Thursday, March 29, 2012

Semuc Champey: paradise

Friends of mine are travelling to Guatemala this month, and after my insisting they visit Semuc Champey, I've promised to blog well enough to convince them to listen to me.

Semuc Champey is unlike anything I've ever seen before on this earth. You drive on remote Guatemalan side roads and arrive in Lanquin, a tiny Guatemalan town situated in the thick jungle of the highlands. And just a short drive from Lanquin, up some winding roads and past indigenous farmland, hidden amongst the jungle vines and in a deep valley, is this turquoise-blue waterfall paradise that doesn't seem like it could possibly exist.

The entry of the river that flows beneath the limestone
bridge that is Semuc Champey.
Semuc is a series of pools and waterfalls created by karst topography - mainly over thousands of years limestone has eroded away and left these incredible pools. A river flows beneath them, and the pools are spring-fed, making the water the clearest aqua blue you could ever imagine. You jump from pool to pool. It's paradise.

And there's the cave adventures too. After the pools, a Guatemalan man (no more than 18 years old) hands us candle sticks and leads us to the top of a waterfall, where we head into a deep cave. With nothing but candles (and headlamps, for those who brought them) he leads us directly into the cave, where rushing water pours out. There's a waterfall within the cave that you walk underneath, and for the more daring, a small cliff jump into a deep pool before turning around and heading back out.

Semuc Champey is understatedly the most incredible place I have ever had the pleasure of seeing in my life. That is why, Leah-Rose and Rachel, you must visit it during your four weeks in Guatemala.

Stay at El Retiro Hostel, where they feed you dinner each night and you rest in a tiny thatch-roofed hut (you may have to kill a few cockroaches here and there), and soak in all things Guatemala.

The hut we stayed in at El Retiro Lodge, and my and two
friends from Vancouver, who ironically met up with us in
Semuc Champey.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The book list, and great books

Over my three travelling months I had the pleasure of reading six books (and one terrible harlequin romance), all of which contributed to my crossing off my book list, 25 Books to Read Before I'm 25. I'll talk about them in a minute, but I just finished reading such an incredible book to complete my list, that is deserves first attention. Even though I did not meet my required deadline of March 6, the day I turned 25, I am only 20 days behind and glad I was able to finish with such a great read.

Into Thin Air, written by renowned journalist and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, had me from the get-go. A first-hand account of the Mount Everest disaster in 1996, where 12 mountaineers and guides lost their lives in an attempt to summit to the highest place on earth. It was gripping, moving, and saddening, to read of the determination that leads man - and woman - to his untimely, frigid death.

I don't want to give too much detail, but the author takes us into the trying weeks of an ascent up Everest with guides and fellow clients, as they are pummeled with altitude sickness, freezing temperatures, and - on more than one occasion - with death.

Krakauer wrote this with such emotion only months after he arrived down Everest that it's impossible to read without feeling the pain and suffering that climbing to such an alititude presents. As a journalist, he does an incredible job of introducing the sport of climbing, so that even those unaware of the dedication and determination that one such climber carries with him/her are able to have some understanding. His research, interviews, and self-accounts of May 10, 1996, at more than 29,000 feet, had me not wanting to do anything else but read.

"People who don't climb mountains -- the great majority of humankind, that is to say -- tend to assume that the sport is reckless, Dionysian pursuit of escalating thrills. But the notion that climbers are merely adrenaline junkies chasing a righteous fix is a fallacy, at least in the case of Everest. What I was doing up there had almost nothing in common with bungee jumping or skydiving or riding a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour... Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became almost a Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I'd been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace." (136)

As a journalist, I am both envious and saddened with how Krakauer came to tell this story.

** Other books I read while travelling:

The Help by Karen Stockett - incredible read, I couldn't put it down and would recommend it to anyone.

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain - Both were incredibly adventurous classics about young childhood and adolescence. Great reads.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Walls - Not my favourite by any means. It felt tedious to read and I never felt any connection with the characters.

The Reader - Good, about a young German who falls in love with a Nazi war criminal unknowingly. I believe it's better oriented for the male audience, but not a read-again type.

