In the first leg of our road trip north, we arrived in Coban, Guatemala, which is the jumping off point for the charming backpacker town of Lanquin, the Lanquin caves, and the Semuc Chapmey waterfalls and pools and cave. Thereafter, we headed to Flores for a visit to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal. Both places were total highlights, and well worth the trip. One of my favorite quotes from the few days occurred while we were deep inside the Semuc Champey cave, as Tyler turned to us and said, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done!”
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These were the highlights of the 4 days in Northern Guatemala:
1. Semuc Champey Cave – Our overnight in Coban was in a hostel with Guatemalan owners who were super friendly and helped us to organize our tour for the next day, easily convincing us to hire a driver and leave our Honda safely parked in their driveway. Early the next morning, 6 of us hopped in the rental van for the drive. Unfortunately, both Emily and Anna felt sick, and couldn’t bear a 2-hr+ bumpy drive, so they stayed home and recuperated. True to our expectations, it was a terrible road, much of it dirt, and I was glad I paid someone else to take us. We stopped in Lanquin at another hostel to switch out to our 4X4 driver, and rather than navigate the day ourselves, we decided last-minute to pay a guide for the “tour” which would include the cave tour, tubing down the river, and entrance to the pools and waterfalls. We decided to skip the Lanquin caves, as the main draw were the exiting bats each evening and we didn’t want to be driving back at night. The 4x4 drive from Lanquin was a little more exciting, since half of us were standing in the back of the pickup for the 45-minute drive up and down the stupidly steep and narrow roads, clinging to the edge of the road as we passed other pickups. The view was fantastic as we drove through the jungle green beauty of the passing fields and valleys and quaint tiny villages along the way.
Our first stop was to go spelunking in the Semuc Champey cave. This was a wet cave with an active river flowing through it and we were told that we would be wading and swimming through many parts of the cave. Approaching the entrance, the guide took a handful of thick white wax candles from his sack and held them in a clump as he lit the wicks with a single flick of his lighter. The flame jumped from one wick to another as thick black smoke rose from the dripping wax of the candles. He handed each of us a candle and led us into the dark cave as we waded up to our waists in water, into the current that flowed from the unknown bowels of the cave tract. I was skeptical but intrigued, while Tera and the kids were thrilled and eager beyond normalcy. Nathan however, was incredibly hesitant, as he is slightly terrified of fire and he had just been given instructions to hold a candle with his bare hands and swim into the dark.
As we ventured further into the cave, the light from the candles was surprisingly ample. We came to the next corner where the water was so deep that wading wasn’t an option. Above the flowing cave stream about a foot from the water surface was a rope, stretched taut from stalagtite to stalagtite. This was a rope we could hold onto as we maneuvered through the deeper parts. But, of course, we also had candles to keep lit and far away from the flammable rope and the dousing water. During the deep “swimming parts”, Megan and Jacob gave up on the rope entirely, quickly passed back their candles to me, and fully swam across instead. The rest of us held the rope with one hand above our heads, and pulled ourselves slowly through the water, while holding anywhere from 1 to 4 candles at a time in the other hand barely above the water. It was hilarious, and challenging. This wasn’t a single deep channel to cross in the cave; this happened over and over as we continued deeper and deeper back into the cave system. But lest you think the cave was a single horizontal flowing water surface, I need to mention the waterfalls. Those, we got to climb up via metal ladders propped up into the rocks above: one hand on the ladder grips, and the other hand holding the candle (or candles), trying to keep the flame away from the spray of the waterfall that soaked you on one side, all while the candle lights flickered on the water and ceiling and wet glistening walls. We continued this way for about 350 meters into the depths of the cave – Tera giddy with excitement, Nathan trying to bravely conquer his fear of fire and incredulous that he was actually doing this, and the rest of the kids rushing far ahead of me until they needed me to hold their candles. There were certain moments, as I watched Jacob scrambling up over wet rocks and swimming through deep pools, without a lifejacket, deep under the earth, that I thought to myself . . . “What are we doing here? This is so dangerous!!!” At the final waterfall, we were invited to pass back our candles, climb up onto a high edge inside the cave, and jump about 8 feet down into the deep dark pool of still water. Dark cave cliff jumping in the candlelight, how many times have you done that? This cave experience brought Tyler to turn around and exclaim “This is the most fun I’ve ever had!”
