Written by MichaelJM on 23 Mar, 2013
After a long flight from the UK the last thing I thought I’d be looking forward to was a four hour City tour, but it’s amazing how quickly the body can recover after a good night’s sleep. I’d slept like a baby, enjoyed a Guatemalan…Read More
After a long flight from the UK the last thing I thought I’d be looking forward to was a four hour City tour, but it’s amazing how quickly the body can recover after a good night’s sleep. I’d slept like a baby, enjoyed a Guatemalan breakfast and was now "good to go". Our guide arrived prompt and just after 9.00 we started off on our orientation tour of this UNESCO site. It was potentially going to be tough because all the routes in Antigua are cobbled and that can be pretty hard on the joints. But exploring new places is always an adventure and we were keen to see as much as we could and learn all about Guatemala. It’s a country fairly new to democracy and anxious to develop its tourism (although I was amazed to hear that Brits have been visiting to Guatemala since the 1940’s, courtesy of Cox and King). Although we had made our travel arrangements with Audley, a rival company.Antigua has been a World Heritage Site since 1979 and the town dates back to the early 1500’s. However, it was devastated by an earthquake in 1773 with many of its buildings being partially destroyed. These ruins remained standing and provide a superb insight into Spanish Colonialism. As we looked at the town map it was very clear that the town was built on a grid pattern, inspired we were told by cities formed in the Italian Renaissance.We started off by heading to Central Park, the town’s centre of power with the Cathedral erected on the East side, a shopping arcade on the west, City hall to the north and the Palace of the Armed forces on the south. In the centre is the Fountain of the Sirens which was designed in 1739 by architect Miguel Porras. It’s a strange fountain with the mermaids seemingly expressing water from their breasts and cherubs above spraying water from their mouths. I guess it’s some form of allegorical depiction of life, but the message was lost on me.Next we went to check out the Cathedral. The present day church (it actually has not got Cathedral status) is a reconstruction of only a small section of the original church. As you’d expect, therefore, the inside is fairly modern looking. But take time to check out the statues and note that they are all dressed in garments not associated with the time of Jesus. That’s the Mayan influence coming through. Our big surprise was when we left the current church and went round the side to look at the remains of the original building. My word the original Cathedral was an impressive size and construction with massive arches and huge domed ceilings. Even in its ruinous state it’s well worth a view and amazing that it’s still standing, although we understand that UNESCO have ensured its structure will withstand at least the next few decades. Some of the stone carving is still clear and crisp and the emerging plant life over collapsed pillars does not detract from the fact that this was a hallowed site.On the way out I noticed steps down to the crypt and although our guide was not leading us down that way I decided to investigate. It was worth the visit and I was told that this under-ground cavern extended to the full ground plan of the church.Leaving the cathedral behind us we followed the grid of streets in a seemingly aimless criss-cross, but our guide knew exactly where to go. We saw many houses leading to amazing courtyards, some incredible hefty doors (not the originals but faithful 18th century copies) with impressive door knockers. A couple had door knockers at two levels the lower for the pedestrian and the higher for coach drivers. These huge doors were of course built to enable horse drawn coaches to pass through to the house’s impressive inner courtyard.The town is littered with churches and monasteries (I seem to recall that there were over 35 active places of worship prior to the earthquake in 1773. It is still possible to see an active monastery in Antigua and we were chuffed to see the stereo-typical friar in the grounds of one of themWe passed by the town’s open air washing centre where people still bring their laundry to wash by hand and saw, at the extremes of the UNESCO site the small single storied houses that are still occupied by the local people. Of course much of the property in the centre of town is incredibly expensive and is used in the tourist business as hotels or small B&B’s.As we walked the town we noted the impressive corner windows from where the inhabitants could see people approaching from all directions. Windows were covered by intricately carved shutters and at many corners a concrete pillar (varying in design) was inset into the wall. We presumed that this was a design feature, but it turned out to be very practical. It was indeed a hitching post for horses.Walking is not easy over the cobbled surfaces of Antigua, but around every corner there is a different architectural masterpiece to view. Even when the building is ruinous it has managed to hold on to its original beauty.We visited the Church of the Sisters of Mercy (and yes I did find myself singing the Leonard Cohen song, much to the annoyance of others). This is a finely decorated yellow and white building - a "wedding cake" of a church, and once again its elaborate exterior holds a plain interior. It was originally constructed in 1546, but the earthquake reeked its harm on the structure and it was repaired in the ensuing centuries. The statues are superb with amazing attention to detail even down to the tears on the face of Mary. As we walked back to the hotel we walked under the impressive archway, El Arco, which was built across the main street to enable the Sisters of Mercy (there goes that song again) to cross from one of their sites to another. They were a closed order so their contact with the rest of the town had to be avoided at any cost. It’s amazing that they didn’t think about a simple wooden bridge but went to the top of the range and built this archway complete with ornate clock tower. What a fantastic orientation of the town and despite the fact that the previous day had been long and tiring we felt rejuvenated and ready for the next trip in Guatemala. But perhaps we’d rest up a little before embarking on that!Just as we were saying farewells to our guide I asked about visiting the active volcano. We’d read that there were still lava flows and a climb to the top, although strenuous, could guarantee a view of the flow. Our guide, anxious not to disappoint us explained that although the views from the top were superb (if the sky was clear of cloud) the volcano was "not flowing" at the current time. We decided to give that visit a miss and opted to "go it alone" to the Coffee museum the next day (see separate review). Close
Written by MichaelJM on 21 Mar, 2013
Leaving the small village of San Juan behind us we head off to Santiago and although we had a smooth crossing earlier on in the day the lake was now much less forgiving. Indeed as the motor launch hit the waves it felt like we…Read More
