So after our trip to Antigua & Lago Atitlan (which you can read about here) we got back to Guatemala City and caught a bus to Rio Dulce. The ride should have taken 8 hours and we planned on arriving in Rio Dulce still in daylight. But our bus had a minor accident en-route (seriously, a teeny tiny scratch on the front and on the Jeep that barely scraped us - nobody was injured). Thinking this is Central America, the bus driver and the people in the Jeep would just check out the damage, exchange details & shake hands and we'd be off on our way again. But no. The bus driver insisted that somebody from the insurance company came out here - we were two hours outside of Guatemala City on a Sunday no less! - to assess the damage before we could continue on. So we waited and waited, went into a nearby gas station to get water & snacks and waited some more. In the meantime we made friends with an elderly couple from Boston who always spent their winters down here. In the end we made it to Rio Dulce with a 4-hour delay and arrived just before midnight.
And that was a problem because our accommodation was far out on the river! When booking it we thought it sounded super cool to sleep in tiny cabins built on stilts in a river in the middle of the jungle. But the river is wide and dark at night and can be very dangerous! So we were advised to arrive in daylight so that the owner, Gary, an Australian who managed the hostel, could still pick us up safely by boat. We called Gary, told him why we were delayed and said we'd try to find a hotel in Rio Dulce for the night but he insisted on trying to come out and picking us up. So we made our way to the hostel in complete darkness on a huge river in the jungle in a tiny boat with our bags between us, holding a flashlight so that Gary could navigate us home. But hey, we made it! The place itself was really cool and didn't disappoint! Our small room really only fitted a bed and instead of windows we had screens. The first night I didn't sleep at all. Being a city girl I'm used to fall asleep to the sound of cars, people & sirens but birds and frogs and other nocturnal creatures? I had a hard time finding rest that night but soon after got used to it and slept like a baby!
The entrance to our hostel
The next morning Gary brought us back to Rio Dulce from where to took a bus to the hot springs in Finca Paraiso. The coolest thing here was that there was a pool of hot water springs higher up between the rocks and therefore the waterfalls were warm as well! Apparently there are only very few accessible hot spring waterfalls in the world and this is one of them!
The next day we were off to the town of Livingston by boat again. Our voyage started out in driving rain but since this is the jungle it cleared fairly soon and we got to experience some incredibly beautiful scenery!
When you get to Livingston you think you've arrived on a completely different continent! Namely Africa. Or maybe somewhere in the Caribbean. The people here don't look Hispanic or like indigenous Central Americans. Most inhabitants of Livingston do indeed have African roots and are called Garifuna. The food, the music and the culture here are a big, colorful mix of Caribbean, European and West & Central African influences. This place is like nowhere else in Guatemala!
After a couple of days living on a river we bid farewell to Rio Dulce and tried to catch a bus up to Flores in the very north of Guatemala where we'd visit Tikal and spend New Year's Eve. The bus ride this time was supposed to take just over 5 hours so we hoped for the best. And low and behold we got on a bus right away! Our luggage went into the bottom part of the bus, we stepped on board and - OMG! This vehicle was hopelessly overloaded with fathers standing in the aisle with several children hanging from them, women practically stacked on top of each other in the seats and absolutely no space to even slightly spread out your legs. I didn't see the famous bird cages that are meant to be on these so-called chicken buses but I wouldn't have been surprised if there was some livestock hidden in the mix on this vehicle. I stood sideways with my legs tightly together and my arms stretched out high above me to hold on to the luggage rack under the roof of the bus.
There was barely any fresh air coming and I soon felt like I would faint. I complained and muttered under my breath, saying things like "I'd rather take a taxi next time!". The locals probably thought "Oh that poor white girl is clearly not used to something like this!". When I think about it now I can just laugh out loud at what a princess I was and at my petty little first world problems of traveling on a bus without a seat! Okay, so in all fairness - I had to stand like this in the muggy bus for close to 4 hours! And it didn't help that the bus driver raced like a maniac through the monsoon, violently swerving around huge puddles. It was seriously exhausting physically and mentally but thank God I rarely suffer from motion sickness and luckily the roads were paved for most of the way. Oh poor me! On the other hand I realized later that this is actually some people's commute several days a week! Shame on me for thinking I deserve a seat here! I love how traveling once again put things into perspective for me - the spoiled Westerner.
After a while a nice lady let me half-sit on her arm rest and about an hour before we reached Flores the bus miraculously emptied out and we got seats! Never in my life have I appreciated a dirty, rugged, hard-as-concrete seat on public transport as much as in this moment! And I just realized how lucky I am that my daily commute to work consists of a 20 minute air-conditioned tram ride where I almost always get a comfy window seat. Yes, traveling does open your eyes to how the other half lives! And after half a day on a chicken bus we finally made it into Flores - yaaay!
The day we went to Tikal was the 31st December 2014 - New Year's Eve. I wanted to do something really special on the last day of that (pretty awesome) year and had heard from other travelers that there is a little dare usually happening on these wildlife & pyramid tours... namely your guide plucks a huge jungle tarantula off a tree and lets everybody who's brave enough hold it for a couple of seconds. Now, I am probably the most arachnophobic person you could imagine and there was like no way in hell I was going to touch this creepy crawly in Tikal. Well, I went to Tikal and yes, I held a freakin' big spider. And you know what? It wasn't half as bad as thought it would be! And that was my very personal epic way of ending 2014! So if you don't like eight-legged animals, don't scroll any further... you have been warned! ;)
There were howler moneys high up in those trees with their super loud, piercing scream echoing all over the place. Oh and they looove throwing their poop at tourists - so watch out for those cheeky monkeys!
Tikal is basically an ancient Mayan site in the middle of the northern Guatemalan jungle. It is estimated that Tikal is over 2,000 years old and is therefore one of the oldest & largest Mayan sites in Central America accessible to visitors. I'm really beginning to wonder why this is not one of the Seven World Wonders... I mean, look at this stuff!
There are several temples and Temple IV is the one most people climb up - there are proper stairs in place that make the hike easier for visitors and at the same time protect the original stone work. This is the place from where you get stunning pictures like this!
After Tikal we went back to our hostel and celebrated New Year's out in the streets of Flores - which was quite the spectacle considering that everybody could just bring fireworks and let them off right next to you! I was back at the hostel quite early again and was looking forward to my comfy bed after a super long day of hiking, partying and holding tarantulas. Did you dare to look at the pictures? ;)
And that was it, my Guatemala adventure came to an end and I had to head back home via Guatemala City, Houston & Washington DC which was a minor adventure in itself as I sweated like never before when going through US immigration due to the fact that my passport was ripped... but I'll tell you more about that travel incident in another post ;)