Guatemala 6: Antigua to Juayúa, El Salvador

Once again, as the first to arrive at the pit stop, Simon and Ang were the first to depart at 8am.  For this leg, they had to make their way to El Salvador by the most rapid means possible.

To do this, they first booked passage on a shuttle from San Marcos to Antigua. Their shuttle would pick them up from San Marcos, so the team was required to wait at the municipal basketball court.  As normal in this part of the world, the micro bus was late arriving, so the team entertained themselves by talking to some of the locals and wondering what prices the other shuttle passengers had paid (the team had negotiated tickets for 40Q each, which turned out to be a bargain).

Rush hour, San Marcos Tuk Tuk rank in San Marcos

Soon the shuttle arrived.  It was the exact same one that the team had the issue with eight days earlier (Casa Verde Tours), but thankfully with a more capable driver.  Unlike previously, the ride back to Antigua was uneventful and soon the team had secured accommodation for one night.

San Marcos church The offending shuttle

After a quick detour to the travel agency where they received a 10Q reimbursement (for extra tuk tuk payment), the team set about enquiring about pricing for transport to near Juayúa, El Salvador from a selection of local ticket agencies.  Various routes were proposed and pricing offered.  The team decided the price of a shuttle and first class bus, whilst more costly, would be better value (and safer) than navigating through Guatemala City.

With transport organised, the team changed their focus to completing the final Antigua challenges.  Ang purchased some more handicrafts, after an entertaining and lengthy negotiation process.  Receiving their next clue, the team went in search of Hector’s, a hidden gem of a tiny restaurant that had no external advertising and serves modern fusion fare to no more than twenty people on five tables at a time.  This challenge was completed and the team enjoyed a fantastic meal.  While they ate, they were entertained by the dozens of kids in Halloween costume, who were either walking past the entry or directly through the restaurant to request and occasionally demand candy.

Antigua once again Another Antigua street photograph
Dogs don’t need to drink the water Jungle Party, this time with a little bit more party

Waking early the next morning, their next challenge was to locate an awesome coffee.  This required the team to find Refuge Coffee, a small coffee shop that was the highest rated on Trip Advisor.  Again, the team was able to locate this shop with ease and had two coffees.  Ang was very impressed and went as far as thanking the barista for providing ‘the best coffee thus far of the trip’.

Red hulk is angry The team was sad they missed this fight

With the Antiguan challenges completed, the team boarded the shuttle to Guatemala City.  An hour later, after dropping most of the passengers off at the airport, the team was deposited at the King Quality international bus station.  There they waited for 1.5 hours for their next bus.  This part of Guatemala City was particularly unsettling with Simon being approached by a drunken Guatemalan guy who demanded cerveza.  Simon later said that this made it very difficult to choose which juice to purchase with the team’s remaining quetzal.  Tactfully disengaging from the creepy drunk, Simon quickly returned to the bus station waiting room and the remainder of the wait passed without further incident

The team boarded the bus and soon they were driving through the streets of the city, with only a dozen stops for other passengers to board and vendors sell their food as they made their way to the border.  For Ang, the highlight was the chicas that brought pollo campo (kind of like KFC) onto the bus to onsell to passengers.

Driving into the border town, Simon was surprised to read that it was Valle Nuevo as he was expecting the more northern crossing of San Cristóbal, due to the travel agency telling them that the two southern border crossings were closed due to recent flooding.  Because of this information, when they booked their tickets, the team had decided to make their way to Santa Ana and then backtrack to the Ruta De Las Flores (Route of the Flowers) as required by their clue.  Seeing this chance to speed up, the team changed their plans, and while they were waiting for El Salvadorian authorities to complete their immigration inspection, and sucessfully negotiated in spanish with the bus driver for a new drop off point.

The team also noticed a number of passengers who had gotten onto the bus in Guatemala City (but not in the terminal, so not on the official manifest) had crossed the border on foot.  Oddly, their positions on the bus had been replaced by vendors while the El Salvadorian authorities were inspecting passports. Once immigration formalities were completed, these passengers re-boarded the bus up the road one km.  Ang thought this was very fishy.  The best explanation Simon could come up with was that perhaps the bus driver and assistant were moonlighting as people smugglers.

