Sunday, March 31, 2013

Exploring Kan'Ba Cave and Semuc Champey in Guatemala

March 10, 2013

I face another eight hour bus ride, just twenty-four hours after the last one. But this time, it is not a large, luxury bus with large, padded seats and a bathroom. This is an old, dirty, beat-up van crammed with people and without air conditioning. And I love it. Sometimes the journey is every bit as good as the destination.

We drive through rolling hills and fields of grass, past papaya groves and cattle herds. The landscape is punctuated with tiny villages that saddle the street (speed bumps always announce our approach and ensure butt-bouncing bumps until we reach the end). The homes, tiendas (stores), and comedors (cheap, local restaurants) are built with weathered, wooden slats, often unpainted and always unadorned. The roofs are thatched straw or rusty, corrugated metal. Skirts, shirts, shawls, and blankets hang on clotheslines strung between trees and fence posts. I catch other glimpses of rural, Guatemalan life, too: a woman scrubbing the wash in her yard, families congregated in front of the church or lounging at the local comedor, boys on bikes, women walking barefoot in their long, patterned skirts and embroidered tops.

People watch us foreigners drive through town, with our different skin color and our different lives, and the thought that Guatemalans never pass down my road flutters through my mind. It is only a moment before I realize that many of them probably never leave home, or never leave Guatemala. They do not have the means to do so. Hopefully, they do not have the inclination, either, simply because it would make me sad to think they yearn for something beyond their reach. I have a moment of gratitude for traveling here, for experiencing a piece of  their world. I am also grateful that they accept my intrusion with kindness and without resentment. They do not hold my good fortune against me.

Hazy mountains in the distance gradually grow in stature, until we are driving through the foothills and then twisting our way between the taller peaks. The streets are two lanes, with no posted speed limits. I doubt you can gather much speed and still remain on the endlessly winding road, anyway. Although our driver sure tries; he is in a bit of a hurry, it seems, careening around the curves. I struggle to remain upright.

Our van pulls to the side of the street where a woman is waiting with her two young boys and baby girl. The driver gets out and tenderly offers a package of cookies to the little girl and retrieves a package from the trunk for the mom. Is this their version of mail service? Is this how families living high in the mountains get necessities from town? Are they family or friends? I’m curious, but unfortunately I lack the language skills to seek answers.

Lots of families are walking along the side of the street, and I wonder where they are going to or coming from. There is not much in these hills. I see a six-year-old boy, shirtless and wearing faded jeans, picking corn in a field.

Eight hours later, we turn down a deeply rutted dirt road that leads to Lanquin. Eight hours just sitting in a moving vehicle, but I see so much and learn so much and feel so much. I see what it means to live as a poor Guatemalan in the countryside, and I respect and even admire their simple way of life, and perhaps simply acquired happiness. I rejuvenate my appreciation for all the experiences within my reach. The next time you are facing a long journey, you can close your eyes or escape in a book. Or, you can enjoy the ride. You might be surprised at what you discover.

March 11, 2013
Our guide announces it’s time to leave, and he leads us to a pickup truck where the ten of us ride standing in the bed. There is a slight delay while we wait for men to hoist another pickup that has driven off the road, but otherwise it’s a bumpy ride with gorgeous views.

One by one, Marcus hands us a white tapered candle. It will burn for one hour, long enough to explore a small part of the Kan’Ba River Cave, which extends fifteen kilometers underground. I gingerly step down the stones and into the cave, where cool water reaches my ankles. Walking into darkness, just a candle’s flame to light the way, the water rises higher and higher until I am swimming, holding my candle aloft with one hand and paddling with the other. Incredible formations surround me - stalactites and stalagmites, ripples and ribbons. Ladders and ropes help with the ascent and descent of steep and slippery segments.

I wade, swim, and climb my way to a deep pool with a jumping ledge. I opt out - I have openly accepted the fact that I just don’t like jumping off things. I used to want to portray the tough girl, but now I just want to be myself. Another girl jumps despite her fear, shrieking through the air. I am proud of her for facing her fear, but I am proud of me, too, for not needing to prove anything to myself or others.

