Lanquin and Semuk Champey, Guatemala

Getting up for our 6am departure from Flores was the easy part of our day when we travelled to Lanquin. The van was so full that any extra person would have had to sit on someone else’s knee as Tom was already sitting on a broken seat. The air-conditioning was only in the form of open windows and the seats all had low backs so nowhere to rest our heads for a nap. At least it was cheap (for us at least, some of the other passengers paid more than double our price).

The drive was quite scenic as we travelled south through the centre of Guatemala through forests, up mountains and along valleys passing through very few settlements. After a few hours of driving the shuttle driver pulled up on the banks of a river and turned the engine off. We had no idea where we were but were told that we would be crossing the river after a short wait. Hopping out to stretch our legs we investigated the scene: a muddy looking river with vehicles queuing up on both sides and a strange looking car ferry doing laps across. This would be a new experience. Eventually it was our turn and we drove onto the boat and laughed at the operators moving between two outboard motors which were steering and powering us across the river. Tom tells me that the motors were quite small to be doing this, especially with 6 to 10 cars on board.

Once this was accomplished we continued on our way stopping in Coban, which is the largest city we would be passing through. We were all recommended to withdraw cash here as Lanquin is tiny and has no facilities for this. As we were all non-Latin American tourists we were dropped at the McDonald’s for lunch before the van driver took off. A few people were quite concerned at this but we figured he was just off to find a cheaper local lunch or fill up with petrol during our break. Soon we were back in the uncomfortable van and on the last leg of our trip. On the map it didn’t seem like far but the roads eventually turned into dirt and the landscape was mountainous. We all spent this time staring out the windows as the view was beautiful.

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The view down the valleys towards Lanquin

We arrived just as it was starting to get dark and as soon as the van arrived in town the ‘coyotes’ started their harassment of us all. The ‘coyotes’ was our name given to the young local guys who were there to flog the various hostels and tours available in the small town and man were they annoying. Typically we didn’t have any accommodation booked so we had to listen to the guys a little bit, but they were such a pain. When they weren’t screaming at us about the facilities at their particular hostel they were joking and play fighting amongst themselves. It was chaos.

We checked out a few of the hostels in our immediate vicinity and weren’t happy at what they had to offer: cold showers, damp rooms and no internet. There was a budget hotel in town which was OK but we just weren’t sure about it at that stage. So we accepted assistance from one of the coyotes and followed him down the hill to a more out of the way hostel. Although nicer it also came with a price a little more than we were looking to spend. Also the wifi was a further charge and only available in the restaurant so we decided to head back up the hill to the budget hotel. In the end we were quite happy to spend three nights with this option; the owner was nice, wifi was free and it was a good price. With accommodation finally sorted and our packs off our back it was time for dinner so we headed up into the town to a local comedor.

The next day we woke with our fingers crossed for good weather so we could go to Semuk Champey, the reason for our stay in Lanquin. Semuk Champey is an area with a river, fresh spring fed pools and caves, but it was a 40 minute trip on the back of a van away. Luckily the weather seemed have taken a day off being rainy and after an easy breakfast we all found a ute heading where we wanted to go. Being tourists of course they wanted to charge us extra but we had been told the correct going rate by our hotel owner. The trip on the back of the ute was great fun but I came away from it with sore arms from holding on tight as we drove over the rough dirt road.

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Made it to Semuk Champey

With hints of sunshine starting to show we arrived at the entrance to the reserve. Usually there would be a fee involved to enter but during the time we were in the area there had been disputes between the locals and the government. Due to the rain the river was in flood and muddy, I was disappointed as I didn’t want to swim in water that swift and dirty. I had obviously misunderstood the area because as we walked down the track a series of beautiful blue pools opened up in front of us. An inspection and an explanation from Tom helped me understand what was occurring here. The river was rushing through a cave system which was underneath the pools which were fed from springs around the hill sides. It was really interesting, incredibly beautiful and a lovely place for a swim, almost like a natural spa.