2. Semuc Chapmey Pools and Waterfalls – Our next destination was the pools and waterfalls of Semuc Champey. The area is a geologic wonder, a limestone shelf at the base of a valley. The river has dissolved a conduit/cave underneath the shelf, so at one end the river seems to disappear underground. However, there are other streams and rivulets of water that descend from the mountains and empty onto the flat shelf, forming deep blue pools and lagoons. It is a gorgeous result, with the river rushing under the pools of water, and cascading waterfalls falling in about 10 different levels, at the base of a deep green valley. Upon arrival, we first hiked up about 30 minutes on the mountainside trail to an overlook viewpoint of all the pools and the entering and exiting river. We bought a few fresh green coconuts, watermelon slices and fresh cacao pods from the local ladies who were selling them along the trail. We walked back down the mountain and then spent a couple of hours playing in the water and jumping from pool to pool. There were plenty of people there, but it wasn’t so crowded as to be unpleasant.
3. Flores Island Airbnb stay – Flores is the nearest big city to the ruins of Tikal. The city is situated by a large lake, with the original city built on a small island surrounded by the lake that is now connected to the mainland by a bridge. Our Airbnb was a three-story house on the island that overlooked the lake and the daily sunset. It was a gorgeous view. Upon driving onto the island, even before checking into the Airbnb, the kids had already hopped out of the car and jumped from the boardwalk into the cool fresh waters of the lake, some with bathing suits, and some fully clothed. The first evening we walked out across the island, and went out to the outdoor food market, and ate the local delicacies: 5 quetzal, or 75 cents, for three tostadas or tacos. We ate our fill.
4. Ruins of Tikal – About an hour northeast of Flores, lies the archeological site of Tikal. We headed out early on Thursday morning to drive to the ruins. Unfortunately, we forgot to get additional funds from the ATM, and the site didn’t take a credit card for the admission fees. So we had to turn around and drive almost all the way back to Flores to find an ATM that would work.
After our 90-minute back and forth cash crazy detour, we entered the ruin site. It is a massive site, with dozens of temples and plazas to explore and climb and learn about. Each excavated area was about a 10-minute walk apart from each other. The jungle paths were well worn, with howler monkeys and spider monkeys climbing from tree to tree. The massive stone temples were dramatic and impressive. We were able to climb to the top of many of the temples, whose top platforms reach up above the treetops. The view from the top was gorgeous, looking out above the jungle canopy and seeing the other temples piercing upwards through the verdant treetop. Over the course of the day, we climbed every tall temple, so we saw the same jungle/temple view from many different viewpoints.
At one of the temples, Temple V, which was the most recent temple excavated, there was a tour of white-clad members. They each had a red scarf tied around their head or waist. They had built a small fire in front of the temple, and the grey smoke wafted up in front of the temple steps through the branches of the overhanging trees. Many of the followers puffed on massive cigars (not inhaling), almost 1½ inches in diameter. They were on a Mayan ritual meditation tour.
The last thing we did was a large ruin plaza, the remains of a temple and palace complex. It was set back from the main thoroughfare, almost unseen unless you climbed up onto it. We all made the climb, then Tera and kids continued climbing, clambering over the ruins and excavations. At one point, I lost my entire family as they climbed, knowing this would be their favorite part of the day. I would sometimes see their silhouettes running along a temple ridge, or I would hear their laughing voice calling out to each other.
Plan? What plan?
Our first Gap Year was a fabulous "2017-2018 School Year" of travel: from the Netherlands to Jordan to Texas to Hawaii to Mexico to Central America to London and back to the Netherlands. Our "2018 Summer Vacation" took us all around Western Europe, back to the USA on a transatlantic cruise, a road trip through New York and into Canada, and ending up in Utah. We have now kicked off the "2018-2019 School year" with a trip to Asia. Follow along with us on our visits to new places, as well as revisiting some of our favorite places from our time living there. It's going to be great!!