Discoveries in 2017: Part 3, Why Guatemala?

In late June of 2017 the crushed and sickly Weazel decided to move on from friendly little “PeeGee” in far southern Belize to his next destination Livingston, Guatemala, and from there to the wondrous province of Alta Verapaz, home of the Kekchi Maya.

But why go to Guatemala? In particular why go to to Alta Verapaz, an unintentionally ironic name which means “Higher True Peace” in Spanish?

I have long been fascinated by the land, its people, and by their strange beliefs; so, please me allow me to offer some background information and to reminisce about a few of my previous visits.

In Part 4 of this series we will attempt to understand some of the bizarre worldviews of the Maya who live in Belize and thus speak English; then, in Part 5 we will return to my Guatemalan adventures in 2017.

Guatemala is by far the most interesting and diverse country in Central America; unfortunately, it is also the most populous with some 17 million fractious people. It is a land of volcanoes, earthquakes, caves, lakes, and jungles inhabited by 23 different tribes of indigenous people, mostly Maya, many of whose languages are mutually incomprehensible.

Injustice is endemic, so periodic revolutions are a way of life. Despite upheavals the Maya people are extraordinarily resistant to change and many live in remote villages where life today is little different from that of their distant ancestors who built pyramids now lost in the jungle.

The Maya people were catholicized by the conquistadors five hundred years ago, and more recently became influenced by evangelicals, but I am delighted to report that the old prechristian beliefs are fulminating just beneath the surface. All I had to do was ask. Everyone still believes in the ancient gods, they just don’t talk about it to outsiders. For them Xibalba “The place of fear” is a very real place, and in the great cycle of time they will come to rule the world again.

The Maya are often uncommunicative with outsiders; they seem to be tiny silent gnomes, but that silence is actually smugness. They are extremely intelligent and hardworking, much more so than other tribes or their white cowboy overlords, and they know their day will come. Until then it is best just to grow corn, have lots of children, do what the bossman says, and pretend to worship Jesus.

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I first visited Guatemala with my future ex wife in 1976 while the civil war was raging. It was a senseless decades long conflict spawned by the CIA during which approximately a quarter of a million people, almost all Indians, were brutally murdered. (The actual number is unknown.) To add to the chaos, a devastating earthquake killed over 23,000 people. The destruction had to be seen to be believed. I am sorry to say that I have no photographs from that epic journey.

Among other adventures we went to the wretched little town of Sayaxche on the Rio de la Pasion deep in the jungles of the Peten. From there we hitchhiked up the river in dugout canoes right through the middle of the war. It was a miracle that we survived.

We ran out of river near the tiny village of Raxruha which is located where the mountains of Alta Verapaz meet the lowlands of the Peten. The area had previously been inaccessible, but the government was busy building a new road with which to subjugate the Indians. As a result the area was flooded with refugees, all of whom wore native garb, and none of whom spoke Spanish.

It was like visiting another planet, or perhaps like stepping back a thousand years in time, but what most impressed me was the wild beauty of the landscape. Everywhere we looked there were jungle covered karst mountains of every conceivable shape. There were cliffs, caves, and springs everywhere. Most notably, the smaller streams were shockingly blue (The word Raxruha means blue green water in Kekchi Mayan.) Tiny paths led to remote villages that had never before been visited by outsiders. We took a path at random and discovered a lost village inside a hollow mountain!

Needless to say I fell in love with the place and swore to myself that I would someday return. I did return to Guatemala several more times over the years with my beloved consort Ann. Wonderful adventures were had, but I never made it back to Raxruha until the summer of 2017. You will learn more about that in an upcoming post.

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In 1992, sixteen years after my first visit, my then new girlfriend Ann Harman flew from Costa Rica to meet me in Belize. Ann had been serving as an expedition doctor in CR and was ready for more fun. We had first met two years earlier while partying naked in a hot tub in West Virginia and things were going well so it was about time for a honeymoon trip!

