So where were we......
Having left our dear friend Murgs early in San Salvador we arrived at the border a little after 10am. All the El Sal border formalities were straight forward and we were through in about 20 min, what a relief. We then entered Guatemala and were asked to pay 1USD each to the immigration official which we knew was unofficial but paid anyway. Then onto Customs for the temporary car import. First off we were greeted with a sign saying from 2pm that day they would not have computer facilities to process paperwork for 12hrs so all business would be suspended from 2pm till the following day. The time now….11am.
James was the told the computers were currently down and would be back up and running in half an hour. An hour and 45min later they were back up and running and then took another 35min to process the paperwork. At least it was all done!! We were now in country number 14 - Guatemala.
First stop was just in from the border on the Pacific coastal village called MonteRico, to access which we drove down to the end of the road and then caught a car ferry through a canal of mangroves. Arriving in the village late on a Saturday afternoon was a bad idea, we had been warned everything gets very busy and booked out. Needless to say everywhere was busy and booked out!! A little out of town in amongst the rich beach homes we found a little beach access road between 2 empty houses and decided to wild camp. James asked the caretaker of one of the houses if it was OK and he said yes, in fact he unlocked the house and invited us to use the toilet and outside swimming pool shower and use their beach front hammock area as well. Bonus. We ended up spending 2 nights lazing around here and recharging our batteries. Why they were flat we don't know.
Of note in MonteRico, every Saturday late afternoon they have the Turtle Liberation. The local turtle breeding project which hatches the eggs collected from the beach safely; take all the little turtles up to 1 week old on to the beach where tourists and locals "buy" a turtle to race. (A way of raising money for the project)
Here a starting line is made about 15m from the sea and a finish line about 10m from the sea. All contestants take their turtles to the line and the race starts. You then have about 50 tiny little turtles racing for the sea. It was excellent fun to watch but at the same time very sobering. Of the 50 or so turtles released only 2 of them would reach adulthood.
Our next stop was the very popular, picturesque colonial town of Antigua just west of Guatemala City. Here we searched around for over 2 hours for a camp spot in or near the town and in the end had to resolve to get a cheap hotel room with secure parking. Antigua is full of old colonial houses with manicured court yards, exquisite churches and ruins and the whole town is cobbled. The town is set in a basin with 3 volcanoes towering to the south and the east. The town is very touristy with many American vacationers and backpackers, but it is easy to see why.
From Antigua we decided to do a day tour over in the next valley next to Guatemala city to Vulcan Pacaya, a relatively active volcano where they do hiking trips up to the crater (when the geologists believe it is safe!) It had been very active 4 weeks before we were there. After the 2 hour car ride we arrived at the entrance to the park and then had a 3.5hr hike through the forest to the base of the volcano and then a very steep ascent to the crater. The wind was blowing about 40km/hr from half way up and we were being peppered with sand and finally we entered the cloud where the wind got worse. Unfortunately, 80% of the time it is like this and you are very lucky if the cloud clears to actually see into the crater. We did not, however we were able to walk amongst small fissures in the rock and could not breathe at the lip of the crater due to all the sulphur gases being emitted.
Next stop on our itinerary was just west of Antigua in the very picturesque volcanic lake area of Lago Atitlan (claimed to be the most beautiful lake in the world by some famous English poet a long time ago!) After a hair-raising drive (due to the local chicken buses which go hell for leather and are the fastest vehicles on the road - no kidding) we arrived on the shores of the lake and found a beautiful campsite just outside the tourist town of Panajachel. We ended up spending 4 nights here as it was so tranquil; we had the sunset directly over the lake every night through towering volcanoes and a perfect place to sling up the hammock.
The only other thing of note here was Kerry got violently ill on our last night with Guati belly and had a bad night of it. The following day we were due to move onto our next destination, Guatemala's largest traditional Sunday market!! After much deliberation we decided to head for the hills to the mountain village of Chichicastanango and its Central America's famous local market. After arriving with no hiccups from Kerry we starting walking around the market which was still in the process of setting up. Half an hour later we ducked into the nearest restaurant where James had a hearty pancake breakfast and Kerry acquainted herself with the amenities. We continued in the market for a further half hour before Kerry decided to give up. We found a nice little hostel with parking and Kerry spent the rest of the day in bed.