Leaving the small village of San Juan behind us we head off to Santiago and although we had a smooth crossing earlier on in the day the lake was now much less forgiving. Indeed as the motor launch hit the waves it felt like we were landing on a bed of concrete. Soon I learnt to let my body relax through the bumps and in a perverse kind of way I began to enjoy the journey. Ahead of us we had a fantastic view of the volcanoes Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro and I could begin to understand their sheer size and how impressive all this could have been to the early Maya People. At one stage there was a discussion from our guide about whether or not we could complete the journey but she felt, on balance, that the crossing to Santiago would be acceptable and we would hope that the winds did not pick up further throughout the day. Soon our lumpy ride was over and we timidly disembarked from the boat to terra firma.Immediately Santiago had a different feel to San Juan – this was clearly the tourist trap and the broad dusty main street was littered with craft shops and unfortunately much debris. Still the local women trundled the streets in pack-horse mode often heads piled high with goods which they seem to carry effortlessly. Certainly the shop fronts are aimed at visitors with tee-shirts, sunhats, demonstration fabrics and the like. Occasionally we saw locals selling for locals but in proportional terms there were much fewer vegetable and fruit stalls although we did see a pile of second clothing on the road side. Apparently the latter is brought in from the USA very cheaply and then sold on as individual items of clothing to people in Guatemala..Next we went up to the local church which has a tragic history. From the outside the Church, founded in 1547 looks fairly uninspiring. There are the usual Mayan steps, signs that the original place of worship was destroyed and then rebuilt on by the Spanish invaders. The church’s violent history if very recent and relates to the 30 year long civil war. On January 6 1980 10 men were massacred by Guatemalan Military Forces and from that time onwards there were many threats, woundings and "disappearances" – Assassinations became common place until Father Stanley Rother, the Catholic Pastor, opened up the church as a place of refuge for threatened families. After a time the military became disenchanted with his intervention and on 28 July 1981 Father Stanley was himself assassinated. In recognition of his act of bravery the people of Santiago asked that his heart and blood remain in the village. They are entombed in a monument in the Church.Another interesting feature of the Church can be seen on the altar where the wooden carvings show the story of Christ with Mayan people in the scene – a clear statement of the Maya and Catholic religions merging under the one church roof. Statues are dressed in Mayan style cloth. Fascinating.We then set off to find Maximon, a Mayan God. The concept of Maximon (pronounced Ma-she-mohn) as a saint (Saint Simon) is a difficult one to deal with and as explained to us he was a mixture of sinner and saint. As far as I understood Maximon was a man who liked the high life – he played hard and worked hard. So he drank, smoked and womanized. The latter being his downfall because he "played too close to home" and when his fellow villagers found out about him they chopped off his arms and legs. Quite how he achieved status as a god I’m not sure. Now this armless and legless effigy is revered and each year a member of the Shaman brotherhood is charged with looking after the effigy. It’s located in a brotherhood house and people visit with gifts of alcohol and cigarettes and contribute to his upkeep by asking the Shaman to perform a ritual for them. It’s a strange one but if you want good health, a happy marriage, good crop production you’ll need to keep on good terms with this chap. He sits there with his cowboy hat, shrouded in neck ties with a cigar in his mouth, overlooked by his protectors and for a quetzal you can take a photograph. We had 2 quetzals worth of photos and I have to say Maximon posed beautifully for me.Having made our last visit on the island our guide got a couple of tuk-tuks and we headed off to the restaurant for lunch. It was an interesting journey – weaving through the narrow streets, taking a steep hill out of town (will the tuk-tuk make the journey I wondered) and overlooked the river where people were washing their clothes in the lake as well as making use of the village laundry facilities. This was a open walled structure with a number of concrete vats in which locals washed their clothes.Lunch was at the Posada de Santiago which overlooked the lake it was very pleasant surrounding but for some reason they chose to have a really scary mask in the Gents toilet! The food was local and we had a choice of main course and pudding. Just as we were about to complete our coffee we noticed that our guide and the boat driver were in earnest discussion. Heads were shaking and heads scratched. Our guide came over to us and told us that the wind had got up and the crossing by the lake would be most uncomfortable. The plan therefore was that we would take a road trip to the next village on the other side of Lake Atitlan and our boat would collect us from there as we could then hug the side of the lake and avoid the waves that would make our journey most unpleasant. If you want to check on how that journey went then check out the review in this journal Close
Written by MichaelJM on 20 Mar, 2013
Having enjoyed the bustle and the excitement of the Lent Procession we returned to our hotel to enjoy the rest of our time on the open balcony of the second floor. We settled down in to the comfort of the settees to watch nightfall descend.…Read More
Having enjoyed the bustle and the excitement of the Lent Procession we returned to our hotel to enjoy the rest of our time on the open balcony of the second floor. We settled down in to the comfort of the settees to watch nightfall descend. The vista across to the volcano was superb and then the sunset began to set. What a fantastic vision and I made haste up to the roof garden to take a few photographs across the rooftops towards the volcano and the setting sun. It was brilliant and made more spectacular because it was so unexpected. Darkness descended very quickly and then the lowlight of the holiday. I realised my wallet was missing from the zipped pocket in my shorts. After a frantic search, by torch light of the hotel’s roof terrace, the reception area and our bedroom I came to the realisation that it had gone before I got back to the hotel. Thinking back my zipper pocket was open when I checked the pocket and I could only think back to an incident when I’d been taking photographs at the Lent Procession. A guy was sat on the edge of the high kerbstone (Antigua needs high pavements to help avoid flooding of the houses and shops in the rainy season) and at one point I felt him push against my leg. I thought little about it until I felt another push and then I stepped back and found another spot to stand. I had checked my pocket, by tapping my leg, and had felt something in it (I actually was carrying a purse with our "kitty money" in it as well as my wallet). Panic was well established now and although I had no bank cards in the wallet it did have my UK driving licence in it. Quite why I hadn’t taken that out back home I can’t recall, but at least the bulk of my cash was in the hotel safe together with my debit and credit cards. I said to my wife that I would call down and check with reception and if nothing had been reported