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To tell you the truth, I wasn't expecting too much from Guatemala. I had read that the Guatemalans were quite a reserved bunch, sometimes coming across as unfriendly plus I also had an inkling that the food wasn't up to much. Given that people and food are central to my enjoyment of a country and culture, i wasn't feeling particularly inspired when I waved bye bye to Belize.

When I crossed the border it was really evident I had entered a developing country. Signs of poverty were all around; women washing clothes in muddy streams and puddles, welly boot wearing men riding mules and scrawny horses, vendors popping up at every opportunity, trying to sell you everything but the kitchen sink. I have no doubt that the wealth of a country is directly correlated to how much effort you have to make to buy something. When you are in a rich country and you want, say, a can of coke, a toothbrush, a chicken or an industrial sized cheese grater, you have to go looking for him. Not in poor countries. In those countries the aforementioned items and many many others will be offered to you as you walk along the street, sit in a cafe, wait on a bus, queue up for the loo or go to church. So sitting in a crowded minibus that first day, items that were passed through the window and then through the bus were food, drink, books, socks, a transistor radio, lots of family sized tubes of Colgate toothpaste, some implement to do with horses, saucepans.... The list could go on. The vendor will initially fix you with a hard stare, shake the product in front of you and then look at you expectantly. When you offer a smile, a no thank you with a head shake to emphasis the no, you are looked at in an incredulous way. Surely you are not refusing, passing up the golden opportunity to buy the set of five tin saucepans. They must be mistaken about your intention. And so they begin shaking the saucepans again, a bit more loudly incase you didn't get it the first time. You shake your head, they shake the pans. After about five goes of this I am no long amused. Welcome to the developing world.

During those first few days in Guatemala, the other striking thing was the number of domesticated animals everywhere. Rather unusually, their favoured location seemed to be the middle of the road. Chickens, lots and lots of pigs, horses and mules, dogs and rather surprisingly turkeys, seemed to have a rather nice life of just hanging out with each other. Activities for the day included going for a walk, finding things to eat, sunning themselves and emptying their bladders on regular occasions. For excitement, two main activities prevailed, refusing to move from the middle of the road whilst a car hurtled towards them (forcing the car to swerve) or, finding a dog or turkey to have a fight with. I am unaware of the of psychology of turkeys, but i would hazard a guess they have anger management issues. It all seemed rather nice to me. In fact Guatemalan life seemed very nice to me.

Much to my delight, most of my travels took me to small places in the countryside, something I had been craving my entire time in Mexico. My first few nights were spent in the lakeside village of El Remate, a quiet little gathering of houses and small subsistence farms just off a lake. The famous Mayan Ruins of Tikal were not too far away, so the local people were accustomed to the odd scruffy looking traveller wandering past their front door. When I was able to lever myself out of the very comfy hammock in my BnB, I would wander through the little lanes and be absolutely charmed by the gaggle of chickens and piglets squabbling over something edible by the front gate, the granddad bent over something in the vegetable garden, the women having a bit of gossip over something in the porch. Wherever I go in the world I am charmed by scenes like these, people, just living their lives. Maybe what is different to life in northern Europe is the strict boundary between indoors and outdoors is not there, people do not live their lives behind a closed front door. The usual western boundary between animals and humans is also absent. They do not live behind gates or in a pen, they live a life entangled with humans. I like that. The people were lovely too; kind and gentle and welcoming, with a little wave or a smile.

After my evening ramblings I would return to the hammock with a can of Gallo, a Guatemalan beer that tastes of watery urine. I would swig and slurp and try not to think about the taste while listening to the terrible singing from the Kingdom Hall next door. The first time I heard such singing I assumed someone with anti-social tendencies had been bought a karaoke machine for their birthday. However after a while I notice a pattern; the terrible tuneless singing would be followed by a long speech, followed by frenzied clapping followed by more terrible singing. This would go on for hours, not every night, but almost every night. Whilst I knew that Evangelical Christianity was the whole rage in Central America I had somehow imagined the whole scene would be a bit more glamorous; people dressed in their Sunday best, choirs of robed singers, voices in unison. I think I got it wrong.

