Ok, so, a little about the last few days. I met up with Adrian in Antigua and we had a Servas visit with an English expatriate named Mike. He had been nice enough to have mail forwarded to him and we had quite a few packages waiting for us. Antigua was much like I remembered from a few years back, cobblestone streets, colorfully painted buildings, churches in ruins from past earthquakes, a beautiful and touristy city surrounded by volcanoes. We explored the city, checking out some decent restaurants and shops. Adrian and I took a side trip into San Andres, a town a few kilometers outside of Antigua and visited a special bike shop called Maya Pedal that takes junked or donated bicycles and turns them into machines that can power a blender, pump water from a well, de-shell macadamia nuts, and take corn off the cob. These machines are donated to rural communities without electricity. We had a nice chat with a Canadian named Tim who was volunteering with the organization for a few months helping them build machines in the workshop. Before setting off for Guatemala City, we put together a nice Ultimate Frisbee game with some other travelers. We played in a dirt soccer field near the bus terminal and market, the huge Volcan Agua was in the background.
Adrian and I set off for Guatemala City, only an hour bus ride from Antigua. We settled into a friendly hotel in the infamous Zona 1, near the red-light district. While in the city, we visited a museum of pre-Columbian ceramics and another one that displayed indigenous clothing and textiles. I scoped out the bike shops for parts and we browsed some American style malls and even caught a couple movies. We took a tour of the government palace located nearby in the huge central plaza of Zona 1. The city was definitely overcrowded and dirty. Buses spewed clouds of black diesel smoke around on the narrow streets. Buildings were tinted with the nasty residue. Zona 1 has a reputation for being one of the more dangerous sections of the city and I could see why. As darkness fell, most of the shops closed up and covered up with large metal fences. Streets were poorly lit and roamed by prostitutes, homeless, and other shady characters. Taxi drivers were about the only ones left driving through this part of town. One offered me a ride one evening and when I said no thanks, he told me I had some balls walking around alone. Despite these characteristics, the city was great for people watching in the day, plus it had everything one would need of a city. One morning, we were woken up by a large marching band parading through the streets right outside our hotel.
Guatemala City had it going on in its own special way, but I was excited to begin the big ‘side trip’ with a group of friends. The girls from Arkansas I met at Lago Atitlan caught up with us in Guatemala City, and then we took a bus to a **** hole town called Puerto Barrios on the coast; Dole and Chiquita Banana floating at a huge loading dock waiting to export their goods overseas. From Puerto Barrios, we took a couple hour ferry ride to Livingston, still on the coast. Here we ran into Brooks from California who was traveling with Joanne from Australia. He had just come back from Belize with 10 stitches in his leg, a souvenir pit bull bite. I originally met Brooks at Lago Atitlan during one of the 3 weeks. I think it was the middle one. We climbed the Volcano San Pedro together. In all it was a nice reunion of sorts and the biggest group I had ever traveled in.
After arriving in Livingston I met the right Rasta man, a guy named Candido. We smoked good and talked about life out here on the coast. He invited some of us for an afternoon boat ride the next day. We made our way down to the water late in the morning and met up with all of our companions for the trip, about 11 kids from town. Livingston is quite a colorful town. Full of culture, there are blacks, Latinos, and Indigenous represented here. Most of the blacks speak Garifuna, Spanish, and some speak English. I was surprised to experience how the Latin culture was secondary to the Garifuna. Candido took us across along the beach after overcoming some engine problems and we stopped at the mouth of a river where we had a swim. I had fun playing with the kids and tossing them around in the water. Afterwards, we cruised up the river through some nice mangroves and stopped at its rocky beginning for more swim time in the peaceful waters. This was pretty much my Livingston experience. Short but sweet. I had a lot of fun with the locals, caught a soccer match, danced to some live music, saw some beautiful Caribbean coastline and watched some local booty shakin’ at an open air dance club.
From Livingston, we took a nice boat ride up river to the Tatin River, a small tributary to the Rio Dulce. We settled in to a hotel called Finca Tatin that was literally on the water. Right away, I hopped into one of the cayucos, which are canoes dug out from trees and paddled around. Small communities live on and around the Tatin and Rio Dulce in simple homes, most without electricity unless they have a generator. Everyone gets around either by motor boat or cayuco. Many settled out here during Guatemala’s civil war. To start things off right, our host Miguel took us out to some hot springs on the Rio Dulce. The hot sulfur smelling water enters the side of the river through some rocks and mixes in with the cooler river water to make bathing nice and comfortable. We were constantly dealing with biting flies and mosquitoes at the Tatin but it was a small price to pay for such a wonderful atmosphere, great food, and good company. Miguel took us out on a kayak tour on the Rio Dulce. We explored the mangrove networks that are home to so many organisms and are such an important part of the river ecosystem. We saw hummingbird nests, huge hornets’ nests, birds, aerial plants hanging on trees, and aquatic plants like huge water lilies spread out over open water. We also had lots of fun paddling around and talking ****. After kayaking we relaxed in the hot springs and as the sun set, we watched bats buzz by feeding on mosquitoes right in front of our faces. We spent a couple more days chilling at Finca Tatin, swimming, hiking, and enjoying the great moonlit nights. I swam with some local kids and then they invited me to play soccer with them near their home. I ended up giving them one of my hacky sacks.