I would head off to report the incident to the Police. This is where the real excitement starts .....I had been given directions to the Police station which was just round the corner, so I confidently set off in the direction given by the hotel. Within minutes I sensed I was wrong and so stopped some locals (or I presumed that they were). I have no Spanish so just said "Policia" and shrugged. They shrugged back and rattled off a sentence or two in Spanish. A few mimes later and they seemed to have understood and pointed down to the next block. Off I went with the panic mode beginning to enter a new level and seeing no police station I called in at a hotel. Thankfully there was an English speaking guy there who works alongside American tour companies and he rapidly understood the problem and asked that I go with him. We went back the way I’d come and as he disappeared up a short alleyway I realised that I would never have found this place on my own. He started to explain my predicament and it soon became evident that the Police here were not in a position to help. It turns out that they only deal with crime prevention and the Tourist Police were the ones I needed to contact.My new "guide" explained that he’d happily take me to the Tourist Police who were only 5 minutes away, but he had to let his wife know what he was doing. To this end we returned to the hotel. After a few minutes he appeared with a crash helmet and told me that we’d go on his motor cycle to save some time. With hindsight I am now clear that the next step was fairly foolish as I got onto the back of his bike and headed off, I knew not where. The motorbike bumped its way over the cobbled streets and made several turns leaving me disorientated. All I knew was that I was a long way from the hotel and I had no money for a taxi ride back. The driver reassured me that we were only a few blocks away from the hotel but as he weaved through a build up of traffic I was beginning to speculate where he was taking me. Just as panic was reaching a crescendo he pulled into a large courtyard where the Tourist Police were based. Certainly I would have expected them to be closer to the centre of town but, as I later found out, the hotel could have rung them on my behalf and they would have collected me from the hotel room.Once again my adopted "guide" told the police what had happened and they then explained that they had been busy with the Lent Procession and no-one had had time to eat. They asked if I was happy to return later on that night to report the crime. I hesitated momentarily before giving an answer and in this pause the "guide" continued to say that the Tourist Police would arrange to collect me from the hotel and after my statement would return me. I agreed and my "guide" explained that the police would take me to the hotel now so he would get back to his wife. I thanked this Good Samaritan profusely and he smiled saying that he was happy to havbe been of assistance to me.On the way back to the hotel the police officer explained that there had been over 6,000 spectators at the procession and to date only three complaints had been received. All of these complaints were of pick-pockets. He went on to say that the Police had had a high profile at the event and offences were significantly lower than in previous years. That, he said, was down to the deterrent of a Police presence and not to the vigilance of tourists. These pick-pockets were said to be highly skilled and when I explained the two "pushes" I’d felt he said that the first would have unzipped the pocket and the second lifted the wallet from my pocket. He did say that they’d been known to take ear-rings from women’s ears, but that felt like one of those apocryphal stories! We agreed that I’d be collected from the hotel at 9.00 pm to give my statement. That gave me time to have a meal and more importantly allowed the police to eat before resuming their duties. Sure enough at 9.00 pm he was outside of the hotel waiting for me. The car journey to the police station seemed much speedier that the one on the back of the motorcycle and soon I was handing over documents for photocopying and giving my account of events. Very efficiently it was entered in to the computer and having checked the details (it having been read back to me in English) copies were run off for me to sign. Without having to ask a copy was passed to me, for insurance purposes, and within 15 minutes I was heading back to the hotel.I was given a tip to carry my wallet in a zipped breast pocket and in crowds place my arm across my chest. Nothing of course is foolproof but that seemed like a good idea which I will work on in the future. I guess I felt more foolish than anything – I’ve travelled far in the last decade or so and never had any problems before. I guess I’d got a little over-confident and this was a good wake up call. I don’t think Antigua is any worse than any other town in any other country. I was just in the wrong place &at the wrong time with my wallet placed in an "unsafe" pocket. I will be more careful in the future but I won’t let it take any enjoyment out of this holiday or future adventures.Close
Written by Jane Diddly on 05 Feb, 2011
Tourism infrastructure in and around Coban is lacking a lot... especially if you're on the $2 a day travel plan. There are some nicer hotels but even they sometimes are subject to rooms that let in noise or light from the streets, etc.…Read More
Tourism infrastructure in and around Coban is lacking a lot... especially if you're on the $2 a day travel plan. There are some nicer hotels but even they sometimes are subject to rooms that let in noise or light from the streets, etc. These are some tips for Coban travel:1.) Bring or buy some meds to help with nausea on the winding roads. A friend of mine used her allergy medicine from the US that made her drowsy on long trips. I bought a pill called Nauseol from a small pharmacy and took only half which was enough to make me sleep for the first 1.5 hours of the trip to Coban and kept the nausea from setting in through the whole trip. The two previous trips to/from Coban that I did not use meds for this, once I was able to hold my food down but not without nausea and the other time I threw up into a plastic bag... So if you don't want the meds, make sure you bring a bag. 2.) Bring ear plugs since this can be a noisy little town when you're trying to get some sleep. When it's not pouring rain on the tin roof the dogs in town are howling at each other and the traffic outside is probably very audible from your not-insulated hotel/hostel room and just when the night noise settles down, the roosters start to crow at about 3am. and on holidays (or even peoples birthdays) the locals love to set off fireworks at 6 in the morning. So do yourself a favor and bring some earplugs. They are also useful on the Monja Blanca bus if the driver is blasting what he thinks is nice music. 3.) Might as well bring an eye mask just in case.4.) INSECT REPELLENT. Do not forget this and don't bother trying the natural stuff, it's like spaghetti sauce to these mosquitos. Bring something with DEET in it. There is a good anti-itch balm sold in some pharmacies here called "Sana Sana". Rub it on bites you already have to calm the itch. 5.) A good but compact umbrella is imperative. Don't trust that blue sky in the morning because knowing Coban by 3pm the whole sky will turn an ominous dark grey before it opens up and pours buckets. Hey, it's not a tropical forest area for nothing. 