Semuc Champey, Guatemala is sandwiched between sharp mountains proving their youth and you would never know it was there unless someone told you to look for it. Thankfully, someone did.
A downtown consists of caves lined with dozens of pools of clear water rushing over massive boulders that look like under- water skyscrapers.
The movement of the water forces the bright green moss that hugs the rocks to sway with rhythm, resembling the movement of traffic through a city. Rather than horns honking, laughter echoes through the valley as travelers use this moss as taxis to slide from one pool to another.
Some trek to greater heights hoping to witness the light dancing from mountain to mountain, while others wade through the waters of deep caves trusting the light of only a dim candle to lead them through.
We were hundreds of miles into the green mountains. Nature was at its purest, freshest and most relaxed. The truck rumbled along the winding dirt road for hours on end. We occasionally stop for photos, even though the entire ride was picturesque.
Our hostel nestled in the valley as mountains surrounded, 360 degrees. They reached for the sky the way a little boy would the cookie jar atop the fridge, on their tippy toes, extending with all their might.
In these same mountains were some of the world’s oldest caves. We followed our Chimpa guide on a hike to the depths of darkness, into that black hole of an abyss. Water dripped. Repeatedly. We were trusting a white wax candlestick to lead us deeper into the unknown excitement that nestled into those spooky sable caves.
Even the silence echoed an eerie whisper of wonder and mystery. My imagination began to run wild with the same fixation for fear that drew me here in the first place.
Isleta Flores is known for its quick commute to Tikal’s ancient Mayan Kingdom, the main attraction for travelers. Tikal has some of the biggest Mayan temples ever discovered. The largest pyramid known to man, El Mirador, is only accessible by a 5 day hike through the jungle just westward. However, Tikal offers the next largest of the Mayan temples, and the most notable archeological site in Central America.
We walked around the tiny island of Flores for an hour or so before eating breakfast burritos at a cute little restaurant near the isleta’s main entrance. A kind woman served us, beautiful in her day- eyes windowed to decades of wisdom, tired but strong and sincere. We met James at that meal. James was a good friend until the restaurant phoned the police. Those details fit in better later
After staring at and comparing maps with time tables we formed a basic plan to stealthy stay the night in a Mayan temple. This adventure was recommended to us by the Jungle Party hostel staff, Canadian Bryan, in Antigua.
“When in Tikal, sneak pass, hide, deceive, whatever the temple guards because it’s worth spending a night in the King’s corridor, overlooking the Great Plaza.” – Bryan.. not verbatim.
The opportunity comes when the temples are clearing, closing and locking up the site. As the light gets dark the guards sweep the premises. Silently hiding in the dense jungle, out of sight was the plan.
The ruins lie among the most tropical rain-forests in Guatemala. The street signs warning of jaguar and snake crossing heightened the adventure.
We shared this epic plan with a few people at the hostel. Most thought we were crazy, others nonchalantly agreed it was a good idea, showing no interest in joining us. I was disappointed with the lack of adventure in these travelers. But then there was Raphael, a French man showing some curiosity and by the time I returned from the shower he had made a verbal commitment. Christiana-inception. Within the next hour or so we walked to the market for food, snacks, water and other picnic supplies. Raphael has now made a financial commitment to attempt this journey into the jungles thousands of years of history. This isn’t just a temple, but where man learned to throw spears rather than engage in hand to hand combat, where blood spilled in Mayan warfare. This is where the rulers of the western world, before it was the western world, resided.
We were going to sneak up to the temple and share an evening under the stars and above the jungle’s canopy .
We were told our best bet is Temple II, according to Bryan, who we only actually knew for a few hours. Just as the sun was setting we ran into a guard. At first I pretended not to know any Spanish, just smiling a lot with some thumbs up and a few broken-Spanish compliments. Then we were getting down to business and my Spanish got better. Including Rafael in the conversation, we got the guard laughing and relaxing.
After about 45 minutes with the guard, we agreed on a bribe of 10$ each to leave us alone to camp in the temple. We chose Temple II, The Temple of the Mask, the west side of the Great Plaza.
We shared the sun’s set, some rum, and stories as the shadows grew over the jungle spread beneath. As the fading sun lit the sky in a magnificent display of colors and clouds to a symphony of jungle noises, we watched in awe.
The night quickly took over and was the darkest yet. With flashlights we eventually made our way to the top of our new Tikal-temple hostel to make camp. Rafael toyed with the sliding metal gate’s lock until he defeated it. Now we explorer the inside of the temple, the section off limits even during tour hours. We were surrounded by bats, massive insects, monkey howls.
