Jenn writes on 2014-01-16:

All smiles at Semuc Champey.

When we finally bid Cobán goodbye for the last time and continue our trip South, I think I will feel a bit sad.  I have grown quite fond of Cobán and will be sorry to see it disappear in my rear-view mirrors.  It’s weather can be a bit shifty, but the people here are friendly, cheap and delicious food is abound, and Hotel La Paz has become like a home to us.  The owner has given us the same room each time we stay (habitacion 4), and people in the neighbourhood know us now to say hello (“buenas” or “hola”) and smile each time we pass.  We have been able to get just about anything that we need here, and have discovered that they have the market cornered on tasty cakes.  In the heart of coffee country, their “joe” is pretty darn good too.  It’s a regular small city that doesn’t have the draw for tourists but rather a place to pass through on the way to Tikal or Semuc Champey.

Today, another rest day, has been spent sleeping in, eating breakfast, trying to dry our gear out, and looking for a tailor to repair Adam’s motorcycle pants.  Adam has been plagued with loose seams in his pants almost from the moment he received them from Motoport, but upon arrival yesterday he noticed that a large hole (blewn seam) had developed in the crotch/upper leg area complete with fraying around the seam.  Aye… Luckily there never seems to be a lack of tailors in Latin American towns and cities.  Unfortunately most tailors don’t have machines big enough for the Kevlar material (which is quite thick and strong) and we ended up on a bit of a goose chase trying to find someone who would take on the job.

For those of you who have never travelled long distances by motorcycle, sometimes the riding gear takes on a ‘lived in’ sort of smell.  Getting caught in a downpour yesterday on the way back from Semuc Champey resulted in the gear taking on a sort of wet dog-stale sweat-hot ham sandwich sort of odour, so we are hoping that tailor’s turning down the job was truly because of their small machines and not because of the rank smell wafting from Adam’s pants.

Anyway, we started with the tailors, then tried shoe repair guys, and eventually ended up at a upholstery repair shop.  The clapboard, corrugated tin-roof shack looked like it had mere minutes to stand, but the guy happily accepted the job and told us to come back in a few hours.  Actually, we kind of felt odd leaving the expensive pants in such a ram shackle joint without a receipt or anything else.

We had wanted to take the coffee tour which included a tasting session and education on the different flavours of coffee grown at different altitudes but it was no longer in operation.  We were able to find a hotel that had a garden featuring many of the different varieties of orchids that grow in the area, so we were able to admire their beauty for a while.  Apparently this area is known for orchids, so being able to see them without travelling outside of the city was a bonus.  We also had coffee and cake.  Probably the best chocolate cake I have ever had: dense and moist with a light fluffy whipped cream icing, delightful.

Let’s backtrack a bit…

Las Ponzas.

A few days ago, we decided to go see Semuc Champey.  It was on Adam’s list of things to see since his last trip but his route didn’t take him this far north.  Speaking with a local tour guide he told us that Semuc Champey is roughly 85 kilometers from Cobán, along a twisting paved road, which then turns to dirt before the town of Lanquin.  The road, he said, from that point wasn’t very good but that he rode it on his motorcycle so we decided to give it a go.

Since the distance wasn’t too far, we decided to take it leisurely in the morning: sleep in, a nice breakfast, take out time packing and then head off.  As promised, the road out of Cobán was a lovely, winding, paved road (with only the odd pothole) for about 60km.  We turned onto the road to Lanquin to find hardpacked dirt that descended into a valley and dipped and turned its way into the town.  No problem.  Once through Lanquin the road quickly deteriorated into one of the worst roads that I have ever been on.

The road into Semuc Champey; it’s going to be a long 9 kilometres!

The sign pointing to Semuc Champey indicated that it was only 9 KM outside of town to the park.  Rounding the curve out of town the concrete in-town road dipped down sharply and rapidly turned to chunky rocks.  This was, by no means, the worst of it.  Steep mountain roads, loose gravel, slick mud, large rocks interspersed with the smaller slippery rocks, kept us on our toes as we negotiated our way, bit by bit.  After roughly 3 or 4 kilometers it became apparent to me why most people opt to take a shuttle to Semuc Champey.  The first reason being that most people don’t drive their own vehicles through Central America, but secondly because you would have to be completely iNSaNE to want to!

It was around this time that we came across one of the aforementioned steep mountainside hills and as I bounced and struggled my way to what I was sure was the top, I was instead greeted with a switchback (surprise!) with a dramatic bank and loose gravel and dropped the bike.

The pay-off for the horrendous road was pretty good, indeed

My advice to anyone who might be considering riding all the way to Semuc Champey – don’t do it – unless you are confident in your off-roading skills, really enjoy that sort of a challenge, and are on a small bike, it might not be for you.

