Looking back, Guatemala was my favorite country in Central America. A land full of beautiful views, friendly people, challenging roads, erupting volcanoes, and delicious food. I do miss it and hope to get back to it someday. If you were to pick a place to travel to, save your money and have more adventures in Guatemala.
Entering Guatemala I was using a suggestion from a few other travelers to stay near Flores, which was a tourist town in the middle of a lake and was only 45 minutes outside of Tikal. Their suggestion was a small little cottage area across the town that is very quiet and secluded. This was a welcoming site to see as I was exhausted of being surrounded by complete tourism. The town of Flores looked beautiful from a distance, and speaking with the locals it seemed that it was really just a party town at night and being across the lake was the best view. I wasn’t going to argue it as I was happy to relax in peace, or so I
thought. Around 2am I heard my first explosion, shortly after were a few more. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Was there an attack? There couldn’t be as I heard no sirens. BOOM went another explosion. This continued on sporadically until 6am. I checked the news and found nothing, so I just ignored it and went on about my life. Later I would learn that these are celebration explosions from the churches, and they like to celebrate everything.
The next morning I headed straight for Tikal to be there before it opened. At all the past tourist attractions I learned that it really does make a difference arriving first thing in the morning, having the entire park to yourself and Tikal was no difference. Tikal was an ancient Maya city that were rivals to Chetumal, which I explored in Mexico. This city was tucked in a very active jungle and if you paid extra you could watch the sunrise on top of one of the pyramids and hear the jungle come alive. Unfortunately I didn’t learn this until arrival. The grounds were very large, so I was easily there for 3+ hours walking throughout the old city and comparing it to the previous ruins I had visited.
Back at the cottage I learned that Laura, who I met in Laz Pozas, was in Lake Atitlan a bit further south of me and that if I make it down in time we could do a volcano hike together. She was going to be there for a few more days, so the chances were pretty good to meet up. But first I was destined to try and visit Semuc Champey, which rumor had it was completely closed to tourism due to riots and that some tourists were even being held hostage. It seemed like things were calming down a bit, so maybe I would be lucky.
Park closed due to protests
After about an hour of leaving Flores I met the end of the road and the beginning of pure adventure. I had been off road a few times before, but this was something completely different. These were the primary roads covered in large gravel and landslides. I struggled to maintain my bike and drive up and down the roads. My lack of skill was apparent and it only got worse once it started to rain. Over the next 4 hours I would only travel 40 miles. This might have gone faster with better skill and less stops to take photos, but the scenery was absolutely breathtaking between storms.
It wasn’t until the evening that I finally arrived at Semuc Champey. On my way there the roads were so steep and rough that I unfortunately lost my machete that had protected me in Belize. The nature reserve is home to a beautiful blue river that breaks apart in multiple waterfalls and pools (google search). Upon my arrival I was disappointed to find the bottom of the river to be brown, which was expected due to the rain. I spoke to one of the locals alongside the bridge and he allowed me to camp in his yard alongside the river so I could swim and relax. He also explained that the bridge was only recently rebuilt after the protest. Apparently the locals refused to pay the government money for their work managing the park and so the government sent in the police. 300 residents protested and dismantled the bridge to prevent them from crossing into the park. While the bridge had been rebuilt, the park wasn’t open to the public yet.
While I couldn’t explore the river, I was able to explore a river cave nearby by candlelight. To this day it has been my favorite cave experience simply for the use of candles rather than a flashlight. It brings a different glow to the walls and makes the distance seem more vast. The local that guided me through then taught me where to jump off the 25ft bridge and then swim home to my motorcycle. It was exhilarating finish to a morning exploration and I was ready to get on the road to Atitlan. I expected to arrive in the evening as the road was finally transforming back into asphalt until I hit a major highway to the lake. But of course that didn’t happen.
