E: After leaving our spacious home in El Remate, our next stop was an organic farm called Finca Ixobal. The Lonely Planet really talked this place up but it seems to have fallen into neglect over the years since the American owner was disappeared and murdered by the Guatemalan military in 1990. We found some super cool outbuildings, bridges and carvings throughout the property but I suspect these are from a bygone era. The Lonely Planet says the farm offers volunteer opportunities, but when we arrived we couldn’t locate the volunteers the receptionist said were working here and we only found a small plot of tomatoes and some squashes; hardly a productive subsistence farm. This was unfortunate because I was hoping we could do some farming here for a week or so before moving further into Guatemala. The grounds were beautiful but all the cabanas were prohibitively expensive meaning the ten or so visitors were all crammed into one building which resembled a barn with room dividers made of plywood slats; definitely not comfortable or quiet. There were shared washrooms at the end of the building but the next morning we awoke to four buses of high school-age children on a field trip waiting to use the two toilets. This meant we had to wait behind them to perform our morning ablutions. It also meant that we had to wait an hour and a half to get breakfast from the undersized kitchen. Definitely not what I would consider a hospitable place and much more expensive than it should be for what was offered. We didn’t feel a bit guilty about running out on our food tab.
When I got to the end of the seedy and congested main drag of Rio Dulce, a riverside town in northeast Guatemala, I discovered the hotel I had chosen was accessible only by boat access. This wasn’t going to work with my cycle. I met a couple jovial-looking, shirtless, white dudes sitting in plastic chairs outside a pulperia and decided to ask them about hostels. I could kinda tell that they had been here awhile because of their long beards and bare feet. I suspect they had turned up, liked the place but now didn’t have the money to leave. Their southern US trailer-park accents completed the opus for me. I felt like I was engaging the guys from Duck Dynasty (which judging by the frequency of episodes that are aired in Guatemala apparently has a huge following here.) They directed me to a hotel at the end of the strip under the huge concrete bridge spanning the two sides of the channel connecting of Lago de Ixobal to the ocean. When I got to the Vista Rio Hotel I was greeted by Jay, a middle-aged New Orleans native with long dirty blonde hair. He showed me some really nice rooms within the hotel with free movies and hot water; but they were $25 a night. I opted for the backpacker hostel in the parking lot which was essentially a concrete bunker with shared bathrooms outside. These rooms were only $10 and I could park my bike just outside the door; perfect for a couple money-conscious backpackers. The hostel was right on the river and had a great bar around the back facing the harbor. When I went down to check out the dock, I met Jay’s wife, Jane (Jay and J!!!) getting something from their sailboat moored on the single dock at the bottom of the property. She also seemed friendly and equally brash. I was excited to grab Tanya from the bus station and come back here for some lunch and beers with our new hosts.
We had left the Finca pretty early after the frustrating start to our day. The farm was in between the cities of Flores and Rio Dulce down a gravel lane off the main road. I drove Tanya and her backpack out to the highway and found a small palapa a few kilometers back towards Flores next to some tiendas manned by friendly-looking owners. I waited with her for 20 minutes for a bus to come along but was starting to get anxious because my gear was still back at the finca and I wanted to get on the road before it got too hot. This was the main throughway across this part of the country and there were always plenty of buses. I figured she wouldn’t have to wait much longer and that it was safe to leave her by herself so I gave her a hug and zipped back to the Finca for my luggage. The road was pretty good and not very busy and I managed to get to Rio Dulce in just over two hours. After checking in at Rio Vista and throwing on my shorts and sandals, I ran back to the main street were the buses left off passengers and waited for my Tans. The Duck Dynasty guys were still in their chairs and they were three now, so I rucked up to a tienda and grabbed a six pack of Brava beers, pulled up a seat and joined them. It was coming on noon now and fatally hot. The beers were going back fast and I was having a raucous time shit-talking with the guys, but my eyes kept darting back to the street every 15 seconds or so hoping to see Tanya getting off a bus. After waiting for more than two hours, I started to get concerned. Although slow because of all the drop offs and pickups, I couldn’t conceive that it would take the bus more than four and a half hours to travel 150 km.
My six pack drained, I walked up the main drag a ways asking locals if there was another spot where the buses dropped people off. Everyone assured me that all the buses went to the place where I had been waiting. I found the boaty who took people across to the original hotel we discussed in case Tanya had found her way there, but he said he hadn’t seen her. I gave him instructions that if she showed up to say Ernesto would meet her at Vista Rio. He seemed concerned and clever and I was confident he would convey the message. I went back to join my bearded redneck friends and started really expressing my concerns now. They all agreed that buses were slow, but not that slow, plus we had already seen quite a few pass through town. I waited for another hour and was really losing it now. The guys were doing their best to console me saying that this part of Guatemala wasn’t at all dangerous and people were very friendly. I had made up my mind that I was going to get my bike and ride back to look for her. I said goodbye to the fellas giving them the same message for my beautiful girlfriend if she ever showed up and started heading back to the hotel. I took one last look over my shoulder before going under the bridge and saw Tanya walking down the street with a big smile and her cowboy boots scuffing along the pavement. I ran over to give her a relieved kiss and hug and another kiss before taking her backpack. “Oh my God, where were you??” I yelled, and heard myself sounding a bit more accusing than I had intended. “You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “Like eight buses passed me on the highway but they were all completely full and didn’t even stop. I had to wait two and a half hours before I even got on a bus. As much as Tanya and I really enjoy not having phones, this is one time when I really wished we had them. There had been a few anxious times like this before when I was left waiting for Tanya (and once when she waited for me for seven hours when my bike broke down outside Campeche, but this was by far the worst incident. Plus I was pretty drunk, dehydrated and had been too squirrelly to think about eating anything. We went directly back to the hotel and had a thoroughly enjoyable cuddle and a nap.
