Dieter Libre!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Phil and I almost slept in and missed our taxi to the bus station, but we did wake up and were just walking out the door when Sergio (who owns the tour company) pulled up in his golden chariot. Well, the gold was rusting and the chariot was a Toyota, but it got us to the bus station with plenty of time to spare. Which was lucky because contrary to what we’d been told, the shuttle didn’t just fit 8 people; There were probably about 12 seats including the driver, and only three left when we arrived. Having seats full didn’t stop them, however. Not even close. By the time we left Flores, that van had 24 people in it. We were crammed like sardines, some people had to sit on the floor, others stood hunched, and even sitting was not pleasant. The ride was five hours of Asian-style hell (this is an experience very common over there) before we arrived in Coban. From there, a short walk to find the other bus station in which they attempted to really gouge us and succeeded in partially gouging us and a mediocre lunch before the fun began. The road to Lanquin, a small town outside Semuc Champey, is 61 km long and takes two hours. The reason is a combination of a narrow, windy, hilly road and, I suspect, the fact that the scenery is so beautiful that even the driver can’t help but drive slowly and stare.

We arrived in the town very happy. I had no idea that Guatemala was this beautiful. We were surrounded on all sides by lush green mountains in a small village. They call it Guatemala’s green heart and I have no reason to dispute it. The people, though occasionally wary, are not hostile and in some cases downright friendly. It might not seem like the attitudes of strangers makes a big difference, but we felt immeasurably better here than we had in Flores from nothing more than people returning our hellos, nodding, maybe even smiling, and occasionally even greeting us themselves. A little boy came up to us and led us to El Retiro, the hostel we were hoping to stay at, without us asking and with no ulterior motive aside from perhaps practicing his English. Very friendly. And the hostel! El Retiro was the best place we’d been so far and we knew that before we’d even checked in. There’s a small stone path leading down through the grass and flowers past some small palapas (huts with thatch roofs) to la palapa grande where you check in. It’s right on a rather fast flowing river which has a rope strung across it to hold on to and float, has a free sauna, internet, hot showers, and small 4-person dorms. The cost? 25 Q or $3/night, at least until the last night when it went up to 35 Q for the beginning of the high season. Muy baracha!

By the time we arove, it was about 3 PM. That gave us enough time to throw on our trunks and jump in the river. It was very cold but refreshing. We got talking with one of the bartenders, a Canadian named Roberto, who let us know that in honour of the hostel having a guest named Dieter – which was also the name of the other bartender – they were doing 2-for-1 Dieter Libres all night. Two Dieters, two-for-one. Makes sense to me. And the drinks were doubles, too. Priced at 15 Q ($2), you can’t beat this price. That night was a big BBQ but it was 50Q ($8.50) so we gave that a pass and headed up into the village for a local meal. We were plenty full with decent food and an ice cold coke in a bottle for half that price, which, if you want to understand it in backpacker terms, means that by walking to town we’d saved enough to pay for our stay that night.

Or to almost pay for four double Dieter Libres later that evening. We met Dieter, the bartender, and he is probably the most fun person in this country. I’m pretty confident in that assertion even knowing this is only my second stop, because he is simply that crazy. And the Dieter Libres, which, as you probably guessed, is just a Cuba Libre, were delicious. I’ve had them back home and hated them, and I now realize that this is because we don’t use good rum. I always thought Bacardi was pretty good but now that I’ve been here in the Caribbean, I realize how great rum can be (we were drinking Quetzalteco, btw). We sat next to a really loud (but good fun) woman from California (the travellers’ state, it seems) and her daughter as well as our new neighbours, Jez (short for Jeremy) and Amanda from England and Vancouver Island respectively. Stories were told and we all had a great time visiting.

The reason everybody comes here is Semuc Champey, a village 12 km further along the road, or more specifically, a collection of waterfalls near there. If you can picture it, there is a fairly powerful river the flows under a really huge limestone bridge. Some of the water, however, runs along the top of the bridge, forming lots of small waterfalls and pools along the way that are great for swimming, jumping, and oohing-and-ahhing. We did the tour through our hostel for 150Q ($19) which is pretty fair considering a return trip is 30, admission is 50, and you need a guide to go in the caves anyway. Yes, the tour includes a small candle-lit tour through some caves where you climb a waterfall, do a jump and swim and wander along in the dark. It was really slow going but good fun. Rachel, a girl from New York that was staying in our dorm room, was at the front with me on the way back and we put out our candles and made our way back well ahead of the pack in the dark – after the waterfall descent of course. That was kind of cool, it gave you an idea of how much it would suck to actually be in a cave with no light trying to find a way out. You hear a dull roar but how BIG is that waterfall? Nevermind how you’re going to get down. We had the advantage of having already been through this part of the cave and knowing but it was still easy to get a little worried.

