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18 August 2007
Pecked to Death by Jewish Mothers
A long schlep to Flores

(With apologies to Tim Cahill...)

Another long, hot, dusty travel day. It turns out that the Israeli families from yesterday's outing were also in my shuttle to Flores, the closest major city to the site of Tikal Mayan ruins and one of the most popular spots in Guatemala. No great surprise there. We are back on the Gringo Trail, after all. What made it exhausting was that the two moms from the two families had been chatting nonstop the entire trip yesterday, apparently hadn't stopped for a breath all night, and continued to chat away the entire five-hour shuttle ride to Flores. Now, Jewish Moms (and Bubbes everywhere), you know I love ya. But two days straight of listening to these women chatter away in Hebrew, a challenging language to listen to even on a good day, was almost more than I could take.

I was more than a little relieved when we arrived in Flores.

Turns out my first choice of a hotel no longer existed. (Another email update to the folks at Rough Guide!) And by the time I found a place it was pouring cats and dogs. Despite a desperate need to do laundry, I booked a spot on the sunrise tour of Tikal and tried to get an early night's sleep. Tomorrow would be another exhausting day!

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments


17 August 2007
Semuc Champey and Lanquin Caves
And more frickin' stairs!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I decided to take a daytrip tour to the Semuc Champey waterfalls and Lanquín Caves. Originally I'd been planning to stay there overnight at a cool hostel I'd heard about, but the fact that I had a nice hotel in Coban, which also offered a shuttle straight to my next destination of Flores, won out in the end. Plus the tour came with breakfast and lunch, so it sounded perfect.

Rene, tourguide extraordinaireThe drive out to Semuc Champey was long, hot, and very bumpy, especially towards the end. Fortunately we had a really funny tourguide named Rene, who kept us all amused. Not that it was a particularly friendly crowd... the group consisted of eight Israelis (two families of four), a German family of four, a Spanish couple, and me. So everyone else had a pre-defined group to chat with in their own language, leaving me to sit and stare out the window. This was one of those times when it would've been nice to have a travel companion, or even my own posse!

where the Rio Cahabon exits the underground caveAt any rate, we arrived at the Semuc Champey park grounds after about two and a half hours of bumping and jostling in the van. It's become quite a popular spot to visit in recent years, as it's a pretty unusual natural wonder. The Río Cahabón flows down through a huge cavern into a series of shallow limestone pools that cascade down in a tranquil flow. The bulk of the river goes underground and cuts back out from a hole in the canyon a few miles downstream. It's pretty spectacular.

oktapodi checks out Semuc Champey from aboveThe walk out to the pools was mellow enough. And then Rene asked us if we'd like to go to the mirador, or viewpoint. Silly me, forgetting that everything in Guatemala involves some grueling uphill race to the death that usually results in me feeling like the Weakest Link, Goodbye! Yes, I forgot all that in the excitement of seeing the pools from up above, and I agreed to go. Not only was it the steepest, slipperiest climb yet, but for some reason everyone else seemed hellbent on getting to the top as fast as possible, with no stopping at all. Am I really the only one who thinks it's reasonable to stop and smell the jungle from time to time? Guess I am. Anyway, the view from the top was, of course, splendid. Almost worth the humiliating climb up there. It was interesting to see the pools from above... the turquoise colors were magnificent and the rushing river downstream was amazing. Not sure why we had to climb vertically to the absolute top of the stupid gorge to see it, but, hey, it made for some nice pics. Which you'll see eventually, I promise.

Fortunately we went down the other side (ah, see, there *is* an easy way!) and for some reason everyone else wanted to take it nice and slow, so I got totally ahead of the group. But, y'know, why be like everyone else? When we got back to the main area there was plenty of time to float in the water and explore the small series of waterfalls. It was reeeeeeeally relaxing.

On the way back, we stopped at the Lanquín Caves, which were OK but not as cool as the spelunking caves we went through in La Fortuna. It was just a series of slippery walkways and a few steps, with lights strung inside and a sign here or there calling out interesting formations. Not that many bats, either. But not a bad way to end the day's excursion.

