The sinuous road is like a cement river flowing around the rocky hips of this great mountain. Moments after throwing my unwieldy bag atop and squeezing into shuttle bus, the hefty driver careens about with a type of heedless abandon that could make Richard Dawkins turn religious — oh God, please don’t crash!
This abandon is far too heedful for the camioneta drivers who lunge their school buses full of dead technology and alive people around the narrow curves — no wonder crosses grace the interior.
The diverse ecology of Guatemala pours through the dusty windows as we pass mountain cities and jungle towns on our steady journey into the unknown. Twelve hours later I tiredly meander my cramped bones toward a dimly-lit hostel and collapse into a bed, too tired to worry about the sickly cat snuggling nearby or the dark scorpion creeping overhead.
Welcome to the jungle so they say.
Semuc Champey – “”sacred water” in the Mayan tongue – is a natural limestone formation situated in the remote interior of Alta Verapaz, a department in north-central Guatemala with a historically strong indigenous population. Rio Cahabon, a 196 km long river, flows through this secret Eden and imparts its distinctive turquoise hue. Cacao pods and zapote fruit dangle from nearby trees and beyond that, in the barely visible distance, an enormous sky-blue banner greets visitors.
Welcome to Semuc Champey…brought to you by Pepsi.
“Ah pepsi” I think to myself. “So this multi-million year old interconnected web of ever-present growth was simply a business venture for a soda company…biologists and ecologists alike can stop probing the mysteries of nature — there are no gods, just carbonated deities!”
An American girl in a polka dot bikini jumps from a 25 foot high bridge into the blue-green waters below. Barefoot kids with ripped shirts and infatuated teenagers with Gap jeans watch spellbound before rushing out to sell packets of bitter chocolate and cans of Gallo beer. The temazcal humidity, that same culprit that unplugged the refrigeration of night, makes a crisp beer and cold water sound like heaven but I choose to stay here on earth.
Twelve cramped bodies endured the lengthy ride yesterday and now one of them, a computer programmer from Bali, pops out from the El Portal sign and makes his way to the entrance. We pay the 50 Quetzal entrance fee and begin our mud-step journey to El Mirador, the lookout. Rickety slabs of local wood hold up the sodden steps; the slippery paradise doesn’t deter a mom and infant from gracefully ascending ahead of us.
From this birds-eye view, Semuc is a beautiful mesh of whimsical plants, weathered rock, and aquamarine pools cascading down the famous Cahabon. A collective devoid of cultish-ness because plants don’t form high school cliques – “eww… you’re not wearing the right shade of green, I can’t be seen with you.”
In the unseen distance beyond this green orgy, over the rusty yellow bridge, stands the entrance to Las Grutas.
This underground maze of secret waterfalls and eerie stalagmites — including a form I come to think of as a dying Elephant God —- stretch over 15 kilometers, but with barely-lit candles and a half-crazed guide we only make it an hour or so inside. The farthest we reach before turning back is an enormous rock with slippery steps that a brave few jump off into a dark pool below.
Scaling down a rushing waterfall and squeezing through a tiny rapid makes it apparent that a thousand safety infractions —- with their attendant fines, of course — would be levied on this tour if it were in the United States.
With most things, there are benefits and dangers to this nonchalance. It’s less bureaucratic here, there is less of a need to completely wall yourself off from danger because, they understand the danger of those walls.