The highland of Central Guatemala is a rugged and varied land with rolling hills and many strange geological formations hidden under a thick expanse of tropical jungle. A large part is karst and the limestone that makes up the landmass could be sculpted and shaped by time and the elements to form fantastic landscape.
I first visited this part of this most populated Central-American country back in 2005 on the recommendation of an Israelis couple I met in Tikal who raved about this place, not very well-known then.
But it wasn’t until I left for Livingston, a Caribbean seaside town east of the country from the tourist trap of Antigua west of the capital ( where I had a dabble in Spanish for a few days to help with my travel ) that the idea of taking a side trip to the central highland occurred to me.
As I had flown into Guatemala City from Tikal followed by a taxi to get to Antigua I didn’t really have a clue what public transport in Guatemala was like then.
It was a cruel awakening and the beginning of a most eventful journey to say the least.
For starter I had my first taste of the much dreaded chicken buses ( La Caminonetas ) after finding myself gawking at a fleet of them in the central bus grounds next to the messy and smelly Central Market of Antigua.
Chicken Buses are really just rickety U.S. school bus that had been sold to many Central America countries to form the mainstay of transport there, most having served at least 10 years or 150,000 miles on US soil already before auctioned off en-mass and brought to other parts of the world to serve another life sentence in a more colourful attire. No retirement, sorry 🙁
Super-crammed with passengers and often piled high on top with luggage ( sometimes livestock hence their name ) they are often found defying the law of physics on the many potholed highways in Guatemala and spewing an exhale of black pungent smoke all the way as they grumbled along.
My introduction was swift as an ayundante ( a helper to the driver on a chicken bus ) promptly took me in onto the right bus. Once seated I duly found myself trying to balance on the edge of my buttocks holding my backpack on my lap on the choppy road to the capital with passengers packed like sardines around me. The trip took about two hours as it made many stops en-route to pull in more patrons and I nearly drowned in my own perspiration ( as well as other’s I suspected ) by the time the bus finally pulled into Guatemala City. That’s only the beginning for I subsequently got lost in the many avenidas of the capital trying to look for the bus company that plies the route to Coban, my next port of call. And noon is already steaming hot enough without lugging a backpack around in the busy streets of this polluted capital teeming with humanity. By the time I got to this provincial capital, Coban in the central highland I was totally exhausted and soaked after another long ride – a gruelling 4 hour journey in a packed minivan ( thank god, not the chicken bus again ) on a windy and often unpaved road. I nearly got motion sickness and puked.
I had steeled myself for what was to come but I clearly wasn’t quite prepared.
The worst was yet to come as I was pick-pocketed on the next leg of my journey to the village of Lanquin the following day and by the time I realised it that I had no money on me I was about to pay for my meal, a filling spaghette bolonese and my lodging. Fortunately the owner of El Retiro Lodge where I came to stay is a very understanding Brit and for the following two days I shuffled on the bumpy road between the village of Lanquin and Coban to sort things out – insurance, cancelling stolen cards etc. and I swore myself that I’d never again bank with Barclays after speaking to robots countless of time or to personnel in some far-flung offshore centres if I had managed to get through 🙁
So by the time I got to my destination, Semuc Champey a 30 min ride on the back of a refuse collection truck from Lanquin I thought everything had finally worked out but little did I know that another mishap was still in store for me – that I could not get to see the place properly even when I was physically there for within 10 minutes inside the place I slipped on one of the many slippery slime-coverd trails and fell into a large and deep terraced pools with a big splash and lost my glasses in the water in the accident. I wasn’t hurt but for the rest of the time there everything became a blur to me. I wished I had put on my contacts instead that day which I normally would prefer to.
Something was at work to prevent me from seeing the place and I was so disheartened by the series of events so far I didn’t linger long inside the place except to take a few photos.
I left the following day and stuck to my original itinerary.
But chance would have it I could visit the place again albeit a good few years later. Things worked out smoothly and efficiently this round as the tourist infrastructure and service had improved significantly. I had spent 2 and a half days to get to Lanquin in the old days but now the same journey could be taken in the comfort of an air-conditioned people transporter in less than 5 hours from the same old town of Antigua directly with no stopover and wait in between. No more pickup truck as lodging could be chosen right outside the beautiful karst formation where one’d be dropped off.
I stayed at the El Portal de Champey this time
It was super easy nowadays but somehow I do missed the old tortuous and torturous way for the experience alone would bring one to be more in touch with the actual country and the life of the people there. it feels like travelling in a parallel universe, cocooned and pampered.
The sense of achievement in overcoming the many challenges of backpacking is no more.
It was a whirlwind visit in Guatemala this time for I managed to retrace my footsteps in Panajachel, Antigua, Tikal and Lanquin in less than a week. Their stories will follow in due course.
On my second visit I began my tour from the El Mirador right away – a viewpoint located a couple of hundred meters above the travertine formations to one side of the limestone gorge. It was a steaming hot slog but well-worth the effort. After taking in the scenery from there I worked my way down and began documenting my visit from one end of the formation to the other end where it abruptly terminates as a cliff over Río Cahabón below.
Take your time and enjoy this beautiful wonder of nature, reputedly the most popular of all destinations in Guatemala 🙂