Adventures While House Sitting


Lake Izabel, Guatemala

March 6th we left the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala and headed for the Caribbean side of the country. First stop was Antigua, the hub of all tourism related activity in the Guatemala Alto Plano.  Antigua bustles with visitors from around the globe.  The old Spanish architecture, horse drawn carriages, central park and flowering trees are very appealing to the senses.  We spent several days there as we worked out the details of our travels and visited our friend Alejandro.

 Alejandro treated us to a tour of one of his families coffee fincas (farms) situated at the edge of Antigua, once the capital of Guatemala.  The family home is over two hundred years old and the walls are two feet thick adobe.  The home and its interior could easily become a museum.  After touring the coffee processing area we felt a new appreciation for our daily grind. The amount of work that goes into a single cup of coffee is unbelievable.  I am surprised coffee isn’t worth its weight in gold and suddenly understood why Guatemalans don’t drink their own coffee; they can’t afford not to sell it.

The following day we took a minivan directly to the bus station in Guatemala City and boarded a bus for the notoriously rowdy port city of Puerto Barrios. We stayed at an 1800’s hotel we were told we must visit before it collapses.  The hotel was situated near the very tip of the bay and was indeed showing its age although countless layers of paint lent it a fresh clean look. 

We enjoyed great ocean scenery, spectacular sunsets, the hotels pool, the old high ceilinged room with tall shutter doors, seafood, following the activities of the ships loaded down with Dole and Chiquita produce and watching the locals set up vending carts and party all night on the point.  The antique staff at the hotel treated us like royalty…of course we were the only guests and felt as though we had stepped back in time.

 After several days of taking it all in we walked to the public dock and caught a ride on an old wooden boat that transports goods and people to Livingston.  The boat ride lasted about two hours and skirted the shore line East and North to Livingston. Livingston is reported to be a very unique and lively Jamaican like community because it was founded by the Garufundi.  The Garufundi are a mixed Mayan and African people.  During the slave trade era, a ship wrecked off the coast and slaves made it to shore where they took up residence and intermarried with the local Mayans. 

Livingston was a bit of a disappointment, but you could project back in time and see how this tropical coast line was once a beautiful and industrious area with Livinston the center of activity.  Today it is laid back and boring. However, because it is situated on the ocean and at the mouth of the Rio Dulce River it continues to survive.  The Rio Dulce leads to the largest lake in Guatemala, Lake Livingston.  In Livingston David picked up a flu bug and so we spent most of our visit resting, reading, lounging in hammocks or on the roof top of the Hostel we stayed at. My most ambitious enterprise was to locate coffee early in the morning (nearly impossible to find anyone up before 7AM) and to purchase the famous coconut bread and coconut tortillas we heard so much about.  We did enjoy some coconut rolls purchased from a street vendor, but the ‘coconut’ tortillas didn’t appear to have a single shred of coconut in them. After three days we negotiated for a boat ride up river to the town of Rio Dulce.

Taking a small boat up the Rio Dulce madeus feel as though we were deep in the heart of the Amazon.  The river is silty and calm, it shores dotted with an occasional grass hut, small Mayan communities and a couple of jungle lodges.  We watched withered old men fish. They sat hunched over and rode low in wooden dugouts.  Snow white Egrets populated the delicate branches of tropical trees hanging out and over the tranquil river.  Floating mats of flowering water plants brightened the rivers surface when glimpsed through the low lying mists.

We reached Rio Dulce after about ninety minutes and were impressed immediately.  Hundreds of sail boats dotted the water; a large graceful bridge spanned the river, and off in the distance sat an old stone fort at the mouth of Lake Izabel.  We had coffee at an open air restaurant which sat perched above the river on pilings we then sat for a while at the riverside park and watched the locals swing in hammocks while vending. Their businesses were not too lively.  Domesticated parrots were perched in odd locations around the businesses, clearly attending as watch dogs.

