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Coban, Guatemala

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On top of MiradorView of Semuc Champey from Miradorp4180152.jpg

Tuesday was mainly a travel day, getting from Flores to Coban in central Guatemala. We took a series of “chicken” buses and it took just over five hours. The term “chicken bus” is used because of the unusual and sometimes live cargo that locals often bring onto the bus.

After getting off at the bus station we had quite a difficult time getting orientated and figuring out where we were on the map in our guidebook. Coban is a pretty confusing city because there are not only several streets with the same name but also two different hotels named Dona Victoria. We had a reservation at the Hostel Dona Victoria but ended up getting directions to the Hotel Dona Victoria, twice. We had our backpacks on and ended up walking around for an hour or so. We were drenched in sweat and feeling crazed and tired from the long, uncomfortable bus rides. At one point we wondered if we were even in the right city. For the longest time we couldn’t find a single restaurant, hotel, or landmark on the map in our guidebook. After what seemed like hours, we found our hostel and were finally able to rest and recuperate.

Our room was rustic, but full of charm. It was situated in a four-hundred-year-old villa that surrounds a beautiful garden courtyard. It was full of old antiques and had a lot of old-world charm to it. We spent the rest of the day taking it easy and planning what we would do the next day. Coban is a medium-sized, working-class city that is a great base for adventures and tours in the Guatemalan countryside. We ended up deciding to do a tour that included the pristine limestone pools of Semuc Champey as well as the caves of Lanquin.

Wednesday, we woke up at 6:30 and had a light breakfast before departing for Semuc Champey. During breakfast we met a retired, 71-year-old gentleman from Vancouver, Canada, named Ronald. It turned out he was the only other person on the tour. During the course of the day we got to know him quite well and he helped us out immensely by acting as a translator. He had just come from Antigua where he had been studying to improve his Spanish speaking skills. I was really impressed when I learned he was not only 71, but was traveling alone and had just divorced his wife, two years ago, after nearly 50 years of marriage. He had glasses and silver hair, but was very sharp and young at heart. The tour we ended up taking proved to be taxing, to even Eric and me, but Ron kept up every step of the way.

We started by taking a 4X4 truck along winding roads that snaked through undulating hills covered with lush groves of coffee, cardamom and achiote. Most of the roads were gravel with lots of blind turns and steep inclines. We arrived at Semuc Champey and started hiking up a limestone wall to a beautiful lookout point called Mirador. The hike was strenuous and the trail consisted mostly of rock staircases and wooden steps that went straight up the wall. When we finally arrived at the top we were all panting, but the view was incredible. From the lookout point you could see an amazing view of the seven natural pools of Semuc Champey.

After hiking back down from Mirador we went swimming in the heavenly pools. These turquoise and emerald pools are actually set atop a natural limestone bridge with an underground river running beneath. The closest place I can compare this to is the Seven Sacred pools in Maui, Hawaii. Many people think this place, as well as Lake Atitlan, to be the most beautiful in all of Guatemala.

After relaxing in the pools we hiked farther down the river Cahabon, our guide hooked us up with a young local boy. After stripping down to our swimming suits only, he handed us each a wax candle and led us into a cave nearby. Upon entering the cave, Eric immediately expressed his concern about the safety of the situation. Apparently the idea of following a sixteen-year-old boy into a water-filled cave with nothing but a wax candle seemed dangerous to him. I couldn’t really see where he was coming from. Anyway, we lit the candles and began going farther and farther into the cave. A lot of it was at least partially underwater and we had to climb up several old wooden ladders that were held in place by ropes tied to rocks. The atmosphere was incredible. Candlelight seemed much more fitting for the caves and gave it a very Temple of Doom feel. I recalled from my reading that the Mayans had had only torches and candles when they entered these caves, almost 1500 years ago.

There we were, deep inside the cave, waist-deep in water with only a wax candle clutched above each of our heads. At every twist and turn Eric let me know his mounting concern with stern looks and sighs of discontent. For some reason this made the whole experience seem even more dangerous and therefore more enjoyable to me. After climbing a final ladder that led to a slick, water-filled opening, Eric had had enough. He finally said, “That’s it. I’m all about being adventurous but this isn’t my idea of a good time.” Although I was a bit let down, Ron seemed to agree so we began heading back out of the cave. Apparently falling to your death, or running out of candle light deep inside a remote cave in Guatemala, didn’t fit into Eric’s life plan. Too bad. As for me, I was really enjoying it and the danger gave me an adrenaline rush.

