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Central Guatemala


May 28th

We had finally decided that we were going to head north a bit and go check out a national park called Semuc Champey near the city of Coban. This was about a 240 km drive and the roads were of all varying types. Leaving Atitlan they are great, some windy sections but decent pavement. They you get north of Chichicastenango and Santa Cruz and they begin to have potholes and then the washouts start. There are people on the sides of the roads every so often “repairing” the holes (often children who when they see a vehicle coming, make it look like they are trying to fix the road) and of course, want a “donation”. About at the 7/8 of the way point, you have descended from 2200 metres to 500 metres and cross a river. The temperatures have risen greatly by now and it’s getting hot – around 90F. Then the road deteriorates drastically and the pavement is now just a chunk here and there until it’s completely a dirt/gravel road complete with boulders now and then and many a pothole. We stopped to air down the tires and that was a huge help; we are so grateful we have on board air! You then begin to climb again and pass through tiny villages where there are even more potholes than the rest of the road. This went on for 26km (15+miles) until we reached the town of Santa Cruz Verpaz.

DSCN2383 typical roadside garbage dump on fire

Note: We passed a few “garbage dumps” on this that were burning – the practices south of our borders in small towns is that they rarely have official garbage dumps and along with just littering, of which there is a lot, they also seem to have spots outside of town where people throw stuff off the side of the road and once in a while it gets set on fire to burn the garbage. Sometimes you see people rifling through the garbage before it burns. It’s really quite sad as these are beautiful countries and they are being ruined with all this garbage. There are signs along the highway about not throwing garbage, but often, the local “dump” is right near that sign! There are not enough garbage cans around in most towns and hardly any recycling bins; if you find recycling bins, they are not being used properly: again lack of education. The government does not assist their citizens even if they want to beautify their environment.

Just after entering the town, we saw a Texaco station and Doug decided “let’s not air up ourselves, we’ll get the guys at the gas station to do it” so we pulled in. The remaining drive was smooth pavement and we made it to Coban. Our camping options here were limited but we found a parking lot across from a hotel on iOverlander that allowed us to park for 20Q (less than $3USD) and Carlos, the man who runs it, allowed us to plug in and didn’t charge any extra.  So the 240 km took us from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm – 7.5 hours!

It was a little noisy here at first but it was quiet overnight. We are going to stay here three nights so we can take a tour to Semuc Champey near Lanquin which is about 70 kms from here and down some pretty bad roads; yesterday’s roads were enough for a while. That road loosened our air conditioner once again but this time the repair took less than an hour and it was not nearly as hot as the work Doug had undertaken back in Chiapas.

Sunday we had a chill/catch up day. We walked the mile to a Mcdonald’s to get online for a bit then, did Spanish etc. It was warm but not unbearable. We booked our tour for tomorrow and planned out our next steps. Decisions, decisions!

Carlos, has been most kind to us; as we said, he only charged 20Q to park every day, gave us power, told us we could take water as needed (even brought us out gallon jugs to help us fill our tanks as our hose wouldn’t reach so we were doing it the slow way) AND brought us a bunch of banana and a cantaloupe on the last day. We felt like we were taking advantage of him, so we paid him double which he scoffed at but we insisted. Another bonus of this little inexpensive camping is we found a free wi-fi – the hotel/bar across the street has a secured connection we could pick up so Fran suggested we go across the street, have a beer and get the password and voila, it worked for us. We were able to catch up on downloading and surfing the web for info etc.  So far, McDonald’s in GT do not allow you to download torrents so we were way behind.

Our trip to Semuc Champey was wonderful. BTW Semuc Champey means, “where the river hides under the earth” in Q’eqchi’ – the local Mayan language. We were picked up by our guide, Rene, and one other person, Katina from North Carolina, and it took almost three hours to get there. The first 45km is highway but somewhat potholed in places. The next 25km were dirt road and some parts much worse then others.

We arrived at the national monument and the first order of the day was a hike to the mirador. This was a hike up the mountain about 250m across boardwalk, up wooden stairs, stone stairs and up more stairs. It took about 30 minutes and Fran was glad she not only worn her Keenes NOT flip flops but brought her walking stick.

