Semuc Champey and Chichicastenango

Trip Start Jan 15, 2005
Trip End May 09, 2005

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Saturday, March 5, 2005

I left lake Atitlan traveling with the Swiss girl I had shared a hotel with in San Pedro. She was headed for Chichicastenango for its famous market and invited me along. I was glad I went, the market was the biggest I'd ever seen and full of so many intricate, handwoven crafts, colorful painted masks, jewelry of silver, jade and turquoise, Guatemalan style clothing and more of the usual tourist trinkets. We spent hours wandering around and helped each other bargain for some great stuff. The children in Chichi followed us at times asking for "one Quetzal" over and over. The city itself was also quite pretty with cobblestone streets, red tiled roofs and whitewashed buildings.

After a night in Chichi I parted from my Swiss companion and headed for Coban to see Semuc Champey while she headed for Xela. I was irritated that I had to go through Guatemala City as I was hoping to avoid the place altogether. No luck there, I ended up getting stuck in the city several times on the trip. When I got to "Guate" (as all the bus drivers call it) I asked around about how to get to Coban. A Guatemalan woman tried to give me directions but eventually led me to where I could take a bus, going way out of her way. I hopped on a city bus and the driver and his helper showed me where I should get off and told me which way to go. I actually found the bus station unburdened by guidebook feeling great about those helpful, friendly Guatemalans. I boarded a non-chicken bus to Coban and was on my way.

Arriving in the evening in Coban I figured I'd just find a place to stay there for the night and figure out how to get to Lanquin tomorrow. I had some trouble finding a hotel as quite a few were either full or asking for more than I was willing to pay. I finally was directed to what would be the worst hotel of my trip and was too tired to look anywhere else. I was showed to a room with a bare light bulb, holes in the wall, a barely there, worn down pad for a mattress laid on top of a piece of plywood. The shared bathrooms were disgusting and looked as if they hadn't been cleaned in months. Just outside my room window was a bird cage full of pigeons, and I heard them all night. As I wanted to limit my exposure to this place I took a walk through Coban and got some food from a street vendor. While I was sitting on a curb eating my dinner I local boy approached me about a shuttle bus to Lanquin and a hotel there. Great, I didn't even have to ask around, the info I needed just came right to me. We talked about music a little and he showed me some pictures of the hotel and Semuc Champey, he was a big rock fan and let me listen to some Guatemalan rock on his headphones. I agreed to the shuttle and we set a time to pick me up the next morning.

I was immensely relieved to escape my hotel and after gathering some other tourists including more Swiss we set off. I had fun using my newly learned Spanish with the driver and the scenery was incredible. We came to Lanquin and dropped off a few people at El Retiro and headed out towards Semuc Champey to Posada Las Marias where I would be staying. After a while we turned off the highway onto a logging road and bounced over dirt roads for 11 kilometers according to the sign. By the time we reached Las Marias there was nothing remotely close except Guatemalan homes. The place was right next to the river, had its own restaurant and the dorm was real cheap. Altogether a cozy place to stay with covered areas with tables and chairs and hammocks. While staying there I met 7 Swiss people, 2 Danish girls (whose English was so perfect I thought they were American), an Irish guy, an English guy, and a Belgian guy. We played lots of cards and drank lots of Guatemalan beer, relaxed in the hammocks and talked. Las Marias was one of the best relaxing place I stayed in.

The owners of the hotel owned some surrounding land as well, including a nearby cave. They arranged tours of the cave whenever anyone wanted to go. So not long after I arrived I went to the cave with just the guide which was fortunate as I think it was much better without lots of people. We walked down along the river to the cave, the entrance was covered with a metal gate and was partially submerged in water. The guide gave me a candle and lit it and opened the gate. On entering the cave I was already knee deep in water and a few steps in bats were circling my head. A few steps more and the guide told me (in Spanish) that we now were going to swim a little. I silently blessed my Spanish classes in San Pedro. We started swimming, me with a sort of half doggy paddle while trying to hold my candle above the water with one hand. We emerged onto a small beach of sorts and went through several more pools. Out of the water again there was a 10 foot waterfall coming down over a smooth and slippery boulder. We climbed up a knotted rope up through the waterfall and continued on to a rope ladder up another boulder. Eventually we reached a small pool and my guide climbed up the side of the wall onto a little platform and told me we were going to jump into the pool. I looked at this dark, small pool in front of me and remembered how many times so far I had scraped myself on the sharp rocks while swimming past them already, and he wanted me to jump from 15 feet? I told him he was loco but he just laughed. Well, when would I get to try this again, jumping into a small, dark pool of unknown depth? I guessed he must know its safe if he does this everyday so I climbed up and jumped feeling a knot in my stomach. My feet touched down on the sandy bottom and I pushed up. That was a such a rush for me but it really calmed me down, now I knew what was down there in that dark, murky water. We headed back as our candles were burning down. On the way back we looped around a different way, slid down a small waterfall, and swam under low hanging stalactites. On the way back to Las Marias, we floated down the river on inner tubes. I couldn't wait to tell everybody back there about the cave.

The next day I went up to Semuc Champey, a set of several perfectly clear pools carved out of limestone rock. One pool slowly spills over into the next and the surrounding are lush and green. Its a very beautiful area, I spent the day swimming in the pools, laying in the sun and later I hiked up the hillside to the viewpoint overlooking all the pools. The big downer of this day was that I dropped my bag in a few inches of water, which was enough to get my camera wet and a few hours later it died for good. Thankfully my camera survived long enough to take pics at Semuc Champey and although I tried to dry it out back at the hotel it was done for. The next day I spent relaxing at Las Marias, and reading in the hammocks. I would definitely go back and stay as Las Marias. Most of the staff were very cool and were patient with my sub standard Spanish abilities. It was calm and quiet, I could hear birds and saw quite a few lizards around the hotel. After all the moving around I had done since I left Atitlan, it was just what I needed to sit around lounging in a hammock and playing cards and drinking beers with interesting travelers.
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