6.) Be careful what you eat and drink here. In some places street food is an indispensable part of the local experience, in Coban it will lead you to diarrhea 8 times out of 10. So stick to your guest house, reputable restaurants, or preparing food that you bought at the market for yourself. If you can't resist the tayuyos or the greasy fried tacos, then ask a local that you trust where is a safe (read hygienic) place to buy them. 7.) Remember that you are in a place where the vast majority of people have a lot less than you have. There are many wonderful kind people here, but there are also those who see it as your fault if you pull out your iphone to look up an address on the street corner and have some kid snatch it out of your hand. If you need to use your cell phone (especially if it's a nice phone), use it at the restaurant or somewhere private (private but not deserted). And in general just be careful with your belongings. Keeping valuables in an outside pocket of your backpack is also not a good idea. 8.) Be careful on the streets in Coban because drivers will always take the right of way and most of them will not stop to see if you are okay after they hit you. It's just the way people drive here for now, so always look both ways before you cross the street.9.) With all that said, do try to mingle and talk to locals as much as you can. You don't want to end up learning more about your Dutch or Korean fellow travelers than you do about the local culture. Don't be afraid to USE your Spanish or pick up some words in Kekchi while you're here. Have a great time and treat yourself to a more expensive restaurant or hotel once in a while when you need it.Close
Written by Jose Kevo on 22 Apr, 2008
The only thing missing from this 66-th journal is another 6 ! Livingston turned-out to be nothing short of an evil eden; a pandora’s box of seething social adversity for Guatemala’s Caribbean nerve center. Various resources make the generic claim that crime-related incidents…Read More
The only thing missing from this 66-th journal is another 6 ! Livingston turned-out to be nothing short of an evil eden; a pandora’s box of seething social adversity for Guatemala’s Caribbean nerve center. Various resources make the generic claim that crime-related incidents against travelers has improved, and perhaps they have. What that doesn’t take into consideration are blatant, age-old problems of communal catastrophe that could leave visitors caught in the cross-fire; literally!Progress or not, unsuspecting travelers should acknowledge that issues have taken generations to create, and will require as long to rectify. Bitter roots run deep for The Garifuna; displaced slaves that now populate much of Central America’s Caribbean coast. Scenarios played-out all too familiar in hostile environments usually reserved for urban ghettos of large cities. Per capita, confrontations and risks in this small village turned-out no less.Even with my galvanized approach towards adventure and open-mindedness, not only was I challenged from assailants but also within my own character! I’ve never considered myself a racist and still don’t, but encountering the Garifunas was certainly cause for questioning self-integrity. Every negative stereotype ever associated with African heritage had been perfected to fault. Over-riding impressions from some ultimately cast the unfortunate labels for all; ambush of the worst kind that only drives the vicious cycle of intolerance.The town is highly segregated; Garifunas mostly populating the hill and easy-going Guatemalans living in lowlands. Livingston information promotes, encourages culture encounters. I don’t! Antagonistic receptions were distressing enough by day; even from children. Insults and threats may elude travelers that don’t understand Spanish, but there’s no barrier towards feeling downright vulnerable!Individuals that don’t feel good about themselves could never possibly begin to embrace a stranger; little alone each other. From the moment travelers step onto the dock, the assaults begin. Skirting aggressive touts was like a schoolyard escapade compared to shiftless vultures prowling the streets; circling prey with malevolent tactics of provocation and intimidation.Cry Me A River…I’d already scouted at least a dozen hotels and found nothing but over-priced cell blocks. Frustrated and soaked with sweat, I paused on a corner while thumbing through a guidebook. Second mistake was acknowledging the overgrown kid on a bicycle. He mentioned a hotel three blocks away. Deciding to follow, it didn’t take much to realize why the place wasn’t listed.Heading back towards the coastal road, the guy followed while offering suggestions. Small-talk opened about excursion tours; promise that a $20 deposit would secure a spot with his boss. Reading my general frustration and exhaustion, he insisted on carrying my bag. I declined; suspicions mounting with each step taken and word spoken, in English or Spanish. He was too eager to extend greetings to locals that went unreciprocated, which spoke more truths than obviously he did!Supposedly there were a couple of hotels further down the coastal road I’d yet to check. They were both Garifuna-owned establishments; one in a run-down old mansion that had potential. The place was huge but something didn’t feel right; especially as the only guest. For one, young receptionist was the first acting friendly to the tout. Gut-instinct warned me if staying, I probably wouldn’t be two-steps back out the door until they were rummaging through my bag.Starting to get annoyed, I returned to Hotel Caribe. He still followed, including into the joint like he owned the place. As if barking orders wasn’t enough, he required a finder’s fee cut of the $4-rate. Don Alfredo insisted I’d already been there, checked-out the place, and he wasn’t owed anything. The surly Garifuna could’ve crushed the old proprietor with his size, but Don Alfredo wasn’t buying the intimidation tactics. Bullying shifted towards me to collect for hospitality services or whatever, before slamming the door in his face.Intensity of the moment slowly subsided and finally being settled was enough to calm nerves. Heading-out, kid on the bike was approaching alongside a pair of travelers. Fully engrossed in persuasion, I was thankful not to even register on his radar and wrote-off previous incident as just that.Enjoying lunch on a porch-front patio, the same guy stopped and demanded I order him a beer. Brazen insolence pissed me off, yet the heated exchange didn’t seem to alarm or concern staff members anymore than his taunting while riding back-and-forth in the street. Throughout remainder of the afternoon, this thug continued appearing out of nowhere; asserting his entitlements to beer and cash.What this goon wasn’t counting on was squaring-off with a former transplant-from-the-‘hood that understood how the game worked. I knew his type – create a big enough scene and get what he wants, whether from coercion or someone just hoping he’ll go away. I also knew that once someone complied, the tyrant always comes back for more which apparently kept the Guatemalan and expat business owners trembling in fear. No one ever stood-up to these on-going harassments towards me, a browsing/dining customer.Make no mistake – this guy was not the only Garifuna hassling