Hola Guatemala - again. The border crossing is incredibly easy. All we have to do is pay departure tax at Mexico, & get our passports stamped. We keep our vehicle papers as we are returning to Mexico. Once in Guatemala we get our wheels fumigated (Haha), passports stamped & a sticker for GR2’s windscreen. No photocopies required (they do all that) & at the cost of 160Q(A$20). All done in less than an hour.
We head off through a massive gorge to our first stop – Huehuetenango. Our aim is to get some Quetzals (local cash). We must have tried every ATM in town, plus queued inside numerous banks. No joy!! We end up changing Mexican Paso’s. By the time we leave it is getting late & we are on the look out for a spot to camp. We are heading up a massive mountain range & all spare land is cultivated. Finally we spy a picnic spot next to a Comedor/ restaurant & ask. Yes that is fine. We settle in before it rains.
We have a long drive ahead of us & have read that it is spectacular, but there have been huge slips & the road may be in a bad condition. The first 100km are great. Good seal & great scenery, with the only drawback being lots of topes in villages. But once we cross the river near Uspantan the road changes. There are massive slips, & we drive over sections that have been cleared by hand. In fact in most places they are still shoveling stones. The road deteriorates further into potholes & finally bedrock. Very slow going for the final 50km. At one point the whole mountainside has slipped away leaving only a hand hewn track. Finally we reach Verapaz near dusk, & eventually the main road. We stop at the gorgeous San Rafael Hotel & I ask if we can use their carpark. As a bonus it is free! More rain again, & we still have that leak.
John is still not feeling great, so after our huge drive yesterday we decide to slow up a bit & do a few touristy things. First stop Coban & the supermarket. Then an ATM – we love that sound as money flicks through the machine. Off to find the Coffee Finca – when we do find it, we discover the tour is temporarily closed. So we head off to find the Orchid tour. Hello, there is a height barrier over the bridge. We are beckoned into a car yard to turn around, and amazingly it is a wrecking yard. The owner’s son Peter speaks great English, so he, his father & John spends most of the day chatting about car & truck imports. It is great to see John sparkle again. We get the guided tour of both yards, & then I’m taken to the Orchid place. It too has closed so Peter arranges for a friend of his to take me to see his orchids. So I get a personal tour of Orquigona. A very special place where they save many species of orchids. Many are saved from logging areas & replanted & tended here. Back at GR2 John & Peter have sorted out the leak in GR2. They have replaced the seal between the cab and the camper section. Before we leave Peters yard I use his Wifi to update our website (so it was a pretty rushed one with not too much proof reading – my apologies) It is getting late, so we head out of town to stop overnight at a petrol station. They even set up a row of witches’ hats to stop any cars driving beside us – how thoughtful.
Our next destination is the famous Semuc Champey (in fact we have driven a long way to see them – so they better be good!) The last 10km to Lanquin is a pretty rough. It is a further 10km into Semuc with a track too narrow for us, so we decide to go by local transport (standing in the back of a ute) and leave GR2 in town. The limestone pools are magic. Very slippery to get in to & I am not too keen on all the fish that keep nibbling my toes, but the spot is drop dead gorgeous. Amazingly we don’t climb to the Mirador (John really doesn’t feel well). A nice quiet night in the Hotel La Recreo carpark for 50Q($7).
Again a huge driving day as we head back to Coban & then south through the mountains to Guatemala City (in fact there was no way of avoiding it) & on to Antigua. Here we can camp in the tourist Police compound/goal for free. We are so close to town we can walk to a restaurant for dinner. The next day is spent doing the Lonely Planet’s walking tour, somehow managing to explore every nook & cranny, plus lots of churches – in use & in ruins – it has suffered from many earthquakes over the years. We both love the old town with so many of the buildings in a semi-ruined state - especially the convents and churches. It must have been some place in its day.
Can you believe it -I am devastated! We are not climbing Volcan Pacaya. John must be sick. We stay another night & so get to eat out some more, & on Monday morning go to the local markets only a street away. The local ladies wear such a kaleidoscope of colours here – it is a true visual feast. After buying enough fruit & veges to last a week we head off to our next destination – Lago de Aititlan. Only I choose a back road – very scenic, but lots of topes, then very steep & winding. This road too has suffered damage. At one point the bridge has washed away & we ford the river, & at another there has been a landslide… the road worker tells us in perfect English – dangerous, drive very fast!!
We find a camp spot just past Panajachel, right beside the gorgeous lake, surrounded by Volcanoes for 50Q (including Wifi) – magic. The next day we walk into town to catch a local lancha/boat around to the lakeside village of Santa Cruz la Lagona. It is a very steep walk up to town, but what a find. There is a local cooperative called Amigos de Santa Cruz Foundation, where the ladies learn to sew, children get better schooling, & sex education is taught. They have a small restaurant overlooking the lake. Best hot chocolate ever with ginger & cardamom. I want to buy some of their weavings, so we are taken up, up ,up the hill to a ladies very simple hut. I chose a few & the girls show us their back strap looms. Then catch the boat back to town & enjoy a local set menu lunch, before walking back to GR2.
After 2 nights in this gorgeous spot it is time to move on. Up the mountains & through the town of Solola. The church is full of locals (even on a Wednesday) & there are men, as well as ladies, in ethnic outfits. Our next destination is Fuentes Georginas, but we have to drive through the city of Quetzaltenango to get there. Road signs within a city are as rare as hen’s teeth & we end up snarled in tiny, one way streets, finding low overhead bridges. After reversing out of a street which means I have to hop out & get rid of all the cars!! a local teenager hops in to direct us out of town (there was no way we could have done this one on our own!). Finally out & on towards our hot pools. But just as we turn off onto our final 11km on a tiny road – mist rolls in – it thickens to pea soup fog. It is a very slow drive, rewarded with a lovely soak in the hot pools. Then we have another soak the next morning. I don’t think we have ever seen hot water flowing down such a huge rock face before.
Our original plan was to visit local markets on our way back to Quetzaltenango, but after yesterday we decide to bypass the city & head to the border. It is a magic drive back down the hill (no mist this time) as the villagers are out harvesting carrots, radishes, onions, cabbages & potatoes. So we have to stop and shop. We have a long slow drive through lots more crazy towns with no road signs. Eventually we reach the border – Hola Mexico. Although this time they check our food – we lose our eggs & fruit to the fat border officer (he failed to see the food sitting on the bed – he only looked in the fridge)