The bus continued into El Salvador and the team were deposited at a junction just outside of Ahuachapán.  Boarding a chicken bus, they sped into town.  On the ride in, the team passed the celebrations for the day of the dead.  Once at the packed market, they pushed their way through on foot to their next chicken bus, number 249 to Juayúa.  After the pretty hour long ride, they arrived in the friendly town of Juayúa and soon found their hostel, Casa Mazeta, the pit stop for this leg of the race.

Shared bus station/market in Ahuachapán A Ruta de las Flores town
Juayúa at sun down

Guatemala 5: San Marcos, Largo Atitlán

Racing recommenced the next morning with Simon and Ang departing Earth Lodge at 10am standing in the back of a pickup truck. On the 5km ride into town, they chatted with Drew, one of the owners of Earth Lodge and tried to hold on.  Arriving back in the cobbled streets of Antigua, they were stared at by tourist gringos who, as Drew pointed out, probably wanted to ‘get on the tour that those guys were on’.

To avoid four changes of chicken buses, and the need to travel through one dodgy prison city, the team made their way to a local travel agency where they booked passage on a shuttle to Lake Atitlán.  The first shuttle would depart at 2pm, so the team set out on foot to negotiate a good deal for a couple of small Guatemalan handicraft items from a nearby market.

After making their purchases and a quick cheap delicious lunch at a locals only joint, the team boarded the shuttle and headed north to the lake. The driver of the shuttle was terrible, having great difficulty with the concepts of smooth acceleration and braking, gears and speed bumps.  For Simon, this guy was the worst driver in all of Central America.  After almost 2 trying hours, Ang called out ‘seriously!!” as she was about to be ill.

Perhaps as revenge for Ang’s understandable outburst to which others were grateful for or because the driver was too lazy to go all the way to San Marcos, the team was dumped in San Pablo, a small town 15 minutes away from San Marcos.  The excuse given by the driver at the time was that the remaining distance was impassable in the van and that the team would need to take a tuk tuk.  Angry, and after a failed attempting to blockade the van, Simon and Ang jumped into a tuk tuk and travelled the remaining 5km for 10Q.  While the cost was small, both Ang and Simon were annoyed with this on principle and decided to take action to get a refund later for this additional expense.

The tuk tuk ride deposited them in San Marcos, and there following the clue provided by a volunteer at Earth Lodge, the team, along with the local children who greeted them on arrival, walked down to Paco Real and found Frank.  There they were given their next clue.

This challenge would require Ang and Simon to both enrol in a week’s one on one Spanish lessons. With the paperwork completed, they soon went to sleep as the first of 20 hours worth of Spanish would begin at 2pm the next day.

Atitlán panorama
Panorama of the San Pedro end of Atitlán

The next five days consisted of exploring San Marcos, trips in the morning to various other Atitlán villages such as San Pedro, Panajachel and Santiago.  In the afternoons, the team learnt Spanish from David and Lucas and then in the evenings, they tried a different restaurant in San Marcos. Highlights for the team included Ganesh cooking cooperative, La Fé, Moonfish, Tul y Sol and a small Japanese place hidden down a laneway behind a football field.

Women in traditional dress in San Pedro
View from the team’s favourite breaky spot “Tul y Sol” in San Marcos Neo new age types meditating near the Pyramids in San Marcos
San Marcos dock Water taxi bow
San Pedro’s Pana dock (somewhat under water) Cunningly disguised mobile tower
Ang completing the fringe cut challenge. Locals enjoyed watching from the window Standard latin American church in Pana
Hour four of a graduation, San Marcos style Chickens for sale, San Pedro
Santiago dock, San Pedro The mighty Titanic departs Pana dock
Traditional Santiago woman’s hand embroidery Santiago de Atitlán market
Buying vegetables in Santiago Pantalones de Santiago
View from Santiago to San Pedro Another Volcán

Both Ang and Simon found the town of San Marcos to be surprisingly large, and even right up until their last day of Spanish they were still discovering new restaurants and places to eat breakfast.  Simon liked the community that had been established in San Marcos, with lots of friendly, personable people which helped to make this leg of the race all the more enjoyable. The team was also lucky to meet Leigh, a trustworthy British gent who they were able to trade their Cuba guidebook for a later edition of the South American guidebook.

A busy San Marcos street Spanish homework

Having completed all the tasks for this leg of the race, the team were given the final clue and they raced to back to Paco Real, the pit stop for this leg of the race.


