Guatemala: Lost in paradise
From the ruins I headed straight for the bus stop and was in a big hurry to catch the last bus to Coban. I busted a move, just to get on the bus and realize that we were going to play the “drive around town screaming out our destination until the bus is full” game again. This is generally how you figure out which bus to get on, just listen for the ayudante screaming out your town. (Laurie, I´m pretty sure I heard someone yell out La Paz!!) Eventually we were off and it was an entertaining trip. There was a constant flurry of activity as people were getting on and off all the time. There were only 3 of us that went the entire way, but the bus was packed the whole time. Some people only wanted a ride up the hill. Others wanted a ride to a place that wasn´t on our route, and since there were 10 of them and they protested we detoured to drop them off in a little town about 5 miles off the road. Then the bus driver got himself a girlfriend sitting up in the front with him and he started driving even crazier, presumably showing off. That´s when the ride got wild and we were squealing tires all the way down the curvy mountain road. No wonder I don´t see amusement parks down here – who needs ´em? Sometimes I think I move too fast and thus spend too much time on buses, but really they are generally cheap entertainment and offer a sweeping view of the small town and rural life that I wouldn´t see otherwise.
I was in Coban to head to the National Monument Semuc Champey, so in the morning I headed another nearly 3 hours (progressing only 50 kms though) to Semuc. My hostel is right on the Cahabón River that flows with milky turquoise water. It´s not as stunning as the glacier waters, but pretty impressive nonetheless. Once inside the park I could see why people ranted and raved about this place out in the sticks. It´s breathtaking! Semuc Champey is a series of naturally formed pools that are divided by limestone ridges or bridges. Some of the pool are divided by waterfalls and others by a small ledge you can just crawl over. Normally I am a bit leery of public swimming places but this was going to be an exception. At first it was a bit crowded, as it was Sunday and and a lot of local weekend-warriors were there but after a few hours it cleared out and became my own little out-of-the-way paradise!! Ok, now I will admit, I feel a little bit like I´m on vacation!
The caves awaited me the following day. I´ve always secretly wanted to become a Goonie and I think I may have finally earned it!!! I went on a crazy tour of the K`an-ba caves where once again, I had to put my complete faith in my guide, Emilio. We went in with just a candle and immediately were waste deep in chilly water. The first part was filled with bats that were thankfully staying put in their little nests. As we went in further, the water got deeper and I was swimming with one hand holding up the candle to guide me. It was a bit freaky at first but then I got comfortable with it. We came upon an internal waterfall and Emilio says to grab the rope and climb up. Up what? The waterfall? Yep, that is what he meant. From there it was climbing through more little holes, swimming through sections of very deep water and occasionally he´d turn around and say “cuidado”…watch out for what, the rock I just nailed my head on or the one that just crushed my foot? A few times we blew out the candles and just sat in complete darkness. It was pretty eerie at first and got my heart racing as I was so far inside the earth, but then I was able to enjoy it and just listen to the waterfall in the distance. The cave was full of stalactites and mites and impressive rock formations – my favorite looking like a Mexican sombrero. On the way back instead of trying to go down the waterfall, we sat on a slick rock over to the side and just went down like a slide – it was great!!! I also just had to ditch the candle on the way back because I was tired of swimming with only one hand and had to rely on the faint light from Emilio´s candle. For a control freak like myself, it was a challenge but an incredibly great excursion!! I got to throw a tube in the river and tube back to my hostel. I hadn´t been tubing for years, and it made me feel a little bit like I was enjoying a summer day back home…minus the cooler of beer floating near by.
Before heading to my next town I got to experience another amazing tropical thunderstorm. Every day since I have arrived there has been a brilliant thunder, lighting, & rain show. This one was the wildest, thoroughly soaking everything, filling the streets in minutes, making my body shake with the intensity of the thunder, and disappearing as quickly as it came on. I´m sort of looking forward to these daily storms, I hope they continue!
Maps can be deceiving; what looks like an inch and something that should take an hour or two, in fact takes most of the day. The problem on this journey was compounded by the fact that there was no direct bus to where I was trying to go, and a series of 3-4 buses was required. It also became a problem because I got duped by the “wanna be helpful so I´ll give you the wrong answer instead of telling you I don´t know” gimmick. This happens a lot in Colombia as well. Normally I ask 3-4 people and go with the most common response, but it was 6 am and I was in a hurry looking for the place where buses went to a certain town and only asked one lady. She sent me to the wrong place. So I asked a man and then a cop and they shuffled me back to the correct location. This was another packed clown van, this time so crowded that the ayudante had to climb up on the top and ride on the luggage rack. This had happened before, but this time the ayudante was an 11 or 12 year old kid and I was worried about him as we bounced down the windy and unpaved mountain road. No one else seemed to be worried, included him. After a few “get out here and wait for something going that way” instructions, I made it to the wee little village of Nebaj. Nebaj is a town in the state of Quiché, one of the poorest regions in the country. It´s definitely the dirtiest place I´ve been to in awhile but it´s full of warm folks; I´ve gotten more “buenos dias señorita” in a few hours here than in weeks elsewhere. It is part of a small group of villages that makeup the Maya group of the Ixiles. This is the area that was the hardest hit by violence and destruction in the Civil War that ended only 10 years ago. Because of this, there are a lot of aid organizations at work here and a lot of “hooverville” type settlements that were built by the displaced. The Ixiles are known for their fierce dedication to preserving their culture and tradition, so much so that I have to ask my questions to 2 or 3 people before I find someone who speaks Spanish. It hasn´t deterred them from getting cell phones though; EVERYONE has one…I found this comical, for some reason. The Ixiles are also known for their textiles and I´ve seen a lot of men and women out with their looms making beautiful garments, bags, and cloths. The traditional wear here for the women is long wrap-around skirts called cortes that are red with green stripes and blouses (huipiles) of wild geometrical designs. The older women wear a headdress with pom-poms. Again, as in other places I´ve visited, I find it interesting that all the females, unless they are still in diapers, wear this outfit, but the men all run around in jeans and t-shirts?!?! Unfortunately, I didn´t get any pictures of this traditional wear, I have a problem walking up to strangers and snapping pictures of them. I was only in Nebaj for a little over a day, as I had a big market to get to….