After the cave, we wandered upstream and, after a few jumps off a river swing, we came upon a scene that I can only describe as perfect. Idyllic, edenic, tranquil, and, somehow, special. This was the exit of the underground river, a cave mouth topped with green grass, swaying ferns and dotted with palms. This was also the place that the pools that make up Semuc Champey flow back into the river, spreading across the green crown into two or three waterfalls and also creating a curtain of water dripping down. I have to be this descriptive because unfortunately, my camera was still in the small office where we’d left our things to go in the cave. The only one with a camera was Phil with his increasingly popular waterproof Olympus and the lighting didn’t really cooperate. I think I would’ve come all this way just to see this one place and feel what I did when we came around that corner. But this was an afterthought, a place to climb into the top of the cave mouth and jump 20 ft into the raging water below. Of course I did it (though I passed on the taller 12m/35 ft jump) and the water is moving so fast that your legs are being swept downstream before your whole body has even entered the water. What a rush.

Phil had landed really sideways on the river swing and gotten dizzy but to his credit he “manned up” which we’ve become fond of saying to egg each other on (thanks Chris Potrykus) and did this jump anyway. He was in pretty bad shape and I had to hold him on the log where we were all sitting until he recovered. He couldn’t hear out of it for a while and felt fluid coming out of it which apparently relates back to a childhood injury, but pretty scary stuff. From there, at last, we finally went to Semuc Champey, making our way up a hill to El Mirador (the viewpoint) before descending to the pools. They were beautiful turquoise, with plenty of pools that we basically had it to ourselves, even if there were quite a few of us. This was the reason we’d travelled two hours along a bumpy, windy road to an out of the way village, and it was worth it without equivocation. But what I do want to say is that even though Semuc itself is awesome, everything else here from the road in to the friendly village to the amazing hostel to the river to the caves, waterfalls, and spectacular setting makes a good experience an unforgettable one. Oh, and the really cheap drinks. We LOVED this place.

I’d been talking to one of the guys that works at the hostel and he mentioned that a family he was friends with had a great restaurant up the road about 3 k, and we could get a free ride there from some other locals that are friends of theirs too. So we went and asked them and they were more than happy to throw us in the back of their truck and take us to dinner. It was a long and dark 3km but in spite of a little fear Amanda was feeling (especially after passing a slaughterhouse) we were loving it. How awesome is it to get a ride to a little family’s restaurant that is definitely not on the tourist trail? We got there and were even more delighted that their kids took a liking to us. Somehow, I’ve ended up doing most of the talking in Spanish for us, although I think that at least Amanda’s Spanish is just as good as mine. So in particular I made a friend in little Antony. Dinner was great, too, a beef steak with a few sides and homemade picante that was so good that I put far too much on. When we finished our 20 Q meal, they happily returned us to our hostel and Antony came along for the ride, too. That night was meant to be quiet but it didn’t last long. Dieter came and sat with us, after all. And then I introduced everybody, including the four Danes sitting next to us, to the song Roxanne. And then the Jenga came out. That pretty much sealed the deal for everybody, but especially Amanda since she, after instituting a rule that you must stand on one leg for your turn, was bested by her own fiendishness and sent the tower tumbling. That meant three shots of tequila and she went from sober to almost instantly drunk which is quite obvious because her voice goes up in pitch two octaves.

The next day was a designated day of rest, not because we needed it, but because our location and the abundance of hammocks demanded it. In fact, I’m writing this right now swinging slightly in a hammock in the shade with the river providing that oddly soothing white noise below. I’ve decided that every task is better in a hammock, but especially using my netbook. And even after a day of ‘chilling’ by the water with another girl named Lauren from Canada that we met the night prior and a couple from Holland, we were agreed to stay yet another night here for more of the same. By we, I mean Amanda, Jez, Phil, and myself, as they’ve become a permanent part of our coterie. Jez and I walked into town after enough of the 'relaxing' life and ran across some sort of local party and then some very friendly kids that acted as personal language tutors while I hunted the best photo spots. Eventually, Jez and I returned home and we all went out for dinner again to that same restaurant, this time with Dieter, Lauren, and her boyfriend Dustin. She was a vegetarian and we knew from the previous night that they had no vegetarian food, which I had told her earlier in the day and reminded her about again when I found out that they had changed their mind to come.

