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Semuc Champey

“BANG”
“What the hell was that?”
“Broken axel?”
“Did someone’s rucsac fall off the roof?
“Burst tire?”

We had careered around the corner in our 7 person collectivo, when suddenly all 15 of us were wondering what the massive bang that had just pierced our ears was. I feared that someone’s rucksack had fallen off the roof and down the 300 foot drop to our right, lost to the god of fast-cars-turning-corners-too-quickly. The driver slowed down, got out, and with all the males on the bus being … males, inspected the under carriage of the car.

It turns out that after only a mere 300,000,000 hours of use one of the back tires had burst, annoyingly, as we were just an hour from our destination on our 8 hour ride. We had already traversed flooded roads via make shift car-ferries and survived the continual bumping and jarring of the minivan, but there was nothing for it but a good 40 minute wait at a non-descript roadside as tires were changed. We all took the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs.

An hour later, via a road that I believe was not made for collectivos or cars, but more for tanks and all-terrain-vehicles, we finally arrived in the cute town of Lanquin which was to be our home for the next 3 nights as we relaxed, read, ran and, for the main event and the reason for undertaking the journey, visiting the beautiful exquisite National Monument of Semuc Champey.

We got herded onto the back of pickup trucks by 12-year-old kids to be taken to our hostels of choice, and after a 5 minute little drive arrived at El Retiro, a beautiful sprawling rustic hostel that was to be our base for our visit to the area. The hostel really was quite beautiful; our dormitory room was a thatched roof circular affair, wooden beams and poles for support and walls, inlaid stone-concrete floors, all situated 30m from the river. Cute stone pathways cut across the complex and grass areas to the outdoor-but-roofed dining room, to the lounging hammock area and down and around the toilets, river, table tennis table and more.

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With two full days in Lanquin we chose to visit Semuc Champey the next day and then have a ‘chill out’ day the next – a decision that proved superbly orchestrated; on our relaxing day 30 people embarked on the tour, compared to our intimate 8 person group.

“Beep, beep”
“Ring, ring”
“Tringle, tringle, doopedy doop doop”

Multiple musical jingles sounded in our dorm as various peoples alarms all went off for the 8am wake up, evidently the latest time available to wake up, freshen up, have some food and be ready for the 8:30 set off. As 8 of us packed into the back off a pickup truck, me hanging on the outside from the back, we traversed and cornered for an hour up and around the various hills and valleys, slowly meandering our way to the National Monument. The scenery was breath-taking, although as always, too much soon became normal, and with the bumps and jerks we were all starting to feel the strain when we arrived at our destination.

Although completely and utterly normal in this part of the world; we often see 15 plus people jammed into the back of trucks and cars along with an amazing amount of luggage and goods, there is something rustic and ‘naughty’ about standing up in the back of cars for an hour, holding on for your life and wondering if the next hole in the road will bump you out onto the side to join the mud. Conversely I suspect the locals wish they were sitting 3 astride in the back of a saloon car – but such is the enjoyment of something new.

We arrived at the park and were quickly ushered into the first part of the tour, an hour caving through the maze of a partly submerged underground labyrinth with our guide. We ignited our candles, donned some war paint onto our faces, and entered the dark and gloom. This was unlike anything I had done before; for most parts swimming with one hand, as the other held a candle above water, following a trail of 4 candles infront of you as you entered and exited small holes and openings that appeared in the walls. We climbing up underground waterfalls and abseiled down cascading water shortly afterwards. We did pitch black cave jumps into unknown waters, only lit by the 4 or 5 candles held by your trusty friends. It was like something from the film ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ mixed with the underground water scenes of ‘The Gonnies’.

After an hour of bumping and knocking our knees through the underground complex, we emerged into the light, said a prayer of thanks to the cave gods for still being alive and carried on our adventure ridden tour. Over the next hour we did rope swing jumps into the flowing Cahabon River, 10m bridge jumps further down stream, gently drifted along the flowing current on rubber inner tubes and undertook a strenuous yet rewarding hike to the lookout point 800m above the river.

