Guatemala: Part One
Our five days in Belize were filled with more than five days worth of memories and more than five days worth of our budget. We could’ve easily written five posts just about our time in Caye Caulker. It’s definitely a place that is on our return destinations list.
Belize gave us a break from speaking Spanish and eating tortillas, but now we were headed to Guatemala feeling like everything we had learned in the six weeks prior had evaporated. Over the next two weeks, we planned to stay no more than four nights in one place, hoping to see the highlights of the country so many had told us we would fall in love with.
Our first destination in Guatemala was the town of Flores, located on an island in the middle of the beautiful Lake Peten Itza. The town itself is picturesque with its narrow alleys, winding roads, and unforgettable views of the surrounding lake, but we were here mostly to visit the nearby ruins of Tikal.
From the second we crossed the border into Guatemala, the reverberations of anecdotes we had read or heard from other travelers played in the back of our minds. From what we had heard, Guatemala had a bit of a reputation of claiming many victims of scams.
When you arrive in Flores, the bus ($45) drops you off outside of the town, and you get into a shuttle van to take you into the town itself. The roads in Flores are so small and narrow that buses are unable to navigate them. When we, and six other travelers, boarded the shuttle van to the town, so too did an agent from a local tour company. This is apparently common practice. The agents are trying to rope the new arrivals into tours and additional shuttle rides before you have the chance to walk around and check out other prices. The shuttle also conveniently drops you off right at the main office for the tour agency (eye roll).
For our two nights in Flores, we were staying at Casa de Grethel ($48 for 2 nights), a hostel across the lake from the town. The hostel provides free boat rides back and forth from the island whenever you need them, all you have to do is call ahead. When we arrived at the tour office in town, the travel agent offered to call the hostel for us, so the boat would come get us. What a guy! While we waited to be directed to the boat pickup location, he had just enough time to show us the tours and shuttles they offered. The agent overheard us discussing prices and our itinerary amongst ourselves and immediately offered us a free guided tour of Tikal if we booked our next two shuttles with him (Flores to Lanquin and Lanquin to Antigua). After hearing all of the rumors and stories of scams, we were hesitant. We did the math and talked it out and figured that if one of the three (tour and 2 shuttles) would not work out, we wouldn’t have lost any money. We would’ve just got what we paid for, not the great deal we had anticipated. We put our faith and money ($100) in their hands and were led to our boat pickup.
Casa de Grethel was our first hostel stay of the trip, and we couldn’t have picked a better first. We met some interesting people, had great conservations, and felt like we were part of the owners’ family. The view from the balcony wasn’t bad either!
The next morning, we would see if our buddy at the travel company would deliver on the first of his three promises and headed across the lake to catch the shuttle to Tikal. While we left somewhere between 30-45 minutes after are scheduled departure time, the shuttle did show up and took us to the ruins of Tikal (Entrance fee = $39.74 for 2 people).
When we arrived, there was in fact an English-speaking guide waiting for us and the small group we were traveling with. We spent the majority of the day learning about ancient Mayan culture and architecture, while keeping eyes and ears open for the spider and howler monkeys above. Shrouded in jungle and surrounded by wildlife, Tikal was probably our favorite ruins site we had visited. We climbed atop many of the structures in the blazing sun, each with a better view than the last, culminating with a view that extended for miles from atop Temple IV. Looking back at the pictures taken from the top of Temple IV, we can still hear the growls of howler monkeys surrounding us in the treetops below.
Our next stop in Guatemala was the natural pools of Semuc Champey. The day after visiting Tikal, we checked out of our hostel early in the morning and went to catch our shuttle to Lanquin, the nearest town to Semuc Champey. Our buddy from the travel agency delivered on his second promise, and our van left Flores around 8:30AM.
After hours of driving through jungle and mountains, crossing a river on a small barge, waiting in the town of Lanquin for our ride to our hostel, and the bumpy, winding ride through the rain ala Jurassic Park... we finally arrived at Greengo’s Hostel ($55.63 for 3 nights) around 6:30PM.
Greengo’s is located in the mountainous jungle, only a ten minute walk to the entrance of Semuc Champey ($13.25 each day for 2 people). Since Semuc Champey is the only attraction in the area, and we were planning on spending two days hanging out there, the location of the hostel was perfect.
Over the course of the next 48 hours, we probably spent 9 or 10 hours swimming in the natural pools. The first day was pretty cloudy, and the water was rather cold, but we couldn’t resist swimming around until we could no longer feel our extremities. Luckily, the second day the sun was out the entire time, and the water warmer because of it. A short, but steep hike to the viewpoint above beforehand made the swim in the pools even more necessary.
Five days into Guatemala, and there was no question that our time in the country would be unforgettable, but also that it would fly by. The only question that lingered in our minds as we were swimming in the pools of Semuc Champey was whether the travel agency would send someone to pick us up in Lanquin to take us to Antigua. How could we trust someone who was now eight hours away? We called the company the night before to confirm our pickup, as they had instructed us to. The only words we remember from that phone call were, “Don’t worry!” Do those words ever have any effect other than the making you do the opposite of what they are insisting?