A Candle in the Dark

31 08 2010

I got up early; it was close to impossible to sleep in: the early morning sun streamed through the large dorm windows and most people were either leaving on early shuttles or going off on trips. Nikki and I were going on the Semuc Champay trip that day — I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I think it was definitely one of the most enjoyable outings out in Central America. After getting some huge fruit-stuffed crepes for breakfast which my hungover body couldn’t finish we headed out in a flat-bed truck to Semuc Champay (about 12km outside of Lanquin down some very bumpy dirty roads).

Accompanying us on the trip that day were Andrew and Edith, Nick and Sean and an Israeli couple, Noa and Iguy (something like that). The scenery was absolutely breathtaking but I didn’t manage to get my camera out on time and, in any event, we were being jostled around so badly in the back that it would have been tricky getting a good shot. On the way there, our guide (who was an absolute blast and made the trip even more memorable), picked some seed pods off an overhanging tree and painted our faces with the red seeds.

Me, Sean and Nick with our guide (photo courtesy of Andrew/Edith)

At the park entrance we dropped off all our stuff and headed off with just our swimwear and a candle into the nearby caves. Unfortunately no one in our party had a waterproof camera so I don’t have any photos from inside. Our guide tied my Havianas to my ankles with string; something I’m very grateful for because the thong was permanently popping out as we swam through the caves.

Our trip through the Lanquin caves involved wading, swimming and climbing our way along with just our candle for light (I think I managed to put mine out every time we went swimming). There was one point where our guide went on ahead; clambered impressively around the rocks and left multiple candles on rocks to light the way ahead. The reason for this was that we were about to go under a waterfall and we had zero chance of keeping our camera lit. Our guide led us all through one by one: the water pounded down so hard on your head that you couldn’t see anything as you went through.

Inside the caves we did some jumps into the water and also did a slide off a rock into the water below. It was awesome fun and I don’t think I can really put into words what an awesome experience the whole trip was. By the time we started to head back I was starting to get a bit cold (the water is hardly warm) so I was quite pleased when we emerged, blinking in the morning sun.

Doing the Guatemalan swing into the river

After retrieving our packs from the office, we all did a swing into the river. I completely cocked this up by forgetting to sit down! The current was really strong and you had to swim hard to the side to avoid being swept miles downstream. We then had some lunch at a small restaurant at the entrance to the Semuc Champay pools. These are a series of 9 limestone pools with beautiful blue crystalline water. The murky, brown river goes through a tunnel underneath these pools. Our guide was telling us about three tourists that had fallen off the edge into the river and their bodies had emerged from the tunnel many, many days later. We obviously didn’t stand too close to the edge.

On the walk down to the pool we were kept entertained by the banter between Nick and our guide. Nick kept calling him alternatively “Mi hermano” or “Mi amor”. I think the guide was actually worried at some points!

The gang at the mirador with the pools of Semuc Champay below

The pools were great fun: we started at the very first pool; jumped in where our guide told us it was safe to do so and then swam around to the edge of the next one: where we repeated our jump and swim again. I spent most of the time fretting about what to do with my Havies which I’d stupidly brought along. I didn’t do any dives but I managed to do my trademark back and belly flops. We went down through all 9 pools and then clambered I way back up to the middle where we retrieved our stuff again and walked out of the park.

On the trek I’d agreed to join the Game of Life and got tricked by Nick into saying the word “Mine” just as we were on a really bumpy stretch of road. Trying to do 10 push-ups in the back of a truck when it’s lurching all over the place is no easy feat. Back in town our truck was held up by a big birthday celebration blocking the road — it was an awesome sight seeing the piñata bouncing around.

Birthday celebrations

Back at the hostel, it started raining again and we all felt quite tired: it was amazing how exhausting all that swimming had been. The hostel was rammed to the rafters: although it only slept about 40 people; 50 people were checked in. Some people were doubling up in single beds or had opted to sleep in the hammocks or on the couch. It promised to be a lively night.

