Underground and All Around

LANQUIN, GUATEMALA: July 15-16


Leah: After rousing at the wildly unpopular hour of 4:15 a.m., we boarded a minibus for a long day of travel from Nebaj to Lanquin, the base town for exploring legendary Semuc Champey and the K'an ba Caves. The only thing to note on this particular voyage was the absolutely terrifying experience of navigating the perilous mountain "road" between Nebaj and Uspantan. As we gained altitude, the existing road gave way to gravel and fractured concrete, with boulders the size of small cars at frequent intervals both in the middle and on the side of our path that had fallen from far above. Evidence of the unstable cliff was everywhere, with mudslides of rocks, plants and dirt as tall as our bus often obstructing an entire lane of traffic, forcing us to hug the outside shoulder on the precipice of a mountain too high to imagine as loose gravel and small streams threatened to undermine our traction. At other points whole chunks of road were simply gone, cleaved away by the elements and falling boulders, leaving deep gaping pits our driver had to maneuver deftly around. This was by far the scariest thing I've been through in a long time but thanks to our amazingly talented driver (and a few "Our Fathers" and "Hail Marys" on my part), we made it through. I would have taken video, as I guarantee you've never seen anything like this, but I was too petrified!

However, we made it safely to Coban, where we transferred to another bus to take us to Lanquin, a much more relaxed ride, except for the last 11 kilometers, all of which were bumpy unpaved road. We rolled into this small town nestled in a humid and hot valley by early afternoon;  after striking out at our first choice of lodging, we settled into a dorm room at a local establishment, The Rabin Itzam, along with our new Israeli friend, Osher, whom we met on the bus. We made arrangements to journey to Semuc Champey and the K'an ba Caves the next morning and after suffering through an interminably miserable night where I woke up sticky and sweating through my shirt with alarming frequency due to the 85 degree room temperature, we were off.