Memoirs of A Geisha by Arthur Golden - This book was so incredible. I had no idea of the selling of girls in Japan only 50 years ago, nor did I know to what extremes these young women would have to endure. Highly recommended.

i pledge to read the written word. always.

Reese Peanut BBB!

Reese's Peanut Butter Banana Bread

Sometimes you happen upon something so delicious that you can't help but make and bake it. Thanks to Pinterest, I came across this decadent twist for banana bread. I bought, I baked, I ate with a glass of cold milk. It was delicious. Recipe below.

3 very ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup oil
1 egg
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
8 oz bag of Reese's Mini cups

Directions: 1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease loaf pan with butter or shortening.
2. In a medium bowl whisk together flour, soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
3. In large bowl stir bananas, peanut butter, oil, egg and sugars.
4. Pour dry ingredients into wet ingredients and stir until just combined. Batter should be lumpy.
5. Pour in Reese's Mini cups and spread batter into pan.
6. Bake for 1 hour approx. or until toothpick inserted into centre comes out clean.

(I found the top was browning a little too much, so halfway through I covered the loaf with tinfoil.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Guatemala, Tikal

Going to Guatemala! By boat, in Flores.
Of all the countries we visited during our three months in Central America, Guatemala was my favourite. From the moment we stepped into the country via a small wooden boat on the flooded Usumacinta River, to the seconds before we left Antigua for Nicaragua, Guatemala was filled with exploration in the deep jungles for hidden paradises and sites that I don't believe I'll ever see again in my life.

On top of Temple IV, with other temples peaking
out of the jungle at us.
We left Palenque on a whirlwind escape on a collectivo bus to a place called Frontera Corozal (a town that sits along the river that separates Mexico's state of Chiapas from Guatemala). We hopped in a cab, and then a launcha (boat) upriver to Bethel, an off-the-map transit 'town' with a few huts and even more pushy money handlers trying to exchange the pesos you have for their quetzals at an outrageous exchange rate. We then paid $100Q's (about $12) for a five hour bus ride through rural Guatemala, on a bus with four big Guatemalan man, one of whom chatted with Ben about guns and made an attempt at saying some english words with us. We saw a small crocodile resting next to a pond, and kids fishing in a flooded river with makeshift snorkels.
Old carvings, my feet on the temple, and a toucan in the jungle trees!
And then we arrived in Flores for a night, where it poured rain and we had a room with a view. And then, we went to Tikal.

By far one of the most incredible archeological sites in the world, Tikal carries with it mysteries and sky-high temples more than 2,000 years old. Unlike most, who take a day trip to the site and arrive mid-morning, Ben and I chose to stay overnight at a hotel at the site. It cost us a bit more, but the money we paid was entirely worth it. We stayed at the jaguar Inn for around $60, and woke at 4 a.m., dressed and walked towards the park entrance, which did not open until 6. Unless, you pay a guard carrying a loaded shotgun $100Q's right on the spot, then he'll let you into the park before it opens. And so we did.
Temple I in the main plaza. Two people died when they fell
from the stairs of this temple a few years ago.
We wandered through Tikal before the sun was up and the howler monkeys were asleep. Toads leaped on the path at our feet, and we only had our headlamps to guide us as we wandered amongst the ruins hidden in the dark. It was somewhat terrifying to hear the monkeys howling like jaguars, but exhilarating all the same. The park is spread out, with the highest temple, Temple IV, at the back end, so we decided to head there first and watch the sun come up. We climbed the steep stairs and reached the top, 64 metres high and towering above the forest canopy. We sat there for a couple hours, ate our breakfast and watched monkeys swing from tree to tree, toucans squacking, and even a jungle fox who came up the temple for a visit.

We then ventured through the rest of the park as the rain began to fall, heavy and wet. We found an enormous pyramid temple, and made our way to the Plaza of the Seven Temples, the Main Plaza and other acropolises. The city is so incredibly rich in history that as you wander through it you find yourself feeling infinitesimal. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tikal dates back to 4th Century BC, and was built over hundreds of years-one of the most powerful states in ancient Maya culture. It's believed that nearly 90,000 people lived there at one time.

Go see it for yourself. Guatemala is so beautiful, and Tikal is just one of the many highlights there.

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