We begin the journey back to the cave opening, with a tiny thrill when we have to fall through a narrow gap between rocks. Another thrill when I use a rope to climb down the side of a waterfall. Exploring an underground cave, by candlelight, while swimming, is an awesome adventure.

From the mirador, the lookout, perched on the edge of a tall cliff, I look down onto the five cascading pools of Semuc Champey, glistening a clear bluish-green. Sweating from the hike up, I can’t wait to immerse myself in these pools.

The pools feel as good as they look - cool and refreshing. I imagine I’m at a spa, my daydream strengthened by the complementary exfoliation treatment; teeny fish nibble at my legs and feet, picking off dead skin. It feels a bit startling at first, making me giggle, but I get used to it. Semuc Champey is a beautiful setting to enjoy swimming and basking in the warm sun.

An elderly man, his bent back making his small stature appear even smaller, his eyes looking off into middle distance, is shuffling around near the entrance to Semuc Champey. He is selling homemade chocolate formed by combining cocoa powder, butter, and sugar. It’s a flat, greasy disk wrapped in aluminum foil.  I take a tiny nibble, like the fish, testing out the first unprocessed chocolate bar I’ve ever tasted. Mmm. I take another bite. From the truck bed on the way back, I notice cocoa beans drying on tarps in the sun, and I wonder if any belong to the chocolate man.

In the late afternoon, I walk around the small town. There is a curiously strong scent of cardamom, and I later learn that I’m not, in fact, confusing Guatemala with India; cardamom plantations are the most important industry of the region. 

A classroom!

Dogs are everywhere, stretched out on the sides of roads in peaceful slumber, loping across the streets, watching passerby from a doorway or yard.

The Guatemalans are everywhere, too; I get the feeling that they spend much of each day outdoors. Some are selling fresh pieces of mango or ice cream pops from a plastic cooler. Some are hanging out by the window of a tienda, chatting with each other. And some are walking, always so much walking, always someone walking the edge of the street.

The townspeople of Lanquin are mostly Mayan Q’eqchi’, with their own Mayan dialect, but they have adopted Spanish as their second language. No wonder so few speak barely any English, even with all the English-speaking tourists. I am still struggling to learn a second language; I can only imagine the difficulties of tackling a third...

The Mayans are short, stout people with dark skin the color of their cocoa beans. All women have a plump, round body, and I wonder what it would be like to live in a society where the standard, the expectation, is a soft, curvaceous body passed down from ancestors (and probably bolstered by thick, doughy tortillas). I am a little envious of how effortlessly and easily they must live in these bodies, in stark contrast to American women, many of whom live ensnared in judgement about the size and shape of their body - from themselves as much as society.

The women dress modestly in traditional attire - long, patterned skirts in countless colorful variations and a wispy shawl of intricate embroidery over a tank top. Mayan men have adopted a more modern dress, and most wear jeans with a t-shirt.

Everyone wears an open face - I don’t know how else to describe it. There is just something about their face that makes me think they are honest and kind, that they are agreeable to life, that they will accept me without judgement. Their mannerisms are friendly, often saying hola or buenos dias as we walk past each other. My smiles and holas and attempts to communicate (“Bonita,” I say, pointing to a woman’s blouse) are sometimes received shyly, but always with a wide grin.