My next place of rest was the village of Lanquin, close to the famed natural wonder of Samuc Champey, a place a thousand times remoter and harder to get to than El Remate. So imagine my surprise when, after about eighteen hours of travel, I check into the only accommodation in the village and find myself surrounded by swarms of pissed and stoned backpackers, average age, nineteen and a half. And that was at 3 in the afternoon. I was duly informed that Zephyr Lodge was a party hostel and that all would be done to make sure I had a good time time. Oh dear God, what had i stumbled in to? To observers I no doubt looked absolutely horrified. I would say that fear, dread and utter panic were the most pronounced emotions I felt when i was told they only had space for me in the dorm. But somehow a miracle was performed and, for the price of the honeymoon suite in the Hilton Dubai, I was given a concrete square box called a room, which contained a bed and a curtain less window. it was also about ten minutes walk from the loo and shower area. But I am under selling it. It had an amazing view, a view which was sadly obscured by the torrential rain and mist which had been accompanying me on my journey for at least a week. I was royally pissed off. I couldn't face going out exploring as the weather was so ghastly and the whole village was knee deep in mud, as a brief glance at my rucksack, shoes and trousers would tell. So I sat in my cold, uncomfortable and depressing room and stewed until the appointed time for dinner. When I arrived, the party games had mercifully finished and the after dinner drinking games has not yet begun. I was faced by a mass of humanity; a total of 47 others, 46 of whom were completely engrossed in their own and each others gorgeousness, while being completely off their faces. It set my teeth on edge. Normally I would feel a bit left out and all insecure about being on my owneyo. But this time no, I was incensed. And so I sat up at the bar, facing the mob with my head held high. Of course no one noticed.

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The whole point in coming to Lanquin was to visit some of the 'really unique natural wonders' of the area', as they say in the guidebooks. So the next morning I jumped into a pick up truck and begin a tour with five other travellers. Two go in the truck with the driver and guide, myself and three others stand in the back, getting completely drenched by the rain and holding onto the bars for dear life. The road was not paved which made for a perilous ride, but despite the misery of the previous few days i was surprised to find myself laughing at being drenched to the skin and thrown about in the back of the truck. The road couldn't really be called a road and with all the water and mud everywhere I guess it felt a bit crazy, a bit wild, certainly exhilarating. It felt bloody good. After about 90 minutes of corkscrew bends we arrived at our first stop, the KAn'Ba caves.

Without ceremony we disrobe and emerge at the ticket gate wearing our swimming things and trainers. Not a pretty sight. Our guide hands us a white tapered candle. It will burn for one hour, long enough to explore a small part of the Kan’Ba River Cave, which extends fifteen kilometres underground. I gingerly step down the stones and into the cave, where cool water reaches my ankles. Jeepers it's cold! Am I going to be able to do this? I wade into into darkness, giggling, just a candle’s flame to light the way. The water quickly rises higher and higher until I am swimming, holding my candle aloft with one hand and paddling with the other. I am grinning from ear to ear, I cant believe I am doing this. Incredible formations surround me - stalactites and stalagmites, ripples and ribbons. Then I am out of the water; ladders and ropes help with the ascent and descent of steep and slippery segments of the rock. Then I'm back in the water again. I wade, swim, and climb my way into to a deep pool with a jumping ledge. Most of the other climb onto the ledge and jump in. There is absolutely no way I am going to do that, I am perfectly at home with being a chicken, but it is nice that another girl from Glasgow is chicken with me. More thrills are in store when we begin the journey back to the cave opening. At one point we we have to fall through a narrow gap between rocks, it's like being at the top of the waterside in a waterpark, I have to lie back, cross my arms across my chest and let the water take me down. I try to stop myself thinking about the slide being made of rock rather than plastic. I try to stop myself from remember the lectures i attended on brain injury. My nerves are slowly unravelling. My candle has gone out and I am swimming in the dark. But then we are back at the entrance. It is over, I cant believe what I've just done. I'm also completely relieved. One of the joys of travelling is that you take risks that you never ever would in your normal life. Health and safety is a dirty word.

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Then it was time for Semuc Champey. The pictures say it all really. First you climb to the mirador and get the tantalising view of the stepped turquoise pools. Then you climb down and climb in. The pools are shallow and warm and stunningly turquoise. There are lots of tiny little fish in them which nibble at your feet and make you feel all tickly. At this point the rain stopped and the sun came out and everyone felt very very happy. Fun was had descending down through the pools. They are limestone and very slippy, hence you might be perched on one, gingerly trying to edge your way down to the next one when whoosh, you were off. And thus began many comedic descents into the lower pools. It was lovely to be with a group; to share the gasps of seeing Semuc for the first time, to giggle at the fish nibbling our feet, to look at each other and know we were all privileged in being there

This featured blog entry was written by noratheexplorer from the blog Nora The Explorer.
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By noratheexplorer

Posted Tue, Aug 27, 2013 | Guatemala | Comments