Semuc Champey: undrinkable, but hikeable and swimmable

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘hikeable’ isn’t a recognised word. Now, I tend to disagree. Many of life’s most likable things usually ends on ‘able’, like drinkable, shrinkable (especially used in the context of my desired waistline post-Mexico) and danceable.

The most desirable thing about something hikeable (to us non-Everest hikers) is the promise of an easy hike with enough time for a swim afterwards. And that was exactly what we did at Semuc Champey – the rock pool rockstar of Guatemala*.

An unavoidable paragraph
As most of you know by now, I am way way way behind with my blog. The Bearded Advice Giver said that I should waffle less and get down to the point sooner so I can catch up. But I really can’t – I like the unignorable details of every story. But I said I’ll try and see whether it’s doable. So I made a more condensable version of what happened between Xela and Lanquin (the teeny village next Semuc Champey where we stayed at):
1. I had the most legroom of my life on the bus from Xela to Guatemala City (see photo below). We had so much space that it was actually uncomfortable.
2. I accidentally left my Panama hat on the Legroom Bus. I was (and still am) unconsolable. We tried everything to get it back, incl. looking like complete idiots at a different bus station when we enquired (in Spanish) about the whereabouts of our rogue Panama hat. And then I had a fight with The Husband in front of all the bus station commuters because I said at the beginning that we’re going to look like complete idiots if we randomly ask them whether they’ve seen a hat. Then I ended up looking like a complete idiot because people who start foreign language fights in public generally are stared at. Oh the drama!
3. We stayed in Cobán for a night just to break the 14 hour bus trip into more digestible chunks. Cobán is a small town with enough coffee and cardamom farms to keep the town smelling like a freshly brewed cup of something enjoyable, and the only mentionable experience was our dinner at Xkape Koba’n – a small Guatemalan eatery with loads of German tourists. We shared a boiled turkey soup called Kaq-ik, and oh my, it was yummy. Loads of flavour and different tastes that our South African palates couldn’t place. It was pleasantly spicy, tomatoey sweet and the turkey was rich and hearty. Yum.
4. My birthday was coming up, so the Husband bought a smackable piñata to add to the excitement of having a foreign-country-birthday. Ten minutes into our (supposedly) 3-hour minivan trip down the Guatemalan highlands to Lanquin, the van stopped and unloaded its very comfortable passengers into another minivan that was already full. We took on the unthinkable slopes of the countryside in a minivan packed with 21 adults, a baby and one piñata.
5. When we got to Lanquin we miraculously regained feeling in both our legs.

Getting our Lanquin on
Lanquin is really tiny. Our hostel was located just outside this mini town, and a 20 minute uphill stroll took us to the heart of it all (i.e. the ice cream shop, the town square and the gazillion local churches). So on my birthday the Husband said we can do anything that I want. So we went for ice cream (big fat scoops of vanilla choc-chip, dipped in proper chocolate and buried alive in peanuts), did some people-watching in the town square and took photos of all the churches. We then shared a draught next the river and I read Harry Potter until the draught gave me lazy birthday bones.

But I was a bit sad. I missed my family, my friends and even though I was smack bang in the middle of beautiful Guatemala, I missed home. And I was really sad about turning 31 as well.

But the day was far from over, and we took a very likable hike to the Lanquin caves to look for bats. I like bats, I don’t mind caves and my piñata** was still intact, so I was excited about the second half of my Foreign Country Birthday.

Why bats are so awesome
The Lanquin caves are quite extensive and slippery. Now we all know about the Bearded Hiker’s uncanny talent for slipping his way through a hike, so we decided to take it easy. And slow. Also, my torch has the shining power of an old glow-in-the-dark sticker, so our cave exploration was a far cry from being anything like in the movies. Nevertheless, we saw some amazing stalactites and stalagmites – big, overgrown cauliflowers and brain-like shapes made us gawk like 5-year olds.

And we saw a bat. So we decided to head back to the entrance to look for his little bat friends. For a moment it seemed like the little guy was the only inhabitant of the cave, but just as dusk flopped over into night, a colony of bats propelled out of the cave by the thousands. We decided to go back inside, while hundreds of bats were shooting past us – and I know their bio sonar skills are pretty spot on, but it was still amazing that they didn’t bump into us. Not even the bat cave idiot got his radars wrong. Watching (without gawking) a cloud of bats flying over your head is simply amazing.