Zephyr Lodge
Phone: (502) 5168 2441
Reservations for private rooms can be made no more than seven days in advance by calling (502) 5168-2441, and there is a two night minimum stay for private rooms, which cost Q200 per night with hot water (but it’s not always available - I took two cold showers) and Q180 without. I immediately liked the hostel when we arrived - it has a great vibe and a wonderful common area for meeting people. (Our first night, I met two Austrians, one Italian, one Israeli, and two New Yorkers.) The room is nice and clean, with a mural painted on the wall and a Guatemalan blanket covering the bed. There is no air conditioning, but there is a ceiling fan, and it cools down at night, anyway. The towels are soft. Outside the room is a porch with a couple chairs that overlooks the mountains - it’s a beautiful view. The lodge offers free purified water at the bar for refilling your water bottles. There is one computer with Internet access, but no Wi-Fi available. I got a few mosquito bites at dusk, so having bug spray might be helpful, but I never felt overwhelmed by mosquito attacks. On the second night, I found a cockroach in our room, but it might have been because an almost empty beer bottle was left on a table (and they request that no food is kept in the rooms for this reason). There is an inch-tall gap under the door, and it might be helpful if they provided a padded roll or something to block critters from wandering in, but you do have to remember that you’re surrounded by nature. Not everyone speaks English here, but there is usually at least one person around that does. Zephyr Lodge is connected with Adventuras Turisticas, a shuttle company that provides transportation to certain destinations, such as Antigua and Guatemala City. There is another shuttle company just up the street with a sign advertising shuttle service to Panajachel and Quetzaltenango, but the staff knows nothing about them, and they were closed when I went in the morning. As a hostel, I think it would be professional to provide information, or at least an inclination to help find needed services, if a guest has plans to travel to a destination not offered by their shuttle company. NOTE: There are no ATM’s or banks in Lanquin, so bring enough cash.

The view outside our room!
Zephyr Lodge has a bar and restaurant, which serves really good food and offers vegetarian dishes, too. The first night, I had the dinner special - beer braised pork stew served with garlic mashed potatoes, vegetable ratatouille, warm cabbage salad, and a homemade roll (Q45). It was delicious. The second night, I had beef curry off the regular menu. It was really good, although I would have liked more vegetables. For breakfast, I had scrambled eggs served with refried beans, cheese, fruit, and a tortilla (Q32) and a cup of decent coffee (Q10). Delicious smoothies (Q15-18) with fresh fruit and no sugar added are available - I highly recommend strawberry and banana mixed with orange juice. Happy hour reduced drink prices are enjoyed by many.

There is a small tienda about a three minute walk from Zypher Lodge. I picked up five bananas for Q2. Plenty of processed food options are also available.

Homemade chocolate at Semuc Champey cost Q5 for two round discs.

Kan’Ba Cave/Semuc Champey Tour
Sign up the day before at the reception desk. For Q175, you get a guide to the park and the caves and round trip transportation (it also covers the entrance fees). For the river cave tour, which lasts one hour, you’ll want to wear your bathing suit and water shoes (Keens, Chacos, etc.). Everything else you bring (food, water, camera, etc.) will be kept safely in the office. If you don’t have water shoes and don’t want to get your sneakers wet, you’ll go barefoot (they don’t recommend flip flops). I had water shoes, and everyone who went barefoot wished they had some. Consider bringing a towel - I would have liked to dry off before putting on my hiking clothes. Also, bear in mind that it’s much safer during the dry season. Our guide told us a story about a group having to climb to higher ground and wait for three hours before exiting because of rising water during the wet season. After the cave tour, you have the option of hiking to the lookout point or going straight to the natural pools. If you’re up for a bit of a strenuous hike, I definitely recommend the lookout. It’s a steep ascent that took about twenty minutes hiking at a steady pace, but the view is definitely worth it. It’s a much easier, mostly downhill hike to reach the top pool. From here, you can slip and slide down to the other pools.

Traveling to Lanquin from Flores
The shuttle company I used for transportation to Tikal also arranged for my shuttle to Lanquin. It cost Q125, took eight hours, and included a couple bathroom breaks and a thirty-minute stop at a comedor in Coban for lunch. The shuttle drops you off in Lanquin, where you’re virtually assaulted by representatives of different hotels/hostels. Whether you have a reservation or not, they will give you a free ride to your accommodations.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ancient Mayan Ruins in Tikal National Park, Guatemala

March 9, 2013

I wake up at dawn, sunlight streaming through the bus window, after a night of fitful sleep; it’s difficult to get comfortable, even in these luxury seats designed for sleeping. The eight-hour overnight ride from Guatemala City to Flores is almost over. Peering out the window, I see two women walking, each with a large bowl filled to the brim balanced on her head. Dogs wander the streets.

