Beautiful Waters of Semuc Champey, Guatemala

17 June 2016

Travellingross Rating: 9 out of 10

11 hours. 3 vehicles. 3 bad movies. That’s what it took to get from Antigua City to the middle of flipping Guatemala. Changing vehicles because the roads got rougher and skinnier. I was told it would be eight hours arriving at 4pm for free time before dinner. Oh no. But hey, that’s what to expect in a developing country. The very fact I got here and the hotel had my reservation was a surprise.
Only yesterday, I booked a 4 night tour for the simplicity of not having to think about booking anything for the rest of my Guatemala time. Having not heard/researched about anywhere in this country other than Tikal, I saw a photo of Semuc Champey and thought it looked pretty. Done.

On the final vehicle from Lanquín, I met a great Scottish/Florida couple and we had laughs and fun the next couple days. The hotel was all Guatemalans except for us and I set my alarm to make it for the 8am tour stated on my voucher. Only to find out after toe tapping at 8:20am that I, of course, was on the 10am tour with everyone else!

The tour included an intense hike up to the look out (mirador), then down to the natural pools, a cave tour with just a candle to the light the way, and a leisurely float down the river in a tyre tube. The pools are beyond beautiful and consist of a natural limestone bridge over the Cahabón River. The water is refreshing (read: cold), with fish that nibble your feet, jumps and slides along slippery rocks, and an incredible waterfall that tunnels under the pools. Stunning. Worth the long trip and hassle to get here.

How to Make this Trip

Tour: booked through Aviatur in Antigua city for $450 usd including a single supplement. Great agency that speaks good English right near the arch. Only downside was the tour vouchers are written very generic without hotel names or tour contacts. But in the end (after a couple of phone calls along the way) it all worked out ok. I have become much better at spontaneous travel and ‘just going with it’.

Accommodation: Hostal El Portal. A pain ( literally) to get to. Riding 45 minutes from Lanquín in the tray of a truck holding on to bars while misty rain falls. But perfect location just outside the Semuc gates and overlooking the river. Electricity only 6-11pm and no telecommunications at all (I wasn’t expecting this). Oh and no hot water.

Antigua – the Historic City not the Island

13 – 16 June 2016

Travellingross Rating: 10 out of 10

This city in Guatemala is an infusion of places I have been before. Fortunately the best parts of those places. A bit of Peru, Costa Rica, Cuba and Mexico.

But different to those countries (I know I’m broad brushing entire countries and not comparing to all of Guatemala just yet), here in Antigua city, it’s like the tourist doesn’t exist. Sure there are people trying to sell tacky jewellery and cashews. But other than that everyone goes on with life and it’s authentic. Not like Cuba with their vintage taxis and tourist pesos made solely for the foreigners. Or like Costa Rica where everyone seemed to target the assumed wealthy foreigner. Here kids play basketball with archaeological digs and repairs in the background. A volcano erupts smoke in the near distance. And the stalls on the streets are intended for the locals, not the tourist. All in a relaxed, simple atmosphere that is safer than my minimal research lead me to believe.

A world heritage listed city that literally has an historic site or ruin on every corner. I did not see anything outside the core but I felt that, unlike other world heritage listed towns, this one is a working lived in, functioning city. I really enjoyed my time here and it was a great way to kick off my Guatemala and Belize trip.

How to Make this Trip

Flights: Copa Airlines via Panama City. Long layover in Panama so I paid $50 USD to enter the lounge which was a great decision.

Transport: Pre-arranged an airport pick up and transfer to my hotel through Around Antigua for $43 USD. I read that Guatemala City is hazardous for tourists and not much to see, so I was happy to see someone holding my name on a sign and get straight outta there to my hotel in 45 mins.

Accommodation: Hotel Meson de Maria for $56 USD per night via Quiet, perfect location and with a delicious included breakfast. Only downside was the weak  Wi-Fi signal.

Costa Rica: Road Trippin, Hiking Volcanoes, White Water Tubing

Tuesday 17 March to Monday 23 March 2015

travellingross rating = 8/10

I didn’t need to be at the Panama City airport until 4:30 pm so I had most of the day to relax and final minute explore. Being St Patrick’s Day I went to the Irish Pub a couple of blocks from my hotel for lunch only to find it closed. Huh. I arrived at the airport to hunt down Madison, my friend who I met in Ghana during that Project and together again in Suriname. She is from Nevada and another reason for my tainted accent and un-Australian words. And also the reason for my now relaxed approach to travel, not booking everything, not over-planning as much. Pre-Madison I would never roll into a town without booking something, but that’s pretty much how this whole trip went.

