We arrived in Guatelmala and our first stop was Mayan ruins of Tikal. I’m afraid anything less than trekking through dense jungle, happening upon magnificent structures, on which you can climb, hide and explore will not satisfy us on future visits to Mayan archaeological sites. But in addition to the awesomeness of Tikal, Guatemala smashed the remnants of us feeling like a family on vacation, and we transformed into an overlanding family, feeling like we were not escaping from real life, but actually living real life.
The border crossing was the first that could be put into the 3rd world category, and of “um, what do we do here?” One open building, vague instructions, and lots of people milling about, and obviously under construction. We would come to realize throughout all of our travels from this point forward, that everything in Central and much of South America will forever be under construction. Our arrival here forced us to ask “Where do I go next?” instead of following clear and easy signage directing you through the steps. Of course having read the iOverlander reports on this border, we were fairly prepared. But seeing the chaos in person is an eye opener. It wasn’t hard by any means, just lots of steps, and slow going, and sometimes confusing.
The border crossing soon behind us, we headed for Tikal. I wanted badly to check out the other ruins we’d heard about, and was still trying to madly figure how we could fit more in. I also wanted to fit in seeing friends Luciano and Caina who we had met in Mexico. They were heading to Sumec, so that was one more spot I added to my own list! This obsession with trying to fit everything in had reared it’s ugly head again, and was the cause of me being stressed out once again. Okan was more focussed, “let’s just get to Tikal and see what happens”. My visions of us sitting together pouring over maps, figuring out routes, stops, and excursions was something I had to let go. This is not how Okan is wired, and I don’t have the electronics chops or know-how to rewire the man either.
Before entering Tikal, I couldn’t understand why everyone and their mother was trying to sell us maps! I thought, seriously, we walk around the path of the ruins, and that’s that. Had I only known, we would have gotten the map!! We of course got lost, but what a wonderful place to get lost, deep in the jungle, happening upon amazing ancient structures. We would climb one structure, only to see another structure peeping above the tree line what seemed a mile away. Our little “I’m too tired” was miraculously not tired the whole time, and ran from place to place, and up, and down, and everywhere he could. I felt a little bad for Palenque, we definitely now had a new favourite ruins.
What an adventure for the little guy that loves to climb!
Photo taking was abundant….by everyone!
We were all very happy when we left Tikal, having explored such a magical place. And lucky for us, the weather was great all day….the following days would not be quite so cooperative.
We drove onwards to Finca Ixobel. Our first experience with a Finca…a Finca translates into farm in English, but more accurately it’s an estate or a manor house in a rural setting. We’ve since visited coffee Fincas, Palm Fincas, Orange Fincas, there are all kinds of Fincas apparently. This was just a plain Finca. We were the only people in the camping area, so we parked right next to the bathroom. With our door positioned for quick access to the facilities, and the bedroom windows positioned for maximum firefly watching, we were all set. Equipped with our backpacks we headed off down the trail to find the lake on the property…or the Finca.
As usual, we got lost….very lost. And this time it wasn’t Okan’s poor navigation, it was mine. But I kept pushing, saying the rains just probably made the trail grow over, and I’m sure I see something ahead, and that hill…i swear the lake was near that hill. I was very wrong, and eventually we left the fields of vegetation, that Indigo was enjoying quite a lot, and eventually got back on track. The lake was so-so, but we loved the stream right by the campsite. Here I introduced Indigo to the game of “Pooh Sticks”, as played by Piglet and Winnie the Pooh on lazy days…it felt like the right thing to do.
Still on the high of Tikal, we were thinking grand thoughts and how wonderful Guatemala was going to be, and it was but not in the ways we thought. We didn’t actually see every stunning thing to see. It was raining a lot, and roads were bad, and we pretty much stuck with the main highways, deciding not to take the detour to Sumac, or the lesser known ruins. We just kept driving and watched much of Northern Guatemala go by our window.
