After what felt like a never ending bus journey from Guatemala City we finally arrived at the small tranquil town of Lanquín (central Guatemala). The journey took 9 hours with the final hour – 11 kilometres down a windy dirt track – being the hardest part of the journey (costing 100Q each). We were rammed into a sweaty van with about 15 other people all making their way to Lanquín for the famous Semuc Champey experience. The drive to Lanquín does have one positive, this being the beautiful views of the Guatemalan countryside once you are a good few hours out of the smog of Guatemala City.
Once in Lanquín the hostels send out local pick-up trucks to bring you the rest of the way to wherever you may be staying. We stayed at Zephyr Lodge located on the side of a hill with an infinity pool and the most spectacular views we have come across yet. The hostel offered loads of different tours and activities, with the main attraction being Semuc Champey. For those that haven’t heard of Semuc Champey (Where the river hides under the stones) it is a naturally formed limestone bridge that consists of a series of turquoise pools running down into the next. The water runs under the natural limestone bridge hence the name ‘where the river hides under the stones’.
We decided to book a tour with the hostel rather than make our own way there as it had been highly recommended by others staying at the hostel. Another pick-up truck drove us and 10 others the 11 kilometres to Semuc, which again is up and down windy dirt tracks and really only accessible to those with 4×4 trucks. This journey was spent standing and hanging onto any part of the truck that was available while the driver worked his way over rocks and down steep hills – it was quite fun!
The tour consisted of two English-speaking tour guides, a cave experience, waterfalls, a viewpoint hike and finally swimming in Semuc’s turquoise ponds. We started with the caves, which meant taking our clothes off so we just had our swimsuits and a pair of shoes on. We then walked up some steps to the mouth of the cave and were each given a long white candle and followed the guides into the cold dark water of the cave. We were right at the back so when we turned around we could see nothing but pitch black which reminded us of a few horror films we’ve watched. The group were led through the caves where we sometimes had to swim holding the candle above water and other times clambered over rocks pulling ourselves up with one hand. There were a few jump opportunities – optional of course – where you’d climb up high and throw yourself into a deep pool of water. The whole experience was a lot of fun, maybe don’t do it if you’re not into swimming and climbing.
Next we were taken to the waterfalls where we had the option of jumping off three different ledges, the first being the smallest and the others a lot higher. Stu jumped off 2 jumps with the final jump only being executed by the craziest of the group and the mental guides who were flipping from this 12 metre drop. Next we dried off over lunch which was a Guatemalan BBQ for 25Q each.
After lunch we started the 30 minute trek up to the view point through dense jungle, which was relatively hard especially after food. Once at the top it offered incredible views of Semuc’s blue ponds and surrounding jungle. From here you can see others swimming and jumping into the pools which after a sweaty hike was all we wanted to do. The hike back down was quick so we were soon cooling down in the refreshing water. Each pool ran into the next and offered places to jump from one to the other, we swam and jumped for around an hour before we had to make the bumpy journey back to our hostel.
We stayed another couple of nights at Zephyr Lodge just chilling around the pool before getting a shuttle bus up north to the picturesque town of Flores. This shuttle took another 9 hours with the first part back up the dirt track, this time thick with mud from the downpour. Arriving in Flores we walked straight to the hostel ‘Los Amigos’ to drop our bags off and have a quick walk around the town surrounded by water. Flores is an island on Lake Petén Itzá which is linked to the town of Santa Elena by a bridge and from Flores you have brilliant views of the surrounding Lake.
Down by the waterfront there are many street food stands offering tacos, gringas, BBQ and lots more. We ate here on two occasions heading for the taco stand on both nights where you could choose from several different meats and they would cook it on the BBQ right in front of you. Once the tacos arrived you could then choose from a large amount of salads and salsas to add to your tacos.
