Friday, December 25, 2015

Semuc Champey and Greengos Hotel

Places that get a lot of hype sometimes have a hard time living up to the expectations travellers have of them. I feel bad for these places, because they probably are, or at least were amazing before they were altered by some force, inherently changing what made the place so awesome to begin with. That force likely being tourism.

I can imagine what visiting Semuc Champy would have been like for those few backpackers that made the onerous journey out to the middle of nowhere Guatemala, down countless unpaved mountain roads in the thick, humid tropical air to these perfect turquoise pools just begging to be swam in. It would have been pure bliss. A travel discovery you would brag about to everyone you met. And that's probably exactly what happened. Word got out, hostels opened, shuttles added Lanquin to their itineraries, they hiked the admission price to be almost double that of nationals.... Now everyone comes to Semuc Champy. Young, old, package tourists and independent travellers. Not that any roads have been paved... unfortunately.

But now that poor Semuc Champey is in the lime light and the turquoise pools are full of tourists, people stop in and leave saying, ' Well, its not that impressive....' But they're wrong.

Many backpackers are on a mission to jam pack their days with as much of Lonely Planet's recommendations as possible. I can't even count how many people we've met this month alone, rushing from one 'highlight' to the next, claiming to see entire countries in the span of a week.

If you stay in Lanquin (which is 45 minutes from Semuc Champey) and go with everyone else on your hostel's daily tour, cramming in both the caves near Champey and the actual pools into one day, then of course you're going to be experiencing Semuc Champey with everyone else. Of course it will be crowded and you'll completely lose out on the area's spectacular natural charms. You're on a tourist train expecting a private experience.  And if that's what you were expecting, you're going to be disappointed.


Before writing it off, why don't you give Semuc Champy a real shot of actually meeting your expectations and living up to its claim of being one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala?
How?

First- Stay somewhere nearby, no more than a ten minute walk away. We recommend Greengos Hotel or El Portal.

Second- Give the area 3 nights, at least. Relax. Not only are these spots gorgeous, but the hostels here are in spectacular settings. Enjoy a drink on one of their terraces, try the Shakshuka at Greengos, make some new friends, listen to the river rushing outside your bedroom window. Go to Semuc Champy one day and the caves the next. Don't worry. Tikal will be there tomorrow.

Third- Get up (it doesn't even have to be that early) and go straight to Semuc Champey. Beat the crowds and if you're lucky, have the whole place to yourself. If you don't love Semuc Champey's pools after that, well you're crazy, but at least you gave it a fair chance to woo you.

We arrived at Greengos late November in the pouring rain. Greengos is a welcoming, social hostel with lots of colour and character. It's located on its very own picturesque little river and serves amazing food. But back to the rain. It had been raining hard for a few days, we were told. There was so much water that the river right beside the pools of Semuc Champey had overflown into the pools turning the usually clear, turquoise water an opaque brown colour. Even the river at the hostel was raging and brown. Although the attraction didn't close as a result of its muddy state, Semuc Champey was free to all visitors. “You don't want it to be free,” Greengo's manager told us. Its not the real Semuc Champey when its free. So we crossed our fingers that the next day, we would have to pay admission (that was a weird wish to make) and that the river would have calmed itself enough to stay on it's own side of the rope barrier.

It was a slow morning for us, with a little more rain when we headed out on the 10 minute walk from Greengos to Semuc Champey. It was free. We were a little disappointed, but its hard to be that sad when you just saved 100 Quetzals. The first pool we came across was brown and muddy. It was hard to see what all the fuss was about, even trying to imagine the terrassed pools their usual bright colour. But, as we followed the arrows to the more popular swimming pools, the water became clearer and had a tinge of turquoise, more like I was expecting. It was a bit murky, but there were other people swimming, so I hopped in. It was refreshing and, despite the other tourists, a beautiful place for a dip. The river that flows at the top of Semuc was still brown and muddy and very angry. Usually, these 2 bodies of water are separate, but with all the rain, the division was blurred and the raging river just about met the pools before disappearing down a waterfalls into the earth. This overflow of the river is the reason that the pools were less turquoise and clear, as they were being contaminated by he murky brown overflow water from the river. As the day went on and the river decided to keep to its own side of the rocks, the pools became more and more clear.  