Together with friends we ascended the Manatee river in dugout canoes to the gigantic cave that I have described elsewhere;. thereafter, we headed to far southern Belize to explore the Moho river.

To get to the Moho we hired a friendly Indian, his shotgun toting little brother, and a mule to carry our packs.

Like many of the Maya in southern Belize he was Mopan rather than Kekchi and had recently emigrated from Guatemala so he spoke relatively little English.

I had previously seen many blue water streams flowing through karst landscapes, but the Moho was the first place I had ever experienced a true travertine stream, which is to say a stream so heavily charged with calcium that the rocks actually grow rather than erode. I was amazed to observe that a leaf freshly fallen from a tree would begin to fossilize in only three days!

The Moho river of southern Belize

Once we reached the gorge we sent the mule and the gun boy home, then continued on foot. For the most part Ann swam whereas I walked. She made much better time!

Following the Moho on foot

We were on such a roll that we decided to spend an additional month in nearby Guatemala exploring the Sierra de Santa Cruz in Alta Verapaz. That meant taking a boat from Punta Gorda Belize to the weird little town of Livingston Guatemala.

Livingston proved to be a wonderful place. The culture is radically different from the rest of Guatemala. It is a black Garifuna community just like those in Belize only better. Many people speak English (of a sort) and relatively few are Indians. Dreadlocks are the tonsorial preference, and everyone lounges around smoking dope while occasionally pretending to fish.

The real business of Livingston is partying, and the party never stops. Ann and I danced ourselves into a frenzy in the middle of the main street (No traffic!) while Rastas pounded on conga drums. Boogie central!

Ann dancing in the streets of Livingston Guatemala

From Livingston we traveled up the beautiful Rio Dulce to Lago Izabal, an enormous blue freshwater lake in the heart of Guatemala.

On the north shore of the lake is the company town of El Estor (The Store), an oddly civilized looking place which resembles what it is, a Canadian mining town with neat looking little houses, stores, schools, etc.

It was peaceful enough when we were there, but the place has a dark history of exploitation and murder. The entire area is rich in natural resources so for hundreds of years foreign economic interests sought to enslave the Indians to work in the mines and on the plantations. This culminated in 1978 when the military massacred protesting peasants in nearby Panzos. Fighting broke out again last year when police killed fishermen protesting the pollution of the lake by mining interests. So it seems that forcing people to live in cute little houses on neat little streets doesn’t solve anything.

Nobody wanted any problems, but that didn’t mean they had forgotten who was really behind all their troubles. That would be us, as in the good old U S of A. So it was that we were astonished to see a parade coming down the street led by an eight foot tall stiltwalking figure representing Miss USA! Surrounding her were boogeymen dressed in rags, spanish moss, and other such accouterments.

The crowd noticed us then pointed and laughed. No problem, it was all in fun, just a reminder that, “We know who you are and what your people have done to us“.

Things got even weirder when the circus arrived.

It was the real deal, a traveling circus under the Big Top with aging trapeze artists, trained monkeys, mangy lions, and thieving Carney shysters. The results were inevitable.

Another one bites the dust!

Not far from El Estor is the well named Finca Paraiso (Paradise ranch). We had a vague idea that there was supposed to be a waterfall.

A local boat dropped us at an ancient hacienda overlooking the lake. It was a scene out of the wild west with gun slinging cowboys rounding up cattle. There were no facilities at that time so the family offered to let us camp and to have dinner at the big house with the “civilizados”. (Finca Paraiso has since been turned into a tourist attraction.)

The ranch manager pointed us down a dusty road leading to “his” Indian village about a kilometer away and told us to have fun. (In rural Guatemala landowning Spanish families effectively own the nearby Indians much as feudal lords in Europe once owned their serfs.)

