Friday, April 15, 2011

Guatemala - Parting is such sweet sorrow!

Time for a break: Finca Ixobel
It's been exactly 5 weeks since we arrived in Guatemala; time has come to head southwards towards our next destination: Honduras. But before we cross the border, we plan to take a few days break at a place that gets rave reviews about 2 hours south of Flores.
It's only a short trip but slightly higher altitude again. We are taking it easy and leave our hotel late on a Sunday morning, take a Tuc Tuc to the terminal over in Santa Elena and arrive there just in time to miss the bus…next one going in 2 hours. Hmmm, our "luck" with buses continues.

Finally, during the hottest part of the day, we are departing from Santa Elena. Our next stop is the "Finca Ixobel", a ranch near the town of PoptĂșn.

The 400 acre plot of land was bought by Mike and Carole DeVine, a young American couple, in 1971. They had decided to leave the American way of life and settle on a relatively small piece of land in Central America. They slowly built up a farm, raising livestock and growing vegetables. Back then they had not at all intended to open a restaurant or even hotel. In the 1970's this area of Guatemala was not at all developed, only Flores and Tikal received the occasional foreign visitor. The early visitors to Tikal came from Guatemala City, a bone shaking trip that easily took 20+ hours on a rough dirt road. Naturally, the tourists and their guides were looking for places along that long trip to sleep and eat. So, word had gotten around that there is an American couple that has a farm 100km south of Flores. At first, only a few people asked if they could camp on their grounds and purchase some food. The sometimes would also ask if they could join (for a small fee) the family meals that Carole was cooking every day.

The "Suite" with nice background
As the number of visitors increased, the couple decided to put up a sign on the road and start charging for camping and opened a small restaurant. Over the years the camping site constantly grew, later small tree houses were erected, bungalows built, and today even a honeymoon suite is available. What is nice is the natural organic progression that occurred in their simple business. They started simple and those options are still available. Tents and hammocks are still possible for those that really travel on a shoestring. But for people that need more comfort, they also have options. Funny thing is that back a few decades ago, more people traveled with their own tents and/or hammock or had their own vehicle. Now it's rare to meet this kind of travelers but they are still out and about.

Back to the DeVine Family, Mike was a victim of the civil war; killed in 1990 by the Guatemalan Army for dubious reasons. Despite this family tragedy: Carole and their two children are still managing the Finca, keeping Mike's passion for nature, animals, and conservation in mind. The Finca Ixobel is putting a high priority on being ecologically friendly. Source: Finca Ixobel

Our travel to Finca Ixobel was smooth and the temperature progressively cooled down as we drove up there. Even at 3pm, when we walked onto the grounds, it was fairly pleasant. We are back at 600 meters (2000 feet) altitude, feels good!

As usual, Julane is checking out the rooms while Patrick waits with the luggage – By the way, this is not because Patrick is lazy, it's merely because she's more...  hmmm let's call it selective ;-)

Our "house" at the Finca
This time she's coming back with a surprise: her choice is the "tree-house". A wooden hut suspended about 3 meters up in the air, although not really in a tree, rather nestled into an area surrounded by some huge trees.
It's got a porch with hammock outside, a double bed with mosquito net and a candle inside... Yep, we're back to exploring dark places by candle light: there is no electricity in the tree-house.

She opted for the most romantic place out in the woods, a good 200 meters away from the main buildings and some distance from the modern toilets/bathrooms too. Our "house" is overlooking the large camping area with wonderful views.

Our closest neighbor is in an Outback style camper with German license plates. How did they drive to Guatemala? It turns out that they've traveled extensively all over South- and Central America. Later in the day, another camper pulls in with French plates; this RV is certainly in bourgeois category. It won't make it through most of the roads that we've visited in the north!

Where have we landed? Is this Lago Maggiore or what? (for our non European friends: Lago Maggiore is a very popular lake and camping site in the south of Switzerland).

OK, I think I can 'hang out' here for
a few days
Patrick is at first skeptical to stay in the tree-house; where can he charge all his electronic devices, including the "sound system" which consists of an iPod nano and an X-mini speaker. We surely would want to listen to some music while improving our hammock swinging skills.
After the second night though, he actually started to like the tree-house too. The shade of the trees during the day, the perfectly tight mozzie net, and the silence mixed with sounds of nature made it quite pleasant – especially since most camper vehicles (and kids) left the day after we arrived.

It's not all relaxing, the Blog
needs some updating.
He also managed to charge all the gadgets at the main guesthouse while surfing the WiFi network – a "high speed" connection that was making any average dial-up connection feel proud again! But we are out in the woods here, and maybe the ants have to carry these bits and bytes to the next town before they can enter "the web". Hey, at least that way, the Netbook's battery had enough time to fully re-charge.

The natural swimming pool
The Finca is often described as a summer camp for adults. Guests range in age from their 20ies to their 60ies, although there were also a few families with small children, it was mostly other couples staying there. There are a number of activities that can be booked. But probably the most enjoyable activity is to simply relax on the great grounds, swim, read, play cards, hammock swing, or play ping pong.