Steve: Chapter 1 - Las Cuevas

     The newly minted tour group made their way to the front of the hostel as the shuttle was on-time for departure. No one blinked when the "shuttle" was in fact a 4x4 pick-up truck with a fabricated metal frame for passengers to hold on to while standing--a typical sight among many of the Guatemalan roads.
     Steve stood at the back to let the rest of the group climb in as they were all women; chivalry is not dead...yet. Four young Australian lasses, two American teachers from Oregon and Steve and his American wife Leah. This is a mathematical equation that usually equals something out of Hollywood a la Friday the 13th.
     Everyone firmly gripping the truck's railing, the envoy began the hour-long journey to Semuc Champey through the town of Lanquin. Crossing through the tourist-free local-only section of Lanquin, the truck driver found himself at a temporary standstill at the smallish main street as a parade of youth sports teams enveloped the local traffic. Cameras popped out and questioning murmurs sprang up as the group tried to make sense of the event.
     "This is so cool!" one of the Australian girls said while focusing her camera down the street.
     The hiatus over, the party began to amble out of the town and onto a bumpy dirt road. The jungle began to thicken around the trail and everyone held on tight as the truck absorbed every crater and tested the groups' balance.
     "Heads up!" Steve yelled as a large swath of bougainvillea barely cleared the cab of the truck and threatened to clobber the Australian girls standing towards the front. Everyone ducked in unison and attention was then focused on the road ahead in case any other flora intended on making a guest appearance.
     Forty-five minutes passed as the entourage descended further and further down into the dense valley. Fewer houses appeared until finally the truck entered into a clearing where a large bridge could be seen crossing over a turquoise river. The truck lurched to a stop and the guide jumped out.
     "Hi everyone, my name is Carlos and I will be your guide. Everyone out and we walk the rest of the way to the caves," he said in accented but perfectly understandable English.
     One by one the passengers descended the truck and followed their guide along a trail that hugged the river. No more than a hundred meters passed when they came upon a small shack that served as the gateway to the caves. Upon instruction from Carlos, everyone began to strip down to their bathing suits as the next few hours were going to require nothing but the bodies that God gave them; that and water shoes if you were lucky enough to have them (Steve and one of the brave Oregonians only had flip-flops and were told that going barefoot was the next best option). The tour members then left their bags and followed the guide up a woody trail--at this point the exercise in faith had begun. Whether or not they would be rewarded is really where the story begins...
     The pale-skinned party arrived at the mouth of the caves; from the canopy of the tall trees it must have looked like a sexy, humanoid trail of ants making their way into the side of a mountain. The guide then pulled out a handful of candles, began lighting them and distributing them to the group members one at a time. A collective gulp was almost audible as everyone began to doubt what they had gotten themselves into. Before anybody could express any concern the guide was off into the caves and the group began to follow, one by one, past the point of no return. No more than twenty feet into the mouth of the cave the tourists began to tread water. The Australians were first, following as close behind the guide as possible, with the Oregonians next and Leah and Steve trailing behind. In a true display of American graciousness, Steve had insisted on ladies first, making sure that any creatures of the dark wanting to make its presence known would have to go through him. What a guy.
     As the group made its way down into the caves bats could be heard fluttering back down by the entrance. Some of the girls made it known that they were deathly afraid of the vampiric creatures, which would only serve as ammunition for the tour guide to have fun later on in the trek. Fifty feet from the mouth of the cave the guide began to veer right, ensuring that the waning daylight would soon be extinguished by the immense darkness. Waist deep in water, the guide then began to swim with his right hand suspended in the air, holding the precious candle so it's light could illuminate the way ahead. One by one the tour members did the same knowing that the only way in or out of this place was by following the guide wherever he may go.
     The water was refreshingly cool. The mountain spring water began somewhere high above the caves and at some point entered this subterranean maze where it would eventually find its way out and into the river, outside in the safe sunlight. Before the tour group could comprehend the fact that they were swimming in pitch black water of unknown depths and with unknown inhabitants, the guide began to climb over some partially submerged rocks and into adjacent pools. The constantly moving water created a gentle soundtrack which seemed to dimly brighten the candlelit caverns. As the group waded further into the caves it became startlingly evident that the volume of the background music was increasing and before long a waterfall came into view. A ladder could be seen just to the left of the white water column and it became apparent that the only way to keep moving forward was up.
      "Are we supposed to climb that thing?!?" one of the girls asked.
      "Only if you don't want to climb up the waterfall," Carlos responded.
      It was then that they realized that a rope hung down through the 15-foot waterfall, suspended from a wooden brace that spanned over the top of the torrent. The guide pointed to the first Aussie in line and she reluctantly followed him under the waterfall to a staging point at the right. Cheers of support abounded as the girl slowly took hold of the rope, not wanting to chicken-out in front of her peers. The guide pointed at several parts of the waterfall and gave her instructions which were inaudible to everyone else due to the deafening roar of the water.
     She put one foot up on a ledge just behind the waterfall and began to pull herself up. Seconds seemed like hours as she slowly ascended the rope, the water doing its darndest to push her back down to where she belonged. One hand over the other and each foot climbing higher, she made it over the crest of the waterfall and grabbed onto the wooden brace, pulling herself to safety. The group erupted in applause as they all realized that this could be done...or so they thought.
      The next blond Aussie followed suit, timidly crossing over to the guide, listening to unknown instructions. She began the same as the other, cautiously ascending the rope amidst the downpour of water. It was at this point that Leah turned to Steve and as if reading his mind.
     "So what happens if someone gets hurt down here?" she asked.
     Steve looked at the waterfall and then at the imposing, slippery boulders down below it and shrugged his shoulders.
      "I don't know but I was just thinking the same thing," he said. Were someone to fall from the top of this waterfall the landing would not be a good one; surely only a broken bone would be a good outcome.
      Just then the Aussie lost her foothold and her body jerked down, with only a loose, watery grip on the rope keeping her from falling. The guide reacted almost instantly putting his hands on her waist for support. Startled and shaken she came down from the rope and admitted defeat. She opted for the ladder and slowly climbed this slightly-less intimidating path of travel.
     Aware of the risks, the rest of the group proceeded up the rope ever-so-cautiously. Cheers of support continued until the last person, Steve, made his way through the water and onto safer ground. The guide relit the candles (waterproof of course) from several candles that were already staged and the tour continued, up and over rocks, wading through abysmal waters, deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. As the tour apparently hit a dead-end at a large, circular pool, Carlos set his candle onto a pock in the side of the cavern wall. "Watch me" he said as he began to climb the wall onto a ledge that jutted slightly out over the water. He pointed to several rocks that were apparently footholds and then pointed to the back right of the water.
     "This is where you jump," he said as he proceeded to dive head first from the ten foot precipice.
     "Oh my God!" several of the girls gasped as they doubted whether or not they wanted to try this stunt for themselves. As everyone asked each other who would be next it became apparent that the guide had not resurfaced. Almost a minute had passed and everyone began to wonder if maybe by bad luck the most knowledgeable person in that cave had unwittingly found a rock using his head as a probe. What would they do if they're guide was in fact incapacitated? Surely they could find they're way back out, right? Then again it would be easily possible to get lost as they had followed the guide out of almost blind faith, trusting that he knew where he was going. Panic was beginning to set in when one of the Aussie girls shrieked in terror.
     "Ahhhhhh!" Carlos screamed as he popped up behind the tourists. Apparently the guide knew every nuance of these caves as he had made his way through an underwater portal that took him back out to a pool farther down. Everyone began to laugh uncomfortably in relief as their worst fears were being played against them. It turns out this was all part of the fun and came with the admission fee.
     One after another the group climbed onto the rocky ledge and leapt into the black pool. Splashing and frolicking ensued as everyone felt that the worst was over. The guide then informed them that it was time to start heading back; wading through water by candlelight the group made it back to the waterfall where they all opted to descend by way of the ladder. Once down the guide led the group off to the left as he had one more trick up his sleeve. He took one of the Aussie girls by the arm and led her to a small nook that was maybe three feet high and a couple of feet wide. Her candle illuminated a small hole where water was quickly rushing down to an unknown destination. The guide quickly put the candle out with his fingers.
     "Trust me," Carlos said as he had the girl lay on her back with her arms folded over her chest. With a quick push she slid off with a scream into the darkness below. The rest of the group shared another collective gulp; even though their trust in Carlos had grown significantly in the past hour-and-a-half,  their survival instincts still created doubt.
     "When you hit the bottom, swim to your left" Carlos instructed the next victim. He sent her on her way and one after another they took their turn on the natural water slide which dumped them off into another watery cavern reminiscent of The Goonies. All that was missing was a mound of pirate's treasure.
     Being closer to the entrance than they realized, Carlos decided it was high time for a group photo. The intrepid tourists had made it through the maze that he himself had navigated hundreds of times before. He then led the group back to the mouth of the cave and back into the comfort of sunlight; they would be off onto the next part of their journey in no time at all.

