Caving In Guatemala
by Keith Rockmael
"There's no way I'll fit through there." That was my first thought when my guide Rafael pointed at what looked like a mouse hole in the side of a steep cliff. "Follow me," he said before wiggling through the cavity. Slithering on my side, I barely passed through the opening. My snake-like maneuvers paid off as I entered a cavern filled with stalactites and stalagmites.
I had just entered Bombil Pek (in the local Q'eqchi' language the name means Painted Rock), a cave system offering Indiana Jones-like adventure. First opened to the public in 2002, these caverns offer unspoiled exploration and a chance to view ancient Mayan cave drawings seen by few people over the centuries.
Although best known for its Mayan ruins at Tikal and the Spanish colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala contains many natural wonders that are first being discovered by adventurous travelers. Ironically, many of the most beautiful locales were preserved by the civil war that tormented Guatemala from 1966 to 1996, thwarting development.
Today, serenity, not danger, should be the first word associated with Guatemala. Despite big-city problems of crime and traffic congestion in Guatemala City, the rest of the country offers travelers a veritable paradise of lakes, volcanoes and rivers, as well as Spanish-language schools.
Verapaz -Land of True Peace
Several of the country's most unusual attractions are located in the region called The Verapaz (True Peace), which sits 132 miles northeast of Guatemala City. The region encompasses two departments (Baja Verapaz and Alta Verapaz), which offer warm, mineral-rich lakes, newly discovered caves, and turquoise swimming holes.
Even now, the pine-covered mountain and tropical lowlands of Alta Verapaz receive relatively few visitors, unknown even to most Guatamaltecos. Many tourists are deterred by the prevalence of dirt roads and potholes that seem like small swimming pools. Since some stretches would damage regular cars, four-wheel-drive vehicles remain a reliable option especially during the rainy season (May through October) when the roads often become a muddy mess. However, a little perseverance pays off with lots of scenic adventuring.
A Natural Spa
First stop on the Alta Verapaz adventure should be a visit to the Parque Nacional Laguna Lachu‡ (Lake Lachu‡ National Park). Because of its circular appearance, the lake might have been formed by a meteor crash, according to some scientists. Set in the middle of a 24,000-acre preserve, the lake is only about three miles in surface area but plunges 720 feet deep.
To reach the lake, visitors hike 2.5 miles along a white stone path - the paving both protects the environment and discourages snakes. On the trek, visitors might encounter howler monkeys, iguanas, parrots, toucans and occasionally jaguars, as well as colorful butterflies. About midway along the walk, an overlook provides a stunning view of the water.
At the lake, there's a designated section for swimming. The water feels like a spa, with temperatures hovering around 75 degrees, a content of over 20 minerals, and an aroma of sulfur. After swimming, I stood still in the shallows for a few seconds and fish started gently nibbling at my feet. It was an extremely odd sensation - sometimes ticklish, at other times bracing, like a peculiar exfoliation treatment. The area also offers simple lodging, barbecue/picnic area, and basic changing rooms.
From the lake, it's about a two-hour drive to the caves of Bombil Pek. Although it's possible to visit two caves in one full day, travelers with restricted time should opt for the Bombil Pek cave itself.
A small fee covers entrance, a guide, and rental equipment (such as helmet light and harnesses). No previous spelunking experience is required - just willingness for adventure. After a one-mile walk through cornfields, visitors arrive at the circular gorge where the cave is located.
Next, it's time to strap on the harness. The local guide and my tour company guide (Gabriel) readied the ropes, harness and belay device for my descent. With all the ties double-checked, I grabbed the rope, and slowly moved downward.
Descending 100 feet seemed scary at first, but turned out to be fun. From a somewhat seated position I walked horizontally, my feet planted against the cliff. My thoughts turned to Batman and how he rappelled on the side of buildings, but here it was all soil and roots. A rock formation that edged from the soil stood in the way, but I maneuvered around it and found myself on terra firma. Since I'm hardly an expert at rappelling myself, I think even people with limited or no experience would enjoy it.
After the rappel, I had to trudge through slippery red mud to reach the cave opening itself. Although tall and wide, the cave looked shallow and appeared to go nowhere. But after wriggling through the narrow entry, I entered a long, constricted chamber. Jagged rocks pierced the walls and ceilings. A series of roundish formations practically uttered "Tap me" so I obliged. When I knocked on one, sounds of hollow drums echoed through the cavern.
I had little time for a "rock concert," since another tiny hole loomed ahead. With my new-found spelunking expertise, this opening seemed like a snap. I carefully crawled through the hole to a narrow ledge that could hold only five people. There was no room for "oops" - if I fell off the edge, I'd drop about 50 feet.
The reason for my entry: a view of two Mayan drawings on the near wall. Estimated to be about 1,500 years old, the simple drawings depict a monkey and a jaguar, but the fact that they look perfectly preserved and that hardly anyone has seen them makes them all the more special.
After admiring the drawings, we backtracked through the caves, then climbed back from the gorge. The ascent felt like scaling a muddy waterfall, as my shoes kept slipping against the damp terrain. Although going up required more strength than coming down, at least I could see where I was going and step accordingly.
Muddy but happy, we continued to the better-known Lanqu’n caves, which require less physical dexterity than Bombil Pek. On this hour-long ramble which visitors can do with or without a guide, I headed through five large caverns that contain 16 named formations, including the Lion, the Owl, El Femer (which looks like an abnormal femur bone), and the impressive Curtains.
The caves contain electric lights up to a certain point. More adventurous visitors can venture two hours further into the system assisted by proper light and a guide. I marveled at the formations, the small bats, and the overall grandeur of the caverns. Nonetheless, I had to look down as much as I looked up, because the damp, sometimes stone, sometimes mud path was slippery.
The history of these caves goes back to Mayan times. Even today, Mayan descendents sacrifice chickens at one specific area inside the caves. Fortunately or unfortunately, these rituals take place outside of visiting hours.
There's no sacrificing of feathered friends - only gorgeous scenery - at nearby Semuc Champay (the name means "hidden deep beneath the rocks" in the Q'eqchi' language). Here, the Cahab—n River rushes from the mountains into an underground tunnel about 1,000 feet long. It's inspiring to view the powerful white water disappear deep into the earth.
Above the river, ponds and streams connected by tiny waterfalls and smooth rocks sparkle with blue-green water. Because of the 80-degree temperature matched by the 80% humidity, I immediately headed for an invigorating swim, then sunbathed on the flat stone. Although I lingered for several hours, I easily could have stayed here for weeks.
A visit to the Verapazes helps rejuvenate body, mind and spirit. The region definitely lives up to its name -True Peace.
Located in Coban, Aventuras Turisticas offer various tours throughout Guatemala with friendly, helpful and bilingual (English-speaking) guides. Phone: 011-502-951-4213 or 011-502-951-4214; Fax: 011-502-952-1001; E-mail:email@example.com. There is a link to the company from thewww.cobanav.net Web page.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Guatemala."