and hustling travelers in the streets. I’m not sure if there’s some unspoken code for how they divvy-up foreigners, but none of the others even casually approached; obviously marked and claimed by the biggest predator and pretender. After about the second or third round of holding my own, he no longer approached when I was alone but waited for opportune moments when audience was present. Darkness had barely settled in when returning to the hotel. Don Alfredo was sitting in front, and I pulled up a chair to enjoy the evening over conversation until the nuisance returned; still talking trash about not getting paid earlier in the day. Second bypass involved stopping long enough to demand a beer or else, including physical threats to the both of us. Gaining ferocity, I conceded to buy the damn beer if he’d go the muck away! Entering a nearby Guatemalan-owned store, this idiot had the audacity to denounce my decision and insist going to a Garifuna bar two businesses away. I absolutely went ballistic in verbally dismantling this kid. People were beginning to congregate but no one dared to intervene even on his behalf. Turning to walk away, he still mandated I buy beer."Or what?"He wasn’t backing down until realizing I wasn’t either! With every idle threat of rounding up a posse, getting a gun and coming back to finish me off, I smugly indicated right where I’d be sitting and waiting; even challenged him to make his move right then and there if he was man enough. Thankfully, he wasn’t and didn’t, but talk about a sore loser beaten at his own game! Was I proud? No.It’s not like I’m some sort of bad ass that goes around looking for a brawl but I was beyond provoked. In a way, it felt like stepping-up to the plate for every Livingston traveler that has ever had to endure such stalking. Don Alfredo never said anything but understanding was mutual. The old man was the only other person I’d seen stand-up to the bully all day! We sat in the street talking for at least another hour, including about these very types of incidents that are crippling tourism.Up Yours Livingston…Gunshots outside the hotel room window around 1:00am were at first intense until drifting back to sleep. It really was like some kind of Spanish Harlem flashback...Up in time to catch a sunrise in solitude while the shiftless still slept, it was dawn of a new day I was actually looking forward to enjoying. Besides, considering riff-raff of all races that seemed to permeate the village, I wrote the alley shooting incident off to pure coincidence; almost laughable knowing my ruffian didn’t have balls enough to stage such an alarm.While this dirty laundry list would probably have most ready to bolt, I still wanted to do Livingston! Something totally unrelated had me packed and leaving in less than 24-hours. Reserved for one of the daily jungle hikes, I waited almost two-hours for a guide that never showed. Making matters even more insufferable was the insane run-around I got from numerous tourist-related business owners as if in cahoots up to their eyeballs with cluelessness! "Maybe tomorrow," was eventually best I got!Determined not to waste another single moment in this god-forsaken hell-hole, I headed straight for the docks and was ecstatic to find the last boat out for the day departed in less than an hour. Gathering my things and quickly eating, exodus couldn’t have come quick enough!And sure enough, there he was at the docks – congregated off to the side with a detestable band of marauders. I defiantly welcomed the eye contact, just hoping he’d be fool enough to say something. No such luck for unloading any extra baggage of wrath and lividness. Rush was on for him to jockey for position at the arrivals dock. Another boat was coming down the river; loaded with fresh prey.Close
Written by Vagabondo on 16 Mar, 2007
Semuc Champey was not originally on my travel itinerary, but after hearing tales of its spectacular beauty from other backpackers I decided to venture to that remote locality.Semuc Champey is not a city, town, or village; it is Guatemalan backwater where one can bask in…Read More
Semuc Champey was not originally on my travel itinerary, but after hearing tales of its spectacular beauty from other backpackers I decided to venture to that remote locality.Semuc Champey is not a city, town, or village; it is Guatemalan backwater where one can bask in a truly unspoiled haven of natural magnificence. Just getting to Semuc Champey is a challenging and time-consuming endeavor, but the return on investment is high. Coban is the nearest major city where one can procure transportation to Semuc Champey. The trip from Coban involves about one hour on a relatively well-paved highway followed by a 1.5-hour descent on a one-lane windy gravel road down into the valley where Semuc Champey is located. Whether you spend a few hours at Semuc Champey or a few days, it’s important to be prepared with the appropriate apparel. That region of Guatemala is rainy nearly year-round and it gets chilly at night so it is wise to have a jumper and some water resistant clothing along. Another essential garment is a bathing suit. The activities described below highlight the importance of bathing suit portage. Many tourists and backpackers choose to just day trip to Semuc Champey from Lanquin or Coban, but one day is not enough time to truly appreciate the beauty of the area. Maximizing one’s time there requires folks to engage in Semuc’s two major activities: the main park and the caving expedition. The main park contains a series of shallow natural pools scattered about a fairly small area and a scenic overlook high in an adjacent mountain. Regardless of the weather, the pools present a nearly irresistible temptation. The water in the pools is perfectly clear, unbelievably refreshing, and even tempting to drink due to its obvious freshness. It's advisable to have a swimming costume readily available so you can comfortably submerge yourself into the dihydrogen monoxide.
High above the aforementioned pools rests a scenic overlook that provides a stunning view of the surrounding expanse. There is a boardwalk-type walkway that leads to the foot of the rugged path that must be followed to the overlook. The half hour hike is rather challenging due to the path’s rocky, narrow existence, but it’s well worth the trouble for the photos that can be executed from the platform. The second activity, which is organized by the Las Marias staff at the guesthouse, involves a guided two-hour expedition deep into a river-bearing craggy limestone cave in one of the Semuc Champey mountains. The trek began at Las Marias in the early afternoon when a shirtless, bathing suit clad Guatemalan guide distributed our method of return transportation: black inner tubes. The inner tubes were carried about ½ mile to a guard shack near the mouth of the cave. The guide may encourage you to walk barefoot to the cave from Las Marias but unless you are a street performer that has experience walking on broken glass and/or sharp rocks I recommend using any variant of footwear to protect your feet on this journey. You will enter and exit the cave from the same passageway so your footwear can be safely left behind while spelunking. In order to gain access to the cave a 30 quetzales entrance fee was paid to the guards manning the shack. For that price they kept a diligent eye on the inner tubes while our group was off exploring the cave.
