I’d forgotten how integral to comfort that a seats headrest is. And I think we figured out back in the dark ages like the 60’s or something, that headrests are actually a pretty important safety item as well. Not to demean Guatemalans but it hasn’t yet caught on here. So this means that despite the van actually being pretty roomy, it’s impossible to rest your neck and head, which is horrible when it’s 6am, pre-coffee and stuffy inside. Despite that, the trip up and out of the lake was really spectacular; the lights of the villages lit up the shoreline of the lake like a split bag of sand on black paper. The star’s were still out too. We must have climbed a bit in altitude as the temperature dropped even further and the cloud and mist rolled in. The road twisted and turned around mountain passes for hours and by 1pm or so we were rolling into Coban, the busiest town yet with a McDonalds, Subway and the like. To be honest I’d craved Subway for a couple of months, I eat it a lot at home but it had always proved a challenged to derive a specific sandwich combination using solo Espanol. But I did it; and enjoyed my toasted foot-long Chicken Breast on Oregano bread with lettuce, tomato, olives, jalapenos (tough one that) and mayonnaise. I ordered a Macchiato from McCafe as well, just to be colonialist.
We got to Lanquin a short while later, after exchanging paved road for gravel. Lanquins a quiet little town, a few twisting roads, some local tiendas (shops) and restaurants, a few local workshops and businesses but that’s about it. There’s a handful of hostels here too but we were snapped up pretty quickly by Alex or ‘calvo’ (bald) in Spanish. It was true, he was bald but he looked more the part of Guatemalan gangster with arms and chest full of tatts. We jumped in the back of a truck with a bunch of whooping local lads and corralled out of town and onto a mountain track. Take anything less than a 4×4 here and you won’t make it. We twisted and bounced along rough cut roads and the local lads called out and jeered at just about everyone we passed. Then we found this old bloke wandering up the middle of the road. The truck honked, the guys yelled out ‘puto viejo!’ but he wouldn’t move. Drunk out of his mind, it took two of the guys in the trailer to haul him off to the side of the road and fight of his wild swinging fists. Can’t say we had the best possible first impression of Semuc Champey but it was at the very least entertaining and at worst, disconcerting. Like a bunch of rogue cowboys the lads didn’t stop whooping until we arrived and got out of the back of the trailer; which of course stirred up the dogs.
‘No Chewy! No!’
Pam would tell us later that all of the 5 dogs at Hostel Utopia had a story. Pam was Johns mother, John owned the place. He’d been in business just 5 months and like most of his customers we’d found them through word of mouth. The main area of the hostel was this big open-aired wooden decking with ultra high ceilings that reached back to a kitchen and entertainment area. The view stretched out over the other side across the surrounding mountains and down to the fast-flowing river at the bottom of the property. As it was late afternoon when we’d arrived, most people were starting their afternoon drinks around the decking, and soaking in the late afternoon sun, that set just behind the mountains, foremost in our view. Utterly awesome. We were lead upstairs, the smell of fresh pine and resin still omnipresent. We were shown a wooden rustic little room just off the main dorm with nothing more than a bed, window and door, but completely clean and comfortable.
At around 6pm that evening, Ellen, Johns other half; and Pam and some of their local workers distributed meals to the 15 or so guests. ‘Dinner is at 6pm, we don’t have a menu here, you’ll get what you deserve’ the sign said. Evidently we’d done just enough for just pasta and salad, and it was tasty and wholesome. It was one of many meals distributed that way which encouraged people to mingle, get to know each other, trade for luxury items, make shiv’s. Nah, prison food is barely a comparison, it was lovely, just an unusual, though charming way to dine.
The next day we set out to walk the 4 or so kilometers to Semuc Champey, the postcard famous natural pool system. Just getting up the bloody driveway was challenge enough but rewarded by a sensational 270 degree view of the surrounding mountains. Locals ran out to their doorways as we passed; then shied away somewhat, peering from behind the door jamb. ‘Buenas Dias!’ we’d yell and they’d emerge.. ‘Buenas Dias! they’d reply enthusiastically. It was weird. It had been a while that we’d been remote enough to evoke a curiosity in the locals. They were overly friendly and the children so heart meltingly adorable, my heart melted.
Semuc Champey’s pool system really is a natural wonder. Enclosed by a steep mountains either side, the river cuts through and cascades down through beautifully opaque natural pools that over time has produced a fine white sand and resulting turquoise blue water. It’s cold but only refreshingly so and once swimming you can find a shallower series of rocks to clamber on and lie in the sun. If you dangle your feet in the water they’ll be affectionately gnawed at by the resident fish, hungry for dead skin and the like. Which was great because I had two scabbed up blisters from all the diving I’d done and a flourishing case of athletes foot as well. Help yourself guys! And they loved it! Nom nom nom they’d go, munching away all the rot to the baby smooth stuff underneath. If you plan on visiting the area, just remember not to order fish if you decide to eat out anywhere. I’d hate for you to pick up some kind of stomach fungus.