The Indians weren’t very friendly, they just waved us further down a path toward the base of the mountain where we found the paradise for which the place is named. (I regret to inform my readers that most of my photos of this part of our trip have been lost so I had to swipe the following image off the web.)

https://mobiustravels.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/dscn0884.jpg

At first we thought it was just another pretty waterfall so we waded in for a swim. The water was cold at first, but as we approached the falls we discovered that the waterfall itself was scalding hot!

At first the water seemed too hot to touch so we just played in the spray. As we acclimated to the temperature we crept closer but were never able to tolerate complete immersion. When it got too hot we retreated to the pool where divine jets of hot water commingled with the cold. The best place of all was inside a travertine grotto at the base of the falls where we could sit in the icy stream and be surrounded by sheets of hot water that caused the grotto to fill with steam. It was truly a paradise!

I was especially intrigued by the interesting ecological changes I had observed on the walk from the lake to the falls. The vegetation around the lake was dry tropical forest, good cattle country, but the hot waterfall was located in a pocket of beautiful rainforest dripping with orchids. The falls were not the origin of the cold stream. I presumed that the stream emerged from a nearby cave that I had seen on a topo map.

The following day we were joined by a wandering sailboat hippie on a trek up the little stream beyond the hot waterfall. It was an incredibly beautiful place. The blue limestone had been partially metamorphosed into marble with streaks of calcite, and the whole was cloaked with lush jungle. The hidden valley was difficult to traverse due to the complexity of the landscape, but in short order we arrived at the cave resurgence to discover that it was completely filed with water.

Ann, who was born to swim, had no more trouble than an otter. I tried to swim while wearing my jungle boots and almost drowned so I had no choice but to remove them and continue on barefooted. Our sailboat Hippie friend had big problems because he was carrying a Coleman lantern that had to be held high above the water making it almost impossible for him to swim. Ann and I swam with hand held carbide lamps, the flames of which could be extinguished by a single drop, so we weren’t much better equipped.

Ann swims through the cave with an open flame.
Soggy Ann in the blue marble cave

Once inside and safely atop a rock we marveled at the beauty of our surroundings. Most caves are muddy hellholes filled with jagged rocks, but eons of raging floodwater had swept the cave clean and polished the blue marble into perfectly smooth sculptural forms shot through with brilliant white calcite veins.

(A note on what I am calling marble. Some would argue that it was just high quality blue limestone, but the calcite veins demonstrated that the deposit had undergone at least partial metamorphosis due to the nearby intrusion of serpentine rocks. This interface also accounts for the presence of hot springs.)

We continued on until we were blocked by a waterfall inside the cave, then swam back out.

On a crude topo map I had noticed the same stream disappearing into a large sink near an Indian village high on the mountain above us, so the following day we resolved to go there.  Back at the ranch we learned that the village was named Caxlampon (Baked chicken!) and were told how to find the trail.

Up and up we went, more than 1000 vertical feet over several miles, until we reached Caxlampon. Unlike the squalid villages of the servile Indians this village was obviously prosperous and well organized with no sign of white overlords.

We stopped at a tienda in the middle of the village to rest and buy soft drinks. While we did a large crowd gathered around us. Apparently white people were a novelty and not particularly welcome.

I had a good idea of where the big sink was located, but thought it would be polite to ask and thereby explain our presence. When I did an angry suspicious murmur passed through the crowd. I thought perhaps they did not understand me, so Ann, who spoke much better Spanish, explicitly asked, “The cave is over there behind the soccer field, right?”

This elicited a storm of denials. “There is no cave! There is a cave but it is far away. The cave is in the other direction! What cave?” So we sat there for a long time until an old man wandered up to ask what was going on. I asked him the same question and he replied, “Sure, everybody knows it is right over there.” I thought they were going to lynch the poor fellow!

We were tired of waiting so we started walking across the soccer field. We were halfway there when the crowd surrounded us brandishing machetes and farm implements and ordered us to stop.

