep I was awoken with a sharp thud as we'd hit the dirt or gravel roads. No sleeping on this journey! Rather hanging on, did I mention there were no seat belts? You get the idea.

    After the journey taking the entire day we arrived in the town, down in the jungle and got to our hostel. The hostel was pretty funky down on the rivers edge and served us a cracking buffet dinner which was much needed by then!

    The next day we joined a tour to go see the famous Semuc Champey (blue limestone pools in a river). Along with approx 12 others we piled into the back of a pickup truck with a bar round the top. We were all standing and packed in like sardines. Off we went for a 45 minute drive down a dirt road that lead up and down deeper into the jungle. You had to hang on and deal with no personal space, what a ride! Everyone found it fun and it felt like you were really exploring.

    Our first stop on the tour was down the beautiful river by the entrance to some water caves. I chose not to do this part so will let Phil tell you how that was:

    Phil: I'd been told I may want to wear shoes as there were lots of rocks submerged in water and the like, but lacking any real option from my backpack I chose to just wear some socks (after a tip that this helps with grip on slippery wet rocks!) So wearing only swimming shorts and socks I joined the group heading into shallow water in the entrance to the tunnel. The guide (who looked about 14...) handed out a 20cm candle to each of us and then painted our faces with 'war paint' - now I was ready. He explained the cave system could be explored for hours and hours but we didn't have enough candles for that so we were going about 45 minutes into it and as we began slowly making our way along I started to stub my toes and bump my head, but thankfully nothing serious! The track we were following led through water I couldn't stand in, up ladders that were held only by ropes tied around ancient stone pillars naturally formed in the cave, and then back down another ladder - at times the up-and-down was about 10m! This in itself wasn't too challenging but what made it so was the pitch black that threatened to close in if our candles became extinguished! After climbing, crawling and swimming our way deep into the cave the water had become cold and pitch black and then ahead of us was a rock face which our guide climbed using some footholds etched into the rock (I don't exaggerate when I say there was about 3inch chunks of stone cut out of a large boulder that formed the 'staircase'). We were given the most detailed safety briefing of the day, in broken English "if you want to, climb up here and jump in the water. Don't jump there, there or there as there are rocks" he said as he pointed at basically the whole pool below him... after a couple of the group had done it I wanted a go. The 4m climb to the 'jumping point' was VERY difficult and had very little to hold onto. At the top the guide made sure I knew where to jump and also pointed out the overhang, so I knew not to hit my head. Was I scared at this point? A bit. Did I do it? Of course! My jump went fine and it was quite a thrill in the dark of the cave, and made a good way to end the cave exploration before the group retraced it's steps to the entrance. Great fun - and my candle only got wet once!

    Meanwhile I had a swim in the water and relaxed, as the only person there it was quite mystical on my own. At one point a young lad, who must have only been 14 came along, and was intensely looking into the water. Quickly I realised he was fishing and would throw out a weighted net then jump in himself to gather up the fish. He had a wire around his waist and would thread the fish alive onto it, still flapping around! It was a live fish belt, pretty cool to see.

    After the water caves the group came out all wet and covered in warrior paint, pumped for the next activity. Along the river was a giant rope swing that could lift you as high as 8-10 metres! Most people did it and went flying into the water. Phil loved it and thankfully no one got hurt (even when one guy fell backwards and unintentially did a back flip).
    From this spot we were each given a rubber tube to go tubing down the river. This was so awesome. The river had a fairly slowly current and it felt great just drifting down the water. Suddenly some local lads with their tubes jumped in and started handing out some beers to buy. Perfect!
    I even had some tropical dragonflies that kept landing on me (potentially mating but hey ho). We felt very lost in nature as we drifted on. We all got out at the same point and the pick up truck was here to pick us up...along with all the tubes. That was hilarious trying to hold them and fit everyone in. At one point i even noticed a small 6 year old child that had snuck on for the free ride. Mad!
    Thankfully it was just as 10 minute drive back.

