4. GUATEMALA: A Grand Finale

28 Apr

Slightly delayed but no less hilarious and all the more detailed, here is the wonderful, final installment:

Patrick’s actual birthday continued with more festivities! We went on a long, winding road trip to Lanquin where we would spend the night in a gorgeous resort to wake up early and visit Semuc Champey. We rocked out to our new CDs on the drive, while watching out for speed bumps and stopping at every fruit stand. Unanimously, our favourite CD was a Spanish version of 60s Rock and Pop songs. There’s something so fun about hearing a familiar song in another language. I highly recommend checking out this Spanish version of “Under The Boardwalk”



We’d stop for fruit but there’s nowhere to park.


Semuc Champey, in Lanquin, was one of the few things we knew we were definitely doing in Guatemala at the beginning of our trip. In fact, it helped shape the rest of our journey. Because Semuc Champey was a 14 hour bus ride from Antigua, where our journey began, we decided to instead rent a car and make our way there slowly. Thankfully, the journey to Lanquin was just 3.5 hours from Biotopo del Quetzal. We knew it would be a bumpy, mountainous journey and were grateful to have the luxury of our own vehicle for the sake of our favourite frequent stopper. We knew we had to be in Lanquin before dark because our only plan for the evening was TO SEE BATS LEAVING A CAVE TO GO HUNTING FOR THE NIGHT. The bats, very punctually, depart their cave at 6 PM with ne’ery a timepiece to be seen. So after a relaxing birthday morning hike and taking our time leaving the Central Highlands, even Sammi was down to make as few stops as possible to get us there in good time. We did research on the drive #passengersjob to learn more about the history of Guatemala and to decide which hostel would be our home in Lanquin. It came down to two which sounded equally beautiful and fun. With two nights to spend in Lanquin, we thought “Why not spend a night in each?!”


Pics on-the-go = #passengersjob. Double the passengers, double the JOBS! I mean fun.


The long and winding road.


After winding up and down one-lane mountainside roads for hours, pulling over any time another car had to pass, we finally saw a clue that we had made it to Lanquin:


Nosotros tambien!


We opted to do a quick drive by of each of our two hostel choices to see which one felt like home for the night. But the first one proved to be impossible to find. After going miles down a bumpy, dirt road — terrified that we would get a flat tire — we opted to turn back for the other and spend two nights there. A choice that ended up being terrific. Not only did they have free parking for our truck, they also had views like this:


Home, Sweet Home


We were thrilled to be out of the truck and back in the world! We checked in and went to our room, where you could rent a fan for a few bucks. It was a must. More like HOTamala #amiright Excited to leave our truck tucked in for the night, we walked in to town and hopped a tuk tuk to take us straight to the bat caves! Upon arrival, we were asked if we wanted a guide to walk us through the caves. After much deliberation, we said yes. Edwin, a sweet 18 year old Guatemalan, was thrilled! He walked us to the caves and offered to take photos for us. He didn’t speak any English which was a fun challenge. #allearsondeck

Fun fact: The word “bat” in Spanish is “murciélago” which uses all of the vowels! It’s a great word to practice your vowels on when you’re learning Spanish.

Bonus fun fact: Unlike most languages, the vowels in Spanish always sound the same. So murciélago it up!



