The Old City

After enjoying all that Mother Nature had to offer in Semuc Champey, we were ready for a little taste of the city. And we sure found it in Antigua, an old colonial city about 45 minutes northwest of Guatemala City, it has been built in a valley surrounded by three gorgeous volcanoes. It is beautiful in every way, and we were happy to enjoy some of the perks of a tourist-oriented city for a few days.

La Merced Church, near our hotel

La Merced Church, near our hotel

an abandoned church

an abandoned church

Antigua streets by night

Antigua streets by night

one of the volcanoes

one of the volcanoes

mandarins at the market

mandarins at the market

just a few of the many different types of chiles

just a few of the many different types of chiles

so.many.eggs.

so.many.eggs.

I wish I could do this.

I wish I could do this.

confetti eggs

confetti eggs

beans!

beans!

beautiful sunset view from Café Sky

beautiful sunset view from Café Sky

The peaks of two of the volcanoes were cloudless on our last day there!

The peaks of two of the volcanoes were cloudless on our last day there!

Antigua is full of beautiful old buildings and churches (some abandoned and some not) in just about every color you could imagine. We enjoyed walking the cobblestone streets, smells of many bakeries’ ovens wafting through the air. Antigua is full of good restaurants, bakeries, bars, and coffee shops. You can find just about any kind of food you could want there, including bagels. That being said, Antigua is expensive, and by that I mean you pay at least as much for most things as you would in the U.S.

It was also cold there, which took me by surprise. As December through April or May is the dry season in Central America, it is typically warmer during that time of year. Although it wasn’t freezing, the high temperature was between 65 and 70 and the lows got down into the upper thirties and lower forties. So, it wasn’t that cold, but compared to where we had been, it was quite chilly. I tried to soak up every feeling of being cold that I could because I knew at some point later in the trip, I would be uncomfortably hot (which eventually happened).

Most of what we did in Antigua was eat. We enjoyed breakfasts and lunches at several different places, but we ended up eating dinner at the same place every night. Travel Menu was a great place, serving huge portions of stir-fries and típico food at very reasonable prices. We did try to find other places to eat, but they were either too expensive or the menu was unappetizing. And, Travel Menu gave you a ton of veggies, which I knew we would be missing later in the trip.

We also went for a few evening runs, up in the small villages in the hills around the city, where small children and dogs would chase us, trying to race us up or down a hill. For some reason, seeing two gringos running really brought smiles to the faces of those kids, and its one thing I’ll never forget.

Other highlights of Antigua included a trip to the bustling market where everyone carries their wares in huge baskets on their head, and you can pro beautiful views of the volcanoes (even though their peaks were covered in clouds most of the time), drinks at Cafe Sky (great panoramic views of the city), planning our trip onwards, and free coffee at our hotel.

We Found Paradise…

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Sunset view of the mountains around the lodge.

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Guatemalan mountains.

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View of Semuc Champey from the Mirador.

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The beautiful red seeds inside the pod.

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Where the river dives underneath the natural bridge at Semuc Champey

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Zak takes a break on the hike up to the Mirador

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The waterfall where the river emerges from underneath the bridge.

…Who knew it would be in the middle of Guatemala?!

We arrived at the Utopia Eco Lodge, a hotel on the river about 11 km outside of Lanquín. It seemed like a whole different world from the Zephyr. The river (same one) ran right below the lodge. The dorms were open air, and with limited electricity, the stairs, bathrooms and communal areas were all lit by candles. With limited light, the place is dead quiet by 10 pm. We knew it was the perfect place to spend the rest of our time in the area.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the grounds around. We swam in the beautiful river and walked around some of the trails. After lunch, we rented some inner tubes and hiked up the river bank from the lodge about 15 minutes and floated down through some rapids to just below the lodge. The run was so much fun and so refreshing that we did it once more before we had to turn in the tubes. Afternoon backgammon on the deck followed, which I think I won, the sun was starting to sink closer and closer to the mountains. We decided to take the opportunity of such a beautiful time of day and walk around in the hills surrounding our hotel.

We enjoyed the gorgeous view of the sun sinking over the mountains. We found some kind of seed pod that we cracked open to find gorgeous red seeds inside. If you squeezed the seeds in between your fingers, a vibrant orange-red dye covered your hands. When I asked a local who was passing by, he told me that seed pod plants are grown for the purpose of dyes. Pretty cool.

