Day 6: Journey to Semuc Champey

This day will forever stand out and be retold for years to come.  Not because I had an amazing time or because I saw something beautiful or met some amazing people - but because I was afraid for my life at several points throughout the long day.  Unfortunately I was so afraid, that it was a "no photo day", so hopefully my storytelling is interesting enough to keep you here from start to finish. 

We were up bright and early to start our day on the open road! Packed up our bags and met Ramunda (one of the owners of the Posada) by our cabin.  We were so grateful for the lift to the shuttle pickup point, because that walk with our backpacks would otherwise have been gruesome.

Eventually our shuttle (an old grey minibus, which show up all over Guatemala as taxis or tourist shuttles) swings around the corner.  The driver gets out and silently takes our tickets and puts our baggage into the van - completely ignoring our greetings.  Once in the van, we got comfortable and before we could realize there were no seat belts, we were off!  Great! On schedule and no hitches! We'll be there in no time! Finally, something has gone according to plan.

As we drove along the road in our spacious van, I notice road signs saying we are getting closer to Flores - the town we had originally come from, and the opposite way in which we needed to go.  Oh well, we must be picking up others from Flores, THEN heading south. I figured it was not big set back, Flores was only about a 45 minute drive and at the speed our driver was going, it would be much less. We arrived in Flores to pick up an older Scottish couple, and are off again! Open road here we come!.. again! Except we came to a stop about 4 minutes later in front of another hotel - more people. A few more times and we found our final pickup was 7 people.  Including the driver, I wondered how in the world we would going to fit a total of 16 people in this van PLUS their bags/luggage. The driver managed to pack us all into the minibus and tied all of our backpacks to the roof.  The mountain of luggage on the roof piled so high I thought it might tip us over.

Soon, though, we were off once more, this time in the right direction.  Our hot, sweaty, crammed rickety minibus sped along the highway as I sat with my face as close to the window as possible. This would not be a good time to start feeling claustrophobic, so just look out the window, feel the fresh air and don't think about anything else, I told myself.  We passed many homes and tiny villages along the flat cornfield-lined roads and I began to calm down a bit.

After a couple of hours we stopped at a gas station to fuel up and to have a quick break, so a few of us left the packed van in search of the washroom.  Around the back of the dilapidated gas station, there were several outdoor washroom stalls surrounded by mud and garbage.  Once I made it through the mud, I opened one of the stalls to encounter one of the most foul smells I've ever experienced.  The washroom was so filthy, even for the Middle of Nowhere, Guatemala standards. It was a difficult choice between going outside in the fresh, but exposed air or in the foul stall.  I took a deep breath and went with the stall - only because of the added privacy.

Back in the van, after a few more hours, the fresh breeze gushing in from the windows turned into hot, muggy, exhaust filled smog that seeped in as we came to a stop in what looked like a heavy traffic jam.  When I looked out the window to see how far the mess continued, I saw a river in the distance with a ferry, jam-packed with cars, trucks, minibuses and chicken buses.  The traffic jam was actually a messy line of vehicles waiting to cross the river on this barge-like contraption.  It took lots of shouting, honking and persistence from our driver to get us onto the ferry in about 30 minutes.  I have never been on anything quite like it - it was large enough to hold several trucks, buses and a pile of cars and the only things pushing this mass across the river were two guys sitting in small barrels on either side of the barge with a small outboard motor in each. The two motors were surprisingly powerful and dropped us off on the other side in about 12 minutes.  We were now driving through this dusty, diesel smelling city. It felt like our bus was either painted neon yellow or was covered with flashy lights for the amount attention we were getting from the locals. It seemed as if someone was announcing our arrival; everyone looked up from what they were doing to curiously watch us as we puttered by.

Out of the city and continuing along the long stretch of highway, we began our trek across the more mountainous region of the country. The views in this stretch were amazing!  Lush mountainous hills exploding with trees and terrifying roadside cliffs. We started climbing up and down the never ending mountains using a series of hairpin turns, like something you might see listed on a blog about worlds most dangerous, terrifying roads.