Finca Tatin was a special place and it was hard to leave, but we continued our journey up river to the town of Rio Dulce where we caught a bus north to the Peten region of Guatemala, to Flores, a small town on an island in the middle of a lake called Peten Itza. As we got off the bus, we were greeted by a van driver who drove us to a recommended lakeside hotel and eagerly offered bookings for tomorrows ride to the Tikal ruins. I don’t think there are many travelers who come to Flores without intentions of seeing Tikal. The locals are very aware of this and it showed. We decided to take the first shuttle to Tikal to get an early start. We woke up at 4:30am! We decided to hire a guide on the recommendation of Brooks, who had split from us at Rio Dulce since he had already been to the ruins. This turned out to be a great recommendation. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the park’s flora and fauna and the history of the Tikal Empire. Because we were early, or maybe just lucky, we saw many wild animals during our trek through the ruins surrounded by dense jungle. We spotted spider monkeys and howler monkeys, colorful toucans, woodpeckers, a tarantula, coatis (similar to raccoons), and many other birds and insects. The ruins were spectacular. We climbed two of the tallest temples, numbers 4 and 5, which gave us great panoramic views of the ruins nestled in the jungle. These were also the perfect places for listening to groups of howler monkeys, whose barks can be heard for up to a few kilometers. The weather was perfect and the heat didn’t get oppressive until the very end of the tour, just before we decided we’d seen about as much as we wanted. Only 15% of the ruins have actually been excavated, and some have been dramatically restored as recently as the 90’s. This was my second time visiting Tikal. My first time was a little over 3 years ago traveling with my brother Danny. I remember it was raining on us and we probably saw less than half of what I saw this time around. My second trip to Tikal was a wonderful experience!
Our next stop was back south about half way down the road between Flores and Rio Dulce, a place called Finca Ixobel outside of the city of Poptun. We took a ‘collectivo’ (public van) down and settled into the 400-acre compound which is privately owned by an American woman, originally started by her and her husband as a farm many years ago. At any time there can be 20 to over 100 international travelers staying at this place, spread out on the property in accommodations that range from campgrounds, dormitories, tree houses, or private cabanas. Their huge kitchen and common area was a great place to meet people and organize activities around the Finca (farm) which could include Spanish lessons, horseback riding, hiking, caving, kayaking, or floating down a river on an inner tube. Jo had been struck with an inflamed knee, which was later diagnosed as excess fluid build up after a trauma, so she was out of commission. The rest of us, Adrian, Kate, Jane, and myself, decided to do the caving activity which had been recommended to me by a few travelers and our host Mike in Antigua, an avid spelunker. The cave was a 2 hour hike from the Finca and we were rewarded after the long hot walk with a cool dip in the river that ran from the mouth of the cave and wound inwards for about 600 meters. We readied ourselves with swimming trunks and headlamps and entered the cave. There were some nice stalactites at the entrance as well as a colony of bats. We wading through the shallow river most of the time, swam through deeper parts, and walked along the sides at times. Water trickled down from above in certain sections and most of the cave walls were covered in a fine silt mud that I often played with and smeared on Jane’s back and arms. Our guide lit candles and placed them throughout the cave as we entered deeper, still following the river. Finally we reached the end and had a nice 12 foot cliff jump into a deep pool. A little bit further, our guide showed us an area where you could swim underwater about 8 feet under the wall to get to the continuation of the river, another large cavern. I figured it was no sweat and was the first one through. There was a line to follow so it wasn’t that difficult, even though there is an instinct to look for air a lot sooner than you are supposed to. The cavern was large and I could hear the water cascading in the distance. I didn’t really know what to do next, to wait for the next guy, or swim back. I definitely didn’t want to bump into anyone coming the other way! So I waited a bit and then came back. It turned out I was the only one to cross. Two guys got disoriented and bumped their heads on the rock and came back. Adrian decided not to take any chances after seeing two failed attempts. I probably would have decided not to go if I had waited and seen how difficult they made it look! We made our way back to the cave entrance, following the nicely lit candles as a guide, swimming, climbing, bats, stalactites, sunshine!
I met some cool travelers, like one named Otto who is originally from Transylvania. We talked about the history of Eastern Europe, tossed around the Frisbee, and played with rescued spider monkeys the Finca keeps for ‘rehab’. I know I could have busied myself with many more of the exciting activities at Finca Ixobel, but we moved on after one more night. Adrian and I said goodbye to Jane and Kate, and took Jo to Guatemala City for some real medical attention after a silly doctor in Poptun misdiagnosed her knee as an infection after poking it with his finger. Jo got sorted out in Guatemala, I bought some parts for the bicycle, and the three of us headed to Antigua. And this is where I be! Well, not for long. Adrian calculates that we’ve only cycled 7 days in Guatemala and we’ve been here for almost 2 months! Maybe it’s time to get back on the road. The bike is fixed up, things seem to be in order and we are ready to roll on to El Salvador. Let’s hope our legs still remember what biking is all about!
Peace from the road…