Part 1: The Mayan Ruins in Tikal
The first couple of days in Guatemala had been a nice change from Belize, the climate in Flores was just that little bit cooler than Belize City and the whole place was generally more pleasant; cobbled streets, inviting cafes and restaurants, lake views, and handy little tuk-tuks to get into town from our accommodation for only 10 Quetzals (about £1 GBP).
Located two hours north of Flores are the gigantic Mayan ruins of Tikal, famous for being the fictional location of the rebel base in various Star Wars films. We’d booked a shuttle from a local hotel in Flores for a return trip to Tikal for 80 Q each (about £8 GBP), there are loads of shuttles to choose from and all offer similar prices. We also decided on an overnight stay at the Tikal Inn to make sure we had plenty of time to explore the vast area of ruins.
Getting there was easy enough apart from the slightly confusing ticket prices to gain entry to the protected area of Tikal. There are basically 3 options:
- Day passes from 8am until 6pm (150 Q each = £15 GBP)
- Sunset passes to enter from 4:30pm and stay until 7pm (100 Q = £10 GBP)
- Sunrise passes to enter from 5am to 8am (100 Q = £10 GBP)
What they don’t tell you when you buy the sunrise or sunset passes is that you can’t actually use them unless you pay for a guide to go with you; and since that adds another $50 USD to the £50 GBP we had just paid for our 4 entry passes it felt like a bit of a scam, but realistically I think it was just poor communication by all involved. Either way we shrugged that off and set out into the ruins with our guide Cesar for some epic views.
Epic views without the use of our drone Bryan unfortunately
The backside of the famous Jaguar Temple
Jaguar Temple from ground level
Full view of the Jaguar Temple from the temple opposite
Other smaller temples and buildings next to the Jaguar Temple
Full view of the temple and accompanying buildings
View from the gargantuan Temple IV
Star Wars fans might recognise this view too
(just needs an X-Wing)
What the photos can’t portray however is the climate, the bugs and the crazy sounds of the jungle. Guatemala is a hot country but thankfully the heat in Tikal wasn’t too oppressive when we visited, the ruins span a vast area but we only covered a relatively small section despite walking for the best part of 3 hours. At one point whilst we were trekking between temples there were some truly monstrous noises to be heard in the distance, our guide calmly explained that these were just Howler monkey calls. All I kept thinking was what if I was an intrepid explorer trekking through an unknown jungle 100 years ago and I didn’t know that these blood-curdling animal sounds were from harmless monkeys…
Swooping birds and pairs of green parrots also added to the menagerie of jungle acoustics as the sun neared the horizon, squawking and chasing each other playfully across the sky and down into the thick green canopy to find a perch.
I can only imagine what this place must have looked like in all its glory
Love a jungle sunset
Following some awesome sunset views we started the 30 minute trek back to the hotel…in the dark. Jungles really do set the rest of your senses alight when you’ve got limited vision of your surroundings, not just the background orchestra of what sounds like a million cicadas but also the odd rustle in the leaves at ground level, your imagination conjuring up some evil, unseen creepy-crawly. At one point Cesar had to chase a snake off the path with his torchlight, nonchalantly adding that it looked like a Fer-de-lance…which just happens to be one of the most poisonous snakes in the world…true story.
Overall we had a really enjoyable experience during our tour of the ruins and are really grateful to Cesar for his guidance, knowledge of Mayan history and culture…and snake chasing skills.
Part 2: The Journey up to Semuc Champey
After Tikal we stayed in Flores again for one more night before setting off for Semuc Champey, although that journey is a lot more complicated than it sounds. Being relatively experienced travellers Vic and I know how much a really long journey can sap the fun out of any day, and especially with some of the roads in Guatemala! So instead of an 8-hour marathon in 3 different buses we opted to break things up a bit and just do the shorter 5-hour journey to from Flores to Cobán to kick things off (125 Q per person (about £12.50 GBP).
River barge crossing in Sayaxché on the way from Flores to Cobán
Central area of Cobán
Inquisitive doggy chills atop a steep street leading down to our hotel
A night in Cobán at the Don Juan Matalbatz was fairly pleasant and I’d recommend making a pit stop in Cobán too, the central plaza has a decent vibe and there’s a smart looking spot to enjoy a good coffee and internet too. A 5-minute walk from the hotel is a local bus stop where we caught the next transport to Lanquín for just 15 Q each (about £1.50 GBP); be warned though that the last 20 minutes of this journey are a little sketchy as you bump along a dusty mountain track with no barriers on some dodgy road angles.
Once in Lanquín we just had one final transfer to make up another mountain road to Semuc Champey itself. This was probably the most enjoyable journey of all though. After being sat cramped on sweaty buses for the last 2 days it was refreshing to be able to stand on the back of a truck and get some fresh air for the last hour up an even bumpier and sketchier mountain road. It was a great little adventure to finish off the day though and probably even counts as exercise too.
All aboard for the bumpy adventure up to Semuc Champey
Being chased by a little yellow tuk-tuk through the streets of Lanquín
Arrival at ‘El Portal Hostal’ in Semuc Champey
Not bad views
Our home for the night (bottom left room)
Slightly odd combination, but it tasted good
Part 3: The Crystal-Clear Waters of Semuc Champey
For 175 Q (about £17.50 GBP) we got a full day tour of the pools, caves and river tubing. Starting with a 20-minute walk from the hostel and then up a very steep trail to the main look out point you get the perfect view of the pools. One guy on our tour had also bought a drone which he launched from the lookout point to much chattering and amusement from the local kids.
Our fellow drone enthusiast
Looking down on the famous cascading pools
Gagging to go for a swim after a sweaty climb to the lookout point
Locals selling fresh coconut, banana, pineapple, mango and papaya
Looking out across the pools
Since we’d had minimal practice with Bryan the GoPro drone we decided to launch him in a more open area with fewer trees and branches down by the pools…over open water. I’ll be honest and say the flight wasn’t a complete success, mainly because there were a few near misses where fellow tourists had to duck unexpectedly, and we did start panicking massively once the ‘low battery’ sign started flashing whilst Bryan was still hovering high above open water.
I actually had to catch him by the landing feet in the end to make sure we got him back in one piece; and that’s a fair sight better than what happened to the other bloke’s drone…it hit a branch and went crashing into the water, becoming a complete write-off! This drone operating malarkey is bloody stressful!
Check out the footage below, not bad considering it was only the second time I’d flown it:
Or check the ASN Instagram for a short little edit version
Look closely to see the hundreds of small fish
Waterfall running down from the last of the pools
The area is patrolled by the Guatemalan Army to deter thieves
Entrepreneurial local girls selling discs of homemade chocolate
(3 for 5 Q = 3 for £1.75 GBP)
Tubing at the end of the day was a great laugh
(especially with locals trying to sell you bottles of beer as they floated by)
Part 4: The Journey down from Semuc Champey
Just the photos will suffice for this bit.
All aboard the 7am bone-rattler down to Lanquín
Crossing the slightly sketchy bridge
I’m pretty happy with this shot considering it was taken one handed with my phone, bumping around an off-camber corner whilst clinging to a dusty roll cage
Back down in one piece complete with backpacks (and Bryan)
Semuc Champey was an awesome little trip, even the life-threatening cave tour!
Tune in next week to hear a little about Guatemala City and Antigua, and our coffee farm tour in Lake Atitlán.