Stop and Go in Guatemala

Seeing Guatemala through the eyes of the Brit

As soon as I stepped foot in Guatemala I knew it was a country I was going to love.

It involved some dirty deep-fried chicken and a crazy winding, swerving, death-defying seven hour chicken bus ride from the border.

It’s hard to describe, but the ticket conductor, a young man in his 20’s, was more akin to an acrobat in the Cirque du Soleil than that of someone who just collected money.

He was all over the bus, walking up and down the ailse like he owned the place, swinging out the back door and scampering up onto the roof to collect someone’s bag, all at breakneck speeds going around some mountainous corner. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it before, and the whole bus ride felt like our own personal circus performance while being thrown about on a theme park ride.

Leaving behind the magic of Mexico and the chilled out Caribbean coast of Belize, I knew Guatemala was going to be another completely different experience; I knew it was going to be a country just for the backpackers.

Guatemala was the first time we’d really experienced the infamous chicken buses

Starting up in the north, we stayed in the tiny town of Flores while we took in Tikal, once one of the great ancient cities in the world.

Filming at Tikal was without a doubt one of the best days of filming we had to date and everything clicked, everything worked.

People may find this strange, but walking around somewhere like Tikal while filming really gives you the time to take in how incredibly impressive the site is; it really makes you pause and reflect on what to say to the camera, and in that act you seem to absorb every snippet of information, making you appreciate where you are just that little bit more.

Tikal was once one of the great ancient cities in the world

From Flores we took the tourist bus to Lanquin, right in the heart of Guatemala.

While on the way, we were caught up in a road block as local farmers and workers were protesting over the price of maize seeds. Even though the bus sat stationary for four hours, it actually turned out to be one of my favourite days of travelling so far, a day where you just appreciate where you are and who you are sharing it with.

Being stuck for four hours in a Guatemalan protest actually turned out to be one of my favourite days of travelling so far

Lanquin, up in the hills, has become a bit of a mecca for adventurous backpackers.

Most hostels run their own tours to Semuc Champey, a national park just 10km outside Lanquin, and they involve caving, tubing and hiking all for the paltry price of Q160 (approximately €17); you’d pay the same for just one of those activities in other countries.

The tour’s unbelievable, and if you like throwing yourself into pools in the pitch black, flying from a rope swing into a fast flowing river, or jumping off a 10m high bridge (as I do), then you will absolutely love this tour.

Overlooking the waterfalls at Semuc Champey, it is easy to understand just why so many backpackers make the detour to the area, and I highly recommend you do the same!

Overlooking the waterfalls at Semuc Champey, it is easy to understand just why so many backpackers make the detour to the area

From Lanquin, we made it down to Antigua, the popular tourist town that is advertised as Guatemala’s tourism showpiece.

Antigua is surrounded by a number of volcanoes, and while we were there we thought we would hike up one of the tiny ones, Pacaya.

Despite getting up at the crack of dawn with high hopes of seeing spewing lava and sizzling steam, it was in fact a complete white out; we couldn’t see a thing. Still, it was a great hike, and roasting marshmallows under the hot rocks made it all worthwhile.

Despite getting up at the crack of dawn with high hopes of seeing spewing lava and sizzling steam, hiking to the top of Pacaya was in fact a complete white out

There really is so much to see and do in Guatemala, and the three of us could have easily spent a lot longer travelling there.

With ancient sites such as Tikal, the pure raw beauty of Semuc Champey and the old colonial feel of Antigua, I knew Guatemala was a county I was going to love, and it really was.

Seeing Guatemala through the eyes of the Broad

As we swerve, bump and grind our way to Guatemala, I am reminded how small I am. The hills reach high to the sky and are blanketed in lush green; a stark change from the landscape of our trip thus far. In between bumps that send us flying out of our seats on an old school bus, I am in awe of the natural beauty of this new country; but not for long.

Our bus driver handles the curves of the winding mountain road like he’s taking his sports car out for a spin and I hang on for dear life, attempting to take in the scenery as we go.

The bus barely stops to pick up passengers. Women, men and children make the mad dash for the bus all the same. The co-pilot scampers from the middle aisle of the bus to the back door and in a flash, he is gone: out the back door as the bus whips around a corner at 80 km an hour. I notice a few scars on his forehead and cheek; a workplace hazard, it would seem.

