The first Spanish speaking country of our trip was Guatemala and we were prepared to understand nothing and get lost. We travelled from north to south, which took us through very different and stunning landscapes.
Our first destination was the Maya ruins in the northern jungle called ‘Tikal’. The landscape is rolling and wild- you may recognize it as the Ewok’s home in Star Wars.
The ruins that we were able to climb and see were impressive (so steep) with an amazing 85% still covered in earth and jungle. Walking around the complex there were many ‘hills’ that were actually still buried temples and jungle clings to many of the cleared ruins. One of the cool things about Tikal was the abundance of wildlife easily seen during the walk around. We spotted lots of monkeys, colorful birds, crocodiles and spiders (I even got to hold a tarantula). We stayed just down the road on Lake Peten Itza and spent wonderful afternoons lounging on the end of the pier, swimming in the clear warm water and watching the sunsets. Only after we were finished swimming, were we informed that there were crocs in the lake!
Unknowingly, we took a chicken bus from Tikal halfway down the country to Semuc Champey. As is the way in Guatemala, they squeeze as many people in as possible (and anything that they are carrying), stopping continually to let more and more people on. At our highest count there were 27 people in one mini van- amazing considering there were only 15 seats. It is the first time that I have ever seen someone actually climb out the window of a moving vehicle and up onto the roof to sit up there.
Semuc Champey is a place where a limestone shelf has formed overtop of a river. There are many cascading emerald pools that we swam in, jumped off and even climbed up. It was a beautiful place. Nearby, at the Lanquin caves, we explored by candle-light to an ancient Maya sacrificial site.
Further down the country, we spent our next week based in Antigua- a well organized and beautiful town (quite gringo-fied) nestled in a valley surrounded by volcanoes. This week was filled with one-on-one Spanish classes in the morning (exhausting!) and sightseeing in our free time. We learnt a tone of Spanish (lots of grammar- yuck) and can now communicate easy things but still find it hard to understand anything but basic answers. Not sure how effective our Spanglish will be but it was a good start. We lived with our ‘Antigua mother’ Marta who cooked all our meals and (tried to) chat with us to help us practice.
We visited the colorful Maya market of Chichicastenango and tested our power of ‘No’. The highlight was our hike up to the active top of Volcan Pacaya. Here we got close enough to the rivers of lava to poke sticks into them and roast marshmallows. We watched the sunset ontop of the volcano with glowing rocks underneath our feet. Scrambling down the jagged volcanic rocks and sliding down the loose scree by torch-light was extreme! We laughed at the total lack of safety measures on this trip compared to what they would be back home. Halfway back down it actually erupted; and looking back up in the darkness we could see lava flowing down the side and a big glowing halo. We also visited Lake Atitlan, once the ‘jewel of Guatemala’ but now so polluted by fertilizers, sprays and sewerage that it is un-swimmable. We spent our last night in Guatemala enjoying the still beautiful view over the lake and volcanoes.