When we were trying to leave San Pedro to arrive in Cobán we were always told that any direct transport there would have to go via Antigua. Since we had already all spent more time that we had wanted there, it was psychologically too much of a step backward to make that trip back to Antigua and so we vowed to make our own way to Cobán via the highlands. I mean, it didn't look that far on the map! 10 hours and three colectivos and a psycho chicken bus driver later, we got to Cobán, but we were treated to a glimpse of the reality of Mayan Guatemala that most backpackers miss. We passed through some pretty hectic places en route, like the market at Chichicastenango, but we also witnessed some very dramatic landscapes that reminded me a lot of Bolivia. A good 2km section of the road had been taken out by the biggest landslide I've ever seen, and a treacherous makeshift track took us on a scenic detour halfway down the mountain.
After a hearty meal and a comfortable night in a fancy hotel in Cobán, we headed to Lanquín to stay at a hostel that had already been well frequented and recounted by many a backpacker, but we happened to be there on one of its most noteworthy days. The Zephyr Lodge is perfectly located on a little hill sticking up in the middle of a gorgeous green valley, and is 30 mins from Semuc Champey - one of the main backpacker draw cards of Guatemala. The hostel ticks all the boxes with everything you could need catered for, but for that reason it is a total backpacker trap and very expensive. Anyway, we had been there just a few hours when all of a sudden we looked round and the room next to ours was on fire. It didn't take a genius to realize that the three adjacent buildings (all ranchos made out of wood and tinder-dry palm) had only minutes to live, and so we ran to drag our stuff out of the room. Within five minutes our room was gone. We managed to get most things out, but there were some that lost everything… including two guys who had gone out to eat in the village, only to return to find all of their possessions turned to ash. The atmosphere was quite spooky thereafter, but everyone pulled together to make room for people in the main building (also made out of palm) and many people donated clothes and shoes etc to the guys that had lost everything. Thankfully no one was hurt. Had it happened at night people would have been killed for sure. But there is a reason why it happened at the hour least likely to kill anyone - it was almost certainly arson. The hotel had many on-going troubles with the community, and it was obvious that this fire was going to be very convenient for local rival businesses.
The next day was entirely different, and was one of the most entertaining I've had in Central America. We went on a tour to Semuc Champey, a limestone gorge cutting through the jungle forming lots of geological oddities en route. We took a trip spelunking… yes, spelunking, through a very cool cave system, which included jumping into a pool, climbing up a waterfall, wading through caves neck deep in water, and dropping through tiny crevasses, the entire tour illuminated just with hand-held candle. Outside there was an awesome rope swing to hurl ourselves off, and for the more brave among us (who had travel insurance) an iron bridge to jump off. Further up the mountain we reached a viewpoint looking down on the valley which introduced us to the most peculiar site at Semuc Champey - a huge set of limestone platforms filled with pools of turquoise water that had formed over thousands of years from the fusion of giant stalactites running off the mountains. The river meanwhile appeared to disappear underground, as it buckled around some big rocks and was diverted underneath the platforms only to emerge again at the bottom. We headed down the mountain and swam in the pools, each one flowing into the next via natural slides formed from the slippery limestone. It was like being at a water park, except that everything was 100% natural. It is a totally unique site, and probably the only place I have been that packs in quite so much exotic adventure into just a few hours.
I had originally intended to go up to Tikal next, but I had come to realize that it was probably better if I just drew a line here and headed no further North, and instead took my time as I travelled back down to Costa Rica. I would be coming back here again next year anyway, and so I could concentrate on Guatemala and Mexico more then. Nina and Austin had decided to go East next to a place called Río Dulce, and so that's where the next stage of my travels was going to take me too.