We weren’t in Flores long so we looked at what was on offer for activities and chose two for both our days there. The first obviously being Tikal the ancient Mayan Ruins and the second Jorge’s Rope Swing. Jorge’s Swing is exactly what it sounds like, a big rope swing into the lake, along with this there is a 6 metre diving board and a chill out area with hammocks and seats. To get here you walk down to the water ask one of the several men hanging around there to drop you off at Jorge’s and they will take you across on their boat which costs around 25Q return. The boat ride across is slow but beautiful and you get views of Flores itself from afar. The family that own this attraction charge 10Q entry and sell food and drink for a small cost. We didn’t get any food here but apparently the nachos are seriously good! For the 10Q entry you can stay as long as you want and swing from the rope as many times as you like. There were several others here when we arrived so we talked with them for awhile and drank a beer to pluck the courage up to start the jumps.
Stu went first from the main jump, as you can see you swing quite high up and then drop yourself into the warm lake. Niamh took longer to pluck the courage up but eventually did it and then carried on for the rest of our time. There is one further jump but the drop is unbelievable high, two guys did it whilst we were there and one girl which almost ended badly as her grip wasn’t tight enough. Needless to say neither of us attempted this one! After a few hours here we got the same boat back to Flores for an early night before our 4AM start to Tikal.
We again booked a tour with the hostel as we weren’t sure on how easy it would be making our own way to Tikal at 4AM. So we jumped onto another shuttle bus with others from our hostel and made the hour journey to Tikal where once inside we had the get our tickets and meet the guide. So… on a tour you would expect 10 people maybe a few more on a big tour, however we walked into Tikal along with 45 others all expecting a small tour and all pretty annoyed. The one tour guide that was there to take us around the site didn’t bat an eyelid when we all expressed our annoyance and when asking if he really thought it was acceptable the response we got was “well it’s good for me because now I get more money”. Anyway we decided to stick with him and for the first 30 minutes of the tour he managed to take us about 10 minutes up the path. So we made the decision to separate from the group and make our own way around as we would have been at the sight all day and night at that pace.
We made our way through the jungle just as the animals were waking and the sunlight was making its way through the dense jungle. This site is by far the most spectacular we have been to on our travels as the animal population is high and the ruins are covered by the tropical jungle. At this site we came across pyramids, plazas and temples, however so many of the structures are still partially or fully covered by the jungle. This Mayan site was inhabited from the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D.
The first part of the site we came across was the market area, this is a vast open square (now grass) with one big temple on the south side, small house-like buildings to the east, more medium size buildings on the west side and finally another temple on the north side which was the first building we were able to climb. There were steps on the side of the temple which brought you to the top area of it. From the viewpoint you could see the full square and get a better grasp of its size. You could also see more temples further along from the other side.
From here we carried on North through more jungle until we came across another temple, very big and impressive in size. Then just past it was the highlight of the whole site the temple where you could climb the highest on the whole site. Once you climbed the stairs to the top you could not only see the entire site but also the surrounding jungle as far as the eye can see on all sides of the temple, it was incredible. We stayed a good 10 minutes up here just soaking it in. Well Niamh was cuddled up in a corner trying not to look down!
From this temple we headed back on our tracks and entered the Mundo Perdido section of Tikal. To reach the main part of it we had to walk through even denser jungle than before. Once out of the jungle we reached a big square with another temple we could climb in the centre. Although not the highest point (it was the 2nd), the stairs up were by far the steepest. From the top there were more amazing views on the site, with the tops of the temples sticking out from the jungle treetops.
Once back down we carried along the track heading back towards the entrance. After a while and out of nowhere we stumble upon another gigantic temple which took us by surprise. We could not climb this one but it was so impressive from the foot of it there was no need to anyway! We even struggled to fit it in a selfie photo from 20 meters away. From here the path took us onto the best part of the trek through the site. It reached a point where we were surrounded by very tall trees with spider monkeys jumping from tree to tree, beautiful sounds coming from the birds and a few jaguars! Ok so maybe there was just an information panel for jaguars and how they are endangered.
We soon made it back to the start of the trek where we managed to get the first bus of the day back to Flores at 11am, feeling tired from the early start and walking, but feeling amazing from the visit of what was the best archaeological site we have ever visited.