With Belize in the rear view mirror, and Guatemala glaring at us through the windshield on the fateful United States election day, we proceeded west, excited for new adventures and admittedly nervous about the historical election. We planned to visit the famous Mayan Ruins of Tikal during the ‘super’ full moon and were beyond excited to get our feet wet in a new country. The border crossing was relatively painless with just the normal disorganized cluster of cars and people. TV’s were on throughout the buildings with people watching as the results of the election were unfolding. It was bizarre and humbling to see how important our elections are abroad, especially one steeped in so much controversy. Having realized we may not have Internet access throughout the night, we were glued to the TV’s as much as the Guatemalans.
Our first stop was near the ruins and lake of Yaxha. We arrived after 5pm and the guard allowed us to camp for free at the military base guarding the ruins. Having not seen a single police officer or any military personnel in Belize, it was slightly shocking to see large numbers of armed men in the middle of the jungle. We would come to get used to this in Guatemala however. Enjoying a nice evening drinking Cuban rum and cokes and playing cribbage, we easily kept our minds off what was likely one of the most drama filled nights in the United States of America.The following morning we opted out of exploring Yaxha due to being slightly uncomfortable with all the military personnel and proceeded back to the main road on a horrible dirt road. En route west again on the main road we gradually became more curious about what had happened the night before in the good ‘ol US of A. Sarah was able to briefly pick up a phone signal, at which point she received the all-too-informative text that “Trump won.” Without delving into politics in our adventure blog too much, it must be noted briefly that we thought ill of these results. Our current situation of driving through Latin America, the target of some of the worst political rhetoric ever witnessed, and having American plates, definitely sent some chills down our spines. During the initial shock phase, we thought nothing worse could happen, yet we were wrong. Ironically, not 5 minutes after hearing the news, the steering wheel started shaking and loud clunking noises became obvious. We quickly pulled over and checked the situation where Matt determined that the front left outer CV joint was shot.
Earlier this year, we’d noticed a ripped CV boot and although we replaced the torn boot with a temporary fix, we knew it inevitably would fail. Fortunately, we had the parts and tools to do the repair work ourselves! With 10 miles to go to the town of El Remate, we limped Koru there at around 25mph. Looking around for a location to make the repair with wifi accessibility (YouTube is a must for us burgeoning mechanics), we had great success finding a hotel right on the lake with incredible views. We were in for a long, greasy night…..Having the clean fresh water lake next to the van was a blessing for staying clean and cool throughout the repair process. Finally, after 7 hours straight, we had a new axel in place and enjoyed a refreshing swim. We decided to hang tight the next day and night to relax after the long day of repair work and internal grieving we felt for the future of our country. At the same time, we felt enormously blessed to be where we were, realizing there could have been much worse places to replace an axle.The following day we decided to leave our wonderful hotel camping spot and explore a free parking location just a few kilometers away along Lago Peten Itza. We were excited to wait just a few days longer to visit Tikal during the supermoon.While camped out here, Sarah was eager to clean some clothes so we took our time and followed the lead of local Guatemalans and cleaned them by hand.After two fantastic days next to the lake, we made our way to the famed Tikal bright and early on the day of the supermoon. This Mayan site is absolutely massive, and the amount of excavation work that has been done is very impressive. We later found out that only 20% of the ruins have been excavated to date, thus furthering our bewilderment.
We proceeded to spend the entire day traversing the ruins, seeing as much as possible. With a small lunch break back at the van, we knew we were in for a good evening because the full moon was on the rise and the sky appeared to be fully clearing up as the day went on.
Having enjoyed a wonderful sunset followed by the super moon rise in the park, we enjoyed the rest of our night with the last of our Cuban rum and a Cuban cigar. Our thoughts drifted between ancient civilizations and our modern globalized civilization, pondering what differences and similarities there must be.