Edwin was an incredible tour guide. He offered to take us on a secret bonus tour down to touch the river at the bottom of the cave. He asked if we were adventurous and we said “Claro que si!” This cave was made of 5 massive “rooms.” If you’ve never been in a cave, it’s pretty standard to be shown different rock formations in the cave and told what animals they look like. It was fun brushing up on our Spanish animals. Spanimals, if you will. Edwin would point his flashlight on a rock and say “Tiburón!” We’d all look at each other and the rock and say “Ah, yes. A shark!” It’s classic cave entertainment. He took us to the top of the cave to where there used to be Mayan rituals. The rocks on the way to the top were slippery. Each step we took required all of our focus. “Is everyone being so careful with each step?” I asked. Sammi responded “Yes but we really need you to be. Especially.” I have a history of falling. Guat-a-fall it would have been. Edwin took us to the ritual site and launched into the historical significance. At the end of Edwin’s speech about the Mayans, Patrick turned to me: “Helen, can you translate that for us?” Unfortunately for our team, I had been zoned out thinking about going back down those cave steps the entire time.. I looked at Patrick and Sammi apologetically. “…..No.” We laughed. It was far too long of a speech to ask him to repeat so we nodded to him that we totally got it and headed back down, again with all of our focus. Upon seeing our sad display of coordination in the cave, we assumed Edwin had changed his mind about offering us a bonus adventure. We joked about how he only took us the easy way and we still struggled. When we got back to where we had entered, he asked us if we wanted to go down and touch the river. We couldn’t believe it. We asked, in Spanish, how hard it was. And he assured us that we would have no bother. We started climbing down the rocks to the bottom of the cave, and realized we had made a huge mistake. It was super challenging. Not as much for Patrick, who does climbing, nor as much for Sammi who works out. But I was convinced I was going to have to start a life as a cave-dweller. We made our way down the treacherous path to the river to the river, and by “path” I mean a series of massive, wet rocks that were not connected to each other where one could have easily plummeted to a stoney death. We made it down to the bottom and touched the freezing water where the river began. From the bottom, we realized getting back up would be the REAL challenge. Edwin said “Just bend your left knee up on this rock. Then reach up with your arms and PULL yourself upwards.” Translating correctly had never been so important. Edwin was highly overestimating my athletic abilities. If you do it wrong the first time, there is no do over. You fall into a rocky abyss. I was quite certain I would not be able to do it. “I guess I live here now.” I said, sadly, to Patrick and Bam. Edwin went first to do a demonstration. Patrick went next. He nailed it. It was my turn. I looked desperately at Bam. And like the best best friend of all time that she is, she made me a wee step out of nothing but her hands. All before she had to launch herself up. The terror of falling coupled with my best friend’s makeshift step, launched me up to freedom. I would have kissed the ground had it not undoubtedly been covered with bat guano. Sammi was last to bat (pun intended) and made it up with no problems! We made our way out of the cave just as the sun was about to set. Edwin gave us a pro tip on the way out of the cave: He told us to go wash our hand IMMEDIATELY and then pointed out where we should come back and sit for the best bat views. He said goodbye to us as we washed our hands (friction under water!) and made our way back to our spot. The views were incredible. Por ejemplo:


A river runs through it.


That protruding, shadowy rock to the right was where we set up bat camp.


“You’d hate to be a bat, Patrick. They do so much backtracking.” #batrick #battracking


Enter the cave scared, leave a batliever.


As we sat, anticipating the bats’ departure, we were nervous. Sitting at the opening of a cave at night is a bit spooky. A group of German tourists came (thanks, Edwin, for securing our terrific seats before the rush!) and their tour guide shined his flashlight at the cave walls and roof and they were COVERED IN BATS. Watching the bats leave the cave was one of the most magical moments of our lives. We sat there for hours, in awe, as we watched thousands of bats leave the cave for their nightly hunt. We didn’t realize how much we loved bats until we sat amongst them, in their home. Big thanks to bats for eating bugs. A true bat mitzvah! You could feel them flutter by as they just managed not to touch our faces with their bat skills (though one did brush Patrick’s ear). Eventually, the tourists gave up and left and it was just us and the bats!



There was a steady stream of bats for hours. Thousands of them. As the sun set completely, and with only two iPhone flashlights to get us out of the cave (reminder: Patrick did this trip sans phone), we decided it was time to go. Bats were still leaving the cave hundreds per minute. We kept stopping every few feet out of the cave to watch them exit from a new perspective. It was incredible. We made it back to the road and realized there were no tuk tuks this far from town, so we’d have to walk. A few minutes into our walk, a kind trucker stopped and asked if we wanted a ride. No one said anything, so I sent him away, misreading Patrick and Sammi’s thrilled silence from this surprise offer for discomfort. What a hilarious mix up. We started walking miles back to town as I apologized for the misunderstanding. But thankfully, a tuk tuk came along on its way to the gas station and filled up and tuk tuk us back! Yay! Saved by the tuk tuk. We got dropped off in town and saw our new favorite Comedor! If we hadn’t been all Comedored out, we’d have absolutely had a quick bite.



CAPTION: They tuk us for a ride

All tuk-ed in


That night, we sat by the river in our hostel’s bar/game/lounge area and reflected on what a great birthday it had been. Bats! Cloud forests! Quetzals! Road trips! Hostels! It was a magical day. It was hard to believe less than 24 hours before, we awoke to Mike at the door to sing Happy Birthday in Spanish. The next morning, we started the day early. It was time to take the truck back out to head to Semuc Champey! Once again, we were incredibly thankful to have our own vehicle. There were lots of ways to get around but none of them looked easy:


The original rideshare



When we arrived, we learned from the sign above that that Semuc Champey means “donde el río se esconde bajo la tierra” (where the river hides under the earth/stones) in the inidingous language Q’eqchi’. We were also told it translates to “slippery rocks over a river that runs underneath it” which is exactly on the nose. But it doesn’t sound as pretty in English. Semuc Champey is a must see. The Cahabón river passes underneath 300 meters of natural limestone, which forms a bridge. The limestone rocks fill up with fresh water, which gets warmed by the sun. It’s nature’s hot tub.

