Countries are flying by, whole continents and mountain ranges left behind. Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador in just 1,500kms. Nicaragua was a favorite, with old colonial towns like Granada, the oldest town in all of the Americas, and beans and rice that somehow tasted better than anywhere else. I picked up an extra motorcycle helmet, made space on my motorcycle by sending things home I no longer needed, and have now carted around six people from between one mile to across whole (tiny) countries.
Things feel too fast- too rushed at times. These places deserve more time, more attention, a closer look, but I can only do so much. I’ve already begun thinking about coming back, exploring the opposite coasts, jungles, the small villages dotting remote mountains. At the same time the day to day grind of travel makes me appreciate what I see less than if I had just started, and I wonder if doing such a long trip in one go really is a good idea? Would I appreciate things more if I did a few months at a time? Would I have more energy? Would the trip feel very different? More worthwhile, perhaps?
I’ve already traveled to Guatemala various times, so it wasn’t as important to me to see more of it during this trip. Or so I thought, before I actually got here. A friend in Antigua, the owner of the OX tour expeditions and the Base Camp Hostel, convinced me to stay an extra day and try my hand at mountain biking. He had a group of four Australians going out the next day, and although it was an intermediate course and I have never mountain biked before, nor even used a bicycle in nearly a year, he was pretty sure I´d be fine and even love it. And right he was! It was an awesome experience I´d highly recommend to anyone who likes scary single track dirt while bombing down insanely steep hills full of roots, rocks, trees and ruts. Just don´t expect to have a foot brake, which I did actually try to find on one occasion, slamming my foot down and thinking (shouting in my head), “why can´t I stop?!!” I loved the downs, and was able to keep up with the boys, but the ups were torture for someone who has lost all cardio endurance. I thought I’d die as I pushed that bike slowly, slowly up all those hills and switch back trails, but was still thrilled to be there.
Two days ago I rode out to Cobán, “narco territory- please don’t go there! Listen to us this time, Elisa!” as my mother calls it. Unfortunately (but fortunately for me), I didn’t receive her email until I was already there. It was a nice little city, tranquil and with good energy and friendly people, and the ride out there wasn’t bad at all. Going through Guatemala City, which I expected to be a dump, was nicer than I remembered and the route fairly straightforward. Some of the highways looked very new, and I was reminded of author and female motorcycle extraordinaire Lois Pryce’s experience making her way through the city in her book Lois on the Loose, but my experience was far easier and more relaxed, which was a pleasant surprise.
The main attractions near Cobán are the Semuc Champey pools and caves. The pools were beautiful, but I wasn’t as impressed as some of the other travelers I met. Many backpackers spend $120 bucks to take some crappy guided tour there from Antigua, a popular departure point, instead of just taking a bus to Cobán, and then two more shuttles to Semuc Champey. It’s a more tedious affair and not for those short on time, but definitely saves money and I do think the experience is better in the end. One such tour consisted of 25 people all crammed into a 10 person shuttle for 10 hours.
The real attraction for me was the cave tour near Semuc Champey (1km before the pools). I had been hearing about it for the entire length of Central America as a “must see- don’t miss it!!!” experience. And what can I say…? Absolute madness. It was beautiful, surreal, total madness all rolled up into a nice 1.5 hour tour. We swam through the pitch black with nothing but a candle in one hand, leaving only one hand to flounder around with. There’s a rope for some of it, but girls in tiny string bikinis, shrieking in the dark, have hogged and submerged it so far into the dark depths that you might as well just swim one handed, lame-doggy paddling your way to some jagged rock. Meanwhile, boobs and butts are waggling around all over the place (upside, everyone looks good in candle light). None of the girls had two free hands to adjust their strips of fabric, leaving them fairly exposed for much of the journey, covered in mud and dirt, ruining those nice new little numbers. Some of you, dear readers, would love this tour. I, for one, had to grimace and try and get myself into a good mood and learn to laugh at it (which I eventually succeeded at), figuratively plugging my ears (remember, one hand had a candle, the other was doggy paddling) to the shrill screams of the sorority sisters.