The whole time while we had been waiting a little man had been sitting near us saying nothing as Ann and I talked among ourselves. Now he stepped forward and said in perfect English, “We will not allow you to steal the bones of our ancestors!” I am a Doctor from New York City and I know you are not archaeologists. You are much too dirty and you walked up here unannounced. Even if you were archaeologists we would not allow you to touch our sacred relics!”

We protested that we were just cavers and promised not to touch anything but it did no good. I inquired if we could formally ask permission but he said, “Absolutely not! In all self administered Maya villages we make communal decisions based upon consensus. Every single person in the village would have to agree and that isn’t going to happen, especially since some of our elders are out of town. You have no choice but to leave!”

We were defeated, but before leaving I asked if there was a better way back. We had taken a very long route and were a thousand vertical feet above Finca Paraiso. I had noticed a side trail, so perhaps there was a shortcut?

The Doctor gave us a bitter grin and said, “Sure, you Gringos seem to know your way around so go ahead and take that trail. We don’t care where you go as long as you leave here!”

So we walked and walked on a little trail that circled the mountain but didn’t go down. I concluded that we were headed to another little village named Bongo, so I asked a terrified young woman I found hiding in a corn crib. She didn’t speak any Spanish but indicated that Bongo was nearby so we bailed off the trail and headed straight down the mountain. It was a big mistake!

If you read the literature pertaining to slash and burn “milpa” agriculture you will learn that the fields are abandoned after several years because of fertility declines. That is nonsense. The fields are abandoned because it becomes physically impossible to fight back the weeds.

The worst weed of all is called Mala mujer (Cnidoscolus sp.) which means “Evil woman”. The slightest touch is excruciating which is why the fields get abandoned. Our way down the mountain was so steep and overgrown that all we could do was to fight our way through. There was no trail. It is said that you’ve got to go through Hell to get to Heaven, and so it seemed as we threw our torn and battered bodies into the beautiful blue pool.

Just east of Paradise ranch is a spectacular rocky gorge known as the Boqueron so we took a side trip by dugout canoe.

Weazel in a tippy dugout on the Boqueron

Let’s just say that to go to school you had to cross the Boqueron every day. The only way is by means of a basket suspended high above the river on a steel cable, like a zip line only much scarier. Kids do it all the time, so a French girl decided to give it a try. Everyone warned her not to touch the cable but she was terrified so she grabbed it just in front of the pulley. That was how she lost her fingers.

I hypothesized that the contact between the limestone and serpentine would produce other hot springs so we headed west to Panzos, site of the massacre, then up the mountain and into the jungle. It was an arduous trek but I finally located several unknown hot springs, in one of which a boa constrictor was bathing.

A skinny Weazel with a fat boa!

As we were coming down the mountain we could see the beautiful Rio Cahabon far below.

The Rio Cahabon

The river beckoned us, so instead of taking the road we decided to head downstream alone and on foot. It proved to be a daunting task, for the terrain was extremely rugged.

Like a snake the Rio Cahabon is pretty but dangerous!

At first there were paths made by Indians to access their milpas. Wherever there was an impediment they constructed swinging bridges which were often made of barbed wire.

(At this point I feel compelled to apologize for the fuzzy photos. These are scans of old photos taken with an early point and shoot camera.)

Eventually all the trails ended. The mountains were nearly vertical so we had no choice but to follow the riverbank. With heavy packs it was an almost impossible task.

Where the trail ends along the Rio Cahabon

We were exhausted and almost out of food so we set up camp on a relatively flat rock. Shortly thereafter we noticed an Indian poling his way up through the rapids in a tiny dugout canoe.

The Indian was amazed to see us so he pulled over to learn what Gringos were doing in the jungle. We explained that we weren’t lost, just stranded and in need of a path. He explained that there was no path and that further downstream it was impossible to continue on foot which was why he had come by canoe to scout for timber. He and a friend planned to return in the morning with a bigger canoe to cut and haul the wood then transport it down the river.