We located a room for one night and then wandered around the town for several hours.  The next day we visited a small German owned café that was reported to be very helpful in locating lodging on the lake and river. The owner was very helpful and we opted for the Tijax Jungle Lodge which was accessible by boat.  As it turned out the lodge sat directly across the little town fronted bay and was not the isolated jungle lodge we had hoped for.

The Tijax turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  Our grass roofed bungalow was comfortable and refreshing even in the hot humid air; the Lodges amenities included a nice pool, suspension walkway, boat docks, various tours and a decent open air restaurant.  The Mayan staff was great and even brought us fruit from the market, at no cost to us, to make us well as we had both developed the bug pretty bad (later we learned all foreigners get the bug upon arrival and it lasts two to three weeks).  We visited with Canadian and American residents that spend their winters living aboard boats.  We stayed eleven days and even then found it difficult to move on, but our main goal for this trip was to explore the Lake Izabel region.

It became apparent that traveling on the lake was nearly impossible as there are no tourist services and to hire a private boat would run us about $40 a day, which although cheap by USA standards it was above our daily budget.  After several failed attempts to travel on the lake, we opted for a minibus transport to Parisio Hot Springs and a lodge about midway along the lake’s northern shore.

As we rode along in the mini bus, packed with 21 passengers and operated by a reckless driver who spent the majority of his time preening in the rear view mirror and flirting with the passenger next to him while frequently swerving into oncoming traffic and off the right shoulder of the road, we couldn’t help but marvel at the luxurious rolling country side.  Unlike the Guatemala highlands this area was well tended with neat fence lines, velvety looking cattle and horses, small well-kept grass bungalows and palm trees swaying against a bright blue sky. The trash laden streams we saw out west were replaced with sparkling blue rivers, narrow rock canyons and glimpses of Lake Izabel in the distance.

We nearly missed our stop since the driver was deeply pre-occupied.  His helper yelled out and we were finally deposited near a quiet dirt road which angled towards the lake.  We hoisted our packs and walked along.  The air buzzed with heat, we occasionally received a soft greeting by a farm hand on bicycle, we enjoyed the sounds of children and chickens coming from a few grass huts.  The gigantic trees and lowing cattle relaxed us immediately.  It was beginning to feel like a very lazy hot summer day.

We walked for about twenty minutes then rested by a clear stream.  After another fifteen minutes of walking we saw a fork in the road and two signs, both businesses had the same name which was a bit confusing.  We finally opted for the business with the better looking sign and after another five minutes discovered a lake side ‘resort’.  It consisted of a giant round and grass thatched open air restaurant, lines of wooden bungalows, long forgotten old playground equipment no longer seen in the states, a dock badly in need of repair and a host of exotic birds in cages.

And there was the lake.  It was so vast and empty.  We were surprised that not a single fishing or pleasure boat could be seen on its placid surface.  We enjoyed this first look at the liquid silver and infinite blue sky.  We rented a wooden cabana on the lake shore, and feeling beat since we were still fighting the flu bug, we spent the remainder of the day and evening swinging in hammocks watching the lakes surface. 

The temperatures were perfect in this part of Guatemala.  Day and night had but a five degree shift.  That evening and every evening thereafter we were visited by toads of every size.  They liked the evening meal we provided. We would turn on the outside light and attract delicate almost translucent moths that would beat themselves on the light bulb then fall to the ground.  The toads were not the least bit shy of us as they systematically flicked up hundreds of moths. 

Our second day there we walked back up to the main road, crossed and headed for the hot springs at the base of a row of small mountains.  At a roadside café we paid about $2 to visit the spring and were surprised to receive a tour guide.  Nice, we thought, at least we won’t get lost.  We wound through the jungle and along a small river and finally descended a flight of roughly hewn stairs leading down to a large aquamarine pool.  It really was the quintessential jungle pool complete with waterfall.  We couldn’t wait to get in. I, however needed to change into my bathing suit and it was becoming painful obvious the guide was going to hang with us and chat. 

