There are basically two routes you can take if you’re trying to drive directly from Tikal in the north to Semuc Champey in central Guatemala. According to our map the most direct route was a skinny little red line, indicating a secondary road, and a more roundabout fat blue line indicating a nice paved two lane road. We decided to try to make the drive in only one day and thus did not want to take our chances on the skinny red line, despite it being a shorter distance. We aimed for the fat blue line and by mid afternoon we were making good time. At this point, we were supposed to stop driving south and catch a road to head west. Thinking we were looking for another fat blue line of a road we easily sped past the sleepy little town of Modesto Mendez. Once we realized we had possibly gone too far we double backed passing the turnoff once more. Without a decent map, and struggling to understand the directions given to us by the locals, we would waste the valuable daylight we had left searching for this supposed fat blue line. When we finally found the road it became apparent why we were able to drive past it four times. The road was dirt, wider than one lane but not by much, and ravaged by the previous rainy season. Using the last of our daylight we were lead further and further into the countryside away from civilization. Over the first hour we were unable to bring the speedometer past the 20 miles per hour mark and had to admit to ourselves that we had a very long drive ahead of us. Darkness was quickly upon us and without a place to park we had to start weighing our options. We still hadn’t eaten dinner and cooking on the side of the road did not sound appealing. Then it started to rain.
Eyeing every dirt road as a possible hiding place Jill spotted a small weathered sign where she could barely make out the word Balneario. Remembering that the word meant something along the lines of resort or spa we decided we would see where the road takes us. We drove down the dirt road which was pinned tightly between two fences not leaving any room to pull over the van. A mile in the road finally opened up to a small clearing with plenty of flat ground to park the car. There was no resort but a public swimming hole with a pedestrian bridge crossing the river. We even spotted a roofed structure big enough to park the van under saving us from having to bother with the awning or tromp around in the mud while preparing dinner. Just when we least expected it our luck turned 180°, and the long drive that was before considered to be a huge inconvenience quickly turned into an opportunity. The words are said often, but that does not mean that in moments of frustration you don’t have to be reminded. When our fate changed course we accepted that we might not be getting to our destination any time soon, and remembered that the drive in of itself is the destination.
We woke up early the next morning and continued our drive to Semuc Champey. The road we traveled along continued to contradict the map and its condition only got worse. At one point we passed a road construction site with a sign indicating the road would be closed to all traffic heading in our direction until the following day. Since we hadn’t passed any traffic in either direction for over an hour we hesitantly decided to drive a bit further. We’re glad we did as we soon realized no one was complying with the sign. The road was one lane and only sporadically allowed enough room for two cars to pass each other. Often we were met by a truck or bus in the oncoming direction causing either of us to retreat in order to get by. The fog was so thick that at times visibility was cut down to less than 15 feet forcing us to drive even slower than the road was allowing. Our one day drive turned out to be the better part of two days, and although at times was stressful, the places it took us through was worth the effort. We saw tiny little communities untouched by outside influences that seemed to be stationary in time. The road, with its deep pot holes, muddy tracks, and vertical grades put Marge to the test, but at no point did she complain or refuse to do what was asked. When the road finally did end, at the gates of Semuc Champey late in the afternoon on day two, we felt accomplished. Whether the park proved to be worth the drive or not at that point didn’t matter. We knew that the drive itself would become the memory that dominates these few days.
Semuc Champey, tucked deep in the jungle, is one of the most famous natural wonders in Guatemala. From above you can see a series of blue and green pools bordered by bright green algae. The pools are formed out of a natural limestone bridge, hiding beneath it a raging river which dives below ground and travels through a cave before pouring out the other side of the pools. When we learned they would charge us a bit more than we were expecting to stay overnight in the parking lot, we decided to shop around at some of the hotels nearby. We ended up less than 50 yards down the road in the front yard of a family who ran a small eco-hotel overlooking the river. They insisted that we would not be imposing and only asked the equivalent of less than $3 for the service. Their kids, taking after the entrepreneurial spirit of their parents, wasted no time trying to sell us little homemade chocolates flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, or cardamom. I spotted the mother looking on from afar keeping an eye on her children. She reached up to the tree she was leaning against and grab a purple looking fruit the size of a small football. She handed it to one of her daughters who ran it over to us. When she handed it to me she gave a big toothless grin and said “cacoa.” I returned the smile, took the fruit from her and confidently began trying to open it up with my trusty leatherman. After struggling for about a minute trying to open up the thick hard shell, the little girl grabbed it from me, dropped to her knees and with one hard smack to a rock cracked it open. A little embarrassed I noticed the mom couldn’t resist letting out a little chuckle. Inside the fruit were seeds, each one covered by a white pulp that could be eaten and was super sweet. The kids knew their mark and easily sold us most of their chocolate.
The following day we made our way into the park. We hiked high up above the pools and swam in the turquoise water. As we poked our heads over the edge of the pools to the entrance of the cave and saw the river plunge into an abyss I realized how unique a geologic feature this was. In the back of my mind, however, I was still thinking about the drive, and the fact that later that day we get to do it all over again on our way out.