Idle Ties

Last weekend I took a trip organized through ICA to Semuc Champey, Tikal, and the Rio Dulce area.   A group of 14 of us, including our school director Enrique, two maestros, 6  Danish girls, an older Danish couple, and two other middle aged women from the states left Thursday at 5pm in our luxury tourist mini-bus for dinner in Guatemala City. I had just been talking all that day with my maestra Claudia about how dangerous Guatemala City is, she told me about this gang called 18 that frequently kills bus drivers as they enter into Guate, and this other maestra put a crumb on the desk and told my friend Signe that the desk represents Guate, and that the crumb represents the part of the city that is safe… sooo, needless to say, I was a little apprehensive about heading into the city in a big bus with ‘TURISTAS’ printed on the back, but, I guess we went to the crumb, because I felt like I was in any other major city in the world.

Semuc Champey

After a delicious Mexican food dinner, complete with real salsa and horchata, we drove through the night to reach Semuc Champey. No one was very happy at 5am to be clambering into the back of a pick up truck to complete the last leg of the journey, but, that’s what we did, and once the sun came out, it was really a beautiful drive, as you can see in the photo above. After some fresh fruit pancakes and a strong cup of coffee, everyone felt more alive, and we headed down to meet our guide who would take us into the caves. Both of the maestros and our director opted not to go into the caves, and I should have taken that as a sign. Our guide advised us to wear something that we wouldn’t mind getting wet, but I was hardly prepared to swim through cold, black water, avoiding the sporadic boulders found in their depths, while trying to hold my candle above my head to light the way. There were a lot of stalactites, or mites, one of those, some waterfalls, and at one point we were able to climb up pretty high and jump into the pools, but by the end I was cold and tired and happy to be back in the sunlight away from the bats.

The Danes

We then changed into our suits and swam in the actual pools of Semuc Champey. Semuc Champey is a little difficult to explain, it is this natural wonder made up of these big, turquoise pools that cascade gently down this lush green mountain, it is really lovely. Here is an aerial view, if you want to get a better idea of what I am talking about:

Swimming at Semuc Champey

We stopped for lunch that day in Coban, a city that reminded me of a less charming version of Xela, and I had a pepperoni pizza from Dominoes with an orange soda. It was a fatty and salty and greasy and exactly what I wanted. We drove for forever that day to reach our next destination of Flores, a city right outside of Tikal, but it wasn’t too bad, I kind of like discovering a country through a rolling windowpane. Our hotel in Flores was really beautiful, right on a lake, with its own private dock and pool. I swam a bit, and then that night slept like an angelita.

Sacred Mayan Tree at Tikal

The next day we got a Guatemalan start for Tikal (meaning that we left about 45 minutes later than we were originally planning). Our guide took us around the ruins for about four hours, which was hardly enough time, but still really amazing. The photograph above is along the path into the park, the first place we stopped at. Our guide told us that it was a tree that was very sacred and revered by the Mayans, I imagine kind of like the tree in Avatar.


In Tikal itself we were able to see a lot of the ruins, and a lot of animals, including spíder monkeys, toucans, peacocks, an animal I had never seen before called a pizote (it looks like a baby racoon with a monkey tail), and a huge tarantula that our guide picked up and let us hold.


We also learned a bit about the Mayan culture, for example, the photo above is of the plaza where they would perform human sacrifices. Climbing up  the temples themselves was a bit of a challenge, I guess people kept dying when they did it in the past because the ruins themselves are very steep, so they built these incredibly long, rickety wooden staircases on the sides of the ruins… by the end of the day my butt was singing, not a happy song. We climbed the Temple IV, the tallest of all the ruins, and sitting on the narrow ledge at the top, looking at the vast green forest, it was hard for me to imagine that there was once no forest, but instead a thriving Mayan civilization of 150,000 people.


After some lunch and swimming back at the hotel, we continued driving south towards the Rio Dulce. The next morning we took a boat trip down the river, our driver was really zooming along, and that combined with some rain and choppy water made for a bumpy ride. We finally arrived  in Livingston, which is the only garifuna community in Guatemala. Stepping off the boat, you felt like you were in a different country, everything had changed: the accent, the way people dressed, the buildings, the pace of life… everything was very relaxed and mellow.

We took a stroll around the town through the Sunday market and along the beach, and then went for a swim once the sun came out. I played a little bit with some of the kids that had formed a mini musical group using trash from the dump, they were very cute, and had way more rhythm than I will ever possess.  We left around 1, for the 10 hour trek back to dear home sweet home, Xela. And that was my weekend! Pretty incredible, I originally thought I would do this exact same journey my last week in Guatemala, but I am very happy that I decided to go with the school, it was nice having all  of the details taken care of.

This week in Xela has been pretty mellow. I saw Alice in Wonderland yesterday, unfortunately it was dubbed into Spanish, so I probably only understood about half of the dialogue, but I did enjoy how they made Johnny Depp’s character have a Castilian accent.  They also turned on  the lights and stopped the movie halfway through for a 15 minute intermission, which my friend told me is a normal thing in Guatemala. I kind of think it’s a nice  idea, especially for the people who have tiny bladders (like me).

As far as learning Spanish goes, I vacillate between feeling like I have accomplished a lot in my 4 weeks of classes, to feeling discouraged and overwhelmed by how much I still don’t know. I make a lot of mistakes, everyday, all the time (pagar = to pay, pegar = to beat), but I am speaking more and understanding better all the time. My mantra, which I  keep needing to repeat to myself, is ‘poco a poco’. Unfortunately, patience has never been my strong suit.  My maestra this week chuckles a lot at me, because she says I make a lot of the same grammatical mistakes as her four year old daughter. However, when I entered ICA four weeks ago, I probably was speaking about as well as a two year old. Poco a poco…

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