Eastern Guatemala

Trip Start Jan 12, 2007
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Trip End Nov 19, 2007


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Thursday, June 28, 2007

We crossed into Guatemala on June 22, and the process was fairly uneventful thanks to the assistance of the English-speaking "guide" we used, 14 year-old Edwin. The northeast corner of Guatemala is remote and not heavily inhabited and as soon we crossed the border the road conditions/standard of living noticeably deteriorated. Our first stop was the Mayan ruins at Tikal, which are about a 2-hour drive from the border. There are some stories circulating on the Net about tourists being targeted here, although nothing in recent months. Nonetheless, we were happy to give a lift to a guy whom we had met at our last campsite in Belize. Given that he was an accountant from Idaho, we felt our odds of him using us as drug trafficking "mules" was pretty low.

(Key facts about Guatemala: the largest Central American country population wise with about 14 million people, 44 percent of whom are Mayan. About the size of Tennessee).

From Tikal we headed due south to the Rio Dulce/Lake Isabal area, which is the tiny strip of Guatemala that touches on the Caribbean. En route, we stopped for 2 nights at Finca Ixobel (see below). The scenic highlights of this stretch were the small hills/earth mounds that look like buried Mayan pyramids and the pine-tree forests.

Rio Dulce is the name of both a river that flows into the Caribbean and a town that is situated on Lake Isabal, the large lake that the river flows out of. The town is ugly and chaotic - basically a long strip of highway crowded on either side with parked trucks and decrepit streets stalls - but it is a necessary transit hub for catching a boat down the river. The boat ride down the river, which takes about 90 minutes was, on the other hand, a highlight as there is beautiful natural scenery, several tiny marinas and many high-end river front homes.

At the mouth of the river is Livingston, a tiny Garifuna town which we checked out for an afternoon, before heading 30 minutes back up the river to spend the night at Finca Tatin (see below). The Garifunas are a black population that have their origins in a group of shipwrecked slaves who intermixed with the Carib Native American peoples, and there are now Garifuna communities on the coast extending from Belize to Honduras. The vibe of these places remind us of Jamaica (the little we saw of it when we weren´t barricaded in our room because of the hurricane). After Rio Dulce, we continued south on to Honduras.

Overall we really liked what we saw of Guatemala. Life here feels calmer, more low-key than in Mexico (i.e., the roads are less crowded, the people are quieter, more reserved, etc.).

Highlights

-Tikal: we are pretty much Mayan-ologists now (pretty sure that is incorrect terminology but sounds important) and, based on the size of the site and the number of buildings, Tikal may be the most impressive yet. That said, while the locals told us we needed 2 days to do it justice, we wrapped things up after about 3 hours.

-Finca Ixobel: this place is pretty much a mandatory stop for anyone camping or backpacking on the eastern side of Guatemala. It is run by an American women whose husband was murdered by the Guatemalan military in the early 1990s. It is a beautiful expanse of property and has all the activities you would find at a summer camp for adults: a swimming hole, late-night bar, cave tours, horseback riding, fire shows by the staff, etc. The food is also top notch and includes an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet, homemade baking and fresh eggs. But probably the best part of it for us was that it is situated at a higher, cooler altitude and so we could camp comfortably once again.

-Finca Tatin: located on a tiny tributary of the Rio Dulce and only accessible by boat, it consists of rustic cabins, a dock, a rope-swing, hammocks, communal dinners and only 4 or 5 hours of electricity each evening. We spent a relaxing morning kayaking to the end of the tributary to an indigenous area with some great crafts for sale and up then up the Rio Dulce a ways to a hot spring.

Lowlights:

-The price of gas: we knew going in that gas was expensive in Belize but we had read (albeit in books from a couple of years ago) that the rest of Central America was pretty reasonable. Not so, and we are now paying about the same amount we would pay at home.

-Moth attack in Tikal: At the end of a heavy afternoon rainfall, the van was swarmed by hundreds and hundreds of moths, and they found every conceivable crack in our screens to get in. One team member almost had a breakdown.

-Finding an ATM that takes our card. Hours were wasted searching for the "right one".

-We saddled up a couple of horses at Finca Ixobel and went for a trail ride. My horse was so small my feet dragged on the ground, which was fine by me. Ades got the feisty horse and sure enough it threw her, leaving her bouncing perpendicular to her saddle for a few anxious seconds.
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