We were in the heart of Central America halfway through our journey. By this time, we had crossed Canada, USA, Mexico and Belize in approximatively 8 months. We had planned to complete our journey in 12, so we had left just 4 months to reach the southern point of South America. How the heck would we make it without missing all what we wanted to see and enjoy along the way? We realized two years instead of one would have been better to experience it all and to arrive in Argentina in the summertime. Winter was already brewing in the southern tip of the American continent.
There were so many exciting places to discover in Guatemala! And although we had seen plenty of archeological sites by then, we could not miss one of the biggest: Tikal, the former Maya empire capital, a spectacular place, where in 1977 shots were taken to portrait a rebel base at Star Wars, A New Hope episode. We could not miss Antigua either, the former colonial capital of the country, where at that time of the year we would be able to experience its famous Semana Santa: a holy week of Christian parades and rituals. Adding to all these active volcanos hikes which JP was seriously interested in and the amazing local cuisine, we were thrilled about this chapter of our journey.
In Guatemala we received an amazing blessing: I found out that I was pregnant. We were thrilled with joy! But the news did not come only with thrill, it came along with some anxiety: how could we finish this lifetime adventure safely, on time, seeing all we wanted to see, with me being pregnant? We had to go back to the drawing board to adjust our plans. One thing for sure: we were determined to keep on exploring until the tip end of the Americas with our new family member on board!
Border crossing Belize-Guatemala
The border crossing from Belize to Guatemala was quick and straight forward, no drama no problems. On Belize side we were asked to pay $20 each to exit the country. To enter Guatemala we had to fumigate the truck for $6 and to pay the road and a bridge fee, another 20$. That was it. In about one hour we were already driving in Guatemala.
Our first impression as we entered Guatemala was good. The people looked more like Latinos than Caribbeans and we found them quite assertive and friendly. We were back into the Spanish influence area with its colonial heritage.
So after a quick stop to withdraw local currency in a nearby town we headed towards the ancient city of Tikal, the largest Maya archeological site found to date, located just 90km from the east border of Guatemala.
Tikal is positioned inside Guatemala's Tikal National Park and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is known to be the capital and the biggest Maya center in Mesoamerica. The ruins which are opened to public are spread over 23 square kilometers and this is only 20% from what they discovered so far. It’s massive and impressive. Plus, it is in the heart of the jungle thus we expected to see a lot of birds species and - who knows - maybe a jaguar.
We liked how we were received at the entrance. For 2$ we got a map of the site which allowed us to understand better the infrastructure and magnitude of the area. The park was well marked and organized, had an information center, camping sites, restaurants and shops. Much better structured than the sites we visited in Mexico or Belize. We paid 300-quetzal (32 euro) entrance fee for both of us.
As we got in the park driving to our campground, we immediately observed plenty of animals like the Occellated Turkey, Coatimundi and plenty of colored birds. We were so excited to discover the rest on foot the following day, hoping for more wildlife encounters.
Unfortunately, not sure if it was something we ate, we had a rough night as we both had very upset stomachs. We woke up several times in the middle of the night to go to the restroom, which was disturbing as we were in the jungle and I was afraid to face a nocturnal animal on my way to or back from the restroom.
It was either a bug in our water tank as I forgot to turn on the water filtration system or it was just something we ate. Whilst I thought it was from the water JP suspected it was from our first Guatemalan dish. Anyway, we had no time to lose and even if a bit weak we woke up early to enter the park before the crowds and before the temperature became too high. With little energy and some muscle fever we departed to the ruins just before 8am.
It was a huge park, extended on 570 square kilometers, pyramid after pyramid, temple after temple, it just wouldn’t end. We took it one by one, climbed most of the pyramids, at least we can say we climbed the highest pyramid in Mesoamerica, the Temple IV which has 57m height.
It was truly beautiful to have the overview of the jungle from the top. We were lucky to climb Temple V and to be the only ones there. It felt different, it felt mystic and majestic.
By 11:30am we had covered the main areas with the ruins and on my side, I was pretty much done with it. JP wanted to extend the walk for another hour to see the last ruins on the west side. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to return, to rest, and possible to move on driving south since there were loads of mosquitos, as well as flies. The air was very humid and the sun was powerful by noon. The feeling was like being in an open air sauna, and I felt like wanting to have a cold shower all the time.
