Friday, March 28, 2008

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey is a series of crystalline pools in a valley in Guatemala. It's also where there is a 300 metre long limestone 'bridge' that has a scary river flowing underneath it.

This is where the river heads underground. Clumsy tourists die here

This is what sits above the river-tunnel

Tourists clambering down a rope ladder to see where the river comes out

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


The main street

The lawn mower in front of our hut

Riverside hammock

Random Chicken Bus

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Tikal Ruins

Tikal is the a sprawling capital of Ancient Mayan civilisation. The best time to see it is at sunrise, when you climb the imaginatively titled Tower IV and wallow solitarily in the satisfaction of having beat the crowds. ‘Beat the crowds!!’ the tourists, tour operators and hotel staff all say. Apparently it’s hugely important to beat the crowds around Tikal, and with our visit falling on Easter Sunday, the most crowd-inducing, holidaying day of Latin America, we joined a sunrise tour, which is the only way to gain pre-dawn entry to the park.

The light rose, and we were greeted with the stunning sight of ancient tower tops poking out of thick jungle canopy, while toucans - wild toucans! - jumped around in the trees. Equally astounding was the amount of people gathered to witness this spectacle. Unfortunately, there was a crowd of people who also wanted to beat the crowd, and we beat the crowds only by joining what could not be described as anything other than a crowd.

Morning madness

The guide had obviously previously been employed as a cartoon character used to educate children with learning difficulties, and he made many feel like mentally inflicted infants as he took us through the site spewing copious amounts of kitsch one-liners designed to keep short attention spans from wandering off on their own into the surrounding park.

These are the stairs they used to use

And now we use ladders to get up the towers

And wander off I did, to be amongst the quiet and stillness that can only be found when you’re alone in ruins thousands of years old. Plenty of others did too, so it wasn’t just me who was bitter.

We explored the ruins, walking along jungle tracks between towers and climbing whichever pyramids had been deemed suitable for touristic clambering. When the proper crowds did start to trickle in, they were nothing like the heaving throng we had been warned about, and in fact it was rather interesting to watch Guatemalan families picnicking and doing holiday things. We spent most of the rest of the day people watching from the shade of the limestone monoliths, a wonderful alternative to sweating through the intense heat of a Guatemalan sun at full power.

This is what a tower looks like before it is excavated

Thursday, March 20, 2008

VOMITAR: verbo intransitivo. To vomit, be sick.

The success of our ambitious exit plan from Honduras to Flores, in Northern Guatemala depended on us making an unlikely series of closely-timed bus connections. In a land where set timetables don’t exist (except for long distance affairs) and busses only leave ‘when full’, only a miracle of punctuality and demand was going to have us in Flores come nightfall.

In what appeared to be a wonderful omen, we filled the last two seats of our first minibus, meaning we would leave straight away on the 12-kilometre ride to the border. However, ‘when-full’ was being taken to literal extremes, and only when the standing room (this is in a Tarago-style van) was taken up did we leave. On-route to the border, we stopped a couple of times so that the van could be filled to bursting point. There were so many passengers that the door couldn’t be closed and people had to ride hanging onto the roofracks.

At the border, the Honduran official checked our documents and demanded a 20 Lempira (AU$1.15) fee. We watched the notes go straight into a straight into a stationery drawer, making it rather obvious that this was a fee headed straight for the official’s pocket. We demanded a receipt, and after a short disagreement, he huffily returned our money, then shooed us away muttering unintelligible insults.

The Guatemalan official was armed with the same story of an unexpected, unreported fee, but when asked about a receipt, assured us that of course, one would be forthcoming. Our tight schedule didn’t allow for much more argument time, so we paid and ran off to catch the bus. Later, under closer inspection, the receipt turned out to be a deposit slip from the local bank. It was such a cute effort (he even stamped the date on it) that I couldn’t go back for retribution, and besides, antagonising two border guards in one morning is never a good idea for the hurried traveler.

A rather unofficial-looking entry document

Now safely in Guatemala, we had more busses to catch. The van we caught was filled to extremes that made the morning’s earlier effort seem like a hedonistic cruise in a private limousine. Even as passengers were loaded onto each other’s laps forming three high human stacks, the bus stopped for more.

The unforeseen third connection was a welcome relief from the intimate overcrowding, and we were hopeful that the mid-size people mover awaiting us would provide a less distressing journey. Not so. The attendant told Angie to get in, even though all the seats and standing room were taken. ‘Where?’ she asked. The attendant motioned towards the empty space above the seated passengers, implying that she should somehow float in the vast free space below the ceiling. She crawled in, and stood in front of one row of seated passengers, holding onto the bench seat in front of her to prevent landing in their laps. I was shown to a spot behind the rear row of seats where I could stand, the rear door holding me firmly in place.

Slowly, the tinned mass of humanity moved away. Soon after, a child was sick. Unfortunately, the child was seated directly behind Angie, and Angie’s leg was covered in what appeared to be the morning’s intake of breakfast Coca-Cola. While I guiltily battled to suppress laughter at the extreme absurdity of the whole situation, Angie, already on edge thanks to the stresses of such close-quarters travel, went spiraling over the edge of tolerance. Instead of holding back laughter, she battled tears and filled the little remaining space in the cabin with a vicious string of brutal expletives.

The rest of the horrendous journey was filled with the miserable wails of a carsick child, and punctuated by a couple more fabric-staining projectile vomits. Thankfully by then, Angie had found a spot away from the impact zone. When finally, mercifully, the journey ended, we were dropped off in the most disgusting alleyway I’ve ever had the displeasure of smelling. With watering eyes, amid the stench of urine, we unloaded the bags from the roofrack, being careful to dodge the numerous piles of faeces on the ground, most of which were definitely too large to be of canine origin. Breathing through my mouth and running down the alley to fresher air, I couldn’t wait to leave this place. At the bus station, we were abused with heartbreaking news that we had missed the last bus to Flores. Never has the urge to catch a taxi to the airport been so strong.

It took Angie a few days to recover from the ordeal, but I forgot all about it when I saw the hotel pool in Chiquamula, where we were stranded.