At the entrance, we were again asked if we wanted a tour guide. Coming off such an incredible experience with Edwin, we had no hesitation. “Absolutely!” This time, we got Charlie, a 14 year old boy. Charlie took us on a hike to see Semuc Champey from the top. The hike was quite hard. The first half of the hike was straight up many flights of stairs cut into the side of a mountain to get that sweet, sweet, view. We talked to Charlie about his life. We learned he went to school just one day a week. Sunday. Patrick asked him about his curriculum and was shocked. He teaches kids Charlie’s age in Seattle. Charlie went to school one day a week and worked the rest of the week to help provide money for his family, mostly by giving tourists a guided tour of Semuc Champey. Going straight up the mountain for the view was not a challenge for him. He does it multiple times a day. When we got to the top, we were gobsmacked by the Earth’s natural beauty.


CAPTION: Started at the bottom now we’re here.

Charlie had been a bit snippy to us on the hike up. Probably because we were taking longer than we should have (100% uphill hike, Charlie! Give a girl a minute!) But at the top, he very kindly asked if we wanted a group photo and then climbed up even higher to get the perfect shot for us. And with that, he won our hearts.

Photo cred: Charlie


It was hot. Even with the shade from the trees on the hike up, it was uncomfortably hot. We were so excited to get back down to swim in those sweet pools on those “slippery rocks.” On the way down, we could hear howler monkeys in the trees. We caught a glimpse of those cute howler monkeys including a baby howler monkey! (Which would later inspire us to watch this cute monkey video over and over: https://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/tv/a8942592/planet-earth-ii-spider-monkey-clip/ What a good dad!)

Do you see what I see?


Curious about wild monkeys and the threats they faced, we asked Charlie what, if anything, preys on a monkey. He said “nothing.” We asked what kills monkeys. He told us that they don’t die. We’re pretty sure they’re not immortal but Charlie knew these lands best. After some downhill discussion about possible predators of monkeys, we landed on the unfortunate conclusion that it’s humans. Climate change and deforestation. Let’s get it together, humans. Our theory was confirmed by signs like this:

Semuc Champey is in danger from human behaviour!


Buena vista


Having a wee foREST.


At the bottom, we had a team huddle. These rocks are slippery. Famously slippery. Pennsylvania isn’t the only one with a famous Slippery Rock. Everyone (especially Helen) be extra sure of your footing. We do not want a “Nicarockgua” situation. We removed some layers to reveal our swimwear, and, since we had forgotten to bring a lock to use the lockers provided, Charlie advised us to leave our stuff under our clothes while we went for a dip. We were nervous but we trusted him. This would have been the perfect time for a sting operation. Thankfully, Charlie was right. It was fine. We walked out on the incredibly slippery rocks and got into the water. The sun had warmed it to the perfect temperature. We floated, chatted, and treaded water. Once again we spent hours. Charlie took us down from pool to pool. Getting to each pool was a journey. Some of them you jumped in (again, making sure you were not at risk of slipping) and some of them had natural waterslides. It was incredible. Charlie was doing flips into the pools and going up and down the natural water slides. He was a pro. Eventually, he brought us all the way to the bottom pool and took us underneath the rocks! We were suddenly spelunking with just our heads above the water. Charlie said it’ll take 5 seconds under water to swim down and get out. Based on the athleticism Charlie had shown on our hike and his proficiency in the pool, I calculated 5 seconds for him was going to be about 15-20 seconds for me and got claustrophobic and exited back the way we came.


Slippery when wet AKA always.


After a full morning and afternoon of enjoying the natural wonders of Semuc Champey, we decided to spend the rest of the day swimming in the lake at our hostel and have a fun night in. Down time turned to up time turned back to down time?! Our only item on the calendar was watching whatever was happening live at the end of Taylor Swift’s Instagram countdown. We kept a careful eye on the countdown all night until what was apparently the debut of her video for “Me!” featuring Brandon Urie. What a fun surprise! It WAS new music, not a boutique store in Upstate New York. We needed more Swift music. Thanks, Taylor!



