Ruining my Life

Last week, I spluttered and scrambled my way to the highpoint, and highlight, of my Central American voyage (and possibly of all my travels) thus far: the summit of Volcan de Acatenango. This week would be my last in Guatemala (and last with dipsomaniac companions Tuur and Bri), as we let our barnets down by a lake before I went in search of Mayans in the mystical north.

Day 57 – Santa Cruz la Laguna, Guatemala

As my introduction may have eluded, my Belgian and Guatemalan comrades know how to enjoy a drink or twelve and after our volcanic exploits last week, we felt a celebration was in order. We found ourselves on the shores of the quite beautiful Lake Atitlán, a place described by Aldous Huxley as “too much of a good thing”, and he didn’t stop there: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes.” Aldous is absolutely right, although it must have been an even more magnificent sight in his day when villas, jet skis and Gringos hadn’t been invented.

Now, that is about as cultured as you are going to get for today, as last night’s antics meant I was unable to move from my clammy jungle shack until the early evening – ‘death warmed up’ being the operative term. The hostel in which we were based was one of the most bustling I have encountered for a wee while, although I felt in no state to socialise with anyone – not even during the nightly communal dinner (which was quite a nice touch). Let’s reboot tomorrow.

Day 58 – Santa Cruz la Laguna, Guatemala

As the most galling Instagramers quote on their 6 a.m. posts: “new day, new me” – in this case, it was quite accurate. A morning fry up with the intractable travelling couple completed my recovery, and gave us the opportunity to savour our pleasant surroundings, as well as formulate a plan for the forthcoming hours of daylight: how highly organised we were. Having gained a couple of backpackers en route, vessel number one dropped us off at Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve – a location where we were able to denude and defolliculate in Central America’s deepest lake (which at three hundred and forty metres is considerably is deeper than Loch Ness). How deeesturbing!

Every town along the shores of the lake is called ‘San (insert Spanish name here) la Laguna’, making it extremely difficult for anyone to remember where they’ve come from or where the hell they’re going to. Whilst I was thoroughly disorientated (doesn’t take much), Guatemalan Bri was not, and we correctly arrived in San Pedro la Laguna on the lake’s western shore. The quaint fishing town only had streets wide enough for tuk-tuk’s and tourists, although thankfully there weren’t too many of either. Following a traditional barbeque, and a less than traditional piña colada, a gesticulating seaman signalled that the last boat was returning to San Kevin la Laguna (or something of that sort), arriving at the hostel just in time to complete the daily ritual of avoiding the presence of cocksure ‘Merican’s at dinner – we failed.

Day 59 – Santa Cruz la Laguna, Guatemala to Cobán, Guatemala

So today was the day to say goodbye to Tuur and Bri for the final time as we left the shores of Lake Atitlán and went our separate ways (although not before I demanded they provide me with a free lift back to the capital’s bus station). Having travelled on-and-off with the pair since the Costa Rican border, it will be a rather peculiar feeling to be by oneself once more… peace at last! In actual fact, they have made my journey far more enjoyable (as well as eventful) and they both deserve a bottle of Flor de Caña for putting up with yours truly for well over a month – see you in Belgium, you beautiful people…

Having been placed on the correct coach with food and drink in hand, like a mother would leave a child as they went to school for the first time, I was fully prepared to undertake the six-hour journey north to the small city of Cobán. A location often used as the springboard for backpackers looking to find the remote ‘natural monument’ of Semuc Champey. That was indeed why I was there too, although there was little I could organise this evening having arrived even after the local drunks had stumbled home. I must find a route come morn.

Day 60 – Cobán, Guatemala to Lanquín, Guatemala

Dawn in a silent Cobán, but I was not in the hostel alone. Pierre (unexpectedly from Paris), whom I first met in Lake Atitlán (yes in), was also present and far more organised than I, having already sourced a local bus heading to the miniature village of Lanquín – the next stop-off on the trip to surreptitious Semuc. The vehicle (I cannot bring myself to call it a bus) left at the very crack of dawn and, although turbulent, delivered us in one piece to our arboraceous destination. The hostel, perched high on a mountainside above the village, was about as scenic as any I have visited: surrounded by lush forests and viridescent braes. Fighting the urge to lay in a hammock for the remainder of the day, Pierre and I decided that today was as good a day as any to attempt to hitch a ride to our ‘natural monument’, some thirty minutes ride away.