Chapter 2 - Semuc Champey

Ok, I don't have it in me to try and write another experimental, storytelling narrative about the second part of our tour...and unless I knocked it out of the park I bet that you, my dear reader, don't have the attention span for it either. Let's assume I didn't do so well...

So everyone was thrilled with our candlelit tour of the K'an ba caves. We had a few scrapes and bruises but everyone was still high on the two-hour adrenaline rush. After making it back to the ticket booth/shack, we got ready for the hike into the actual national park for our date with Semuc Champey. Little did we know that our adrenaline would be replenished as Carlos informed us that we would be jumping off of the bridge that crossed over into the park. I had never done any kind of cliff diving or bridge jumping so this was definitely going to be a new experience. It turns out that the bridge was about 10 meters high, so a little over 30 feet or three stories. About half of the group tried it out, myself being one of them...it was quite a rush. The river was gorgeous and the water pleasantly cool in the mid-morning heat. Leah asked herself "what would Jayna do?" and although it was obvious that Jayna would have taken the plunge, Leah ultimately decided that she wasn't going to be making this jump. No harm, no foul. (Leah: Yes, I pansied out and I know J was chiding me from above, but heaving myself off a hunk of hot metal was just not happening. Sorry, J!)

We continued on into the national park itself; unlike the waterfalls in Nebaj, this park was obviously protected and absolutely pristine. There are several hiking trails around the park and Carlos guided us onto a trail that lead to the Mirador, which is the look-out or viewpoint in Spanish. We ambled our way up the steep switchbacks, sweating profusely and earning whatever vista we had coming our way. The group was cut in half as several of the girls were hurting from a good time the night before and therefore were fighting the altitude as well as a hangover. After a good half-hour hike, Carlos informed us that we were there. We stepped out onto a well-constructed deck and everyone held their collective breaths as we looked at the world below. The hike was well worth the view; Semuc Champey is every bit as beautiful as the guide books and online pictures seem to portray. (A little quick bit of background--Semuc Champey is a series of mountain-water-fed pools that actually sit on top of a limestone bridge that spans over the Rio Cabahon; at this point the river is actually subterranean and doesn't reappear until after 300 hundred meters.)


After taking a break for lunch, we made our way down another trail so that we could swim around in the turquoise pools. The water was incredibly clear and you could see schools of fish meandering from pool to pool. Our guide showed us the places where we could jump as well as several additional natural water slides...this was more important than you'd think as the rocks from pool to pool were very slippery. Two hours passed in no time and after rounds and rounds of pictures it was time to hike back to the park's entrance and to our waiting "shuttle." The whole way back everyone remarked about how the tour was money well-spent and that this was one of the most beautiful places they had ever seen. Leah and I couldn't have agreed more--this was truly one of those places that you had to see to believe. Hopefully our pictures will do Semuc at least a little bit of justice.


We made it a relatively early night back at the Rabin Itzham as we wanted to get a good start the next day on our journey back to Coban and ultimately north up the Flores area for our rendezvous with Tikal. The steamy, hot hotel room and uncomfortable shuttle rides to and fro aside, our stop at Lanquin and Semuc Champey turned out to be a recharging experience for the both of us. This was truly one of those experiences that make all of our efforts worth it, and something that we're glad we did now while still in our youth.


NOTE: We will have cave pictures up as soon as possible. Our two American tour partners, Kelly and Keelan, will be sending a link when available as they brought a waterproof camera along. In the meantime, CLICK HERE to see the ones we already have.

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