Workaway at Finca Ixobel: how we became carpenters in Guatemala

We dab through the mud under a starry night when our tree house comes into sight. Soon, we can fall down onto our bed. And soon, we will enjoy the relaxing evening cabin life. Soon, yes, but not quite yet. Because all of a sudden, Anete says: “Damn, we forgot to fill our water bottles.”

Thus, we have to postpone our repose for half an hour and hike back to the main building in search of the necessary hydration. It is our reality at Finco Ixobel, as ours is the furthest tree house of the lot. Mundo Perdido, quite literally the lost world.

Another time, we forget candles and we face the same destiny. We have no choice than to walk back. Mundo Perdido isn’t only remote, like all the other tree houses at Finca Ixobel it’s also off the grid. We plant candles in each of the corners of our cabin. That will be our light for the night. The solitude and the candles, the sound of nature, the buzzing jungle and the lamps flaming up every time the fire finds some extra oxygen, it is all terribly romantic.

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Regularly, we return from the city of Poptún with a small supply of cold beers. We sit at the creaking table on our creaking terrace balcony and read until the candle reaches its bottom. Or we drink big glasses of wine in our cabin whilst the midnight rain clatters on the roof and the monsoon wind gushes and we wonder if we will be blown away, together with the feeble construction in which we’ve put all our faith, but nothing like that ever happens and we are happy as pigs in muck.

Going nowhere slowly

How did we land ourselves this picture perfect? Once more, Workaway. After more than a month on an organic farm in Belize and a brief stint as boat sitters near Lake Izabal, we now volunteer at a traveller’s hangout in Poptún in the south of El Petén, Guatemala’s northernmost and supposedly wildest department.

Finca Ixobel has been an icon in Guatemala’s backpacking scene for a very long time. In the 70s, when most of El Petén was still impenetrable jungle, travellers took a break in the Finca during their bone-breaking chicken bus journeys to Tikal, El Petén’s most famous Maya site. El Petén isn’t as wild as it once was. Deforestation has unfortunately run rampant here. But Finca Ixobel still features on many itineraries.

We will go up north, too, to Flores, El Remate and Tikal, but not yet – slow travel being our modus operandi on this trip. We first want to enjoy the environs of Poptún for a while. To use the words of Frank Turner, everybody’s favourite punk rock troubadour: “But if you’re all about the destination, then take a fuckin’ flight. We’re going nowhere slowly, but we’re seeing all the sights.”

Snake on the doorstep

By the way, when I wrote that El Petén isn’t as wild as before, I didn’t mean to undersell the place. Poptún is no Cancún, Finca Ixobel no tame resort. On our first early morning, just after the earliest bird has sung its first song, we wake up to find a small snake in front of the door on the balcony. In the evening, the snake has returned to its favourite resting spot. After that, we never see our cold-blooded friend again. I guess he realised that this cabin wasn’t big enough for the three of us.

The snake isn’t the only wilderness around. A big fat spider builds a web in the tree right next to our cabin. Live and let live, better a good neighbour than a distant friend and all that blah blah. Each night, on the way to our cabin, we have to be careful not to step on tarantulas in the darkness

Other animals choose Finca Ixobel as their home too. High in the trees, we often spot computer game birds, as Anete calls the Montezuma Oropendola. No, she isn’t tripping. She just heard the bird’s song on the way back from the showers, according to Wikipedia “consisting of a conversational bubbling follow by loud gurgles, tic-tic-glik-glak-GLUUuuuuu.” Birders are off the hook.

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Meditative or infuriating?

Finca Ixobel is a volunteering machine. Every year, multiple dozens of travellers roll up their sleeves in exchange for room and board. We might not be blessed with the necessary skills to groom the Finca’s horses or to build furniture, it doesn’t stop us from helping out. Most of the wooden chairs in the restaurant are old and worn-out. We move them one or two at the time to the workshop for a face-lift.

The workshop is a half-open building behind the restaurant and next to the horse pasture. It is a place so untidy that a cat wouldn’t find its own kittens in the mess. Sawdust covers the floor and you can never put a tool away and hope that it would still be in the same spot the next day. But it also turns into the place where we spend the most time, in the jolly company of a bunch of friendly local workers.

Using a knife, we scrape off the old varnish from the chairs. It’s a precious little job, one that requires the patience of a clock repairman. But it’s also deeply satisfying when a whole strip of varnish comes off with one good old scratch of the knife. Anete enjoys it profoundly, its meditative character and its almost cleansing quality. It’s like a clearing of the mind for her, a way to release worries and get mentally ready for a writing session in the afternoon.