We returned to Jaguar Inn campground where our truck was parked and after couple of snacks, we decided it was time to leave south to fresher airs.
The Road to Rio Dulce
Although there were less than 200km from Tikal to Rio Dulce, our next calculated overnight stop before reaching Antigua, it was a tough ride. The weather was very hot, the road was curvy, often with potholes and gravel, full of villages to cross with “topes” and bikes. I was sweating, a bit dizzy, but trying to hold on. We made it just to the next farm for the night.
The following day we arrived in Rio Dulce and when we got there, we realized our camping spot was inside a huge marina, the Ram Marina, a local hub where sailors could come in for maintenance and supplies. We didn’t expect that. It was a world class marina and dry-dock. There were all sorts of sailboats and motorboats, including some amazing catamarans and yachts. Boats from all over the Americas were there for storage, maintenance and repair. They had a small market, convenience store and a small hotel. We could rest at a parking lot below a giant fig tree, just next to some workshops and warehouses, near enough to the sea.
That ambiance of boats and sailors, those long-term travelers made us think and imagine how it would be to discover the world by sea. "How would it be if we would sail around the world?" we thought. JP was dreaming for a while about it aiming to achieve it one day. For me, whilst it is an idea I fancy with, I don’t think we should underestimate the risks and the strength of nature in the form of wind, rain and waves. We would have to be much better prepared and well trained before considering traveling long distances by boat.
We slept very well that night, finally no heat or mosquitos. It was a straight deep sleep, which we needed so much.
There were less than 300km from Rio Dulce to Antigua, yet it took us 6 hours to do it. The road was hilly, curvy, very busy with a lot of heavy trucks and went through several road works where we often had to stop. At some point it was so much dust in the air that we had to close the windows. We were almost cooking inside from the heat as our air conditioning was not working.
Just 40km before Antigua we stopped in the new capital of the country, Guatemala City to supply with food and cleaning products from Walmart. When we stopped I took the opportunity to buy a pregnancy test as it had been a while since my last period and I had a feeling something was going on.
Although we were only 40 km from Antigua it took us over one hour because of the traffic and the very narrow streets to the former colonial capital of Mesoamerica. We eventually reached a Police Station plot where overlanders are allowed to camp in Antigua.
As we entered through the city center, we were beautifully impressed with the typical old colonial Spanish houses, narrow streets and colorful buildings.
Antigua was the capital of New Spain in Central American during the XVI-XVII centuries. We were excited to change a bit the scenery with something more European looking like. We have heard the town is filled up with great restaurants and we were glad to have the opportunity to try other culinary treats than our own after a week cooking inside the truck.
Antigua resembled Oaxaca City and there was no wonder why as they were both former Spanish colonies and strategic cities of New Spain in Mesoamerica.
The next day I couldn’t wait any longer to make the pregnancy test. It didn’t take more than 30 seconds to confirm it. I was pregnant. There was no doubt from then on and I was so excited and nervous to tell JP but I had to find the moment as he was moving around doing stuff on the campground. Finally, as I was too inpatient to find the moment I just showed him the test and I told him. We both kind of suspected it, we felt it, and we were so happy to have it confirmed! We hugged and kissed, experiencing an immense happiness different from all the types of happiness we felt before. It was simply a miracle confirmed.
Immediately after the news JP became anxious about organizing the trip from then on considering my pregnancy. He felt he needed a new plan, but the reality was that not much needed to be changed. All we had to do was to spend a shorter time in each country in order to get to the southern point of Argentina in time so that we would still have time to hang out with JP's family in Brazil before I would be 7 months pregnant. I was planning to deliver in Romania and it is safer and recommended to fly until 28 weeks of pregnancy. We just had to be calm and keep on exploring whilst doing the monthly pregnancy checkups at the places we would be visiting.
I remember that besides getting a bit angrier at times and not having the same easiness in doing my daily sports, I was most of the time okay and have enjoyed a general feeling of peacefulness, happiness and contentment.
We ended up spending 6 days in Antigua enjoying its variety of restaurants, the company of traveling friends and the famous Semana Santa with its wonderful street flower carpets exhibitions. Besides this JP got the chance to hike active volcanos for the first time.
