Written on 1st March
Star Wars Episode VI: A New Hope. The Rebel Alliance, in a last ditch bid to down the Imperial Empire, launch a desperate attack on the Death Star from their secret base on Yavin IV. We see X-wings and Y-wings rise from the forested moon they’re concealed within, monitored under the watchful eye of a rebel officer from a lofty stone structure, other such buildings poking above the trees in the background. It was this same view we enjoyed from Temple IV at Tikal, the exact same location George Lucas used for his 1977 opus. I overheard a local guide telling tourists it was used in a scene from Return of the Jedi. It took every inch of my being not to interrupt and correct him – trust your instincts Alex. Remember your training. We’d camped up alongside the Tikal ruins, which was good training for the 6 day hike G and I signed up to shortly afterwards, to the largest Mayan pyramids of them all – El Mirador.
The hostel we were staying at in Flores (wee island town in a lake, partially flooded, not much to do) offered such trips but we thought we could save some cash and drive up to the village where the hikes would start from. Rather naively we forgot that we were in Guatemala – the road was atrocious. Gina squeaked and complained the whole way, but three hours and two military check points later we were being ushered into the Carmalita Cooperative, a fenced off complex straight out of the Great Escape. It even had watch towers. After haggling with variously friendly guys and via the fluent Spanish of our newest recruit German Greg (also in tow – Akiko from Tokyo. Spanish level: As bad as us) we had a guide, a cook, mules and meals all lined up for a fairly reasonable price. The hike was not to be for the faint hearted.
First up: Howler monkeys tried to poo on us. Secondly: Wild boars charged through the undergrowth right past us. They were about the size of Fiat Puntos and quite a bit faster. Thirdly: G almost stood on a coral snake while wearing flip flops. A bite from one of these beautifully coloured beasties equates to a reduced life expectancy of hours. Fourthly: We walked 130 kilometres. Our guide (Hugo) who looked like a Mayan Robert DeNiro, (especially when we made him wear our glasses),was fantastic, although a little too enthusiastic about the ruins. There was a lot to see. Unfortunately, as a lot of it was 2000 years old, it was concealed under two millennia of jungle flora. A lot of imagination was required as Hugo waved frantically towards some vague humps in the trees, repeating giddily “Original Mayan! Original Mayan!” El Mirador was something else though – over 100 metres high and containing 2.8 million cubic metres of bricks it was basically a man-made mountain, with the teet excavated of greenery to allow an unparalleled vista of the former empire below. We climbed a smaller peak later that night to catch a view of the stars. Alas, this was a big no-no; the guards alerting Hugo of our after-hours expedition and we were hurriedly stewarded back to camp, Hugo mentioning something about dangerous snakes.
Two days recovery were required in Flores afterwards and then the simple task of driving south to Semuk Champey to meet Catriona and Ellen, who had opted out of the jungle japes and opted in to a lakeside retreat elsewhere. Guatemala road warning! Guatemala road warning! The drive was estimated at a cool 5.5 hours by google maps. This automatically reasons your average speed in a car to be 50mph. For the first 3 hours this was the case, just a brief ferry crossing and a roadside lunch break to stall proceedings. Then the tarmac stopped. For 3 agonising hours we hobbled up hills from Avatar at walking speed as locals pointed and laughed at us. Some old guys charged us 80p at a rather unofficial toll booth (one of them holding a rope across a mud track) and then the light started to fade. It became rather apparent we weren’t going to make Champers, cliffs and rubble not really conducive to night time Gina jollies. Hills being too steep for camping, mild panic began to crawl in. In desperation I asked in horrific Spanish at a wooden shack/shop if there may be somewhere for us to sleep. Within minutes the whole village was crowding our car (and another belonging to some German chaps who were similarly stricken) and we were offered sleeping space in the nearby church. A woman then cooked us dinner while her cats leapt around our feet. All this cost us was 40 pence each and our football for the kids. We left at the break of dawn this morning as it’s Sunday and the services up in the hills are quite a big deal, 90 families in the surrounding peaks apparently making the weekly pilgrimage. And now…relax! We’re in Zephyr Lodge, which resembles some kind of drug rehab retreat for ex-Big Brother contestants, toilets and showers overlooking lurid inclines of fields last seen in the Last Samurai. It’s raining unfortunately, but Gina isn’t broken and neither is our resolve! Southwards!