Old dirty-dust-like filth was everywhere. The walls were damp, the floor crusted with presumably bat shit and the walls had been carved by those who came before us. There were no windows out of the temple, there was only the half-opened, rusty slider gate. Obviously, there weren’t lights, but also no place for torches. The ceiling was high, well out of reach and covered by bats, squeaking yet seemingly friendly for some reason.
After settling in on the outer East-facing ledge, we played cards and music. Under the candle light we had a picnic and read about the Mayan civilization and the specific temple we made comfort in. The air was electrified with distant lightning and the bellowing cries of howler monkeys, which if we had not known better, would have mistaken for jaguar roars. The howls were surrounding and from every distance. We were lucky the sky stayed clear of rain clouds for the stars to pierce pin holes in the dense night.
In the midst of laughter we heard voices and halted everything. I crept down the temple for a better listen. The irking sound came from Temple III, the Temple of the Jaguar Priest. Maybe they are Mayan spirits?
With our small fire on the outside platform, atop one of the largest temples, facing inwardly at the Great Plaza, we were surely seen unless we extinguish all light and noise. After consulting each other and the rum we decide to call out and befriend the mystery voices.
They failed to respond. We made offerings, yet they still refused us. Maybe we’re being set up for ambush. Maybe we should counter it and strike temple III first. Rafael, Christiana, the rum and I continued to deliberate. Another offering slowly evolved into a ritualistic like dance. With fire flaming on the front edge, I stood behind and announced our peace. Speaker and blue light held over my head the music echoed off the temples and back. I danced and jived with the sounds as the others created a spectacle of strobing and flashing lights at my back, casting a show high above the jungle blaring into the plaza and to the ears of anyone remotely near.
We arrived to the Jungle Party Hostel and took a dorm room. Good vibe, hammocks, colorful walls/people, happy hour, book exchange, shuttles etc. The staff was very friendly, extremely helpful, and pretty much dragged us out to go party with them. They also provoked us to attempt the most wild adventure I’ve heard of in this part of the world.
We hit an all you can drink for 7 dollars at a place called “El Muro”. It’s was set next to a pastry shop, had a big bar in the front and blaring dance PA in the back. There had to have been at least 70 people- not cramped but you did have to maneuver yourself at times. Vodkaguas fueled the night until the 1 am close. All bars in Antigua are supposed to close at 1 am. The Jungle Party Hostel staff then lead the cobble stone, moon light stroll to “Reds”, a speak-easy sort of underground bar that stayed open beyond legal hours. There was no music playing, keeping the profile low. We knocked, were peeped at, and drunk-whispered the password. We entered. There, gallos beers carried the rest of the evening. I got back to The Jungle Party Hostel around 330 and woke around 8. Vodkagua was a good decision.
The morning came with a massive breakfast- free with the hostel stay, and that next morning recap swinging in hammock chairs with the other backpackers. Eventually we got a team together and looked to hike the Cerro Santa Cruz trail.
The houses are maybe three different pastel colors, all 1 story high and lining the poorly organized cobblestone roads. Everything looked similar to a new-arrival. Navigation took some time, but the town took an hour, tops, to completely circle. This included time for minor distractions.
The local women wore traditional dress, somewhat gypsy-like, long flowing skirts, embroidered flowers around the upper chest, short sleeves… almost Polish looking, colorful blouses, and visible texture. They were very distinct. They acted and looked different than the the other women we met on the journey up from San Jose, Costa Rica. They were very friendly, returning an almost bashful smile when we’d great them with waves and our charmingly broken Spanish. They had a very native American look, maybe a little Asian, and slightly Mexican if I had to describe it as a mixture of other heritages. The looked like ancient Mayans most, but ruly they have their own look, high cheek bones, round faces, slight slant to the eyes, very welcoming faces, sort of soft looking and I haven’t see any with bad skin. Their noses are a little wide and smoothly merge into their faces. A very attractive people.
On the “hike” to Cerro Del Cruz we were accompanied by ninos in school jumpers and polos, messy ice pops and giggles. The stroll up took about 30 minutes, the view was marvelous. It hovered above the 500,000 person city yet a stones-throw away. We viewed the churches, and all the low-rise buildings below, peeled oranges, swapping stories, plans, jokes, and cultural comparisons.
