A Travellerspoint blog

Semuc Champey

semi-overcast 75 °F

This weekend was wild.

We started our day off “normally” – breakfast and school. In the afternoon, it got a whole lot more exciting. We waited for our bus for thirty minutes before finally calling Carlos to make sure that we were still getting picked up. We were the last of many stops this particular bus was making before heading to Semuc Champey. This tiny van, which can hold up to 15 (uncomfortable) people, was already carting around 14. We piled in the front next to the driver and set off for our 8 hour trip. We had read that bus rides in Guatemala can be a little frightening – way to go Lonely Planet, you were right on with that one! We spent the next eight hours with our fingers crossed as we passed cars (double yellow, uphill, around blind turns), skidded on the wet and winding roads and at times feared that the van would not be able to carry us up the hill (turns out, the Carlos was simply driving 15 km/hr in order to make sure his wife was home when he dropped his daughter off. This had many of us passengers nervous, including a French man who in panic took out his phone and began calling people. Which begs the questions, “Who was Pierre calling?”).

When we finally arrived at our eco lodge, El Retiro, it was well after 10pm and the men working reception were anxious to leave for the night. After several minutes searching for our reservations, Carlos told us that our room was not available. Instead, we would have to sleep in a different room which we would have to climb to. This sounded like a fun adventure until we saw our room and realized that it was already occupied… by more than 10 cockroaches! We quickly climbed back down and returned to reception where we pleaded with Carlos to find us another room. (It sounded mostly like this: H y L - Lo siento, no es posible. C – No hay mas habitaciones. H y L - İLo siento, no es posible! C – No hay mas habitaciones. H y L - İNO ES POSIBLE! C – Hay dos camas en un dormitorio.)

We did end up in a 10 person dorm, which we quickly realized was also home to at least two cockroaches (one dead, one alive). We decided that this would have to work, dropped our bags and followed the music to the bar in the lodge where we ordered two Brahvas (arguably the most popular beer in Guatemala) and two shots of tequila. We figured this may be the only way to guarantee a good night’s sleep when we were sharing our room with so many creatures.

We spent the rest of the night chatting with the locals (including an awesome guy named Carlos who helps to run the lodge and promises that they do their best to rid the rooms of cockroaches) and other travelers (including a bunch of adorable and hilarious guys from Ireland named Patrick who kept us laughing until we fell (literally) into bed.

The next morning we were able to get our first good look at the lodge we were staying at. The fear of cockroaches began to pale in comparison to the beautiful scenery that surrounded us. The lodge, littered with cabins, hammocks and as many shades of green as you can imagine, sits just above a rushing river and was well worth the work it took to get there. After an amazing breakfast (fruit, yogurt, granola and honey), we took off for our day of adventures! We weren’t really sure what to expect, but we had been promised by Patrick that this would be the best day of our lives ever. Needless to say, we were pretty excited.

Our first stop was caving. (Well, actually, our first stop was cramming 16 people into the back of a pickup and holding on tight as we drove 30 minutes on a bumpy dirt road to the caves while holding on as tightly as possible. One the way, we passed one of our friends from the lodge, who had decided to run there instead. He was pretty hardcore - running in underwear while holding a knife. Enough said). When we arrived, we each grabbed a candle, lit it on the way in, and spent a couple hours wandering in the dark through twisting, winding canals. Let me tell you, swimming with a candle is as hard as you might expect it to be. We scrambled up and down waterfalls and even had the chance to jump off some rocks (but obviously, I chose not to). As I was crawling up and down ladders, holding close to the edges of walls and slipping (more than once), I couldn’t help but think that people would never be allowed to do something this dangerous (and awesome!) in the back home. Words cannot describe how amazing and exhilarating this experience was – but I would say that these few hours alone make a trip to Guatemala totally worth it!

