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John and Mandi

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The Elixir of Life, Northern Guatemala

Jul 18, 2016
by John

The more we travel the clearer our preferences become. While we enjoy the culinary delights found within the bounds of the cities, we feel more at peace in the wilderness. Even more so when camped within eyesight of a lake, earshot of a thundering waterfall, or along the banks of a rushing river. Maybe there is a primal instinct that calls ease to our inner selves when a basic necessity is within our grasp.

It was no surprise we found ourselves driving from a lake to a series of waterfalls. We had been engulfed by extreme heat so, naturally, swimming would provide a much needed reprieve. The calmness that enveloped us, contentment in such basic environments, is comforting. Long lost are the days wasted away entranced by the television. Instead, we have become transfixed by the simplistic pleasures of nature. A great cup of coffee doesn't hurt either!

What We Did

Belize to Guatemala Border Crossing

We expected the border between Belize and Guatemala to be a little harder compared to the other crossings we have made. The thought of trying to navigate the process in Spanish had us a bit apprehensive. Once we arrived at the Belizean side we were already calming down, at least half of it was going to be in English. To leave Belize all we did was stand in one line to have our passport reviewed, another to pay the exit fee of $37.50 BZ per person and get stamped out, and then a third at the other side of the building to have the van stamped out. The hardest thing was negotiating with the money changers to get a half decent rate, we settled for $3.4Q per BZ dollar...US dollars would have yielded a better rate.

When entering Guatemala all gringos must drive through the fumigation station, but get to park right in front of the fumigation office, parking isn't trivial on the Guatemalan side. The clerk tried to charge us $38Q for the fumigation, we said no and insisted on being charged the standard $18Q. He played it off by saying he thought we were paying for both ours and Joe & Josee's rig even though the paperwork was only for our van, then charged us $17Q.

We headed across the road to the customs building, five 9-12 year old "helpers" in tow. We handed our passports over and answered a few basic questions before receiving our entry stamp for 90 days. We wandered the ten feet to another line to start our vehicle import by handing over our registration. A form was filled out, we escorted the agent to our van so he could verify the VIN, then the form was given to another clerk to type into a system. We reviewed the form, pointing out an error, which he fixed as I payed the $160Q vehicle import fee at the teller window 30 feet away. All good, off to get a copy of my passport with my entry stamp, a copy of my driver's license and a copy of the van's registration (no more than a 100 yard walk to the copy shop), then back to the agent that filled out the form. Happily he issued our temporary vehicle import and we were all done and could legally enter Guatemala, approximately an hour after starting the exit process in Belize. Driving over the bridge we were stopped for the infamous $20Q foreigner fee which we had no problem paying.

Yaxhá, Petén

We made a beeline directly for Yaxhá as soon as we crossed into Guatemala, filled the van up with diesel, and withdrew some Guatemalan Quetzales from an ATM. It is a less frequented set of ruins located approximately an hour from the highway. The facilities are quite wonderful and the ruins reminded us of Yaxchilán. The entrance fee ($80Q or $10.67US per person) granted us access to another set of ruins, Nakum, and free camping at either but we decided to head to Tikal instead after wandering around the site. Once again, it was great sitting atop the pyramids viewing the surrounding jungle over the trees.

Yaxhá, Petén, Guatemala

I spy something brownish

Yaxhá, Petén, Guatemala

Wizards lego

Yaxhá, Petén, Guatemala

Hey, that pyramid is wonky

Yaxhá, Petén, Guatemala

Framed I tell ya

Yaxhá, Petén, Guatemala

Spores....spores that lurk under the leaves

Tikal, Petén

Rolling into the Jaguar Inn around 5PM, late for us, we squeezed next to Joe & Josee and began planning our visit to the most popular ruins in Guatemala. Within minutes the mango tree abutting our rigs was teeming with Spider Monkeys. We saw our first ones at Yaxha a few hours earlier but the troop at the Jaguar Inn was quite large and contained several babies. Honestly, who doesn't like baby monkeys? We were transfixed with their antics but failed to capture a decent photo during their feeding visits which were at least three times per day.

We had all previously opted against the 4:30AM early bird tour and decided 6AM was good enough, even for Mandi and I who are ruin junkies. We set off to explore the park before Joe & Josee but were all wandering around together an hour later. The morning was overcast with gray skies full with the calls of parrots and toucans. While we were touring the complex, the sun broke through the clouds, revealing the spectacular essence of the place. Eventually, Joe & Josee headed back to their rig and we doubled back to rephotograph some of the first structures we had visited that morning. On our way out of the complex we came across a gigantic troop of Coatimundi with several new babies in tow, awww.