The portion of the trek inside the cave presents a demanding physical endeavor. One must wade, swim, crawl, climb, and descend all with the use of only one arm and hand. The other upper appendage will be busy attempting to hold a lit candle above water. A river originates somewhere deep in the cave system so you are submerged nearly the entire time in the cave (approximately one hour). Keeping the candle dry, and therefore lit, for an hour while splashing around in an otherwise pitch-black cavity is nearly impossible, but the candles are designed to be relit even after being submerged in water so accidentally extinguishing the flame is not an irremediable action. The guide will lead the group to the "back" of the cave where a geologic formation in the shape and size of a Mexican sombrero exists.
After a few moments of face time with the sombrero the exit journey began. Our guide was a bit of a prankster and he exercised his antics by disappearing into the darkness a couple of times on the way out of the cave. He would only materialize after he was satisfied that we sufficiently despondent about making it out alive! Once we withdrew from the cave we retrieved our inner tubes and made our way to river for our return trip to Las Marias, but not before we capitalized on the existence of a sweet rope swing on the banks of Rio Cahabón! Once the novelty of the rope swing wore off, we plopped our inner tubes into the river and boarded for the leisurely cruise back to the guesthouse. Visiting Guatemala without seeing Semuc Champey will not seem like a deadly sin until you meet someone some day that did take the time to go there. Only then, after hearing firsthand how great the place was, will you begin to understand the egregiousness of your blunder.
Written by flamingokid on 01 Feb, 2007
We flew from Belize in a three-passenger plane. Guy sat up front with the pilot who, according to Guy, had on his iPod. I only saw the back of his head, which was bald. He also had an "earphone" on top of his head, which…Read More
We flew from Belize in a three-passenger plane. Guy sat up front with the pilot who, according to Guy, had on his iPod. I only saw the back of his head, which was bald. He also had an "earphone" on top of his head, which was pretty strange looking. He had a thick neck. I sat in back with a nice woman who looked about 50 to 60, weathered skin, old hippy type with multiple piercings in her ears. We flew over a vast area of farmland, which she pointed out was all Mennonite. We noticed Mennonites at the Belize Airport and were told that they provide all of the commercially grown chicken and eggs in Belize. When you head out over the jungle you realize what an enormous feat it is to clear it and farm it. Only people with an extraordinary work ethic could undertake it.She pointed out Belmonpon, the capital city, a smattering of buildings in the middle of bloody nowhere. Then came the jungle—miles and miles and miles of it. We saw one ruin during the 45-minute flight—a stone Mayan pyramid sticking up from the trees was stunning—beautiful and majestic. I’ve seen a lot of survivor movies. Now, after being in it and over it I can say that I wouldn’t try to find my way out of the jungle if the plane went down. It would be useless. Guy did not think so. He brought his compass. We arrived at the Flores Airport and went through Guatemalan immigration easily. There was a driver waiting with a sign. He didn’t really need the sign since we were the only ones there. We were glad we (read Guy) had squared away the arrangements to get to the Jungle Lodge. It was late in the afternoon and we left right away for about an hour drive to Tikal. By necessity, the Guatemalans live close to the road in rural areas so the little humanity there is hangs out there. There are dogs and pigs and horses in the road as well. Our driver was friendly and we communicated pretty well with his hundred words of English and our 50 words of Spanish. Guy commented, "lots of kids" and he replied "no TV."When we enter the park, which is gated and manned by armed guards, it’s getting toward dusk. We travel another few miles until we arrive at the Jungle Lodge.I heard from an old friend who went to Tikal. She and her husband drove from Belize, with an armed escort. At the border, they were briefly detained and escorted to a tour bus filled with Mennonite farmers in suspenders and straw hats. The border guard announced, "here is the rest of your tribe." Apparently there are a great many Mennonites named Schwartz. And when the guards saw "Schwartz" on the passports they assumed that they must be looking for their teammates. They were eventually allowed to continue on their way to Tikal.And since we’re back on the subject of Mennonites, a fellow in Belize told me that the men are allowed to marry non-Mennonites as long as the woman is Christian. The women may only marry Mennonite. Guy commented that with all of the inbreeding (the Schwartz Tribe being evidence of that practice) they are usually fairly attractive. You would think that after marrying your cousin for a few generations there would be a good number of folks who weren’t quite right. The Jungle Lodge has its own generator, providing electricity and hot water in the mornings and the evenings. No air conditioning. Lights out at 11pm. The room was Spartan, equipped with a standard size double bed. Two people in a double bed is quite cozy and even cozier with the mosquito netting in place.We decided to take a guided tour on our first day in order to get a good overview. We met up with Ruben, our Mayan guide, and four Norwegian tourists. Their English was negligible but when we heard they were Norwegian, Guy and I in unison more or less shouted, "Ten tousand Svedes ran tru da veeds, chased by one Nor-wee-gan." They liked that and we got along splendidly.As we penetrated the jungle on the mile something walk to the plaza, Ruben cheerfully announced (several times) that the humidity was 100 percent. Most of the hike was uphill on rough terrain with a lot of rocks and mud and, of course, mucho calor. After the first few minutes I was soaking wet and I stayed soaking wet for the next 4 hours or so. Nothing ever really dries out in the jungle. We slogged along and more than once I thought about what a dandy thing is the cane. It is very hard for me to understand why everybody doesn’t have one—at least while hiking. Ruben at one point eyed the cane and asked how I felt about taking a shortcut. I said "okay" and we went off the beaten path. After a while it became apparent why Ruben chose this route. "I would like you to meet a bee-yoo-ti-ful lady," he said. He took a couple of leaves and started to prod a small opening to one side of the trail. Before long we saw a couple of long, hairy legs and I knew immediately it was a tarantula. He actually got the spider to come out of its lair and held it in his hand. He petted and prodded her and showed us her fangs extended and the web filament extending from her body. He asked if anybody wanted to hold her but got no takers. On our third day at Tikal we ventured out alone. Although you meet someone on the trail now and then and here and there, it’s not Busch Gardens. One of the few people we met was a slim, boyish looking girl we noticed even at a distance. She was wearing what looked like a WWII doughboy’s hat. She carried a large sling rather than the usual backpack and it didn’t seem to have much in it. She carried a long, sturdy stick. Seeing her in a sunlit clearing reminded me of an illustration for Green Mansions. We met her later on the path. Two Guatemalan boys were dogging her heels like moths to a flame. (I couldn’t decide which metaphor to use, so you can pick whichever you like.)"Australia?" one said.
