Semuc Champey to Tikal – Guatemala’s Gems

Nick Says: Our first day at Utopia lived up to the promise of the night-time arrival. It really was the most incredible place to stay. A super relaxed vibe, beautiful scenery, and super friendly staff who by the end of our stay felt more like friends then people fetching you a beer. All in all, it was one of the best places we’ve stayed on the trip. John, the owner, greeted us over breakfast and chatted for awhile, before uttering the ominous phrase, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news’. Turned out they had double-booked our super swanky river-front lodge we’d stayed in, so we had to move. However, and this summed up the whole ethos of the place, they comped us the second night for free to say sorry. In the end though I think this may have been some sort of genius ploy on John’s part, as we celebrated our cash windfall by blowing the lot (plus change) on a LOT of beers and brownies (the most delicious blonde brownies I’ve ever tasted) that night. Oops.

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But our decadent beer and brownie splurge was still to come. First of all we had some serious relaxing to do around the grounds of Utopia. Situated on the bend of an outrageously photogenic river, you don’t even have to go very far to experience some outdoor adventure. Still a bit bruised by our ride in the back of the pick-up, we headed down to the river to show Craig one of our favourite activities on the trip, wild swimming. Despite assurances that the swimming hole was protected from the fast flowing currents of the rest of the river, we were either lied to or the rains of the previous days had changed things. After swimming out a bit, we were almost swept away (much to the amusement of a fisherman on the far shore). Things didn’t get too much better when we came in to the shallows as first Craig slipped on a rock and almost brained himself (3 days and we broke him), and then we came under attack from an unexpected source. Sitting and chatting, a small object  suddenly flew in between us at great speed, splashing water. At first we thought it was a nut or something that had fallen from the tree, but on closer inspection we saw it was a pebble! What the hell? We looked up, and saw a furious monkey in the tree, who quickly scampered off following his failed assault. I’ve no idea what we did to enrage him, but he wasn’t happy…

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As well as the aforementioned beer and brownies, nights at Utopia also revolved around the ‘family’ style dinner they serve. With no other dining options nearby, you’re basically forced to eat there or go hungry, but luckily they make the food tasty and the dining experience worth your time and money. Family style means you’re all served the same dinner, and sit round long tables which ensures you get friendly with your neighbours. I’ve always liked this way of eating, as it means you get to know everyone very quickly. You can’t really be friends with someone until you’ve eaten with them can you? And at a place like Utopia, there’s always someone fascinating to share stories with over your tea. In our time there, we met Tom the micro-brewer from Minnesota, his French girlfriend who had been relocated to the States, the flooded family from Cornwall whose daughter was volunteering in Guatemala, plus a whole host of other characters (including a very posh mosaic artist who travelled with a young girl we assumed was his daughter, before finding out she was his girlfriend! The fact she spent most of the time flirting with some teenage German boys does not bode well for their future…). As I mentioned before, we also got on brilliantly with all the staff including a very crazy  funny German girl named Pia who left us a very sweet note when we left, a Northerner called Alex who dreamed of setting up a photography tour in the area, and my favourite, a mysterious Frenchman who loved Doctor Who, made chocolate on-site and dressed like a wizard. I never did find out his name, but he seemed to like it when I drunkenly referred to him as the ‘chocolate wizard’. Sounds a bit like a euphemism though.

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As lovely as Utopia was, the main reason we had come to this hard to reach part of Guatemala was to explore the caves and pools of Semuc Champey. We’d heard so much about the place, we were starting to wonder if it could live up to the hype. We set out the next day to see for ourselves. Most of the hostels in the area offer a full day tour for about 180Q (which is about $23 or 13 quid). For this you get a morning exploring a cave system, and then the afternoon in Semuc Champey itself, before some optional river tubing. Not being overly fond of small, dark spaces, Bee opted not to do the cave part of the tour. Me and Craig however, took the plunge.

