After mastering the Spanish language in just two weeks, Jed and I were off to conquer the rest of Guatemala. First stop was to be the beautiful Chemuc Champay.
We took back roads north from Lago Atitlan and were surprised to find that they were mostly all paved. Nevertheless, the ride still felt remote, and the views were gorgeous as we wound our way through the highlands, up and down the mountains and in and out of the clouds. There were times that the clouds were so thick that you literally couldn’t see the road ten feet ahead of you.
While searching for a place to stop for the night, because our supposed 6 hour drive somehow managed to take us all day (per usual), we came across the biggest landslide we have ever seen. It was massive, practically the whole side of a mountain! We had to pay the road crew who were trying to rebuild the road just to let us pass through.
Right after crossing the slide it began to rain hard and it didn’t stop until sometime the next morning. It was definitely the most rain we have seen thus far on our Central American rainy season tour, however it didn’t hinder us at all as we stopped at a hotel for the night.
The following morning, while completing the journey, we got a taste of some good ol’ Guatemalan dirt roads . The road dropping down in to Chemuc Champay was steep, rocky, narrow and winding. It made us thankful of two things:
1. That we were in control of our own vehicle and not stuck in the back bed of a Guatemalan’s pick up truck like the rest of the backpackers who venture to Chemuc.
2. That we were in a relatively small size vehicle with good 4 wheel drive capability… and not driving around something like this…
Chemuc Champay and the surrounding area were well worth the journey north from the lake. Chemuc Champay itself, a Guatemalan National Park, is claimed to be one of the world’s natural wonders. It is a 300m limestone land bridge with a raging river running underneath and layers of cool crystal blue pools separated by small waterfalls on top. All surrounded by steep walls of rock and dense jungle. We spent our first afternoon there running up the slippery, steep trails to the overlook, playing in the pools below and taking lots of pictures. We took great pictures of the area but unfortunately the water was cloudy that day from all the rain the night before. So just imagine crystal clear water…
We camped right outside of the park at a great little backpacker’s hostel with a nice deck sitting on the hill above the river. We met people from all over the world, but ended up spending most of the afternoon on our second day with a great couple from Boston. The four of us decided to take the tour of the cave across the river together. We had heard from others the night before that it was “really cool and unlike most of the other cave tours you go on”. Well it was definitely that! Most cave tours you walk in a little ways, look around, the guide points out stalactites and stalagmites and you are done. This one, however, seemed more about testing your limits than viewing the cave.
We entered the mouth of the cave and into the river running out of it. The guide lit candles and handed one to each of us. We followed him by candelight swimming through the deep pools, up through the slippery wet limestone tunnels and back down in to dark pools of water. We all thought the tour was done when the guide swam up to a waterfall. I was already thinking “Oh, this was a pretty cool cave tour”. But as I reached the guide under the waterfall he motioned for me to go up. I looked and I saw a rope dangling in the waterfall. I was thinking okay this is a little crazy but it must be pretty easy as they are telling people to do it all the time, so I grabbed the rope and started climbing up the waterfall in the dark. A few feet up however I found myself clinging hard to the rope unable to breathe and having a hard time finding, or let alone lifting, another foot to boost myself up due to the copious amounts of water rushing down over my head. My determination (or most likely fear) did take over and I yanked myself to the top. Once there I couldn’t quite comprehend if that really was that hard and scary or if I just missed something. I decided to keep my mouth shut and just let the others follow, but when Jed’s head popped up out of the waterfall a few minutes later gasping for air and looking a little bewildered. I thought, “Okay, I am not a wuss. That was crazy.” Jed first reaction was to go and check the jangled up mess of the knot that this rope was tied to. I could just see his mind thinking “What kind of third-world cave touring operation have we gotten ourselves in to?”
After the waterfall, I imaginied that we would be going quite a bit further in to the cave and maybe coming out through another chamber. But No! The tour concluded at the pool right above the waterfall where the guide climbed up the side wall of the cave and jumped 15ft in to the pool below, instructing us to do the same. Well…. Okay!
I have to say, when all said and done it was the best caving tour I have ever been on.
We learned on the walk back from the cave that we could jump from the bridge into the river about 30ft below, so we finished off our afternoon with a good jumping and swimming session. It was a great day!