After our morning of spelunking and a quick box lunch (peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches), we headed to see Semuc Champey. In case you haven’t heard of it, Semuc Champey is natural limestone bridges that cross the Rio Cahabon, and is often referred to as one of the most beautiful spots in Guatemala. While I haven’t seen much of this country yet, I would tend to believe that this is true. Our first stop was the mirado, which we reached after a steep hike, and offered us views the pools below. Between the hike and the humidity, I could not wait to jump in the water. We hiked down and then spent the next couple hours swimming from one pool to the next, jumping off rocks (again, I did not partake) and even going down natural waterslides. Now I truly agree with the poster I saw in Carlos’ office which said, “Guatemala: Nature’s way of exaggerating.”

Tubing down the river was our final stop before heading back to El Retiro. Heading down this river, surrounded by the beautiful rain forest was the perfect was to end this amazing day. Feeling incredibly rlaxed, we piled back into the truck for our bumpy ride back to the lodge – and I have the bumps to prove it!

After a quick shower, we took to the hammocks for some pretty awesome people watching. I don’t know if I was more intrigued by the guys in their underwear, the local selling friendship bracelets (thanks Heidi!), the couple doing yoga or the teenagers sitting next to me talking about their travels. These teenagers, who resembled Abercrombie and Fitch models, were taking a year off to travel before starting college. They were a tad pretentious and crude, but enjoyable to chat with nonetheless. They joined us for dinner and kept us fully entertained with their one liners and general shit talking abilities.

After such a long and day (not to mention a long night before), Heidi and I decided to turn in early. By the time we crawled into bed it was just after 10pm. Just after 10:30pm, two girls came into the dorm and turned on the lights. And started talking. And didn’t stop. They were later joined by three of their friends. At one point, I even rolled over to find one of them on the floor next to my bed (I later learned that he was trying to find a cockroach which he had hit off of Heidi’s bed). I laid in bed for the next hour with my headphones on as loud as possible, unable to sleep and seething. The next morning I awoke to the sound of their alarm (snoozing, of course). Quickly, the lights came on and the talking began again, not to stop until long after we got up two hours later.

I tried to contain my frustration with these girls, who also happened to join us on our ride back to Antigua, with little success. I couldn’t help a snide remark when one of these girls, who was sitting closer than I, asked me to close the door to the van. “Sure I can, but so could you!”
The ride back to Antigua was quite possibly a more frightening experience than the trip there. The first couple hours were with a new driver and the beautiful scenery was made even more entertaining by the fact that our hilarious friend Jeremy was also in the same van. It didn’t hurt that there were a few adorable (and chatty) guys from Atlanta. When we arrived in Coban things took a turn for the worse when we were told that here were problems with the van and that Carlos, our driver on Friday, would be taking us the rest of the way. At first, Heidi and I were excited to see Carlos. Then we realized that Carlos was in a hurry. We quickly learned there would not be a stop for lunch. Then we learned that there would not be a stop to get a snack. Finally, we learned that there would not be a stop to use the bathroom! Carlos told us he needed to be back in Antigua at 2pm (cutting two hours off our Friday trip) and he meant it. Carlos drove much faster and more dangerously than he did on Friday and was not happy when I hopped out of the van to use the bathroom when he stopped to get gas. In fact, he did not stop honking until we had all returned, and we were so concerned that he might leave without someone that we refused to get back into the van until everyone was done.

This was this first time I have worn a seatbelt since I arrived in Guatemala. It is also the first time that I literally feared for my life. (Sorry mom, I’m safe now.)

Carlos was able to make his 2pm deadline and given that we arrived back in Antigua early, we were able to check out the local market which is only open on Sundays. There Heidi, Jeremy and I tried various street food as I tried to make friends with a local boy (he didn’t answer any of my questions, but he did look at me and laugh as he picked up a bottle from the garbage and threw it in the street). On our walk home, we realized that Antigua really comes alive on Sundays. I guess we can thank Carlos for the experience!

I'm still having some problems loading some of my pictures. If you've made it this fair, maybe you'd be willing to check out the pictures I uploaded to my album. Think about it...