After finding a flat bit of ground to park his bike, Adam walked back down the mountain to help me pick mine up.  Righting the bike on an incline isn’t the easiest of tasks and it took the both of us to get it upright again.  Luckily Adam was willing to ride the route twice and had to take my bike to the top while I hiked up the rest of the way.  Falling on rocky hills and risking getting hurt isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, and while I do enjoy a bit off-roading, this was far beyond anything that I had ever done before and way outside of my comfort level (and skill set).  As a result, Adam graciously offered to take my bike over a few of the more difficult sections of the road, while I hiked them (embarrassing!), and we eventually arrived at Posada Las Marias (a hotel/hostel located close to the park), after only one wrong turn.  It took us almost two hours to navigate the nine kilometers to the park and we rewarded ourselves with beers from the posada’s bar immediately upon arrival.

[Adam adds:  Jenn might be understating some of the technical aspects here.  We are riding fairly heavy bikes, from the perspective of off-road riding, and have a lot of gear. While our bikes are “dualsports”, or dual purpose, they are only presently set up for mild off-road.   I am, by no means, an expert off-road rider but do have some experience here.  Even having changed out our “drive sprockets” a number of weeks back as to obtain more low end torque at the expense of being able to ride full highway speed, the bikes were struggling, especially at the start of ascents.  This was due to the combination of incline, road surface and curves in the road and our weight.  I think we would have risked frying our clutches had we stuck with the stock gearing.  With respects to the harder sections, I couldn’t tell you what the grade was, but steep enough that in certain sections these tracks have been paved with rough concrete (about 16″ wide) under each tire track or else they would probably be impassable by the 4×4 vehicles that commonly run the route.  One essentially has to choose a track and go, and hope that a bus or truck isn’t around the corner.  So riding this stuff takes a combination of experience, body strength (versus the bike), good clutch control, and a strong nerve.  Jenn shouldn’t feel embarrassed here as it is probably quite smart to bow out when she thought something was too much for her.  Even if you are physically capable, if your head space doesn’t say “go”, then it probably won’t work out well 😉 ]

Lush valleys and mountainsides

Despite the road, the scenery was breathtaking – blue skies and sunshine above us, jungle and mountains surrounded us, and our accommodations were idyllic.  Small cabins scattered over the mountainside directly across the road from the Cahbon River which flowed turquoise green in colour through the jungle.  When we arrived there was only one room left, and at Q300 per night (about $45) we opted for the camping option which was Q50 per night.  The sites were located directly alongside the river and we even had a bit of a private beach beside our tent.  We also discovered that they had a rope swing built in one of the trees over the river, and Adam took full advantage of it during our stay.

Our riverside paradise

At first, I was a little hesitant to be sleeping away from the rest of the hotel and the bathrooms but it turned out to be some of the best sleeps that I have had this whole trip.  Some people may cringe at the idea but the thing that I like about the tent is that I have complete control over the environment.  The bedding is my own, the environment is familiar, and creepy crawlies are kept out if the zippers are zipped up (I am somewhat militant about it, so you can bet that they are always zipped up!).  Which is to say that hotel rooms in the jungle are not sealed shut and are open access to any sort of bugs that wish to come in.  And according to the other guests, they certainly do.  It’s a bit of a different ballgame than sleeping in Algonquin Park [a popular wilderness camping destination in Ontario, Canada].

Unfortunately, Posada Las Marias also had some of the worst bathrooms we have seen yet.  No toilet seats meant that many people opted for the ‘hover’ option to do their business and the stalls were in various states of dirtiness (no cleanliness here!).  Flushing was also a bit of an issue (hold for a count of three, then let go for a complete flush), and since it took so long for the tank to refill, people didn’t really hang around to ensure that the flush had been successful.  No soap, overflowing garbage, and no electricity until 6 PM meant that the stalls were dark even when using the bathrooms in the middle of the day.  I tended to use the same stall, where I made friends with the giant spider who lived there, figuring that where there are giant spiders there probably aren’t a lot of other bugs, and whom I never saw in entirety but made sure to check that I could  see his legs dangling over the edge of the wall before committing to drop my pants.  But enough potty talk…

We were kept constant company by a group of children who we named Los Niños de Chocolate since they hovered around the hotel entrance all day trying to sell chocolate to the turistas. They were lovely little kids – Jose, Anna, Anna, Eddy y Olga – and they spent a lot of time talking with us and swimming with Adam on the rope swing.  Of note, we are pretty sure that the chocolate was home made, to the point of including the actual chocolate base, or cacoa which grows here locally.

Los Niños de Chocolate: Eddy, Olga, Anna y Jose

There was also a large group of sort of “hippie” type people staying at Las Marias who were a part of, or hanging out with, a collective called Projet Nuevo Mundo that promoted permaculture and organized  festivals.  While we didn’t quite understand what they were all about completely, we enjoyed hanging out with them, joining in on their campfires, and participating in their music making.

