Getting Adventurous In Guatemala
Spelunking, getting conned on bus transfers, jumping into raging rivers and swimming in turquoise-blue water pools deep in the Guatemalan jungle. It’s just another adventure for us intrepid travellers as we explore Guatemala, travelling from Flores to Semuc Champey.
Spelunking In Guatemala
There aren’t many times I get taken out of my comfort zone, but twice in one week, I found myself engaging in the art of spelunking in Guatemala.
For those who might have raised an eyebrow at the term “spelunking”, it is in fact the exploration of caves, especially as a hobby. Having tried it, I can honestly say, it’s not my thing, but in the name of journalistic-curiosity, Fergus and I, along with our friends Ian and Ann, gave the dry and the wet versions of spelunking a go.
Getting ready to go on our first spelunking adventure
Spelunking at Cuevas de Ak’tun Kan – Unguided
Geared up in helmets with head torches and sensible footwear, we went in search of the Mayan underworld and delved deep into the limestone caverns at the Ak’tun Kan caves in Santa Elena.
The tour was unguided, so while we knew there were impressively named rooms within the caves with weirdly formed stalagmites and stalactites, with no books nor map, we were none the wiser as to what we were seeing. The caves are totally unlit, so the adventure was in crouching down to crawl through tight crevices, while avoiding the many flies and bats who were distracted by our head-torches.
We kept an eye on the time and the numbered signs; as when we were sold our tickets, we were advised it should take us no more than an hour and there was a strong warning not to venture further than cave No. 31 as we could die! At least that’s what we interpreted with our limited Spanish.
While it was exciting to venture into a cave, without a guide, or a set route to follow, once inside it felt quite scary – and unusually claustrophobic. It goes without saying, I was very glad to see the sunlight again as we emerged, unscathed, from our first spelunking adventure!
Four Go Spelunking at Cuevas de Ak’tun Kan
Cuevas de Ak’tun Kan – Costs
From Flores, it’s a Q15 per person (GBP£1.50) tuk-tuk ride to get to the caves and it’s an easy walk back to Santa Elena. The entrance fee is Q35 per person (GBP£3.50). Do wear sensible shoes and a t-shirt and take a torch.
With narrow, winding streets and pastel-coloured houses with red rooftops and terraces, the island town of Flores is a pleasant and charming place to stay on Lake Petén Itza.
Flores has its place in history as it was the last Mayan stronghold to fall to the Spaniards, who conquered it in 1696, a long time after the rest of the Mayan cities had been defeated.
A short causeway links Flores to Santa Elena, and there’s tuk-tuks a plenty to help transit between the two. Both towns make an excellent base for exploring Tikal National Park and the Cuevas de Ak’tun Kan, but we would recommend staying in Flores.
Tuk Tuk Fun in Flores
It’s a tiny island, and you can walk all the way around the promenade in about 15 minutes, or perhaps a little longer if, like us, you’re swayed into one of the many bars offering happy hours! There’s a host of restaurants with international cuisine, catering for the many tourists that visit here.
Seeking out the traditional side of the island, a tiny park square in the middle houses a delightful church and this is where you’ll find the locals on a Sunday evening, just enjoying life and watching the children play together in the park.
Spelunking at Kanba Cave – Guided (Part of a Semuc Champey Tour)
Slightly more the wiser now at going into caves, I was a little perturbed when instead of a helmet and head torch, at Kanba Cave near Semuc Champey, we were given candles to light the way forward.
Donned in swimwear and wearing proper wet-shoes, we explored this labyrinth of caverns and tunnels on an hour-long guided tour. We climbed across a 10ft waterfall, balanced on rock ledges, squeezed through tight spaces, climbed up and down ladders, manoeuvred around stalactites, stalagmites and bats and all of this while neck-deep in water and swimming or holding onto a rope with one hand, while balancing a candle dripping hot wax in the other.
With torrential rain the night before, the water was cascading past us, often making it difficult to retain our balance. Our guide worked hard to keep us safely together and helped us through the difficult areas.
I was amazed I did it, as it was 90 minutes of sheer madness, but it made for an exhilarating, not-to-be-missed experience!
