Friday, October 2, 2009

Laquin and Semuc Champey

August 15th to 17th

The caves at Lanquin are a huge disappointment!

Not only is the footing treacherous in the extreme, every step a search for grip on rock made slick by jungle humidity and mud, but the rock formations are pathetic! Truly pathetic! I'm getting used to cave trips that 'stretch the imagination' in looking for signature formations, but Lanquin is just taking the Michael. The lighting is also incredibly bad and a girl in front of me walks straight into a stalactite, her head making the kind of dull 'thud' that turns my stomach. It's sounds like a watermelon hitting the pavement after being dropped from a second story window closely followed by groaning and cursing. I don't think she enjoyed the caves either!

If the caves are rubbish (and they really, really are) the wildlife display as the sun sets is different. It is right at the opposite end of the spectrum and is spectacular in the extreme.

Bats! Millions and millions of bats, their appetites voracious after a day spent snoozing, all wake simultaneously. Fortunately not blood sucking vampires, but insect eaters ready for an evening's hunt in mosquito infested skies above the river.

The echo location sonars burst into live and the sound of high pitch clicks and squeaks fills the air right at the topmost frequency of hearing. At first there are just hundreds circling the cave. They each wait for the hungriest and the boldest to leave and be devoured by the birds of prey waiting just beyond the cave's mouth. Then there are thousands.... and tens of thousands, and it's almost the shear weight of numbers that crowd the closest out of the door.

The sky above the river turns black as bats swirl, dive and bomb in a confused black ball of seething numbers. It helps to confuse the hawks as they attack the bat ball and draw first blood. Then hunger overcomes fear and the bats start to streak down river like tendrils of black smoke. Back inside the cave, a strobe light of camera flashes reveals uncountable winged shapes frozen in motion, their images burned onto retinas against a dark background.

It's a unnerving sensation as small fury wings and bodies occasionally brush past, unseen in the dark. Your ears feel a strange kind of numbness as you almost, but don't actually hear the cacophony of noise from the echo location. It lasts maybe an hour and Sue and Anna see a similarly less spectacular show from our camp down river as the bats bank and whirl chasing their prey.....

Some spectacle!

11 kms south of Lanquin lies Semuc Champey, described in the guide as being an 'out of the way', 'difficult to reach' destination. That's by 4 wheel drive pick up truck - we have bicis....

The road is just ridiculous.....

The gradients and lose stone are enough to see Sue walking on some of the downhills, let alone the ups....

On top of that the temperature and humidity have risen alarmingly now we have dropped to around 500m above sea level and the climbs are vertical. It's a tough, tough ride - those 11 kms (7 miles) taking over 3 hours....

As always in Guatemala though, there are views to compensate....

And the destination is more than worth the effort.

Semuc Champey means 'underground river' in Mayan, a name given after a huge chunk of the mountain fell down the side of the canyon and covered a section of the 'Cahabon' river. I say covered because the rock fell in such a way that a 300m long plate landed and formed a bridge over the flowing water. Now that bridge is covered by a series of emerald and sapphire pools separated by tranquil little waterfalls. A hike up a steep jungle trail reaches a viewpoint high above.....

Down below, it's a magical place to swim; calm and serene whilst a mighty river boils, tormented and trapped beneath us. At the head and tail of the bridge the river is a maelstrom of white water as it is forced under this rock shelf. Above, all is placid as we bob in the cooling pools....

It's a beautiful jungle oasis....

Camp is once again by the riverside....

Where we encounter all manner of insect, grown disproportionally large in the intense heat and humidity....

Dragonflies look like bi-planes, butterflies are like carrier bags flapping in the breeze and the grasshoppers are big enough to steal traffic cones....

There's yet another cave tour here to 'Las Marias Cuevas', but this one is slightly different. A hike up river takes you to a rope swing, swinging 30 feet above the river. That's just to get us in the mood and to get the adrenaline flowing. Next comes a bare foot journey along an underground river known for flash floods. In places the river runs over head height and you are forced to swim in the dark, the cavern ceiling pressing lower and lower. This is all done by candlelight - you carry the candles as you swim and climb a series of rickety ladders. It culminates in a blind traverse through a freezing waterfall.

Injuries include bruised and swollen ankles from kicking underground rocks while swimming, a bashed head or two and just a few cuts and grazes. I've mentioned Guatemalan safety standards before - it's based mainly of the survival of the fittest principles of life and it's really good fun! Boots, lights and helmets are just for wimps....

The tour ends with a relaxing float back down river on giant inner tubes through the vibrant jungle rain forest. It a door to door service back to our tents on the riverbank.


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