Like blind tourists, my friends and I stumbled upon a small travel agency one morning in Panajachel, Guatemala. Little did we know, this happenstance would lead to one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life and the most delectable tamale I’ve ever tasted.
I can clearly remember biting into that tamale – warm, delectable cornmeal surrounding a layer of seasoned chicken – after our return from an adventurous weekend in Semuc Champey. It was like a taste of heaven right there in that travel agency.
You must be wondering, why was I eating a tamale in a travel agency? Only in Panajachel. This small town on the shore of Lake Atitlan in southwestern Guatemala was my home base during my month-long Guatemalan excursion two years ago. Along with three of my best friends from high school, I traveled to this impoverished Latin American country directly following our high school graduation. My friend (who came with me) had traveled to the country the previous summer for a volunteer stint teaching Spanish in a Mayan elementary school, and she could not wait to return along with us girls and show us the amazing country.
However, my parents weren’t exactly thrilled when I first brought up our plan for this trip. “Guatemala?!” they said. “It’s dangerous! Just four 18-year old girls wandering around a foreign land? No way!”
After weeks of begging, pleading, bribing, you name it – I finally convinced my parents to let me embark on this Guatemalan journey. Although the only “foreign” place I had travelled to was an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I was determined to explore a lesser-known and less touristy land (which, coincidentally, happens to border Mexico). And this tamale tale is proof that my persistence paid off.
(Back to the tamale). My friends and I were wandering through Panajachel one day, admiring the numerous vendors boasting hand-woven hammocks, brightly colored textiles, and all the beaded jewelry you could ever want, when we passed by a cheerful-looking travel agency. This one room office was brightly lit and open to the street, and a small Guatemalan woman sat at the lone desk, happily typing away on the computer. We entered the office, our attention brought to the dozen-or-so posters that covered the walls of the small room, loudly advertising exotic places like Yucatan, Mexico, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and, of course, the site of the famous Maya ruins in Tikal, Guatemala. The girls and I had discussed planning a short trip to somewhere in Guatemala in order to experience the culture outside of Lake Atitlan. While we wanted to see the ruins in Tikal, we knew that this would be a complicated and expensive trip, so when passing this travel office, we decided to ask for some assistance. We first greeted the travel agent, which is where it all began: “Hola Senora, como esta? Queremos planear un viaje a cualquier lugar de Guatemala. Puede Ud. ayudarnos?” – “Hello, Ms. How are you? We would like to plan a trip to somewhere in Guatemala. Can you help us?”
The woman’s face lit up as if she had just won the lottery. She quickly introduced herself as Maria and told us that she would be delighted to help. After about an hour of bilingual discussion, we finally decided to plan a trip to Semuc Champey, located in the heart of Guatemala, instead of our predestined trip to Tikal. This new itinerary was much more practical, as it only required us to travel by bus for eight hours as opposed to taking an expensive flight across the country.
Semuc Champey sounded more exotic, too. It’s a site of natural wonder, where limestone has formed a massive natural rock bridge covered by numerous pools of beautiful turquoise water. Underneath this bridge lies a powerfully cascading river that ends in a torrential waterfall at the bottom of the pools. This limestone structure is found in a wildlife reserve, with guided tours running daily. None of us had ever experienced anything like it, and that is exactly what we planned to explore during our weekend in central Guatemala.
After the eight-hour bus ride, squished between two ancient Guatemalan women chattering in their Maya dialect, we finally arrived in Lanquin, a small town close to Semuc Champey. The next morning, we rose early with other travelers and squeezed like 20 sardines into the bed of an old Ford pick-up truck to travel 30 minutes to the wildlife reserve.
Once we arrived, we hiked single-file through the entrance to the reserve, navigating through lush rainforest akin with wild ferns. We splashed through the small waterfalls that streamed down the hillsides, and when I lost my footing and fell on a slippery rock in a pool of crystal-clear (and very cold) water, I knew this would be quite an adventure.
Before we explored the limestone pools, our tour guide had planned to take us on a tour of the caves adjacent to the rock bridge and river. Spelunking? Sounded great to me! Minus the fact that I am mildly claustrophobic, but little was going to stop me from exploring deep caverns in an exotic country.
We were all handed a single candle and our tour guide made sure we were all wearing shoes – luckily I had on my trusty waterproof Keens – and each participant had to verify that he or she could swim. Swim?! I thought we were going spelunking, not scuba diving! However, I am a lifeguard, so this wasn’t a problem; I was just starting to wonder what I had gotten myself into…
We entered the cave in single file, once again, and I made sure my friends were surrounding me in front and back. At first we stepped through a few puddles, with large bats soaring over our heads, and I thought, “Well, this isn’t too bad. I don’t know why they asked us if we could swim.” That was just the beginning. After a few minutes, the water – it was pitch black, might I add, and our lone candles emitted very little light – had risen to our knees, then to our waists, and quickly to our chests. I asked, “Are there any animals in this water?” All I needed was an encounter with a not-so-friendly water snake. Luckily the tour guide assured me there were no creatures in the water, but I still couldn’t be so sure. I decided not to think about it and concentrate instead on treading water – we were now in over our heads!
