I’ve only been to this country a few days and I feel it’s been ages.
After crossing the border from Belize, it was a road of heaven and hell.
This post covers the experiences of Isla de Flores, ruins of Tikal, Rio Dulce/San Felipe de Lara castle, and Semuc Champey.
My first two nights I spent in Flores, this wonderful little island, full of narrow streets and tourists, not many restaurants, and not much to do. I went around the city of Flores, but nothing interesting caught my attention, other than the stands with delicious food by the water, on the West side of the island. There is a big shopping mall and some fast foods before the bridge to the island – so one can withdraw money here (not on the island). The island is nice to walk around for a day, bathe in the lake, take a boat trip if you feel like it, but all in all is a bit boring. There is only one place that’s worth mentioning, and that’s a very nicely decorated hostel, which had no bed available for me: “Hostel Los Amigos”.
The first evening I enjoyed a wonderful sunset by the lake, with a bit of traditional street food (not going into the names of all I’ve had, it was delicious). The second day I spent procrastinating and walking around, until I decided to leave to Tikal. It’s 60km there and 60km back… but I had no idea it’s so far away when I left, so I rode in flipflops and no helmet. Won’t do dat again, as I had to return at night when it was a bit chilly and all the flies got in my eyes.
The ruins of Tikal are inside the Natural Park of Tikal, 17km after paying the ticket and passing the barrier. Once there, you can get a guide, buy a map, or wander on your own. I definitely picked the cheapest option, since I only had 2h left till closing time (6pm) and I wanted to see everything without being held back by a guide and his stories. However, wandering around is easy, and getting lost as well. Luckily I took a picture of the map at the entrance, just for reference. The place has many constructions, in a few groups, but the indicators are inconsistent, and the maps (where present) lacked the “you are here” spot. I think we were no more than 50 people in the whole site at that time, yet I encountered several lost local tourists among the ruins. The entrance was a bit pricey for the country (150 quetzals) but since I bought the ticket late in the afternoon, I could use it for the next day as well. I asked for it, and they assured me I can get in the next day too, but riding another 60km out of the way was not in my plan. So I rushed from place to place, climbing all the stone pyramids I could, and spending about half an hour taking pictures at sunset. The local tour operators in Flores would sell the sunset or the sunrise experience for 170 quetzals, not including the entrance tickets. So I saved this money, cha-ching!! The ruins are impressive, and in a totally different style of those in Mexico. Walking around should not take more than 3hrs if you’re slow, but one can definitely make this a one-day trip with a visit to the most distant temples and the museum.
The next day I was prepared for a 300km ride to Semuc Champey, which was not in my initial plan, but came highly recommended by everyone I met. So I set off early morning to enjoy more of the afternoon bath, weather… It was a bit after noon when I reached the madness of the market in Rio Dulce. The rumble of trucks, small motorcycles, tuc-tucs and few cars caught in the flow was easily covered by the loud noise of the sellers, speakers, bells advertising ice-cream or street food. I quickly got out of there heading to the large bridge over the water and then turning back to visit the nearby castle “Castillo de San Felipe de Lara“. The bridge is not that impressive, but the view of the body of water on both sides. However, the castle located about 4km away, was a well maintained and polished jewel. I was impressed with the one page ticket telling the history of the castle and the many times it went through reconstruction, but also with the nice trees and trimmed grass.
After the walk around the castle, I started asking for directions to Lanquin, the city near Samuc Champey. I was more than happy to hear there was a shorter way there than the one I had on GPS (330km left, in a huge loop). So I boldly start the journey of about 200km from Rio Dulce to Lanquin. I turn right from the main road towards Fray on a brand new road. It kept going and going, and after Fray it started climbing. For long stretches of time I was alone on the road, and the only traffic I met were small cars, not even going too far. I didn’t worry at all about the lack of traffic until I found out the reason for that: the asphalt road soon turned into a primitive road of pretty large stones, gravel, ditches and dips, with sand patches all over. The first people I met told me the road is only 15km long to Lanquin. Halfway through, another guy confirmed the distance. However, after 15km I found out there is about another 20km of road to Semuc Champey in a very similar condition. With all my muscles in pain after this long fight of keeping the monster bike up, I got to Semuc Champey at around 8pm. The last 10km from Lanquin were another type of painful experience – riding a chopper at night over concrete slabs and deep potholes in the dirt road is not something I would like to repeat. The first thing I did there was to book another night – I didn’t feel up for riding the very next day.
Semuc Champey is the local name for “the place where the river hides” but that’s not what it is famous for. The river hides under the earth for 300m, but the famous part is the water pools formed on top of the river, fed by few creeks. I spent the whole day chillin’ in those pools, with a short lunch break. However, if I ever get the chance to do it again, I would go with the local tribes for a tour of the caves and river-tubing on the other side of the river. There are also strange turkey-sized birds and howling monkeys if you have the chance to stay there a bit over the closing time (the lifeguards leave at 5pm), but I think you can do that only if you stay in El Portal, or have your own car to take you back to Lanquin.
The ride out of Semuc Champey was not a lot better than the road I took the days before. 10km out to Lanquin, and maybe 7km to the asphalt road to Guatemala. Just that the asphalt road was full of surprise-holes and sand in the curves. On these offroad sections and in several places I met a few locals with a string over the road, and a couple of tools, pretending to be covering the potholes in the road. They only cover one, so that the earth looks fresh and then charge people to let them pass. Out of naivity I paid the first guy about $2 USD, but then I realized there’s no other work done on the road other than the first patch. The second one I stopped and talked my way out, even if the words “calling the police” or “the military” meant nothing to them. So for the other “strings” over the road I simply accelerated and played chicken with them. All of them dropped the string when they saw I’m serious. However, I ran over more abandoned strings after dawn, which suggests this is a national sport.
I didn’t stop in Guatemala City for more than a coffee and 15min of free wifi at McDonalds. Not because there’s nothing to do, but I need something to explore on the way back South as well.
My next stop is Antigua, where I’m meeting my Spanish friend from Mexico, Alberto.