Guatemala 4: Earth Lodge

As a reward for their first place in the previous leg, Team Australia was rewarded with four days and three nights at Earth Lodge (three nights for the price of two).  Earth Lodge is a relaxed accommodation located 5km from Antigua, in the hills over the town.  The Lodge has a positive effect on the surrounding community, providing support to a nearby school and is staffed by a mix of local people and foreign volunteers.  The views from Lodge are spectacular and take in three nearby volcanoes, Volcán de Agua, Acatenango and Fuego.

Earth Lodge from the small village of El Hato Pilar (public washing facility) near the entry to Earth Lodge
The main lodge

The team took full advantage of this rest period by enjoying their tree themed accommodation that included a cabin built in a tree and for the last two nights, the deluxe tree cabin with a tree growing through it.

The tree house Ang looking out the window
View from the tree house
View from the tree house bed Inside the tree house

In the day they relaxed and enjoyed the view.  In the evening, they watched the volcano Fuego erupt and enjoyed the fantastic food and cocktails provided by the Lodge.  Not being huge relaxation types, they did a half day trip back to Antigua one day, and a two hour hike around the local area on the following day.  They also enjoyed a concert and BBQ that the Lodge had organised to celebrate the end of the rainy season.

Sunset eruption
Volcán panorama
Fuego 1 Fuego 2 Fuego 3 Fuego 4
Fuego erupts again And again
Dog and dos volcán
Colonial security Volcán de Agua
Market football field
Chicken bus Horse and Marque
The most understated McDonald’s in the whole world Antigua looking north from Parque Central
Antigua’s public pilar
Volcanoes and corn Carrying firewood through corn
Ang enjoys an afternoon beverage Simon also enjoys a beverage while the band plays
Inside the Lodge during happy hour Lizard by the window

Soon, racing would recommence…


Guatemala 3: Semuc Champey to Antigua

Prior to departing the pit stop, the team had breakfast with a friendly Puerto Rican named Carlos.  Carlos was the solo competitor in the Puerto Rican exclusive race.  He was first Puerto Rican team to check into the pit stop at midnight and was preparing for another day of gruelling racing.

Both teams chatted and soon it was time to depart from the pit stop.  Receiving their clues, the teams set off to the main attractions in Semuc Chempey.  Their first challenge was to complete a tour of the nearby caves.

The view from the race route to Semuc Chempey What a turkey

They raced the 3 km from the lodge down to the river where they soon arrived at the cave entry.  Receiving their candles and after changing into appropriate swimwear, the teams entered the water.  They swam through the long sections and managed to keep their candles alight.  They clambered over rocks, past guano and soon arrived at a waterfall deep within the cave.  Both teams wanted to proceed further into the cave, but their guide decided not to continue for safety reasons.

The team in the caves Carlos, Mayan guide and Simon at the entry to the caves
The team celebrates successully completing the challenge

Returning to daylight, the teams boarded inner tubes and soon, as a human raft, were racing down the river.  They travelled a good km in very little time before reaching returning to the bank. With this task completed, both teams received their next clue and were soon on their way to the reserve of Semuc Chempey.

Post tubing celebrations Crossing the jungle bridge

Semuc Chempey is an amazing natural feature formed where the river travels below the surface through a series of nature caves only to emerge on downstream in a thunderous waterfall.  On the upstream side the tremendous flow of water over time has deposited minerals forming spectacular pools.  Arriving at the entry to the natural park, the teams climbed to the mirador (lookout) where photos were taken before they descended to the pools themselves for a swim.  Ang was a little disappointed as the pools were cloudy and not blue due to the heavy rain, but was still amazed by their beauty.

Semuc from above
Another panorama of Semuc
The racers pause to take in the view of Semuc The thunder that is Semuc
Panorama looking upstream
Semuc waterfalls panorama
Further downstream, Semuc whitewater

After the swim, they rapidly returned to the lodge and due to being too tired from the morning’s activities, negotiated a reduction in the tour and a refund of the unused proportion. The remainder of the afternoon was spent relaxing with Team Ireland.

Power was cut to the whole valley that evening and the team was treated to a spectacular firefly show as they played cards with Team Ireland.  Team Puerto Rico returned later that night, and said that the additional portion of the tour to a second cave was not worth it.