We all signed up for the evening’s meal: pizza, but, with the amount of people and the fact that you got to choose every individual topping, it took aeons before it arrived. In the meantime of course I managed to sink quite a few beers. At one point one of the Dutch bartenders put on a short, sparkly dress but he left his jeans on. Eventually I took it off him and said this is how you wear a dress. I spent the next hour or so gyrating on the bar; giving people lap dances and generally acting quite risqué. Fortunately no-one managed to make me do push-ups whilst I was wearing the dress.

I spent some time chatting to a lovely Irish girl called Diane and hung out with Andrew and Edith for much of the evening. I also saw the two Austrian girls there (Alex and Doris) who I’d met in San Pedro La Laguna. “How drunk are you?! What are you doing, Barry?” Alex complained after I’d given Dieter the bartender a kiss on the cheek, “You’re not a woman!” She seemed quite angry with me but I on later evaluation I think she was more drunk than I was. After donning my normal clothes once more, I came down from being the life of the party and could no longer keep up the pace.

I got caught one more time in the Game of Life that evening when the others hid my flip-flops as I changed. “Whose flip-flops were they?” Andrew asked. “Mine!” I replied, exasperated and distracted by the thought that someone had nicked my Havianas. After a bit, I decided to head off to bed, although the party was still going on. Most of the people who were in the hammocks had an extremely late night.

Dancing on the bar in a dress

Lanquin: An Essential Guatemala Destination

30 08 2010

The previous night, on my way back from the abortive after-party I’d left a note on the bar to Bianca so that she could wake me up in time to catch my bus to Lanquin. As it happened, the note wasn’t necessary: I got up in plenty of time; packed my bags and waited downstairs for the bus. I thought I was going to be in the dorm on my own: but another guy had checked-in late the previous day; I felt a bit guilty that I made such a hullabaloo packing.

My bus was late, of course, and I was very grateful that Bianca sorted me out with a coffee to pass the time and stave off the inevitable fatigue. The bus was full of Israelis except for an English girl, Nikki, who apparently I’d met a few days earlier in Cafe 2000 and two German girls: their names were something like Zusa and Kitty. The bus journey was pretty unremarkable until we left the main roads and headed down a dirt track towards Lanquin where a broken-down truck had blocked the way. After waiting for some time, they finally managed to move it and we were able to continue to Lanquin.

Lanquin is a small village some way North of Antigua and, in my opinion, is an essential stop-off on the backpacker route in Guatemala. The main attractions here are the cave tour and the pools of Semuc Champay. More on those must-sees in tomorrow’s entry. The shuttle buses drop everyone off at El Retiro hostel which used to be the place to stay in Lanquin. A newer hostel, Zephyr Lodge, has recently become popular amongst backpackers and that’s where I’d decided to stay. The German girls were going to be staying down the road in Semuc Champay but Nikki decided to accompany me to Zephyr.

We got on the back of a truck with our packs for the free transfer there but it was teeming down with rain so I was quite pleased when they said there was room in the front for us. An Australian/Belgian couple, Andrew and Edith, were less lucky and had to endure the bumpy roads in the back. Zephyr Lodge was set on a hillside amongst verdant green hills and had stunning views all around. Of course, when we arrived, the stair-rod rain didn’t make it quite as picturesque as when the sun is shining.

The hostel was very busy but we managed to get a bed each in the dorm and then settled down in the bar for some much-needed drinks. We also signed up for the dinner that night (chicken lasagne). I was reunited with Killian at the hostel and also met some Irish guys, Nick, Mick and Sean, who Nikki knew from a rugby match they’d played in back in Antigua. They were playing The Game of Life with a big group of English guys there: this meant if you ever said the first-person possessive pronoun (“Mine”) in response to a question from someone else playing the game you immediately had to do 10 push-ups. Often simple trickery was enough, like grabbing someone else’s beer and saying “This was my one, right?” There were quite a few push-ups performed that evening.

I spent most of the evening chatting to Nikki and we were just about to head off to bed when a Nina Simone track came on. Nikki hated it so she went over and changed it but then the barman, Dieter, forced her to buy another litre of beer as a penalty for touching the music. Dieter is Guatemalan but he has an incongruously strong London accent and was decked out in an England football shirt to further add to the confusion of his nationality. We managed to finish that beer without interfering with the sound system any more and headed off to bed.