The view was amazing. Semuc Champey is spot on the Cohaban River where the river goes under a 300m long limestone bridge (hence the name). There are also natural springs that flow on top of this “bridge” through a series of natural pools then into the river at the bottom end. The water is fresh and clear in these pools and a lovely green colour from above; quite stunning.

Next you walked down to the pools, change and go for a well-deserved swim as the hike was humid through the jungle. We walked or slid from pool to pool, had a waterfall massage, swam into a little cave under one and then Rene went to fetch our boxed lunch which we ate pool side.

DSCF2509 Fran getting a waterfall massage

We then  grabbed our bags out of the locker and walked back to the vehicle. Speaking of the vehicle, it was a 4×4 Hyundia Galloper. While it seemed capable, we learned it was not fully “functional”. Fran’s door opened only in a certain way, neither of the back seat windows opened (a bummer on the drive up as it kept getting hotter the lower in elevation we went) and the AC did not work. To top it off we got a flat tire about ¾ of the way there but it appeared Rene was well practiced in changing a tire. He actually stopped one of the local pick up drivers and asked him to take it back to Lanquin to be repaired and he’d pick it up on the way back – the advantage to knowing the locals.

Upon returning to the car, we drove a short way to the water caves; here we were given candles and made our way to the entrance (we also had headlamps). You walk through some shallow water in the dark, and make your way through several caves walking, swimming, climbing ladders and ropes and passing waterfalls. It was quite cool – different from our ATM experience in Belize. There were no Mayan ruins here but lots of cool cave formations.

small drapery

After returning to the entrance via a “short cut” (kinda letting yourself fall down a crack), it was time for a relaxing tubing session down the river, where, a young man named Mario sells you a beer (or two) to enjoy while floating. This was a nice ending to the day around 5pm.

Katina, Rene & DougRene took us to a nearby hostel where were could shower and change before we returned to Coban – glad he was driving as it was now dark and it’s not a short or easy drive.

Tuesday, Fran was not feeling great – thought she might have a UTI so she did some online diagnosing and went to a pharmacy to get antibiotics – she got a five day course for less than $7; worth a try. Doug ran some errands and managed to get Fran’s flip flop fixed again. Oh the joys of cheap labour.

Wednesday, after exercising (and finishing downloading from our free wifi connection!) we “broke camp” and headed to a large grocery store to stock up and hit the road. We have decided to head to El Salvador for a week or so before our trip home so we have a bit less to travel upon our return in August.

We drove about 200km over pretty decent to great roads to a town called Chiquimula where there is a nice hotel with a wonderful pool, power and wi-fi. The drive was very pretty and lush the first third or so with mountains and valleys.

We stopped at the Biotopo del Quetzal enroute which is a national park where the forest is protected to save the habit of the quetzal bird, which is GT’s national bird. These birds are beautiful but very elusive and their colouring blends them in with the vegetation around them. We took a chance and did a 2.5 hour hike through the forest, up the mountainside, but although we heard them, they gave us the slip and did not show themselves.  We saw one back in ’08 when we were in Costa Rica with Serena but have yet to see one here in GT.

photo of a quetzal

As we continued, southeast, the terrain changed; while still hilly, the mountains were not so high and now where near as lush; the farming was less and the air and the ground were much dryer. We descended quite a bit and the temperatures rose accordingly.

Gallo rooster – national beer

the symbol of Gallo Beer

The town we are camped at what seems to be the centre of a horse loving community as there are lots of horse related venues like the Jockey Restaurant and the hotel name is La Caballeriza Hotel (caballa is horse in Spanish). We were the only campers, again, and it was very quiet. We are now at much lower elevation (around 300M-1000’). Yesterday temps reached back into the triple digits and we were glad to be able to use our AC while parked here. There are a few venues for events, restaurants, a playground, soccer fields and a small, very sad little zoo with goats, raccoons, spider monkeys, peacocks, a donkey, an ostrich.

After a lovely soak in the pool enjoying a beer, we felt refreshed as it was now dusk so we settled in and had dinner. Fran is feeling better already thanks to the antibiotics.

Sidebar: GT beer leaves something to be desired; it’s not unbearable but we still prefer other brands. We can’t always find them and hope to find better beer in El Salvador before returning.

Thursday we hung around here for the day chilling and Doug didn’t feel great so it was a good idea.   By bedtime, we both felt normal again.