The hostel was full of young travelers speaking in many languages and accents from all over our planet. It was so inspirational. Some folks were passing through on a gap year, others were studying abroad in Guatemala or Costa Rica and had come to Lanquin for a weekend away. The river was gorgeous. It passed right by the hostel and came in to a cove, which had made a perfect swimming hole complete with a diving board. The water was FREEZING. After all, it was coming from our bat cave a few miles away. We sat at the edge of the river, with our feet dangling, until we got so hot we had to jump in. We took turns jumping off the diving board into the freezing water and made our way back to our spot where we would warm up in the sun in a few minutes. It was a perfect, watery day.


Crystal blue river water.


When the time came, we watched Taylor’s new video and discussed it in depth. We couldn’t wait for all of the Swifties to make a list of every Easter egg we definitely missed. We FaceTimed with Katie Barbaro and I managed to break my toe. You can’t take me anywhere. Even with a broken toe, it was the perfect day. We were sad our time in Guatemala was coming to an end. Any sadness would have been quelled by the knowledge that the next day, we’d get to repeatedly encounter some real life bandits.

The next morning, we packed up and started the long drive to see some Mayan ruins. However, the road was long and hard and eventually required a boat ride, so we abandoned the idea and turned back towards Antigua. We spent almost the entire day in the car, driving up and down winding mountain roads, listening to our Spanish music CDs, and debating if we should turn back. “How many more miles? Is it the paved road or the dirt road?” It was the dirt road every time. We drove for hours on dirt roads and finally experienced the BANDITS our Dutch friends had warned us about. Every so often, we passed down a one lane road and saw one or two men shoveling it with a piece of rope hung across the street to stop the passage of any vehicles. The first few times, it was quite scary. These men would make us wind down our windows and tell us (in Spanish) they had been fixing the roads in the hot sun and we needed to pay them 100 quetzal ($13) to pass through. We told them we didn’t have any money (though clearly, everything we had brought on the trip was in the car). Thankfully, our perfect truck had tinted windows in the back and it was the passengers job to make sure nothing valuable was visible. To the first set of bandits, we gave out 10Q and were grateful to be on our way. It was terrifying. “Pay them for fixing the roads?!” Sammi exclaimed, once we were free. “These are the worst roads I’ve ever been on! Nothing but potholes!”  The second time, we followed the advice of our Dutch friends and put a 5Q note on the dashboard and told them that was all we had. They took the 5Q and looked into the car for other things. Sammi wisely offered them up our least favourite bag of snacks #wrongshape, a bottle of water we had already been drinking, and our least favourite Spanish music CD. They took the deal and let us pass. We were coming across bandits every 30 minutes or so. We were out of small bills so we made a wee stop on the side of the road for change and more cheap snacks and water to give away. By the third time we were stopped by bandits, we pretended not to know any Spanish which was easy because we didn’t have to do too much pretending. We were super friendly and confused while trying to understand. We all panicked when we noticed one of the bandits eyeing up the birds. Our beautiful, matching birds from our first day in Antigua. The bandits again settled for a 5Q, a CD, and snacks and let us carry on our merry way. We put our birds safely out of sight until we were back on paved roads. At our last bandit encounter, we refused to give up any money. We told them we didn’t have anything and they wouldn’t let us pass. We waited with them for a while until a bus came behind us and they had to let us pass. Huzzah! Soon after, we were back to paved roads and our birds were flying free!

Matching birds + paved roads – bandits = happy driver!


We found a place to spend the night in a town called Coban and figured it would be fun to see a movie together in Guatemala. We looked up a cinema and upon arrival, realized it was in a massive mall. GuateMALLa, if you will.


A parking spot for storks!


It was incredible (and by incredible, I mean air conditioned). It was the perfect place to spend a cushy penultimate night in Guatemala. We got to the cinema hours before the movie and for some reason didn’t think to purchase tickets. We explored the mall, which included a GROCERY STORE and debated which snacks we should buy.  (PRO TIP: Grocery stories are always fascinating in other countries)


Not your Uncle Sam’s Pringles


Leche de cabra! Goat milk!


Sammi and I spent half an hour debating whether or not we should buy this goat milk caramel syrup knowing we’d have to check one of our bags to send it home. We opted not to because not having a checked bag when travelling internationally is the best. Looking back, I’m not even sure what the appeal was or what we would have done with goat milk caramel spread. Good choice, team! Sammi and Patrick were excited to finally try Guatemala’s raved about fast food chicken place, the KFC of Guatemala: Pollo Campero.