His canoe was too small for three people and packs, so we asked if he could help us escape the gorge in the morning by transporting us instead of the timber? We offered a small amount of money then sealed the deal with a package of fish hooks. He was very happy because fish hooks, and especially money, were in short supply!

We spent a hungry night on our flat rock, then in the morning our new friend arrived with two canoes and a crew. We were ready to leave, but he insisted that first we had to cut and load the timber. So it was that I spent the first half of the day dragging poles down the mountain. After that we set off down the rapids!

The Weazel heads down the Rio Cahabon. Notice my wretchedly huge pack!

After returning to “civilization” at Cahaboncito we were feeling strong and ready for a new adventure.

We had heard rumors of a magical place called Semuc Champey that was said to be somewhere near the headwaters of the Rio Cahabon in the highlands of Alta Verapaz. A road was under construction that went from Panzos to the ancient town of Lanquin which is not too far from Semuc Champey, but as per usual we decided to get there the hard way by crossing the entire Sierra de Santa Cruz on foot.

The Sierra de Santa Cruz, Guatemala

We took the bus from Panzos three thousand feet straight up the mountain to the small town of Senahu, a big improvement over gaining all that altitude on foot!

Senahu Guatemala, image swiped off the web from adventuretogether.com

Senahu is a civilized little place with European influences where bee keeping has become an art. Here are two example of bee hives at the old hotel where we spent the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These hives were not constructed for honeybees but rather for the indigenous Meliponine stingless bees held sacred by the Maya. Note the small wax tubes in the mouths of the masks that were built by the bees to provide access to the nest chamber within. In nature these bees live inside of arboreal termite nests. If you hack the nest open with your machete they won’t sting but they will bite. The honey is delicious!

Visitors were rare, so the Alcalde (Mayor) of Senahu was eager to impress us. He bragged about a cave “full of pots and bones” that we could visit. As a Hispanic person he had no respect whatsoever for the remains of mere Indians so he organized an expedition which included the hated tax collector.

Instead of little Indians on foot our expedition was composed of big men with big hats and pointy boots driving a dump truck. We arrived at the cave to discover a large entrance high on a cliff. The pots and bones were said to be inside but no one was willing to risk the climb.

Ann noticed an alternative route that involved climbing above the cave then back down. I wanted no part of it, but up she went. She called down that it was easy so I reluctantly followed. There were plenty of handholds, but it was ridiculously dangerous with over seventy feet of exposure. One slip meant certain death so I chickened out.

A small crowd had gathered. I was regarded with contempt because I had been afraid to follow my girlfriend, a mere woman! Then everyone looked at the Mayor but no one said a word. First he began to tremble and then he began to pray. He knew what he had to do, either that or resign his position and flee the town in ignominy. Somehow he did it, pointy boots and all.

The Mayor was now eager to get rid of us so he conscripted two teenaged Indian boys to serve as our guides and porters on our trip across the Sierra de Santa Cruz.

The following morning we set out. The boys could barely lift our packs and had no idea of which way to go, but at least they could speak both Spanish and Kekchi so we could inquire along the way. It had been suggested that we head to a place called Chijolom.

By this time the civil war had calmed down a bit (A peace treaty was finally signed four years later in 1996.) but people had not forgotten the recent atrocities. I had been warned not to wear anything resembling military attire. Soldiers never wear shorts so I thought it would be OK to trek wearing my usual shorts, jungle boots, camo tee, and Rambo style headband, but I was very much mistaken.

It is my habit to walk ahead of others, especially the porters. So it was that I was following a narrow path on a steep mountainside when I came around a bend to discover an Indian woman and her two kids.

The poor woman looked at me in terror from a few feet away. I wanted to reassure her by attempting to say, “Don’t be afraid!” (No tengas miedo!), but my Spanish was worse than bad so instead I said, “No tengo mierda” Which means, “I have no shit!”