The following day we made our way back south with plans for a few stops suggested by our friends John and Theresa who have been living in Guatemala for almost 3 years. First, we made our way to the tourist destination of Finca Ixtobal. We parked near some fellow over-landers who had seen us back in Tulum (small world!) and a large German bus (one of 4 in the world) that is designed to travel far and wide while providing passengers sleeping quarters in the rear of the bus. The driver, who was from France was there for the night before heading to Guatemala City to pick up his passengers prior to an extensive trip throughout Central America.After a nice night of sleep, a delicious breakfast and a pleasant hike around the Finca we decided to embark on the seldom traveled journey to the cave known as Naj Tunich. The road there quickly made made us realize why very few people venture to it. After over 3 hours of bumpy, rutted, muddy dirt roads, we finally made it to the small village near the cave. We were quickly greeted by the village children who then fetched one of the adults to guide us to the cave.It turned out to be the most impressive cave we’d seen on this trip to date, and happens to be one of 5 caves in the world given the UNESCO Heritage Site designation. Unfortunately, due to its remote location and expensive price tag for travelers to get there without their own vehicle, it doesn’t see as much traffic as it did when it was discovered in the 70’s and 80’s.
Our guide told us that numerous rituals still occur in this cave every year, and there are several very important tombs throughout the main room. A large part of the 3km cave system is closed off to the public unfortunately due to graffiti that has interfered with the ancient inscriptions done by the Mayans. Nonetheless we were very happy to have made the journey to this amazing and very important archaeological site that will not soon be forgotten.
Our next stop was the town of Rio Dulce which borders the massive fresh water lake-river system known as Lago de Izabol. The Swiss friends we met at finca Ixobel were going to be around and we were hoping to share a boat with them to visit a jungle hostel or the carribean city of Livingston. Heavy rains moved in for the weekend, so we decided to not take a boat out towards the ocean. Instead we decided to go for a swim at Finca Paraiso, a thermal waterfall!! There, a hot-spring river intersects with a normal mountain fed river. The warm, mineral rich water had built up enough travertine deposits to create a warm magical waterfall into the main river.We climbed up to the hot-spring river to enjoy the warm water and swam in the cooler mountain water and had a great day. After one more night in Rio Dulce laughing and drinking with our Swiss friends, we were bound for Guatemala City.We climbed the long windy road as we began to reach the highlands of Guatemala. Splitting the drive into two days we decided to visit a small town in the mountains which we heard has some hot pools. We didn’t find the pools, but we found a nice river which we explored and enjoyed the scenery. Later, we had some beers with locals and watched 2 soccer games with a view that reminded us of the foothills of Colorado.
The next day we arrived in the capitol where we were greeted by our good friends John and Theresa in their very cozy and safe neighborhood close to where they teach at an international school.We proceeded to rest and relax easily for a few days after being stressed by the constant motion of van life. Guatemala City has a reputation for being dangerous and though we were in the most modern and safe place in the city, we wanted to explore a bit of the real Guatemala City. Zone 1 of the city is the oldest sector and has some fascinating markets where you could buy anything you could imagine and more.After a few days in Guatemala City, we came to the conclusion that we felt exhausted from constantly traveling and needed to stay put for a few weeks to reboot our spirits. Matt wanted to attend Spanish school and Antigua has a reputation for good schools in a cute colonial city. John and Theresa also turned us on to the amazing Earth Lodge near Antigua. In a matter of 2 days, we found a school for Matt in Antigua and a job for Sarah at the Earth Lodge. Matt opted to spend a few weeks living with a host family in hopes of learning more efficiently while Sarah worked at the lodge. We decided to stay here for at least a month and rejuvenate our spirit for vanlife and travel. We are thrilled to discover the city of Antigua and make lasting connections with some great people through the holidays.The incredible views of the volcanoes from Earth Lodge above Antigua (6100ft).Thinking back to when we left our family and friends back in August, we can’t help but feel blessed in every way. We want to wish everyone a magical holiday season filled with love and joy!