Semuc Champey

Although we found ourselves in a new country, we we still scared by our attempts to fix Ruby’s many problems over the last couple of months. Even basic VW parts seemed hard to come by, We held little optimism in the parts arriving within a reasonable time.

In actual fact, it took us surprisingly little time to find a new steering box and arrange for its delivery, with some help from Louisa. We paid at the local bank in town and waited only a couple of days for it to arrive. Compared to all our breakdowns, this had been the quickest. It wasn’t cheap, but we now had a brand new steering box fitted. We had also figured our the cause of the overheating problem, we had stupidly fitted the two heater matrix pipes around backwards, causing the system to suck in air from the top of the expansion tank, rather than coolant from the bottom. The was a quick fix and we breathed a sigh of relief that the engine was ok. You would have thought that we’d be pros at splitting the coolant system and putting it back together correctly, but we had clearly gotten to the point where our desperation to get back onto the road had exceeded our common sense.

In between rain showers, we fitted the new steering box. We were somewhat lacking in the tools we needed, which meant that we needed to cut off the old arm with the nut. The shaft of the steering box is splined and had probably never been taken off before. The ball joint alone took a lot of persuading with a sledgehammer borrowed from the builders nearby, there was no way the shaft was coming off without a puller. So we spent several hours with a blunt hacksaw, cutting through over an inch of hardened steel. In our experience, it is always the jobs which should be the most simplistic, which end up being the most time consuming,

We were left with a stub of shaft left in the arm which we could then take into the main town on the other side and get pressed out. Chus made an appointment for us with a local torno shop. These are the workshops you got to for hydraulic presses, metal lathes and the like. We got a bus from the town, which drove us at breakneck speed to the other side of the lake and the promptly charged us double for the pleasure. We had got too used to the way things were in Mexico, and resolved to make sure we went back to always having change and confirming the price before we got in. 

The next issue was finding the shop. It wasn’t on google, it wasn’t where another websites said it was and the phone number didn’t work. We wandered around trying to find it based on the address, confused locals staring at the lost foreigners who had stumbled into their street. As luck would have it we were in the right area and another local business pointed us in the right direction. In a matter of seconds the two parts were separated, no match for the large hydraulic press. 

We discovered the dangerously cheap Dollar City, while picking up some things for Chus and Louisa, before carefully negotiating the bus fare home. It was now a simple job to fit the arm onto the new box.

We were ready to go again, less than a week had passed and we were glad that this time we hadn’t been delayed for so long. Losing a month of a six month Mexican visa is one thing, but losing a month of a three month visa that covers not just Guatemala but also the next three countries is quite another. 

We said our goodbyes to Chus and Louisa and headed south. There wasn’t all that much to see between Lago Peten and Semuc Champey, another picturesque spot. The next point we used to break up the journey was a park south of Sayaxche, after the interesting experience of catching the ferry across the river.

The ferry is a simple floating raft affair, used to cross this large river in the absence of a bridge. What was quite interesting was how it operates. Attached each corner is a large metal bucket which can swivel on the pole that attaches it to the ferry. A guy sit in here and controls an outboard motor which is mounted on the bucket, turning the motor causes the bucket to swivel and therefore allow the ferry to be steered. They four drivers can’t really communicate however as they are quite far apart. Sometimes halfway across the river, large trucks need to adjust their positioning to balance the ferry in order to land the other side. It was an interesting spectacle.

Arriving at the park, I have never seen mosquitoes quite like, swarms descending on Ruby the moment we parked up. Despite the fact it was a pretty place, we moved on the next day.

After being stationery for a week, we were happy to drive. We headed for another spot, El Refugio. Located in the middle of nowhere it conveniently breaks up a long drive to Coban. We started to climb into the mountains that take over the bottom half of the country as we neared the small mountain villages close by. 

It was indeed a hidden refuge. Located next to a beautiful blue river, we had the campsite to ourselves. We had only intended to stay one night, but we enjoyed the water so much that we stayed for two. The river was refreshing, the nights cool and peaceful. 

We weren’t the only ones enjoying it. after a long hot drive the day before the cats enjoyed the shade and coolness that comes with the mountains.

That was until we ran out of cat food, which is much harder to get hold of here than in Mexico. Aimee attempted some kind of protest.

As we had decided to stay another night, we headed into the local town in search of a few groceries. The locals looked at us like we had escaped from a nearby zoo. We walked to several different shops which sold a very large range of crisps but a very limited range of anything else. A child ran up to us and wanted to take a picture, it was such an event to have tourists in the town. 