The woman  turned around and fled with her children as I pursued her yelling, “I have no shit! I have no shit!”. Shortly thereafter she and her kids leapt off the path into a steep ravine and that was the last we saw of her.

Half an hour later we arrived at an abandoned village. The home fires were burning but nobody was home. We continued on the the next village and ditto, nobody home. The fearsome visage of the Weazel had caused the entire populace to flee!

That was not the only ludicrous incident caused by mistranslation. As we were walking along one of our porters, who was a townie and thus knew all about the world asked, “Is it true that in the United States homosexuals can get married and have children?” Ann and I thought he was talking about the many closeted gays who do in fact have wives and children, so we said, “Sure, it happens all the time”. About an hour later the fellow hesitatingly asked, “So, when a Maricon has a baby does it come out his ass?” Ann and I fell about the place laughing but he was dead serious. “If not out of his ass then where does the baby come from?”

Our porters cross the Rio Chiacte on a bridge mostly made of barbed wire

This was once lush rainforest; but, as you can see in the photo above the hills have been completely denuded by agriculture

We continued on until we got to the pleasant little village of Chijolom where there was a church and even a school.

Chijolom, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

We were well received by the resident school teacher, an amiable overweight man who explained that he planned to die in Chilojom because he was too fat to walk out. In the course of conversation he mentioned that, “The largest cave in Central America is located not far from here in a place called Yalijux”.

Needless to say we were excited by this news and asked, “How far is not far?” He had no idea but had been told by the Indians that it was just over the hill. I must digress to explain that the concept of distance is as relative to an Indian as time is to Einstein. The school teacher asked several knowledgeable old men and they all gave different answers but agreed that Yalijux was somewhere to the west.

We thought it would only be a day trip, so in the morning we set out without our packs for what we thought would only be a short walk. Hours went by as we climbed higher and higher on a series of very rough trails. At every juncture we sought someone to tell us the way to Yalijux but no two people agreed so we simply continued west.

By the late afternoon we had crossed the mountain and could see Yalijux below. We were starving, so we were delighted to discover an ancient avocado tree whose ripe fruit was covering the ground. We gorged ourselves. It seemed odd that no local Indian had taken advantage of the bounty. Could it be that the tree was taboo or owned by an evil Patron? It was our first indication that Yalijux was not a welcoming place.

Once in the village we found another teacher, not a dedicated do-gooder like in Chijolom, but rather a dullard who could not be bothered to teach, for what was the point of teaching the Indians anything other than obedience?

He confirmed the rumor that the nearby cave known as Jul Mas Nim was said to be the largest in Central America, but what made him think that? That was when he produced a photo of fellow cave explorer Steve Knutson who had been there in 1988 with an expedition. Unlike me, Steve is a real caver who goes deep and makes maps so I believed it. (Jul Mas Nim has since been surpassed in length by the Candelaria cave system that I visited in 2017 and the vast Chiquibul system which starts in Belize and ends in Guatemala.)

The teacher found some truant school boys to lead us to the cave which had an extremely impressive entrance.

Jul Mas Nim cave near Yalijux Guatemala

For scale notice the three people in the foreground and the tiny dot of light beyond. I didn’t go deep inside because I’m not a real caver like Steve!

By the time we got back to Yalijux it was much too late in the day to even consider trekking back across the mountains to Chijolom. The problem was that we had no food, no tent, and no warm clothes. I was wearing nothing but shorts and a tee shirt so I was beginning to freeze due to the high altitude.

As the sun set we huddled in the wind and rain by the dilapidated padlocked school while the worthless teacher went in search of succor. He returned with the Alcalde and a gunman.

Our first problem was hunger so the gunman led us to the home of a poor Indian family and ordered them to feed us. The problem was that they were starving themselves so our visit was a terrible imposition.

A poor family in Yalijux, Guatemala

The family was honored but greatly distressed because any food that we ate came from the mouths of their children. In the end there was only enough for three little tortillas per person and a dab of beans, so they broke out their secret food stash, a single packet of Ramen noodles that had been left over from the expedition four years earlier. They had kept it because they had no idea what to do with it. What are noodles, little dried worms?