We spent the next full day at Semuc Champey, which was a short walk (thank goodness for walking!) away.  Despite the park being located in the jungle, we didn’t see any wildlife, although the park is known to have toucans, howler monkeys, boa constrictors, and a myriad of other animals.  Semuc Champey is known for being somewhat of a ‘natural waterpark’, and its main attraction is a series of limestone pools.  It is also home to many waterfalls and natural waterslides.

It was a warm day and we were ready to swim so we immediately followed the path to the pozas (pools) and were impressed by their beauty. The limestone pools were laid out in a series of cascading levels with small waterfalls joining each. The water was quite warm and we enjoying jumping, diving, and swimming there for a few hours. The water was very clean and clear and home to many small fish who decided that they liked the taste of my dry skin and gave me a bit of a pedicure.

After we had had our fill of swimming in the sunshine we followed the riverside path to the main gate to find food. We ate a roadside stand just outside of the park where we had grilled chicken (with the amount of chickens about we knew that it was fresh!), coleslaw, salad and rice.  I was also feasted on by hoards of small, black bugs (botlas flies, I believe, not to be confused with the botfly who lays its larvae under your skin) who produce an incredibly itchy bite that quickly ooze once scratched.  Oh yes, I am so pretty right now…

El Mirador overlooking Las Pozas

After lunch we took the path that lead to the mirador (lookout). It was a very difficult hike that incorporated many, many, many steep stairs many of which were over a foot high.  There were narrow pathways over and around boulders, rope handrails to assist in hoisting oneself up particularly steep areas, and plenty of mud, and slippery surfaces. It took us about an hour to traverse the entire length of the trail, but the view from the top was well worth it.

We were quite hot, sweaty, and stinky when we reached the bottom and made for the pools again. This time they had been inundated with a number of tour groups who were hooting, hollering, and making general ruckus; a stark contrast to this mornings swim when we were two of six people enjoying the water.  We tried swimming at one of the lower pools for a while but the quiet didn’t last long and we soon headed back to our campsite to swim in the river.  It was also quickly closing in on beer o’clock and time to get within range of a bar.

We made friends with a pair of travelling Belgian friends who kindly shared their rum with us, and we spent a number of hours talking with them as the sun went down.

Underwater “selfie”

It was raining in the morning when we woke up, and the roads were quite slippery and muddy.  I was already experiencing yucky feelings about riding out of the area due to the previous day’s ride in,  without the added anxiety.  After much debate whether we should spend another day there, whether we could hire a truck to cart my bike out, or whether we should leave as planned, we decided that it would only be prolonging the inevitable ride out and we decided to head back to Cobán.

The first bit of road was extremely challenging (it didn’t help that we departed while I was already feeling defeated), and I did more hiking uphill than riding while Adam rode many of the hills twice (once on his bike, once on mine).  It only took an hour and a half this time, but once off of F*ckery Road (sorry, kiddies) and back onto the concrete roads of Lanquin, I broke out into operatic song.  Soooooo happy…

One of the easy portions of the road.

Once back onto the paved road back to Cobán (I’ve never been so happy to be on a curvy mountain road) we were surprised at how much cooler it felt being back up on the mountains.  We had been working quite hard on the rocky road and sweating up a storm.  I figured that we would be dry in no time travelling at faster speeds but instead we started to get a chill.  In addition, we had been watching dark clouds above us and about 20 minutes outside of Cobán it started to drizzle which quickly turned to full on rain (one of those – I-can-see-the-wall-of-rain-type rains as you ride into it).  It was the first rain that we have ridden in since we left Texas so long ago, and by the time we reached Cobán we were soaked and cold.

We decided to stop for food right away near the park, where we got french fries and a sandwich followed by a slice of amazing coconut cream pie (the filling was creamy and thick and full of coconut shavings) and a coffee. It gave us the fuel that we needed to continue the next few minutes to the hotel.  We were both looking forward to a hot shower and crawling inside our sleeping bags, but a few seconds into my shower the lights went off as the power went out (only a drizzle according to the Cobán weather report) which was quickly followed by the hot water heater shutting off (electric powered).  Since I had already started to lather up with the soap, I had to at least rinse of and with no hot water that meant a cold one was in store.  Unfortunately the water pump also runs off electricity and soon my shower flow turned to a dribble and petered out.  Thankfully there was a bottle re-purposed coffee jar of water in the room and I was able to at least finish rinsing the soap off.  Even more cold and defeated, we threw our dirty clothes back on and crawled inside our sleeping bags to wait out the power outage.  After two hours it came back on and we were able to finally get clean and warm.

In the next few days, after we dry out, we are planning to head back to Antigua where we will need to do some bike maintenance (Adam needs a new rear tire and an oil change) before bidding adieu to Guatemala and heading into El Salvador.  Here’s hoping for some drier and sunnier weather so we don’t start growing mushrooms in our duffel bags.

Semuc Champey gallery link is found here.