Around 6:00 am, we roll into the tiny town of Flores. It’s comprised of colorful buildings, mostly hotels, restaurants, and shops, all within walking distance of each other. And, if you are too tired to walk, you can hop into a tuk-tuk, a tiny taxi car with a large, grumbling engine. Just across the bridge is Santa Elena, a larger, more commercial town where most of the locals live. As far as a place to spend the night, I think Flores has the nicer atmosphere. From here, it’s just a short shuttle ride to Tikal National Park, which is the reason we’ve traveled so far north in Guatemala.

The Mayans left Tikal over one thousand years ago, leaving their great stone architecture to be reclaimed by the aggressive jungle. It wasn’t until the 1950s that excavation began, and it continues today. While some temples are completely visible, rising impressively into the sky, many other temples have just their highest point jutting out from layers of dirt and plant growth; some look merely like a mound of earth, if you didn’t know what lie beneath.

The Mascarones Temple stands 38 meters tall. It was built in 700  AD
by "Mr. Cocoa," and the wooden carved lintel is thought to resemble his wife.

Oh my goodness, the steps are steep!

Fortunately, this engraving has not worn completely away.

This is the view from the Two-Headed Snake Temple. It's the tallest temple
in Tikal and in all Mesoamerica,built in 740 AD and standing 64.6 meters tall.

This beautiful tree is the Ya'ascche', Guatemala's national tree.
Mayans worship  it as the holy tree of life and consider it the axle of the world.

The Mayans are long gone, but the jungle is still full of life. Howler monkeys cause a ruckus in the trees, sounding like Chewbacca on a bad day. A tiny fox crosses our path on a secluded trail. Pizote (coatimundi) forage for food. A bird, I think an oropendola, sings a song reminiscent of a piece of electronic equipment on the fritz. A curious wild turkey approaches during our picnic lunch, interested in Nick’s beef jerky. Ruffling its feathers and creating its own drum beat, the turkey dances for us, spinning in a slow circle with tail feathers splayed. We are being courted! The performance ends when the turkey regally bows, a slow, deep bow as if in prayer, and lays still.

After wondering around Flores for half an hour and looking at every menu we come across, I resign myself to lackluster dining options. Most Central American restaurants claiming typico, or authentic, food offer variations of the same ingredients: rice, beans, plantains, chicken, and tortillas. No variety, no creative dishes, no enticing flavors. Tasty, authentic cuisine exists; you’re just not going to find it in most restaurants, where they tend to stick to basic, bland recipes. For this, you’ll need to sneak into a plump woman’s home or ask for what’s under the striped cloth covering the basket in the market stall. This is where the true cooking is found. Even then, expect to find tortillas, beans, and/or rice somewhere on your plate.

Of course, there are other options available, mostly pizza, burgers, and pasta. These restaurants are for tourists, as well as local families looking for a change. One family celebrated a birthday at Pizza Hut. When I was little, I loved going to Pizza Hut with my family, so excited to trade in my Book-It reading certificate for my very own pepperoni personal pan pizza oozing grease. It’s just not appealing when I’m hundreds of miles from home seeking different experiences (or even when I am home, for that matter). Then again, neither were the pork chops and steamed frozen vegetable medley I ate for dinner. Oh, Central America, how I wish I liked your cuisine as much as I enjoy the rest you have to offer. (One thing I discover that is really good here are their bananas. I swear, they taste better than the ones I buy at home.)

Hotel Casa Amelia
Calle La Unión, Ciudad Flores, Petén, Guatemala, C.A.
Tel: (502)7867-5430
Cost: Q340/$45 per night
The bus drops you off at the Gran Hotel, a large yellow building next to the lake. It’s a short walk to the hotel: Go left along the waterfront, and you will reach the back deck of the hotel’s restaurant. They were kind enough to prepare our room early, rather than having us wait until the afternoon. The room (#205) was airy and clean, with two double beds, a private bathroom, air conditioning, and a view of the lake. The shower had hot water. The staff doesn’t speak much English, but we managed to communicate.