The guide, some young buck who’s only real asset was being able to keep his candle from going out (and being able to control a boner that must have been there, given all the boobs and butts he was ‘helping’ to guide over the rocks), doubtlessly adores his job. He guided us up and over jagged ledges and through keyholes, dark swirling currents and waterfalls so strong that the girls’ bikinis were actually torn from their flailing bodies, to the glee of the guide and other young men.
I was the first to go through the dark waterfall. I went alone, not knowing it was common practice for the guide to wrap his arms around you, both of you holding the dinky rope in your hands as he helps you ‘walk’ (drowned) your way across the bottom of the falls. The rope was in my hands, and as I felt his arms slide around my waist I half shouted, “No, no! Voy sola”. I go alone. “Sola?” he says. “Segura? Bueno…” And off I went. I had no idea the water would be so intensely violent, no warning was given whatsoever, and I didn’t even know how far I had to go or what I’d find on the other side. All I felt was the water pounding, POUNDING!!! me down, my strong climber hands holding firmly to that rope, my nose, mouth and eyeballs filling with water, my water logged sports bra and yoga shorts struggling to remain on my body. I made it to the other side, threw the rope back to the guide, and watched as he escorted the 7 other participants through the falls.
We were then sent swimming through more pitch black water, cutting up our feet, nearly hitting our heads on low rocks, and clambering around more slick rocks. All with our shitty little candles. We jumped off ledges into the abyss (or at least I did, and two of the boys. One of the boys was paralyzed with fear and stuck on the ledge for at least 12 minutes as we waited for him to either come down or jump. As I climber, I have no issue with climbing and have done all sorts of half-crazy things. But for non climbers, those rocks were slippery, had slick holds you couldn’t find in the dark, and one slip meant a possible serious injury.
The experience truly was insane. There are no other words for it, minus a few choice profanities I’ve edited out for grandma’s sake. Would I recommend it? Yes, but only if you know exactly what you’re getting into. Would I do it again? Yes. Would I say it’s potentially dangerous and very very poorly managed? Definitely. On a side note, they also offer river tubing tours directly after. My mom informs me one of her students nearly died on this same tour.
I unfortunately did not have my camera, so this one comes complements of the World Wide Web.
The ride from Cobán to Semuc Champey is roughly 50km of paved winding road with big potholes, zillions of dogs (some still alive, most of those with limps), and 20km of very bad dirt roads. One of my recent passengers was a French speaking Belgian girl, who would otherwise have had a 4 hour bus ride out there and back, as she wasn’t interested in the organized tours (bravo!). She also had experience on the back of motorbikes in Southeast Asia, and I liked her right away. Smart, cool, friendly and adventurous, I knew we’d have a great day, so when we set off that morning, I was a little surprised to realize she was one of those ‘difficult’ passengers (and if you, Federique, are reading this now, I still love you and think you are wonderful!). I won’t mention here who truly was my worst passenger ever (ahem, dad who refused to hold on to me when I was a brand new rider on a huge bike, and another friend who will not be named but needs to learn to sit still, especially when rolling to a stop!). We made it out there, but I tell you, it was very difficult on all that dirt, on my tiny bike with a squirming girl shifting nervously behind, back and forth, back and forth. If I didn’t already have a ton of off-road experience, things would have gone south fast. I was so exhausted from the whole day’s experience that on the way back, I had her take a local shuttle for 10km, back to the town of Lanquin, for both of our safety (mostly hers, because having a passenger is a big responsibility…) Although her shuttle left before me, I ended up waiting for 45 minutes, while having the worse coffee of my life and chatting with locals (tasted like flat, hot coca cola, or maybe hot iced tea. It turned out to be a nice way of getting to know some locals and I had a great time). When she finally made it back and was obviously very happy to see I hadn’t left her behind, we again had a little “how to sit like a bag of potatoes” talk, aided by some of the local crazy dudes who had come to sit- yes sit– on my bike. She promised to try and relax, and voila! The ride back was both exhilarating and very fun for both of us, with stunning views and lovely mountain corners. Federique, you became a riding pro in no time, and I really think we need to plan a Mongolia moto trip!
This morning I left Cobán in the pouring rain for the 260km ride to Flores, where I am now. This is my last evening in Central America before heading to Mexico tomorrow, the last Latin American country of this long journey.More to come, friends!