Once again on my own and without immediate plans, I dropped my bags in a hostel in Flores and found lunch in a restaurant on the shore of Lake Peten Itza.
I struck up a conversation with a local woman who had dropped out of law school to open a hostel and massage parlor. She had started studying law out of a desire to improve civil society in Guatemala, but, she explained, “Civil law is hopelessly corrupt- a big enough bribe will buy almost anything. And the criminal system is worse- people are afraid to prosecute or testify because of reprisal killings. And even when criminals end up in jail, they typically find a way out shortly later. I’m just one person- I can’t make enough impact to make that fight worth fighting personally. It’s much nicer meeting travelers from around the world.”
I commiserated- how does one go about creating a stable, civil society from a corrupt and violent starting point? I gave it some thought, but failed to come up with an app for that. Instead I resolved to research some anti-corruption case studies, find a hostel and order a pina colada.
“Do you know the wifi?” I asked two girls seated nearby, in the universally accepted backpacker-greeting.
After a few hours I had been introduced to the two Irish lasses and their half-dozen-strong delegation. Since it was July 4th, the only other American and I joined forces to defend the beer pong table from British imperialists (I offered a French girl a “Lafayette guest shot”, but unfortunately the reference was lost on her.)
My new acquaintances informed me that they were leaving the next morning for “So Much Champagne”. I agreed that this sounded like a brilliant proposition, and inquired further.
“Semuc Champey” as it’s actually called, is a protected region deep in the inaccessible jungles of central Guatemala. The New York Times describes it as a “tortuous drive to a remote Eden“. Its terraces of limestone pools are a natural wonder; many travelers consider them the highlight of their travels through Central America. After sinking the final shot to guarantee another 100 years of American freedom, I bought my ticket for the supposedly eight-hour van ride to Semuc.
The next morning I ate breakfast shortly before my departure and chatted with some travelers who’d arrived the night before. “You’re going to Semuc Champey?” they asked. “We were the last ones to get out before the blockade.”
“Blockade?” I asked. “That sounds problematic.”
“Yeah, dude. The locals are rising up or something, and the army’s been sent in to restore order.”
“That sounds very problematic. Do you think I should cancel my trip? My bus leaves in five minutes.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll work something out. They wouldn’t drive you all the way out there if it was too bad.”
I asked my driver about the new developments around the pools and the military blockade.
“No hay problema,” he reassured me. “Solo los narcos, es normal.”
Translation: There’s no problem. Just the drug traffickers, but that’s normal.
After 10 hours of driving through el presidente’s birthday parade, over a hand-cranked ferry crossing, and past a smoldering wreck of an identical tourist shuttle, we stopped in the last city before the mountains, Coban.
We filed into the McDonalds to enjoy some air conditioning, wifi, and Oreo McFlurries. I checked the news and found that the Guatemalan army’s had tweeted that three soldiers had been shot and wounded (no mention of casualties among the locals), and that the national tourism board was warning tourists not to travel to the area.
Given that even the government’s propaganda was saying things were bad, I considered my options:
1. Abandon the shuttle and my companions to find passage on my own from Coban to Antigua (my next planned destination)
2. Proceed to Semuc Champey and hope for the best
Coban didn’t seem like a particularly good city to be wondering around late in the day. The presence of improvised home fortifications (lots of broken glass mixed into the top of concrete walls) suggests that people don’t have much, but still need to defend what little they had. Probably not a great place to be the only white person carrying a big pack and asking for directions. I estimated a moderate risk of getting robbed of everything I owned.
As for Semuc Chempey, the most likely outcome would be that the pools were closed and it would be hard to find accommodations. I’d probably end up wasting a long trip.
But there were also some low-probability, severe possible outcomes:
– get kidnapped by locals to use as bargaining chips against the government
– get murdered by the military, who might frame the locals for the tourist deaths to justify a more intense crackdown
– drive off a cliff
I decided that tourist money was too valuable to the region to risk killing us, and since the fighting was for economic rather than ideological reasons, the odds of getting kidnapped or killed randomly were quite low. I had time to afford to lose a day of travel, and since this was the only time I’d ever have a chance to see the pools, I decided to go. I was disturbed to know people were shooting each other over the right to collect my $10 park entrance fee, but my individual decision to go or not would have no impact. The best I could realistically do for the situation would be to observe and record.
After four more hours of the steepest, narrowest, gnarliest mountain roads I’ve ever experienced, we arrived at a blockade consisting of about sixty army troops barring passage to the pools. We followed the other road into town, where local men (“coyotes” our driver called them) offered to take us to various hostels for a modest fee.
In reality, two out of the three hostels in town were beyond the blockade, and the third (where I had booked) was three times over capacity due to displaced tourists.
The hostel, Zephyr Lodge, was actually quite impressive- picture Machu Picchu with an infinity pool and dollar tequila shots. The staff valiantly found space for everyone (largely by getting girls to sleep two per bed with each other) and I received a $12 bunk bed with a million dollar view.
The next morning I awoke to news that the fighting had intensified and showed no signs of blowing over. I was ready to take the a shuttle to Antigua, a charming colonial city known for its colonial architecture, lava-spewing volcanos, and chill cafe scene, but the sandwich I’d eaten the day before was not at all agreeing with me. I sat in bed, focusing intently on not vomiting and regretting buying food from a grill behind a gas station.
Two full days passed in which I ate nothing and drank only electrolytic salts mixed with water. Fortunately, the climate in the mountains was very mild, and I very much enjoyed the daily thunderstorms whose rain soothingly hammered the sheet metal roof. I awoke twice- first because thunder erupted like a nuclear bomb right above the hostel, and a second time because I nearly vomited in my sleep.
I did, however, enjoy the excellent company of the Irish, and was a little relieved my illness excused me from trying to keep up with them at the bar. Instead, I read for pleasure more than I had in the previous year combined. It had been so long since I had read, napped, read, and napped some more on a rainy day. It its way, that experience was even more indulgent than a four-tiered champagne tower.
Finally a morning dawned in which I could eat a slice of toast with some peanut butter. I bade goodbye to the beautiful but bloody mountains of Semuc Chempey and boarded a shuttle for the ten hour ride to Antigua.