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I, however, don’t have the patience of a clock repairman. On particularly bad days, I don’t even have the patience for microwave popcorn. Hell, I’ll chew those kernels raw instead. No wonder that at times in the workshop, my brains almost explode with restlessness. I’m so vexed that I scrape off more than just the varnish, making deep husky carves into the wood. Diablo, the most boisterous horse in the stable, must notice my exasperation. He regularly tramples through the workshop towards the grass on the other side.

Luckily for my nerves, there’s additional work to be done with the chairs. I swap my knife for a piece of sanding paper. Sanding is no less repetitive than scraping, but at least I can do it frantically, with all the raging fury of an angry young man, releasing some of that slowly build up the pressure. Afterwards, I give the sanded chairs two or three layers of new varnish and they’re ready to be transferred back into the restaurant. I’ve never listened to so many podcasts in my life.

Dreams of cinnamon rolls

Whooping laughter sounds from the kitchen. Poptún locals love the Finca’s restaurant, its generous servings and its huge cups of limonada and naranjada. After work, we pop into the kitchen. Volunteers prepare their own food, but we are free to delve into the huge food storage. We eat ourselves round on fries, improvised veggie burgers and gigantic, finger-licking cinnamon rolls. One and a half month after leaving Finca Ixobel, Anete still sometimes wakes up in cold sweat, hooting and panting about ‘cinnamon rolls’.

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But we don’t only scrape, sandpaper and eat in Poptún. We also swim in the on-site laguna, amidst water insects and dragonflies. We hike up a hill on the property and have a picnic on top of Cerro Witz, with stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Multiple times a week, we hitch tuk-tuk rides through the villages and cross the airstrip into town. We make trips – to a local swimming hole (which we share with a couple of geese and dogs), to Flores, to caves and ruins.

Near Dolores, we bump for eight kilometres over dirt roads in a tuk-tuk to find Ixkun. This is the capital of one of the four largest Maya kingdoms in the upper Mopan valley. Like many other old sites around, most of Ixkun is not excavated. But the ruins come to life in front of our eyes as we squirm through thick jungle, clamber up a mountain to the cave, hear the howler monkeys roar and stare a fox into the eyes.

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The dog was right

Volunteers can join Finca Ixobel’s tours. Unfortunately for us, the low season does not bring in many tourists. Manager Petra notices our frustration and makes a suggestion: “Why don’t you take Lady to the cave? She knows the way and she loves the cave.” Lady is a smelly dog that lives on the farm. She and her two acolytes love nothing better than to run out barking every time something is up. Well, not really. They run out every time one of them thinks something is up. Which usually turns out to be a misjudgement and the three off them are barking their heads off into thin air.

In spite of her body odour and her unfortunate lack of intuition in guarding the property, we put our trust in Lady. We follow her wagging tail over muddy trails into a lush green valley. Until we stumble upon a fork in the road. Which way, Lady? The dog just sits there and stares at us with gullible eyes. We turn right. Instead of running ahead, Lady now lags behind. Ah, she’s just tired. We push on, up a rocky hill. But soon we realise our mistake and we have to admit that Lady indeed knows the way. She’s just not so communicative about it. We skip down the hill, towards the fork. Lady spurts ahead of us again. Soon, we’re entering a fairy-tale cave full of funny subterranean structures, huge underground altars and hidden shrines.

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The end of the world

Finca Ixobel is a place to get stuck. A Mexican Workawayer has been here for six months, he seems to be part of the regular staff. A volunteer from Chile dreads the day she has to leave. “Only nine more days”, she sighs and she stares gloomy-eyed into the distance, as if she’s not counting down to her departure but to the end of the world. One day, we are checking out the frame full of party pictures that hangs in the restaurant when we notice something weird. Hey, that blonde looks just like a younger version of Petra, the German manager. Yes, Petra arrived nine years ago as a volunteer and never really left.

That’s right, nobody wants to leave. God knows if we would have if it weren’t for practicalities. We go days without electricity, hot water and internet – a blackout that dwarfs the one in Livingston – but it’s all a-okay. During this trip, we’ve never had such productive writing sessions as the ones in the evenings at Finca Ixobel. If we wouldn’t have to go on a visa run to Belize, for all we know we might still be in Poptún. We can, however, never look at a chair again without getting itchy fingers.

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