Pack my bag. Wake up around six am. Stumble to the side of the road. Wait for a minimum of thirty minutes. Get on bus. Ride bus for five hours. Switch buses. Ride bus for another four hours. Arrive at destination. Look for place to sleep.
This seems to be the general rule for traveling here in Central America. No complaints though it is all about the experience. So after the schedule you see above I arrive at one of my favorite spots in Guatemala, Semuc Champey. Upon arrival I did not know I would come to love this place. I had booked us in at Utopia Eco Lodge. A small hostel close to the all natural pools of Semuc.
It was close to eight o’clock and well after dark when I first walked into Utopia. The massive deck/living room/dining room is simply that, a deck with a roof. It is open to the world outside which is dark right now but I can hear the leaves rustle in the trees and the river rushing below. I make my way upstairs to the dorm room and find an empty bed. The bed I chose was nearest the edge and a top bunk as well. We stay up chatting for a bit and then dozed off to sleep.Waking up I could not believe the beauty surrounding me. My bunk faces out over the dining room and into the jungle. It is breathtaking.
There is a little stream of fog running through the valley and a wave of peace washes over me. Making my way downstairs I order a coffee and take a seat at the bar gazing out at the mountains and fog. It’s a friendly hostel and everyone is eager to help in any way they can. Most of the people working are travelers as well. They loved the area so much they decided to stick around and work in exchange for free lodging.
Utopia is exactly what it claims to be, a utopia for vacationers and travelers alike. All the meals are served family style. I like this approach for a few reasons; for one I don’t have to look at a menu and see all the different foods I crave at any given time and two I think it helps cut down on food waste. All the meals are vegetarian (which I am a little reluctant about). However, every meal they brought out was better than the last! I don’t like admitting it but if I could cook vegetarian food the way they did then it might not be so bad cutting out meat.
The hostel offers tours of the pools/caves as well as a comfortable place to relax and re-energize. Whether I was sitting back reading a book, playing “mafia” (a thrilling card game), eating, or chatting with other travelers Utopia never lost it’s inviting vibe. It seemed as if my Ipod was playing in the background and everyone around me was engaged in conversation. Utopia was a breath of fresh air and the people I met seemed to have been enlightened. It is a happy place and one I am sure to return to.
Tikal is about an hour bus ride from El Remate. Like most of the mayan ruins you can hire a tour guide or go about it on your own. One of the options for having a tour guide was the sunrise tour. The bus picks you up at three thirty in the morning and you hike to temple four and watch the sunrise from above the canopy. Sounds pretty amazing but sleep was more enticing after the long bus ride the day before. The Canadian girls who checked in the same time as us opted to take the sunrise tour and I was eager to hear about how it went. We scheduled a ride for ten o’clock.
Camera batteries charged and water bottles filled we crammed into the already full micro bus headed for Tikal. Being the only gringos aboard was nothing new but it was a little awkward when we had to stop and pay our twenty-dollar entrance fee. The locals waited patiently as we fumbled around mixing and matching our quetzals (come to find out they do not take U.S. dollars) luckily we had enough of the local currency to pay our way through. There is no grand entrance like at Coba or Chichen Itza. The bus dropped us off in a little round about area and we started our trek into the jungle.
We didn’t make it far before coming across a massive Ceiba tree that towers two hundred and thirty feet over head! The Mayans believed that these trees held up the sky. After gawking for quite some time we made our way up the trail. We came to a map of the area as well as a fork in the trail. We took a right and headed for the plaza area. Not knowing we would run into a few temples along the way. As we came up on the plaza it was hard to tell how large it really was. I climbed up the stairs leading up a large structure, wound my way through the ancient stone and BAM there it was, the Grand Plaza in all its glory! Temple one to my left, temple two on the right, and the North Acropolis straight across the plaza.
Standing inside The Grand Plaza, looking around and up at the massive temple gives me an eerie feeling. Like someone or something is watching, just waiting to unveil itself. As I leave the plaza to head up another trail towards temple four I look up. There are two spider monkeys in the trees. Of course, a hoard of tourist is snapping a million photos. As I start back into the jungle I can hear what sounds like a recording of some crazy animal. I am convinced the park has speakers and are playing odd sounds for us so that our tour seems more authentic. Come to find out it was no recording. The sound was that of the Howler monkey. Supposedly the loudest land animal in the world. Had I not heard this terrifying screech myself I would probably not believe that statement, however, I have heard it, and I do believe it is true. The sound is hard to describe in words so I encourage you to make your own trip into the jungle to hear the monkeys mockery.