After swimming for a few minutes, we approached a rock wall that had been equipped with a rope ladder. I was beginning to feel like I was on the set of The Goonies. One by one, we held on for dear life as we scaled the twelve-foot-tall rock to reach the upper level of the cave. Now this spelunking excursion was starting to feel like a video game. Water dripped from the rock formations that covered the walls and bats zig-zagged over our heads. I accidentally extinguished my candle on the damp rock while climbing up the ladder. Thankfully the tour guide was quick to re-kindle my dim light source with his waterproof matches. (Maybe my parents were right to be skeptical about sending me to Guatemala…) How deep into the cave were we going to go?
After about another 30 minutes of traversing, splashing, and swimming our way further into the cavern, the group happened upon a roaring waterfall at what looked like the deepest part of the cave. I was relieved to have arrived at our destination, but I was not so thrilled to see the tour guide escort the brave soul at the front of our line around the back of the cascading water, inching their way along behind the waterfall and out the other side, all while only holding onto a rope swing that was attached to the rock surface above. “We’re doing what?!” I exclaimed. Now, I’m not a timid person; I like to take risks and challenge myself. Claustrophobia, however, can sometimes get the best of me.
When it was my turn to delve into the rushing water, I hesitated. But once again, I thought, “Why not? When will I ever have an opportunity to do this again?” So I followed the tour guide behind the waterfall. I immediately felt an intense pulsating pressure on my head as water beat down on me, flooding my eyes, ears, and mouth. I inched my way along the narrow ledge next to the waterfall, grasping for dear life at the rope swing that swung wildly in the rushing water. After a few seconds under the waterfall – which felt like an eternity – we had safely arrived at the other side of the cascade. I quickly jumped into the deep water below, thankful that I had made it out of there. I swam to my friends who were perched on a nearby rock, and we excitedly discussed the fact that we were currently in the midst of one of the most daring things we’ve ever done.
The journey back to the mouth of the cave seemed a bit less treacherous, only because we had already experienced it on our way in. When we came to the high rock wall, I climbed partly down it on the ladder and then mustered the courage to jump about ten feet or so into the dark water below, making sure to hold onto my candle.
After traversing, splashing, and swimming our way back to the entrance, my friends and I high-fived each other to celebrate our daredevil accomplishment.
Seemingly a reward for our terrifying yet enticing spelunking experience, the tour guide led us to the limestone pools where we went for a casual swim and enjoyed the lunches we had brought along. I took a carefree dip in the gorgeous turquoise waters, perching on the edges of the limestone and admiring the beauty of this natural wonder surrounded by lush rainforest. At this moment I knew we had definitely chosen the right place for a weekend trip.
Upon returning to Panajachel from our daring journey to Semuc Champey, the girls and I decided to stop in the travel agency to thank Maria for the wonderful suggestion and for her help in planning such a successful adventure. She was delighted to hear about our trip, and told us that if we could return a few days later, she had a surprise for us: she wanted us to come by for lunch, as she had invited her 72-year-old mother to bring along home-made tamales to share with us as a special thanks for our supporting her business. We cheerfully accepted and planned a date.
The day rolled around, and we stopped by a small supermercado beforehand to purchase Coca-Cola and cookies for dessert – we had to bring something to this picnic! We arrived at the travel agency, and Maria and her mother sat waiting excitedly. Just like Maria on our first encounter, her mother’s face lit up as we approached the office. After greeting the two women, Maria explained that her mother only spoke Spanish and the local Maya dialect, so we proceeded to have a Spanish-speaking lunch. Maria’s mother explained that she made the tamales herself, using corn from her garden and a chicken from her own coop. She also described her journey to the office: she had travelled two hours by chicken bus (a coincidental name – they are old school buses that are used as public transportation throughout Guatemala) in order to eat lunch with us. We felt incredibly honored that she had put in so much effort to spend time with us, and we couldn’t wait to sample her delicious-looking tamales.
And so, we bit into the warm, soft corn, delving into the wonderfully seasoned chicken. I can still taste the delightful combination. After an exhilarating experience the previous weekend, this tamale lunch was a cultural experience I would never have encountered anywhere else.
And even Jamie, my vegetarian friend – she politely sampled the tamales – agreed that it was a taste of heaven.