Here’s the places we visited- in order they were, Antigua, the cave at Rey Marcos, Rio Oqueba cave, Candelaria, a couple days at the ruins in Tikal, Chiquibul cave, Semuc Champey to see the fantastic pools with rimstone dams and Kam bah cave, then back to Antigua and a climb up Pacaya Volcano to see the lava flow.
New Airport terminal under construction in Guatemala City
Upon arrival in Guatemala on Friday, April 6th, the first thing that I noticed was the heat. The second thing was the crowd around the exit from the airport terminal which was chaotic from the construction being done. As I stood facing the crowd, a little dazed from taking the red eye from Sacramento, I wondered how I would find my ride to Antigua in this mass of people. I didn’t have to wonder long. A Distinctive looking man with a large beard was holding up a cardboard sign with ‘Rutahsa’ written on it. With a feeling of relief I wound through the crowd to meet Mike Shawcross, a long time resident of Antigua he had kindly offered to put us up at his home while we waited for the rest of our group, and as I was the first to arrive he had come with his driver Osiel to pick me up. We loaded into the car and I was impressed as he negotiated and maneuvered through the triple parked rows of cars in the temporary parking lot.
[U>Women wearing traditional Maya traje, Antigua, Guatemala. [/U>
We arrived in Antigua through even more chaos which Mike explained was the Easter celebrations which would be going on all weekend. It was a great opportunity for me to take pictures of the colorful processions. I had an even better chance when I met up with Ric Finch at the Posada de Don Rodrigo where he was staying with a tour group he had been leading during the previous week. Their room had a balcony that allowed for a great view of the main procession as it passed the hotel. Mike had explained to me that the bearers actually pay the Church for the honor of carrying the heavy ‘float’ through town. The largest of which weighs 80,000 pounds and requires 100 men to carry.
That night Mike told me of some of his experiences in Guatemala as we waited at his house for the next members of our group to arrive. Ric Finch came to discuss what supplies we needed to take and wait for the rest of the days arrivals. We received a phone call from Mikes driver that he had returned to Antigua but due to the processions was unable to drive to Mikes home. We headed out through crowded streets to help them carry their luggage. After hastily greeting Dave, Wayne, Ric, and Bob, we grabbed their luggage and began struggling through the crowd back to Mike’s house, right towards a procession. It was a struggle but we finally made it into the alley and back to Mike’s house. We quickly sorted through the equipment that Ric Finch had left at Mikes and decided what we would be taking with us in the morning, most notably, the ropes we would need for Rio Oqueba cave and a SKED. We then settled in for the night.
Heading out on to our next stop- cueva rey Marcos
The next morning we loaded up our bus which would become almost home for the next two weeks, and headed back to Guatemala City to pick up the rest of our group. As is to be expected with international travel there were some delays so we sat around waiting for awhile then headed across the street to a stand that served up cold drinks and grilled meat tacos. We were a little concerned about the fresh greens being served but I ate mine with no apparent ill effects.
After lunch the rest of the group arrived safely and we all loaded up in the bus and headed out of town.
Due to our late start it was late in the evening before we arrived at our hotel in Coban , Hotel El Alcazar de Dona Victoria. Since it was late we decided to eat right there at the hotel and after a good dinner (we were pleasantly surprised to find a number of pasta dishes including lasagna on the menu) we headed to bed.
Dave at the entrance to Cuevas del Rey Marcos
The next morning we eagerly got up, and after breakfast, loaded the bus anxious to get going for today the caving begins. We arrived at Cuevas del Rey Marcos a well decorated commercial cave. Now mind you the term ‘commercial cave’ has a different meaning in Guatemala then back here in the States. They did have a nice little visitor center with restrooms and showers with picnic areas and a swimming hole, and there was a well built trail to the entrance with a gate on the cave.
However there were no lights installed in the cave and the trail inside the cave had been built up hardly at all. Since we had arranged to go beyond the regular tour part of the cave anyway without a guide we were well prepared for this, though I imagine the average tourist might be a little taken back.
Wayne in Cuevas del Rey Marcos
On the way out of the cave we went through a section that required swimming for a short (200’ or so) length then exited and took advantage of the beautiful swimming hole and waterfall by the visitor center.
We then took the long way back to town in order to scout out possible cave locations.
We did not find an entrance but did enjoy a scenic drive and had our first glimpse of coffee plantations. Then back in Coban we went out to shop for snacks for the next day and then an excellent dinner at La Posada.
The road to Rio Oqueba
The next morning we enjoyed a hearty breakfast (huevos rancheros) then loaded up in the bus for the drive to Cueva Rio Oqueba. It was a fairly long drive(18km) on very rough road, but our arrival at the cave made it all worth while.