Stripping down to our boardies and socks (essential for keeping your balance on slippy rocks – we learnt this in the waterfalls of Venezuela), we followed our guide to the entrance of the caves. One of the first things he did was describe himself as ‘muy loco’ which means ‘very crazy’, which possibly didn’t bode well for a man about to lead you into a dark space with him responsible for your safety! With no lights to guide you, you’re given candles for the tour, which is actually a very cool and atmospheric way to explore underground. We quickly became experts in learning how to relight a damp wick (bite and fray the ends my friends!), and edged our way through the rock formations. For those budding geologists out there, you will learn NOTHING about the cave system on this tour. It is a full-on action tour pure and simple. Being as I enjoy that type of tour, it was perfect for me. Not long into the tour, we quickly plunged into waist deep water. It was pretty chilly, but this was only the beginning. The waist deep water then became chest-deep, and then we couldn’t touch the bottom. So we all quickly learnt how to swim one-handed while holding a sputtering candle in the other. We trekked almost a kilometere into the dark, clambering up gushing waterfalls along the way, sliding down mysterious holes, and finally leaping off a 3m high ledge into a pool of water (which you must hit in one exact spot, or it’s game over). For those wondering, there is no real health and safety down here, which makes up a lot of the fun. However, it’s probably not for the faint of heart! It can also get pretty crowded down there when one or more tour groups come together, and on the way out prepare to be abandoned for long stretches by your guide as they herd everyone out. It got pretty dark and lonely for me and Craig at the back, until he remembered he had a head torch with him…

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Bee Says: I confess, my kryptnonite is small spaces. I can handle vast heights, tiny tin can planes, the roughest oceans and various other hairy scary moments, but the idea of wriggling around tiny dark damp caverns is not something I would spend my precious Quetzales on. Instead I got to laze by the river spotting the hugest, most exotic butterflies of the trip (with a few even making a home on my dress) so I had a very different Disney-movie morning whilst the boys chucked themselves off scary cave ledges. We were then reunited for an action-packed afternoon, starting with a hike to the viewing platform that would give us the iconic (and first) view of the Semuc Champey pools. The sign marking the footpath to the hike stated that it should take 1 hour 30 minutes. Our guide announced we would do it in 20 minutes and with that he marched off into the wilderness leaving us huffing and puffing in his dust. Hmm, what an attentive guide! The trek to the viewing platform was vertical. Steep slippery jungle paths soon dwindled to nothing and were replaced by rickety wooden steps that snaked around the side of the mountain at jutting angles. Luckily the tree canopy hid the full extent of the drop below, but the creaking and juddering of the structure ensured that we kept a fast pace and completed the hike in the alloted time, mainly with terror spurring us on! The moment I walked out onto the (equally rickety) wooden viewing platform will be a memory I clutch to once we are back in the world of fulltime jobs and zzz commutes. Firstly I saw Craig beaming bigger than I have ever seen before, then behind him the source of his glee: the most dramatic green, turquoise and aqua pools, surrounded by lucious green trees and backed by a gushing waterfall. Beautiful is a word I cannot help but overuse, but of every single place we have visited, this is the single most beautiful place on earth I have ever seen. We’ve seen more than our fair share of dramatic, stunning, otherworldy places and had beautiful experiences, but Semuc Champey definitely tops out in terms of pinch-yourself-am-I-really-seeing-this-or-am-I-dreaming?-ness.

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As we stood taking in the spectacular view, we were sweating profusely as a result of the vertical trekking and the intense jungle humidity. Before every snap we had to wipe our faces on our tee-shirts; a nice behind the scenes tidbit for you! It was hot hot hot, so you can imagine how tempting, cool and refreshing the pools looked, to the point I could have dived off that viewing platform into them right there and then (and with Guatemala´s lack of health and safety, I´d have probably been cheered on by my guide!) A quick march/run back down the mountain took us right up to the pools where we stripped off and raced into the lapping water. Semuc Champey is an entirely unique natural formation. It is a limestone ´bridge´ under which a ferocious river races. We started off our tour of the pools standing at the top, watching the river-turned-waterfall gushing, then vanishing underground. The limestone bridge is covered in these natural pools, which end when the river reappears (a bit you certainly wouldn’t want to bathe in).