Madison had flown in from Suriname and waiting in Panama City to connect with me for the 1.5 hr flight north to San Jose, Costa Rica. This capital city does not have good reviews, but I found it better than expectations and while busy, slightly dirty and chaotic, it had many shops and facilities that were enough for me. Nothing globally amazing from a touristic perspective though. We overnighted here and then got an afternoon tourist shuttle bus for $50 USD each 4 hours north to the tourist epicentre of La Fortuna.

La Fortuna was great. Right on the edge of the Arenal Volcano Park with many things to do. In hindsight we should’ve stayed here longer than the 2 nights we allocated. Our full day was a morning hike up a dormant volcano that has a green lagoon at the summit looking up to Arenal. A crazy steep and rough ‘path’ takes you to the top which would be very slippery in the wet. It was good to explore this though as Costa Rica is not as forested as I previously thought and this national park showcases some of their best. Which after being in Suriname is not as good. We had lunch at the waterfall nearby and then taxi’d to the Baldi Hot Springs which were awesome. Not a natural representation of hot springs, but swim up bars in 30C plus water with 28 pools and some that are insanely hot. Aside from the 150 kids on a school trip, it was bliss. We both dislike kids (especially teens laughing and taking up our barman’s time for soft drinks) so this was annoying. It was not until dark that we found the “sin ninos” pools (no kids!). The drinks were more expensive but worth it for the peace and higher quality hotter pools. We rode some slides too. One that you’re meant to only go down the slide, go around once and then drop out the bottom. For some reason I kept going round and round like 4 times before I forced myself to drop out. I badly bruised my tailbone in the process and a slight rip in my brand new board-shorts right on the bum. The food made up for this with an excellent buffet. I would go back in an instant.

After discussing transport options with our awesome hotel reception guy, we rented a car and hit the road to our only pre-arranged part of the trip. Meeting up with some Suriname work mates at Blue River. This drive took 4 hours to get 150 km. Terrible roads made from sharp rocks and plenty of potholes to dodge; tested my driving skill a bit. We got to the resort and I seriously thought our GPS had navigated us incorrectly. It didn’t look at all like the website. But it was the right place. We glanced at each other with the same ‘what have we got ourselves into’ look and checked in. The rooms were huge and comfortable, except for the lack of bar fridge for our champagne and the poor water pressure. The resort is not what I would call a resort. Run down and lacking in features so it was disappointing since it was the most expensive and hard to get to accommodation of our trip together. Very weak internet was only at reception which is a 300m walk so that sucks for people who have yet to book their next destination. Not much of this place made sense to me. There wasn’t even a view. The Blue River is impressive – volcanic minerals reacting together to create bright blue water. The only activity we did (aside from cover ourselves in mud, stand in the green hot springs) was tubing. Now, my understanding of tubing is gentle floating down a river with beer in hand sitting in an inflated tube. This was far from that. White water tubing that should be done in a raft. Knee and elbow pads, helmet, life vest, shoes. It was an hour that made me feel like I was in a washing machine. My body aint cut out for that and I ended up hitting rocks with my butt and constantly trying to navigate away from rocks.

We left early morning to head towards Liberia where everywhere in the city had lost internet. So without a plan we made a snap decision based on a conversation I had with 2 girls in Blue River to head to Playa del Coco on the coast. As we drove in, it was apparently a tourist haven but maybe the wrong time of year as the landscape looked like a fire had been through or so tinder dry that one spark would set off a wildfire. It was HOT. And the beach was black sand and not very appealing to swim. But a good spot to be.

Next day I dropped Madison at another beach town – more crappy roads to get there since I selected the ‘scenic route’ on Google maps. I then drove 4 hours back to San Jose on decent highways but without overtaking lanes which was frustrating. Saw many monkeys in the trees above the road. And some very scenic landscapes. Didn’t stop once and rolled into the hotel at nightfall with the fuel light flashing and ‘estimated km remaining of 0’. Perfect. Only took one wrong turn on a roundabout and stayed on my right side of the road the whole time. Checked in and laying on the bed checking my messages when the phone rang. Reception asking how everything was. And “Sir, I am sorry to tell you that your vehicle has a flat tyre”. WHAT. We drove on terrible roads and I get a flat in the middle of the city. And it’s the only part of the road-side assistance that the rental car company doesn’t cover. I can change a tyre, but it was the last thing I felt like doing after the long day. So I ate at Denny’s across the road and then got my hands dirty. My last tyre change experience in Perth was not so great, so this time I was impressed with myself and restored faith in my abilities. With that, I spent my last night in Costa Rica.

