The next day we were off again - next stop Lanquin. Lanquin is kind of in the middle of Guatemala and not super easy to get to from El Remate. The buses are more rickety and the roads far more bumpy than we had been used to in Mexico, and as we had mainly been traveling on boats since Belize it was our first 'proper' bus journey in Guatemala. This journey involved 5 changes on 3 micro buses, 1 boat journey and 2 'chicken buses': old reconditioned American school buses in which they manage to cram entire villages, including lifestock; there is always room on a chicken bus and it comes as a surprise that they have not yet thought about tying cows to the roof-rack - an incredible, very strenuous experience.
Seven hours later we arrived at our destination - the El Retiro Lodge in Lanquin. A traveler's haven of little bungalows set in a valley with the most incredible turquoise/emerald river running at the bottom of it, cows roaming around and 100's of beautiful fireflies that all start to glow incredibly at sunset. The reason for stopping here was to see one of Guatemala's natural wonders: Semuc Champey and the caves at Lanquin.
Rumored to be one of the most beautiful spots in the whole of Guatemala (debatable depending on taste but it certainly was very beautiful) this spot is known for it's pools of water ranging in different shades of turquoise to emerald green and fed by a waterfall that is covered by a natural limestone bridge (see photos). It really is lovely here and we spent a couple of hours paddling and bathing in the crystal clear waters, which was heaven. We also went to the Semuc Champey caves nearby (different ones to the ones at Lanquin)... This experience gave a whole new meaning to the words 'cave trip'.
A cross between an underwater Gladiator assault course and a potholing fanatics idea of a bit of exercise, this trip involved being taken through the caves with guides. Swimming with candles through freezing cold water, climbing over rocks, up waterfalls, wading through more freezing water and ending up at a spot where the brave could jump of rocks into a small pool, if they fancied (we didn't). Us standing there and waiting with our candles in our swimming cossies for the others to catch up, looking like some strange druid cave worshippers. And then we had to do the whole thing backwards...still carrying our candles. Interesting, fun and very cold!
Then there were the caves at Lanquin. You can also visit these (with your clothes on) and it didn't involve water. We'd had enough of caves by then so we didn't venture inside, but another feature of these particular caves is that every night at sunset 1,000's of bats fly out of the cave entrance. We couldn't resist seeing this and it really is quite spectacular.
We also went 'tubing' one afternoon with a group of people we'd met, which involved taking a short ride up to the caves with huge big rubber rings, getting into the river lying across them and then floating for 50 mins downstream along the emerald/blue water back to the lodge! It was fun and we laughed lots - especially when we all tried doing sky diving formations on water. All that was missing was a glass of vino as it was hugely mellow just floating along and looking at the nature and lovely views this journey afforded.
We were only intending to stay at El Retiro for 2 nights at the most but sure enough, the vibe of the place, the hospitality of the lovely people that work there, the owner who's from 'Up North' and has 2 lovely black dogs, and also the great people we met (including the guys from Israel and Italy who we'd met in Rio Dulce) turned our stay into a week. Apparently this happens to most people who stay here - you kind of get stuck and it's hard to wrench yourself away from tranquility. Our days were mostly spent reading, playing chess, backgammon, cards, scrabble, connect 4...it turned into the Lanquin games club and we were all quite obsessed with games playing. Maybe something to do with the fact that our brains hadn't been stretched to full capacity for quite a few weeks!
It was here that we met a great group of people all planning to go to Todos Santos Cuchumatan, a small village high up in the Western Highlands, for the annual horse race festival and we thought it would be a good idea to hire a microbus and driver to take us there - eliminating a 2 day trip and several bus journeys - and making it all very convenient and cheaper to get there. And it was...kind of...CONT