San Ignacio Belize, Flores, Coban & Semuc Champey in Guatemala
It starts to become a habit, arriving late at borders. This time it was not due to unnecessary quarreling, but it was related to a combination of stupidity, income inequality and bad luck. We had our bikes parked on the pavement underneath the stairs to our hotel in San Ignacio. Since it was a public sidewalk we had brought most of our belongings to our hotel room, but ignorantly left our dry-bag on the bike. It was locked to the bike, so they couldn’t easily steel or open the bag, but they could cut it open… and that is exactly what happened. The morning we wanted to exchange Belize for Guatemala I went downstairs to get some breakfast oats from one of the panniers. I noticed something weird about our dry-bag and close inspection showed that someone had ripped the bag open on two sides. In agony I went through the bag to find out what was missing. It turned out to be a soft warning: They had only taken Paul’s worn-out, old hiking boots that we had wanted to get rid off already for a while. Surprisingly and fortunately, the tent and it’s footprint were completely untouched by the bag-slashing criminal. The biggest challenge we were facing now was where to find a new dry-bag?! Western as we still are, we set off looking for the most optimal solution. After being let down by the local adventure companies (no spare dry-bags), the well-assorted shops in Spanish Lookout and the fancy, new Guatemalan shopping malls, we found our solution in a tiny secondhand shop. An “American Airforce” secondhand sports bag, which, combined with an enormous garbage bag, was the perfect, low-key, cheap and waterproof solution!
The Belizean border did not surprise and after the obligatory exit fee of 37.50 Belizean Dollars we were free to go. At the Guatemalan side of the border they did live up to the Central-American reputation. First they tried to charge us 20 Quetzales (2 Euros) for our passport stamp, but since there was no receipt we were not paying. Although that did not affect our immigration stamp it did cause the officials at the next desk to keep us waiting for our temporary vehicle importation papers: “The system was down” for more than an hour… Tenemos tiempo, no problemo! After that we found out about the unreliability of Guatemalan roads, in the rain; paved, unpaved, gravel, mud, and then Paul slipped. Luckily his saving angel was nearby, and the accident resulted in nothing more major than a broken ego, some scratches on the bike and a slightly torn pants. Unrelated to the accident, but related in time, my front light also stopped working. Choirs piling up again!
Luckily, we received a warm welcome at Buenas cosas, a couch surfing spot in the outskirts of Flores. We camped in the garden of Angelica and Memo, their two sons and two daughters, the cat, the dog and some goats. We practized our Spanish a little, got some helpful insights into Guatemalan culture and habits and had interesting discussions about job opportunities, the economic crisis and other life issues. Memo directed us to a very nice lake beach, just a twenty minute stroll from the water-taxi dock of San Andres. We took a dive in the surprisingly warm water and hiked up the remains of a Maya ruin for an excellent view over the lake and Flores. The day was concluded by having dinner at the dock in Flores, where local ladies were selling very delicious, home-cooked, fresh food; tostadas (toasted tortillas) with Russian salad, tamales (steamed maize dough) con carne (beef), tortillas con pollo (kip), and almond-coconut pie for desert.
Before entering the Maya world, we had decided we would pick two ruins to visit in order to prevent overindulgence. After Calakmul in Mexico, Tikal was our second pick: The two mightiest, rivaling cities in the ancient Maya world. In the public bus we ran into Matt, from England, and we strolled through the maze of jungle trails together, discovering the bat castle, some undefined structures, imageries and the most photographed pyramid of Tikal on the Gran Plaza. We climbed the stairs up to the highest Mayan structure still standing for a beautiful jungle canopy view. Unlike Western attractions, the small stone balcony filled with tourists did not have any fencing and the drop down was impressive, strangely enough most people seemed to be able to appreciate this danger and nobody ended up being offered to the gods.
From Flores there are two routes to Coban, a nice mountain town, we decided to go for the smaller roads, hoping road quality wouldn’t be too bad. The Route 5 was excellent riding, quiet, mostly easygoing tarmac and nice views of the surrounding green fields with cows, palm trees and a German cyclist that we had met before at the Mexican border. The further we rode into the mountains the more beautiful it gets; thatched wooden houses, women in traditional, colorful dresses, banana trees, overgrown limestone cliffs and bendy curves. Coban is still an authentic town, hardly touched by tourism industry and we enjoyed eating rice, beans and eggs with the locals in a comedor on the central plaza. From here we visited Semuc Champey, the Guatemalan version of Agua Azul in Mexico, but much more remote: The last 20 kilometers cross a very rough, unpaved road and takes more than 2 hours by pick-up truck. We hiked up a slippery, steep trail to El Mirador, after which we quickly descended to clean off our sweat by diving into the naturally created pools. These are actually on top of the river, which disappears underneath the limestone rock for a few 100 meters, quite a spectacular sight. We filled our bellies with some barbecued chicken offered by the local ladies at the entrance of the park and dessert was locally made chocolates: mashed cacao with sugar, cinnamon and cardamom, delicious! By the time we left, we were very surprised and amazed to see our German friend again, climbing up the rough road on his bicycle, talking about tough traveling!