A little old guate man recommended we hike Cerro Santo Domingo after. We purchased some bread, cheese, tomatoes, chicken and beers for a picnic overlooking the city from the top of Cerro del Santo Domingo. It was about an hour hike.
It was an accomplishment and a good way to end the stay on Antigua. To the Mayan ruins in western Guatemala for the evening.
We arrived in Flores at about 6 am after the most charming bus ride ever. We were under the impression that we were getting a direct shuttle to Flores from our hostel in Antigua. However, what was really meant by those we booked through was a shuttle to Guatemala city to wait a couple hours in the bus terminal, then board the ice bus from hell for 9 hours. It was freezing byeyond reason. We were in shorts and sandals. Ours bags, extra clothing and hope fo warmth stored snugly underneath the bus until arrival. The conductor explained to the passengers why it was going to be so cold the entire trip, but not in a simplistic enough Spanish for us to understand. Christiana eventually put on a poncho. It served both the purpose of trapping in heat and deflecting the leaking roof that dripped in surprise attacks sporadically to awake us. Chris choked on the odor of my poncho and I was told I couldn’t wear it.
The ride ended in Santa Elena where we then caught a mini shuttle to the tiny island Flores. It was maybe 5 square blocks in size, hilly, cobble stone and peaceful. We went to Los amigos for our hostel. It was the sister hostel of the jungle party in Antigua.
5 am bus from Managua to El Salvador on a Tica bus. We snacked, slept, and got off for border crossings. That sums up the activity. In the back row we were elbowed every time someone needed the bathroom we sat across from. The seats didn’t recline, the passing landscape was sun soaked and beautiful. It was an 11 hour swaying, and rattling ride. We got diner with a Holland man who had traveled the last 8 months and truly didn’t think highly of Americans. We also ate with a NY yoga instructor woman who had way too much luggage and practically no trip planning skills. Good conversation. The food was moderately priced.
The next morning we rode another bus until noon to the murderous capital city: Guatemala City. The locals refer to it was Guatemala or Guate. There was a lot of armored guards, razor wire and barred windows.
We hopped on the first bus to Antigua, walked circles around the tiny city with our backpackers for almost an hour, then found the Jungle Party Hostel. Great find. We also stopped for gelato along the way.
The first half of the afternoon was spent in the sister city of Granada: Leon. We ate at Tip-Top, Central America’s version of KFC. We then self-toured the León Cathedral, which is the largest in Central America. They began working on it in 1747 and did so for the next 100 years. We walked the roof tops of the cathedral which bled history as mold grew through the cement as if crying survivor’s guilt. The mortal remains of 27 prominent Nicaraguans rest within.
León’s outskirts have surfing… down the side of Volcano Cerro Negro. 520 kilometers south, in San Jose, on my first evening in Central America, an Aussie chick was boasting about the idea of surfing a volcano in Nicaragua. My ears perked up and she had my full attention. In each city since the backpacking circuit has known about boarding down the black “sand” of Cerro Negro in León. Everyone agrees it would be fun, but also apprehensive because of the notorious dangers involved.
“Live freely, death is just the next step” has been the spirit of this journey so far. It’s better said in the words of the genius vagabond, Hunter S, but I cannot find them verbatim. I swear the interwebs are losing their touch. ~’How long you live isn’t measured in years but in moments of triumph’ as reminded to me by a college friend, Dlew, who, similar to me, has been blessed with dementia.
After leaving the private party island we are at the night before (story untold) we boarded a motorized row-boat to return to the mainland. As we boarded the rain began. It got strong, it soaked us. As we got of the boat, it ceased. The fog on the volcano attacked us in the very same way.
After an hour of off-roading, we arrive at the active Volcano Cerro Negro. It is a steep black cone. for 5$ we were handed wood sleds with metal under bellies. They had a knotted rope attached to the top. He instructed to “lean forward to slow down, lean back to speed up” I starred listening for more. I thought maybe he was waiting for something before explaining the rest, but there was nothing else to be said apparently. That’s all he had for us.
We marched towards the black mound of volcanic rocks. No directions, just white spray painted boulder markings. No guide, just Nica friends. No instructions, just a thumbs up. We could see the fog thickly roll in from the other side of the dark climb. Every step sent rocks rolling down, every few paces one of use slipped to our knees. The fog thickened like a horror movie’s climactic murder scene. We soon could no longer see the top nor the bottom. Upward we continued, breaking sweat and seemingly always having more to climb. Thunder struck the humid air. I turned to Christiana and told her that there would be more to come, so suck it up now. The setting was ominous. The only thing insight was the black cone we climbed and the thick white haze surrounding us.