Posted by AnzelcL 19:40 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)


overcast 70 °F

Heidi and I have a new favorite word. We didn’t make it up, though we wish we had. Guatever.

Today was a bit of a low key day. Given that it was a holiday here (Army Day), we weren’t offered food with our host family. Our school, Ixchel, informed us that it is clear on the website that food will not be provided on holidays. If we wanted, we could pay for a pizza party at the school. We paid for dinner and you’re not going to give it to us, but we can buy dinner from you again? Guatever.

After our Spanish classes, Heidi and I set out to complete a long list of agenda items. First, we went in search of information about our weekend trip to Semuc Champey. After visiting half a dozen travel agencies, we stumbled across one owned by a sweet Guatemalan man (named Carlos) who also offered to spend evenings with us so we could practice our Spanish and he could practice his English.
After nearly a half hour of broken Spanish, and even more broken English, we walked out of his office with packages to Semuc Champey for only 600 Quetzales a piece – which works out to about $75. This seems like a pretty good deal considering it includes transportation, two nights accommodation in a private room, entrance and a guided tour. Turns out, if you are willing to book it all separately and take the risk of riding on a chicken bus (which even the locals say isn’t very safe), we could probably have done the same trip for about $40. I love how cheap Guatemala is!

After we finalized our weekend travel plans we decided to check out the local McDonalds (not to eat, just to check it out. At least as impressive as we were told it would be) and then headed to Rainbow Café, a little spot next to our house where Heidi and I go for internet connection, live music and sometimes wine. We stayed there for dinner and left when it was time to meet some of Heidi’s friends out for a drink. As we wandered the streets searching for Sky Bar, which is actually Sky Café, we repeatedly asked locals for directions. And I know that our Spanish isn’t yet perfect (almost, but not quite), I’m pretty sure that we received contradictory directions at least three times. When we finally arrived, we were greeted in the stairwell by a man who was clearly drunk, putting on his belt and telling us, “Don’t worry, I’m not harmless.” Hmmm….

Heidi’s friends were already there with empty tequila shots in front of them. As we chatted with these girls (who are between 18 and 20), Heidi and I were reminded of what it was like for us during our first trip to Costa Rica when we were 19. It’s crazy to think how much we’ve changed since then! As we walked home about an hour later, we couldn’t help but feeling a little bit like we were chaperoning this excursion. So many of the people we’ve met here are young, some even still in high school. When did we become the old backpackers? Guatever.

Posted by AnzelcL 19:54 Archived in Guatemala Comments (2)

Volcan Pacaya

rain 70 °F

Today was my first day of Spanish lessons. My teacher’s name is Helen and she is approximately half my height. One of her first questions to me was, “Where did you learn Spanish?” I laughed out loud. I tried to explain to her that I didn’t actually know Spanish. I think it was clear almost immediately.

I’ll be spending my mornings with Hellen in a small indoor patio conjugating verbs and stumbling over my words in hopes of improving my ability to communicate in Spanish. Hellen is the same age as I am, from what I piece together, I think we’re having a lot of fun.

Today was also Connie’s last day and we decided to take a tour of Volcan Pacaya, which is about an hour outside of Antigua. Volcan Pacaya, we were told, is inactive and had last erupted about a year ago. As we stood in the rain, we were told by our guide, Carlos, that the steep hike would take about an hour. Nearby locals offered horse rides to the top if we were interested, but we decided to make the trek on foot. These locals did not give up that easy. For more than an hour we were followed up the volcano by these men and their horses. Whenever someone stopped to drink some water or catch their breath, we’d hear “Quieres un taxi?” No Carlos, no quiero un taxi.