Websites and Tips to Make this Trip

Stayed at:

  • San Jose – Holiday Inn city for USD $92/night; then Hampton Inn & Suites by Hilton at Airport for USD $150. Both good and great locations for what you need.
  • La Fortuna – Hotel Monte Real for USD $86/night. Highly recommend.
  • Blue River – Blue River Resort & Hot Springs for USD $128/night. Not worth it and too isolated. I’m sure there are better places to stay to visit Blue River. Or day trip in from Liberia.
  • Playa del Coco – M&M Hotel for $50/night. Cheap and simple with shared kitchen. Includes breakfast.

Rental car through

Baldi Hot Springs was USD $68 per person and discounted when booking from hotel. Included buffet dinner and you can run a bar tab and pay on credit card at end.

Don’t pay for tours of the green lagoon or waterfall. Just get a cab and do it yourself.

Panama City: Canal time

Friday 13 March to Tuesday 17 March 2015

travellingross rating = 10/10

I really enjoyed Panama. I never realised how big the city is with Dubai like sky scrapers, major shipping malls, variety of restaurants and fast food, awesome running and walking paths along the foreshore. The shipping canal brings obvious wealth to the country and u can see why they fought hard to win operating rights from the USA that they finally received NYE 1999.  Many ships sit offshore waiting to take the short cut thru the thinnest part of central America.

Flying from Paramaribo to Panama City, via Aruba, I landed mid afternoon and it took far too long to clear immigration. Longest line I’ve seen in an airport. It was first time I have flown Copa Airlines (national airline of Panama) and I liked them. I am impressed that I can take 2 flights and be in such a big city that afternoon. I am inclined to do this again for a future break. Taxi system at airport is semi organised but expect a tip to walk you to the cab.  I hate that. And u share with someone. I shared with an older man who met a woman on an internet dating site and had an internet relationship for 16 months and now time to meet face to face. That’s pretty damn brave. And a better story than the usual “I’m here for work” etc. The hotel taxi actually uses an app to calculate the fare. That’s a first for me. But it is handy that USD is taken everywhere and the Panama currency is paired with USD. Another reason for me to come back and spend my USD (I’m paid in US dollars).

Highlights of this trip are pretty simple. Sleep and the canal. After a long rotation (for me) I was keen to do not much other than relax and catch up on personal life that you don’t get much time for when working all the time. My hotel was adjacent to a cathedral where bells rang out to announce mass times. Starting at 6am. Hmmm. Only down-side of the hotel.

The only touristy thing I wanted to do in Panama was the canal. Construction started in the 1800’s by the French and finally finished by the USA in 1914. 100 years ago last year. Good timing to come as they have refurbished their tourist facilities for the centenary. I like the idea that humans had the audacity, ingenuity, power and capability to cut through a land mass to create a shipping channel that shaved off days of time in sea trade transport around the southern tip of South America. I didn’t know much about the engineering prior to visiting, other than it was a huge feat and technique that has stood for a century. Now after visiting I am a full bottle. A 14 hr tour will do that to you! Arriving at the ferry port at 630am, I didn’t get back to hotel until 830pm. I could’ve done a partial transit. But you know me…if I am here, I will do the full thing. YOLO. So I went from ocean to ocean and transited the full length of the Panama Canal. Long and at times a bit same same, but very interesting to an engineering mind and impressive to rise up tens of metres in a series of locks to reach a man-made lake and then be dropped down to ocean level again at the other end. It takes 8 minutes to fill and drain a lock so it is not a quick process (you go through 3 locks at either end) but fascinating. The boat was totally full (150 people would be my guess) and includes all your meals. I will let the photos tell the rest of the story.

Websites and Tips to Make this Trip

Stayed at DoubleTree Hilton hotel for bargain price of USD $69/night booking through

Panama Canal Tour was expensive at USD $250 and you might find something cheaper if you shop around. I think people book through multiple agents for the same boat