Because swimming is one of my all-time favourite pastimes, we decided to check up Semuc Champey the next day as well. If we had to pay the second day, it would be a 2 for1 deal, and we would hopefully get to see the natural pools in all their turquoise wonder. We ate breakfast (the amazing Isreali dish of Shakshuka, which I could not get enough of) and were at the pools by 9:30am. There was an entrance fee! Hooray! And, there was not another soul insight. It was absolutely spectacular. Other than a couple policemen and a few fake lifeguards wearing life jackets, we didn't see another person for 2 whole hours. I was all by myself swimming the now perfectly clear waters in the most amazing natural setting. I jumped off the small waterfalls, sat at the edge of the pool looking down on the terraced water, swam back and forth through the narrow channel between the main pool and the river junction.... all by my lonesome. And then, I did it all over again. Not for the first time on this trip I wished I had a GoPro to be able to capture the memories to revisit later.  It was one of the most amazing travel experiences I've ever had.

Word of Mouth: Staying near Semuc Champey worked perfectly for us. However, if that's not your style, we also heard great things about El Retiro which is on the outskirts of Lanquin. They have one day tour for Q180 that include both Semuc and the caves, which everyone who did said the tours was fun and a good value. They also have Q50 all you can eat buffet dinners.



Where we stayed: Greengos Hotel, 170Q for a private room in the top of an a-frame cabin. The room was basic, but clean with lots of air (screen windows) and light. The bathroom was communal, but always clean and there were hot showers in the afternoon. They also have dorms and private rooms with en-suites and porches over the river.  The food was a bit on the expensive side (as you would imagine in the middle of no where) but delicious!

And,ps,  Merry Christmas!!!

Coban to Lanquin to Semuc Champey

The minibus ride from Coban- Lanquin was our shortest in 3 days, but it was rough. Very little of the road is paved and its very narrow and mountainous. All down the 'road' you can see evidence of landslides and fallen boulders. It takes about 2.5-3 hours, the beginning and end being gloriously paved. We were charged Q30 per person. Oh, and, it was spectacularly scenic.

Finding out about the bus schedule was difficult. We now know only one thing for sure: a minibus left Coban for Lanquin at 9am from the corner of 3 Calle and 3 Avendia. Well, maybe two things: we also know that there is a pupusa stand on the corner at which you can buy breakfast. (Q5 per pupusa)

Just outside of Lanquin our minibus was met with a pickup truck that was going to Semuc Champey and a plethora of guides looking to be of assistance. In hindsight they were helpful, although I was incredibly suspicious of everything they said at the time. Its hard not to be. The pickup was going 'directo' to Semuc Champey (apparently) and cost Q25pp. This is, according to our hostel, the correct price (for tourists at least). It was raining cats and dogs and didn't look like it was going to clear up anytime soon, so into the back of this pickup truck we begrudgingly climbed. The 'directo' part turned out to be a lie. The road down to Semuc Champey is insanely bad. Unpaved, slippery, muddy and at that point, flooded. The truck bounced around like a kernel in a popcorn maker. It was very unenjoyable. Add to this the pouring rain. We're standing in the back of a pickup truck, jostling about, in a downpour. There is no doubt in my mind that a drown rat was in better shape than myself and my backpack were after 5 minutes. Everything we own (aka our bags) was getting soaked and our hands were slipping all over the wet rails as we tried to hold on. Finally, after 40 minutes (or a lifetime) I saw a sign that said “Semuc Champey 2kms” pointing to the right. I was very happy to see this sign, signalling the end to this most uncomfortable of journeys. And then we bumped right on past it, continuing on straight. NOOO!! And so on we went, in the wrong direction, in a torrential downpour on a road that was becoming increasingly non existent. Another 15 minutes on and we came to an empty clearing where we dropped off a big white bucket of something, turned around, and continued back towards Semuc Champey. Sigh. I hope that we had just delivered a bucket of liquid gold to a village of starving children because, otherwise, that detour most certainly didn't enhance my day, let alone further my endearment to Guatemala. 

When you're soaked, you're soaked, I suppose. You thankfully can't get more wet once you're drenched, and drenched we were. Right down to our skivvies. I dreaded opening our bags. It wasn't until we were finally dropped off at Greengos (after 1.5 hours and a whopping  total of 11kms), and greeted by a smiling English speaker that finally exhaled and smiled. It was still raining, but we had made it and were safely in a land where we could actually communicate with people (ie, The hotel staff), hang all our wet clothes and eat some warm yummy food.

Definitely in hindsight, I would have skipped Nebaj and Coban all together and taken a shuttle from Xela all the way to Lanquin. Sure, it would have been long, and maybe even involved a night in Antigua, but it would have likely been the better option for us.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Xela to Nebaj by Chicken Bus

Getting from Xela to Nebaj by chicken bus is super easy. Don't get me wrong, its a long day, but its easy and the scenery is spectacular.