David leaned over and asked me “What do we do?”  I Said, “Say Gracias, tip him and maybe he’ll get the hint” David did and the guide still sat there and even after telling him I needed privacy to change he still sat.  Finally, he told us no one is allowed unattended at the springs. I immediately felt deflated.  Here was the perfect scenario; I could see myself in the deep pool enjoying a true private back to nature jungle experience.  I felt as though all our time in Guatemala had been leading up to this single luxurious event.  

After making the mental adjustment that we were going to be watched and guarded, I climbed down the boulders and slipped in.  The water was freezing! I managed to get my pack and sandals to the other side and stash them in a rock crevice to protect them from our protector.  Just as I was about to plunge in head first I heard excited voices.  David and I watched in frustration as forty to fifty kids and a few adults came down the trail.  We immediately headed upstream to the hot water fall cascading over the cliffs edge.  In minutes we were overrun by splashing teenagers and weary adults vying for the few rock outcroppings you could sit on to enjoy the hot falls.

We stuck around for about forty minutes trying to scissor our way through the now packed pool. David relieved some of the pressure by mentioning that a hot mud bath existed at the top of the cliff and about half the group headed up there.  We learned that the group was from the USA and Canada and that were taking a break from their mission project. Knowing they were there for a good purpose lifted our spirits a bit.

We noticed that our guard and their guard were deep in conversation and then disappeared, so we disappeared too.  We had smelled a strong sulfur smell when walking to the springs and decided to find it.  Heading back up the trail and found a spot in the river that vented scalding hot water out of boulders.  We spent about forty minutes testing various pools and currents.  While not exactly restful it was nice to explore. I would have liked to float the river back down to the lake but practical David pointed out we would probably cross through private land and might get ourselves into some trouble.

After about four nights at the lakeside cabana we heading further inland to the northwest corner of the lake to a community called El Estor. At first El Estor appeared to be a typical Mayan village.  But soon we began to count off all the differences between this town and the Lake Atitlan villages.  This was truly a Mayan town with wide paved roads, a nicely developed lake front, a grocery store and dozens of well-maintained stores with a variety of goods; musical instruments, hardware, horse gear etc…  We did not find much in the way of restaurants but there were a number of hotels and we rented a nice room on the lake for $12.50 a night.

We noticed a similarity between El Estor and pictures of American in the 1950’s.  The only thing missing were old automobiles.  Except for transport services all the residents were on foot, bicycles or motorbikes. Crews of older gentlemen spent their days cleaning the streets; younger men were scaling tall ladders and painting the city buildings.  The town bustled with activity and was very friendly.  We began to wonder why this town was so different from the other Guatemalan places we had visited. We decided it must have an excellent city government, economy and numerous good churches that made for fair and honest citizens.  For us the most delightful part was not having to haggle over prices (all throughout Guatemala we had to deal with the attitude that all gringos are rich and should therefore pay top dollar) and the open faces and attitudes of the colorfully dressed women and cowboy like men.

We were greeting with wide spread arms and broad smiles.  The locals loved practicing their English on us.  We paid the same prices the locals did and we enjoyed the atmosphere immensely.  We saw only five other gringos and they were just passing through; obviously the town was not set up for tourism. At dusk the place really came to life.  Tables and chairs were sat out on the wide streets, wood fired grills and BBQ’s were fired up and big bowls of food appeared. It seemed like a festival but it was just the regular nightly occurrence.  Even though it didn’t seem especially hot to us during the day we learned that the towns’ folk came to life after dark.

Our time was winding down and we needed to head back to Rio Dulce to catch a bus to Guatemala City. The morning arrived when we had to depart and we headed to the corner were public transport was available.  We jumped into a minivan and discovered we were in the same van and with the same preening driver we had traveled to Parisio Hot Springs with.  Oh, well here we go again…

Well it’s time to cook up some moose meat and get on with the evening. Stayed tuned for the next post coming your way soon!  PS. We arrived in Alaska May 1st to 28 degrees and snow!



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