Tikal might not be our favorite set of ruins, but it is definitely worth a visit. The wildlife alone was spectacular. At $150Q, $20US, per person it is fairly pricey but the sheer size of the complex obviously costs a bit more to maintain. The Jaguar Inn was the perfect place for us due to being a short walk to the ruins and a decent deal at $50Q per person per night, the onsite restaurant was just OK. The map we bought at the entrance to Tikal was mostly worthless, the ones in the guidebooks are more than sufficient.

Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Way before Kid 'n Play

Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Optimus?

Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Fancy seeing you here

Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

You mean early man had three buck teeth

Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

Everything is just ruined

Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

How's that for pop?

Tikal, Petén

Tender vittles au natural and organic

Hostel Chaltunha, Petén

The Chaltunha hostel is one of those places you expect to stay for a night or two then find yourself leaving after five. The view overlooking Lake Petén Itzá and Flores was phenomenal. The gigantic palapa with hammocks, reasonably clean bathrooms, onsite restaurant, pool, and the Belizean owner Neil make the place a paradise. While we needed to engage 4x4 to climb the steep driveway after a torrential downpour and we ended up parking in some sticky mud, we absolutely loved the place. The $35Q per person per night amounted just over $9US per day for the two of us, a steal of a deal.

In the five days we stayed at Chaltunha we only managed a single visit to Flores, a neat little touristy town, via a lancha from San Miguel for $5Q per person each way. Mostly we spent our time getting caught up on our blog and researching the things we wanted to see and do while in Guatemala. It was such a great place to relax a little before setting off again. The hammocks definitely earned their keep!

Hostel Chaltunha, Petén, Guatemala

Well, I guess you could swim it

Hostel Chaltunha, Petén, Guatemala

Isn't it idyllic, don't you think?

Balneario Las Cataratas, Petén

A tip from Neil as a must visit, a great place a little out of the way down a rutted out road. Like most places we tend to visit, it's about an hour from the highway. We rolled in to find Joe & Josee's XP parked in a makeshift soccer field, they left Chaltunha the day before we did. We parked next to them, then moved to as close to the waterfall as we could after Joe said he was told he could park anywhere he wanted. We absolutely love the sound of water so it was nice listening to the incessant crashing as we drifted off to sleep.

Joe & Josee headed out the following morning so the only ones there were us and a small group of Guatemalans from Flores. We explored the main pool and those just past the top of the main falls, our favorite. While we didn't do it, it's possible to jump from the top of the falls into the big pool. We watched some of the youngsters from Flores take turns jumping from either the falls or the high platform near our van. It rained off and on but that just added to the ambiance of the place. We left after two nights but could have stayed much longer. Word is it gets really busy on the weekends. The $50Q per vehicle per night is a great deal for a place such as this. The creek crossing, two cattle gates, and sparring young bulls in the road on the way in and out just enhance the overall experience ; )

Balneario Las Cataratas, Petén, Guatemala

Joe said we could park anywhere we wanted

Balneario Las Cataratas, Petén, Guatemala

Go on chicken shit

Balneario Las Cataratas, Petén, Guatemala

For the last time, this isn't wedding cake falls

Balneario Las Pozas, Petén

On our way to Las Conchas we decided to check out Balneario Las Pozas. It was much easier to reach than Las Cataratas, only one gigantic dairy cow was in the way, as the condition of the road is much better. Jose, the owner, greeted us as soon as we arrived and let us wander about the place for free even though we weren't planning on staying. It is a beautiful spot with two zipline looking things for dropping way out into the river along with several rope swings. It's one of the few places we regret not spending more time exploring.

Balneario Las Posas, Petén, Guatemala

If I was a sasquatch I'd totally live here

Balneario Las Posas, Petén, Guatemala

99% of podiatrists agree it'll strengthen your feet

Balneario Las Conchas, Alta Verapaz

A place that came highly recommended, but left us wanting a little more even though it was stunningly beautiful. We imagine when the water level is lower it would be almost unbelievable. During our visit, the river was so high and strong it was necessary to hang onto a rope to keep from being flushed downriver and over a large waterfall. The hike to the upper overlook wasn't really worth it but the lower hike led to a lookout tower that provides a great view of the massive lower waterfall. We decided to spend the night but struggled to locate a reasonably level spot since most of the parking lot was a slick deep muddy mess and is a decent walk from the river. We ended up camping across from the entrance right next to the road in front of an old dilapidated park building.

Balneario Las Conchas, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Oh, it's powered up

Balneario Las Conchas, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Damn near perfect if ya ask me

B'omb'il Pek and Jul Iq', Alta Verapaz

Mandi had read about a cave hike, with or without rappelling, to reach some Mayan cave paintings. We skipped the cave paintings in Baja so we decided to check these out. After two failed attempts at locating the park entrance we drove to the Hotel Bombil Pek and asked if they could help us with getting a guide. Within 10 minutes we were bouncing along in the back of a Tuk Tuk towards the park entrance which happened to be where we had thought it was, it was just deserted. We were told at the hotel we had to rappel to reach the entrance that led to the cave paintings, not true, so we signed up for the full package that included the 50-80M rappel (there's some debate to how high it is).

