After Antigua, my sister and I headed off towards Finca Ixobel, a ranch in northern Guatemala that my friend Monica had recommended. There is only one paved road between the Guatemalan highlands, where Antigua and Guatemala City are located, and the northern part of the country, and Finca Ixobed is located near the town of Poptun along this road. I booked last minute bus tickets to Rio Dulce, also along the route and a couple of hours short of Poptun. From there I figured I would find another bus or shared taxi (collectivo) for the last two hours to Poptun.
However, as it happened, things did not go as planned…
The first leg of our trip was a shared van from Antigua to the Guatemala City bus station. Then we transferred to a very nice bus from Guatemala City to Rio Dulce, complete with air conditioning and movies for entertainment. Unfortunately, somewhere between Guatemala City and Rio Dulce in the mountains the bus hit road construction and was delayed for over an hour. This meant we did not make it to Rio Dulce until after dark. While I was discussing potentially staying in Rio Dulce overnight instead with my sister, the man in the seat in front of us (a German guy and one of the only other “gringos” on the bus) mentioned that he worked at a budget hotel in the rainforest close to Rio Dulce, and recommended that we stay there. Coincidentally, I had been looking at the same hotel online earlier and it had good reviews but said it was fully booked. After a quick phone call to the staff at the hotel, he assured us that there was still a room left.
He also let us know there were still buses available if we wanted to head to Finca Ixobel, but after weighing the pros and cons we decided to join him at his hotel. Another couple from France on the bus had also booked a room there, so the German guy decided to take us all out for drinks at an amazing riverside restaurant in town (SunDog Cafe) popular with foreigners. I felt like I was in a different world from the Guatemalan highlands.
The town of Rio Dulce is in a strategic location within Guatemala, right where the main Guatemalan highway to the north crosses a large river, also called Rio Dulce. There are a lot of expatriates from many countries living in Rio Dulce, mainly sailors, since the river is navigable out to the Carribean and the area is quite beautiful. The German Guy had been living in the area for the last 12 years.
The hotel we were staying at (called Casa Perico) was located outside town a bit, and was only accessible by boat. The hotel’s water taxi picked us up at a dock at SunDog Cafe and it was about a 15 minute ride to the hotel, down a river in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle. The hotel itself had a nice restaurant with a fusion of German and Guatemalan food at reasonable prices. We talked a bit with the German guy and I practiced my Spanish with some local Guatemalans working at the hostel before heading to bed and falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle.
The next day we rode back down the river into town, and booked a bus onward to Poptun. In hindsight I wish we would have spent more time in Rio Dulce- it had plenty to offer including hot springs on the river, a hot waterfall, a Spanish castle, and the possibility of taking a riverboat out towards the Carribean through a canyon and exploring the English creole speaking town of Livingston, only accessible by boat. And our hotel was only $12 each for a night including the water taxi in and out- quite a steal.
The bus to Poptun was not quite as nice as our bus to Rio Dulce, the seats were all full so we were forced to stand in the aisle for much of the ride- and there was a mad rush for seats whenever people got off the bus. But it was cheap I guess – 40 Quetzales (or just over $5) for a 2 hour ride.
After arriving into Poptun, we noticed that the town was full of tuk tuks, and we took one to Finca Ixobel. Our tuk tuk crossed a makeshift bridge which was not wide enough for cars, and continued onward towards the ranch. The bridge was very unique- I had never seen one specifically built for tuk tuks before, and it made sense why tuk tuk was the preferred method of transport in the town, with cars having to detour a few miles further to get around an airport runway.
Finally having arrived at Finca Ixobel, my sister and I relaxed and had dinner with a couple of French girls who worked at the site and a Dutch guy named Max who was staying in our dorm room. The next morning the weather was rainy so we took much of the day to do our laundry in a wash basin (there were no washing machines available!) and then went out for a hike with Max in the evening when it cleared up. It was a lovely stroll with a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside- until we returned and I realized that I had hundreds of tiny ticks crawling all over my body! Not fun. I spent the remainder of the evening removing them one by one. Mysteriously enough, Laura and Max did not have any ticks on them, so I am not sure how I had so many. Perhaps I stumbled onto a nest of some sort.
After sealing all my tick-infested clothes in a plastic bag, we left for our next stop, Flores, along with Max who was heading in the same direction. Colectivos run every 20 minutes between Poptun and Santa Elena (next to Flores) and cost 30 Quetzales ($4-5), so we caught one of them up. From the Santa Elena bus station, it was a quick walk into Flores, and we stopped and ate lunch at a cheap local restaurant on the way. Max was meeting a friend at a hostel in Flores called Los Amigos, so we decided to join him and book a room there as I was unable to find any decent hostels online.
Los Amigos turned out to be a great hostel, and it was coincidentally immediately next door to a full service laundromat. I explained my situation with the ticks to the kind lady at the laundromat and she worked her magic on the clothes, rendering them tick-free and clean by the end of the day.
Flores is located on a picturesque island in the middle of a lake, with a bridge to the city of Santa Elena on the mainland. In the evening, we walked over to the west side of the island and ate some street food while watching the sunset. Upon returning to the hostel, we whittled the night away by playing lots of foosball and giant jenga with Max and a couple others from the hostel.
Early the next morning, Laura and I parted ways with Max and booked a $10 per person tour to Tikal, one of the ancient Mayan archaeological sites in northern Guatemala. In our tour group were a Costa Rican couple (who I met up with later in Costa Rica), a Dutch couple, and some folks from France, among others, that we explored the Mayan ruins with.
Not only did we learn about the history of the Mayan people, but we also saw plenty of animals around the site including some monkeys, turkeys, and coatis, raccoon-like creatures common in Central America.
The views of the jungle canopy from the top of the pyramids were also amazing.
On the way back from Tikal, I asked the tour driver to drop us off in El Cruce, where my sister and I caught a chicken bus, or more accurately a chicken van, to the border with Belize. Before crossing, we used up our last Quetzales to buy some tacos at a spot recommended by one of the other passengers in the van- Super Tacos in Melchor de Menos. It was a hole-in-the-wall spot, but probably had the tastiest tacos I have had in my life. Win.
Crossing into Belize was easy. Despite what many reports online say, we did not pay anything at the border when crossing over, so I would be wary of any “fees” levied by border officials. It was bittersweet leaving Guatemala after enjoying my travels there so much, but alas, more adventures were to be had while voyaging through the rest of Central America!