As we had arrived so early there weren’t many others in the water before us so we virtually had the place to ourselves. We spend time in each of the pools alternating between sitting in shallow water soaking up the sun, swimming, diving and jumping off ledges and exploring the wee waterfalls. I even found a natural slide (accidentally) which dumped me into the water in an ungainly splash.

When other tourists started arriving from the various hostels in the area (there were some out of Lanquin which were close to the pools) we recognised two familiar faces of our friends Jess and James who we had travelled from San Ignacio to Flores with. So it was nice to spend some more time with them and help out when James managed to loose his glasses jumping into the water.

The day was passing quickly and we decided that it would be a good time to head out on the bush walk to the mirador (view point) above Semuk Champey. With another influx of tourist the pools were getting crowded as well. There was only so long we could stare and laugh covertly at the trashy tourist girls getting their photos taken in compromising poses in the water.

So we headed up the hill on what we though would be an easy walk in our jandals. We were wrong, the track was slippery and steep but we eventually made it for a great look down on the pools even if it was slightly vertigo inducing. Along the way we had been distracted by the howler monkeys in the trees. It was time to head back to the entrance if we wanted to catch a colectivo back to Lanquin so we made a good pace back even though the ground was slick with mud and much steeper than the route we had walked up.

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Us at the mirador

At the entrance there weren’t any utes to be seen so we walked towards the bridge hoping to pick one up along the way. On the bridge there were cute local kids having hopping races from on side to the other, but no transport back. Tom decided to ask and was given a very uncertain answer. Down the road a little further we enquired at a hostel whether there would be a ute heading back to Lanquin and again received an uncertain answer. It was getting dark and we were literally in the middle of nowhere and had no option but to wait.

While we waited in the dark Tom and Jazz started seeing things, specifically little glowing spots that would flicker along a fence line or around a tree. A few minutes later and more were spotted but still only by Tom and Jazz. We thought maybe they were having a shared hallucination or that fairies were real when we all saw some more. I was the only one who managed to guess that they could be fireflies…or that we were all just going mad.

7pm came and went and were getting more than worried that we would have to walk the 8km back in the dark. The boys went back into the hostel to try organise some transport. It was possible but it was going to cost and at this point I was still reluctant to pay. Just as we were about to give in a colectivo drove past and dropped off a group of young guys. We basically threw ourselves at the driver who was off duty but called his friend in Lanquin to come pick us up for the usual price. After a short wait a ute came past and gestured for us to hop on, hooray we were no longer stranded. We assumed it was the correct one but after driving a little down the track we passed a few other utes heading in the direction we had come from. Whoops maybe it wasn’t the right one. But we didn’t worry too much as we were on our way back.

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Waiting, Waiting, Waiting

With all the waiting around we did in Semuk Champey we were all starving so our first concern was food. Trying another local comedor we first enquired whether they had hot chips which they did so we ordered a huge plate as well as our meals. There was not a scrape left on any of the plates that night.

As we had arrived back so late the previous night we didn’t have the time to organise transport to our next destination so we had a whole day in front of us to relax, organise transport and drink beers with our friends at the hotel. There was just the one shuttle place we found, and the price of one to Antigua wasn’t cheap especially after we had scored such a bargain from Flores. So we had a a great chat with the couple who ran the shuttle company and played with their two year old boy. The boy (who’s name I have forgotten) was super cute and fell head over heels in love with Jazz. To the point that when we had paid for our shuttle tickets and left he started crying like his heart was broken. The day was quiet and relaxing and even the coyotes now recognised us and had stopped being annoying.

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Stunning sunsets over the mountains

That night we ate again at the same restaurant we had eaten at the night before. While waiting for our food two Swedish guys came in who knew absolutely no Spanish. Tom had to act as their translator as there was no written menu. I am still so happy that we spent the time learning this language and very proud of the level Tom has managed to reach in his ability. Saying our farewells to Sam and Jazz who we had spent the last four days with we went to bed early. Our shuttle was booked for 6am the next morning and I was looking forward to seeing Antigua.

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