Temple four is massive. It rises up through the canopy and looms over all of Tikal. From the top I can see three other temples down below. The view is stunning and I can’t imagine what it would have been like at sunrise. As we head down the rickety stairway we run into the two Canadians who did the sunrise tour. Well, turns out they actually did NOT do the tour! They explain that they were waiting for the bus outside the hotel at three am…then four am… then around five they said screw it and went back to sleep! They were not particularly happy about this but they were still enjoying themselves nonetheless. WHEW, glad I didn’t book that tour!
The ruins of Tikal are supernatural and I can’t begin to explain the energy I felt there. The vastness of the grounds is astonishing and the sheer size of the temples is mind-blowing. I spent four hours wandering the trails of Tikal and could have spent another two. I am glad I did not hire a tour guide. From what I can tell when you have a tour guide it seems rather rushed, I would prefer to take my time and stop where I want. Having a book on the subject or doing some light reading previous to your own tour will provide just as much knowledge as any “multi-lingual” tour guide.
Standing on the side of the road with our bag of chicken we start to look around for a sign to Finca El Paraíso (the hot springs). There is no sign anywhere but I do remember being told there is a tiny restaurant at the entrance so we walk up a small dirt road towards an old building. There is a man sitting on the edge of the stone wall and he sells us tickets to enter the park. It has been overcast and raining all morning so as we walk down the trail we are dodging mud and puddles everywhere we step. Halfway down the trail we encounter a family of pigs. A few adults and five little piglets! Super cute but they aren’t too sure about us and scamper off. It’s about a fifteen minute walk until we reach our destination.
The trail comes to an end and where you would expect there to be someone to take our tickets there is only a steep staircase made of logs dropping down into the jungle. Carefully navigating down the staircase I can start to see the waterfall. A hidden gem. Finca El Paraíso is all natural with only a few locals swimming in the pool under the waterfall. Steam rises up out of the pools and drifts away in the breeze.
We find a spot to set down our bags, take off our clothes (most of them anyway), and then find our way to the water’s edge. The water is a tad warmer than bath water when I first get in but the closer I get to the falls the warmer the water gets. I’m floating in the water looking up at the waterfall with the jungle canopy looming overhead. It’s like something out of a movie. I feel completely relaxed. I can’t count how many times over the past months I have felt this way. The one reoccurring thought I have during times like these is where would I be had I not gotten sober, surely not here.
Underneath the waterfall the rocks open up and there is a small space to poke your head up. Floating underneath the rocks and inside the waterfall there is a young boy. Adventurous and fearless as we once all were this little boy leads us farther back into the darkness and shows us a small passageway to another pool. The passageway is maybe two feet by two feet and half full of water. I start to squirm through the hole and my claustrophobia sky rockets. I want to back out but instead I take a few deep breaths and push on. I make it through to the other-side and am surrounded by falling water everywhere. The pool is deep with a few boulders under the surface to stand on. I do a three sixty spin of the pool and hot water rains down on me from every direction. Come to find out I could have gotten here from the main pool but where’s the fun in that? I slide out back to the main pool and tell everyone they have to try it!
There is a path to the right of the waterfall leading to the top. It’s caked with mud and is extremely slippery. As I’m making my way to the top I am overtaken by the horrid smell of bat guano. I see a small cave to my right and can hear what sounds like a thousand bats inside. I quickly get past this part and move to the top. At the top of the waterfall there is a small stream coming out of the brush and a trail leading into the woods. I heard there is healing mud here and I am on a mission to find it. I start-up the trail not knowing where it will lead. I’m barefoot and the trail is spattered with slippery rocks. After a few minutes the trail splits in three directions. Go straight? Maybe left? How about right? I decide to go left first. It doesn’t seem like the trail is leading me anywhere until suddenly it opens up to cleared flat area overlooking another stream. Not what I was looking for but pretty nonetheless.