Of course, JP couldn’t stay away from the challenge of hiking active volcanos and has picked up a two day hike to go to the top of the Acatenango and Fuego volcanos.
While JP was adventuring into climbing volcanos I chose to spoil myself that day relaxing at a spa. I missed having a proper massage and I needed badly a facial too.
JP departed very early that morning for the hike, climbed for 6-7 hours to the base of Acatenango volcano and after an hour and a half rest he went for 3 more hours return trip for Fuego, an active volcano with permanent eruption of lava.
He had a tremendous but tough experience to climb about a hundred meters close to the crater of Fuego. JP was really amazed and excited to see for the first time in his life, above the clouds, an active volcano with lava coming out of it.
The second day JP woke up at 5am and returned to the base. I went to the travel agency to wait for him with fresh clothes and food. He arrived exhausted, drained, he had red chicks and a tired face, but he was pumped, excited and proud he had managed the challenge.
JP satisfied his desire for adrenaline and adventure, but the whole experience was tough on his body. He could not walk properly the following day due to severe pain on his muscles and back legs. I must confess I was a bit worried with his idea of climbing an active volcano yet I trusted that all would be well with so many tours being offered in Antigua. At the end we were lucky as just three months after JP’s hike the Fuego volcano exploded in a deadly eruption killing more than 200 people.
As we returned to the campground out of nowhere our overloading friends Lindsay and Doug, with whom we hanged out in Mexico City, Oaxaca and Campeche had returned from Lake Atitlan with another fine couple of British overlanders, Sue and Ray. What a great surprise! The party was on.
We spent the whole last day together eating delicious breakfast at Mama Jojo’s, networking the streets, assisting the Catholic “preparations” for Eastern, taking pictures, drinking cocktails in sky bars and having a great Korean dish at the end of the day. A full vacation day spent in good company forgetting about absolutely everything. We had a blast!
The Guatemalans are very religions people, in particular Catholic. Every Sunday for four weeks before the Easter they have preparations for the “Procession” which is a street show portraying Catholic themes and the Passion, depicting the short final period in the life of Jesus. This is played by thousands of people and sprinkled with artful street flower arrangements, colorful garments and allegoric carts carried by the faithful crowd. It is unique and visually impressive generating a great attraction for locals and tourists.
The allegoric carts were decorated with scenes from the bible and carried by various people dressed up in purple uniforms. The Passion of Jesus was at the center of the parade. The fanfare was playing dramatic songs, people were following the cart, laying down beautiful designs of flowers and decorations. This was happening the whole day and one could admire streets full of flower arrangements made by various organizations and even families to honor and remind about the sacrifices Jesus Christ went through for the humanity.
It was interesting to see different interpretations and celebrations of the Easter holidays. Indeed, it has been taken to another level in Guatemala, illustrating the importance and the role of Catholicism in the faith of the people. However it was beautiful to see.
At the end of the day, after a whole day spent walking and exploring the town, we had a great treat at a Korean-Japanese restaurant. That meal came as a blessing. I had “miso soup” and fried rice with shrimps. Nothing very special, I just missed these simple Asian dishes, while JP had a Korean barbecue. The night ended with rum and cigars to JP’s joy. There couldn’t be any better way to celebrate the pregnancy. We had a blast with our traveling friends.
The next day each couple went on their own way. Lindsey and Doug departed very early towards Belize, Sue and Ray stayed in Antigua for couple of more days while for us it was time to move on to El Salvador.
We had a great time in Guatemala, and the news about the arrival of our new family member made Guatemala an unforgettable place to us. We enjoyed the company of good friends whilst exploring Antigua’s varied culture, its superb cuisine and dramatic volcanos. Tikal was a tremendous Maya experience in the middle of the jungle, and we allowed ourselves to dream about sailing in Rio Dulce. The time had come for us to advance with our road trip, continuing on our mission to put mileage on and cross El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The shipment of our truck from Panama to Cartagena, the only means of transportation to cross the Darien Gap, was already booked for the 8th of April. We had 3 weeks to arrive in Panama from Guatemala. What a challenge! Off we go on the road again!