Continuing down the road, we passed small houses, typically small, tin-roofed buildings with laundry hanging outside; some even had satellite dishes on the roof. Many families had chickens, pigs and dogs running around in the area outside their homes. Not after long, we reached a roadblock. There was a tom turkey strutting his stuff in the middle of the road, proving difficult to get passed. It was quite an incredible sight, and when we stopped to watch and figure out how we could get around him, a gaggle of local children crowded around, watching us in amazement. At last, we got around to turkey, and I felt quite triumphant. One little girl ran up and tugged at my skirt after we’d started down the path, which made me jump. All the other kids thought it was hilarious, and took turns running up behind us and tugging at my skirt. It was too cute.

As the sun continued to drop, we headed back to the lodge (the turkey didn’t cause a road block this time). We enjoyed dinner with all the other guests, chatting about different travel experiences and recommendations. Things shut down early at Utopia and I think I drifted off to the sound of the river around 9:30.

The next day we headed out on our big adventure. Semuc Champey (meaning where the river dives under the earth in the Mayan language) was the reason we came to this part of Guatemala. It was highly recommended to us by a friend and we had read many different accounts raving about it. This slice of paradise is created when the river dives underneath of a limestone ‘bridge’ spanning from bank to bank. The bridge holds water that runs down from the surrounding mountains, creating these beautiful swimming pools.

It wasn’t far from where we were staying, so we walked there the next morning. The first thing we did upon arriving was hike up to the Mirador, the viewpoint from which you could look down on the pools formed in the limestone bridge. It was already super hot and humid, so we were glad that the hike up there was very shady. After climbing up many semi-grueling flights of stairs (I lost count), we finally arrived at the Mirador, and the view was worth every step we had taken to get there. Even the pictures don’t quite do it justice.

After enjoying the view, we headed down to enjoy the rest of the day playing in the pools. We checked out the spot where the river dove underneath the earth, a frothing, dangerous looking rapid. We jumped into one of the deeper pools and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming from pool to pool, sliding down small waterfalls between pools, and lounging on the rocks between pools, letting the sun warm our stomachs and feeling the cool water run down our backs. We tried as best we could to soak in the place that we had traveled so far to see.

When we were finished swimming and lazing around, we went to see where the river emerges and the limestone bridge ends. Although off the main path and somewhat hidden, we were glad we sought it out. It was a spectacular waterfall overlooking a large pool where all the water seemed to come to a stop before it dove down into a nasty looking rapid.

As we hiked back home I considered how odd it was that we’d spent at least a combined total of 24 hours traveling to Lanquín specifically to see Semuc Champey, yet we’d only spent maybe 6 or 7 hours enjoying the place. It seemed a bit odd, but I was content with our time there and would definitely consider all those hours of travel worth it for one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. If you ever travel to Guatemala, don’t miss out on this natural wonder.

Hotel Hopping

So I’ve been a bit behind on updating this thing during my trip. Now that I’m back in the states, I’ll update about everything, as typing on a computer is much easier than on an iphone, and I have all my pictures to share, not just the ones on my phone! Enjoy!

sunrise from our window at the Zephyr.

sunrise from our window at the Zephyr.

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FIRE

FIRE

inside the cave

inside the cave

entrance to the Lanquín caves.

entrance to the Lanquín caves.

Zak holds the candles before our entrance to the cave.

Zak holds the candles before our entrance to the cave.

view of the river from the Zephyr

view of the river from the Zephyr

On our first full day in Lanquín, we woke up early to the sound of street traffic outside our window (this seemed to be a continuing theme in Guatemala). We ventured down to another hostel, arguably the most popular one there, for breakfast. The Zephyr had good breakfast for pretty cheap, but the place was crawling with 19-22 year old gringos. The people sitting next to us at breakfast were discussing hangover remedies and how much whiskey they drank the night before. That should have been the first red flag.

We had tried to go there the previous day, because Zak had read really good things about it on Trip Advisor, but they didn’t have any space. They put us on a waiting list, however, and that morning they had a bed for us. So, after breakfast, we headed back to the pink hotel in town and packed up our stuff to move to the Zephyr. The hostel is in a really beautiful location, straddling a hillside just outside of Lanquín. You can walk down a steep hill to go swim in the river, and you get great views of the sunrises and sunsets. They had a really great porch that we hung out on for most of the afternoon. It was super relaxing, especially after a refreshing dip in the river.