The Finca is charging for everything using an honor system. At check-in, guests are encouraged to lock up their cash in the safe, then they get a piece of paper with their name and a bill number. From then on, its pretty much self service: you can help yourself to all food and drink, just mark it down on your paper when taking something out of the fridge. There is a staffed kitchen for breakfast and lunch, dinner is served buffet style. We didn't try breakfast or lunch, the dinner was so big that we didn't really feel hungry during the day. And their homemade cinnamon rolls were a good Brunch replacement, plus we brought plenty of munchies with us.

Dinner time
The honor system is a smart way to reduce the number of employees needed and increase consumption as one sees and takes-impulse shopping style. But be careful to keep track of your spending, the next ATM is 7km away.

Talking about staff, most of the staff is actually volunteers that stay and help at the Finca in exchange for room and board. A nice way to stay longer, meet people, practice Spanish, and save money. The only catch that we could see, is that there is 6 weeks minimum commitment time, a bit long in our view. We actually bumped into a few people "working" this way as they explore the world. They were also the ones with the tents!

We initially wanted to stay 3 nights which turned into 4. In the morning of our planned departure day, we spontaneously decided that we wanted to stay a bit longer. Admittedly, being woken by the rays of the sun after a rainy day helped to make this decision very quickly. Anyway that's the fun in backpacking: no schedules, no commitments, ultimate freedom.

View from the hill
In the three days (4 nights) at the Finca, we hiked up a nearby hill, swam in the natural swimming pool that the DeVines had created, and indulged in an abundance of great food. Patrick managed to read an entire non-fiction book in just two days – beside all that slow surfing, battery charging, and Blog uploading. But the Finca also had a great book exchange too so we were able to restock our supply again. And somehow the books that we exchanged for are much heavier. We think the hardback version must come from the people in vehicles!

Julane also went on a horseback ride through the countryside. The trip lasted almost 3 hours and went up to a great viewpoint then through the shrub and into the nearly Barrio/village next to the Finca. Too bad that the trip included a couple of heavy downpours, she returned soaking wet but with a big smile on her face.

Staying at the Finca was our last real destination in the journey south towards Honduras. A stopover well worth the time, we are leaving totally relaxed and ready for the next road trip of 350km (217miles) to the Honduran border.

Leaving the Finca at 9am, we walked 15 minutes to the main road. Our plan was to catch a bus from the main road all the way to Rio Hondo. We knew that at this time of day, a direct "Fuente del Norte" bus would go by about every hour or so. Call it bad luck, bad timing, or whatever... It was 10:45am when we finally sat in the bus. Our bad bus karma continued. But don't worry; we are not going to bore anyone with the details.

Time to leave Ixobel:
Patrick waiting for the bus south
The drive to Rio Hondo takes us via a place called Rio Dulce (Sweet River). It's a favorite playground for the rich and beautiful from Guatemala City… and it shows. The river banks were lined with luxury yachts, not quite the Monte Carlo type but still impressive.

As we reached Rio Dulce we also got back down to the hot low-lands. Our bus was originally an air conditioned bus, with windows that were not designed to be opened. Luckily they were all equipped with an emergency exit latch, so we could open the window by pushing out the lower part a bit, at every bump and turn the heavy glass window would swing back into place. We won't even talk about the safety of this bus. That word just doesn't exist here.

Thankfully, it wasn't the "packed full chicken bus" kind of bus. That would have been unbearably hot. But guess what: we actually had a chicken on board this time, making this the first real "chicken bus" in our Guatemala travels. How weird is that? The most "luxurious" bus so far, turns out to be the only one with a live chicken on board… Adopting the naming convention of the US air-force when they carry someone special: We are now officially riding on "chicken bus one" ;-)

After Rio Dulce, we pulled into the town called Morales, where we first took a 30 minute lunch break, then shortly after another 20 minute involuntary break for mechanical reasons. We don't know what was wrong with the bus, but by looking at the mechanic lying underneath, the bus did not look very encouraging.

What's the Moral of this story?
The mechanic was doing something to the rear wheels with a gallon sized plastic bag filled with thick oil that mysteriously disappeared when he emerged. During this pit stop, we were parked in the hot sun. Our bus had turned into a moving toaster oven, the "baked" chicken was about to become dinner for the family who owned it, and a guy lying below the bus looked as if he was dead. (What's the "Morales" of that?)

We arrived at Rio Hondo by 4pm, very hot, and not in the mood to do any more buses without taking a cool down break… give us ice cream: Sarita, please! But across the street was a bus for Chiquimula, where we originally planned to stay the night. We can't let this one go by, not after having spent at least five hours waiting for our bus connections in the last week alone.