"Non," she said.
"California?" the other said."Non.""La Luna," I said."France," she said.We met another girl from France whose name was France.When we got to the main plaza, Guy started to bound up the ruins like Captain Spaulding but I hung back and chatted up a Dutch woman traveling alone. Her English was minimal but I understood that she had just explored the same ruin that Guy was currently climbing. She was decked out in flowered pants and a red tank top with a green shirt that made her look like a Christmas tree ornament. She had a perpetual smile and her face was ruddy red. When someone asks "How old do you think I am?" I’m always tempted to reply, "uh...80?" But, of course, I didn’t. She volunteered that she was 68 and I was properly impressed. Determination overcame weariness and Guy and I explored the North Acropolis together. The Mayans believe that 3, 7, 9, and 13 are sacred numbers. After climbing up a few levels we wandered off to the back of the ruin; looking into the jungle we were eye level with a family of three monkeys swinging through the trees: mama, papa, and baby. Later on the path we would see three toucans directly overhead, and late that afternoon we saw three raucous parrots streaking across the sky. Guy says his lucky number is nine so I thought all of this was mighty auspicious. It’s as though nature can’t bear to be outdone. While you’re craning your neck at the site of the ancient Mayan architecture, awed and overwhelmed by the accomplishment and the mystery of it all, the monkeys and the birds and the spiders say, "Look at me! Look at me!" In the middle of the plaza yellow-tailed blackbirds swooped back and forth between trees and ruins as if they were on cue.We returned to the Jungle Lodge and prepared to depart early the next morning. In our room, a huge hairy spider appeared out of nowhere. She was almost the diameter of a small saucer and she scuttled under the chifferobe. Guy tracked her down and killed her dead. It was only then that I realized I had not taken the simplest precautions of shaking out my shoes before putting them on. I walked to the bathroom in the middle of the night in my bare feet without turning on a light. The suitcase was wide open on the floor...
Written by britgirl7 on 08 Sep, 2005
In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight
We took the early bus to Tikal. I say bus, but really this was a van with busted-up windows and missing pieces, but it got us there. The ride took about an hour through small…Read More
In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight
We took the early bus to Tikal. I say bus, but really this was a van with busted-up windows and missing pieces, but it got us there. The ride took about an hour through small villages where women still carried their laundry on their heads, men were on horseback, and cattle wandered in the streets. The homes were mainly sticks with palm fronds for the roof, but every once in a while we would pass a richer town with cement walls and iron roofs.
We would round a corner and then slam on the brakes to avoid the cows, horses, and kids wandering in the dusty streets. Amongst all this, though, I couldn’t help notice how a few of those women had cell phones held to their ears and how the kids playing in the mud had Nike trainers—now that’s progress !!
Even more exciting (well, for me) was when we passed the entrance to Yaxha national park, which was closed for tourists and in fact guarded by guys with rifles. This park was where the Survivor crew was filming their latest reality adventure, Survivor Guatemala.
I have watched that show for many seasons and yearned to be on it. I even applied, but because I’m not a US resident, got turned down. Since spending one day in Tikal, which is the very same jungle, I have a new respect for the guys who will be living out there. It’s rough. The heat and humidity was stifling, just like stepping into an oven. The mosquitoes were awful. The wild animals that you could hear were unbelievable. I loved my day there, but could not ever imagine living there for 30 days like they were.
Anyway, Tikal is amazing. We paid the 50 quetzals entry and had the whole day to explore. Its much bigger than I ever imagined and all set amongst the jungle, so you have to keep reminding yourself as you walk from temple to temple that here you are in a real Guatemalan jungle.
There are 4,000 ruins to explore, which, until 100 years ago, had been eaten by the jungle. I can’t even imagine why the Mayans would have abandoned such a place and how exciting it much have been for those Guatemalan explorers to have been sent to dig all this out. What a rush they must have felt as they uncovered the first few. The temples have been cleared, but still the jungle is everywhere. Paths wind through the trees and suddenly in the middle of the jungle is another HUGE grey stone temple.
We didn’t use a guide, even though it was recommended. For safety reasons, they like you to stay in a group, as rogue guerrillas have been known to prey on lone tourists on the quieter trails. We walked many paths between the temples where we didn’t see anyone for ages but didn’t feel nervous. There was constant activity from the jungle critters. The leafcutter ants were a favorite of mine, huge ants that all carried equally huge leaves in a single line across where we would be walking, causing us to stop in disbelief at their sheer size.
The howler monkeys were adorable swinging from the treetops, some chattering gaily whilst others scared us to death sounding like a lions roar from above our heads. It was worth being there just for this experience alone, but I’d better not forget the real reason we went into this jungle today, and that was to see the Mayan temples.
Having done Mayan sights through Mexico, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer size of these. Temple IV is the tallest at 64m, and it’s a steep climb to the top, but you can do it.
Karl was ecstatic, as he got to see the temple view, which they filmed "Star Wars" (rebel base) from. Ho hum!!
I think the numerous liability laws have taken all the fun out of America. Being 64m up with no rail was enough to get me hooked on the whole temple thing (and unlike Karl, I’m not a history buff, so I need a little added incentive). I mean, if someone wants to risk the climb and fall to their death, they should be allowed that, right? It was scary, though, and even worse coming down, as it’s a vertical ladder and a long way!!
