"Don't be out in the streets after dark especially after 9pm" is the advise everyone gives you, even the locals, so why is it that at 330am I find myself standing in the street with my bags and an imaginary neon sign saying "Rob me!". Luckily I haven't lost track of totally all my senses and I have the metal gate of the house half open in case I should need to do a heroic dash for safety. Reason for all this is that I have booked a 330am pickup for a bus to Guatemala City a.k.a. Gangsta City and looks like they aren't coming. "Sorry, we forgot you!" was the excuse from the travel agency when I go and complain that morning, well if I had any doubt as to whether I had made a mark in Xela or not guess that tells me. Seems a bit of a running joke when I turn up first at school and then at the gym "Pues, un otra despedida!" (What, another goodbye!)...I had tried to leave yesterday too. Everyone tells me that 'Las cosas pasan por algo...' (Things happen for a reason) so maybe bad things were going to happen on my trip through Gangsta City - always worrying when you have to go somewhere where the local people will tell you that they wouldn't even go unless they really really had to!
It turned out to be a really good day in the end, that previous night the family had let me crash on their sofa and feed me for one extra day rather than me getting a hotel. Then I managed to get the travel agency to put me up in a really nice hotel with cable and hot water as I now had to spend an extra night in Xela due to their screw up. On the bright side I got to chill with my friends in the gym for an extra day and even went to my first ever karate lesson - figured I needed to learn the ways of the warrior for Gangsta City and Conrado at the gym turned out to be a karate teacher had invited me to join in a lesson at his dojo.
Sparing was the best part until someone keeps the punches keep relentlessly coming at you when you're exhausted; I'm hooked though as its all great exercise.
So it’s now Tuesday morning, 355am and I can’t believe they've don't it again!! The bus to Guatemala City leaves at 4am and there’s no one here! Luckily this time it seemedthey were on Guatemalan time and the connecting bus waited for our minbus so all was good. I arrived in Guatemala City okay and I'll admit I tried to take the safer option of grabbing a taxi to take me across the 10 blocks or so I needed to traverse to get to the next bus station. Edgy though I was I wasn’t prepared to be taken for a ride either so wasn't going to pay the extortionate price the cabby was quoting me. So there was nothing else to do than hit the streets trying to strut confidently like 'Bad Bad Leroy Brown' although he had a sharp suit and wasn't carrying a 85litre rucksack that signalled to any would be mugger ‘come and get me’! My heart was pounding with every step though and don't think that was just because I was walking quickly. I made it to Monja Blanca bus station and was back into the hustle and bustle that you find at all bus terminals. These are also the places where you need to be more alert and it helps to have at least someone else travelling with you to keep an eye out for your bags. I got rushed into the ticket office to get the 9am bus to Coban as it was 857am. Then someone screamed "Coban?" at me and preceded to grab my pack and head towards one of the buses so I followed him and watched him place my pack under the bus and close the hatch. It was at that point that the after a 4h30 journey the call of nature...err came calling, "it's a deluxe bus yea, so has a toilet right?" I asked Mr I'll-Grab-Yo-Bags who answered no. So there was nothing for it but to dart off to the baños (toilets) at the entrance shouting to the driver wait for me...I took his shrug to mean 'yea no probs'. I luckily just made it back onto the bus as it was leaving and found my seat about four rows infront of where it said Baños'......oh sh*t!’, was the guy lying to me in, had he stolen my bag? I then spent the next few hours totally dejected "I've lost my bag for sure", "How could I have been so stupid?", should I have checked with the driver that that guy actually worked there? I started to be a bit more positive when no one actually used the toilet and when we made an official food and toilet stop; 'maybe everything is cool'. I can’t tell you how much of a relief it was when I got off at Coban, the hatch opened and I was able to grab my pack...another lesson learnt!
I'd actually put myself through all this anxiety for a reason, my base for the next few days was in a town called Lanquin where lots of locals and travellers alike have recommended as a beautiful spot to relax and chill out. 'El Retiro' is the best place to stay here, you can't help but be relaxed here and it's a constant battle with the staff to find out who is the more chilled, them or the travellers. Nestled in the top corner of Lanquin village next to the river El Retiro is made up of wooden dorms with thatched roofs with hammocks a plenty. One can rent a dorm, a private room or a hammock for the night. You follow the path from the main hut come office down to the river where the bar and restaurant is located. The way of paying is unique too - everyone has a tab based on your name and room name (rooms were called things like Monkey, Spider, Snake, etc...) and you just had to settle up at the end. A fantastic idea but also very dangerous even for someone like me who doesn't drink as you can easily loose track of what you’ve spent when you don’t have to dig into your wallet each time.
Another unique service which I have to give Sean the resident audiophile and technophile props for is their music store. Everyone travels with MP3 players these days (those not in the know carry Ipods...sorry had to take a dig) and the most frustrating thing about them is once you leave the sanctity of your home PC which has your ITunes or the like loaded on it you're stuck and cant upload songs, movies etc...without carrying the installation CDs with you. Sean has set up a 2 huge servers with tons of music, comedy, languages lessons all from A to Z and they have it all set up so you can surf the library, fill a form with what music you want and they'll load it up onto your MP3 player or burn you CDs or DVDs. In the bar they have a laptop linked to the music servers so all day everyday there's a variety of tunes playing. All this makes for a really social and laid back atmosphere.
They say the world is a small place and it gets even smaller when you're travelling. When I climbed Tajumulco the highest volcano in Central America I met three Americans (Aron, Lucas and Ryan) one (Aron) who turned out to be the well known guy who had to cut off his arm to rescue himself, well who should I bump into at the bar but Lucas - didn't mention before that we had a connection as he studied in Nottingham just down the road from where I live in Derby.
There are three things to do in Lanquin, visit the amazing rock pools and caves of Semuc Champey, visit the bat caves of Lanquin and thirdly just layback and relax. Determined to do all three I went on an organised trip to Semuc Champey where we were treated to a spot of potholing and swimming. Armed with candles that at times where hard to keep dry we headed into the dark murky water of the 10k cave network negotiating stretches of water where you had to swim as the water was very deep, climbing underground waterfalls and finishing with a leap of faith into a deep pool that the guide assured us was deep enough...as long as you stuck to the right. Definitely the highlight of my time in Lanquin, I kept wishing I'd brought my camera though I would have had to make sure it kept dry.
We then headed up the road to the actual Semuc Champey park which most people will agree is one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala and possibly further afield. This is a collection of clear blue pools on the surface and an underground river running below. There's nothing to do here but relax in the pools and for those with more energy make the steep accent to the Mirador (lookout point) to take in the breathtaking view.
One of the best parts of travelling solo is that you’re forced to try and meet new people otherwise you're stuck at the bar or on a table on your lonesome. Amongst the group of people I met was a group of three guys from Chile, Antonio, Ignacio and Diego who I went tubing with. Tubing isn’t a strenuous sport so suit the laidback scene of Lanquin to a tee. Basically you each get an inflated inner tube, then you get dropped off upstream of the river and you then have to do nothing more than just leisurely float down the river trying to stay dry and occasionally paddling feverishly as you try and avoid the rocks of the rapids.
Las Grutas de Lanquin (the bat caves) where okay but a little bit of disappointment to me as the ads promise a cloud of bats streaming out of the cave as dusk settles in, but our cloud turned out to be more like a few wisps really but was still worth a visit to explore the caves and see the bats hanging from the ceilings.
I also learnt how dangerous (and what a prosperous business they have) having a tab was when I got the bill....how much!?!?! After the initial shock I paid up then headed onwards to Flores and the ruins of Tikal next.