The tour started with a 3KM hike to the entrance of B'omb'il Pek, passing Jul Iq' on the way. Our guide, Abelino, did his best to explain the local flora in Spanish while we pieced together what we could, trading words to build each of our vocabularies. Just as we reached the entrance a second guide, Girardo, arrived with all of the rappelling gear. A few minutes later he was situated at the bottom of the drop and I was starting my descent. A ledge is used for the first few feet then I was completely suspended for the rest of the way down. About a third of the way, while in awe, I realized it was way too high for Mandi and her fear of heights so I hollered up that she might not want to rappel. While inching backwards to the edge of the starting platform she agreed. She ended up using a ladder to reach the cave entrance.

Girardo showed us the sites that are still being used by the local Maya today before we started scrambling farther back into the cave system. We had to squeeze through two extremely narrow holes to reach the cave paintings. We are right at the maximum size so this tour isn't for everyone. The second of the tiny holes had us wriggling out to a small ledge perched above a 50M drop, it was barely big enough for the three of us. Girardo shined his light on the wall to reveal a painting of a person and another of a jaguar. Super cool.

After scrambling and wriggling our way back to the cave entrance we climbed out via the ladder Mandi used to enter and were handed back over to Abelino. We then started the hike back, this time entering Jul Iq' when we reached it. Abelino led us through an intricate cave system showing us all of the stalactites and stalagmites that have formed over that last several hundred years. We spent almost an hour slipping and sliding around, all three of us giggling, while we explored the cave before eventually heading back to the trail to finish the 3KM hike back to the highway. The cost of the tour was supposed to be $120Q each, we gave them $300Q which is roughly $40US. The 4-5 hour tour was well worth it. We were a bit skeptical regarding the legitimacy of the cave paintings after seeing them but they have been determined to be authentic. When we reached the van we were a tired muddy mess so we did what any respectable traveler would, we rented a room with A/C for almost the same price as the tour.

B'omb'il Pek and Jul Iq', Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Off to grandmother's house

B'omb'il Pek and Jul Iq', Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Hey, those paintings look like smudges

B'omb'il Pek and Jul Iq', Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Sure, we'll go with you to the middle of nowhere

Finca Cooperativa Chicoj, Alta Verapaz

Beat & Betty said the coffee finca was one of their favorites, we love coffee, so we headed there after vacating our cozy hotel room. We arrived earlier then we expected and accidentally agreed to the full tour which included ziplining. While walking the 60 feet to start our tour a TV crew showed up and started filming and interviewing us. They took some footage of the van, then recorded the beginning of our tour for a piece on tourism. We were asked if it was OK, we said sure and did our best to not look too stupid while trying to babble in Spanish. Our guide was extremely nervous but he kept it together.

We toured the farm while he explained the varieties of coffee grown at the cooperative and the usage of banana trees as companions to help provide shade for the coffee bushes. When we reached our first zip-line platform, the first of seven, we were handed over to two other guides who had us suited up and zipping along in no time. It was a fun tour that ended with a nice locally grown cup of coffee. The cost was supposed to be $120Q per person but we were given a small discount due to the TV crew. We decided to spend the night at the finca which cost $50Q, all money well spent. We still haven't heard if gringos are needed for any Telenovelas (Latin American daytime dramas), we're not holding our breath.

Finca Cooperativa Chicoj, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Love it, live it, drink it

Finca Cooperativa Chicoj, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

This town ain't big enough for the both of us


Say what? (6)
Sherri Taylor
Jul 31, 2016 at 09:09 AM
Hey guys. Just checking out your travels. My dad was asking about you yesterday (yep he is still kicking at 91). Just got back from walking the Camino in Spain. So happy about your adventures.
Blessings your way..s
Jul 31, 2016 at 12:47 PM
Hey Sherri, right on! We still talk about walking the Camino de Santiago one day, possibly at the end of our PanAm trip. We'd like to know more about your experience so please share if you get the chance. Give everyone our love and your dad a big high five.
Lissa
Aug 3, 2016 at 11:36 AM
Watch out for Hurricane Earl
Aug 3, 2016 at 01:02 PM
Thanks Lissa! We've been getting warnings from the Department of State. We are watching it and keeping our road friends informed too. We hope all is well with you guys, much love!
SteveG
Aug 10, 2016 at 03:30 PM
Still a DEM groupie!
Aug 10, 2016 at 04:44 PM
Hey Steve!

I still bleed yellow, if that's what you mean. Didn't know you were at FL DOEA, sweet. How the hell are you? We've made a few changes as you can see. Definitely keep in touch!
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