Exploring these caves was just the first part of a full day tour organised by our hotel to the Semuc Champey area. Other adventurous activities included Skipper jumping from a rope swing as well as from a 15-metre high bridge into the raging Cahabón River. We both then climbed high up into the Guatemalan jungle to get a bird’s-eye view of the breathtakingly-beautiful Semuc Champey pools below.
After all the exertion, relaxing at the series of turquoise-blue, naturally-tiered swimming pools at Semuc Champey was much needed. A place of immense beauty, these spring-fed waters were the perfect antidote to an exhilarating day.
Kanba Caves & Semuc Champey – Costs
Organised by our hotel, El Retiro, we paid Q185 per person (GBP£18.50) for a full day to include transport, entrance to the caves, visiting waterfalls, climbing to a view point above Semuc Champey and relaxing in its pools.
Do take water shoes (not flip-flops). The hotel can lend you some, but they don’t have very many sizes. Also take plenty of water. For lunch, we enjoyed an all-you-can-eat local buffet at the entrance to the caves, which was delicious. Refreshments of water, sodas and beer also available.
Where We Stayed
In Flores, we stayed at the 13-room Casa Amelia (www.hotelcasaamelia.com), a small hotel and restaurant, right on the front with beautiful views across Lake Petén Itza. We opted for air-conditioned rooms that opened onto a roof terrace, and we idled away a few hours on this lovely terrace, playing backgammon and watching the world go by. The hotel is clean and comfortable; the reception staff speak excellent English and the barman makes a mean iced-Mojito! Do mention Two Drifters if you book to stay here!
Fun on the terrace as Casa Amelia, Flores
Lanquin near Semuc Champey
We stayed at El Retiro (www.elretirolanquin.com), a relaxed rustic-lodge beside the Cahabón River at Lanquin, a 45-minute drive from Semuc Champey. Popular with backpackers, it offers clean and comfortable accommodation, some with private bathrooms and air-conditioning. Wifi and good food was an unexpected bonus.
The setting for El Retiro Lodge
Getting Conned In Guatemala – The Conclusion
In a previous post, I mentioned our run in with the man who owns Travel Maya Expeditions and Jaguar Tours. On our arrival in Flores at the beginning of our trip, he sold us the tickets for the transfer between Flores and Lanquin for Q200 per person (GBP£20) and had promised the bus would pick us up from our hotel at Casa Amelia.
Our suspicions of him were well-founded, and having done a little internet research, we realised, unless we were clever, this transfer would be null-and-void – and it almost was.
On the ruse of asking him to quote us for another trip, he met us just prior to the bus picking us up on our day of departure and insisted on taking us to his office, a few minutes’ walk away. He said the bus would pick us up from his office instead, so at this stage we considered our transfer safe and advised him that we probably wouldn’t buy another tour at this stage.
Five minutes before the bus was due to collect us, he just completely disappeared. He walked off, supposedly to find the bus, and never came back. We knew there was just one bus a day leaving at 8am, and it was a nine-hour transfer to Semuc Champey. Just as we were panicking we would miss it, a man beckoned to us to follow him; taking us on a fast walk across to the Flores/Santa Elena bridge, where there was a mini-bus, thankfully still there, despite it being 10 minutes after the scheduled departure time.
While we had paid Jaguar Tours for our transfer, he hadn’t paid the owner of the minibus – in fact he hadn’t even booked our seats – and we were flatly refused access.
With the mini-bus almost full and our onward accommodation booked, our only option would have been to hire private transportation to take us to Lanquin – perhaps this is where Jaguar Tours were hoping to get even more money out of us.
Not wanting Flores to get a bad name, the minibus owner came up trumps and said if one of us didn’t mind having the jump-seat next to the front passenger, he could squeeze us on, and he’d chase Jaguar Tours for his money later.
It was a huge relief and we’re very grateful to him for his generosity. We later found out that buses aren’t even allowed into the centre of Flores, so there was no way we would have ever been collected directly from our hotel, let alone the office of Jaguar Tours. This wasn’t the first time unsuspecting tourists had turned up to the minibus with fake reservations – and unfortunately, if booking via Jaguar tours, it probably won’t be the last.
Waiting for the ferry – Taken from the jump seat on the minibus to Semuc Champey
© Two Drifters Travel