It’s amazing what you can still absorb while driving though. Driving through the small mountain towns/villages we would see children running to/from school with abacus in hand (and they were large too!), women wearing the uniquely crochet blouses specific to each region/community, and farm land on the steepest mountainsides being worked by hand. The planting and harvesting on those steep slopes is an amazing effort, as they intermingle various crops in one piece of land. I tried to no avail to get those “out the window” photos, and they all turned out looking like crap.
We camped on the side of the road at a hotel/restaurant and surprised ourselves by staying several days. This is something that would never have happened previously, because we weren’t in a “must see” place, a beautiful place, or doing really anything. Indigo played with the kids who came to eat with their families, and pretended he was a space ranger a lot…the high chair was is space rocket, the napkin dispensers his levers and controls.
On our way down the highway, during a particularly muggy stretch between rain showers, I regrettably uttered the words “man, it’s a good thing we have air conditioning, could you imagine…”. Of course what we heard next was a loud “thunk” sound, and what do you know…the air conditioner crapped out. Thankfully the next stop, found us swimming in an indoor pool and a level place for Okan to park and mull over the busted air conditioning.
This is also where we had our first experience with the requisite sawed-off shotguns that are draped over the shoulders of every security guard, grounds keeper, etc. At the pool, the security guard was weeding with his firepower over his shoulder, which felt somewhat surreal. The armed gardener!
After all this driving and driving….it all came to a screeching halt when we reached Antigua. After driving through the most insane traffic in Guatemala City (would be worthwhile to make a huge arc around the city to avoid all of it!), we parked the car on the side of Hostel Antigüeńo, along with 5 other rigs, and transitioned into being still…very still.
We met the Foley’s of ClunkMonkey.com here. Tim and Malia had made that transition to stillness many moons ago, and I think pretty much everyone southward bound has passed them at some point 🙂 We also met Steffi and Daniel who are the kindest, most easy going couple from Germany, that somehow manage to see almost everything in every country and not exude any hurriedness with all they do. Benjy and Jake (his 4-legged companion) were parked next to us, and almost convinced us we needed to find our own street dog to continue our travels. Roman and Lotti were the resident ying and yang adventure couple. Let’s not forget Claire Sturzaker who helps everyone navigate travel with so much hands on experience from traveling the world herself. Of course there were many others, but I think you may see what I’m getting at….it’s here we met our people. This was our community…people that decided to live as we do. We had so much to talk about.
A good starting point for getting to know each other, was when Tim Foley invited us to join their pizza night. Unbeknownst to me, it was his family’s pizza night, and not actually the whole hostel’s pizza night. So I poked around all the boxes on the communal table, and settled on a slice from a box directly in front of a young backpacker. Noticing his bewildered expression when I took my slice, I explained that Tim invited me to the pizza, to which he gave a “who the hell is Tim?” look. I quickly realized my mistake, and flush with embarrassment, asked him what was his favourite beer and got him one. The backpacker to the right of him immediately asked if I wanted a slice of his pizza, and that he would gladly accept a beer for it 🙂 And thus, we blended with the assortment of residents at the hostel.
With the warm welcome and feeling of community, we decided this was the place we’d take Spanish lessons, so we enrolled Indigo into The Antigua Green School while we took one-on-one lessons. Here we are, parked on the side of the street, having to ring the bell to the hostel to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, sharing the communal space with a crazy assortment of people, and this felt like the right place to stay put for a while. Who would have thought?!
School for Okan, me, and Indigo didn’t go so well. 3 hours of one-on-one language instruction was just too overwhelming for my and Okan’s brains. Sending Indigo off on the school bus crying his eyes out, certainly didn’t do much for my ability to concentrate on my lessons either! I reached out on the internet with my distress, and in return had an outpouring of advice, help, and kindness from all my friends and family who’ve sent their little ones to school crying many years previously. Thank goodness we can stay connected during rough times, even if we have to rely on a lot of emojis to do so.
Indigo was actually initially excited to go to school, but the ground zero of absolute no-no of no-no’s happened on his first day. A teacher scooped him up from behind as he was excitedly walking down a path. For anyone that knows Indigo, he does not like to be touched or handled in any way without express permission. Needless to say, he immediately hated his teacher for this act of treachery.