We took the minibus (Q1.25pp) from near Parque Central to the Mall (Pradera) instead of the actual terminal stop. It is 2 stops later on the same route. You'll get out by a Pollo Campenaro and a Pizza Hut. The terminal (aka bus parking lot) is straight down the street to your right. We liked this option better because it saved us walking through the busy market with our bags. Why the 'terminal' stop is a large obstacle away from the actual terminal makes absolutely no sense. But, then again, many things in Guatemala make little sense.

From Xela we took a bus to Santa Cruz del Quiche (called just Quiche by most). It was easy to find the right bus in Xela by just asking people that were standing near buses. They'll always point you in the right direction. Our bus left at 9am. It took about 2.5 hours to get to Quiche (Q25pp).

From Quiche there were direct buses to Nebaj. Both of the big and minibus variety. The connection time was pleasantly short and that bus took about 2.5 hours as well. (Q 20pp).

We left Xela at 9am and were in Nebaj just after 2pm. So it was just over 5 hours, not including the minivan from Central Xela. We recommend grabbing a delicious bagel (Cheddar Pimento was our favourite) and maybe a cookie or two for the journey! They open at 6am for your convenience.

We referenced this helpful blog before we went:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Nebaj to Coban by Chicken Bus

Nebaj was home to our worst experience in Guatemala so far. Its too bad, because I'm sure we would have eventually found our way back to Nebaj in the future before this incident took place. Now, I'm of the opinion, that with so many wonderful places to go in Guatemala, why go back to Nebaj and risk dealing with scam artists again. The weather was horrible when we were there, it rained constantly, and I'm sure what is normally a beautiful view, was hidden under a thick blanket of clouds. I would have like to have gone back and explored the hiking opportunities.

The issue started on a rainy morning as we were trying to leave town. A greedy evil “guide” decided that he should take over our transport arrangements and did his very best to convince us that we had to go somewhere with him for some other bus, and to convince the people around us that we were rude gringos who were arguing over the price (which we weren't). Well truth be told, I'm not sure exactly what rumors he was spreading about us, because he was doing so in Spanish, but 'Quetzal' was every other word. Quetzal is both the name of the Guatemalan currency, and its national bird, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't discussing wildlife. It was a long, super frustrating hour in which the “guide” refused to let anyone else talk to us, and those people, being spineless, went along with it. We finally figured out the right Spanish words to be able to ask the only people who would give us honest information, the actual people on the bus. It turned out that we had been right all along and the schmucks of the Nebaj minibus mafia were just trying to make our lives painful (and apparently give their town a bad name).

So, hard fought, here's what we know to be true as far as getting from Nebaj to Coban by public transit. Unless you catch the rumored 5am direct bus to Coban, you'll have to do a few transfers. In theory, its another long, but easy day. Get on a minibus that is going to Santa Cruz del Quiche. They leave from the corner of 5 Calle and ... one block behind the church. Don't listen to anyone telling you that this is wrong. All you want is a ride back down the hill from Nebaj to the main road. It shouldn't be difficult. You want to get off at the Cunen Junction (Union is the Spanish word for junction) it takes about 45 minutes and is Q15pp. From this intersection, cross the street to where you see a little bus shelter. Flag any bus that passes eastward, as its likely going to Upsantan, and so are you (Q15pp). Upsantan is maybe a 1.5 hour ride. Once in Upsantan mini buses go to Coban (Q30pp). We had to wait a little while for the transfer, but it was less than an hour. The ride itself was about 2.5 hours from Upsantan to Coban.

Recap: Total travel time: 6 hours
Nebaj- Cunen Junction
Cunen Junction – Upsantan
Upsantan- Coban

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Xela

We loved Xela. The weather was cool and enjoyable, there were lots of great food options, cafes, views and enough day trips to keep you entertained for a week (at least). Most travellers come to Xela to learn Spanish. There are lots and lots of Spanish schools. We spent 5 nights in Xela and went on day trips to Fuentes Georginas, San Andres Xecul and San Francisco de Alto

