Climbing Volcanoes in Quetzaltenago, Guatemala

Santa Maria Volcano Sunrise

Remember that one time we climbed a volcano at night and slept atop the crown to watch the world come to life beneath us?

Well this is a brief story of that time.

It was December 2011 and I was floating around Guatemala at the time with my old friend – el Simpson. We were making our way to Lake Atitlan, but first had come by way of Antigua and then Quetzaltenago. It was Christmas time and the main square of the city had come alive with lights and people. A delight in an exotic place.

Theres not much to do here – its a large town but seems void of much to enthral the traveler, besides trekking a nearby volcano. Which we gladly sign up to do. Its a long tough hike and its done at night. But the reward is worth it.

Freezing atop the peak in a cold icy wind, a stray dog has followed us up. I beckon it into my sleeping bag to help keep it warm as we wait a few more hours until the break of dawn.

Down to the right we can see into the eerie glow of another volcano – the depths of hell come to life perhaps with its red magma bubbling away.

The sun comes up and ignites its light the chain of volcanoes before us. A row of mountainous peaks in an almost straight line leading north and south. Epic, freeing it feels up here to watch the world stir in the early dawn below. Feeling at peace as the sun strikes us first.

 

Guatemala Pt. 2 – Journey up the Rio Dulce

We take a night bus away from Flores and the jungle temples of Tikal and make south. Toward the coast and to the junction town of Rio Dulce. A old fort town sealed around the point at which the river turned into a large lake only 10 odd km from the ocean. A very safe harbour in fertile lands. Hence the giant fort filled with cannon protecting it on the far point.

Its a chicken bus, you know, the ones the let people and their chickens on. A locals bus. Don’t ever try to make sense of the Guatemalan bus system. You won’t make it. We get off starved and parched and head 20m down a muddy gully to the waterfront where theres a few odd eateries perched on stilts where the boats tie up. Order some plantain chips and cerveza and some bread and snacks to go. We hustle a boat and head up to the hostel a little ways up the river. Accessible only by boat and perched in swampy jungle up a creek, its a tranquil escape. We ease past a half sunken boat and tie into the deck. Its one main open two story hut with a few other huts with bunks scattered around.

Settle in and grab canoes for a paddle. Its a lush jungle with delicious blue and green waters under us. Eager to cool off, we pull up at floating wood platform on the main river to spend the afternoon sun baking, swimming, kayaking and reading – we came prepared after spotting this place on the way in.

Another day in the river jungle hostel to relax and we take a boat up the rio dulce. Its a crystal clear day with a crisp sunshine. The way is coated in green jungle of all types. We cruise up past the fort near the town at first them off up the river to the waiting sea. Our boat driver points out the hot spring waters where they float into the river. Theres a canoe and a few people milling around. We pass a rustic thatch hut in a sea of lilly pads with a small girl in a canoe. She’s selling seashells. its the most adorable thing to witness. I almost feel bad taking a picture to preserve it. We buy a trinket and pass by. Leaving her floating passively by the wake of the boat.

We pass an island in the middle of the river thats home to giant lizards – like big iguanas. You can spot them on the branches a mile off. Second last turn and we smell the sea and it reveals itself a moment later. First thing we spot is another half sunken ship. Then another. Then the pier of the settlement beyond. Welcome to Livingston.

Livingston is some type of old pirate town. Settled by a wild mix of Garífuna, Afro-Caribbean, Maya and Ladino people and culture its more recently developed a very raw tourist presence. A stream of kids hustle us the moment we part the boat. Everything is on offer. Chicks, canoe ride, cocaine, ganja, sister, donkey, the lot. We warily edge our way down to the hostel. Im sick like never before that night. crippling stomach pains and half the night on the toilet. Wont lie, the place was disgusting. Not much more than a drop toilet in a tin metal hut. Not the place you want gastro. ehhh…

Explore the town the next day and find a nicer place to recuperate. A lovely cottage style place by the beach for about 12 bucks a night. We venture that day to a place called the Siete Altares. The Seven Altars. We wander along the beach and my phone buzzes, we are back in Belize apparently. The beach is nice. not pristine and lovely like you image much of the Caribbean sea. Theres the odd bit of garbage. But theres not much civilisation in this corner. Jungle covered coasts stretch up out and to the right – Belize and back down behind is – Guatemala. They falls are a cascading bunch of pools nestled in a hundred mt behind the coast. We swim and enjoy the beauty of the natural setting at bliss in the Caribbean coast.

Theres not much else to do here as its mainly a half way town for travellers on their way to the Honduran Bay Islands – Utila. But we aren’t ready to go that way yet. First we head for the highlands so take the boat back up river, jump a chicken bus and end up in the hellhole of eL Rancho

Guatemala – Flores & The Lost City of Tikal

The van cruises on for several hours, through the border checkpoint and on to Flores. The scenery changes from sandy and palm trees to a red earth with lush greenery at every bend. Small fertile looking farms dot the landscape. Flores, is a small little town thats got a unique feature of a bridged island as the tourist section sitting in the middle of a scenic lake. We are here for its proximity to Tikal – the ancient Mayan city buried in the jungle in the nearby Biosfera Reserve.