As the hours continued to pass, one after another, I expected each mountain crossing to reveal Coban, a large city close to the town of Lanquin, our destination. The roads became a game that kept repeating itself over and over. Twist and turn while going up, then twist and turn while going down.. each corner expecting to arrive, but it never happened. The roads began getting more treacherous - dirt roads barely wider than a single lane, and whenever a vehicle was coming in the opposite direction we'd have a stand-off to see who would have to pull over.  There were potholes and ditches all over the place and debris from mudslides from the recent rainy season. It got to the point where I couldn't even look out the window, the edge of the road met the steepest cliffs I had ever seen. Considering the roads were in such poor condition and our driver was in a race with the floating, invisible car beside us, I wouldn't have been surprised if we went right over the edge! Everyone in the van was just as uneasy about the whole thing as I was, the only thing offering us any kind of comfort was the fact that there were no trucks, vans or cars at the bottom of the cliffs. 

By this point,  the roads were more dirt pot holes than they were roads and we seemed to be so far into the "Middle of Nowhere, Guatemala" that even if our van went over the cliff no one would even find us for days or even weeks.  We pulled over when we came to a man with a machete (yes, you read that right) Machete man and our driver were talking (in Spanish, of course) no angry voices, a couple of laughs.. seems like there's no need to panic.. yet. We waited, and waited and waited some more without any news from our driver with what was going on.  After about 40 minutes we slowly start moving again. Turned out, that around the corner they were doing major construction on the road... it looked like they were building the actual road. 

(Note from Steve: let's not forget that during construction, the trucks pulled aside and what seemed to be a motorcade of SUVs passed by. Painted on their hoods was, what appeared to be, the Israeli flag. Two co-passengers, a couple of guys from Tel'Aviv, recognized all the beautiful women in the cars as some kind of travelling reality show featuring models. Apparently they had been at Semuc Champey in the days before we got there. It was surreal)

Eventually, we outlast the construction and as it begins to get dark I wonder if we will ever make it - our supposedly 5 hour trip was now well into its 11th hour when we finally pulled into the town of Lanquin.  Everyone piled out of the van, so stiff from being in that packed sardine can that we could hardly move our limbs.  A bunch of locals started swarming the car, with a variety of handmade reservation signs - some with travellers names who already had reservations at certain hotels and were picking up their patrons and others trying to convince you to stay at a specific hotel/Inn (probably so that they could get a commission).  Once all the other travellers found their match, Steve and I were left with nowhere to go. One of the locals asked where we reserved and showed us to a bar where we would wait for our pick up. A bar that required a flashlight to use the washroom.

Our ride came fairly quickly to pick us up, and there were already two others in this giant 4X4 luxury truck - a much needed upgrade from that cramped old van!  Our Hotel, Utopia Eco Lodge arranged for the pickup to drive us to the lodge, as it's too far to walk from the town of Lanquin.  Joining us for the trip was a single traveller from the Netherlands and the driver's young teenage nephew, who was very friendly and excited to practice his English. 

I know I've complained about bumpy roads in previous posts, but this one definitely wins the prize. Its was without a doubt, the bumpiest road I've ever been on. By this time is was so dark and the jungle surrounding the road so thick that we could not see anything further than a couple feet in front of the headlights.  At some points I questioned whether we were even on a road, because it certainly didn't feel like it.  After being on this ridiculously bumpy "road" for about 40 minutes I started to think, "maybe we have just been kidnapped and they are taking us into an even more remote area to rob/murder us and they just have this really friendly, chatty kid with us to distract us so that we don't get suspicious - ah-ha! I'm onto them!"

(Another note from Steve: at one point, the driver let some other dude leap  onto the flatbed behind us - where our bags were. Throwing a leg over the truck's body, the guy took a ride up the hill with us. And in addition to the fun chatty kid who loved talking football, we drove past a group of youths standing on a van. No more than 14, one of the kids smiled warmly and held up what looked like a semi-automatic rifle. Good times.)

Soon enough, we finally arrived at our final destination!  I felt so relieved that we made it, and made it alive that I was close to crying from happiness.  Slinging our bags over our shoulder, we walked into the lodge. It was love at first sight.  The ambiance was beautiful.  It was peppered with dozens of little candles set up all around the restaurant/bar/check-in area and on each picnic tabletop, where a bunch of young travellers were eating dinner and chatting away with giant smiles.  The restaurant area opened up to darkness, and I could only imagine the beauty that would be the view in the daylight. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and just stood enjoying that moment as the smell of curry (the recently made dinner) wafted around me. The soft evening breeze brushed my hair, making this moment perfect.  We got a quick basic tour from one of the staff, where he showed us down to our private riverside cabin! The trail to our cabin was in complete darkness, but I could already tell this was going to be a couple days of paradise.