Other than our three day trips, we wandered around the easily navigable centre, ate lots of good food, and enjoyed the spectacular views from our hostel's terrace. Nim Sut Hostel, as they claim, certainly does have the best view in Xela. We would highly recommend staying there. It was mid November when we were there, and very quiet, but I can imagine it gets busy in the high season. The owners, Christopher and Gloria, an American/Guatemalan couple are super helpful, friendly and obviously care a lot about their business. Gloria has lots of good information, suggestions and arrange any activity or shuttle you're interested in. And, she does it all with a genuine smile! Sitting and chatting with Christopher on the terrace was always enjoyable! We stayed in room 5, which we thought to be the best room in the hostel. On the top floor, our huge window had an amazing view of the mountains, cathedral and town. The room was large with a double bed and a single one. It was cozy at night, comfortable and quiet. The bathroom was shared with one other room. There are other private rooms too, a couple dorms and at least one room with a private bathroom. You could use the massive, fully stocked kitchen, there was free water refills, wifi and quick laundry services. The location was perfect, only a block from Parque Central and 2 blocks from our favourite watering hole, Bajo La Luna. Everything was kept neat, tidy and clean. There always seemed to be someone sweeping something. But, really, its Gloria, Christopher and the very impressive view that make this hostel so special.

Our favourite place for a drink and later eats was Bajo la Luna. (It doesn't open until 7pm) Jose, the owner is friendly, imaginative and a great chef. His chickpea burger and fries were super tasty, and everything that came out of his kitchen looked and smelled delicious. Fridays he does a little kitchen experimentation and adds a mystery dish to the menu. He was serving pulled pork burritos in addition to his menu options the night we were there. But its the atmosphere at Bajo La Luna that kept us coming back. Small and intimate with just enough details it was a great place to spend the evening with friends, or making new ones. The drink prices were reasonable, especially on Wednesday when wine is 20% off. Jose even let us sample some local fruit liquor from neighbouring Saljaca that I had been reading about! Cheers to the bartender!

Our go-to breakfast spot was Maya Cafe, we literally ate there every morning. There were lots of breakfast options but we also got a version of a Tipico breakfast. J would get the Chapin which was Q20 ($2.60USD) and came with 2 eggs, beans, rice and tortillas and my favourite was the Maya D (Q23/ $3USD) which came with 2 eggs, fried plantains, beans, a chunk of cheese, a little hashbrown and tortillas. Nothing in Guatemala is not accompanied by corn tortillas! All breakfasts include a thermos of coffee, a milky porridge starter, a basket of bread and 2 sugar cookies. We were seriously stuffed at the end of it, and rarely had to eat a second full meal. Lunch here is also a great option, with lots of local choices for around Q25 all accompanied by fruit juice, soup, and, you guessed it, tortillas.

Our favourite cafe was Cafe Armonia. The coffee was delectable and roasted right on sight. It was possibly the best coffee we had in Guatemala. I would have loved to buy some beans to bring home, but the thought of carrying them around for another month forced the coffee to be, unfortunately, just a really lovely memory.

Artesano was our place for bagels. Real bagels, not just bread baked in circular form! When we were going on day trips and wanted to bring some snacks we'd hop in grab a couple Pimento Cheddar bagels and a cookie or 2. We were never disappointed. Xelapan is a popular bakery chain with a shop conveniently located right in Parque Central. More of a traditional Guatemalan bakery with lots of buns full of cheese, beans, chocolate and such, we stopped into Xelapan more than once for a bready snack.

I fell in love with Chocobananas in Guatemala. A frozen banana fully dipped into chocolate right before your eyes, chocobananas were my #1 favourite snack in Xela. There are a few places to buy these yummy treats, but my preference was for the ones at Chocodelicio on a side street at the bottom of the square very close to Maya Cafe. She'll even sprinkle peanut pieces or sprinkles on yours, if you fancy. (Q5/ 65cent s US) If you aren't a banana fan, fear not, you could also choose to have frozen watermelon, pineapple, coconut or a strawberry skewer dipped into the chocolate!


Sunday, December 13, 2015

San Francisco El Alto

San Francisco El Alto is mountain town not far from Xela, Guatemala that is known for its Friday markets. It was our second huge market this week, and in all honesty, it was a little busy for us. Pushing and squeezing past every stall, and most certainly, if we had had anything in our pockets, we would have been relieved of it in the first 15 minutes. But the colours and bustle are just so attractive, I can't help myself. I hear the word 'market' and I'm instinctively grabbing for my camera. While it was a fun morning out, and I loved capturing the colours, I think our feelings about this market are a sign that maybe we're a bit market-ed out. At least for the next few weeks...

How to get there from Xela: Go to Minerva Bus Station. (hint: if you take the mini bus that leaves from Central Park area to the Mall stop (Pradera) instead of the Terminal stop, you don't have to walk through the busy market to get to your bus. Its maybe a tiny bit longer of a walk, but way less stressful than trying to navigate the market with any bags/money/cameras.) There's direct buses right to San Fransico El Alto. Easy. It takes about an hour, and considering you're only going 17kms, its a long ride!