You’ve been up since 4am and have just spent 5 hours on a crammed collectivo across unpaved highway and then had another two hours in an equally crammed bus in the midday heat across more unpaved highway. But its all worth while when you walk up to the gates of El Retiro hostel in Lanquin and see the turquoise blue river, the little thatched bungalows, the lush green valley, and most importantly of all, the two for one happy hour sign for gin and tonics. Bliss.
It wasn’t until I had left El Retiro that I noticed in my guidebook that I’d marked next to Lanquin in pencil a big asterix. Really I should have marked it with a gold leaf star. The hostel here is fantastic, the scenery is amazing, the food is huge, there’s plenty to do, and the people are so friendly. I’d figured this about by Sunday evening, the day I had arrived, and had made my mind up that I’d be here for a while.
The setup here is wonderful, perfect for the solo traveler. There are little banana leaf roofed dorms each holding just 4 people, and there’s also room for another two people in the lofts above each dorm. The restaurant and bar area has two happy hours, board games, hammocks, and big uni-halls style buffet meals in the evening – practically all you can eat. I had Sunday Roast my first night, and can you believe it they had bloody brussel sprouts! Brussel sprouts in Guatemala! I had to give my self a bit of a reality check after that.
At the bottom of the valley runs the river, the same one that comes out of Grutas de Lanquin just up the road. It is a gorgeous turquoise blue – I assume because of the chalk that is dissolved in it, and is a somewhat ‘refreshing’ temperature. That said, Lanquin is a far sight hotter than Nebaj or anywhere else in the highlands, so a ‘refreshing’ dip mid afternoon works a treat. Further up the meadow is a place where you can get in, hop under the barb wire, wade out into the middle and then just drift down stream, making sure to swim over the side in plenty of time!
Sunday and Monday were both pretty quiet days for me, I spent most of time chilling and socialising. I learned to play backgammon, drank lots of gin and tonic (I’d come over all colonial), swam, sun bathed, ate, and relaxed in this sublime setting.
On Tuesday I went on the ‘famous’ El Retiro Semuc Champey tour. Semuc Champey is a series of five limestone pools about 11km down road from Lanquin. The river runs underneath these pools after having eroded away the limestone beneath it a long time ago. The first half of the day was exploring the caves near Semuc Champey. After a quick swing into the river to cool off we headed into the opening of the caves, each of us armed with candle. We’d been told to wear old trainers or flip flops because some of the rocks were quite sharp, although I’m inclined to think it was to avoid the feeling of bat guano squelching between your toes.
Most of the trip we spent waist deep in water, but at times the water was shallow and at others we had to swim – and that’s pretty difficult whilst holding a candle and trying to keep your sandals on your feet. There were also ladders bolted to the rocks when we had to climb upwards and these were very very slippery. When we reached as far as we could go the guide took it in turns to take groups of five around a large central pillar, underneath a waterfall and then into a deep pool beyond. Needless to say, the candle didn’t survive that one.
After the caves we all hopped into the some old car inner tubes and floated off down stream of the caves for a little while, after which we had lunch. On entering Semuc Champey park itself it started to rain, which was a shame, but soon after it cleared up a little and we made our way to the viewpoint (mirador) overlooking Semuc Champey. It was a tough ascent to do in soaking wet sandals and a little sketchy as we were waved rapidly up the path to shouts of allez! allez! as some locals tore down a fallen tree. The views from the top however… stunning, proper postcard material.
The rest of the afternoon I spent swimming in the clear pools enjoying the fresh water. Swimming in fresh water is so much different from swimming in the sea. And even having swum in the Lake Atitlan and the river by the hostel, you’re always a little wary of sewage from further up stream. But this, this was crystal clear – you almost felt as if you could drink it. Just before we had to leave we went to final pool before the river continued and walked down the waterfall on a rope ladder to see the river rushing out from underneath. It was unbelievably powerful; it blasted out so hard that it rose up again ominously against an opposite wall.