Thunder cracked again. It was quicker to reach the top and board down then to backtrack the last 45 minutes. The smell of sulfur intensified, we were clearly nearing the gaping crater that opened to the earth’s core. No one was anywhere near us. “This is Nicaragua” Ale reminded me. A “truly free country” as he has so convincingly stated yet again.
Wiping away the sweat from my brow, the trudge continued. We soon reached a wood post that arrowed down. The sand much more closely resembles gravel. I had nothing to wait for, I was here for one reason. I set my feet up, and tested out the concept of breaking. This first test included a small wipe out. lesson seemingly learned. Jose then sped past into the fog and out of sight. I called to him. I go no response. I called louder and this second silence sounded even bleaker.
The others slowly made their way and we coasted down together. I got the hang of it, shifting my weight, picking up speed, slowing at will, picking up speed, shifting weight, still shifting weight, losing aim, picking up speed, dipping hand into gravel to slow, turning body, maintaining speed, pushing weight into some attempt to halt and then burying my board under the little black volcanic rocks and flipping a wipe-out forwards, rolling over my shoulders, summersaulting, and again, and again, knowing I could dig my limbs into the gravel and eventually complete stop myself from falling further down without my board. I did. I then tried to get back to the board, which was no easy task. The gravel was too loose for my weight to push off and up the slope. After a serious struggle I retreived the board and went again. This time I shifted the board to a snowboarder’s tactical horizontal slow before smashing another wipe out. This time I held the blue rope that leashed my wood sled. I had rooks in my jeans, my hair, my shirt. The sweat kept the gravel from falling loose. I again boarded down, this time with more caution.
The whipping breeze cooled my overheating body. I intensely concentrated on the gravel flying beneath the board, desperately keeping my balance and avoiding another belly flop onto the chalky black stones. The rocks grew larger as the bottom neared, but so did my confidence and ability to stay balanced. I made it to the bottom, out of breathe, I was out of my mind and I need to get these stupid rocks out of my shoes and pants. I stripped with a sigh of relief and enjoyed the adrenaline high.
From Granada we went to The Isletas: The islands. The islands formed by the eruption and spewing of molten rock, magma, ashes and inner earth carnage from the screaming mouth of Volcano Mombacho. About 360 islands, in my estimated average of an acre each, (obviously varying) formed in Cocibolca Lake once upon 20,000+ years ago. These islands set the most beautiful community surrounded by translucent water and the natural wild life of monkeys, reptiles and water birds. Alejandro hooked it up big and brought us to one of the private islands to swim and relax for the afternoon. After negotiating boat rentals and a pleasant lunch on one of the in-route isletas, we arrived to what was quiet literally our own island. The only exception was the help that arrived just prior to us, assuring the most hospitable experience possible.
I am without doubt that with an investment, this could be one of the most successful hostel locations in the western world. If we take the success of Corfu Greece’s Pink Palace, and the in-route location of Granada (and the isletas) for the Central American backpacker (a better bread), we have a perfect combination for success.
There is pretty much 1 route for backpacking Central America in this area. I know this. 1) I keep running into the same backpackers. 2) I can’t vary the path no matter how hard I try. There is 1 forked route from Costa-beyond Honduras. From Costa Rica, say Playa de Cocoa, La Fortuna or Monteverde, you cross the boarder into Nicaragua just after La Cruz. The first place everyone goes is San Juan Del Sur: the beach town on the pacific coast. It is about 45 minutes north of the Rica-Nica boarder. After that is Rivas: no redeeming qualities, pass. Norther, is Granada: the adorable colonial town that offers a good vibe and some true history, but doesn’t shock, awe or inspire. *This is where the isleta hostel would thrive. After is The Corn Islands: notable for their parties, weighed down by the cost of flying to/from. The other option is Leon: very similar to Granada, great historic cathedral with buried poets, cracked bells etc.- hot as hell on a sunny day. It is also near the Volcano Cerro Negro which is reputed for sand boarding down. It’s sick- next post.
