A travelling tale.
We were excited to travel on to Lanquin to see the amazing Semuc Champey – the highlight of many a traveller’s trip to Guatemala. Amazing stepped pools carved out of limestone by a huge river, bright blue and transparent. Caves you can tour through by candlelight. A look-out you can hike to. “Exciting”, “Stunning”, “Scary”.. we read.
Our expectations looked like this:
The day started without incident. The shuttle picked us up at 8am for the 8 hour journey. We’d paid a little more (Q50 each) to get an AC van, 8 hours seemed worthy of a little comfort. 6 others joined us and off we went.
After a couple of hours the bus boards a ferry to make a short hop across a river. And 30mins after this we get to a group of men who have put rocks across the road. The driver chats briefly, they move the rocks and on we go. A girl who can speak Spanish asks the driver what the blockade was for, he doesn’t know. But 10 minutes further, there is a bigger group of men and a larger blockade. Again, they open it for us.
We come into a little town and we’re pointing out to each other that the town is absolutely FULL of men. No women, just hundreds and hundreds of men standing around, chatting, eating at stalls, sitting on the grass verge. It is really eery.
After various mobile calls, the driver stops the van and announces “There is a protest, we cannot get through. It will last 5 hours. There is a lake nearby that we can go to. We’ll just wait for another tourist bus behind us and go together.”
8 of us are a bit surprised, but think it might be fun to hang out by the lake. We get there and set out sleeping bags and sarongs to sit on. The locals are swimming, washing clothes in the lake and mostly staring at us wondering why Gringos have visited for the day. There is rubbish everywhere, a couple of horses grazing, pigs shuffling through litter – but the lake is quite pretty. We share fruit, crisps, drinks that we had for the journey, introduce ourselves (Kitto, Sophie, Ed, Maisie, Ben, Chardae, Emily and Jim), play cards and laugh – A LOT. Lucked out on the funny bus. The second class citizens (the non-AC shuttle bus gang) had gone a different direction further down the hill by the lake – like a strange social experiment we’d established two camps, with us looking down at them.
After an hour or so the 8 of us go into town and get lunch from a stall, and the boys amazingly find beer (no alcohol was being sold because of the incendiary nature of an inconvenienced and angry male hoard). Sophie (our designated Spanish speaker) talks to some ladies that tell her the protest is actually going to be between 3 and 5 days!! Oh. No. Most people are on a tight schedule and want to get there the same day, no one wants to spend days on a shuttle bus. And so, the big debate ensues with the drivers:
- Can we go another route? No, there is only one road.
- Can we go back? No, the ferry is closed as part of the protest.
- Can we get through by any means (i.e. bribery)? No, rocks will be thrown at us.
- Can a shuttle from the company meet us at the other side? No, its not their problem.
The best idea seemed to be to drive to the main blockade and see if we can bribe anyone, or simply pick up a lift from someone stuck the other side of the barrier (ideally a tourist shuttle). Sophie, Ed, Ben and Chardae leave us behind to check this out, and find us a cattle truck driver willing to take us all (including the other shuttle bus) to our destination that day. Hurrah! We decamp from our nice AC van, backpacks on, walk across the protest line and haul ourselves into the truck. Off we go! Roaring with laughter, hip-hooraying Sophie, Ed, Ben and Chardae as we pull away, and welcoming a gang of locals who jump on board, sitting on the sides of the truck… abandoning their own protest.
Everyone had contributed Q100 to pay the driver, and with the left over kitty we stopped to buy beers and crisps. So, as the sun set, you could hear the chorus of 23 Gringos chatting – “THIS is amazing”, “I love it!” – choruses of songs as we all sang – and the regular chorus “I need the loo!”. Was pretty glad for the first loo stop… OMG! An entire day without a loo at a bad time of the month. At the risk of too much information… it was at the side of the road, I did see a tarantula run for his life, I’m thankful for wet wipes and apologetic to any road-sweeper (I can’t imagine there are any TBH).
We sweep through villages singing at the top of our lungs into the darkness. Not the usual way you travel Guatemala at night as a foreigner, its a dangerous country. We admire a lightening storm we can see in the distance, amazing fork lightening. We stop for dinner in a medium sized town.
And then…. the rain comes.
At first its not too bad, you imagine a shower and think “its warm, no matter”.
But then it buckets down – yes, it is as if someone is throwing a bucket of water on you continuously – for another 3 or 4 hours. I’m not sure how to describe it, other than imagine you jump in the swimming pool with your backpack on. That’s it.
We have no choice, we have to keep going. We can’t go back, only forward. There is nothing around, only little villages with no sign of life. At first spirits are still high, Ben and Ed are joking about being the worst tour guides ever for taking us on this tour. We climb around mountain passes, illuminated fleetingly with the lightning (along with the drop to the right into nowhere), and the cattle truck 4-wheel drives its way through rivers that were once dirt roads. Thank God for a big truck I guess.
Eventually everyone is silent, each steeling ourselves against the elements… there is no point doing anything but huddling for warmth and plumbing your inner reserves of resilience.
And on… and on… and on…
We did make it. After a slightly heated conversation with the staff who gave our room to someone else despite our protests (they had to later switch), we got into a room. No electricity, no hot water, no towels. Using our head-torches, we pulled a few sodding things from bags (passport, money) to try and dry them, attempted to ignore the ants and cockroaches, and got into bed to try and warm up.
I wish I could say this arduous journey was worth it, that Semuc Champey was wonderous, but the rain continued all night and all the next day. No tours running. No chance for drying anything in the dank air (pretty much everything but our clothes was soaked, and the clothes are mostly dirty at this point). Difficult choice to make. Stay one or more days and hope the weather clears, put up with the cockroaches in the room and unreliable electrics … vs cut your losses and get out of there. We booked the shuttle to Lago de Atitlan for the next morning at 8am.
The electricity did come back on about 3pm so we managed to get all our clothes into the laundry, and met the AC gang again for cards and beers in the evening. But it proved to be a good decision to up and off the next day – the day was still overcast and rainy, and whilst a few of the gang stayed and did a cave tour, they said it was fairly dangerous, the blue pools were brown and I believe you couldn’t swim because of the fast flowing water.
Weather 2 – Jimily 0
Although.. as it turns out… we met some awesome people and we all met up at Lago de Atitlan a few days later. As they say, the journey is as important as the destination.. and this one was definitely worth it, just not for the reason we’d expected.
Click on the photos in this slideshow to browse the pics…. 😉