Turning around I make my way back to the split and decide to go right (the way I was originally headed). It doesn’t take long until I find what I’m looking for. I can see that this is where the hot springs break through the ground. The mud I’m looking for is in two different spots, both are surrounded by scolding hot water. There is a makeshift bridge of two logs sunk in the water with the tops of the logs barely above the surface. I start my balancing act across the “bridge”. Reaching the middle of the first log I realize the second is completely submerged, so in one quick movement I hop to a rock on the right and then over to the shore. The mud is still farther back in the spring so I make my way over the tops of rocks and find a place to put my feet. Hunched over applying mud all over my body I feel like a kid from Lord of the Flies. I make my way back to the shore and assess my return to the trail. I can’t hop on the same rock and onto the log because the log is too unstable. I take my chances anyway. My foot plunges into the water and I let out a roar as I clamber to dry land. A hot spring indeed. Now fully caked in “healing mud” I make my way back to the waterfall.
I climb back down the slippery trail past the stinky bats and slide into the pool. A plume of brown surrounds me as the mud washes away. I scrub myself clean and feel my silky smooth skin. I don’t know if its smooth because the mud helped or because the mud was greasy and I will probably never know but I am loving every second of it!
Hearing the pitter patter of raindrops outside is one of the most pleasant ways to come back to reality. I lay in bed and just listen with my eyes shut for the next ten minutes. Hearing the different sounds the drops make as they fall on the tin roof overhead, the leaves taking a beating outside my window, the steady stream of water running off the roof hitting the deck, and the plop plop sound as the river takes on more water. There are no dogs, no roosters, and only the occasional chirp from a bird. Pure bliss. All I slept with was a sheet and now I am rather chilly so I pull the blanket over me and hunker down to enjoy the song of nature.
The nature jam session comes to a close and I head downstairs for a morning cup of joe. First an espresso and then I switch to regular coffee. Due to the rain this morning we are all a bit slow about getting around. We get the low down on the local hot springs and start to plan our day. We were told its best to take some lunch with us. The couple we met the night before comes in for coffee and we start to plan our day.
We pile in the boat, Luis pulls out of the dock, and we head to town. We stop and buy some mango in a bag (the local snack and quite delicious to boot). The supermercado is on our way to the “bus station” so we pop in and wander around contemplating on what to eat for lunch. We ultimately decide to buy a whole chicken (already cooked), some bread, mustard, cheese and a few apples. We are all set so we walk down the street dodging cars and people alike.
As we approach the micro buses we are immediately offered a ride. We follow the man over to his bus and take a look inside. There are already twelve people packed inside like sardines. We all have a pretty good laugh about it and respectfully decline the ride telling him we will wait for the next. He insist that four more people is no problem at all! We decline again. He then proceeds to tell us who knows when the next bus will be it could be hours. I wonder if he is a part-time comedian because I can clearly see three other buses. Finally after he finds a few more willing people he climbs in the driver’s seat and pulls out towards his destination. He has been gone for all of two seconds when the bus parked in front of his backs up and offers us a ride. Hours he said it could be HOURS! He wasn’t even out of sight and we were already in an empty bus waiting for others to cram into the uncomfortable positions we were offered.
It was about a forty-five minute drive maybe a little longer but there was never a dull moment. It was still drizzling outside but as you know a drizzle while driving constitutes the use of windshield wipers. I’ll explain this man’s windshield wipers. Yes it was a real wiper blade. However this was a special blade. The mechanics had clearly broken and so he had rigged it up himself. So, there is a rubber band attached to the blade which is also attached below the windshield. Also attached to the blade is a piece of string running up to the roof and into the drivers window. Pull the string, release and voilà! The windshield has been wiped! This provided for some entertainment along the way. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself every time he reached his arm upwards for the string.
Every time the bus slowed down to let people off I wondered if it was our stop. When it was finally our stop I was a little leery to get out. Our drop off point was essentially on the side of the highway with no clear signs pointing anywhere. Had it been another road I might not have been so worried. I did forget to mention that this is the most dangerous stretch of road in Guatemala. There are numerous robberies and just a few weeks prior there had been a hold up of a tour bus. The tour bus passed a police check point and then a few miles up the road they were robbed of all their belongings.