Their living conditions were absolutely intolerable. Fire ants had invaded their hut, so any time a foot touched the ground the ants would swarm up and sting. The only respite was to be above ground in a hammock, but there weren’t even enough hammocks so the kids all had to sleep together. Cooking was torture for the woman because she had to squat by the fire to prepare the tortillas. The worst part was that we had no money to give them. All of our valuables were locked up back in Chijolom.

After our meager meal the gunman returned and demanded their blankets. I angrily refused to allow that to happen; so he shrugged, went to a nearby house, waved his gun, then stole blankets from that unfortunate family.

Back in the middle of the village the Alcalde offered to let us stay in the so called “health center” which served as the jail. It was a wretched little concrete room with the twisted remnants of a box spring bed with no mattress. The floor was covered with dried human shit. Ann and I wrapped ourselves in our single filthy stolen blanket and attempted to sleep on the box springs, whereas our porters simply lay down on the concrete. So it was that we passed a cold and horribly uncomfortable night. In the morning we returned to Chijolom and considered it a veritable paradise by comparison to Yalijux.

After a good night and a proper dinner in Chijolom (Plenty of tortillas!) we were ready to resume our journey.

Shortly after leaving Chijolom we encountered an extraordinary ruin, a very large and impressive ball court where a famer now planted corn.

A Mayan ball court near Chijolom Guatemala

This was no rinky dink ball court. Judging from the scale and complexity it must have been the center of a large urban complex where over 1000 years ago matters of State were resolved through blood sport, for the losing team was sacrificed to the Gods and their lands and women awarded to the victor. I could not help but be reminded of the immortal words (Ha!) of Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

At the end of a long hard day we arrived at a little town, bought more food, then hitched a ride on an overloaded truck to the legendary Semuc Champey which means “Where the river hides beneath the stones”.

Semuc Champey,. Image swiped from Wiki

A more beautiful place could hardly be imagined so we were especially dismayed to discover that because of the recently constructed road it had become a defacto tourist attraction. As a result the place was covered with trash and human shit. It was so bad that we couldn’t even find a suitable place to camp.

Since I am stealing photos off the web I might as well steal another that is much better than my own. If my memory serves this is the downstream entrance to the cave beneath the blue pools.

https://expertvagabond.com/semuc-champey/

The above photo is not what it seems. Notice that the flow over the falls is much less that that of the Cahabon river which emerges from a cave beneath the blue pools. Pools above an underground river? How could that possibly be?

Another stolen image of Semuc Champey. These pools are above the river.

Semuc Champey is one of the few places on earth where mineral laden waters from hot springs have actually caused travertine formations to grow above and across another body of water. It is hard to imagine how that could initially occur given the force of the Rio Cahabon when in flood. The only other place that I have ever seen such a phenomenon was in a remote part of China.

The pools may be placid and picture perfect but just upstream where the river goes underground a death trap awaits the unwary.

Where the Rio Cahabon sinks beneath Semuc Champey

Several tourists have died here. In 1993, a year after my visit, Steve Knutson and a team of hard core cavers attempted a through trip from entrance to entrance but failed. No one has tried since.

I was especially enamored of the wild jungle just upstream of Semuc Champey.

Wild jungle on the Rio Cahabon

Much more remains to be discovered along the Rio Cahabon and elsewhere in the highlands of Alta Verapaz.

From Semuc Champey we headed north to the provincial capitol of Coban where I enjoyed my first hot shower in over two months. It was about time. Thereafter we returned to Belize for yet more adventures.

Enough is enough, you must be tired just from reading all this. Now you know why I am so fascinated with Guatemala, so I will bid you “Vaya al Diablo”.

In the next segment of our thrilling adventure we will probe the Mayan mind and learn the origin of mankind!

 

 

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