Bats, Bugs and Bone Shaking Chicken Buses

Trip Start Dec 08, 2004
Trip End Dec 07, 2005

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

We got to Coban from Puerto Barrios in about 6 hours with a quick change at El Rancho. El Rancho is a dusty, sweaty and chaotic town built on a major cross roads, serving only as a place to change buses and leave asap. The air was desperatley still and thick with dust. As soon as we stepped off the bus hoards of men approached us offering us their "help", each man trying to get us on their bus. Its all very confusing after the ordeal of a chicken bus journey and with very little understanding of spanish. We seeked refuge in a corner shop, after a bumbled conversation of spanglish and sign language with the old lady behind the counter we found our way onto our next bus.

The journey took us from deep jungle, to rolling countryside, to almost desert like terrain before we began the ascent into the western highlands and our destination for the day, Coban. Its amazing how quckly and drastically the landscape changes in Guatemala, it always suprises you.

Coban is a quiet little town, perched on a long thin plateau, which means the streets either side are exceptionally steep, as we soon found out. Our hostal was at the bottom of one of them, which made an interesting daily climb up and down.

We spent a couple of days in the town, doing our much needed laundry and looking around the town and Keith had a terrifying visit to the Barbers. Beards in Central America are very rare, a big fat moustache is the norm so when I asked in my best spanish for my beard to be trimmed you can imagine the result! Yep a full on, no messing, Latino moustache! Tasha had to leave to shop in fits of hysterics. The barber looked so proud of his newly created master piece and i didnt feel it wise to upset a man holding a cut throat razor. So I looked at myself in the mirror and smiled saying gracias as convincingly as I could handed over 7Q (about 48p) and hot footed it back to the hotel for a shave, stopping for a comedy photo on the way. With my now naked face, we went for a walk up to the chapel of El Calvario which was supposed to give a birds eye view of Coban, all I can say is they must have some very low flying birds in Coban!

The chapel was interesting as the worshippers there had blended the Mayan and Roman Catholic beliefs, so there were the traditional RC alters and Saints/Virgins lining the insides of the church, as well as the Mayan alters and candles, and the pedestal on which they sacrifice chickens. Its something we saw a lot of in Mexico, especially in the Zapotec villages, but its the first we have seen in Mayan territory and Guatemala.

We met an English guy (Andy) who is travelling Central America for a year, he told us about his hostal (The Don Pedro), which sounded a lot better than ours and cheaper plus they were showing the Guatemala v Panama game which was being played that night, so we rushed back to the hotel and checked out.Vive Guatemala!!!!

The game unfortunately turned out to be a rather disapointing 0-0 draw, which apparently is almost unheard of in Latin American football, just our luck! But Guatemlala are still in for a chance of making the world cup which everyone was happy with.

The next day we headed out for Semuc Champey, this was a 2 1/2 hour chicken bus ride, 1 hour on a paved road, and 1 1/2 offroad! Things got interesting at the 1 hour stage, not only did we start bouncing around like lemmings near a high cliff, we also had over 60 people in a 30 seat bus.*

We had to change buses in Lanquin to a smaller minibus, but we were too slow and half the Mayan population of the village managed to board the bus before us. They were waving and smiling at us to join them, but there was no way we were going to fit. Tash had the bright idea of sitting on the roof, so up we climbed and plonked ourselves on our backpacks and a few sacks or corn. We definately had the best views on that trip, although hanging on was higher on our priority list as we were bundled and bounced around hairpin bends on our descent to Semuc.

The whole area of Lanquin and Semuc Champey are surrounded my beautiful alpine type mountain scenery. They both nestle in the bottom of a valley, which a large river flows through.

We arrived at at the only hostal/hotel at Semuc Champey at about lunch time and suprise suprise the hostal was full, but luckily we still have our tent, and they allowed us to camp at the foot of the mountain behind the hostal.

We made camp, got changed and headed straight for Semuc Champey itself which is the reason we came here.

Semuc is a 100m long limestone bridge, on top of which are a series of blue/green and turquoise pools are heated by the sun. Its surrounded by sheer walls of rock and impossibly steep pine forested cliffs. The river thunders along the valley floor under the limestone bridge, and the bird and monkey calls make for a poweful addition to this orchestra of beauty.

It really is the most beautiful place I have seen on these travels so far, the water is so clean and warm to swim in, the fish are colourful and big.**

We spent about 3 hours there, and then returned to the hostal for a great set dinner and some much needed beers! We met some great people that night, Nicole from Germany and Billie and Bianca from the US and Germany respectively.