Finally, the story of our Semuc Champey adventure
I love the name ‘Semuc Champey’. It’s one of the few place names I can actually remember from this trip. So contrary to popular belief, Semuc Champey is not a neighborhood in downtown Paris or an over-priced cocktail, but a series of rock pools on top of a 300m natural limestone bridge. The pools are right in the middle of a green valley, so we first hiked all the way up the mountain to work up a bit of a sweat, before cooling down like rock stars in the pools. You can also join big groups of backpackers swimming and exploring the (sometimes tight) spaces below the bridge, but our tight budget (and my tight paranoia regarding underwater cave adventures with 30 backpackers who all want to get their money’s worth) didn’t really allow for the first option. But we didn’t mind. The water was cool and our hearts were full. Oh yes, before I forget – I made a video of the river crossing from the public road to the valley. Now that was an adventure in itself:


Our trip to and from Semuc Champey was pretty crazy as well. We shared a ride on a truck with a Polish girl who lives in Barcelona and a Australian guy who lives out of his backpack. Bumping up and down rocky roads and cruising past little houses on hills while sharing travel stories with strangers is something we’ve done countless times, but it’s still one of my favourite things to do. Because at that very moment, there are so many new things knocking on your door: new stories, new travel ideas and new friends for about 40 minutes.

In conclusion
I tried to sneak in as many words ending on ‘able’ as I could in defense of the word ‘hikeable’. But I was unable to. I also tried to keep it short, but that didn’t work out as well. Oh well.

Photo time!

*Horrible tongue twister, but I couldn’t resist.
**My piñata was empty. I’m still trying to get over the disappointment.

Just look at that! All that legroom!

An ode to my Panama hat. You will be missed x

The village of Lanquin. Life doesn’t have to be all security estates and parking permits – it can be as simple as a wooden hut on a hill.

The local clinic and one of the many churches.

Semuc Champey as seen from above.

The Bearded Adventurer went for a swim in every pool. I only splashed around in two of them. It was fun.

The bat cave and the Husband.

It might look all friendly and promising on the outside, but inside it’s hollow. >insert disappointed face here<

An exciting blog post about unexciting things that happens when you travel

Sometimes it’s really not exciting to arrive at a place. Not only because it’s so hard to leave the place where you’re coming from, but also because the new place looks confusing, boring and grey. And the biggest killer of any traveller’s spirit is when it’s raining the moment you arrive at your confusing, boring-looking and grey destination.

When we arrived at Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango) we had a very unexciting arrival. We were cold, it was raining and everything was as grey as the drivers license renewal department back home. We also couldn’t locate ourselves on the map, so we had to pay for a taxi to take us to the comfort of our toasty hostel. But when we got to our alleged ‘toasty’ hostel, the disappointment just snowballed. It was dodgy and cold with a room/bathroom ratio of 100:1. To add insult to injury, it was also expensive and an open-mouth-chewer was eating a piece of corn outside our (non-private) room.

Now the key to a successful travel experience with your other half is simple: both of you can’t be depressed, annoyed or iffy at the same time – you have to take turns. So after we had a good look at our uncomfortable bed for the night, it was my turn to be Mrs Sunshine (which was really hard). Usually, I would start off with “Well, we are here now so let’s just make it nice for ourselves. We can create our own vibe” (meaning, let’s buy some wine and cheese).

So en route to the supermarket we decided to have a hot chocolate first – we heard about a coffee shop with really good traditional hot chocolate, and when days are dark, treats are plenty.

And with that first cup of hot chocolate (and cake), our cold hearts started to feel all types of rosy about the new, confusing and grey town we found ourselves in. Our first point of departure to a better experience was to find a new hostel for the following night and then wine. And I’m happy to report that both were very successful endeavors.

Repeat after me: shell-ah
If Xela’s architecture was a song, it would have been Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen – a strange, but beautiful and catchy melody, made up of different parts. Part Spanish, part Gothic, and when you turn a corner, an Art Deco facade screams ‘Figaro!’ When you walk from the central plaza to the one bookshop I really liked (I have no idea in which direction it is), it feels like you’re in Germany. If you turn around and walk the other way, it feels like you’re on your way to the library at WITS. And if you turn 45degrees to your left, a broken down church (with a new facade) is standing shoulder to shoulder with a fully operational church.

Say, what else is there to see?
Well, I’m glad you asked. Xela has a bunch of really cool hikes up its sleeve – from active volcano climbing to 5-day hikes in the mountains. I wanted to do everything with childlike (meaning ‘not well thought through’) gusto, but the Husband (still) suffered from his horrible old man cough, so we decided to rather check out the tiny little villages next to Xela.