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As you relax in the tranquil waters, it is hard to believe there is a furious swell of a rapids racing beneath you! The first pool was perfect for reclining, sunbathing and letting little fish suckle on our toes. The pools then increased in terms of deepness, distance to clamber in and size of the fish. In the last pool lived a fish that was so big when it brushed against my leg, I thought it was a human. You can imagine how much Craig enjoyed this element, given that his kryptonite is…. yup, fish! By far the most fun part of our day of pool-hopping was the fact that to move from one pool to another, we had to use the mini waterfalls connecting them, with the super-slippery limestone making nifty natural water slides. The biggest one was 8 foot, sending me shooting out into freefall before waterbombing into the pool (and Nick, whoops) below. I hadn´t really given any thought to how we would get back out of the pools… you guessed it, I had to scale the super-slippery waterfalls. This bit was slightly trickier than zooming down on my bum.

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Nick Says: I won’t lie, I was a bit worried about how Bee would cope with all the leaping around slippery waterfalls. But any fears I had about her being too scared were dispelled as I turned around to see her arms and legs akimbo flying through the air with a look of unadulterated glee on her face. A priceless memory!

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Bee Says: On our final morning in Heaven… I mean Utopia, we set our alarms and sat out on the deck from 5.15am watching the sunrise, milking every last misty magical moment. Then it was time to be herded into the back of yet another jeep (our fouth time, so by now we were experts at which bits of padding to shove against the bars to avoid bashing and bruising) and dumped in Lanquin to await a tourist shuttle to zoom us to Flores. As we waited for the shuttle, I overheard the type of conversation that makes me despair at the attitude of some fellow travellers. A British guy was also waiting for the shuttle, and made a point of going up to the Guatemalan driver and asking “will there be any locals on the shuttle?”, to which the man answered that yes, sometimes locals use the service. At this, the British guy recoiled and annuonced “well I was ensured that there would be no locals on the transport. I only want to travel with other tourists”. (!!!!) The driver, through gritted teeth, informed the guy that the services are so expensive that only wealthy locals use them. I guess this was meant to reassure him that they wouldn´t be interested in him or his luggage, but personally I don´t think he should have justified the Brits complete ignorance with a response. How dare that he travel to a country and then demand he doesn´t interact with the local people?! The reasons that this is beyond offensive are too many to list, and my blood pressure is raising just recalling it! I didn´t go and have it out with the idiot, because we were about to spend 10 hours in a tiny mini-bus together, but I really wish now that I had said something. We have used public transport for 99% of our journeys, and have much preferred travelling with locals to masses of fellow tourists. The local people have constantly been informative, with impeccible manners (as long haul buses are a regular part of life) who make no fuss about the lack of air con, or bumpy roads or lack of bathroom stops. Even new born babies and toddlers seem to fall in line, as we have shared buses with up to 10 tots who barely make a sound for hours! As if to highlight this point, the very same shuttle that the Brtish guy had kicked off about, was one of our most unpleasant travel experiences. The shuttle set off from Lanquin with us onboard and stopped at a local hostel to pick up more passengers. As they boarded, they noticed there were some jackets splayed on some seats, so moved them off and took their seats. The bus then returned to where we had set off from, picking up a Dutch couple had stayed on to finish their breakfast. As they boarded, they realised their jackets (reserving their places apparently) had been moved, and that they would have to sit seperately on different seats. Immediately they started screeching, yelling, swearing and being SO aggresive to the girls that had sat in their seats. The women from the couple then proceeded to sit on the girls!! Saying she would stay there until they moved. It was so awkward and un-necessary and appaulling to witness. How can you have such a loss of perspective when you are travelling around one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere?? Get me back on that public transport, stat!