The next morning we decided to do the Semuc cave trip, after finding out it was only 10 minutes away from the hostal. We did the trip solely by candle light, and saw many stalactites and stalagmites on the way to the final room which is another cliff jump into a dark pool! Yet again there was a submerged rock just below the jump off point which we had to avoid. We both survived the jump and made our way back a different route through some shoulder dislocating small tunnels and a few descents on rope ladders. Swimming by candle light through the big flooded soundless caverns is a great experience.

The hostal was about a mile down river from the cave, and to get back we rode on tractor inner tubes down the fast flowing river.

The next day we headed back to Lanquin, we had to hitch a lift on one of the delivery trucks, so we shared the trip with several chickens, sacks of corn, cans of cola and just about everything else you can imagine a highland shop would be stocked with.

We got to Lanquin in the afternoon, and did another tubing trip down the river for an hour. This made us late for the bat cave trip we had booked ourselves in for, but luckily they waited for us. This cave was on a much more grandose scale, the stalactites/mites were much bigger, some over 20 metres in all sorts of shapes and configurations. The locals had named them all after animals or people, but they were all in spanish so we had some fun trying to work out exactly what we were supposed to be looking at.

At the end of the trip, we discovered why it was called the bat cave trip, we waited at the entrance of the cave for dusk to arrive and the bats to wake up, and wake up they did. At first a few solitary bats flew out, but within about 10 minutes we were swarmed by them. We turned on our torches and the air was full with bats, all around us. We stood up at the entrance as they all flew out, it was an amazing feeling, as they flew past us always turning at the last moment to avoid us. You can feel the turbulance of their flapping as they pass you, and the sonar sounds they make to navigate.

We got back just in time for dinner again, which was another sit down with the rest of the hostal affair. As usual in these types of places the food was really good. Early to bed for another 5am bus tomorrow back to Coban and into the Western Highlands.

We got back to Coban at 7.30AM and looked for a chicken bus heading out west to the highlands. We found one on the outskirts of town which was heading to Sacapulus, which is half way on our route, so we jumped on.

The ride from Coban out west is amazing, there are no paved roads here but the scenery is magnificant, the mountains are colossal and the drop offs are you go round the tight bends of the roads are sheer drops of hundreds of metres.

The journey took 4 hours to Uspantan where we had to change buses, we didnt have a clue where we had to go, or where we were, so we asked some local lads what to do. They were really friendly, especially once they knew we were English. We talked about football, the beattles and all the usual things the Guatemalans love about England. They were heading the same way so we caught the next bus with them.

Our next change of buses was at Sacapulus, but it was getting dark as we got there, so we decided to stay the night. Its a one hotel town and I dont think that hotel gets much use. It did for the night, but we were pleased to get back on the bone shaking bus the next morning on our way to Huehuetenango (commonly called Hue Hue and pronounced Way-Way)

We got to Hue Hue at about 11, and had a look around but it didnt look like a great town, so we decided to move on to Quetzaltenango (or Xela as its commonly called).

This was much the same as Hue Hue, and we decided we were so desperate for some Spanish lessons, that we might as well just move on to Lago Atitlan the same day. So we searched out our last chicken bus and got a ride to Panachel on the Lake.

The ride through the mountains from Coban to Xela was an incredible experience, we didnīt see another gringo until we reached Hue Hue. The scenery was awesome and the people were so friendly, even though our spanish was so bad.***

* Here is a little analogy from Tash to help you appreciate the true essense of the Chicken bus:

Take one US yellow school bus, passenger capacity 35 (children)
Decorate the bus inside and out to your own personal taste. The more colorful the better! Fluffy mirror surrounds, novelty gearstick knobs and evangelical "God is my savour" stickers score big points!
Install a huge sound system, preferably with a clapped out sub whoofer, on which to play latino music or american movie soundtracks (ie Titanic) at full volume.
Now your ready for passengers. About 70 is the norm plus a few boxes of livestock and sacks of corn. 3-4 people to a seat please.
Add a driver with an unhealthy appetite for danger and a heavy right foot.
Add an over generous helping of throat tickling, eye stinging dust, boost the in-bus temperature up to that of a sauna and send the whole lot careering down a steep and winding road that a mountain goat would think twice about.
Happy travels!

** A little note on the fish. Many of you know about Tashas obscenely large aquarium at home in which she kept cichlids (a fish from central and south america) A guy at our hostal lent us his mask at Semuc and in the deep pools we spotted several Cichlids and one breeding pair of Rainbow Cichlids (tasha favourite), they had a clutch of fry and were guarding them from other fish. It was a rare and lucky site and we spent ages swimming and watching them.

*** Most of the people in the highlands are Mayan, and therefore Spanish is second language to them as well, although their standard is usually rather better than ours!
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