The next spot on our list for Guatemala was Rio Dulce (Sweet River). As the bird flies from Chemuc Champay this place was pretty close, but to get there by road we were told we had two main options and either way would take us around the mountain ranges and about 6 hours. However we noticed on our map a series of “trail roads” through the mountains that would provide a more direct route. Being the rainy season (and Guatemala) we tried to find out about the condition of these roads before we made our decision. We received the gambit of responses from “It’s impassable” to “you’ll be fine”. We decided to go with the latter response and went for it.
We are very glad with our choice as it gave us the chance to see some wonderful views, explore some back country villages, use the four-wheel drive a little bit and shave three hours off our travel time. We even stopped for a soak in a hot water waterfall that flowed in to a cool pool of the river below and we got to do some more cliff jumping.
Rio Dulce, the town, is located at the point where the river/waterway from the Caribbean sea opens up in to the largest lake in Guatemala. It has become a popular hangout for those out traveling the world by sailboat. When leaving Chemuc Champay that morning we met a guy from Texas pulling in on a dirt bike who is running a hotel/dock in Rio Dulce for the season. He told us we were welcome to park and camp at his place for free. Perfect! We spent the next day around there walking around, swimming in the water and drinking beer and watching the boats go by. It was nice to have a relaxing day to slow our pace and prep our minds for the border of El Salvador. We had a three hour drive to make from Rio Dulce to the border the following day.
Jed woke the next morning saying that we should just grab some fruit at a roadside stand for breakfast. Now anyone who knows Jed, knows this boy does not go anywhere without first having a proper breakfast and a full pot of coffee. So my initial response was, “Are you feeling okay?” He said he was fine just feeling a little bloated, but by the time we reached the border he was burning up and hardly had the energy to walk around. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, nothing happens quickly at the El Salvador border. So after a couple hours we finally made it through and then our only mission was to find a place where we could pop-up the camper so Jed could lie down.
We drove out to a lake splitting the two countries and Jed quickly climbed in bed and slept away the rest of the day. In the seven years we have been together it was the first time I had ever seen him with more than the sniffles.
After sleeping it off, whatever it was, we drove south in to the country towards the coast and in search of some surfing. After a month away from the coast we were ready to give it another go and we had heard such great things about the surf in El Salvador. Apparently though, we were not the only ones to hear such great things. There were at least thirty people in the lineup of every break we went to down the central part of the coast. We bounced from spot to spot, El Zonte, El Tunco, Sonzato… and they were all beautiful, but still left us feeling a little frustrated because we just wanted to surf without competing for waves and dodging heads.
We caught wind of a developed climbing area called Puerta Diablo (Devil’s Gate) inland towards San Salvador and thought we would leave the surfing behind for a bit. The area was beautiful, minus all the spray painted rock and strange people. To spare you further details we will just say that the place lives up to it’s name and we didn’t find it a suitable place to stay.
Luckily you could probably drive through all of El Salvador in 3 hours, so our trip back to the coast was only an hour. We decided that we should head further east and try to put some distance between us and the city. We found ourselves that evening on a thin peninsula we thought would have some remote beaches. Man, were we wrong! The place was lined with resorts and private residences. Everything was gated. We couldn’t even get to the beach until the very end. It was getting dark at this point and we needed a place to stay. Driving up the beach we spotted a guy walking with his dog and stopped him to ask if he knew a place we could camp. He, Javier, replied, “Yes, you will camp on my land.”
He showed us to his property which ran from one side of the peninsula all the way through to the other. Javier, a 22yr old, is in the process of trying to turn this land, previously owned by his grandparents, in to a fishing resort of sorts. He works as a deep sea fishing guide on his own boat and is also farming fish for guests to catch for dinner on his own property. Needless to say, he had a freezer full of fish and invited us in to a fresh Mahi-Mahi dinner. We ended up spending a couple of nights camping on the vacant beach at his place and loved getting to know him and his friends.
Further east we finally did beat the crowds a little bit and found a great little surf spot called Los Flores. We spent four days here and though the crowd did pick up a little more every day along with the swell, it always remained fun and low-agro.
Now I have to mention at this point that there has been this “phrase” that has followed me all my life. I have realized at this point that it is a small world and that I never quite know where it is going to pop back up. Nevertheless, it is still always a little surprising, especially when sitting on a wave in El Salvador, when a guy turns to me and says “DJ’s sister!” He turned out to be an old roommate of my brother’s who was in Los Flores on a weeklong surfing vacation. Like I said… small world!
It is a small world and yet soo big, and after four days in one spot it was time to move on. We had completed our tour of El Salvador and had decided to move along to Nicaragua.