Isleta Hostel Island: somewhere around 1 million to purchase one of these islands of appropriate size. The rest is pretty cheap, between labor and maintenance (1/2 the cost of Costa), + building the establishment, it can be down, including necessary equipment for operation for about 1.5 mil. Seemingly a lot until you realize what you get. The backpacking community could and would flip out, flock towards it like prisoners to an open gate. Provide scheduled transportation to the island form the already attended Granada, charge slightly above the expected night stay (15 USD instead of 10- build value) include hostel basics such as breakfast, wifi, book exchange, hammocks, social setting. Charge booze, charge food, charge fairer price for 3 night+ stays, hook and reel. Build the reputation. The trusted dirt is not from the web, not from the guide books but from the mouth of the fellow backpacker. Promote hard at the start of peek season, let the dominos fall like exploding volcanic debris. Am I giving a way a brilliant idea for free? Yes. The community deserves it and I’m not yet in the position to provide it.
Christiana arrived in Managua yesterday… two days ago?… Recently. We went out with Alejandro to a banging club called Moods. It was in the heart of Managua’s night spot- where I had met Alejandro the day of my arrival and where all the wealthier upper class Nicas ran into each other at night. Lights prettied from the high cielings, flashing over the people on the balconies, jumping to the sea of dancing bodies on the center dance floor below. The music blasted as loud as it does in most clubs, which is a volume to high for me, personally. But only because it’s at a level where I cannot hear the people I try to talk with, and nor can they hear me. All in all, Moods was too banging, packed with people. Can’t talk, can’t move… We decided that because it would be open til 6 am, that midnight we would do at some bar across the mall complex on an outdoor patio. We quickly made friends with gin, tonic, ale´s nicas and some more hardcore backpackers as we waited for a less congested Mood.
Our backpacking buddies made fun of the Nicas, as they were all wearing the same “blue jeans and striped button down” outfit. I was too. I did ask Alejandro to dress me like I was native, he did a good job. I think they all dressed the same because they were still young- I recall the same congruency amongst my high-school parties.
The Backpackers were late 20s, serious about living life how they wanted to and simply- very modern day hippy.
“Most your life, you’re living for someone else. As you grow up, you do what your parents tell you, try to make them happy, obey their rules.
Once you’re married, having kids, you constantly think about the family, living your life for them, making decisions because you love them and want them to have happiness…
However, this decade in-between, this 1/7th of your life, is the ONLY time in your entire existence on earth that you get to live selfishly, to live for yourself, to do what YOU want.”
‘…How could you waste that?’ is the question he left lingering in front of everyone, yet unsaid.
We arrived in Granada, aka La Gran Sultana, settled in the 1520s as the first Euro cty in America.
Nicaragua has been connecting us with the more serious backpackers. Their tours often ranged from a year to three years, sometimes broken up by volunteer work or bartending gigs. I think most get jaded traveling any longer than that. Its not like Costa, the more elementary backpacker course, where you get the week-long vaca-goers or the group of 5 college buddies just learning the ways of bouncing around on a budget. Thats fine though, everyone has to start somewhere, it just apparently isnt Nicaragua- which has been good.
Granada, like most of Nic, has been warm and muggy. For some reason I don´t mind it. I think the constant perspiration helps cleanse the body and mind, or maybe Im justing beaming such happiness that everything seems to be great. We walked around Calle Calzada, the tourist pulsated promenade. It was lit up by restaurants, music, street hippies, vendors and pedestrians- a very festive atmosphere. We sat to dine. It was a typical little tourist scene, a little poor- strays and such, but nothing overwhelming. That was until I couldn´t figure out why the two little girls were dressed so adorably just waiting around under a tree. The younger couldn´t have been older than 10 years old. I saw her signal to a man that ´´there is no one´´ and went to sit down next to him and a middle aged female walking-vendor. My stomach dropped and wrenched with nausea. T and I couldn’t stop glancing over with confusion, repulsed anger and disbelief- we had to get this out of sight. We moved tables hoping the change of scenery would change the mood. Not our country, not our culture. The two little ladies were prostitutes.
The british chicks spotted us and came to the table for a brief chat, then our food came. I forced the second half of the meal down just to get the food in me. I´m wasting no money, and probably need the nutrition
We went to a pool party after, in a local Dutch owned club. There was a good mix of people maturally raging inside. We paid an entrance fee: open bar. 10$s, which was steep, but the entire city was inside, so it is not as if there was a lot of choice. The inside was strobed with lights and house music. People were jumping around, waving down servers, singing, dancing, some even swimming. Elevated above the crowd the DJ hunched over his Mac loving the God-like feel of pumping energy into the people through the sounds of mixed music.
The evening ended just as it began, sharing stories and jokes with new friends, a few drinks, a wondering of the colonial streets. Around 3 I made comfort in a hammock until now. I might take a quick walk around the city to see what the morning brings. I,m thinking fresh fruit and coffee.