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Once the Jeremy-Kyle style scrapping had ended, we drove off to Flores. The road got bumpier, and bumpier, and our teeth were audibly clattering as we reached a sudden stop. The driver vanished and eventually we snuck out to investigate what was happening. As I enquired Que Pasa to the workmen who had stopped our shuttle, I was informed that the road we were driving on was actually still being built! We couldn´t help but chuckle. With a few hurried phone calls, some bribes and sweet talking our driver persueded the workmen to let us drive on the muddy not-yet-a-road and we were soon back en route. After 4 hours of pot-hole rattling I couldn´t hold in the call of nature anymore and asked the driver to stop for a bano naturale (natures toilet!) I found myself a great shady spot amongst some long (prickly, ouch) grass and did my business… before turning round and finding a family of Guatemalan women watching me from a house that I had failed to spot when I started. Smooth! Shortly after this, we finally rejoined a tarmacced road, and the shuttle errupted in cheers and applause! The last surprise of the journey was when we stopped suddenly again, this time at a large river. It´s been a while since we had the joy of some bus-on-barge action and were so thrilled that we got to share this surreal experience with Craig.

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On arrival in Flores, there was a lot of faffing around and being moved onto another bus, and general confusion, before eventually arriving in Isla Flores. Craig had been in charge of booking this bit of accommodation (such a treat), and had opted for a hostel on San Miguel which is a region on the mainland with a view over Flores. To get there we had one final trip to make, a quick water-taxi across to San Miguel. As we stepped onto the water taxi Craig announced that he felt just like James Bon….. then promptly lost his balance and fell over! As opposed to touristy Flores, San Miguel is a peaceful residential area and Craig had excelled himself in accomodation choosing! Neil, our chatty Belizean hostel owner, led us from the bar/restaurant terrace out along a winding path through ornate gardens and past hammocks and a pool, to our private wooden jungle cabin. It almost rivalled Utopia for amazing accomodation, and was a gorgeous place to spend our last few days together. The thing I loved/hated the most about our cabin, was that as it was on stilts and in the middle of the Guatemalan wilderness, the nature noise at night was almost deafening. It was a constant onslaught of chirrups, caws, and clattering as beasties raced around beneath us. I learnt that the local monkeys make haunting baby-like midnight cries to each other, and at times the soundscape resembled some sort of jungle horror movie. I couldn´t help but lay prone, listening to the noises though, and actually loving it, because I knew that it wouldn´t be long before the night noises return to sirens and blaring cars.

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Nick Says: Ensconced in the comforting silence of my earplugs, I slept soundly through the night jungle. Not that we slept much though, as it was time for yet another early start. Today was the day we were off to visit Tikal, the mightiest of all the Mayan ruins and the jewel in Guatemala’s tourism industry. As the heat and humidity becomes unbearable throughout the day, we left Flores at 4.30am to visit the site in the morning. It takes about an hour to drive there, and then another half hour to actually reach the ruins from the park entrance. What makes Tikal so unique and inspiring is the fact that the temples are surrounded by jungle still, and the place seems locked in constant combat against the onslaught of nature – as if at any moment it will be swallowed up again by the jungle, where it remained hidden for hundreds of years after the collapse of the Maya.

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We had opted to go on a tour of the place, and while it was interesting and informative, the group was too massive to really get a personal guide of what we were seeing. But that didn’t matter too much though, as the ruins really do speak for themselves. While Copan in Honduras  was a masterpiece in elagant carvings and artistic vision, Tikal impressed by its sheer scale and awesomeness of what you were seeing. It wasn’t enough it seems to just have one epically scaled Mayan temple for the kings that ruled there, they wanted dozens! Clambering around and taking it all in was amazing, as was hearing the guttural roar of the howler monkeys that call this place home. Yet another Jurassic Park moment on this trip.

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While all of it was magnificent, my one particular moment of ‘eeeeeeee I’m really here!’ came while standing at the top of Temple IV. incredible as a piece of engineering, it is also famous for appearing in Star Wars. Now having grown up on those films, and assuming as a kid that this amazing Rebel base/temple was some kind of set, it gave me nerd goosebumps to be looking out over Yavin IV.