We turned on our cameras and geared up to take the usual tourist photos, and looked down upon the natural wonder of a 300m limestone ‘bridge’ over which a series of natural smaller turquoise pools flow. To describe this is a bridge though is unfair to the stone structure. The Cahabon River comes in from the Western end and quickly shoots down under the earth for 300m. Over the top of this underground river, lots of excess water flows and trickles for that distance, over many smaller, swimmable, beautiful translucent pools that tourists swim in, relax, and shoot down the natural stone slides that have been created over centuries by the current, wearing away the limestone millimetre by millimetre. It was to this area that we quickly descended too next.

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We had a really fun hour in these pools, a couple of us taking risky 12m cliff jumps and summersaulting into the warm waters, but for the most part gently sliding along slowly from one pool to the next. As the final pool came to an end with rope strewn across it stating that you should go no further our young reckless guide asked,

“You want to do one final jump?”
“Sure”, me and one of the other guys said.

Han looked on displeasingly, but our guide quickly ducked us under the safety rope and showed us what it entailed. A fast flowing waterfall dropped around 15m into the river below, churning the water with its white horses and generally leaning altogether slightly on the side of danger. We asked where you were meant to get out of the river afterwards, expecting some shore line further down stream.

“You climb back up the waterfall!”
“Oh ……. kay, hmmmmm.”

With this titbit of knowledge and explanation he was off. He threw a stick into the water to explain where to land and showed us the rock to swim to afterwards, and then threw himself off.

Generally cave jumps, rock jumps, tree jumps and other sort of nature jumps don’t usually scare or worry me; an undercurrent of knowledge flows through me that everyone seems to be doing it and there is no real danger other than your nerves, but this was different. Safety ropes, the bravado that the youth only seem to have, and the churning white waters all were adding to the “this isn’t quite safe” feeling. But once I was on the ledge, it was just a case of ignoring the fears and getting on with the job at hand.

As I screamed my way into the water like a little girl, I popped up, alive and well, and quickly noticed that the current of the waterfall was slowly pulling me back into its cylindrical current. I swam harder than I thought I would need to and reached the safety of the rock. What ensued afterwards was a 10 minute lesson in free climbing up waterfalls, as we traversed up the side of the falling water, with bare feet and no ropes, once or twice slipping on the gooey moss that clung to the rock face only to be saved by the precarious hand grip I had further up, before making it to the top unscathed and alive.

Dangerous. Check. Health and safety regulation. Non existent. Adrenaline rush. In heaps.

We trundled back to the safety of our hostel after purchasing some fresh chocolate from the cute little girls who were peddling the sweet dark nectar that grows on the local cacao tree’s in the area, once again holding on to the sides and bars of the pickup truck, and chatted away about what a great day and trip it had been. I had thoroughly enjoyed the experiences and life threatening jumps and falls, and was equally looking forward to the next days full rest and respite before Han and I moved geographically downwards to the colonial town of Antigua.

I took the opportunity in the ‘day-off’ to also catch up on some miles that needed to be ran if I was to have any hope of finishing the altitude marathon that I was contemplating in 2 weeks time, but got side-tracked into a game of football with the locals a few miles past camp. After scoring the first goal, breaking the crossbar of the make shift goal, and pretending I was Ronaldo, when realistically I was playing against kids half my age, I made my way back before Han and I headed out for some local affair of the now mundane, yet strangely still appetising, eggs, rice and beans.

We dozed off to bed early and had our bags packed ready for the mornings early departure.

“I don’t know where it is, I just felt a stabbing pain. Like someone was driving a pencil into my finger”

I didn’t know what was happening. The lights were on and Vanessa, a girl in our dorm who we had travelled with on and off since Belize, was with some hostel staff searching through her bed. After a few minutes of mattress flapping and cover shaking they looked inside her pillow to find a black scorpion with a mean temper. The whole dorm was now up and intrigued, and more than a couple of people comically altered their bed choice to top bunks. The staff took out the scorpions sting, led it to far away lands and comforted everyone that the girl would be alright and it wasn’t life threatening (probably).

Covers were pulled tighter, pillows were shaken and sleep didn’t come as easy, but nevertheless I soon drifted back off to sleep with nightmares of black scorpions crawling up the side of my bed and around my body. I woke up less than refreshed but raring to move onto the cute colonial town of Antigua.