    There was a large bridge over the river at least 8 metres high. After grabbing our stuff and dropping off the tube rings, before crossing the bridge in the truck they asked if anyone wanted to jump off it. Some brave souls did it and it was such a drop! Not for us though...

    Onwards we went towards the main sight itself Semuc Champey. We decided to do the climb to the viewpoint first, then go down the other side to the pools to swim. The climb was supposed to take 45 minutes but I think may have taken us longer, it was very steep! They had built in some wooden staircases and stone steps so wasn't too challenging, but just going higher and higher so was quite the workout, especially in the heat. However we made it and it was absolutely worth every single step. The view was stunning. You looked down into the valley between the two huge cliffs (one of which we were on) and you see the river cutting through and all the formations of the limestone ledges. See the photo to understand it better! It really felt like you'd stumbled across this incredible natural wonder.

    By now we were desperate to swim and I wanted a good amount of time there before we had to leave. So I was racing ahead down the mountain jumping steps and pacing fast. Suddenly I came across a crowd on the path and typically I was just keen to get by and not to be held up! I walked past the people and saw a lady a few metres ahead facing backwards, I abruptly stopped thinking I was about to walk into a photo of her being taken. Little did I realise the crowd were not taking a photo of the lady... but rather the snake not even a metre from my feet now looking very angry, head up high. Swiftly I backed off back into the crowd. There was a guide amongst the people who said that snake was one of the most poisonous in Guatemala! What! Thanks for the warning people....
    The snake was mad and in the attack position and was not going to move from the path, so the guide said we'd have to climb down the hill side to meet up with the path further down. I was hoping there were no others around. Once we got to the bottom we met up with our guide, who only confirmed the near death experience when shown a photo, and he exclaimed 'shit!' Confirming that you'd have a maximum of 5 hours to live if it got you. Unbelievable.

    Anyway scare over, we throw off our clothes and went to the top pool and fell into the refreshing water. It felt amazing and the surroundings were beautiful. We'd swim around, then go to the next ledge and move down to the next pool, which would require sliding down the very slippery rocks like water slides to fall into the next pool. One of these was unsuccessful for me and I hit a very slippery bit before I was ready. Not only did I land awkwardly and hurt my knee (just a bit) but let's just say in a bikini there isn't a lot of skin protection.. anyone ever had a carpet burn on their bare bum? Let's say no more!
    But it was worth it and we explored each water terrace. This also included getting a 'free' skin refresh by the fish in the water who liked to nibble you, they were quite big so not as enjoyable as the ones you get in feet tanks across Asia, but pretty cool seeing them in the wild I guess.
    Too soon it was time to leave and we walked back to our pick up truck and enjoyed another bumpy ride back through the jungle as the sun was setting. What an amazing day!

    We concluded the evening with another amazing buffet and some great conversation with other travellers until late in the evening.

    Beth
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  • Day337

    We're back in Antigua after scaling the volcano, and the craziness of Santa Semana is still continuing - in fact it's escalating!

    The celebrations started months back but for 2 weeks leading up to Easter it really ramps up and it's very different to how we do things back home (ie bugger all apart from maybe giving up some chocolate). They close off the streets and they create these amazing carpets out of sand, pine needles, sawdust and coloured powder. Then, as it's so hot and dry, they have to keep hosing them down so they don't blow away in the breeze. At some point the massive procession comes along and tramps right over them. At times it looks like a purple Klu Klux Klan parade, but most of the time it's a good half a kilometre plus of incense burning, power cable lifting, and carrying crazy heavy 'Easter floats'. I can't really describe it, and the pictures barely do it justice. The massive wooden stages of the cross they carry must weigh as much as Elvis (with full tanks) and some 50 or more men (and occasionally only women) carry it in a strange swaying motion. We're not sure if it's the weight, power lines or some deferential reason that causes this bizarre path forwards, sideways, back, sideways, forward motion but it doesn't look easy work. Plus these processions appear to go on for as much as 12 hours, so we're guessing there must be substitutions allowed but I wouldnt rule out it being a hard core act of devotion.