Receiving their next clues, team Australia and Puerto Rico set early alarms and went to bed.  Team Ireland received their clue separately and would be departing the following day for the next leg of their race.

Waking before dawn the next morning, Simon, Ang and Carlos waited, then after almost 20 minutes set about trying to locate and then wake the driver.  He said their was plenty of time before the shuttle, but then proceeded to race at top speed back to Lanquín, where the transport to Antigua was set to depart from.  After a bone jarring 20 minutes they raced into Lanquín and sped up to the van.  There they waited a good hour while other passengers slowly trickled in to the van.

The ride to Antigua with a change in Cobán was relatively uneventful.  They drove past numerous landslides, met a friendly peace corp volunteer and generally enjoyed the scenery.  Soon they arrived in the pretty colonial town of Antigua and both teams located suitable accommodation.

Guy sells food to cars in the mudslide traffic jam Church with rosary and ice cream guy
Antiguan street Antiguan dogs
Antiguan horse and cart Teams Australia and Puerto Rico successfully summit Cerro de la Cruz without being robbed
Guatemalan Bob the builders Carlos races for Pepsi

Receiving their next clue, Simon, Ang and Carlos, along with the peace corp volunteer, Christine, set off to Café No Se, where Simon and Carlos drank much Illegal Mezcal. Completing this challenge, both teams were given their next clue.

Having not completed the salsa lesson challenge in Cuba, the clue called for teams to dance salsa.  If the general public gave their apparoval, the teams would get their next clue.  In another amazing first, Teams from two different series came together to complete a challenge with Team Puerto Rico giving Team Australia a lesson in street Salsa. This belatedly completed the Cuban salsa class challenge provided by Callan.

Both teams then headed off on a pub crawl that included some of the prime Antigua hotspots, but unfortunately did not include the Jungle Party Hostel as there was no party on offer there.

Jungle party suffering from a distinct lack of party

Somewhat merry, both teams returned to their accommodation in the early hours, the pit stop for this leg of the race.  As a prize for their first place, Team Australia won three nights worth of rest and relaxation at Earth Lodge.


Guatemala 2: Flores to Semuc Champey

Arriving sometime in the pm, the team were the first to depart at 7am.  They had some concern that the shuttle ticket they had been sold the day previous would not be honoured.  Making several inquiries, they were able to confirm that it would indeed be honoured and they would be able to continue racing.

The team met with the agent who sold them the ticket to double check that their ride would be arriving.  It was confirm much to the teams relief.  When the bus did finally arrive 15 minutes later (Guateamala time), after paying the outstanding money, that they would told to get on the same bus as Team Ireland (as previously predicted).  The one and only bus to Semuc Champey then departed Flores at 9.30am.

Both teams (from the separate series) then travelled south before they were forced to stop just before Sayaxché.  Heavy rain had flooded the road and their driver was concerned that the van would not be capable of passing the floodwater.  After some negotiation with the driver,  he agreed, but only do it if everyone sat in the back of the van and on the roof to make it back heavy.  Simon volunteered to walk through the shin-high floodwater to confirm depth and the van soon followed.  Passing through some additional shallower floodwater, the van was driven on to a car ferry via a loading ramp made from gravel.  Locals, used to seeing other Guatemalans on top of vans, took the opportunity to photograph the members of Team Irish, Australia, Britain and Sweden.  Soon the van crossed and was back on the highway, speeding south.

Driver checking river on the ferry ramp Waiting for the ferry
No cable tonight Supra drives on the barge
Sayaxché town Dude driving the barge
Restaurante with a water view Crossing the river
View of Sayaxché The barge arrives
Small town church Service station Mary statue
Guatemalans on their mini bus

The remainder of the drive was relatively uneventful with the van passing through the town of Cobán, before driving along a dark bumpy dirt road.  At this point rain commenced and the team transferred to a 4wd for the remaining 5km to their accommodation. This drive was the worst off-road travel the team had experienced to date.  The driver needed to continuously demist the windscreen inside the car with an old wiper blade.  Simon, who was sitting on everyone’s backpacks in the boot, had a particularly uncomfortable ride to the lodge.

Eventually, they arrived at El Zapote, a rustic jungle lodge and the pit stop for this leg of the race.


Guatemala 1: San Ignacio, Belize to Flores, Guatemala

Racing recommenced early with the team having a relaxing omelette breakfast at Flayva’s.  As this was a race, and there were unknown challenges ahead, the team quickly packed and readied themselves for the journey ahead.