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Bee Says: It took me a while to warm up to Tikal. In my head I couldn´t help comparing it to Machu Picchu, which really packs a punch when you arrive, as the view takes your breath away. With Tikal, it´s a slow burn, as you visit the smaller temples first and have to walk for half an hour or so between each monument. Once I had reached the Main Plaza however, the scale of what I was seeing finally sunk in, and I was completely overwhelmed by the awesomeness of what was around me. The part that, for me, meant I massively preferred Tikal to Machu Picchu overall, was the space. The size of the site, added to the fact it isn´t the top tourist trap like Peru, meant we could regularly sit at one of the sites and be alone with our thoughts and experiences.

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It gave us some precious time to take a seat (at the love hotel apparently, where Mayans kept their babes!) which provided a spectacular view of the plaza and residential area. It felt like I could just scrunch my eyes and imagine exactly what life used to be like there. Tikal has been so well preserved and maintained, I wasn´t expecting to be able to clamber up and around so many of the temples. This made the experience extra special, as the views from high in the sky with the temples poking out of the jungle canopy were enough to set my heart fluttering. We visited Tikal on Valentines Day, and I know it´s cheesy but I felt like the luckiest girl alive to share it with my fiance and my incredible, inspiring and all-round bestest of friends Craig, clambering around ruins and sharing such a special adventure. I think it´s pretty un-beatable!

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It was over too soon though, and back in Flores there was just time for one more spectacular sunset on the lake and a boozy pizza dinner… then it was time for Craig to jet back to London and finish this amazing chapter of our trip.

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Craig Says: As a lover of travel and miss-er of best friend I could never refuse the chance to join Bee and Nick on their adventure of a lifetime. “Guatemala?” they asked.”Why not” I replied. And booked the flights. Nick and Bee had the itinerary planned and it was truly astonishing – volcano? Check. Ancient Mayan ruins? Check. Jungle paradise? Check. I couldn’t argue with that so it was just a matter of preparing and packing. This was the most distant and thrilling travel destination for me to date but the guys useful packing blog post was referenced scrupulously. Armed with a backpack 75% full of fresh clothes and British foodie treats for the guys I was off.

I hadn’t given much thought to joining two backpackers part way through a trip – would we have different aims? Would we be on different budgets? Would a fresh-off-the-plane Londoner drive them mad?! The truth is it was inspiring, exhilarating, fascinating – and so much fun. If you are thinking of doing something similar – do. I guess you could compare it to going to a really great party at the time it’s really great. The passion and enthusiasm for their trip was addictive and infectious; over the last five months Bee and Nick have seen all of life and I could’ve listened to them narrate their stories and scrapes endlessly.

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What I didn’t expect was how incredibly humbling it would be to know my presence was a boost to them as they neared the end. Five months on the road is tough to say the least so it’s easy to understand how revitalizing a familiar face from home is but I was quite overwhelmed by their excitement at my arrival.

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Practicalities aside on a personal level this was a hugely special, personal voyage. To spend ten exclusive days with my lovely best friend and her equally as lovely fiancée was exceptional. We laughed constantly, ate a lot and talked for hours. The three of us will have some amazing memories of this trip that we’ll be talking about when we’re old and wrinkly in our arm chairs.

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7 thoughts on “Semuc Champey to Tikal – Guatemala’s Gems

  1. Derek

    ‘This is the single most beautiful place on earth I have ever seen’: right, the minute you get home I’m taking you to Filey.

    Reply
  2. Pip

    Nick, I’ve noticed your increased use of ‘super’ in front of adjectives! Is Bee actually ghost-writing your parts while you’re off sunbathing and whatnot?

    Reply
  3. Sarahmia

    You guys look like you’re having such an incredible time! (Bar the odd moany tourist or two – what is wrong with those people?!)

    As much as I don’t think I’ll ever be the backpacker type, your adventures have been so motivating, there are definitely some spots you’ve been to that I want to add to my (ever growing) must see list! x

    Reply
  4. Kate

    I love this extra special edition with guest poster Craig! The most heartswelling & brilliant entry of them all so far, you packed so much into it. Ugh don’t even get me started on the attitude of all those travellers… I’m not sure I would have been able to bite my tongue!

    Reply

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