This process was far easier than we thought. Two white guys wandering through a small Guatemalan village in the middle of a forest could only be there for one reason (excluding plantation owning, drug trafficking or people smuggling), and within seconds of leaving the hostel we had bartered our way onto the back of a 4×4 and told to hold on tight (at least I think that’s what the driver said). Before I could even scrutinise my Spanish translator app, I had almost ricocheted off the cab and onto the side of the road. You won’t hear me say this very often, but I wish we’d taken a horse.

Semuc Champey is a miraculous place. As we reached the lookout high above, the full extent of its majesty came into view. Tier after tier of teal-tinted pools, carving a crook through the verdant ravine far below. We hastily donned our bathing regalia and took the steepest, and quickest, route down to the river (getting there before the Spring Breakers was of the utmost importance). We dived in at one end, drifted downstream and jumped from one aquamarine pool to another, before clambering back to the top and repeating the process. For the most part, I lay on my back in unadulterated fascination at my remarkable surroundings, whilst also praying that a boulder didn’t fancy taking a tumble down the mountainside and landing on my smug face.

Day 61 – Lanquín, Guatemala to Flores, Guatemala

You may have thought that I am rattling through these destinations at quite a pace, and that is absolutely true. Due to the leisurely tempo I took upon commencement of my journey – did I really need ten days reposing by a pool in Panama City?! Well yes. I unreservedly don’t regret that – I am now having to locomote at quite a pace or risk spending New Year selling my body in a Mexican bus station, nobody wants that. As such, I had to vacate the celestial village of Lanquín to catch a bus for a further eight hours north to Guatemala’s answer to Venice: Flores (it’s built on an island and floods every other day). This photograph is most definitely NOT Flores, but a peculiar ferry crossing we undertook along the way (which felt a bit like The Gambia).

The town of flowers, as it poetically translates into English, was yet another attractive location I had to find the cheapest place to stay in. This time, however, things did not work out as accustomed. For the first time ever on my travels, I felt I had no choice but to walk out of my accommodation – simply unable to contemplate staying there for the booked three nights. Now, I have some pretty low hostel standards (and stayed in some highly questionable establishments), but stepping into this microscopic, moist, malodorous, unkempt, unpowered and unplumbed dorm was akin to stepping into the gates of Hades on a Saturday night. Although, not being a bitter man, I will keep the lodge’s name hidden to save them any embarrassment (cough… Natural Spa Mini-Hostel… cough). I eventually found a more agreeable dorm.

Day 62 – Flores, Guatemala

I’m not sure if it was just the fear of staying in such a shithole yesterday that made my stomach turn but I was not in good shape today. The first time I have been sick all trip (excluding self-inflicted indulgences), and boy oh boy are my bowels making up for it. Unable to keep water down, let alone Guatemalan pepian root vegetable stew, this was not the ideal condition to be in when running rather low on time. However, the manager of my current hostel was far more sympathetic to my cause than my last and (upon seeing my plight) provided me with all manner of pills and medicines to keep me functioning.

Just before sunset, I felt safe enough to be further than ten metres from the toilet, and so afforded myself the opportunity to have a brief look around the charming island. Regional restaurants on the water, children playing football in the street, couples in their eighties and nineties taking a dip in the lake before sundown – seeing all these cheery locals almost made me feel better. That was until I caught a whiff of the fish market and a sprint back to the hostel was required.

Day 63 – Flores, Guatemala

The reason Flores is one of Guatemala’s most popular tourist towns is that of its proximity to Tikal – a Mayan archaeological site of grand venerability. Despite feeling about as fragile as a tourist who’s drunk a gallon of water from the Ganges, this was my last day in the area and I simply could not leave without visiting the spot where Luke Skywalker and crew landed the Millennium Falcon in ‘A New Hope’. That was actually the very last reason I wanted to visit the site but you’d be surprised how many sociopaths came for that cause.

A cool, overcast morn was a welcome relief for my fever, as I managed to stumble quite happily and deliriously from pyramid to pyramid, admiring (and attempting not to vomit on) the ancient stonework – with the earliest structures dating back to 400 BC (if the obese American guide I overheard is to be believed). As the midday sun started to pierce a keen hole through the cloud, I had to be slightly more cautious of which temple to summit, for fear of passing out, falling and impaling myself on a Mayan stela.

The site itself is deceptively vast, with the numerous forested paths difficult to gauge distance on, and a full six hours had elapsed when I realised that my bus was about to return to Flores (missing it would have meant almost certain death). Ruins-wise, Tikal is by far the most captivating, time-devouring and (most importantly) affordable I have happened upon thus far and, having heard that the world-renowned Chichen Itza is none of those things, it may remain as such. However, before I could reach the ineffable Mayan jungles of the Yucatán, I had a date with a nation that was about to bewilder and bemuse…

J

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