We bump up and down in the back of a pick-up truck, shuffling and shaking over a road so potholed it would make the cobblestones in Paris-Roubaix look like a newly paved highway. Six travellers from Ecuador hold onto their big boxes of takeaway pizza and their ice coolers. Their stomachs turn as the next rock on the road sends them jumping up as if they are on a bouncy castle. They wonder if the prize at the end of the road will be worth the ordeal, if Semuc Champey will be really as pretty as the guidebooks and the pictures promise.
“Go back to your country”
Surely, it will be, right? Why, otherwise, so many travellers call this natural monument, this 300 metres long limestone bridge with its azure blue and turquoise pools ‘the most beautiful spot in Guatemala’? Why, otherwise, does it rank among the ‘highlights’ in Lonely Planet? Why, otherwise, have we gotten up before the break of dawn, to shuffle with eyes full of glue to the nearest comedor for a nutritious helping of scrambled eggs, frijoles and leathery corn tortillas? Why, if not to stand at the door at 8 o’clock sharp, to beat the rush of tourists and witness the natural beauty by ourselves?
The journey from El Estor to Lanquin, the closest village, proved to be a hurdle race. Upon arrival, barely with our feet on the pavement after three long and at times hair-raising chicken bus rides, a local tout instantly tried to drag us onto his pick-up truck. Like an annoying mosquito, too glib to be swatted away, he was ready to drive us to wherever we wanted to go, to whichever accommodation we favoured. The only things I favoured were a warm meal and a moment to relax. I asked him to back off and said that we didn’t need his help, a message that was apparently hard to swallow. “Go back to your own country,” he bawled, “We don’t need your type here.” Welcome to Lanquin, welcome to Semuc Champey.
Little did we know that the hurdle race would continue the next day. As we ride the 10 kilometres from Lanquin to Semuc Champey, the seemingly under-age Mayan girl with the candid mouth who fixed the transportation for us, clings to the back of the truck, determined to get her part of the fee. Everybody bobs up and down, until… the truck suddenly halts. A roadblock. The trail is obstructed by big rocks. A robbery? No, two local Mayan ladies stand by the side of the road and tell us about a local protest. It isn’t very clear to us, but they talk about a murder in the village. Either the murderer or the murder weapon is still missing, or both.
You won’t say when you see those cute chubby Mayan ladies in their colourful, patterned dresses and their pint-sized husbands with their cowboy hats and their broad smiles of golden teeth, but Guatemala has one of the highest murder ratios per capita in the world. Weapons circulate freely in this country. You see guns everywhere, heavy calibre rifles in the hands of extremely young security agents in front of banks, pharmacies, shops, chicken restaurants or trucks full of beer crates being unloaded. There are three or four times more security agents than cops and they all carry weapons. And those are only the visible guns. There’s a multitude of illegal ones. Gang membership is on the rise, an alternative to a life in poverty for many young Guatemalans.
Use your balls
Anyway, the two women next to the roadblock don’t budge. The Mayan transport fixer, however, doesn’t want to give up her commission so easily and starts breaking up the blockade with her own hands. The Ecuadorians help a little bit and before we know it, we are moving again. At least for a while, until a new roadblock forces the driver to brake again. The whole village stands next to the road, the atmosphere is grim. A few men hack additional tree trunks with their machetes to reinforce the barricade.
On the other side of the block, another truck filled with tourists wants to make the reverse journey, back to civilisation. They have spent the night in a campsite or a hostel closer to Semuc Champey and want to return to Lanquin. But the villagers, full of wrath, stand firm. No motorised vehicle will pass here. The tour leader in the oncoming truck is furious and shouts at the crowd, without result. Ash-faced gringos drag their luggage over the barricade to our truck. The Ecuadorians hang their heads, defeated by the circumstances. They will not see Semuc Champey today.
Instead of climbing onto our truck, we decide to walk back to Lanquin. Better to do something with our day. “I think you can still make it to Semuc Champey if you walk,” the aggressive tour leader cries out. “You’ve got balls, use ‘em!”
Noisy water paradise?
All well, but I’d like to keep that pair intact for a couple more decades. Carefully, we walk towards the blockade. I ask if we can continue our journey on foot. The mob shrugs collectively, full of apathy, as if they don’t care whether we walk on or started dancing the hornpipe on the spot. Yes! It starts to dawn – we are past the roadblock that doesn’t allow any motorised transport in, on the way to one of Guatemala’s most impressive natural wonders. I can’t estimate how many tourists stay in nearer accommodations, but can it be? Can it be that we’ll have Semuc Champey all to ourselves?
I speed up, it is still a long way. The setting is worthy of a postcard. We walk in a green and hilly landscape, past rural village life. Young girls carry bowls of corn on their heads, families breakfast al fresco and we hear constant yodelling. Yodelling? Have a bunch of loud American and Dutch brawlers found a back entry to Semuc Champey? Are they changing the place into a noisy water paradise? The explanation follows instants later. Men of all ages – the youngest not even twenty, the oldest crooked by life – work together to constrain the jungle, to clear the hill and to create space for even more corn plants. Every time a tree is felled, the yodelling sounds as a warning for neighbouring comrades.
Some workers chop trees, others cut grass or walk to the local store to buy a 3.3-litre bottle of cola. Water is for losers. The mood is sky-high. No dejected faces, but a joy of work for which any socialist party leader would sacrifice a non-vital organ. We greet all with loud Buenos Diases or Holas, just to make sure we are on the right page with the locals. There might, after all, be a murderer in their midst and they all carry machetes. At a T-crossroad, a young guy slashes down a small tree next to a traffic sign ‘Semuc Champey 2 –>’. I still don’t know what happens next, if it’s a sunstroke or the falling tree that distracts me, but we turn the wrong way. Unfortunately, it takes some time before we realise that those two kilometres take a long time, a very, very long time.
For outsiders, it might seem as if the entire American continent south of the American-Mexican border speaks Spanish, besides the Brazilians. It’s not true. In the Guatemalan highlands, you regularly encounter people who speak less Spanish than yourself. Who – in other words – are not even capable to order a cerveza in the pub. Here, the many Mayan languages are king. Despite those linguistic difference, the locals quickly got us back on the right path.
Semuc Champey is ours!
We are exhausted, having made a detour of five, six, seven, maybe eight kilometres. If we don’t earn our spot in paradise now, then when? The reward is accordingly. As we behold the appealing water plateaus, sandwiched by jungle-covered mountains, we write our names on the empty list of visitors for the day. Semuc Champey is ours! Later in the afternoon, the flow of tourists gets underway – the blockade is over – but two dog-tired gringos chuckle blissfully. They’ve already had their private swimming session in paradise.