We spent the later afternoon exploring the caves outside of town by candlelight. We were originally planning on going hiking on some trails in a nearby nature park, but in typical Guatemalan style, there was no one there to open the park. We went to the caves instead, but didn’t have a headlamp. Thus, with only 4 candles (we used 2 at a time in a kind of semi-torch), we didn’t get to go very far into the cave, and couldn’t see a lot. The candlelit experience was really an adventure in and of itself though, and we had fun.

We ate dinner at a small comedor in Lanquín, and returned to the Zephyr to play a little backgammon before hitting the hay. The porch was packed with gringos who had returned from their days’ adventures and were all chatting loudly amongst themselves about all the awesome things they did that day. It seemed as though everyone had a drink in their hand, and although it seemed rowdy, people were just getting started.

We retreated to the small loft we had in a dorm around 9, early by anyone’s standards, hoping to catch some z’s before making to trek out to Semuc Champey (the main tourist attraction 11km outside Lanquín) the next day. The music from the bar kept pumping until 2am. People were so loud that it seemed like we were in the same room as them, and at one point, people who were leaving to go back to the hostel they were staying at got all the dogs in the neighborhood right nearby riled up, like a barking chorus. I felt bad  for the locals living in the neighborhood who probably had to wake up early the next day to go to work. Needless to say, we were eager to get out of there the next day. It was definitely the worst place we stayed on our entire trip.

We spent the majority of that morning figuring out a different place we could stay, which turned out to be way outside of town, but really close to Semuc Champey. One of the reviews on Trip Advisor was titled ‘the only sound you’ll hear is the river’, and once I read that, I was sold. We headed up there later that morning, traveling the steep, sketchy, windy, four wheel drive road standing in the back of a large pick-up truck (it has tall bars on the sides) with about 25 Guatemalans. What a ride!

More on our calmer adventures at the Utopia Eco Lodge and Semuc Champey to come!

Your Shuttle is Leaving Now/Lanquin

The day after we went to Tikal, we were scheduled to leave Flores at 9am to head to Lanquin, a remote town in the center of Guatemala. We woke up early and had just completed two laps of a run around the island when we were interrupted by a guy working for the tour operator who told us we’d better stop because our bus was leaving now, (a little before 7), instead of at 9:30. After some consulting with him and a guy working at our hotel, we determined this was really our only option, and they probably just put us on that bus because it was more convenient and saved them money. Lucky we had decided to get up rather than sleep in.

The drive to Lanquin was a grueling, all day affair. It wouldn’t be so bad, but highways in Guatemala are more like back roads in the US, except for they are unpaved or very unevenly paved sometimes, and there are speed bumps every 200 meters or so.

We did get to ride on a ferry though that was controlled by two large boat motors attached to the side of the ferry in what looked like an old tire or metal drum, so that it could rotate and steer the ferry in the right direction. To make matters even more interesting, it was Saturday, market day for most people in rural Guatemala. You wouldn’t think that would be a problem, except hat the highway also happens to be he main road in most towns, and we crawled through several of hem that were so packed with people buying and selling, I was certain our drive had just decided to mow down whatever part of the market was most convenient to him of course.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside comedor whose specialty dish was rabbit, and proudly displayed in a cafe outside were several live rabbits just biding their time until they too would become part of the daily special dish.

I didn’t eat any, but rabbit must be the right food to eat before driving down windy, steep, narrow roads, because the rest of the journey into Lanquin was just that. At some places I was amazed that we made it around a bend, much less one of the huge trucks that pack Guatemalans in like livestock to get them where they need to be.

We finally made it to Lanquin, a sleepy village amid beautiful, steep green mountains. A river rushes below the town, a local hangout for swimming, bathing and doing laundry. Most of the women wear traditional clothing, long pleated skirts in the most beautiful colors and patterns ever, with a sheer, loose blouse on top. They carry their market goods in large baskets in their heads and I think that they are some of the most beautiful in the world.

We settled in to our hostel, checked out the breathtaking views of the steep, green mountains around us, and enjoyed a candlelit game of backgammon. We ate dinner at the unassuming but delicious (and cheap) Comedor Shalom next door. I had eggs, beans that are cooked in a way that makes them like more liquid-y refried beans, tortillas and a delicious and super spicy homemade hot sauce.

Exhausted after a day of travel, we hit the hay early in anticipation of much fun and many adventures over the next few days.

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