Eventually we located some beers, much to the amused bewilderment of the locals. It turns out that this village speaks the local language Qʼeqchiʼ, with some inhabitants speaking a little to no Spanish. No wonder we were met with blank stares most of the time. It was mainly the children who understood our Spanish, the adults having no need for it within their community. As we were to learn later, there are 24 actives mayan dialects still in Guatemala, presenting somewhat of a minefield to the would be traveller off the beaten path.  

It was still clear that we were in rainy season when we awoke the morning after the second night to find the river had risen around a metre and its blue waters had been replaced by a raging muddy torrent. 

Once more, we headed south. We had been debating the road to Semuc Champey. We understood that the road from the main highway to Laquin had been redone and was now a good highway, however the road from Laquin to the the river was another matter. David and Katie recommend that we didn’t drive it, as did many comments on iOverlander. The only reason we wanted to was that the camping in the town didn’t sound too great. It was roadside and expensive, if we could make it to the other end we would have far cheaper camping and it would also be in a far nicer place. 

We spent the night in El Chico coffee plantation while we debated. For the first time in a long time, we felt the chill of high altitude and dug our jumpers out of the back of the van. 

The next day, we headed for Laquin. While the road is good enough, its steep hairpins make the drive a steady one. Turning off the highway to Laquin the newly surfaced road plunges sharply into the valley. We waited for some time in the ongoing roadworks, the works not quite finished yet, before arriving in Laquin. 

The sat nav took us completely the wrong route to try and find what sounded like the only decent camping spot. Having turned around we headed back on the correct road. A familiar smell of burning rubber pulled us up short. The rear arm had snapped again. We stopped at the side of the road in a large lay-by to assess the damage.

There was not much chance of driving the steep cobbled roads into town like that. The petrol station had a garage and we went to check it out. Two guys were pressure washing a truck out side the garage that was closed. 

“Tienne una soldadura aqui?” Lee shouted over the pressure washer.

“I cannot hear you my friend!!” One of them screamed back, pressure washer still on full power. 

“SOLDADURA!!!” Lee repeated, while immersed in a fine spray of water from the power pressure washer still turned up to the max. 

“I don’t know what you want my friend, maybe he will be here at 6, or 5, or 4!” The guy cheerfully replied, gesturing to the closed door before returning his attention to pressure washing. 

We gave up and asked one the workers at the petrol station. They confirmed a lack of a welding machine and we flagged a tuk tuk into town. 

“We need a welder” I explained in Spanish, “Can you take us to one in the town?”

“Si!” Said the driver and we headed off. We exchanged a relieved look. Not too bad then. 

A few minutes later we pulled up in the town centre. 

“This is the centre.” The driver announced. “Here is good?” 

It turns out the message had not got through, after explaining once again he did actually take us to the garage. A good start. 

“Hola!” I greeted the mechanic. “Estamos buscando para una soldadura. Tiene una aquí?”

The mechanic glanced up from his work. “No English. Only Spanish” he informed me.

I repeated myself. 

“Ahhhh. Si.” 

It transpired that the welder was doing another job and would be back in half an hour, so we settled down to wait. An hour and a half later, he arrived. Slightly reluctantly, as the sun was about to set and he clearly hadn’t banked on another job for today, he agreed to help. The garage had a generator and a welder, which were loaded into the back of his car, along with some other tools. We headed back to Ruby.

Him and the apprentice got to work welding the arm. The security guard from the petrol station appeared and confirmed we could stay in the car park. Not the most scenic, but it apparently had showers, wifi and toilets. It was also a safe place to leave the camper while we visited Semuc, any ideas of driving the dirt road now firmly quashed.

Once the mechanic had finished, we headed across the road and parked up. The guard then told us that if we wanted to used the services we had to pay more. We declined. We mentioned we had cats, which he said was fine. Ten minutes later he came back and told us that the cats couldn’t be out as they would attract stray dogs. Miscommunication seemed to be the theme of the day. 

One positive was that we met a collectivo driver in the car park who arranged to come and collect us the following morning. We already had paid to keep the van in the petrol station for the next day so our day out the river was planned. We needed to be ready to be to go at around 9am. This turned out to be very easy. The construction traffic on the main road started up consistently from around 5am. 

We packed up our things for a day trip out, said goodbye to the cats and hopped into the back of our collectivo. This was a 4×4 pick up with a metal frame attached to the sides so you could hold on while being stood up in the back. It’s pretty common form of transport here, you will often see a family day out on the road. The older members get to sit in plastic chairs in the back while everyone else piles in and holds on. Normally a tarpaulin can be tied down over the frame for shade or rain protection.