After exiting the caves, our young guide took us back to his shack and gave us each an inner tube. From the shack we waded into the river Cahabon and began to gently drift our way down the river. Eric and Ron seemed to relax again as we lazed our way along. Eventually we floated under an old wooden train bridge that was suspended a good 60 meters above the river. Our guide motioned us to the side and explained that this was a good spot to jump in the water. He didn’t speak a word of English mind you, and all translation was being done by Ron. Having missed my chance to cheat death in the caves, I was immediately interested.

The young man and I began to hike up to the bridge. I looked back at Eric and, although he had his glasses on and his arms folded, I knew the look he was giving me was the same he had given me in the cave. It was a look that said “Hell no, I’m not taking another step.” Suit yourself, I thought, and continued following the boy. Ron also decided to pass and stood next to Eric on the banks of the river beneath the bridge.

As we walked to the center of the bridge I looked down at the river below. It started to feel a lot more like 200 meters than the 60 I had estimated it be. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a lump in my throat and a quiver in my legs. As the young man and I stood up on the railing I considered turning back, but knew it was too late. He jumped first and his entrance into the water below was clean. I stood teetering on the edge and felt a soft wind blowing from the north. I looked over at Eric and Ron below. They looked small, as if they were miles away. I closed my eyes for a moment and outstretched my arms, feeling like the statue of Christ the Redeemer looming over Rio. I hesitated a moment more, just long enough to remember my mother’s last email asking me to be, “a bit more careful,” as well as Eric’s mother’s plea for us to have a “Safe, SAFE trip.” With a count out loud of “Uno, dose, tres” I jumped. I felt as if I were in the air for an eternity. I began to picture the remains of my broken body being shipped back to America as Eric laid claim to the most valuable pieces of my art collection. I could see him in my room saying, “It’s a real shame about Jack. . . can you give me a hand with this painting?”

As I entered the water, I felt my left leg hit a rock and my kneecap shatter like a wine glass. Just kidding. The jump was clean and I soon surfaced in the river. It was very exhilarating and I could hardly wipe the grin off my face as I swam ashore. We continued our tubing trip down the river, waving to local children that swam naked near the shore. After the tubing was over we headed back to the pickup truck and met up with our original guide. “Esta bien?” he asked. “Si,” I replied.

We then drove along the same rough bumpy roads to visit the caves of Lanquin. The caves were massive, maybe even awe-inspiring, but they were totally geared for tourists, replete with electrical lights wired in as well as man-made staircases. It was interesting to see the caves lit up so well, but overall it was nothing compared to ATM, or even the caves we had visited earlier that day. I guess if I’m not risking my life by candlelight, jumping off a bridge, or feet away from being mowed down by an airplane, I’m not impressed. The caves were also crawling with tourists, which always seems to take away from the authenticity of the experience.

After finishing up there we drove back to Coban, exhausted and thankful to live to see another day. Ron commented that the only type of adventure that would surpass this one would be an “aventura de amore” (a love adventure). He went on to explain that, “In America, when two unmarried people go to bed together we call it ‘an affair,’ whereas in Spanish they use the term ‘aventura’ (adventure).” He further commented, “Learning another language isn’t just finding another way of saying things; it’s a different way of looking at the world.” Although Ron was a retired teacher, he obviously hadn’t stopped being a student of life. As I mentioned before, I can only hope to be as physically fit, open-minded, and adventurous as he is at the age of 71.

The rest of the night we took it easy and relaxed in our rustic villa. The next morning we rode a series of buses to Guatemala City, then on to Antigua. Guatemala City is a polluted megalopolis and is not really a destination worth visiting. We are now in the beautiful, old colonial town of Antigua. Antigua was once the capital of all of Central America and is full of crumbling ruins. All of the streets here are cobblestone, and the town has a very European feel to it. Antigua is also one of the most popular destinations in Guatemala and is famous for it’s Spanish language schools. We plan to spend the next two weeks here taking some much-needed Spanish classes before continuing on to El Salvador. We also plan to spend a few days at Lake Atitlan next weekend while we have a break from our classes. Huxley called Lake Atitlan, “The most beautiful lake in the world.” I’m sure I’ll write a lot more about our experiences here in Antigua as well as Atitlan. I’ll try to figure out how to post a few pictures on my blog or via email. I‘ve just been too busy and lazy.


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