But we got past that incident, and the school was great for him. They have a working farm at the school, and his days were spent with much joy, and not the tears we saw at the bus stop. They called and gave us updates, and he’d always come home with a story about working in the garden, or a new craft.
Much to my surprise when we checked him out of the school, I had an outstanding bill at the canteen. Indigo apparently fed his lunch to the resident bunny rabbit, and ordered a bean tortilla every day! He never mentioned a word of this to me. His last day was happy as we sent him off to school with cupcakes to celebrate his 4th birthday with his classmates. He returned to celebrate his birthday again with our friends and the hostel.
We did very ordinary things here and Antigua is a beautiful city in which to do ordinary things. From the architecture, to the surrounding nature, it has a lot to offer. It even offers many quaint and we hear excellent cafes and restaurants. We only tried once to eat out, when Luciano and Caina came to visit…and chasing a little boy around lovely cafes where patrons are trying to relax, is not so relaxing for us. We still loved the area so much, we even considered what jobs might be available to us here. We spent our days walking to the markets, touring the town, and taking scenic hikes.
Back at the hostel the Atamans and Foleys combined kept the ping pong table in constant use. Okan and Carson Foley had a competition so fierce, it may surpass the rivalry between Federer and Nadal, or perhaps Borg and McEnroe for the older crowd. They were serious and determined, and there was a whole lotta smack talking going on. The daily matches came to an end when a huge church group arrived and basically took over all the common areas, including commandeering the ping pong table with their boxes of supplies for their mission work. Seeing the boys’ despair, I asked the group to move the boxes so the matches could resume. I think Carson would have perhaps liked a longer reprieve as Okan trounced him 3 games in a row right away.
With group meals, kids getting along and keeping themselves entertained, and new dog walking responsibilities, life was good.
And you know those bathtub photos everyone gets to take of their kids growing up, well….even on the road we get to take them too! The set up of the hostel shower was not conducive for me to get Indigo clean, so it was still baths for him while we were here. And although Okan is less than thrilled about me sharing the naked photos…I just gotta! Indigo still fits in our sink and is just too damn cute.
We had ample time to address some of the repairs needed to the truck and camper. It’s been an eye opener that there are always qualified mechanics around, and seemingly always one that will come to your door and fix whatever is wrong (the air conditioner) right on the street. The extra muscle on site was helpful this time around as well, to heave Okan’s those newly rewired solar panels back onto the roof. Thanks Connor and Benjy!
Although we were feeling settled, we finally decided to pick up and go. We really did have a hard time pulling ourselves away…especially from the Foley family. Indigo had become best friends with Kaila by this time, and having built in siblings at the hostel was pretty damn nice. Okan and I could now play backgammon without interruption. Wyatt and I started playing chess together (be sure to ask Wyatt how our first match went if you see him), and when Carson was trying to get some practice in before another match with Okan, he’d graciously pretend I wasn’t too horrible at ping pong. I was heartened by my conversations with Malia, the only other Mom on the road I’d met to date. someone who gets the concerns and hardships, as well as the joys of this lifestyle. Okan is a man of little words, so it surprised me to hear him blurt out one day, “I really like talking to Tim.” Our families some how fit well together. But we finally left with promises to meet up down the road.
We headed to Lake Atitlan and the drive was quite spectacular. Silly us still sometimes blindly take the route Google Maps provides, instead of reading the road signs and noticing the perhaps more well traveled routes (like the ones with pavement and signage). We found ourselves have to do several multi-point turns on some switchbacks down to the Lake, but safely arrived at Pierre’s place at Pasacap. It’s seems like an overlander-required stop, and now we too have the stunning photo of our rig parked in front of the lake, with the smouldering Volcan Fuego in the distance.
It seems we’ve been extremely lucky on our travels to miss most of the major earthquakes and eruptions on our way south. Hearing of the destruction of places we’ve now been, like the eruption of Volcan Fuego or the earthquake in Mexico City, makes the worlds tragedies seem that much more tragic to us. We now have personal ties to these places, and the people that live there, or that we met there and it feels so much closer to home.