A Clown in Antigua Before we came here, a lot of people I spoke to would say things like, “I hear Guatemala is the most authentic place to visit in Central America”. It’s a funny thing that we noticed on our travels; everybody is looking to get “off the beaten path” and yet, we are all here, doing the same things, seeing the same things.

Everybody who visits Guatemala visits Tikal, and most of those people stay in the nearby city of Flores for their visit like we did. We awoke at 4:30am to get to Tikal for the gate opening at 6am. We decided to skip the sunrise trip, which left at a deadly 3am and cost three times as much.

Arriving that early in the morning, we were able to explore the massive park and not run into too many people. The fog was rising and it was a bit chilly as we wandered through the jungle paths and came across a few creatures in the bushes.

Tikal through the Trees - ©Brian Ceci We opted out of the tour, but did talk to one guide who said that back in 2012 the park saw hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world come for the end of the Mayan calendar. Luckily, the Mayans got it wrong but the December 21st events were a major boost to the economy there.

Another long, bumpy bus ride later we arrived at our hostel in Laquin. Our hostel was El Retiro Lodge, which literally means “retirement”. Sitting beside a rushing river, we were sleeping amongst the trees, the starry sky and the giant cockroaches.

We were planning on doing some caving, or spelunking as it’s also called, in the nearby town of Semuc Champey. We ended up speaking to some other travellers who had gone the day before and I was met with my first case of terror.

One traveller described crawling through a hole as big as soccer ball, one leg at a time, while water rushed through into the depths below. Her overall nonchalantness made me more than a bit nervous.

The rushing river in Lanquin The next day, not really knowing what to expect, we met with a group and began our caving adventure. We waded through waist deep water, into the darkness, keeping one hand on the rope to guide us and the other hand holding a flickering candle.

We climbed a rope ladder while being beat down by a roaring waterfall to the face and I even climbed up the cave wall and jumped down into the water below (sorry Mom!).

Then came the dreaded infant-sized hole. It seemed I had no choice but to go through and meet the others down below. As our guide spoke to me in broken English, I kept asking, “Yes, but what’s below me? Where am I going to end up?” I’m not sure if he didn’t understand me or if he just didn’t really care, but he placed my legs in the right spots saying, “This leg here, this one here. That arm up here, the other one here, and you go!”

And then there I was, on the other side, somehow having slipped through the smooth rock hole into a shallow, but not too shallow, pool of water. Feeling proud that I had gone through with it, I later discovered that it wasn’t a mandatory part of the adventure.

This guided adventure was one of my favourites, but nothing compared to our “real” adventure, which literally look us “off the beaten path”. As Macca mentioned in an earlier post, we got caught up in a protest while in Guatemala, that lead to a four hour road block.

Getting stuck in Balbatzul Instead of waiting on our bus, a few of us decided to try and find water and shade, and maybe a little beer. What we found ended up being one of the best days of the whole trip.

We made some young friends, who showed us where there was a little “store” set up, which would sell us “cold” beverages. We were then lead to the nearby school, painted bright pink, which provided us with some shade. We put on some music, making the most of this not ideal situation.

As time passed, more and more kids appeared, wondering who these gringos were that were hanging out at the school. The boys started to kick around a soccer ball and so I tentatively started to play pass with a few young girls, who giggled and passed the ball back.

Playing ball with the local kids in Balbatzul It was scorching hot, but it felt wonderful to be outside, passing around a ball, laughing and trying my best to make these kids laugh at my weird faces and poor soccer skills.

I tried a little bit of Spanish on them, and they shyly told me their names. In a matter of a couple of hours, I felt like I knew these girls a little, like they had opened up to me, if sharing nothing more than their infectious laughter and bright smiles.

It seemed like no time had passed, when we heard yells from the road that the blockade would be moving soon. We quickly said our goodbyes and ran back to the road to get back on the oven of a bus.

At this point we knew we wouldn’t arrive at our next destination until late at night, but it really didn’t matter. That day, those few hours, are the reason that I travel. It’s hard to create an “authentic” or “off the beaten path” experience and that’s because you can’t create it. You just have to take the opportunity to embrace it when it comes to you.