They said goodbye to the only awake third of Team Ireland, and walked out to the street to hail a passing collectivo. Some friendly local Belize guys soon pointed out the clamped out corolla which the team then boarded.

Waiting for a shared taxi…

Driving with one other passenger, they arrived at the frontier and set about getting the last of their Belizian dollars changed, paid their departure taxes, completed their visitor survey and then walked to the other side.

There they completed passport formalities with no real difficulties, other than the Guatemala border official requesting 10 Quetzal illegally (Q7.5 to the dollar at the border rate) for the passport to be stamped.  Recognising this as an entry fee scam, the team refused politely, and had their passports stamped anyway.

Next they got a cab to the collectivo stop and were soon in a chicken collectivo (a lady brought her chicken with her) heading west to Flores.  The collectivo rapidly travelled the 100 km west through Petén towards the town of Saint Elena.  Having paid an extra 5Q, the driver continued to the island of Flores.

A speeding herd passes the chicken collectivo
Flores panorama

They soon arrived at their accommodation in Flores, dumped their bags and had a quick lunch.  Then it was back to Saint Elena to the bus station where they were told they had just missed the last direct collectivo to Tikal. Into another alternative collectivo they hopped and headed back east the town of El Ramate, which was part of the way to Tikal.

Their driver told them when the local bus would arrive and what colour it would be and soon sped off on his way.  Another collectivo passed by, but this unofficial van was charging more than the racers were willing to pay.  Plus their earlier driver had told them the local bus would be along at 3.00pm.  Asking other locals it was clear the local bus would be arriving later.  With no other options, the team then waited some more, fearing this costly delay could see them eliminated. Just when they were about to start back to Flores on foot, at roughly 3:30pm, the bus arrived.

Turkey on a chicken bus Turkey close up

Boarding the chicken bus, with no chickens, only a well-behaved turkey, they sped through the Guatemalan countryside.  It wasn’t long before they were deposited at the Tikal visitor centre in the heavy rain, about 1.5 hours before closing time.  Through some negotiation, they were able to secure a ticket for an hour (until the last collectivo left for Flores) and for all of the next day.  They raced into the ruins and randomly completed one isolated section before having to run (without slipping in the mud and mossy rocks) back to the car park.  They boarded their minibus and were soon deposited back in Flores for dinner, mojitos and ice cream.

Temple VI, Tikal on dusk Ice creamery with attached xylophone band

Having not fully completed the ‘visit the ruins’ task, the team decided to return the next morning to avoid facing a potential time penalty later at the pit stop. They soon were asleep.

They were woken early the next morning by the 7am tour bus, having been earlier woken by the 4am ‘sunrise’ tour bus.  Rather than travel to Saint Elena, they asked a waiting driver for a return ticket direct to the ruins.  This swiftly saw them at the Tikal ruin site by 8.30am.  Their tickets purchased the previous day were shown and soon they were racing to get to the top of Temple IV, the highest in the complex, leaving their fellow passengers in the company of the included guide.

After a brisk 20 minute walk with a slight stop in the grand plaza, the team arrived at the top of temple IV.  Simon exchanged basic pleasantries in Spanish with the national parks person, and the team sat to enjoy the view, which was the main challenge of this leg of the race.

Tikal ruins Starwars or the view from Temple IV, Tikal
Ang meditates on Temple IV Racers on Temple IV

About an hour or more later, Team Ireland climbed the stairs and both teams exchanged stories from the previous day whilst looking out for howler monkeys and trying to work out which of the temples were filmed in Star Wars.

Soon it was time for both teams to depart.  Team Ireland went off on their race route while the Amazing Exclusive Race Australia team, true to form, headed off into the jungle.  They were soon alone with nothing but Mayan ruins for company.  Moving quickly, they visited the Mundos Perdidos (Lost World), the six temples and the Grand plaza again before they raced back to the return bus to Flores.  They were the last team to arrive at the bus, so Simon was forced to sit on the floor.

View towards the grand plaza from Temple IV Mundos Perdidos
More ruins Big tree, Tikal
Grand plaza, looking south Grand plaza, looking north

Soon they were back in Flores, the pit stop for this leg of the race.  There they enjoyed a long late lunch, a short break and then a tasty dinner during the rest period.