James continued round the market for the rest of the day. Here all the local women are in traditional clothes and don't speak Spanish but the local language. It is a bigger market for the locals than the tourists covering everything from meat, livestock and animal foods to fruit, veggies and plants, then clothes, materials and accessories to all the tourist artesania you could think of. A very interesting and cultural day!
The following day, with Kerry feeling much better, we plotted a route north through the mountains and small villages, very much off the "beaten track" to the town of Coban, Guatemala's coffee capital. After a full day drive on dust roads we arrived in town late afternoon and managed to locate a cheap hostel as there was no camping. The hostel was almost next door to a famous Guatemalan coffee farm that used to supply Starbucks with their coffee. They also did tours taking you through the whole coffee process which was interesting.
Our next destination was east higher into the mountains to the cascading waters of Semuc Champey. After a tough 4x4 drive on dirt roads and a short visit to the caves of Lanquin, we arrived mid-afternoon at a beautiful small riverside hostel where they allowed us to camp in the car park. The setting was breathtaking, based in a valley beside a crystal clear jade green river, looking further up the valley towards Semuc were towering cliffs all covered in evergreen jungle. Over the river they had a Tarzan rope which was to entertain James for hours on end over the next 3 days.
On the second day James did a cave tour nearby, going 700m into a water filled cave with a candle and a local guide. Most of the way was swimming holding the candle above the water through these very small caverns for over 3 hours. Once again Guatemala's lack of public safety was a welcome relief to the secure world we normally live in. The tour ended with a jump off an 11m high bridge into the river and then a 1km tube ride floating down the river to the camp. Our final day, when the weather cleared a bit, we hurried on up to Semuc Champey. This is a spectacular geological formation; a limestone rock formation has formed a natural bridge over a raging river. On the bridge are these crystal clear limestone rock pools that look completely man made as they are so perfect with clear water that cascades from one pool to the next. The raging river just disappears into a hole and then continues under this structure for 300m before re-emerging as a waterfall from beneath the limestone bridge. Hopefully the pictures do more justice than our explanation.
Once again, looking at the map we decided to continue our journey north through Guatemala off the "beaten track" and headed off along a dirt road into the hills. Passing through the jungle covered mountains and coming across some of the friendliest locals we had encountered, we had an interesting journey to say the least. Just to add to the excitement, Kerry's Guati belly reappeared so made for interesting emergency pit stops! A full day driving on very rough roads, through two heavy downpours and having to help out a local bus and a local truck stuck in the mud with our recovery gear we finally arrived at our destination just before sunset, Finca Ixobel.
Finca Ixobel is a very popular American owned working farm which has found a large travellers market where they provide huge meals (a little expensive), and accommodation for all budgets. As Kerry's guts had still not settled we chilled out here for 3 days and enjoyed our first hot shower in ages!
Our final stop was in the Northern jungles of Guatemala at the Maya ruins of Tikal. The Maya were the Central American version of the Inca's and the Aztec and dominated the whole area for a long time before the Spanish plundered the area (sorry colonised!!) Tikal is a set in pristine jungle where these enormous pyramids rise above the trees with hundreds of parrots, parakeets, toucans, howler monkeys and spider monkeys can keep you entertained for hours.
As we had planned our visit quite well, we arrived in the afternoon and had a quick walk to the high temples to watch the sunset across the vast jungles set out below us and the cloud then moves in very low giving a very eerie feeling to the whole area. We were able to camp in the area so we also booked onto a sunrise tour the next morning. Up at 4.30am and escorted to the highest temple (4) in the ruins to watch the sunrise over the jungle. Once again an awesome feeling with the howler monkeys letting out their blood curdling barks as the sun is rising, then all the parrots start screeching which echo's through the entire area and finally the sun starts rising on the horizon, only to become shrouded in cloud as the forest starts warming up. After revisiting all the temples and pyramids, we spent hours watching the spider monkeys play in the surrounding trees before jumping back into Lodzi and heading for the border to Belize!!!