Experiencing Volcan Pacaya was well worth the work it took to get to the top. Despite clouds blocking our view of the peak and the lava having hardened long ago, the site of this massive volcano was breathtaking. As we wandered through hardened lava flows the temperature increased, we felt rocks hot enough to burn your hand, and (nearly) lit sticks on fire from the heat of steam. It was almost as if we were in an outdoor sauna. Heidi and I were a little (a lot?) disappointed when Carlos didn’t pull marshmallows out of his bag. We saw them in the pictures, Carlos. Where are they? Our hike down was made even more interesting by the thunder claps and multiple metal poles which surrounded us. Author’s note: This description in no way communicates how spectacular it actually was (and I can't get the rest of my pictures to load so you'll just have to imagine it).

And in case you were going to ask: Yes, there is cell service at the top of Volcan Pacaya.

We ended the evening, and Connie’s trip, with an amazing dinner at a restaurant named da Vinci’s. Like many of the restaurants in Antigua, after a short entryway da Vinci’s opens up into a large indoor/outdoor patio. Being that it was still raining and that people seem to stay in to avoid the weather, we had the run of this beautifully decorated restaurant. We ordered cheese fondue and pizza – an amazing choice, as it turns out. And obviously, very typical Guatemalan food…

Posted by AnzelcL 09:23 Archived in Guatemala Comments (2)

Guate, Antigua and Automatic Weapons

overcast 75 °F

I arrived in Guatemala City feeling, as I typically do when I first arrive in a country, a little out of sorts. I successfully navigated my way through the airport and spotted a man with a sign indicating that he was waiting for me – Laurel Anzelc! (Actually, I added the exclamation point, I just want to make sure I am fully representing my enthusiasm.) I threw my backpack in the van and we were off to Antigua.

Driving through Guatemala City I realized that this was a scary place, and I wouldn’t say that I am one to scare easy. While the streets look much like some of the South American countries I’ve visited (e.g familiar fast food restaurants, “tallers” on every corner and brightly colored buses with people screaming the names of nearby cities), it felt different here. Just a few cars in front of me was a Toyota loaded with three teenagers dressed in army fatigues in the bed of the truck – carrying automatic weapons. My guess is these kids were no older than 15. Yikes. I’ve since learned just how dangerous Gaute (as the locals call it) can be. This is one city that I have no interest exploring on foot.

I arrived in Anitgua less than an hour later and was dropped directly at my host family’s door. Elvira, my host mother, quickly greeted me and showed me the way to mis amigas – Heidi and Connie!! I was as excited to see them as I was to see the amazing house in which I will be staying. The house can host up to 10 students at any given time, but right now it’s just the three of us, a couple from Texas and and Maria, a Guatemalan who is studying in Antigua to become a teacher.

My room is simple and clean – and from my experiences, that’s pretty great! There is a twin bed, a small desk and several windows which look out over a gorgeous sundeck. I can also see several of the volcanoes which surround the city and hear the music blaring gymansio. For 7,600 Quetzales (or $90) a week (with meals included) I am incredibly pleased!

Antigua is a city of contradiction. It is one of the more popular locations to study Spanish in Guatemala, and the streets are littered with people from all over the world towering over Mayans in their traditional dress walking with baskets on their heads, right next to locals in modern dress. You can eat dinner at McDonalds or find a restaurant where no one speaks English and your only choice is whatever happens to be prepared that day. Needless to say, I think I’m going to like it here.

Posted by AnzelcL 11:40 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)


sunny 80 °F

''Let the adventure begin!'' I thought late last night as I sat near Gate 89 at SFO, my flight to Guatemala City scheduled to leave just over two hours later. Just over three hours later I first had the thought, ''I might be okay with skipping this trip in exchange for a comfy bed.''

That's right. Those of you who know me well know that I am no better than a toddler when it comes to sleep. Note to self: Moving forward, red eye flights should be avoided at all costs.

I'm now in Houston waiting for my plane to board, take to the skies and deliver me into the waiting arms of Guatemala.

I hope Guatemala is feeling forgiving today; I have never been less prepared for a trip. I trust that my dear friend and seasoned travel buddy, Heidi, has done well for us in planning for this trip. I also hope that she's prepared our host family for the butchering of the Spanish language that is about to happen.

Posted by AnzelcL 06:18 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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