Unlike my other long bus rides where I buried myself in the pages of my book, this time I watched The Punisher, in Spanish of course! I have already seen the film a few times so I thought what the hell, I could either read my book or try to pick up the local language. I think I fooled the Guatemalan man next to me into believing I spoke fluent Spanish. At some parts I would look over at him and we would share a man’s moment of guts and glory. The movie finished and then guess what The Punisher 2 came on! Now this I could not watch. Five hours later the bus arrived in Rio Dulce. The bus emptied out and everyone crowded the luggage holds underneath holding out tickets, shouting, and pointing for their bags. I sat back waited for calmer waters and then effortlessly lifted my bag onto my back, walked across the street to the Sun Dog Cafe and phoned my hostel for a ride.
Aside from a few, all of the hotels/hostels are located on the river and are only accessible by water taxi. Luis the taxi operator from Hotel Kangaroo (my hostel) pulls into the dock and I toss my bag in the boat. He is in his mid twenties and from Mexico City. Pulling out of the dock we cruise past a small island with pelicans perched on top of the trees. It’s a beautiful sight and I take a mental photo. Luis is standing behind me hammering down on the throttle of the outboard motor as we pass under the massive archway the bridge forms. We veer off of the river and head back up into the mangroves winding our way past private residences with fancy yachts. It’s a totally different side of Guatemala than I am used to and I find my self thinking about the unequal distribution of wealth in the country… and in the world. In moments like these I feel defeated, it seems like there will never be an end to it. Maybe I am young and naive or maybe I just long for a better way of living for all mankind.
The mangroves are thick and the waterway comes to a head, we split to the right and arrive at Kangaroo. I am a little unsteady on my feet as we unload the boat and it makes me realize how long I’ve been on dry land. I am ready to get back to the ocean, back to diving, back to my garden of eden. Checking in is no problem and the lady is super friendly. I take my bag upstairs, change shirts, and head out to the deck. The deck sits on the water’s edge and hundred feet across on the other side is a family enjoying their last days of Semana Santa. The children are playing some sort of “king of the kayak” game while the adults sit around a table enjoying conversation. My mind wanders and I can’t help but think of times with my extended family. I have nothing but fond memories of our get togethers but at the same time I feel a sense of sadness. I realize how much I took for granted. The family vacations, the reunions, the times we were able to run around and be fools. Why can’t those times last forever? “Quieres algo de beber?” I’m brought back to reality when the waitress ask me what I would like to drink. I respond “Un limonada con soda por favor.”
I see a kayak coming around the corner with a couple paddling their way back to the dock. I say hello as they walk on past into the hotel. After a while they come and join us on the deck. We have some dinner, exchange some stories, a few laughs, and make a plan to visit the hot springs the next day.
The day started out like any other…I woke up around eight and fifteen minutes later rolled over and hopped out of bed, threw on my shorts, and went to brush my teeth. Standing on the terrace looking out at the volcanoes towering over Lake Atitlán as I brush my teeth I stop to take it all in and appreciate the moment. It’s quite windy today but there are no clouds and the view is stunning. The sun is beating down on me as I lackadaisically move the brush over my canines and back to my molars. My mind wanders and I start to think about how I will spend this beautiful day.
The next thing I know WHAM the door to my bedroom slams shut! I didn’t think much of it at the moment but then I start to realize that my keys are in the bedroom. They door locks on its own. Now you’re thinking “Whats the big deal your locked out of your bedroom”. There are three keys on my make shift key chain. One, which you already know is to my bedroom. The other is to the front gate and well the third that is to the living room/kitchen. So now I can use either my bathroom, the terrace, or the front yard. What to do what to do. I jiggle the handle hoping by some miracle the door will pop open. Well as I’m sure you can guess it did not.
Why not just go wake up my Austrian roommates you ask? Well… Our relationship has not moved much past hostel mates, in fact I don’t think it ever went that far. Every conversation is awkward and mid sentence they will start speaking german to each other. Now I’m not offended that they are speaking their native tongue but when your living with someone and all sitting in the same room having a chat it seems a little rude to break off into german. So there I am stuck outside penniless, shirtless, and shoeless not wanting to wake my young, european, stoner roomies.
Lounging in the hammock mulling over my options I’m becoming more and more restless by the minute. Being my last day in the house, I’m surprised that I didn’t lock myself out sooner. I can’t wait any longer, I want coffee. Now I’m looking for things to pick the lock with or something to wedge in and pop open the door. Inside the little bodega in the front yard amidst empty beer bottles, garden hoses and other various items I find a machete. As I pick it up I’m thinking to my self Yea the point on that looks small enough to fit inside the door. You guessed it, of course it didn’t work!