Some of the ancient rulers’ names did make me giggle: Great King Jaguar Paw, Lord Smoking Frog, and King Moon Double Comb (Lord Chocolate).
There are restaurants (expensive) near the entrance to the site and plenty of places to grab drinks, so you really don’t need to carry a whole day’s water with you. We managed 6 hours of hardcore climbing and walking, which I hoped burned off those plantains I’d become addicted to. Some areas were busy with tourists, but in other sections, we didn’t see anyone for ages.
Written by albionvicar on 12 Apr, 2005
The town of Chichicastenango is an absolute must, not only for the twice-weekly market, but as a destination in itself for a couple of nights. There is not a lot to do, but the atmosphere here is truly mystical.
I was advised to arrive the night…Read More
The town of Chichicastenango is an absolute must, not only for the twice-weekly market, but as a destination in itself for a couple of nights. There is not a lot to do, but the atmosphere here is truly mystical.
I was advised to arrive the night before the market, a challenge in itself, as there are no organised trips into the town outside of market day. I took what was advertised as a tourist bus from Antigua heading to Panajachel and changed at Los Encuentros. It turned out to be a curious journey--tourists up the front, locals at the back as the bus proceeded to stop on request all along the route. Soon it was a complete mix of farmers, indigenous women in full costume, their children, and anything else they could carry. We had reverted to a chicken bus. This, of course, made the journey far more interesting, and I shared a seat with a mother and two children, one slung over her back in the traditional way.
We made our way down the Transamerica highway, full of colour, as this is a very traditional area. At Los Encuentros, I became the only gringo changing buses and felt quite vulnerable. The town is nothing more than a collection of roadside snack bars and none-too-healthy-looking local cafes. This is real Guatemala. I was soon offered a ride in a local collectivo and within half an hour had arrived in the heart of ‘Chichi’.
This is the heart of indigenous Guatemala, the sights, sounds, colours and smells deliciously overwhelming. There a limited number of restaurants and snack bars geared to a western pallet. For the more adventurous, there are countless street food stands. The town is centred around a plaza, with a number of very good-value shops selling the full range of local wares at very reasonable price on most days.
Beware the guides offering trips to Maximon and the local altar. I was asked $60 for a tour. The altar is mapped, signposted, and perfectly safe to walk to, without paying rip-off prices for a guide.
Late night before market day, the church of Santo Tomas becomes a blaze of incense as local shamans chant their rituals for a successful trading day ahead.
Market day itself, it’s a good idea to tour early, before the tourist buses get in, to decide what you would like, need, and absolutely must have. Get a fix on prices and quality of the goods. Some items are at every stand, and some are completely unique. Set a limit on what you are going to spend and step forward to enjoy the show.
Tu Café is a nice spot for a cooling beer and for people-watching. For dinner, try ‘Casa San Juan’, a lovely candlelit venue where mains, coffee, and a couple of glasses of wine can be had for Q70. Both are on the main plaza.
I stayed in the Hotel Santo Tomas--see the individual review for details.
Written by Ngibson on 26 Mar, 2003
Our friends with whom my husband and I were traveling, had originally visited the Alta Vera Paz region in the early 1990s. In those days, they were looking for new areas to take tourists. That particular trip was an incredible adventure because they did it…Read More
Our friends with whom my husband and I were traveling, had originally visited the Alta Vera Paz region in the early 1990s. In those days, they were looking for new areas to take tourists. That particular trip was an incredible adventure because they did it in a two-wheel-drive car that had numerous mechanical problems and had to be pushed up every hill/mountain from the Flores, Guatemala to Coban, and back.
It was the first time they had been back to Coban since that time. On their first visit to the Caves on Lanquin, they camped in the camping area that has now been formalized by the river. However, on that particular evening, they did have a peaceful night's rest, as the then military government made a sweep of the area in advance of a visit by the then military dictator/president. On that night so many years ago, they listened to the sounds of machine gun fire from inside the caves and prayed and hid from the military. Now, over 10 years later, they were returning with us to these sites . . . in a time of peace and better roads.
The road from Coban to Lanquin is mostly a one-lane dirt road with pull-outs. The road is currently in the process of being improved to a paved two-lane road. The government is up for election and road improvements are a way for them to lobby for the votes of the local Achi Maya. It took us 3 hours to get to Lanquin Caves from Coban with stops for construction. It took a total of 4 hours to get to Semuc Champey (including our stop for breakfast) on the way in. It only took us 2.5 hours from Semuc Champey back to Coban (no construction stops on the road).
Lanquin Caves are large, with a beautiful river running into its mouth. The caves are slippery--I would recommend wearing water socks if you plan on going any further than the main room. It is lighted inside.
Our next stop was Semuc Champey. Coban is at an elevation of about 4,500 feet--to get to Semuc Champey, you drive through the mountains and down, and down, and down, and down, and down some more. The mountains are like looking at sleeping dragons and where the road construction was exposing the rock--it looked like the toes of a dragon. Along the sides of the road and up the steep sides of the mountains were field after field of maize, coffee, and cardamon.
Semuc Champey is the place where our friend's car could not get back up the hill those long 11-12 years ago and they were stranded there for 4 days before a truck offered to tow them up and out to the village of Lanquin. On this trip we had their newer 4-wheel-drive Mitsubishi truck and had no problems, as much of the road is now paved. If you don't have your own vehicle, hitching a ride works. We loaded the back of the truck with four backpackers on our way out back to Lanquin.
This natural wonder is where the Rio Cahabon runs into a cave underground, but creates a tremendous amount of back pressure to create a beautiful turquoise series of pools above. If you're looking for a romantic place to have a picnic and swim in fabulous water, this is it.
Remember to wear either rafting sandals or water socks! To get to the pools, you must cross a lot of slippery rock - rafting sandals or water socks will give you gripping power!
Actually, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.