Lake Atitlan, Semuc Champey and Livingston10/04/2012
If you want to tone up your arms, getting a bus in Guatemala is the way to do it! We have done much of our travelling in Guatemala on what is known as Chicken Buses, basically local buses that sort of chain together to get you from A to B. It is all very efficient and as the bus pulls into a stop there are lots of people around pointing us in the right direction for the next bus, and trying to take our bags for us, and the buses always seem to leave within minutes of our arrival so connection time is fast but the buses are not built for comfort. In fact most our old American school buses, you know the yellow ones from the movies. Luckily transport isn't our main source of comfort and entertainment so after our first full day of travel from San Cristobal in Mexico we arrived at Panajachel on the edge of Lake Atitlan.
We arrived quite late into Panajachel so found ourselves a hostel, some food and soon fell asleep, tired from our chicken run. The next day we finally got to see the lake, first seeing it as we ran along the shore in the morning. It is an enormous lake - 8km from north to south and 18km from east to west - surrounded by volcanoes and hillside. After a touch of shopping we set off west across the lake to San Pedro. We had originally intended to splash out a bit on our hotel here as a bit of a birthday treat, but in the end decided on a more basic room which was lucky enough to have a nice little private patio overlooking the lake.
San Pedro is a smallish town (although not as small as we had expected it to be) but still with plenty to offer us in the form of entertainment. We never did walk up to the top of volcano as it was so hot during the day the last thing we felt like doing was walking uphill, but we hired kayaks and went along the side of the lake for a while until we found a nice little beach for a touch of (very cold) swimming. Most of the rest of our time in San Pedro was spent reading, playing chess and eating tacos. Bliss.
Our original plan from here had been to go to Antigua but it was Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Antigua is a focal point for the celebrations so there was little chance of us getting a hotel and we opted to by pass the inevitable chaos and head to our next destination instead, Semuc Champey.
To get to Semuc Champey we got back on our chicken buses in Panajachel and first headed to Guatemala City for a night (really just a big city without much to offer, particularly on Saturday of the Easter weekend when everything was closed) and then a direct bus (no chicken buses today) to Coban and then on to Lanquin where we stayed the night before going to Semuc Champey. Lanquin is a very small town with not much happening but it was a good base for our next day.
Semuc Champey is basically a magnificent set of pools and waterfalls in the middle of the jungle. It is hard work clinging to the bars of the top truck to get there but well worth the effort. The water is crystal clear and turquoise in colour, no doubt due to the limestone, and wonderfully cooling to swim in, particularly after a trek up to the mirador to see the whole sight from above. Stunning was all I can say. It sort of reminded us both of the waterfalls we saw back in Luang Prabang in Laos many months ago. How lucky and amazing to be able to compare these two places on the same trip! My conclusion was that Luang Prabang was more manicured (for better or worse is debatable) and slightly better swimming, but Semuc Champey is bigger and the mirador made it very special.
After a morning at the waterfalls we went to the caves at Lanquin. There is meant to be a lot of bats in the caves that all fly out at sunset so we headed there with the intention of finishing looking at the caves as the bats were making their exit. As it turned out though the caves didn't take that long to explore (the path that you can follow is very clear) and the bats didn't really head out in the big swarm we hoped they might - they did leave and we did see lots but it wasn't really worthy of special trip, not to our mind any way.The next day moved on again, this time to Livingston on the coast of Guatemala, the highlight being actually getting to the town by boat from Rio Dulce. It was a beautiful waterway with the banks of the river lined with thick forest inhabited mainly by large heron. Livingston itself was a nice place to just stop for 48 hours (not much to actually do) before getting back on the boats and buses to required to get to Honduras and the Bay Islands.
Note to travellers about getting from Livingston to Utila: In Livingston they try and sell you a "direct" ticket to La Ceiba in time to get the last ferry to the island. It sounds tempting to do it in a day but it isn't worth it. The "one day" ticket costs $55 (at time of writing) but we did it independently for closer to $26, and by staying in La Ceiba over night, you can catch the 9:30am ferry, arrive in Utila early and have plenty of time to wonder around the hotels/dive centres to find the best option - rather then arriving late in the afternoon after a very early start when all you want is a beer, shower and sleep. If you are lucky, getting the one day ticket might give you time for two morning dives you can't do if you go independently, but that is all you will miss out on... The route is simple and buses well organised but I found it difficult to find information on line so here it is:
On the way back we just did the reverse but we stayed the night in Puerto Barrios and then got the bus in the morning from there to Rio Dulce to continue our travels.