Tiny stores, or tiendas, are on every street in Flores, selling snacks (chips, cookies, candy) and cold drinks. I bought two large water bottles and two bananas for Q22. The bananas taste really good here - probably because they’re so fresh.

A Central American processed snack - marshmallow on a soft cookie. 
Tikal Restaurant - At the restaurant under the same roof as the gift shops, I ordered a Tropical Fruit salad, consisting of watermelon, papaya, and cantaloupe (Q38). I was surprised, and a little disappointed, that it didn’t contain any mango, pineapple, or banana, which are also common and currently in-season.

Cool Beans - We chose this restaurant for dinner after a short walk around Flores to check out the options. Most restaurants serve burgers, pasta, and meat/vegetable dishes, including this one, but it had a nice vibe. Nick ordered a hamburger with guacamole, and he received a bun filled with eggplant, tomato, guacamole, a mayonnaise-based sauce...and no hamburger. Thankfully, my pork chop special (Q50) came with two, so I gave him some meat. Instead of mashed potatoes, I requested a double serving of vegetables. The vegetables arrived steamed...and that’s it. No oil or butter, salt or pepper, garlic or spices. Cools Beans is... not so cool. But it is cheap.

Casa Amelia - The hotel has an attached restaurant, and we ate breakfast here the morning we departed. I ordered the egg breakfast, which included eggs cooked to order, bacon or ham, tomatoes, onions, cheese, beans, fried plantains, corn tortillas, and coffee or tea (Q35). I was served eggs scrambled with cheese, bacon, and ham with a side of beans and sliced bananas. Not what I expected, but it was really good.

Tikal National Park -
Tikal National Park is open from 6:00 am - 6:00 pm every day, and the entrance fee is Q150/$18 (cash only). If you want to visit for the sunrise (4-:00 am - 8:00 am) or the sunset (6:00 pm - 8:00 pm), you can pay an additional fee of Q100/$12 - it is two separate fees, not one fee for both. Another option is staying at a park lodge, but this is more expensive than staying in Flores or Santa Elena.

At the front gate, we bought a map for Q25. It was nice to have because it helped us know that we weren’t missing any ruins, and we also learned a little bit about the ruins. I think five hours is enough time to explore all the ruins at a leisurely pace, with time to have a picnic lunch. (There are restaurants, but we brought food.)

Traveling to Flores from the Guatemala City Airport
Bus Companies:
- Autobuses del Norte (ADN; tel. 502/2251-0610 in Guatemala City;; Estación Central, 8a Av. 16-41, Zona 1)
- Línea Dorada (tel. 502/2232-5506 in Guatemala City, or 7926-0070 in Santa Elena;; 16a Calle 10-03, Zona 1)

Both companies have regular buses between Guatemala City and Santa Elena/Flores. The trip on either bus line takes around eight to nine hours. We took a taxi from the airport to the ADN bus station for Q125 because it had the latest bus available (10:00 pm). Since we arrived at night, we took an overnight bus, which I think is a good choice because then you can sleep through the long drive. A one-way ticket costs Q180 if you pay with cash and Q189 if you pay with a credit card. Our 10:00 pm bus arrived around 6:00 am.

Traveling to Tikal National Park from Flores/Santa Elena
When we arrived at our hotel to check-in, there was a man offering round-trip shuttle rides to Tikal for $10 per person at 8:00 am. The shuttle picked us up in front of the hotel. It was as easy as that.

Receptores Turisticos
Peteneros, S.A.
Calle 15 de Septiembre, Flores, Peten
Telefonos: 5175-2263, 5805-5362, 5175-1894, 5746-8852

We drove for about one and a half hours (after reaching the gate of Tikal, you drive in another 17km). Once there, we decided with the other passengers in the van to get picked up at 4:00 pm. If you aren’t sure when you want to leave, it seemed like there were other shuttles available.