We were so excited exploring, eating, and being air-conditioned — “I’m wearing sleeves for the first time all week!” — and we were ready to wrap up the night with a movie. Unfortunately, we didn’t buy our tickets when we first got to the mall and when we went back, it was sold out. Turns out those Avengers are popular.


Got tickets?


PRO TIP: Get your tickets BEFORE you burn hours waiting for the movie. With no movie to see, we headed back to our hotel rooms. There were no 3-person rooms, so Patrick had his own room and Sammi and I shared. It was fun to have a TV for the night as Sammi and I lived together with no TV in the dreamflat. Lots of channels offered baseball #americaspastime, and Sammi got me some ice for my old broken toe.


She takes such good care of me.


I was beside myself with excitement because episode 2 of the final season of Game of Thrones was on that night and we had the channel to watch it in our hotel! Move over, Avengers. I’d take Arya Stark over Tony Stark EVERY TIME.


GoT in Spanish. All ears on deck = 70% comprehension


Aww. Hometown shout out in English so I could understand 100% of it!


PRO TIP: You can’t flush the toilet paper.


The next morning, we had and savored our last traditional Guatemalan breakfast with coffee on the side.


Desayuno típico guatemalteco


Patrick and I ordered coffee with ours and we each were given a tiny jug of heated milk. Naturally caffeinated, Scrappy (Sammi) didn’t need any coffee. But she was not gonna let that not-free jug of milk go to waste.

We decided to spend our last night in Guatemala City to return the rental truck (and hope no one noticed the dent on the side). We knew we had to make it to Guatemala City before dark due to its sketchy reputation. The drive to Guatemala City was a few hours #alwaysbedriving but found bonus time to stop at any fruit stand that looked beautiful along the way. After all, this was our final day in Guatemala and therefore our last chance to have fresh mango. We go wild for fresh mango.


Buen provecho! #neverforget


We stopped over and over. It was Sammi’s dream road trip. Every time we stopped, we asked for fresh mango to be chopped up. “Y… una más. Y tal vez una más.” You can’t beat fresh mango from a roadside stand. You just can’t.


Last call for street food!


Getting in to Guatemala City was a challenge. With a population of 2.45 million people, The GC (don’t call it that) is bustling. It took all 3 of us 100% of our concentration to get in to the city to find the car return. Everyone had a job. Sammi was our heroic driver. Patrick was our brilliant navigator. And I was on hardcore LOOK OUT. Looking out for moto drivers coming up the side unannounced. Making sure we were clear all around for any merging or lane changing. We were so thankful for the tinted windows as we drove into the city. It was the most stressful time of the trip. BUT WE DID IT! We love the cooperative game we call travelling abroad together. And together, WE WON! We made it to the rental place and sweated together while playing it cool as the gentleman who worked there asked us about a dent on the side. We gulped. “Es broma!” he said. Oh, good. We love jokes! Thankfully, it was already on our PAPER we had painfully filled out at the start of our trip. Don’t cut corners, kids. Especially if another truck is coming up a narrow mountain road. #scuffle

At the airport, we got a taxi to our hotel a few blocks away and couldn’t believe it was in a gated community. The safety precautions to enter were impressive and intimidating. Our taxi driver made sure we were let in before he drove away. Those Guatemalans are so polite! Once we were safely inside, it was time for a lengthy trip recap, final snack division, and a receipt review for cost per day calculation.

These two are so generous they even do the MATH.


Snack of the trip: Cebollitas!


We took advantage of our wifi to do all of our last minute urgent things like watch that spider monkey video over and over. We looked up the answers to our burning questions we’d be saving all week like which quetzal came first, the resplendent bird or the currency? Questions like those lead us to watching a video of Guatemala’s national anthem (which shouts out the resplendent Quetzal! The money is definitely named after the bird) and reading the English translation of the lyrics. The anthem is over 5 minutes. Here’s how it starts:

Fortune Guatemala, may your altar, Never be trampled by the tormentor

Nor should slaves lick the yoke, Nor should tyrants spit in your face

If tomorrow your sacred soil is threatened by foreign invasion

Free into the wind, your beautiful flag to victory or death it will call


Free into the wind, your beautiful flag to victory or death it will call

Since your people, with fiery soul will be dead before enslaved.

Go on then! Have a listen! It’s pretty in Spanish.


Guatemala is a gorgeous country with lovely, polite, welcoming people and a fascinating history. 10/10 would recommend. Our entire trip, we felt like Guatemala is Central America’s best kept secret. Costa Rica has become a tourist hub. We predict Guatemala is next.

Sending all of the love,

Helen (and these two cuties pictured below!)


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