An unexpected delay
Alternating between rocky roads and asphalt roads my tires and myself took a beating. I was becoming more confident off road but it was taking a toll quickly. After about 4 hours I started to feel like I was losing control of my motorcycle, which I was but not due to
fatigue. I had picked up my third flat, which was in the front tire this time. Worse yet, I couldn’t find the leak which meant it was a pinhole leak. Something that could be found easily with some water, but I was fresh out and no streams nearby. Help was far off, so the only thing I was able to do was ride for a while and continuously fill the tire up with air. 40 minutes later I found a repair shop that had me patched up and on the road within 15 minutes. They move quick in areas where the common transportation is motorcycles.
The flat ordeal meant that I was not going to make it in time to Atitlan, so I needed to find a place to sleep for the night off of the road. As each mile passed my hope for finding a spot passed as well. It wasn’t until I was at the top of a ridge, ready to descend into a large town, that I decided to get bolder. I saw two girls selling popcorn balls on the side of the road by their house. Behind them was a large patch of grass that would make a perfect campsite. In horrendous Spanish I asked where their parents were and if I could speak to them. When the parents turned up it was a larger struggle to request permissions to sleep on their grass. “Can I to sleep here?” Confused, they said yes. I don’t believe they thought I was serious, but I parked the bike atop of the ridge line and set up my bivy while they watched in confusion. Yup, the gringo is going to sleep there. They didn’t want any money, so I paid a nice price for some old popcorn balls that would be my dinner. An hour later all of the onlookers had left me in peace.
In the morning I discovered the amazing road I was about to ride down. Nice asphalt with strong curves, the perfect way to start the morning. It was another 5 hours until I arrived in Lake Atitlan. A beautiful town alongside the lake that was touristy, but not crowded as most people elect to visit other cities surrounding the lake. While waiting on Laura I started to look around at Spanish schools throughout the town. I had heard that Guatemala was the best place to take some Spanish classes for cheap, which I said I would do on my return trip. But why struggle through my trip only to learn afterwards? The town was relaxing so I might as well stay and learn. But having so many choices were difficult.
Later that day I was reunited with Laura and her friend and we enjoyed some great conversation. We met a random girl on the street who wanted to stay in the same hotel, so her and I split the hotel room with two beds in order to reduce cost. A strange thing to meet a girl and agree to split the room, but it was just two travelers looking to save money. The next day Laura and I hiked the nearby volcano, which I was grossly over packed for a simple day trip (I was also carrying her stuff). A lesson I would learn from in future day hikes. Overall the hike was beautiful and well worth the 5 hours up. Laura left the next day and we hoped that our paths could possibly cross again, on some continent. A wonderful person that will be doing some big things in the medical world someday.
Back to School
While still trying to figure out schools, I needed to buy a new tire tube for my motorcycle as I was getting tired of all the flats. It was then that I met Guillermo and his wife, who owned a small Italika motorcycle shop. He used to teach at a nearby school, Orbita, and within an instant he was taking me through back alleys to talk with the owner. I liked the feel of the school and learned that Guillermo would be my host family if I desired. It was too perfect as he spoke some English, loved motorcycles, and there was a secure place to park. I would be going to school for 10 days in a row before getting back on the road.
Staying with Guillermo and his family was interesting. I was really pushed to speak Spanish and ate some delicious food. His parents lived with him which made for difficult conversations as they only really spoke Mayan and a small amount of Spanish. But with each day I would get better and learn more Spanish.
The school itself was relaxing and full of fellow travelers. During breaks we all talked and made plans to hang out later, after we finished homework of course. We even all did a morning hike up ‘Indian Nose’ to see the sunrise over 5 volcanoes (1 was erupting, Fuego, which I planned to visit). Learning was difficult once I branched into past and future, indirect and direct, and all other basic grammar structures. But today I owe most of my Spanish skills to those 10 days. It gave me an understanding of the structure that really helped me learn quickly. Fellow travelers I would meet who didn’t take it would still struggle. I highly recommend a stop in the school.
As school was coming to an end I was ready to get back on the road. But things would change as I learned Mitch and Taylor (with their friend Shon) were just arriving in Antigua, two hours away. Of course I couldn’t ditch my American friends, so I took the steep mountain roads towards them in order to find new adventure and conversation.