There were three choices for dinner that night. Chicken Milanes which I guess was a breaded breast, Roast Chicken, and a Chicken “Mix” which had pork and beef as well. That was all we could distill from her descriptions. My Spanish still isn’t great but even with local guru Dieter there, we couldn’t exactly get an accurate description. I had thought I was getting a stirfry but it was a kebab, a skewer of meats, tomato, and onion and was easily the best of the three options. The beef in particular was so good I had to share a little just to brag to the others how wise I had been in my random choice. But, of course, Lauren threw a fit when she asked for a vegetarian meal and was offered ‘ensalada’. "I guess I’ll just walk home then. Or maybe they can give me a ride. You guys do what you have to do." That sort of thing. I was deeply embarrassed and even more annoyed because we'd warned her. Twice. She kept saying no and looking like she was about to cry while the woman was offering to make her stewed veggies or any number of custom dishes. “No, I’ll go.” “It’s very delicious, I make it with a cream sauce...” “Oh no, that’s fine. Just drive me home.” “Tell me what you want to eat and I will make it” “Oh no, that’s OK.” And so on until she finally gave in and sat back down proving that even as unthinking as she was, she had managed to embarrass herself.

If I seem harsh, remember that not only was she TOLD that they don’t have any vegetarian food, but she insisted on coming. And then on attempting to guilt trip us and her boyfriend into leaving with her. And on asking for a free ride there and back to boot. I can only think that she had hoped to make some sort of economic point at our expense, to prove to the restaurant that they should have vegetarian food by losing all of our business. But there is no way I would’ve got up to leave with her and even her boyfriend was feeling the same. Anyway, moving on from that little vent session, dinner was great and Antony was hilarious. He definitely has a crush on Amanda (he’s 7, by the way) and, for example, brought her a napkin to wrap around her cold beer and keep her hand warm, brought her bananas, ran around the yard only to return and ask if she wanted him to do it again, and sat there staring at her. At the end of the night, he got a box and tried to give her most of his toy soldiers, the rest of which he wanted me to have along with a Canadian flag for the soldiers to plant. I had to politely tell him the Canadian flag was for him to remember us but he wanted me to have it and the soldiers too. I kept one little guy in the end and maybe I’ll take pictures of him in exotic places and send them to him.

I definitely didn’t want to party that night. But – you guessed it – we did anyway. It was ladies night, we still had Deiter with us, and we should’ve known it was going to get sloppy. Phil was given a bra and two t-shirts to stuff it with, I was given a hat, a flower, and a very shiny gold shirt, and Jez got a spaghetti strap number with a wig. This was about the craziest/most fun night we had, with people dancing in the rafters, falling asleep beside the river, attempting Michael Jackson moves (me, yup, it was bad), and more. On top of all that, it was an Australian guy named Guy’s birthday and that sealed the deal for the night. Him wearing a skirt didn’t help matters, but it was pretty funny to see him going around to the girls, tapping them politely on the shoulder, and then flashing them. Their reactions varied from horror to big grins. And we were happy we’d stayed another night, because the next morning was a little shaky for most (I actually was pretty okay considering, but Jez was... not).

Our final day here was still more relaxing, and I used it to study my Spanish more. We had lunch with a couple Dutch girls, one of whom was deaf and anybody who thinks I’m brave traveling alone or in this part of the world should have met her. We got some sun by the river, and went into town that evening for a delicious stewed beef dinner. I had gotten chatting with the owner of the hostel that day and he needed his website updated, so I did that for him in the evening – it took about 20 minutes – and he paid for my shuttle to Antigua in return (100Q). Nice. I really really didn’t want to go out this evening but I did have to say goodbye to Dieter and Amanda, who was staying here longer and rafting to Rio Dulce (which sounds like a great trip but not in the right direction). And I ended up dancing on one leg behind the bar with Anna, a 6’4 German girl that has been bartending here for a couple weeks. The staff are great and are a big reason this place is so awesome. Particularly, I will miss Deiter, that crazy little Guatemalan that we partied with all the time, and it’s too bad we didn’t get to know Anna earlier. But off to other places and other faces.

Semuc Champey Photos

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