We ran across the street while trying not to get hit by the traffic on either side of the busy road. Remember that popular Arcade game "Frogger" some 30 years ago? Yep that's what we felt like.
We jumped on the bus and vrooooom, moving towards Chiquimula before we even sat down. This bus even has proper windows that allow airflow. Wow, how lucky we are all of a sudden :-)

The night in Chiquimula was our last one in Guatemala. Time for our last Guatemalan dinner: Pollo Campero (fried chicken) fast food dinner (not KFC: mucho mas better than that). Why fast food? It had air conditioning, and we needed it! Plus the chicken is really finger licking good.
Went to bed early – totally exhausted. All our energy that we tanked in at Finca Ixobel had been evaporated buy our Fuente del Norte sauna trip to Rio Hondo.

At 10am the next day, we sat on a direct bus to the border town of El Florido, which has nothing to do with Florida. During our drive, we noticed (actually, already the day before) that this part of Guatemala was very different from what we've seen so far.

The people look mostly Caucasian, only few have Mayan features. Men have a preference for Rodeo western style clothing; while women dress more seductive and revealing. In fact, we haven't seen one traditional Mayan dress in Chiquimula. We also noticed that this area is more affluent. There are no more potholes in the road, many people drive in private cars; cars that are in pretty good shape too. In the highlands, we've seen only few cars and they looked as if they were driven of a junkyard and then banged up some more. The private homes and commercial buildings here look more lavish and well maintained: it could be some small town in Arizona.

Time to leave Guatemala,
at least our bus to the border
is a nice one.
Finally, the best indicator of higher personal wealth was the observation of mobile phone users. In the other parts of Guatemala, we have only occasionally seen people using (or playing with) mobile phones. The few phones that we did see were the old, simple "chocolate bar" Nokia types, with black and white displays. Here in the south of the country, we've seen many people using much more modern versions phones: Blackberries (not the edible kind), Nokia, and HTC smart-phones. Sorry Mr. Jobs: according to our detailed Anthropolistic research, your company has no market share here, Nada! Maybe Guatemalan people prefer berries over apples?

People here also seemed a bit more approachable and friendly than we thought they were in the highlands. We've only been here in the south for a day, but we perceived that there is quite a difference. Our theory is: The Mayan people (who are the greater majority in the highlands) have been severely oppressed and abused by the Ladinos, Colonists, and military over the past centuries and especially over the last few decades of civil war. So today, it would be normal to have a reserved and skeptical attitude when interacting with Gringos and non-Indians. Of course, this is only our theory. We might be totally wrong, so please don't send us nasty emails if you disagree. :-S

We reached El Florido, the border town, at noon. On the way there, we were befriended by a man from Honduras on his way to San Pedro Sula. He was very nice, gave us some info on the border crossing, how to change our Quetzales into Honduran currency. No bank in Chiquimula would change Honduran Lempira, they all shrugged their shoulders and gave us the impression that we are asking a totally strange question: "quiero cambiar dineros honduras". Is our Spanish still sooo bad? Or is our question just totally absurd?

At the Guatemalan side of the border is a small bank, but they also don't exchange Quetzales for Lempira either. The only way to exchange is to do it on the "grey market", which means bargaining with people that stand right at the border with huge bundles of both currencies. The exchange rate is a matter of our haggling skills. You better be informed beforehand what the official exchange rate is. Thankfully we did that a few days ago on

Our Honduran friend even waited for us to clear the immigration procedure, at least until we had to wait in line to pay for our Guatemalan Gringo exit fee. After the bank line hasn't moved a bit in 15 minutes... He politely apologized for having to leave us there, as he had to rush to get to his final destination before end of the day. What a nice guy, we hope that other people in Honduras are as friendly and helpful as he was.

Patrick ended up waiting in line for over 30 minutes to pay the exit fee. The money could not be paid directly to the immigration officer; it had to be deposited at the bank – one window to the right in same building. Is this a corruption counter measure? The fee was Q10 each ($1.30) and this is what we had to wait to pay for the last 30 minutes! But at least it's legitimate as we heard and read horror stories about corrupt border officials.

By the way, this was the same bank that did not exchange currencies. But Julane had changed our few remaining Quetzales with one of the grey market guys, we were told that Gutemalan Quetzales are worth a lot less as soon as we crossed the border, and totally worthless (no exchange) once we are away from the border. She got 2.4 Lempira for each Queztal

By the way, on a side note: We often include info that friends back home might find boring and superfluous, but this is to help other travelers that might refer to our blog and be making the journey after us. Up to date info is hard to come by and so important. So just fast forward, on these "guidebook" details…

Anyway, we finally got our exit stamp and walked over to the Honduran custom's building. Here we had to pay $3 each directly to the immigration officer. What about anti-corruption measures in this country? We each got an official looking receipt for the 3 bucks fee stapled in our passport, (plus change in USD via an itinerant money changer that the immigration woman called in to help us!) So armed with a fresh 90 day visa stamp in our passports, we walked into Honduras.

Adios Guatemala,
It has been a real pleasure meeting you!