Stumbling across beauty & terror in the jungles of Guatemala

In the late 80’s, while in university, my girlfriend and I took a backpacker trip to Central America. This was not a well-planned trip. We took an old copy of The People’s Guide to Mexico, a hammock, and a day pack to hold a few spare changes of clothes. Our plan was to travel clockwise from Mexico City, the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, and then back North.

We traveled on the cheap. Flying into Mexico City on a rainy Christmas Eve we caught an overnight bus down to the Yucatan peninsula on Christmas Day. I still remember the bus rocking back and forth violently trying to sleep as we careened down the mountains towards the coast. There was a plastic Jesus on the dashboard blinking from a series of LEDs along his arms and legs. I awoke early in the morning when the driver slammed on the brakes to roll slowly past the scene of a fatal car accident. A bus and a car had collided head on and there were bodies being dragged out on the shoulder – the fog was heavy, the vision was dreamlike.

Later, we hit the coast and got off somewhere to put our feet into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. After so much rain, Northern California rain, Los Angeles rain, Mexico City rain, it was good to finally get some sun. We hit the tropics and shed raincoats and jeans for t-shirts, shorts, and huaraches.We bopped down the Eastern edge of the peninsula and then crossed over into Belize. We wanted to avoid the tourist traps so we stayed away from the beaches and headed inland towards the border with Guatemala.

Once in Guatemala, we traveled by colorfully painted secondhand school buses. These “chicken buses” (called such because they usually carried local farmers along with their livestock) were by far the cheapest (and most fun) way to get around. The buses traveled through the smaller towns, so there were more buses and routes removing the need to stick to any schedule or plan.

Bus in Guatemala

The roads were mostly dirt and I would spend many hours looking out the window at the passing landscape. Sometimes I could see the shadow of the kids riding up on top, some would be standing, arms outstretched, as if surfing. Occasionally the conductor would lean out the door and shout to those on the roof to watch their head, everyone would duck as we drove slowly under a tree branch.

Tikal was a must see. This ancient Mayan ruin is truly not to be missed. The photo in the header is from a day spent wandering the ruins with a guide who snuck off to spend a day with us, clambering up and down the pyramids, showing us secret passages, and memorably getting high and playing chess with us while we sat on top of on our very own 2,000 year old Mayan pyramid. It was only late in the day that we discovered that our friend was actually playing hooky. A shout from someone who clearly was his supervisor put a quick end to our fun and we were back on our own.

Following Tikal, we headed West a bit and got into a conversation with some British travelers who told us we absolutely had to visit Finka de Mike (Mike’s Ranch) near the town of Poptun. The bus we were on would take us there and arrive in the evening.

Arriving at Poptun, it was too late to ask the only business, a small restaurant, for directions to the ranch. It was closed. One of the farmers that got off the bus with us was kind enough to show us the way. Our limited Spanish figured out that he would take us to the ranch and that we only needed to follow him. We began to walk down a narrow path into the woods.

It was pitch black. There wasn’t any moon and it was overcast so the stars weren’t much of a help either. Our guide was walking at a brisk pace and we were getting deeper and deeper into the woods. Both Kathi and I started to hang back a bit and began to look for signs of an ambush or other foul play up ahead. I fingered a pocket knife in my pocket.

We must have walked a good couple of miles and I think it was close to 9pm. Just as we were beginning to get really concerned, the farmer turned to us and gestured to a set of lights on the other side of a field. “A que” he says pointing, “Finca de Mike” and before I could dig something out of my pack to thank him, he was gone. Back the way we came. He just walked four miles out of his way.

Kathi and I walked across the field and into what seemed like the main house. Candlelight lit the room dimly. After traveling native for a couple of weeks, surrounded by Spanish, it seemed strange to creek open a door and hear English conversation. We asked if there was someone to check in with and were told by the other guests that the Ranch was run on an honor system. There was a spiral bound notebook on the kitchen counter and guests would just write in what to took from the pantry or refrigerator and the total number of nights they stayed. This would all get totaled up by the owner upon departure.

It was very comfortable there. When we met Mike and Carol, the owners, we learned Finca de Mike covered 400 acres and we learned their story. Back in California they had the dream of owning a ranch but were unable to afford one. They sold everything they had and traveled south until they came to Guatemala in the late 60’s and bought the land for almost nothing.

Since then, they had turned the ranch into a self-sustaining farm. All the vegetables and meat were raised on site and all the guests worked together to cook the evening meal. Mike said that friends would often come down to visit and bring their friends. Before long, Finca de Mike became a regular stop for not only for friends of friends but soon, as word got around, new guests too. Mike devised the spiral notebook system as a way to defray some of their costs.

Two macaws flew freely around the ranch, heading off each morning and returning right around sunset, in time to hang out with everyone as we drank beer on the porch of the ranch’s beautiful, handmade pine wood house. The ranch was surrounded by curiously shaped hills until it dawned on me during that sunset that these were not hills at all but Mayan pyramids that had yet to be uncovered, overgrown with jungle to look like hills. We were staying on the grounds of an ancient Mayan city.

On the third or forth day I grew restless. People had spoken about a cave several hours walk to the East. As I asked around for others that might join me, someone suggested the “Cave Trip” advertised in the kitchen. I signed up Kathi and I on a simple sign-up sheet taped to the refridgerator. It said to show up by the main house at 6am to get ready.

The next morning I walked up to see a convoy of pack horses getting saddled up with gear. I asked why so much gear was necessary and was told we were going to visit a new cave, one that had never been explored. But this one was two days ride away. Even better!

The only New Mexican I know

There were six or eight of us on the trip, including Mike and a guide to cut thru the jungle with a machete. We were traveling along a trail cut by the rubber farmers and we often passed trees with the telltale cross-hatching on them.

The first evening we spent in a shack for farmers that would hike to remote fields in the mountains and stay for several days as they farmed their crops. There was some dried corn available which our guide used to make fresh tortillas from scratch with nothing more than the top of an oil drum as a pan. In the cold, morning mist, I still remember these corn tortillas as the best I have ever tasted.

We explored several caves including one, its floor covered with pottery shards, that was later featured in National Geographic (which I now learn was Naj Tunich, a potential UNESCO World Heritage site). We arrived even before the explorers. I remember learning from Mike how to co-exist with the jungle. It was not the dark, scary place my urban mind was telling me it was. The Guatemalan people were amazing. The kind man who walked four miles out of his way to show us to the ranch, the guide at Tikal who played chess with us. Everyone we met had an inner light of goodness.

Guatemala was amazing and Finca de Mike was a highlight. Here was someone who was carving out life on his own terms and being the change he wanted to see.

Contrast this with the shock I felt when I read two years later in a Berkeley cafe that Mike DeVine, the owner of the ranch, was found brutally murdered – his head nearly severed clean. Suspicions about the motive were many including the story that he stumbled across a unit of the Guatemalan Army loading drugs for a shipment up North and the CIA-backed goons that were in on it murdered Mike to protect their business.

The ripples continued. Military aid by the US to Guatemala was cut off as a result of Mike’s murder and only recently, more than 20 years later, have relations improved. The motive of the murder is still shrouded but clues are starting to crop up, including a cryptic declassified government document.

Finca de Mike is still there. Known as Finca Ixobel, you can visit today and Carol Ann DeVine will be there to greet you where the memory of Mike lives on. I have never been back but would love to hear how things are today and if the region has recovered from this terrible tragedy.