Ok, enough writing, let's do some riding.
We are leaving Antigua on a road trip! Leaving behind our tent, sleeping bags and half our clothing behind in the B&B, we are setting off for the Guatemalan highlands. Before the trip, I installed a new rear tire - I'm trying out a Heidenau K60 Scout, which is supposed to be better for dirt/gravel roads. They didn't have Neda's size in stock, so we ordered one from the US and we're going to install it next week when it arrives in the country. In the meantime, she's going to ride around the muddy rainy season on a half-bald tire because she's hardcore that way!
Leaving Antigua before sunrise... *yawn*
We are awake at 5AM to try to beat both the rush hour towards Guatemala City and also to try to get some riding done before the rains catch up to us in the afternoon. We fail on both counts. We depart in an unusual morning shower, and the 45km commute towards the capital city takes us over 2 hours! And this is even with splitting lanes and taking to the shoulder, while dodging trucks, chicken buses and other motorists.
Part of our journey takes us through Coban, where Neda's sleeping bag got stolen off her motorcycle a
few months ago. Here she dives into a crowded market, hoping to find the thief that stole her sleeping bag...
Neda really liked riding through these tall cornfields
Fire burning at the side of the road in a small village
Past Coban, we are treated to beautiful twisty roads through the mountains of the Alta Verapaz department. The rain has let up a bit, but the light fog sometimes darken so we don our rainsuits just in case. And as all motorcyclists know, if you put your rainsuit on early, it will never rain. The warm humid temperature creates a mini-sauna inside our rainsuits and we are as wet inside with perspiration as if it rained anyway - the stench from weeks of built-up sweat on our riding suits is becoming unbearable...
Beautiful views of the valley below and layers of mountains in the distance
The gravelly road to Lanquin
We turn off from the blacktop of the main highway towards Lanquin. The road turns into a loose gravel path that leads down into the valley. The views are amazing, but the descent is unnervingly steep. Neda seems to be negotiating just fine with her old rear tire and my bike feels good as well - but I think it has more to do with the excess luggage I jettisoned in Antigua than the new rear tire.
Lush green valleys just a steep drop away
Lots of logging in the area, we had to squeeze past some logging trucks.
The road to Lanquin is too narrow at most points for two trucks to pass by each other, so either one has to wait or reverse to a wider spot to give each other space to pass. Squeezing past one with the steep drop on the right is very nerve-wracking! After about an hour of gravel, we reach the small town and book a dorm room at El Retiro, a nice camp/hostel by the river.
Neda is lounging around at El Retiro
The next morning we book a tour of Semuc Champey, which is the primary reason why tourists come to visit this area. It turned out to be quite a full days worth of sights and activities, visiting different sites around Lanquin.
Our guide took us to the head of the river where we inner-tubed down the rapids
Then we all lit candles and hiked into the pitch black darkness of an underwater cave
Guy behind me is checking to see if he has signal underground. Answer: "Nope"
This cave totally reminded me of the horror movie "The Descent". Our guide painted all our faces native-style with grease from the cave-walls. The hike becomes quite claustrophobic at times, the walls sometimes narrowing so you have to squeeze yourself through to the next cavern. The water in here comes from a subterranean spring and there are many elevation changes as we climb up to meet the source, battling through mini waterfalls and sometimes swimming through deep pools, trying to keep your candle above the water.
Candles were often extinguished by the hike/swim, so we took many stops to relight our candles from the ones that were still lit.
There is absolutely no other light besides our candles...
Hikers become swimmers, our candles are our most prized possession
A cave monster
At the end of the cave, we reach the mouth of the underwater spring. It's a powerful waterfall that flows back down and it's a dead-end so we hike/wade/swim with the current back to the entrance of the cave. We spent over an hour in the total darkness and it was such a wonderful caveman-like experience!
Grace... is not my middle name...
Outside, more water activities awaited us, inner-tubing and swinging out into the river. We were really impressed with how organized everything was. Our tour group was made up of many Israeli tourists and we made fast friends with them, joking around and getting to know them as we hiked to a scenic viewpoint high atop Semuc Champey. Apparently September is when all of Israel goes on vacation and Guatemala seems to be quite a popular destination. Most of the Israelis did not know each other prior to this trip. And every single one of them was on their honeymoon!
Semuc Champey is a series of stepped pools of turquoise waters
The Guatemalans boast that this is the "Eighth Wonder of the World"
You can see people swimming in the pools, to give you an idea of the scale.
Waterfalls of all sizes spill water from one step to another
Lizard watches us hike back down to the river
Swimming in Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey means "The water hides beneath the earth" in Mayan. The steps that we are swimming in are actually part of a limestone bridge where the Cahabon river is running underneath us. A little bit of the river makes it above the limestone bridge and that's what forms the turquoise pools and mini waterfalls. The Semuc Champey "bridge" is about 300m long, and our guide takes us swimming the entire length of it, gliding down natural stone slides worn smooth by the running water. At the end of Semuc Champey, a huge waterfall falls off the limestone shelf to meet the Cahabon river underneath it.
So glad that we saw this, it's one of the highlights of our time in Guatemala!
Yael, one of our new friends gives us a gift to remember our experience
Apart from the wonderful scenery and amazing tour and activities around Semuc Champey, we are really glad to have met our Israeli friends. We spent a couple of days with them, sharing travel stories, and I learned a little bit of their culture and some Hebrew as well, so now I can butcher a brand new language! Such an enriching experience all around!
Tomorrow is September 15th, which is the Guatemalan Independence Day. So we say goodbye to our new friends, as we're heading back to Coban to see if we can catch some of the festivities!