We enjoyed a peaceful time at the lake, and met another overlanding couple Mark and Victoria of SuperNovaBliss, traveling with their son Joey. We shared a day together, taking a boat ride into town, and of course treating the boys to ice cream.
The boys spent much of their days collecting not so ripe fruit in Pierre’s yard. We found out after that red bucket was completely full, that Pierre lets his workmen collect the fruit when it’s ripe so they can sell it in the market and make a little extra. Oops! Hopefully one bucket of fruit didn’t put too big of a dent in their pockets!
We didn’t even consider a July 4th celebration, mostly because we’re never aware of the date, but there were other American’s staying at Pierre’s and they somehow acquired professional grade fireworks just across the lake. They held up the $10 USD box of fireworks, and said they were told to just light it, and presto…we’d have a show. We all expected some mild whiz bang, without much in the way of sparkly displays. Oh my were we wrong! With one match, we saw a very impressive fireworks display about 20 feet from our camper! Sparks were getting a bit close, but we figured the fiberglass roof could most likely handle a few sparks. The lady living in the thatched roof dwelling below us however, was not so impressed, and let our group know about it. I think we headed out the following day.
Instead of taking the “safe” road on which we arrived, we decided to go around the lake to the “dangerous” road where some bandits have been known to rob vehicles passing by. Steffi and Daniel had made the journey just before us, so we were feeling pretty confident we’d be ok too. We had a last minute scare when Pierre said he was expecting a delivery truck of bricks, and it was very late. He thought that might be a sign that something was amiss on the road. So as a precaution we asked every officer at every town on the way, if the road ahead was safe, and got a thumbs up from everyone.
We arrived at the stretch of dangerous road, not hard to miss as the pavement comes to an abrupt end. There were 3 motorcycle policemen napping under a tree and we asked the status of the road ahead. One of the officers smiled, jumped up, mounted his motorcycle and motioned for us to follow him down the bumpy, rutted dirt road in front of us. We followed for just 5k, only passing a couple of work trucks and men filling some holes with more dirt, before we hit pavement again. We said our thanks and he waved goodbye, and headed back to his post under the tree.
As we got closer to the coast, we took a road that looked like it would take us more quickly to our destination, being a very straight road on the map. We were finally not taking the road that Google suggested! Bad idea! It might have been very straight….but it was a bit more challenging and time consuming than we expected. I’m pretty sure we didn’t get to our destination any more quickly on this road.
We arrived at the coast, ready to prep for another border crossing because we were not impressed with the beaches around this area. We had a rough time finding a campsite, as we were turned away by many of the hotels that we thought would have space in their parking areas. We headed back to the Monterrico Turtle Santuary. Thankfully, someone was home this time, and they helped us squeeze into the parking lot by moving some of their cars around. Not only that, the scientists monitoring the turtle hatching let us help them bury the first batch of turtle eggs. It would be a month before the first eggs would hatch, but it was fun to get even a small glimpse of the process.
We realized that to move forward to El Salvador, we’d have go backwards on the roads we took to Monterrico. Nothing like 2 hours in the opposite direction to really depress you on an already long border crossing day! But, we found an alternative…a small ferry that would take us to the tiny town of La Avellana, where we could pick up a small secondary road, and reduce our driving time by 2 hours!!
Okan almost did made us retrace our steps when we first spotted the ferry. The ferry looked like it was nothing more than a bundle of planks loosely tied together. But when we saw a bus, with a full load of passengers, disembark one of these crafts, we figured it could hold us too.
As we floated down the river, peaceful and quiet, I thought of all the places and people in Gautemala we experienced. I felt wiser, more confident, and like we had turned a corner somehow on this trip. Hard to imagine that just weeks before we were fully engaged in what was daily communal living with a group of strangers that turned into friends. And those friendships have lasted to this day. We stay connected through email and messaging, and have traveled through many more countries together on and off, always wondering when we will meet again, because we know in our bones that we will.