Our map of Guatemala has a section where it lists the number of kilometers between cities and the anticipated driving times. You could really throw this information in the garbage because it more or less useless. Matthias (being German) wants to know exactly how many kilometers it is between cities, not an approximation. The times listed for certain stretches of road are even rougher estimates. Though even if you had the actual distance, that information is only sort of useful because there is no way to know what shape the roads are in. According to our map it should have taken 5 hours from Lake Atitlan to Cobán. It took us 9. I guess that is just Guatemala.
Seeing as we totally misjudged how much time we would need to get to Cobán it was no surprise when we ended up finishing the drive in the dark. Driving in the dark is something we don’t want to do here. However we were so close and drove the last half an hour in the dark. We found a hotel room relatively fast, and luckily we found a cheap one ($15/night) that is clean and comfortable. I was able to hack the computers they have in the lobby so we could get free internet access as well. That Microsoft education is at least good for something!
Our destination was Semuc Champay. It sounds like it is in Thailand, but it is actually a somewhat remote group of pools near Cobán. We set out in the morning around 10:00 AM. Most of the road was great, but the last 11 kilometers was a really steep, rough gravel road. It wasn’t ideal, but we made it alright. We had a recommendation for a hostel but, of course, it was full. They had a spot for us to park our van and camp. After checking out a few hotels in the town, we decided that camping was the best option.
The toilets were kind of interesting. They were ecological toilets with the purpose of not polluting the river. They were built up like a throne on top of a poop chamber with a trough in front for catching pee. The urine is siphoned off somewhere, and the poop was collected in the chamber below. There was also a tub of lime that you were supposed sprinkle over the poop after going #2. The Americans, Canadians and Europeans that worked there got the cushy jobs like bartending and staffing the internet café. But some poor Guatemalan sap has the unfortunate job of shoveling all our shit.
On the surface this place looked really great. It was quite a ways into the mountain and right next to a river. Matthias took a great 40-minute inner tube ride down the river right to the hostel. They had lots of cabanas on stilts, and a bar where everyone hung out. But it turned out to be a bit weird. We did meet a nice couple of teachers who are spending 2 years in Guatemala City teaching middle school. They were pitching a tent and were looking for a quiet spot to camp. The weirdness we experienced can be summed up in the answer they received when they asked someone if they were in the hang out spot for the hostel. “This isn’t the sex spot if that is what you are asking!” was the snotty reply. That couldn’t be further from what they were asking. They just wanted to know if it was a quiet spot to pitch their tent. Most people were just trying to get laid. I think we all have an honest appreciation for that endeavor, but only to a point. Maybe it was just Matthias and I who felt a bit old traveling with our 2 kids. Just about everywhere we’ve been in Guatemala we’ve met lots of interesting people. Even the republican nurses we met in Xela had a lot of interesting things to say. If you asked people at the hostel what they were doing the answer was “hanging out.” If they gave you any more information they might tell you how long they are planning on hanging out there. The people weren’t interesting, or funny or particularly nice, and almost no one had anything interesting to say.
That night we had dinner at the hostel. It started raining, which was good because it cooled everything off very fast and made it comfortable to sleep. However, the 50 meter walk from the bar to the Yoda Van soaked us to the core. I’ve never experienced rain like this. By the time we made it to the car it felt like I had just walked through a shower with my clothes on. The showers in the cheap hotels we have been staying at have had less water pressure than this rain storm. It was really something else.
In the morning we decided we’d have breakfast in the van. Matthias went to put on some water for coffee and discovered a swarm of thousands of ants in our sink. We knew we had picked up a few ants when we were in Acapulco, but we figured they were all just lone ants living in our car. It turns out they have made home in our water system. When we turned on the water it was just shooting black gunk and ants. We sprayed Raid and boiling water in the area and hopefully got rid of them. Once the situation was under control we headed down to the restaurant for a fast breakfast.
After breakfast we took a shuttle to the pools. The shuttle is a pick-up with scaffolding built up around the bed. We hopped into the back and held on. The road was even rougher and just as spectacular as the road in. When we arrived at the pools we arranged with our driver for him to pick us up at 12:00 to take us back to the hostel. Needless to say, he was no where in sight at 12:00, or 12:30, or 12:45 when we finally hopped another bus back into town. We made it back to town and walked back to our campsite, which had turned into a mud flat after the previous night’s rain. By the time we had finished packing both kids were half covered in mud.
The pools were amazing, the land around us was spectacular, the hostel seemed perfect, but somehow it just didn’t work out for us all that well. The pools were neat, but instead of turquoise water, it was dirt brown from all the rain the night before. Our clothes are still drying from all the rain and they really stink.
Other things that went wrong:
• Matthias forgot his bathing suit and had to wear my hot-pink short in the pools.
• There are great caves here that stretch 3 km into the mountain. After about 3 minutes of slipping on bat poop and muddy stairs, we realized we had to turn around because it was impossible to continue on with 2 kids in tow.
• In the middle of the night the alarm of the car next to us went off. It took the owners about 15 minutes to turn it off and woke us all up.
• Matthias tried to get money from the ATM and it ate his card. He finally went in with a swiss army knife and retrieved it, but he was worried since ATMs are usually monitored by video cameras.
• We went to get gas and discovered that our gas tank is leaking.
In the end, the effort of driving this steep, gravel road, the wear and tear on our car, the resulting mud from the rain storm and the ants were just more effort than it was worth. I remember seeing a picture of Semuc Champay before we left and thinking I’d never see anything that amazing on our trip. But I actually made it, and somehow it just wasn’t what I was expecting. This part of the trip sure wasn’t ideal, but since this is the worst it has been so far, we can still say we’re doing pretty darn well.