 

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments


16 August 2007
The Great Space Coaster
How I found myself hurtling through the Cuchumatanes mountains in the back of a pickup truck

Oh, Faithful Readers, you would not believe the day I had today! I can´t quite believe it myself. What an adventure.

I started with a fairly leisurely rise in Nebaj, around 7:30 I´d checked the previous day, at a travel agency, and the woman had assured me that there were plenty of buses to Cobán leaving throughout the day. I had originally planned to head to Antigua to catch a shuttle tour to Semuc Champey, but looking at it on the map it seemed silly to go five hours south only to head another five or six hours north, with an overnight stay in Antigua necessary in the middle. So I headed off to the terminal to find out when the next bus to Cobán might be leaving.

And here is where I had to learn again the lesson I should have heeded in San Pedro la Laguna: when dealing with Guatemalan travel agents, always ask for a second opinion! There was in fact only one direct bus to Cobán and it left at 5am. Right. I checked with another agency to see if there was a more expensive shuttle option, and they said no. Lovely. So this left several options, but the most appealing seemed to be to try for a less direct route to Cobán rather than waiting around here or in Antigua. So I headed back into the agency, and a different person outlined the route I´d have to take:

1. Micro from Nebaj towards Quiché, but ask to be let out in Entronque
2. Catch a bus to Uspantán
3. Bus from Uspantán to Cobán

OK, now we´re getting somewhere. I can handle that! Especially with the route written out on a scrap of paper that I could point to if necessary.

waiting in the clouds for the bus, like ya doI found a microbus crammed full of people. Cool, that means it´s about to leave. The driver agreed that he would be passing by Entronque, but seemed reluctant to stop there. Never mind, I had to trust that he would, otherwise I´d need to go all the way to Quiché and backtrack. So I was somewhat relieved and somewhat anxious when the bus stopped by the side of the road seemingly in the middle of nowhere and the ayudante shouted out "Entronque!" Guess this is my stop. But where the hell are we? Fortunately three other people got off at the same stop, and one other guy said he was going to Uspantán and that I could just follow him.

the mighty Cuchumatanes mountainsWe waited by the side of the road, looking down on clouds to a beautiful valley below, until a pickup truck pulled up and someone shouted "Uspantán!" This was apparently our next mode of transport. I hopped in with my pack, and began the second and most fabulous part of the day´s journey. Fantastic! Screw chickenbuses, you haven´t really traveled until you´ve bounced along in the open bed of a pickup truck with a few piles of random goods, three farmers, two old ladies, the farmer´s wife with a papoose strapped to her back, and a 10-year-old girl. The scenery was breathtaking. I know I keep saying that, but this was the most incredible so far. Bright blue sky, fluffy white clouds, eye-popping (and ear-popping!) mountains splashed with every possible shade of green and brown. Really, truly splendid. Made the Monteverde scenery look like child´s play. I would´ve taken a million pics but I was too busy hanging on for my life as we dipped and swung around curves at breakneck speed. At one point we stopped to deposit some of the stuff (and one of the chickens) at someone´s house, and the driver caught my eye with a smile that said "Hey, you won´t get this kind of ride on the Gringo Trail, sister!" Damn straight. Once again, I was so glad not to have taken the packaged convenient way out.

I was almost sad when the ride ended -- and for 10Q, this was the best bargain ride indeed -- and we arrived in Uspantán. I easily found another micro headed for Cobán, and settled in for the long drive. The first half was nice enough, with the same beautiful scenery (not quite as stupendous from inside a closed vehicle, though) and decent paved roads. Then the road got seriously bumpy -- oh, I see, they´re still in the process of paving it! -- and at one point we had to stop for nearly an hour on the hot dusty road, for seemingly no point at all. I guess it had something to do with the big contruction trucks schlepping huge piles of rock up the hill. My brain was too fried to care much.

Casa d'Acuna gardenWe eventually arrived in Cobán, a nice enough place with not much going for it besides being the gateway to nearby Semuc Champey and Lanquín caves. The recommended hotel, Casa d´Acuña, was quite nice and had decent dorm rooms for a good price. Huzzah, the book redeems itself after that awful Nebaj recommendation! Tomorrow, a tour to Semuc Champey.

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments