Despite living in Belize for three years (and despite spending most of that time living less than 150 km from the Belize-Guatemala border), I’ve never been to Guatemala. Shameful, I know. I’ve not even popped across to Melchor for the shopping (regular readers may know, from a previous post, that Belize has such limited shopping options that the locals are forced to go abroad!). I’ve been to Mexico four times (which, ironically, is further away), but not once have I visited the only other country that borders Belize. Until now, that is – having seen just about everywhere in Belize (everywhere I want to visit, that is), it’s time to finally see The Land of Eternal Spring.
So here, for your delectation and edification, is my Guatemalan travel diary, in all its glory – the euphoric highs, the soul-crushing lows, and the soft creamy bits in the middle…
I arrive at the bus stop in Belize City in the morning to find that the bus is running late, due to flooding in western Belize (and that’s not some lame excuse from the bus company, it’s been raining almost every day for about a month – villages have been cut off by rising waters, communities near rivers and lagoons have had to evacuate, and roads and bridges are underwater; this is the worst flooding the country has seen in years).
The bus finally arrives, and after waiting for some connecting passengers from the cayes, we’re off. Getting from Belize to central or western Guatemala probably takes eight hours or more, but Belize City to Flores (the town in eastern Guatemala where I’m heading) takes just four hours. And there’s a Guatemalan bus that does the journey every day. And it goes direct, without the endless stops that plague my journeys by Belizean bus.
Two hours later, we cross the border – there’s the slightly annoying fact of having to pay BZ$37.50 to leave Belize, and there’re the slightly dodgy characters hanging around offering to change money at extortionate rates. And I have to pay to enter Guatemala as well! (although I’m sure that’s an unofficial ‘fee’, as the man charges only the tourists, and the money goes straight into his pocket with nary a receipt in sight). But apart from that, the whole process is painless; no one seems remotely interested in examining my luggage, and I wait for the bus driver to finish his lunch by practicing my Spanish with a local shopkeep – “Uno Coca-Cola por favor. Gracias.” I’m a natural at this language.
After another hour, along a mostly deserted and half-paved / half-mud road, we arrive in Santa Elena. I’m just wondering why we would stop in an ugly, noisy, dirty town that’s only five minutes away from our final destination, when several friendly, smiling men get in the bus and announce that they’re from various local travel agents. And so it begins, as the smooth-talking salesmen give the captive audience of tourists their sales pitches. When I saw a mention of the “Flores Coyotes” in my guidebook, I thought it was referring to the furry canines; now I realise it was the human tout species it was talking about.
But to be fair to the charming hustlers, when I lie and tell them I have a reservation at another hotel (one they haven’t mentioned, and therefore probably don’t receive a commission on), they don’t come out with a cock-and-bull story about the hotel being full or closed or burned down, they just take me there and drop me off – perhaps, as a single tourist, I’m small fry to them.
I’ve barely finished checking in (after ascertaining that the hotel does have a free room), when the concierge asks me if I’m going to the Maya ruins at Tikal tomorrow. Seeing as it’s probably the most famous tourist attraction in the country, and it’s close to Flores, the inquiry isn’t surprising; in fact, there are pictures of the ruins all over Flores – in restaurants, bars and travel agencies, on postcards, and behind the front desks of hotels like mine. Everyone and their dog can book you a Tikal tour, and the options range from sunrise tours to bird-watching tours to heli-tours to just plain old bus tickets.
I opt for the morning tour – the sunrise tour leaves at 3 AM (!), and gets you to the top of the highest temple just as dawn breaks; but you don’t usually see the sun actually rise, as normally it’s misty at dawn (and what with it being the rainy season at the moment, I’m certain that it’ll be too cloudy). The morning tour, on the other hand, leaves at 5 AM (which is still bloody early in my book – if it’s still dark that means it’s night not morning!); and you still get to the ruins as it’s getting light, and as the jungle is waking up.
I pay the man, take my ticket, and go to dinner. I’m in bed by 9.
My alarm wakes me at 4:30. It’s still dark outside, and my eyes are stuck together like a newborn kitten’s. Staggering around the room (I appear to have lost the ability to walk as well as see), I get ready and go downstairs to meet the minibus. We drive through the dark for an hour to the entrance to the national park that surrounds the ruins. The guide that’s included with the tour hops into the bus, introduces himself, takes our tickets, and announces that there’s a 150 Quetzals entrance fee that’s not included in the ticket price. Everyone seems quite unperturbed by this information and starts handing over money. Everyone except me, that is – I’m under the impression that I’ve paid for everything, as the vendor yesterday didn’t mention any extra charges.
After confidently explaining this to the guide, he equally-confidently tells me that the entrance price is never included and is always separate, no matter what anyone does (or in my case, doesn’t) say. I tell him I’ve got the sum total of Q20 on me, so I can’t pay. And he responds to that by sympathetically stating that if I don’t pay, I have to get out of the bus and stay here at the gate while everyone else goes in and has their tour. Oh. Needless to say, I’m fully awake now. There follows several minutes of conversation outside the bus, as I ask the bus driver if he could lend me the money and I’ll pay him back in Flores (at which point he suddenly loses his previously-perfect English and can now only smile and mutter something in Spanish). The guide, thinking I must be a normal person with friends, suggests that I borrow the money from someone in the bus. He clearly has no idea about me.
Finally, just as I’m resigning myself to my lonely fate, and imagining what hellish tortures I’m going to visit on the ticket seller back in Flores, a head pokes out of the bus window and a voice offers me to lend me the money :-). They both belong to a lovely Canadian man, who’s taken pity on me (or perhaps he’s just had enough of waiting for me – either way, he’s my new best friend).
Disaster averted, we drive into the park and commence the tour. It’s getting light now, and fast (being in the tropics, dawn lasts for about five minutes), and the various jungle inhabitants are wide awake – cute coatimundis are poking around near the restaurants (probably scavenging for food scraps); ocellated turkeys (whose iridescent plumage makes them look more like peacocks) are strutting in the grass; parrots are squawking their presence in the trees; and in the distance, there’s the unmistakable dinosaur-like roar of howler monkeys. Clearly, nature likes to get up much earlier than me. We pass under towering ceiba trees, the sacred tree of the Maya (whose cruciform shape made it easier for Catholic priests to convert the local ‘heathens’ to Christianity), and into the ruins.
Tikal isn’t the only Maya ruin in Guatemala (there are hundreds scattered throughout the jungle of Petén department, jungle which stretches all the way into neighbouring Belize and Mexico); but it’s the biggest and the most famous. After slowly walking through smaller ruins and complexes at the eastern edge of the site, we come to the Grand Plaza, framed by two huge temples (the Jaguar Temple and the Temple Of The Masks, normally abbreviated to Temple I and Temple II). We spend an hour wandering around the Grand Plaza (we can’t climb up Temple I, because nobody’s allowed up there; and we can’t climb Temple II either, because archaeologists are currently working on it). But that’s a small price to pay, as there’s still plenty to see, and the guide is full of information about the site and its history (although he does make one mistake – he states that Tikal was featured in the Star Wars film with the Ewoks [which would be Return of The Jedi]; and I have to correct him – it was featured in the original Star Wars, the first film to be released, but the fourth film in the hexalogy [that’s right, a set of six is called a hexalogy; and my knowledge of these things is possibly why I always end up travelling alone]). I don’t even mind being forced to get up early, as we’re the first tour group of the day, so we have the place to ourselves. And the early morning mists haven’t cleared yet, giving everything an ethereal quality.
Walking past unexcavated Temple III, our last stop on the tour is Temple IV, the tallest of Tikal’s monuments, at the western edge of the site. We are allowed to climb up this one, and the view from the top is astounding – endless jungle in every direction, with just the rooftops of the other temples poking through the forest canopy. And there’s just enough time before the bus leaves for me to have a quick look at the other main temples – the Lost World Pyramid (the oldest building, whose construction dates from 500 BC), Temple V (with another wonderful view from the top), and Temple VI (the Temple Of The Inscriptions, a huge building that was once so covered in thick jungle that it wasn’t discovered until the 1950s, over 100 years after the rest of the site was excavated).
Looking at my map on the way back to Flores, I realise that what you see on a tour is a fraction of the city (the scale of the place is overwhelming); and the only thing I’m disappointed by is the fact that there’s still so much I didn’t see. But the buildings are monumental and the jungle location is beautiful – whether you spend a morning or several days at Tikal, it’s definitely worth the trip.
Back in Flores, I visit the ATM and buy my Canadian saviour lunch. I also take a walk around the small, attractive town, with its cobbled streets and pastel-painted houses. And I visit the travel agency to give them my ‘customer feedback’ – the guy who sold me the ticket is there, and he insists that his boss normally gets on the bus and informs the tourists of the park entrance fee; and when the boss turns up, he insists that his staff should inform the tourists when they buy the tickets. After a flurry of apologies, they commence arguing with each other in Spanish, and I leave them to it.
After an early night, a long sleep, and a delicious breakfast (Flores is a typical tourist town, so there’s more pancakes and granola than you can shake a fork at), I take a ferry across Lake Petén Itzá to the village of San Miguel (Flores is an island connected to Santa Elena at the edge of the lake by a causeway). From San Miguel I walk uphill in an attempt to find a lookout point, from where I’m told it’s possible to get a view of Flores and the surrounding lake. But after going as far uphill as I can, I can’t see anything apart from trees, and there’s nobody about to ask. So I head back down to the lakeshore and walk east to visit ARCAS, a Guatemalan NGO that specialises in rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife from smugglers and the illegal pet trade. The education centre has various non-releasable animals from the nearby jungle, including macaws, toucans, monkeys, and kinkajous (small, furry creatures with ridiculously long tongues). My day finishes with a swim in the lake at a deserted beach.