It a beautiful little island, almost european in style of building and in how close its built. A few jetties stick out into the lake where we see local kids and the odd traveller swimming and sun baking. Its damn hot so we make this a priority for our afternoon. But first, find a hotel, negotiate for a room and get some food. Either way, before long we a swimming in the cool clean waters of Lago Peten Itza and sipping on slushied mojitos from a balcony as we watch the sun set over the lake to the west.

Flores Sunset
Flores Sunset

We’re up at 4am the next day standing under the overhang for shelter as a rainy wind gust around us on a dim lit street. We are waiting for our transport to pick us up and take us to Tikal.

Tikal is an ancient citadel and city that dates back as far as the 4th century BC and was inhabited up until around the 10th century AD. It was one of the largest most powerful kingdoms of the Maya and includes around 3000 structures over 16 square kms. Up to 100,000 people used to call this home at the height of its lifespan. Its also planet of the Ewoks from Star Wars – you know that scene where Darth Vader’s plane flies down in Return of the Jedi over a jungle clad plant with temples jutting through the canopies? Yep thats Tikal.

The rain abates somewhat, but it just makes it steamy and its still hanging around. We pass the entry point and start exploring the mud tracks. Tikal is huge and it IS a lost city in the jungle. Unlike Machu Pichu, or Chichen Iza, there are very few clear area’s with manicured lawns and theres maybe a few hundred tourists at the most vs the thousands that pass through those. There are dozens of 60m high temples climbing up at clearings through the jungle canopies, and some you can climb giving you this eerie mystical view across the tree tops to a dozen other temples through the rainy mist. Add in the screaming howler monkeys and this is the lost city experience Ive been longing for.

At many parts you see half buried structures, covered in moss and reclaimed by the slow ever-present growth of the jungle. Its awe inspiring to hear the stories of what went on here, and to see the type of structures these people lived in and then to see it corroded yet still surviving the march of time.

Mexico & Belize – Yucatan Peninsula

London sucks in the winter, and particularly sucks if your going to be unemployed. Anyone who’s spent time there knows its an incredibly expensive city so it not only sucks because of the cold and lack of things to do, but is literally a money suck. So…I needed to get out. Run away somewhere warm for a while.

Fortunately my good friend Simpson had recently arrived to London via Mongolia, Russia, Lativa and Spain. He wasn’t planning on sticking around for long so I proposed the idea of heading somewhere together – though it needed to be cheap and adventurous. Somewhere that would give us maximum bang for our buck. We considered Eastern Europe, but weren’t sold and as I had just come from South America, that was out too. We looked at flights to Mexico—only around $800. Booked. Passport, Customs, Baggage Check, Touch Down, What up Mexico!

We’re assailed by 35c heat the moment we walk out the airport in Cancun. Now lets be clear – Cancun is not our thing. However it is a gateway airport with cheap flights and allowed for a nice entry point to make our way south down the Yucatan and then into the highlands of Central America, before coming out again for the coast line and finishing up somewhere down in Costa Rica.

We hail a taxi and head for down town. Its so westernised and touristy it almost feels part of America rather than Mexico. I shouldn’t be surprised after all over 300,000 Americans flock here for spring break each year.

We are booked in a hostel down town rather than staying in a beach from hotel on the Hotel Zone. Cancun is a funny place – the city/town its self sitting a few kilometres inland from the beach is very authentic and only a little touristy – with the biggest section being the central mercado full of tourist markets and gift stalls selling cheap silverware and knock off Mayan trinkets and artefacts. The other section of Cancun, is the hotel zone – a 25mile strip of white sandy beach lined with enormous hotels and super clubs. We make it out here for a day venture – the beach is excellent, really all its cracked up to be and its quite time so its quite pleasant, though you can imagine the party carnage come busy season.

2 days in Cancun gives us our bearings and we make the essential day trip pilgrimage to see the Chichen Iza. The tour takes us to some ceynotes for s swim before the temple. Its quite pleasant and the whole coast is lined with them – underground water holes and caves formed in the limestone bedrock from ground water. Some even used to be used by the Maya for sacrificial offerings. Cool huh?

Chichen Iza itself its equally impressive and disappointing. Lets start with the tales of the good – as a ore columbian Mayan city, it is quite a collection of ancient temples and buildings, with the centre piece being the El Castillo (the giant temple you see in all the pictures). There are some really cool architectural elements at play here – perfect alignment for sound echoes from certain spots and what not. And its sheer size is impressive even if you’ve seen some of the other worlds grand archaeological sites.

However, its essentially a Mayan theme park – not a lost city. With carefully manicured grass and lawns, a busy entrance to collect fees and amenities, along with hundreds of vendors selling cheap trinkets, masks and Jaguar whistles (more on these later) it has no resemblance to a lost city of ancient archaeological discovery.

Its the last of of time in Cancun and the next day we are rolling on a bus to Belize.