Best for last in Guatemala?? – Semuc Champey and Tikal
A few days of hectic travel, frenzied relaxation in a beautiful setting and a trip to one of the world’s largest Mayan sites close our chapter in Guatemala.
With some regret early on a Sunday morning, we said goodbye to Maria our lovely housekeeper in Xela. We were sad to say goodbye to this dignified Mayan lady and her parrot (Paco), as she did her best to ensure we were happy with our stay in the house she looks after. But it was into a shuttle and back to Antigua for lunch before re-boarding and heading off to Lanquin.
Destination … Utopia next to the legendary pools of Semuc Champey (note to self, this sentence sounds like bad science fiction). Semuc Champey is a touchstone for travelers in Guatemala: you are defined in part by whether you have been or haven’t yet. Those who choose not to go are silently classed as poor unfortunates by those in the know.
The journey to Lanquin was long, and 50km past Coban the road becomes a dirt track. On arrival in Lanquin at around 9:50pm, we transferred to the back of a pickup for yet another 10km on even worse dirt tracks. It is a little disconcerting trusting yourself and your worldly goods to random people encountered in the dark streets of Lanquin, as you are officially in the middle of nowhere. As always (to date, crossed fingers, touch wood etc.) it worked out and forty-five minutes later we were at the lodge being offered beer by a cheery Sheffield lass with iridescent pink and blue hair. The open-sided wooden lodge was clearly on stilts standing in the jungle, but the complete view of our setting was going to have to wait for morning.
And morning does not disappoint, as a bleary-eyed Toby and Alison source a cup of tea from the irrepressible denizen of Sheffield, the mist rises and the jungle is revealed on three sides and overlooking an atoll-coloured river. As an added bonus, Allie and Jo – friends we first met in Antigua then Xela – just happen to be here at the same time. Once breakfast was dispatched, it was into another pickup and a drop off point into the park itself. I should point out there are two primary options at Semuc:
- An adventure tour of water-filled caves, jumping off 15m bridges and rope swings, followed by a trip to the pools (all Australians are to be found on this option, * see also footnote on Australian education)
- A simple tour of the pools, starting with a hike to an overlook before descending to the pools for a swim.
* I have come to the conclusion that in Australian primary school there must be a class called “jumping off stuff”, since almost all of our Antipodean cousin travelers can be found in bars late at night discussing the merits of the objects they have thrown themselves off that day.
We took option 2, as we remain haunted by a rather scary cave tubing incident in Belize a couple of years ago on a river swelled by rain. The twenty-minute hike to the overlook was hot, sweaty and up a series of slippery wooden and limestone steps to a point above Semuc. Once there you can properly take in the natural beauty of the site, the blue-green river, and cascade of circular pools surrounded by a high sided jungle gorge. The overlook is a platform overhanging the gorge below and our crazy guide proceeded to climb into a tree above to take photos of people. One slip would have been a little bit fatal.
Semuc Champey is a series of eight limestone pools along the river, joined by small waterfalls and limestone chutes. The water has a beautiful green tinge and is populated by small fish that perform the same service as the more expensive versions used in pedicure places around the hi-brow parts of your local metropolitan area. The curious thing is that the pools form a limestone bridge above the river; they are effectively suspended. The river descends into the ground at the top of the pools and emerges at the base of the pools. You do not want to get washed into the river’s entrance chute, it looks like the gate to a watery hell and I am pretty sure you wouldn’t come out the other end.
The sunlight hits the pools direct and the water temperature is cool but refreshing. Deep enough to dive into and shallow at the transition between pools, they are like an adult adventure playground and invite exploration. Halfway down we stop in the sun for a little exfoliation from the fish and just sit. For a moment we really do not have a care in the world. Now we understand the mournful look reserved for those who miss it.
More shuttle madness the day after Semuc Champey: our 125Q great deal shuttle unfortunately did not arrive and after some quick thinking from a fellow shuttle-seeker we sourced another, which was already mostly full and made for a tight squeeze. Add 12 hours, and a sorry crew arrived in Flores then dispersed in Brownian fashion to various hostels for food and to frantically arrange tours for the next morning.
Our hostel proved to be clean, excellent at arranging travel and largely populated by tattooed, hormonal 20-somethings who were all at the beer-goggle point where even chairs start to look a little cheeky and cute. In the end they fell into the Douglas Adams category “mostly harmless”.
The Tikal tours start from 3:30am (to get to the park for sunrise), but we opted for a more leisurely 8:00am start after a few late nights and long travel days. The guilty secret of Tikal is that the site is more often than not shrouded in mist so very few people see the sunrise they paid for. I am sure the atmosphere and waking sounds of the jungle make up for that, but we couldn’t face it. It is still a 45-minute trip to the site and civilization drops away progressively as you approach the gates. Even through the gates it is a further 17km to the site proper. Tikal is vast and remote, the Mayans have had a knowledge of the site forever but the western world only “discovered” it again in the 1850’s. Now it is a UNESCO world heritage site not really surprising once you see it.
The tour takes about 3 hours with a guide and ours – Juan – was a fountain of knowledge. It was impossible to retain all that he told us. The first pyramid (one of a pair) is impressive enough. In front of the pyramid there are a series of stones (stelas) and altars used for various sacrifices. In a central spot Juan started to clap and a resonance of some sort turns the sound into a very strange amplified clap come wail. The sites are all acoustically designed so that the priests could address the assembled with ease. That demonstration was a little freaky and had me wondering where the switch was for the sound effects unit.
Wandering past another set of twin pyramids (there are nine pairs in addition to the main temples) we emerge into what was the market place. Cocoa beans were the currency used by all, and actually only consumed by nobility. From here you start to see the Jaguar temple. Climbing through noble quarters we emerged onto a platform overlooking the central site. In the distance can be seen more temples, some of which can be 200 ft high (20 storeys), with steps up and further smaller temples adorning the tops. They were built from 740 A.D. and it boggles the mind to understand how. After a good look around the main site we moved onto Temple IV which rises 230 ft and provides an amazing vista over the jungle (once you have climbed it and mastered your vertigo at the top, of course). These temples were once covered by jungle so the restoration work has been a huge and continuous undertaking. There are so many facts, figures to quote – compass point alignment, star alignments, dynasties, decline of population, archaeology and dating – that it would be foolish of me to try.
Tikal is awe inspiring and easily merits a few days of exploration. Alas, the weather (pouring rain) conspired against us and ultimately we had to flee to the nearby hotel to eat our pack lunches like a rained-out school trip. It’s unlikely we’ll return and it seems somehow as if we left it unfinished. The sense even in the mist is one of mystery and incomprehension at the achievement of the Mayans and their eventual decline. That something like this can decay in the jungle undisturbed for so many years amazes me.
And so after another night in Flores we set off at 6 a.m. to finally leave Guatemala. After a high-speed tour of some key sites we were left with a sense of wonder and a feeling that we didn’t leave ourselves long enough to do them justice. Six and a half weeks in Guatemala: a place we wouldn’t hesitate to visit again.