Friday, October 16, 2015

From Pirates to Explorers: end-of-year school trip to Semuc Champey

Last year (2014), it was a pirate-disguised treasure hunt through the dungeons of Castillo San Felipe
on the lakeside of the splendid Lago Izabal. This year, Lichutam decided to celebrate the end of the
school year in mid-October by taking the older students (from 5th and 6th grades) on a breathtaking
hike and swim around the natural reserve of Semuc Champey.

Situated on the Lanquin river some two hours from Coban, this pearl of the natural heritage of
Guatemala has the most awe-inspiring giant “staircase” of turquoise cascades and crystalline waters
lying amidst the impenetrable vines of the tropical rainforest. The choice of the location came
down to a combination of factors: the cultural value and practicality. First and foremost, none of the
children from Nueva Mercedes have ever been to Semuc Champey. More surprisingly, hardly any
of them have ever heard of the place before we mentioned it. Considering that Semuc features on
the top of the list for tourist destinations of Guatemala and has several hundreds of thousands of
visitors per year, it is rather sad to think that the natives living in remote rural areas may never get a
chance to see it.

This is why Lichutam decided to give that chance to the students of Nueva Mercedes primary

On the practical side, Semuc is one of the closest and most accessible attraction sights to us in the
region of Alta Verapaz. Taking into consideration our limited financial resources, the time constraint
to organise the trip and the availability of transport, this was really the perfect destination from all
perspectives. The cherry on the top was the fact that due to recent political manifestations of the
local villagers in Semuc Champey, the site had been closed down for the better part of September. It
has been reopened in October and – luckily for us, when we went there the
entrance fee was...0! This alleviated strongly our financial charge and allowed us to take the
children on the trip and to feed all the 4 volunteers in the house for the rest of the month!

We would be lying to you if we said that this trip actually taking place and going according to plan
wasn't a total miracle. The initial plan was to organise the end-of-year trip to the biosphere reserve
of La Sierra de las Minas, with the support of a local environmental NGO. But when the NGO in
question told us that they would struggle to find the time to fit us into their busy schedule, we had to
improvise a plan B at the very last minute! Thankfully, plan B turned out be unarguably better!
It was literally a matter of hours before we put the whole thing into place. Getting the consent of the
teachers, calling the bus driver to reserve the vehicle, and doing a last minute village round to
inform the parents' of the partipating children and obtain their written permission to take the kids on
the school trip.

To our great amazement, we had a 100% turnout – perhaps for the first time in Lichutam history!
Every child who said they would come, was there in the bus at 2:30 in the morning, waving
goodbye to their parents who had brought them there with their packed lunches. It was very
touching to watch them see their children off. Of course they were scared and nervous, and praying
for the road trip to go well… Most of them had never heard of the place we were taking their
children to, and sadly, most of them had never travelled beyond Teleman. The only thing they asked
of us is that we bring them back home safe and sound.

But on that front, there were no problems, and thank god for that!

We arrived in Lanquin in the early hours of dawn, yawning and stretching in our seats from the oh-so-
painful 5 hour bus ride.

Everything was perfect. But the balance of forces of good and evil in the world cannot be
maintained for too long: something had to go wrong! Surprise, surprise! It rained…

Although it may seem like a banal detail, the rain meant that our bus driver, Fidel, could not go up
the steep and hilly road which turned far too slippery under the rain, in order to take us from
Lanquin to the heart of Semuc Champey itself. We had to rent a pick-up truck and squeeze in 30
people inside it for this half and hour journey under the pouring rain.

How disappointing it was to find out that only the day before there was such a bright sun shining
over Semuc that you could get a suntan in a matter of minutes!

But the rain did not stop us from enjoying the trip to the full. We still jumped in the (slightly
freezing) water, played water games, taught the children a few swimming strokes, played mermaids
and pirates, and explored the cascades one by one with them. The funnest part for them was of
course to slide down from one swimming pool (or “pozo”) of the cascade to the next, like on a reallife
natural playground!

After a few great moments in the water, we finally got out to wrap ourselves in our towels and dry
as much as the rain (still pouring) would allow it. Next mission: hiking through the thick vines and
the slippery stone staircase of the forest to reach el Mirador! All students, but more impressively, all
the teachers, set out on this adventure and arrived to destination. Believe us when we say it was no
piece of cake to walk up a steep mountain by stepping on giant stone stairs awkwardly peaking out
of the mud, holding onto a thin railing hanging over an abyss. And all of this, in the pouring rain
which made us shiver with cold, and keep our eyes on the ground at all times.

However difficult the journey, the destination was well worth it. When we finally reached the
highest peak of the mountain, after half an hour of rapid ascent, we gasped with awe: a
mesmerizingly beautiful turquoise snake slithered through the lush green forests wrapped in fog
some several hundred feet below. The sight made us catch our breath, fall silent, and stare in
wonder for a few timeless moments.

Even the headteacher, Elda, who was at first not too convinced with the idea of going to Semuc,
thanked us so heartily and said that she didn't expect to see such ravishing beauty…

What else is left to say? It was a truly perfect end to the school year.

We headed back to the pick-up straight after lunchtime, in order to get back to Lanquin and find
Don Fidel, our loyal bus driver, waiting for us to take us home. The bus ride back seemed much
faster, perhaps because we were all so exhausted from our active and dynamic day out… In any case, we
kept out promise to the parents, bringing 25 sleepy and happy children back into their arms to the
joy of all.

Written by: Katerina

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