The village people
First on our list of ‘off-the-beaten-track-is-this-the-right-bus?’ Guatemalan endeavours was a visit to the church of San Andrés Xecul. Even though the town is only 10km from Xela, it still took us a cool 3 hours to get there – we initially couldn’t find the bus, and after a full hour of tippie-toeing around market day vendors and their tomatoes, tamales and chickens, we eventually located our chicken bus. The bus was, of course, empty, so it was already way past lunchtime before the driver decided to hit the road (with a still nearly empty bus). But we’re late bloomer kinda travellers – as I’m writing this, we are en route to the Joshua Tree park just outside of Los Angeles (it’s a 3 hour drive, and we only left LA at 12.30).

San Andrés is basically a one tortilleria* town. But right next to the very average town square is a church as colourful and cooky as a Dr Seuss poem. The egg yolk yellow facade is filled with painted angels, monkeys, birds and saints – the happiest looking church I’ve ever seen.

Our next stop was a visit to San Francisco del Alto, the garment district of Guatemala (the guidebook had me at ‘garment district’ – just imagine, a district dedicated to garments). But oh my, what a difference an over-excited guidebook writer can make. There were garments, yes, but it was more just the parts. Stacks of zippers and lining can make for a trippy piece of New York installation art, but in a small Guatemalan town, it just makes for a disappointing afternoon. So the Husband ordered a torta (a toasted baguette with all sorts of fillings) from a slightly dodgy food vendor to up the spirits – but what he got was the ultimate tribute to processed food and heartburn. Fried viennas served with fried polony on a bun made of wind, drenched in cheap tomato sauce.

So we caught a bus back home and decided to write off the day.

Why do earthquakes always happen at 3am?
After a very uneventful day, an earthquake shook our bed, our bones and my paranoia. At first I thought a giant wild cat was trotting over our roof (I blame my usual 3am confusion for such a non-sensible thought). Then the Husband woke up due to the shaking bed. Our 3am brains realised that it wasn’t a poltergeist or a wild cat when we saw the chandelier swinging. And just as I was about to pretend it didn’t happen, it happened again. With wide eyes and a nervous twitch I thought of a very boring plan should the (very active) volcano close to town decide to erupt: grab running shoes, passports and Husband. And run.

Nothing erupted and when we walked about town the following morning, life went on as usual (while I was still twitching). Another tremor struck Xela that afternoon, so by then, both my eyes were twitching.

Even though we’re travelling, we still do things normal working people do
Like our laundry ($2 for one BIG bag), going to the doctor ($200 for a consultation, x-rays, blood tests and medicine for the Husband’s old man cough) and watching a documentary about the local deity Maximón – a mannequin-like figure dressed up in sunglasses and a hat, who receives offerings of alcohol (mostly firewater) and cigarettes. Maximón is believed to be a combination of the Mayan gods, a Spanish conquistador and Judas from the Bible. Really, even the most normal sounding day in Guatemala has something so deliciously interesting to it.

But here’s the highlight of our Xela adventures
Okay so actually there are two highlights. The first highlight was the hostel we stayed at – Casa Renaissance. Sharp knives, a squeaky clean kitchen and warm water showers are real blessings when you’ve already stayed at 50 other hostels with cold water torture chambers and grimy kitchens. Our hostess was super friendly as well.

The second highlight was our hike to Laguna Chicabal – a lake in the crater of Volcán Chicabal. According to the Lonely Planet, the lake is considered a cosmic convergence point by the Mam and K’iche’ Maya. It’s also the scene of countless Mayan ceremonies and traditions. We took a truck up to the start of the hike and to say that it was a bumpy ride, is a ginormous understatement:

When we got to the top of the crater, it was so misty that I couldn’t even see the Bearded Wonder’s beard. We then took the 615 steepish stairs down to the lake and was completely blown away by what we saw: a big, dark and tranquil lake, filled with a heavy spiritual presence and surrounded with offerings of flowers. It was so quiet you could actually hear the mist rolling in. Within 5 minutes the mist covered the lake and everything in sight, and then we started to get the heebie-jeebies.

Whenever we go hiking (and we’re alone), the Bearded Wonder starts to wonder about things lurking and vigilantes waiting. So we stairmastered those 615 stairs back up with Jane Fonda’esque gusto. We didn’t have enough money to pay the truck for a roundtrip, so we hiked through this tiny Mayan village back to the main road. And then you start to think all sorts of irrational, but likely conundrums like: ‘I can barely speak Spanish, so Mayan is totally out of the question. So if we miss the last bus back home, how on earth are we going to ask for a bed to sleep in?’