Jay and J were the best hotel managers ever. They kept their bar open for us the first night so we could get our drink on after our trying and anxiety-filled day. Hell, they got shitfaced right along with us. We played a marathon game of darts which was likely prolonged by the massive gusts of winds blowing through the open bar from the tropical storm that was brewing outside. Once my heroic novia finally nailed the bullseye for the win, Jay grabbed a bottle of rum from the bar and the four of us went out to their sailboat to get further snarled and enjoy a front row seat for the fearsome lightning storm overhead. The next day, the J’s gave themselves the afternoon off and guided us on their scooter around the north side of the lake to some cool picnic spots and a hot water waterfall. They brought a thermos full of vodka orange and we spent the afternoon swimming around and trying to endure the incredibly hot water while swimming underneath the waterfall. There was a native man who works here and he guided us up the side of the cascada to the source of the hot spring. Here we lathered ourselves with the mineral rich mud and then hiked back to the lake to rinse off. Jay said that they could usually jump off the top of the falls, but the water level was particularly low right now and he didn’t want to risk jumping. Considering I had no problem touching bottom anywhere in the lake there was no bloody way I was going to consider flinging myself off the cliff 25 feet above and we happily climbed down the way we’d gone up (although this proved to be a bit more of a slippery proposition now, being completely covered in mud.)
Our hosts were getting burned out with running the hotel due to the uncooperative and lazy attitudes of the local girls they had working in the kitchen and as chambermaids. Repeatedly the girls would not turn up for their shifts or they would throw fits when directed to perform tasks. The girls would be let go and Jay and J would have to hire and train someone new. They said this was the most frustrating thing about trying to run a place like Rio Vista in a place like Guatemala. So the J’s decided to give themselves a couple days off and got one of the alcoholic regulars to watch the bar and hotel for them. They invited us to go on the sailboat with them up the river to Livingston, a Garifuna community on the Gulf, and come back the next day. We were stoked at not having to take one of the tourists boats that charged $30 per person and we would get to spend more time with the J’s. I was also excited to spend the night on a 36-footer to see whether I would be able to live on a boat this size. Even though the J’s offered us the V-berth up front, it was still way to cramped for Tanya and I and both of us spent the night smashing our heads on the hull and shelves. It looks like my original prediction stands, that I would need at least a 40’ but likely a 44’. The sail down the river was beautiful and we were making good speed, approximately 7 knots, under sail. I sat at the helm with Jay and he told me stories about getting caught in huge storms in the Caribbean and the frightening angles the boat would reach as it coasted up and back down the massive drifts. He reminded me quite a bit of Captain Ron. About midday we stopped at a dock next to a sign advertising some caves. We paid one of the native men on the dock a few dollars. He located some tiny flashlights for us and took us along a path up into the jungle a ways. The cave entrances were really tiny which made it creepy entering them since we couldn’t see where we were going and didn’t know what was inside with us. Turns out there were heaps of bats, an entire wall covered in roaches and the most terrifying spiders that have ever existed on the planet. And to think… the entire tour cost just $2!
The rest of the trip was brilliant. We stopped at an eco-village marina in the middle of the river for a bar-b-que and a slip to spend the night. One of the Duck Dynasty guys was there with his boat and the J’s were friends with the owner so we already had some mates to hang with. A really nice, chilled out place with great food. We were pretty bagged by nightfall and had a quiet night aboard despite pinging my noggin off the bow half a dozen times during the night. The next morning after some eggs and a cuppa, we took the dingy and sped to the mouth of the river where there is a Garifuna community called Livingston. It was a pretty rough-around-the-edges kinda place, with unsavoury gold-toothed characters dealing drugs in the parque central and lots of heavy stares around town, but overall we had a nice time. Tanya got her hair braided by a local woman named Claudia and we all enjoyed a bucket of fried chicken from Chicken Campero (owing to a severe lack of food options.) Jay and J took us to meet one of their American friends who runs a hostel here. We chatted for a while over some tropical drinks and he gave Tanya and I a book he thought we would enjoy (which we have since read together and did!) On the way back to the sailboat the J’s took us to a rock face which they and many others had graffitied. Unbeknownst to us they had brought a can of spray paint with them in the dingy so they could freshen up their tag. Of course, I gave them some smack about defacing nature and, instead of arguing with me, Jay just tagged E + T on the rock next to their own tag. As we motored away and looked back, Tans and I were both happy to get our place on the wall. It made it acceptable since I wasn’t the one wielding the spray can.
We had some very interesting chats and we enjoyed getting to know this couple very much. They work very hard to eek out a living running the hotel but seemed discontent that they couldn’t travel more often. They said there wasn’t anyone that they trusted to run the bar for them since it’s a cash business. They seemed to really want us to stay on even offering us a sweet room on the private top floor overlooking the water. With my business acumen and handyman skills and Tanya’s experience in hospitality, they thought we would be the perfect couple to look after things while they went away. We weren’t completely repulsed by the idea. The setting is really beautiful… well on the lake side anyway… and there are plenty of characters that come off the sailboats all the time. The bar was always full of eccentric personalities with interesting stories to tell. We would live and eat for free plus be able to sock a bit away in the travel fund. But like the other opportunities I’ve come across, it just wasn’t time to settle down yet. The thought of so much open road ahead was still way too enticing.