I was in bed scarcely an hour before I was woken by Maike and Rolf, and before long we were sandwiched aboard another Chicken Bus to Guatemala City, this time bound ultimately for Lanquin in the heart of Guatemala. Although the initial four hour coach ride from Guatemala City offered greater comfort than the vinyl-benched Chicken Buses (and an absence of drowsy Mayans), I failed to procure the repose I was so desperately lacking in. And on the two hour minivan transfer to Lanquin, we were once again packed together as if we were sardines in a tin, peas in a pod, pigs in a blanket, or was that toads in a hole?
Tucked away in a valley as verdant as it was remote, Lanquin was a scene of tranquillity, visited by very little vehicle traffic. El Retiro, a sleepy retreat consisting of a few cabañas (huts) scattered around a central dining shelter, occupied a grassy slope between the road and the fast-flowing Rio Lanquin. After night fell, I picked my way down the already dew-soaked grass to the river alone, surrounded by a chorus of frogs as water flowed like molten metal under the pale moon.
We departed early for the natural pools of Semuc Champey, riding in the tray of a pickup for the nine kilometre journey. It was a half hour hike scrambling up rocks, stairs and ladders to reach the mirador (lookout) over the falls, but a breathtaking view of the valley below was waiting for us. Far below spread limestone terraces of crystal clear turquoise water juxtaposed downstream by a raging brown river. Eagles soared in grand circles on invisible thermals and shimmering butterflies as big as an outstretched palm danced their way through the bush.
And when we finally reached the pools themselves we feasted our senses on one of earth's great natural wonders. Formed from limestone the pools themselves are calm and perfectly clear, while upstream the powerful Rio Cahabon passes underneath the pools in a natural tunnel. Downstream the water cascades from the pools to meet the Rio Cahabon again, and with the aid of a local guide, we climbed down a five-metre waterfall into the exit point of the tunnel. Dark, cold water rushed around the rock we were perched on, the only sanctuary for humans, and while the tranquil scene above us and the tunnel were formed from the same primal forces, they opposed each other in character.
Having not yet had enough limestone and water for the day, Rolf, myself and a lanky Frenchman, J.F left for another cave tour at Las Marias, about a kilometre from Semuc Champey. Armed with a flash light, a red glowstick, a fistful of candles and just a little courage, the three of us joined a local guide through the entrance of the cave in waist deep water. All that was missing were some fluffy clothes, a couple of turntables and maybe we could have had our own rave party.
As we progressed through the caves, alternating between walking, swimming and climbing, I came to realise my torch and J.F's glowstick were pretty much useless. Rolf meanwhile, was learning that keeping the lit candle above water while swimming was more than slightly troublesome. Through natural caverns and halls furnished with calcareous deposits we travelled, clambering up and leaping from subterranean waterfalls, and squeezing through dangerously thin or submerged shafts. Staggering into the daylight after a remarkable day, we agreed that the Las Marias tour, just like the trip to Volcan Pacaya, would never be legal in a westernised country. Past dogs, chickens, pigs and a squashed toad we rode home, holding onto the roll bar in the tray, standing and facing the wind like heroes returning home, to friends, to dinner and to bed.
It was a sad farewell to Maike and Rolf, who were going to travelling to other parts of Guatemala on Sunday morning, and I would be returning to Mexico. Back in Guatemala City, the bus for the border didn't depart for at least two horribly stifling and noisy hours. Although we made good time on the coastal highway, night fell before we reached Tecún Umán on the border. Just prior to our arrival, the bus curiously U-turned, and I was informed I'd probably be robbed or shot here this time of night. Who was I to argue? I was transferred to a pickup of a man I didn't know and we made for the safer border crossing at Talisman, about forty five minutes north. Soon the driver, all the while pretending to be friendly, was attempting to extort money from me, and when shady characters began to circle at the border crossing, I parted with AUS$30 to ensure my safety. I later arrived in Tapachula, fifteen minutes over the border in Mexico to spend the night, a little shaky but secure.