But we managed to catch the bus back home (but only after witnessing mini Mayan children with dusty hair ordering ice cream from the only ice cream vendor in town). So precious.

But I’m getting bored with this post, so let’s look at my photos! Yes!

*One of my favourite Central American quirks, is their habit to turn everything into a ‘eria’. A shop that sells tortillas is called a ‘tortilleria’. A bakery is called a ‘panaderia’. A veggie shop is called a ‘fruteria’ and the laundromat goes by the no-surprises name of ‘lavenderia’.

Some Xela snaps. Most of these photos were taken by the Husband – my iPad is too tired to recognize my camera.

The volcano that never erupted. Mind you, I still don’t know what it’s called.

If you wait inside a chicken bus, you usually take photos of other people waiting for a chicken bus. It’s a thing.

Such a happy church, don’t you think?

Women walking with baskets filled with tortilla dough in the one tortilleria town.

Laguna Chicabal with some Mayan offerings. Such an amazing moment.

Smoke on the water. Yes, I know it’s the most obvious caption, but sometimes rock n roll says it best.

Some snaps from our hike back and our very red bus, filled with red garments and baskets of radishes.

The Mystery of the Mayan Bundle

There is nothing better to ponder than a good old mystery. I still don’t know how a television works and I can almost understand the workings of a car’s engine (basically just the bit about the spark plugs). But since the start of our travels, the quantity of mysteries just skyrocketed. Why did the ancient Mayans just disappear? How is it possible that one culture can produce such a plethora of corn-based drinks that are strangely delicious (even though they are quite grainy and sometimes taste like sand). Why do people build cities around active volcanoes? And what are in those little bundles of cloth the Guatemalan women carry on their backs and heads?

I must admit, the quality of the mysteries that occupy my mind is not always worthy of a Nobel prize, but they do keep me busy. Most of the time, babies and young children are bundled up inside the cloth. But I’ve also seen said bundles being thrown up to the roof racks of busses and taxis, so there’s not always little hijos inside.

When we got to Panajachel, a little town located next to Lago de Atitlán, the Mystery of Bundles increased in size and took up most of my thoughts. For us, Lago de Atitlán was just a taste of how beautiful Guatemala gets as you travel deeper into the hills. The lake is situated in the western part of the country and is surrounded by volcanoes and small little villages and
everywhere you look, women in traditional dress walk around with bundles, wrapped in woven fabrics on their backs. The first time I managed to peek inside, all I could see was little bundles inside the bundles. But the longer we stayed at the lake, the more the mysterious contents (and people), started to reveal itself.

Exhibit A: Woven fabrics and bracelets
Panajachel turns into a lovely shade of blue when the rural families come to town to sell their crafts: grandma and mom with bright satin ribbons in their braids, wearing embroidered huipils and narrow blue skirts, clutching the hands of little children (all exactly the same size and dressed exactly the same as mom and gran) while carrying bundles of things on their backs. According to our guidebook, they are part of the Kaqchiquel and Tz’utujil Mayan community, which are just two of the 21 different Mayan communities in Guatemala.

And this is where the mystery started to reveal itself. Inside those bulbous bundles are fragments of their livelihood – from embroidered table runners and cushion covers to woven bracelets and blouses. The moment they unwrap a bundle it’s like peeking inside Mary Poppins’ handbag. Really beautiful, but seeing that I barely have enough backpack space for my toothbrush, a woven double bed comforter was (unfortunately) out of the question. So we bought a really tiny table runner for two very good friends.

Exhibit B: Two little pieces of bread
After taking it slow in Panajachel for a day or two, we decided to take a lancha (taxi boat) to San Marcos, one of the towns next to the lake. Here’s a quick tip – if you avoid the main lancha dock with all its sea captains wanting to take you over the lake for Q150, you can get to San Marcos La Laguna for Q25 (and you get to travel with a couple of small families, 20 crates of Pepsi stacked in the front of the boat and 3 mattresses tied to the roof). A gran and her two grandchildren sat next to me during the trip. The two little girls made a tent with one of gran’s many shawls, and played in whispers. The Mayan children are so super quiet, reserved and wide-eyed, that most of the time you don’t even notice them. The biggest one of the two asked her gran for some bread, but instead of asking, she just gestured with her hand that she wants to eat. This might sound a bit like a non-event, but it was such a beautiful, simple and honest moment that I immediately fell in love with the everyday realness of the people. So gran with the thinning grey braid took two small pieces of bread out of her bundle, and gave it to them.