I’m getting a little perturbed at this point so finally I come to the conclusion there is only one thing to do. I’ve got to go find Kate in town. We were sharing a room and each had our own set of keys. She doesn’t have class today so I figure there are only a few places she will be. Either Cafe Moka (the coffee shop down by the water), The Patio (a delicious breakfast place on the main drag), or Cafe Loco (the best coffee in Panajachel). So there I am in nothing but my shorts deciding on the best way to get into town shirtless. I notice my roommates left a pair of shoes outside, I take a quick glance around to see if anyone has woken up yet. Sure enough no one is up. I snag the shoes, slam my feet in, and off I go.
Our house was on the outskirts of town so I walk out of the neighborhood and into the street. Now this is the last Saturday of Semana Santa (Holy Week) so as I walk down the street I am getting more stares than usual. Not your average “look at the gringo stare” more the kind of stare that says Man I wonder what that guy did last night. I stroll down the street, over the bridge and into the main part of town. There are more people now and the shifting eyes are growing exponentially. I decide I’ll go to Cafe Loco first since it is at the top of the main drag and the other two places are closer to the water.
Well I made it to Cafe Loco unscathed, that is except for the humiliation of looking like the most out-of-place gringo in Central America. I step into the coffee shop only for Kate to burst into laughter! I explain my situation and how I ended up there shirtless. I drink half of her coffee and order an iced latte to go. Leaving the cafe I decide I will get a tuk tuk back to the house. Easier said than done. I make it to the crossroads and start to look for a ride. Of course being Semana Santa there are none available! I figure I will walk until I can find one. I am crossing the bridge on my way back before I spot an open tuk tuk, but by now I’m so close to home it’s not worth the five quetzal. I swallow my pride and keep on trucking. I make it back to the house and of course everyone is still asleep. I put the shoes back exactly where I found them and head up stairs. Unlock the door and now two hours later I’m right back where it all started…What shirt should I wear today?
Leaving Belize headed for El Remate,Guatemala was no short trip. We caught the seven a.m. ferry to the mainland and then waited at the dock for our chariot to pick us up. I was relieved that we didn’t have to fight our way through Belize City to the overcrowded bus station. The convenience of a direct bus is worth the extra money especially when it is a ten hour ride.
It was around two o’clock when we reached the border of Guatemala and Belize and it was hotter than hell. We were told to exit the bus and walk across the border. Now the border is quite the funny thing. After waiting in line for twenty or so minutes and paying my ridiculous thirty dollar exit fee I received my exit stamp and entered Guatemala. Well sort of entered Guatemala. Next you had to go to the Guatemala “entrance”. Now in order to get your stamp to enter you have to pay the customs “official” twenty more dollars! A total racket. It’s quite obvious that there is no official entrance fee but the men sitting behind the desk have decided that for me to enter twenty dollars seems fair. So I pay, get my stamp, and wait for everyone else to pay their dues. As a wait outside the bus, on top of the bridge, I can see just how different Guatemala is going to be.
Driving through the country side we pass by stunning scenery. Jungle to the right and to the left rolling hills of farmland. We pass women walking the road dressed in traditional Guatemalan clothing balancing large bundles of various items on top of their heads. In the beginning the road is paved, and I am relieved. However an hour later the road turns into earthy path. Dust pours through the windows and its slow moving. After jostling around for a few hours we reached a paved road again and start to pick up the pace.
El Remate is a sleepy little village next to Lago Petén Itzá. As we exit the bus It’s clear that we are not going to have many choices for lodging. It’s now six o’clock and the sun is setting. Tired and dirty we poke around at a few hostels and inquire about a room for the evening. Las Gardenias had decent rooms with a private bath and internet so we booked ourselves in. One lady in the office spoke broken english and the other only spanish. No problem for us, however, the two Canadian girls checking in seemed to be struggling a bit when the english speaking woman left the room.
We had our choice of six or seven restaurants for dinner, three of which were open. After a short walk down to the ATM we stopped at a roadside hut on our way back for dinner. It was simple chicken, beans, and some sort of salad. Freshly grilled right behind us the chicken was fantastic. Not “Frantastic” but still delicious. Our bellies full and our bodies tired we headed to our room to catch some shut eye before our day at Tikal.