We didn’t really need the tarpaulin, but we definitely needed the frame. The somewhat sketchy road to Semuc Champey is a bouncy experience. It was only a few minutes before we were glad we hadn’t tried it in Ruby. Whilst the vast majority of it is properly tarmacked, there are several steep sections of dirt road. At several point our driver stopped to shift into low or 4×4 in order to continue after meeting another collectivo coming the other way at speed. We reckoned we maybe could have done it if we were lucky, but being unlucky would involve meeting another car in the other direction on one of the steep single track sections. This is before you take into account the changeable weather. It was nice to not have the stress, we had had plenty of that already.

Once we arrived at our destination, the pick up pulled over and we hopped out the back. We paid for our day out while being bombarded by children trying to sell us things. They had all adopted western names, and had clearly been coached in their sales pitches. 

While Tom, Mary and Dennis trailed forlornly after us waving various bottles, we continued down to a building to meet our guide. We had booked the cave tour as well as entrance to the river, and it looked like the caves would be first. Our guide told us it was pretty busy in there right now, so he took us down to a rather daunting rope swing instead. 

Swinging out several metres above the water you have to jump off into the river or risk swinging back and hitting the poles that hold the swing. It looks pretty straightforward, Lee had a go and advised me that belly flopping was a painful experience. I had a go and while trying to take the advice on board, failed miserably and hit the water with my face first instead. I can also vouch that this is not to be recommended. I emerged very bruised and missing half my bikini much to the amusement of the locals. 

Clearly time to move on. We headed down the river a little way carry giant inflatable rings. We spent a little time at the waterfall which is the end of the blue pools above and the main attraction. 

Then we jumped in our tubes and bobbed down the river. 

As we sailed past the enthusiastic vendors a bit further down, we were greeted by Mario. He paddled out in his own rubber ring to sell us cold corona from a cool box in the middle of the river. You couldn’t argue with the business model, despite the fact it was still morning. 

After finishing our tubing experience we headed back to the now more empty caves. This was supposed to be a little different that other caves we had visited. Instead of having a guide who wanted to point out all the names they had called the stalactites with a big torch from a boat, this was more of an adventure. A river runs through caves and we entered armed with candles to light the way. 

The water was cool, but after some clambering around trying to keep you candle alight it was pleasant enough. The guide led us through the caves, at points we felt our way through black water and at times we swam, arms aloft to keep the candles alight. The experience was ruined a little by the one member of our group who insisted on having a head torch on randomly pointing it in your face when you weren’t expecting it. Other than than it was a different experience, which was pretty fun. The end of the tour reaches a deep pool, our guide climbed up the side and announced that from here we could jump 5m into the pitch darkness below. I felt that if I couldn’t be trusted to jump into water in the daylight without injuring myself, the darkness was somewhat risky. I wasn’t alone in that decision, and we began to head back. We took a shortcut through a hole in the floor that dropped us through the ceiling into the cave below, before reaching the entrance once more. Amazingly, the candles were still alight.

With the first half of the day complete, we headed for lunch. After watching one member of our group who didn’t eat or want meat, devour plain spaghetti in a tortilla, I was glad we brought lunch. The locals weren’t happy to miss an opportunity to charge us, kids and adults alike kept pushing drinks in front of us, the tourist money machine. I was happy to set off to the other side of the river for the main attraction. 

We entered the park and climbed towards the viewpoint with a very unnecessary guide. This is more prevalent in Central America than in Mexico, where it is the case in some places. Most popular natural attractions are surround by locals telling you that you can’t access without a guide. In our experience so far the ‘guides ‘ lead you down a very clear trail and then charge you for the privilege of not being able to go at your own pace. Fortunately, the one for the viewpoint here was at no additional cost, so we didn’t mind being led of 500 metres of steps. 

It’s a short, steep climb. But the view is worth it. At the top the locals continued to try and ply us with fruit but a little less persistently than those down below.

The view of the river below.

We followed a different route back down which took us to the river just behind the natural pools. Here the water roars through a narrow chasm into the rocks, before emerging in the first of the pools.

We spent the last of the afternoon sun enjoying the pools. The water was a nice refreshing temperature in the hot sun, and crystal clear. We had been lucky, considering it was rainy season. 

The pools are truly beautiful, and we enjoyed a good hour exploring them and jungle nearby.

With the sun siding behind the hills, we got back into our collectivo and headed back to Laquin. We were dropped off first and were reunited with two very needy cats. We paid the guard for another night, as much as we would have rather moved on, there wasn’t time. We planned to be up early in the morning and tackle the mountain road out in cooler temperatures.

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