Exhibit C: A bit of the hard life
When we got to San Marcos La Laguna, the Husband went for a swim. According to the bunch of hippies who lives there, the lagoon has some pretty good energy up its sleeve (and you can also buy space cakes next to the banana vendor), but his swim turned out to be relatively uneventful. While I was waiting for him on the dock, bunches of little local kids with Mayan dialects came for a swim and to wash their hair. There was one girl without friends who decided to look over my shoulder while I was taking photographs. Her name was Maria, she was nine years old and she actually just came over to ask if I have any candy. Her shoes were way to big for her, her skin pale and rough and she was really tiny for her age. We took some photos together, while I was holding the camera tight, her paper-thin fingers pressed the shutter. She left on her matchstick legs as quiet as she came.

Exhibit D: Flowers, incense and candles
Every Thursday and Sunday a giant market takes place in Chichicastenango, a small town about 4 hours from Panajachel. Mayan traders from the surrounding villages would come to town with their produce, and fill the town’s streets with their wares. I have two really amazing memories from that day. The first one is the comforting aroma of steamy milk and corn flakes, sold in big plastic cups at the bus station. Our bus ride was a rather squished affair, but at least it smelled like home. The second memory was more of a ‘my goodness, am I really here and experiencing this?’ moment.

Iglesia de Santo Tomás is a Catholic church in the middle of the market. When we arrived the stairs leading to the church were occupied with vendors and their wooly wrapped children selling big bunches of flowers to honour the dead. Inside the church a sermon was taking place, and although it is a Catholic church, the symbols, rituals and soul of the church is Mayan. Behind a misty haze of incense and candle smoke a priest, dressed in white Catholic robes, was delivering his message in a Mayan dialect, while at the back, Mayan prayer leaders chanted, kneeling on a floor scattered with pine needles, candles and incense, honouring their ancestors. According to the Lonely Planet, many of the ancestors are buried underneath the church floor – similar to the ancient Mayan nobility who were buried underneath the pyramids.

It was such an amazing spiritual experience, seeing how the beliefs of an ancient culture adapted to that of the church – I could literally stand there until sunset.

The rest of our day was insanely bright and busy – tons and tons of cerise pink fabric, skirts , table cloths and veggies (they weren’t cerise pink) were on sale. The food market was quite insane – big steel pots filled with boiling fried chicken, served with tortillas, pasta salad and rice, and deliciously enjoyed by many a family (and the Bearded Wonder), sitting on benches while sipping cola through straws.

Exhibit E: Extra padding for squeezing through the bus queues
With full tummies and full hearts, we waited for the local minibus to take us back. The moment a minibus comes to a halt, an enormous amount of pushing and scrambling for seats is set off by a sea of local women and their bundles. The more bundles, the more pushing power. I managed to get a seat, but the Husband (who is twice the size of the average Mayan woman) had to stand with his back bent and bum sticking out of the door. So I had to scramble out, and wait for the next bus. The Husband eventually managed to fit into the bus (he was wearing his game face), and we were on our merry way.

Some travel advice
For a travel blog, I really don’t offer a lot of travel advice (usually because I always forget the names of places and other important stuff). But if you are planning to travel from Antigua to Panajachel, opt for a shuttle. It goes direct, so you won’t have to change busses (this is apparently where a lot of people get pick pocketed or robbed).

A lot of travellers we met along the way said that one should only travel by shuttle in Guatemala, as the bus drivers got their licenses from the devil and that the vigilantes are sure to get you. This is not true. We only took a shuttle twice – from Antigua to Panajachel, and from Lanquin to Flores (just because it’s such a long drive). And we’re still fine.

An afterthought
So this blog started off with a very random thought, got a bit serious in the middle and ended with an abnormally boring description of food. But to be honest, I really struggled to write this one. Not only because it was written on a bus, in three different hostels and in two different countries, but because I really miss the sincerity of Guatemala.

Lago de Atitlán with a view of Volcán San Pedro (I think, there are so many volcanoes that no one can keep track of them).

The last time my Panama Hat was photographed ( I forgot it on a bus in Guatemala City). We’re not usually this messy, the room was just really really small.

Little Maria. xxx

Iglesia de Santo Tomás with its flower vendors.

Wide-eyed and wrapped in a blanket (the best place to be).

Some candles, incense and flower petals outside the church.

Market day!

The food market was steamy and delicious. Maybe a bit dark, but it’s always nicer to eat at a place with a bit of ambiance.

The local cemetery. Because their lives were (and still is) colourful.

A gravestone and blue tortillas. Yes, it really doesn’t make sense to combine these two photos, but I like the way the colours compliments each other.