Capital – Guatemala City Currency – Q (Quetzals) & US dollars Language – Spanish and Maya
21st February – The border with Guatemala at El Florido, is just half an hour away from Copan in Honduras. It couldn’t be more relaxing here, with modern, air conditioned offices and pleasant officials on both sides. It can’t have taken more than an hour to get through both borders, the permit for our Land Rover into Guatemala, taking the longest. This costs us 160 quetzals (22 US$) plus 10 quetzals each at the Guatemala passport immigration.
As we begin our journey, massive hills on each side of the road, show signs of severe deforestation, coffee beans are laying out to dry having been carefully raked by hand and there are once again, piles of green watermelons for sale everywhere. I buy a pineapple from a roadside stall for 7Q (approx. $1).
We turn north for Chiquimula, trees full of pink blossom, petals lying in pools on the ground and long, green pods hanging from the trees once the blossom has fallen. Rivers have very little water but there is still enough to make the bricks that are standing out to dry and there’s still the piles of rubbish scattered around. Everything is sizzling under the heat, parched and dry….including us. We stop at a garage to try and cool ourselves with an ice cream and hear a “God bless you both” at our side in perfect English but with a slight Irish accent perhaps? A poorly clad guy undoes the string holding up his trousers and shows us a massive hernia, poor guy! He tells us he is to do with the church and school but whatever his story, we buy him a coffee and hope he gets treatment at some point for his hernia, although I think it’s too late to save his teeth, as he doesn’t appear to have many left.
Just after Teculutan, the enormous Rio Grande Motagua has plenty of water and creates a green ribbon of a valley as it winds between the dry, brown hills. We begin to climb as we head towards the town of Salama, blue hills fading into the distance in a haze. We check out Posada de Don Maco suggested by our guide book, where we have parking right outside our room, not far from the collection of caged squirrels…..also mentioned in our book. After a pizza at Dominoes and some mandarins from a fruit stall in the square, we are settled for the night.
22nd February – Taking the road towards Coban, we pass fields of avocados hanging from trees that are strung like grapevines across the hillsides. Vast areas of deforestation continue….it is a sobering sight. Huge areas of forest have been removed for the cultivation of Xate, a low-growing palm, the leaves of which are exported for use in floral arrangements. These palms are covered with black netting and swathes of this drape the hillsides.
Our road passes the Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera Reserve, more commonly known as the Biotopo del Quetzal Reserve. However, the chances of seeing Guatemala’s national bird (the Quetzal) in this park, are very unlikely and sadly their habitat is slowly being destroyed. We make a stop at the reserve to take one of their hiking trails, and we are so glad that we did this instead of hurrying on to Coban. This primary forest is just beautiful, with tree ferns growing in abundance.
Huge trees are also covered in moss, ferns, lichens, bromeliads and orchids, proof that this forest has been here for a long time.
The forest stores water from the rain and mist that covers the mountains, so that the necessary humidity can be maintained. Any water that is not stored, will continue flowing downstream through rivers, streams and waterfalls to the local farming communities.
We continue to Coban, a mixture of new shopping malls, downtown markets, busy streets and local shops. Many women are wearing the traditional, long and very full skirts made from intricately woven fabric. Right in the town centre is the Parque Nacional Las Victorias, an 82 hectare park that has walking trails , picnic areas and even camping. It’s late afternoon and we just make the park before it closes. The guy at the gate kindly opens up a room for us in the office block, so that we can have a hot shower with toilets. It’s a quiet and peaceful night and the weather here is so much cooler.
23rd February – Today we are visiting Semuc Champey famous for its natural limestone bridge, on top of which are a series of pools. The first part of our journey to Lanquin takes us through a beautiful, green landscape of endless farming valleys and undulating hills stretching to the horizon.
South of Lanquin we had been warned that the dirt road deteriorates and it takes us over an hour to travel the last 10km to Semuc Champey. As we arrive alongside the turquoise Rio Cahabon, children run up clutching plastic bowls full of thin circles of chocolate flavoured with cardamon and coffee. One little girl wants us to buy a whole cacao pod but instead we buy some chocolate from a little girl called Anna, who then looked at all our stickers on the back of our Land rover and amazed us by being able to read nearly all the countries! She must have only been about 8 or 9 years old, living in this remote area with her little school set amongst banana trees and forest. She could even speak some English….I do hope she gets the opportunity to develop all her skills – apart from selling chocolate!
At the camping area just inside the park entrance, we meet Marco and his girlfriend from Costa Rica, also driving a Land Rover and it’s not long before we have more little girls joining us from the village, to entertain us with their songs and dancing.
The waters of the Cahabon River begin their journey in the Sierra de las Minas Mountains. At a place called ‘El Sumidero’, the river plunges underground, disappearing amongst a series of underground, limestone caves. In Maya Q’eqchi language, Semuc Champey means – ‘where the river hides beneath the earth’.
Located above this 300m limestone bridge, a series of spring fed, stepped pools have formed, the colour of which ranges from turquoise to emerald green. The river reappears again at ‘El Manantial’ and continues flowing on its journey through a spectacular tropical landscape.
24th February – A blanket of low mist is covering everywhere as we begin an early climb to The Mirador up almost vertical rock-hewn and wooden steps. We hope the mist will have cleared by the time we reach the top, to give us a great view of the pools far below.
We have to wait for nearly an hour for the mist to slowly lift and for the sun to slide down the hillside and reach the water, gradually turning it a brilliant blue/green. It is all quite magical and worth the climb and the wait!
When we leave Semuc Champey later today we return along the same dirt road to the ancient town of Lanquin once more, where it’s a very colourful market day. Smoke and smells rise from their cooking stalls, huge water melons have been sliced in half and more fruit and vegetables are piled high.
When we reach the main road leading back to Coban, we decide to take the short cut north to Fray Bartolome, after being assured by locals that it is ‘asphalta’. This route soon turns out to be a big mistake however, as it very quickly changes to a dirt road as bad as the one between Lanquin and Semuc Champey. It turns out to be a very slow and rough ride but there’s no turning back now. After 2 hours of being shaken to bits, the tarmac suddenly appears before us……it’s just heaven!
And so we continue further north towards Tikal to visit the ancient Maya site there, said to be different to many other great Maya sites due to its location deep amongst jungle.