Tour groups came and went so it got busy in peaks but then they’d leave and we’ve have the glorious place to ourselves. But eventually you tire of swimming in the perfect clarity of the water and warming your skin in the sun and we left to tackle the (unbeknownst) challenge of the mirador, or walk to a significant viewpoint. It was basically a 800 meter walk up the mountain. Clambering over rocks in thongs, sliding through mud and slipping down rocky slops we eventually got to a little wooden platform that once you looked down on the pools gave you a true sense of it’s unique and wonderful charm. It honestly looked like an artists palette. These ridiculously bright blue pools intersected by warm yellow rock and enclosed by forest greenery. Small waterfalls provided conduit between each one and we could see the odd flabby tourist floundering around in the shallows; but it wasn’t enough to spoil the horrendous natural beauty. We left exhausted but refreshed by the swim and amazed by what we’d seen.
Night’s were early at Utopia as the generator turned off at 10pm. Candles replaced incandescent globes and those who wanted to party were moved out to the firepit down by the river at the bottom. We deserved a helping of peppery pasta soup that night which was mind-blowingly good. Princess the Border Collie didn’t think so. She licked away most of the soups gravy but left the remaining macaroni noodles for Chewy. Probably just as well, she really was fat enough; there’s nothing like playing second to an overweight Border Collie and I’m glad Chewy at least got something that night.
We experienced the Mayan end of calendar by ourselves in the hostel. There was only one late night arrival and in what was one of the darkest wettest nights we’d had we barely slept. By the morning John reported he’d lost touch with his Internet satellite. ‘Zombie apocalypse’ I said.. and perhaps so.
Pam and John had owned a condo leasing business on Roatan Island the year prior and for 12 years prior to th
at. But they’d left. Roatan, as she described it has descended into an almost uncontrollable lawless society of cocaine addicts and their dealers. Commonly 12 year old girls are recruited, hooked on cocaine at no charge to them and sent out as prostitutes. 2 years into their addiction they’re suddenly expected to repay their existing drug debt and purchase any additional drugs they need. Trouble is, Roatan is the first place en route to North American that the drug is cut. So the quality and virility of the substance is as good as it gets; making it expensive. Occasionally you could luck out if one of the cargo planes or boats ditches and tones of the stuff washes up or finds itself anonymously on the street. The DEA are in there but they’re a two man team on a problem so huge. Local law enforcement in probably more a hinderance than anything else. Pam describes seeing a crowd of locals crowd around a washed up package of cocaine in West End. Local law enforcement arrives and declares they’re only there to ensure the package is distributed evenly.
The mayor of Roatan is related to the current president and is ambivalent about the impact to tourism given his involvement with the drug trade in Honduras. At the last election, his opponent, a publicly popular figure determined to eradicate the problem, was shot in the back of the head as he put up posters around town.
And more and more the crime starts affecting local business owners including gringos. Businesses are held up, broken into, and their owners private homes invaded by armed bandits. The result in one case, an execution style execution of a former Floridian police officer in his home. ‘The problems began when the drugs stayed’ Pam says ‘when they move on, it’s fine’. Domestic gangs and members from Colombia are shipped in to ensure integrity of delivery and operation, resulting in further violence. ‘It’s out of control’. So they packed up and set up Utopia, in a quiet little town with no trouble.
And from our observation she appeared right. We haphazardly walked onto private property during a walk along the river the next day at Utopia. ‘Este es privado propiedad?’ I asked. ‘Si…pero no es una problemla’. We got a smile and were simply ushered on our way. After crossing the bridge and after waving hola to some local town-kids we were asked for some small change. We honestly had nothing as we’d not planned to buy anything and so told them so. They seemed okay by that but then some 50 meters up the road, unleashed their dogs on us. Perhaps not deliberately.
The day prior we’d bought some chocolate coins off from some other local boys, made at home by their mothers. We gave them what we had in our bags as well, which was a granola bar and some biscuits; which were really well received. Perhaps word had gotten round. We enjoyed the rich, dark chocolate over a Guatemalan coffee later that afternoon. Bliss.
The next morning we left early in Johns Hilux back to Lanquin to catch the shuttle to Tikal, some 2 days after the end of calendar event. It would be amazing to see one of the most significant sites of the Maya in what would be day 3 in a 5,125 year cycle.