[U>We drove through some beautiful Karst landscape on the way. [/U>
The large entrance was visible from the road and was only a short walk from where we parked the bus. Almost immediately after entering the cave we found ourselves swimming through a short
Upstream entrance, Rio Oqueba
section to the first waterfall. It was an easy climb down the 10’ fall but we rigged a rope which proved very handy when climbing back up against the forceful current on our way out of the cave. We swam through a longer section of deep water and rigged a rope at the next fall which was a slightly longer and steeper drop then the previous one. By the time we reached the third and larger still waterfall I decided that in order to have time to take pictures (and avoid the climb back up) I’d remain at the top. I found several dragonfly nymphs and a fresh water crab in the nearby pools as well as some interesting formations.
Rio Oqueba cave
When the rest of the group returned they described how they’d reached the next falls and how Chris had almost gone over them! Fortunately there was a nearby branch that had gotten wedged before the falls so he was able to stop himself in time. They were unable to find a tie off point close enough to the falls so they didn’t reach the downstream entrance.
Candelaria Cave system. Guatemala
The next day, Tuesday, April 10th, we loaded up the bus and headed north to the Candelaria cave system. We would be staying at the eco-lodge which is owned by French caver, Daniel Dreux who first explored the Candelaria cave system in 1974. We arrived a little before one in the afternoon. It’s a fantastic place set in the vegetation with wooden walkways between the thatched cabanas scattered throughout the jungle.
After lunch we got our first view of the cave as we went around a short dry section that was above the river level. What a view it was. The gaping entrance was just a short walk from our cabins and was certainly impressive. That night we enjoyed another wonderful meal at the lodge, this time accompanied by a live marimba band playing in the background.
The next morning we got up early so we could take the bus to one of the upstream entrances to the cave system. We had a slight delay as one of our guides was ill and they had to find a replacement. After that though our trip progressed without a hitch, as we waded and floated through numerous sections of the cave, with beautiful sunbeams and lush vegetation penetrating occasionally through collapsed skylights. I even spotted numerous small fish swimming around us in the river and managed to take a picture of them. After 4 or 5 hours of following the river through the cave we passed through a section of cave full of bats shortly before reaching an entrance where we walked out of the cave for a lunch break.
Lunch was at the Mucbilha campgrounds where we were served a lunch of roast turkey with rice, potatoes and a bowl of broth. This was truly luxury caving. There was even entertainment in the form of a tame coatimundi to play with.
After lunch it was back to the cave this time with a different guide leading the way as we had now moved to a different village’s territory. We traveled through several kilometers of this wonderful cave and finally emerged right near the lodge we were staying at. Dinner was excellent and I really enjoyed the crepes with orange marmalade.
The following morning we were on the road again. This time headed for a short break in the caving as we were going to Tikal to visit the Mayan ruins. On the way we crossed a river on a barge/ferry powered by a 70hp motor. We arrived at Tikal in time for lunch and then took a tour of the ruins. The ruins were wonderful and the lush vegetation surrounding them housed a variety of birds and wild life. We saw basilisk lizards, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, parrots, toucans, oropendula and ocellated turkey just to name a few.
After a little more sight seeing at the ruins we headed out to Finca Ixobel where we spent the night before heading out for our biggest cave yet. The fabled Chiquibul cave which travels all the way under the border and into Belize.
Chiquibul Cave , GuatemalaXibalba entrance- possibly one of the biggest in the world at over 290meteres across. That’s my friend Ric Gates- the little red dot to give it some scale.
We didn’t travel all the way to the Xactun entrance but did make it to a skylight entrance before returning to the Xibalba entrance where we set up camp.
After Leaving Chiquibul we headed south to Lanquin where we spent the night at the hotel El Recreo before heading off to see the fantastic rim stone pools at Semuc Champey. On the way to the pools we picked up a hitchhiker from the Netherlands who was Sightseeing before heading north to a volunteer job at the Animal rescue shelter in the National park at Tikal. We only spent a couple of hours enjoying the beautiful pools and swimming holes because then it was time to go caving again.
We headed across the river to Ka’n Ba cave. This cave is now a tour cave and a guide led us through mostly winding canyon like stream passage and over a couple of climbs that had been permanently rigged with some shaky looking ladders so no vertical gear was required. We of course headed past the usual tour route to get to the back and see some of the more beautiful formations and that required a little bit of effort including one climb alongside a waterfall that looked a little ominous until we had actually climbed up it. The pristine white formations in the back of the cave were certainly worth seeing.
Our final adventures in Guatemala were a return to Antigua for a chance to unwind and do some souvenir shopping at the colorful markets. Then a trip to and hike up Volcan Pacaya.
This was an amazing experience as we watched molten lava flow out from the side of the volcanoes cone and roll down the hill side. We climbed until we were within a few feet of the glowing; molten lava then began a hasty retreat down the mountain. A large tour group had come up behind us and I heard one of the women remarking she smelled something burning.
I jokingly commented that she must be on fire but when we stopped at a large section of cooler lava, she saw that her shoes had actually melted a little.
Here’s a picture I took from the doorway of our hotel in Antigua as we waited for the shuttle to take us to the airport.