    Amongst all this we took a week of much needed Spanish lessons. Although it was super useful to practice I'm not sure how many times I'm going to use the 3 different types of past tense (depending on whether you finished the action and aren't going to do it again; have done it, are continuing to do it and will do it in the future; or have done it and might do it again), particularly when it is perfectly legit to say it in the present tense and add 'yesterday' or '2 weeks ago'.

    Mingled with the educational and deferential we managed to eat pie and mash (twice), have a Texas BBQ (twice), savour a decent Thai meal, eat a scotch egg, watch the Super Sunday footy whilst enjoying a full English (which turned out to be free, as I gave the cockney owner a St George's flag), enjoy terrace happy hours whilst being towered over by volcanoes, and generally enjoying ourselves far too much!!

    I have to say although we haven't been blown away by Guatemala as a whole, we have thoroughly enjoyed Antigua. I suspect that it's more to do with having been on road for exactly 11 months now and not really spent any time in full on touristy places, and if we had been here 6 months ago we would probably have hated it!

    We even managed to conveniently forget the 5 day limit at the Tourist Police place, and snuck out on the 9th morning, but I think they were all still recovering from Santa Semana to worry about it.
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  • Day326

    Rather than head back to the gorgeous Lake Atitlan, we thought we should get our asses in gear and headed straight for Antigua, the old capital before a big earthquake destroyed much of the city and they moved it a whole 50km down the road !

    Talking of distances, we had a whopping 60km as the crow flies to travel... and Google says 2.5 hours! As it happens it was an easy drive down the Pan-American highway, and barely a tope (or tomulo as they are now called) in sight. On the way into town we called into the badly named Agua Caliente, which we found to be barely lukewarm let alone hot.

    We got to Antigua, and parked up at the Tourist Police place. It might sound a bit weird but it's FREE camping and it's actually a lovely tree covered garden... plus the security is amazing! Also we ran into a lovely Bulgarian couple we first met many months before back up in Mexico, and it was really nice to chill out with them and their home schooled kids.

    The town itself is a lovely old colonial place, with cobbled streets everywhere and loads of collapsing churches. It's loomed over by the massive Volcan Agua, which seems to get into very photo you take.

    It's pretty touristy, which we haven't seen much of and we would normally avoid, but after so long on the road we are absolutely loving it. In the first 48 hours I think we frequented 2 Irish bars and an authentic English pub (The Londoner, run by full on cockney Martin from Rotherhithe).

    We somehow blew through the 5 days we are allowed to stay at the Tourist Police place but just milling around town and enjoying the perfect climate (~1,500m).
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You might also know this place by the following names:

Republic of Guatemala, Guatemala, Guwatemala, ጉዋቲማላ, جواتيمالا, Qvatemala, Гватэмала, Гватемала, Gwatemala, গোয়াতিমালা, གྷོ་ཊེ་མ་ལ།, Gvatemala, Guatemala nutome, Γουατεμάλα, Gvatemalo, گواتمالا, Gwaatemalaa, Goatemala, Guatamala, ગ્વાટેમાલા, Gwatamala, גווטמלה, गोतेदाला, Գվատեմալա, グアテマラ, გვატემალა, ហ្គាតេម៉ាឡា, ಗ್ವಾಟೆಮಾಲಾ, 과테말라, گواتیمالا, Gwatémala, ກົວເຕມາລາ, Ngwatemala, Goatemalà, ഗ്വാട്ടിമാലാ, ग्वाटेमाला, ဂွာတီမာလာ, Cuauhtemallan, ଗୁଏତମାଲା, ګواتمالا, Watimala, Guatêmälä, Guwaatamaala, குவாத்தாமாலா, గ్వాటిమాల, Гуатемала, ประเทศกัวเตมาลา, Kuatamala, گۋاتېمالا, Ґватемала, گواٹے مالا, Gvatemalän, Orílẹ́ède Guatemala, 危地马拉, i-Guatemala

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