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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Guatemala

Guatemala

German architectural influence
Shopping Xela style










Following the advise of some Kiwis we headed to a small town of Xela for a spot of volcano climbing and general exploring. Headed up into the mountains for a relaxing in some local hot springs. Beautiful setting surrounded by jungle and mist. One huge pool was totally empty but we soon realised why as we attempted to get in, the water was so hot it actually burned. Unfortunately the other pools were filled with millions of floaters, I can only assume the skin of hundreds of other swimmers. We met a lovely American who took us to a deserted pool in the middle of the jungle. Nasty shock though as we encountered a very strange very naked Guatemalan man who reminded us of Golem. Beautiful pools though and totally worth dealing with naked gollum staring at us the whole time.


Ben, not naked Gollum
Set off for a two day volcano hike to sleep on the side of one of the worlds most dangerous volcanos in the world; Santigutito. Hard trek down thick overgrown jungle, down a huge dried up waterfall, then up steep rocky  slopes that went on and on.
Gemma dissapearing into the jungle
A tight fit!





Remarkably clean at this stage


Apparently the volcano we were climbing was extinct (not sure 35 years counts as extinct!!) but was steaming ominously from countless vents. The mist set in as we kept climbing and eventually we reached the plateau where we spent the night and heard the 1st of many rumbles as Santiguito flexed it's vocal cords.

Erruptions from a safe distance
Waiting at a not so safe distance




















The ground shook and the noise was incredibly loud. As we went for an explore the mist lifted and we saw our volcano so much closer than we had imagined it would be. Our 'camp site' was littered in volcanic boulders thrown from previous Santiaguito explosions which made for an unnervinging night sleep. We were treated to explosions every 40-60 minutes until we left the next day.


At night the spectical became even more impressive. The destructive power of the volcano, combined with the enhanced visuals of night time, became abundantly clear. The whole top section of the mountain appeared to be ripped to pieces by the most incredible explosion filling the night sky with intense red lava. It was impossible to take our eyes off the volcano until the mist came in to cover it again. In the morning we saw eruptions that sent ash and rocks hundreds of meters into the sky, fortunately not in our direction. It was such an amazing experience, enhanced by a satisfyingly difficult climb, and we arrived back in Xela two days later absolutely covered from head to toe in volcanic ash but with huge grins and many memories (plus a rather broken camera!).

Good morning Santiaguito!

Santiaguito acknowledging our departure
With all the excitement of Xela behind us we moved on to the somewhat more relaxed environment of Antigua, which is easily Guatemala's prettiest town. We spent the next four days enjoying the beautiful architecture and wonderful markets. The laid back nature of the town made it very easy to relax and wyle away the time.

Our private rooftop terrace

Shopping for dinner
One of 3 volcanos surrounding Antigua
Beautiful Antigua
Best transport of the 9 hour ride

Semuc Champey from the top









 The next port of call was Senuc Champey, a fairly isolated village deep in the Guatemalan jungle. Being crammed into the back of a minibus with as many westerners as possible for 9 hours meant we made some friends pretty quickly. The roads turned into tracks and we got perilously close to its edges that fell off into deep raveens. The level of safety seemed similar to that of Nepal even if the drops weren't quite as high. We were all transferred to the back of a truck for the final stretch and eventually arrived a little battered and bruised but alive. The hostel was amazing, surrounded by hills jungle wildlife including numerous banana spiders. We grabbed a private hut with an awesome view and set about making the most of the limited electricity. We were up early the next day for a hike up one of the hills which overlooked another impressive set of waterfalls. Having drenched our clothes in sweat we trekked down to take a dip in the river and try out some slides and jumps and finally some tubing.
Our jungle retreat
View of Senuc Champey




















This was all very cool, especially considering our surroundings, but fell short of our next activity which involved water caving with only a candle each for light. It definitely made swimming a little more difficult! One of the benefits of being in a country without any health and safety rules is you get to do much more interesting things. We climbed waterfalls (the candle definitely went out at this point!), squeezed through tiny gaps that dropped into icey pools, climbed rickety wooden ladders, swam in near pitch darkness and stubbed many toes! The sight of daylight was definitely a relief with most people's candles rendered useless or burnt away, but a brilliant experience none the less. The only down side to the day was having our room key locked behind a boarded up bar forcing us to sleep in a cockroach infested dormitory. 
Enjoying the last of the electricity
 Although some of group headed back to Antigua most of use carried on to Flores to go and see the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Flores was very chilled out (very much a trend in Guatemala) and we took the opportunity to address a very British past time and drink heavily. This of course seemed like a great idea at the time but very much less so at 4am the next morning when we all had to get up to leave for Tikal.
Happy to have survived caving with candles



Ruins of Tekal poking out of the jungle
 There's nothing like trekking through Mayan ruins to dissolve a hangover! Our final day in Flores was spent exploring the main land and some more chilling out before heading off the the Caribean islands off the coast of Belize for some more...chilling out!

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