By Wednesday by G&T consumption had left me bankrupt and I had to make the four hour round trip to Coban to get some cash. No fear, I treated myself that evening by tubing down the river from the opening of the Lanquin caves. You’d have thought tubing was a fairly placid affair, but not this. On occasion there were rapids, but more often than not the current took you straight towards some overhung branch or broken tree in the middle of the river. A few of the lads I was with found it especially challenging as they attempted to paddle away without getting their hands wet, or what they were smoking in them. I managed to convince our group to carry on past the hostel a little to the next bridge, after which the others chickened out. However we soon found the bridge was locked, barbed and spiked which made matters a little more challenging.
Thursday was party day. The Brahva girls were in town (chicas de Brahva) and the Brahva party was at El Retiro (Brahva is the Brazilian brand of lager which I think is called Brahma in the UK). That lunch time I made my way to the local bakery which is run by a couple of British guys and a Dutchman, and reportedly did the best burgers in town. The Brahva van was parked up opposite the bakery pumping out some hideous music, and the owners of the bakery were sat outside complete with bright red Brahva t-shirts and beers in their hands.
I joined them for a drink and ordered my burger with Ben, a North Eastern guy (and Sunderland fan). It appeared to be Chris’s birthday, the other British owner, and he’d been awoken at 9am after a previous heavy night, to the sound of the Brahva van. It was only after the mention of chicas de Brahva was there an incentive to get up and see what all the fuss was about. Luckily for him, one of the locals had tipped off the Brahva party that it was his birthday and over the tanoy they announced there was a birthday kiss for Chris from the Brahva girls. And all this whilst Chris was having his morning coffee and cigarette and trying not to sweat.
I sat with Ben, Chris and their friend Ray enjoying the afternoon and talking. They were greeted occasionally by the locals, a few birthday congratulations for Chris, and the odd order from Ben to the girls working behind him in the bakery. They were good guys, trying to make a living in a foreign country and enjoying the bachelor lifestyle that came with it. In that moment I saw a more contemporary version of what Orwell had depicted in his second novel Burmese Days. In it he talks of the British working in Burma earning a living working for the military or logging firms and living the life of a burra sahib. They bakery guys knew the local language, the politics and the women, and there are numerous other parallels in the book. But for a time and a place (the 1930s, Burma, the British Raj) that I thought was so far away when I read the book I ultimately realised that lifestyle wasn’t too far away at all.
Later in the afternoon I went and explored the Lanquin caves which are known for their bats. Every night the bats come from the cave and fly along the river eating all the mosquitoes (bless em). Its a pretty impressive sight that I can just see from my hostel but at the entrance to the cave… wow! There was hundreds of them, all flying around you. The occasional one skimmed my hair or I felt the flap of a wing very close to my face but they never hit you.
That evening much beer was drunk, much reggaeton played, and many a photo with the chicas callientes taken. I had a bus to catch to Flores early Friday morning and I was fully expecting to take a hangover with me. The trip to Flores was a nightmare, I was crammed into the backseat of the mini-van for 8 hours of so with not even enough leg room to sit straight. I had to sit with either my knees high up against the seat in front of me or with my whole body twisted to the side. But we eventually arrived and I just managed to get the last bed in the dormitory of the very popular (and rightly so) Los Amigos Hostel.
I’ve decided not to go to Tikal, the very popular ruins nearby, but instead am going on an adventure! (C. Howe, Manchester, 2006). I got chatting with some people last night and have decided to go on a 5 day hike through the jungle to the not much uncovered ruins of El Mirador! (its best if you say it as if it was Mordor, in a LOTR style). I leave tomorrow at 6am and have a 120km round trip to complete. I’m going to need to be DEETed up to my eyeballs, and I hear its very muddy, but that’s why I brought my boots 🙂
Until my return on Thursday!
Ed Grylls Andy