Canada is known for having 60% of the worlds lakes within it’s boundaries; but Guatemala’s (despite only having 3 of decent size) were just as beautiful, if not more. Caye Caulker, Cancun and Playa Del Carmen had seen to our cravings for the oceans. Now, we pined for the vast lakes that had evaded us since Vancouver; and our luck would change as we crossed the Belize-Guatemalan border.
Flores was a small town made up of brightly-coloured houses (Balamory style) in a northern state of Guatemala. Our accommodation, Hotel Peten, backed onto the stunning Lake Peten Itza, with the setting sun getting ready to sleep beneath the calm waters. A homemade boat (two canoes botched together with scaffolding and wood, topped off with a straw roof that James would later put his foot through) came to shore and 14 of us clambered on board with litres of rum, beer and whisky. We paid the crew (a father and his two sons aged 15 and 20) for them to take us around the lake in time for the sunset.
In the middle of Lake Peten Itza was a small island, and on the outskirts lived an old family who had built a diving board and a rope-swing off a cliff so that backpackers could build up their adrenaline to cancel out the levels of tranquillity that you can’t help but reach looking around at the scenery. We played here for an hour or two, until realising that the sun was only an inch above the horizon; and we quickly swam back to the boat to capture the incredible view.
With darkness setting in, we stopped off again to swim (another Brit, Jay, would find himself clinging onto the underside of the bow as the 15-year-old captain unwittingly started up his engine) and the boat turned on its neon lights to illuminate the bodies in the water. It was here that James drunkenly climbed up the scaffolding to front flip off the side of the boat, putting his foot straight through the straw roof in the process. We headed back to shore.
Although it’s not a lake, Cascada el Paradiso is still mention-worthy, and it broke up the bus ride to Rio Dulce. Volcanically-warmed water gushes over a ledge into a comparatively-freezing pool; and we spent an hour or so swimming in the pools and jumping off the ledge. Those who didn’t trust the depth of the pool (myself included), let the hot water and the resulting steam work it’s magic as a ‘natural sauna’, until the tropical rain set in and we clambered back into our minivan.
Thanks to Jay for taking this heavily-plagiarized photo.
Our eco-lodge in Rio Dulce was built on stilts amidst Lago de Izabal, and the lake came up and under the restaurants and cabins. Freshwater fish were visible anywhere that we peered over the suspended walkways; and we attempted to catch them from the balcony at the back of our cabin. The never-ending rain put riddance to our plans of kayaking and spotting howler monkeys in the trees (they were taking shelter, as were we)- but some of the group went horseback riding in the forests that surrounded the lake and the town of Rio Dulce.
Robyn’s photo of the group as we crossed Lago de Izabel.
Our final lake that we visited was Lake Atitlan. We had left our ‘big bags’ in the colonial city of Antigua and packed two days’ worth of clothes into our smaller rucksacks, before making the 3 hour journey west to Panajachal. Like Flores, it was a small town sitting on the edge of a gigantic lake, but didn’t have the same colourful charm as its northern counterpart. To really appreciate the size of Atitlan, we took to the skies and paraglided over it; I hope the sight of three towering, grey volcanoes separating the blues of the sky and lake stays etched upon my mind for a lifetime. Stunning. (You can watch the video of this incredible morning here).
A water-taxi took us directly across the lake to San Juan del Laguna, via a restaurant/spa to pick up those of the group who didn’t paraglide. Once in the town, built into the side of a volcano with knee-jarringly steep inclines and declines around every bend, we were ‘picked’ by local families (how I imagine the evacuation process of London children in WW2 was like!) to stay with them for a night. James, Jay and I grouped together and stayed with a coffee-farmer, Javier, his wife and two sons – Santiago and Luis. There were a staggering 42 family members staying in their complex of houses, including at least 7 daughters (most of whose names I forget – we watched Vera win at a local basketball game that evening), dozens of uncles, aunts and cousins. They cooked us a traditional meal, hydrated us with delicious coffee, roasted that day; and then ushered us into a room with smiles on their faces. Three garish outfits were laid out for us: a black shirt with colourful squares stitched into it, baggy three-quarter-length pantalons and a wide length of fabric that Javier tugged around my waist to make a belt. Once dressed, all the families communicated with one another so that all 16 of us could meet up in the park and take photos while dressed up in the Mayan clothes.
At 3am, some of the group hiked up the volcano to watch the sunrise over Lake Atitlan; and by 9am we had eaten breakfast with our families and were back on our way to Antigua.
Another photo taken from Robyn, one of the 4 from the group who woke up at 3am and hiked up the volcano to watch the sunrise.
We spent a final day here in Antigua on motorbikes courtesy of MotoCamp rentals (video below – not suitable for young ears, sorry!); said an emotional goodbye to 7 members of the group; and then went for a welcoming meal for their 6 replacements.
The second half of the G-Adventures Central American Journey will be led by Clare, as Juan Pablo* is taking a well-deserved 4-day break before continuing south on the same route but with a new group. Two Canadians, a Kiwi, an Aussie and three Brits left the tour and were replaced by three more Canadians, a Norwegian, a German and another British lad. Onwards.
*Juan Pablo, or JP, sums up everything that a tour leader should be. His English was so good that he could fully join in on our daily jokes and pranks; he spent one of his unpaid days off with us so that we could dirt bike around as a group; came on every night out with us; knew the best places to go; taught us a hundred new Spanish words; arranged discounted prices for our activities; and went the extra mile giving us some tips for when we visit his native Colombia. I’ve got my fingers crossed that we cross paths again.