Guatemala: Volcanos, Rainforests and Ruins

Guatemala was one of my favourite countries although I can’t quite put my finger on why. It may have been Lake Atitlan which had a rare hold on me. It could have been the awesome travelers I met when I was there or possibly the charm of the Guatemalans. Either way, this country was an absolute stand-out on my trip so far(I'm writing this from Panama). 

On crossing into Guatemala, we had our first taste of the rainy season. As we were in the middle of getting our passports stamped, the heavens opened and it bucketed down. Despite there being a power cut which stopped the Immigration and Customs guys dead in their tracks, the locals were not bothered and patiently waited around. This was a regular occurrence it seemed. What we were getting ourselves into? I personally hadn’t rode in the rain since I left NYC and had forgotten how treacherous it was. Luckily, the rain subsided and although we'd taken shelter from the brunt of the downpour, we were a bit wet but were on our way: Bienvenidos a Guatemala!

My first glimpse of Guatemala at the border.

Tikal

The North of Guatemala isn’t huge so we were able to shoot straight for Tikal from the border. Tikal is a sprawling ancient Mayan city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site nestled in the jungles of Northern Guatemala. It’s splendour and charm far outweighs the mightiness of Mexico’s Chichen Itza. It remains today, the most memorable of the ancient ruins I’ve seen on this trip. The ruins sprawled a vast area. At one stage we got lost down a trail and were treated to a troop of 30 coatimundi(odd possum/racoon-looking creatures) and their babies crossing. They were just as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Spider monkeys could be glimpsed swinging overhead. It was raining but it didn't seem to matter, this place was magical. 

Power pose on top of Temple 4 overlooking Tikal. 

The Acropolis of Tikal.

Tensions were high the morning we were supposed to leave Flores, the small islet town a little south of Tikal. My eagerness to hit the road early was a bit rushed for Pat so after a brief discussion we decided I'd go on ahead and he'd follow me later. It was a long ride and I was concerned I'd be cutting it close to darkness as it was. Thereafter followed one of the most testing, enduring rides I've experienced since the infamous dodgy mountain pass of Real de Catorce in Mexico. It started fine, meandering through lush greenery I hadn't seen since Connecticut. My route led me to an obstructing river which was traversed by an odd flat barge/ferry powered by 4 outboard engines perched on the four corners which provided sufficient propulsion to guide this hunk of metal across carrying trucks of livestock, motorcycles and cars. It was such a short river crossing however I couldn't fathom why they hadn't just constructed a bridge. It was seriously no more than 150 metres across. 

Waiting for the barge to cross this minor obstacle.

Waiting for the barge to cross this minor obstacle.

It was smooth mountain twisty riding for another couple of hours until I came across obstacle number two, an especially rough and rocky unpaved 80km stretch through some Guatamalan highlands. What should have taken me 60mins, took me close to 3 and a half hours. It was a harrowing ride up steep inclines on very loose and uneven, river washed road. I was convinced I'd snag a flat or bottom out and seriously damage the engine. It was a knuckle-whitening, nerve-wrecking ride of spectacular beauty. At one stage I came across 3 road workers who besides had a lifetime of work ahead of them to make these roads passable, obstructed me way with a taut red tape and demanded 20 Quetzals for me to pass. At first I thought I was being shaken down, but I soon realized it was maintenance toll for users of the road. There was no way I was turning around and truth be told I would have paid a hell of a lot more to pass. 

This was not far off the road surface through the slow 100km mountain pass. 10/10 would not ride again.

This was not far off the road surface through the slow 100km mountain pass. 10/10 would not ride again.

Semuc Champey

Eventually I cleared the mountain pass only to find the road to Semuc Champey not much better. By the time I got to the area, it was dark but I was not in the clear just yet. With the added difficulty of darkness I took many wrong turns, crossed a sketchy bridge and eventually found the steep decline that led to Utopia, my lodging for the night. I remember parking the bike and thinking if they had no space for me, I was going to sleep on the ground. I wouldn't accept being turned away. I was quickly met with a smile and a cold beer from a nice American chap working there who confirmed vacancy. Will and Elise, an American couple who we befriended back in Belize were shocked to see me walk through but little did they know they were the driving factor which kept me going. Knowing I'd be met with two friendly faces when I got there was the only reason I managed to persevere and it was worth it to see the shock on their faces. 

The hostel, Utopia was special for several reasons. Besides being an outstanding, giant tree house with amazing Vegetarian food, it was where bonds were forged and new alliances made. Christian, Jordan, Sara, Cameron, Will and Elise. Little did we know we'd follow each other to Antigua and become close to inseparable for the next week or so. It was one of them unexpected moments of traveling where you meet a great group of people and didn't want to part ways for fear of upsetting the status quo.

Semuc Champey is a well-known tourist attraction in Guatamala and for good reason. It's limestone pools are fantastic looking down from the mirador and even nicer to splash around and swim in. There was also the candle-lit cave tour which ended with a high rope swing into the river. In spectacular fashion, one of the guys Christian, lost his go pro which was attached to his head after an impressive front flip which thrusted the camera from his head into the murky river water never to be found again. The day's activitities ended with a lofty rickety bridge jump and with a two hour inner tube float back to our hostel. It was an action-packed two days and quickly made the hassle of riding there melt away. I even snagged some sick pics of me crossing said rickety bridge and high-fiving a local nino!

Traversing a less-than-optimal bridge outside Semuc Champey. Photo by Elise Ronfart.

Up top! Talk about perfect timing. Photo by Elise Ronfart.

The gang hikes to the mirador at Semuc Champey

The gang hikes to the mirador at Semuc Champey

The money shot. Pools of Semuc Champey.

The money shot. Pools of Semuc Champey.

Up close and personal. Gorgeous for a swim and a frolic.

Up close and personal. Gorgeous for a swim and a frolic.

With new alliances made, the next stop was Spanish-colonial Antigua, the has-been capital of Guatemala for 200 years until it was hit be a massive earthquake in the late 1700's. What better place to hike up a volcano to see another extremely active volcano up close right?