¡Hola Guatemala! – Back to Petén

Less than four months after visiting The Land of Eternal Spring for the first time, I’m back for another bite of the Guatemalan cherry. I’ve decided to revisit the eastern Petén department, as not only is it the closest one to where I live in central Belize, but it’s covered in jungle and full of Maya ruins (only one of which – Tikal, the most famous – have I explored).

I can go on the trip as it’s a three-day weekend, Monday 10th March being a public holiday called National Heroes and Benefactors Day. It’s designed to remember all the people who’ve contributed to building Belize, and was previously called Baron Bliss Day, in celebration of Henry Bliss, a wealthy English businessman and sailor. Bliss visited Belize in 1926 on his yacht to recuperate from an illness he’d picked in the Caribbean, and he ended up spending the rest of his life here (which unfortunately for him turned out to be less than a year). He spent his time sailing, fishing, and enjoying the beautiful coastline and Belizean hospitality, before popping his clogs on March 9th, 1927. So impressed had the Baron been with the country and its people, that he left BZ$2 million of his will to the country, in what’s now known as the Bliss Trust. Over the years, this trust has benefited hospitals, libraries, and museums, and Bliss’s name is on the country’s school of nursing and its main arts and cultural centre. And all from a man who never once set foot in Belize (although he’s finally made it here now – he’s buried next to the lighthouse in Belize City).

Day 1

Unlike last time (when I stayed in Petén’s main tourist town of Flores), I’ve booked myself a room in the small village of El Remate, which is closer to the Belize-Guatemala border, and a more mellow alternative to Flores (not that Flores is exactly New York). And also unlike last time (when I travelled on a tourist bus all the way from Belize City), I’ve decided to do the journey on public transport (the door-to-door bus, while convenient, did cost BZ$100, and I reckon I can do the whole trip myself for no more than BZ$50). Plus, I got up late and missed the tourist bus. But my love of sleep and general laziness has nothing to do with it ;-).

Being the first day of a holiday weekend, I’m not alone on the bus – it’s packed to gunwales, so I have to stand for the first hour. And the bus stops constantly to pick up and drop off passengers along the Western Highway. Plus, there’s an unexpected hiatus outside San Ignacio, when the bus temporarily breaks down. So it’s late afternoon when we arrive at our final destination of Benque. Despite being the last town in western Belize, Benque’s town centre is a few kilometres from the actual border, and the buses stop in the town and don’t go all the way to the border (I don’t know why – maybe there’re never enough passengers to justify going the extra few miles? Or maybe the Benque Taxi Drivers’ Association is excellent at lobbying?). So I have to take a taxi for the last part.

Having finally left Belize and entered Guatemala (this time, I don’t have to pay a fee to enter the country – maybe it’s to do with the number of days I’m spending here, or maybe this official likes my face), I walk over the Mopan River and into the centre of Melchor town, and quickly find the spot where the shared minivans called Collectivos congregate (as soon as I turn the first corner, the drivers see the white tourist and start waving frantically). And after some interminable driving around town, collecting enough passengers to fill several buses, we head down the bumpy road towards Santa Elena and Flores.

After an hour of more dropping-off and picking-up, I’m let off at a crossroads, where the driver points down a deserted road, says simply “El Remate”, and roars off in the opposite direction. After walking for a kilometre or so, I come to the village – strung out for another kilometre along the eastern shore of Lago de Petén Itzá. It’s so small and quiet it actually does make Flores look like a big city, and despite being the high season here, there are very few other tourists about. But the village has a range of hotels and restaurants, and like most things in Guatemala, they’re cheaper than in Belize :-).

Day 2

Having seen Tikal, I book a tour to another Maya ruin – Uaxactún (pronounced wah-shak-tun). It’s 25km north of Tikal, along a dirt road that goes even deeper into the jungle. Passing through Tikal National Park, we drive for another hour under a continuous canopy of rainforest into the Reserva de la Biosfera Maya, a huge swathe of jungle that’s part of the second-largest forested area in the Americas, after the Amazon. At 22,000 square kilometres, it’s almost as big as Belize. And as the heartland of the Maya civilisation, it has the highest concentration of Maya ruins (although many of them are undiscovered or unexcavated).

The Biosphere model (created by UNESCO) is based on the idea that nature conservation and human development can be compatible (or maybe the idea that they’re going to have to become compatible, if nature’s ever going to cope with the massive human demands on it). Unlike national parks and archaeological reserves, which are set aside from human use, biospheres have different areas for different uses. So limited tourism is allowed, and in the various villages dotted around the reserve, the locals harvest cash crops like chicle (the natural gum of the sapodilla tree, used in chewing gum), allspice (the dried berries of the pimenta tree), and xate (leaves from a local palm tree, used in flower arrangements).

At least that’s the theory. In reality, there’re all kind of dodgy activities going on, from illicit logging and oil drilling to drug running and people smuggling. Land-hungry migrants cut down (or burn down) parts of the forest to plant and farm their milpas (fields of corn and beans). And as crops of xate have dwindled, Guatemalan xateros have crossed into Belize to poach it.

Uaxactún village consists of ramshackle wooden houses that spread out either side of a disused airstrip, a remnant of a time (not so long ago) when planes were the only way to reach this inaccessible spot. The old airstrip seems to be cow pasture and football field now, and most of the locals are conspicuously absent, with just a few small boys wanting to guide us around, and two girls selling some rather creepy-looking dolls made from dried leaves. I don’t need a guide and I don’t want a doll, but I give them some money anyway (I even try to shout some words of advice and encouragement about saving the money for high school, as they disappear into the jungle).

The ruins are considerably smaller than Tikal’s, and unlike the larger and more important sites, Uaxactún wasn’t really a major player – it never recovered from being soundly beaten by its bigger southern neighbour in 378 AD (led by the wonderfully-named King Smoking Frog), thanks to Tikal’s high-tech weaponry (slings and rocks!). But there are some interesting buildings, including an observatory, where the Sun lines up on the solstices and equinoxes (the Maya were very keen on measuring time, and their astronomical observations and calculations were uncannily accurate). We (the one other tourist and me) are the only ones here, and the whole place feels isolated and peaceful. And of course, there’s the surrounding jungle, and all its trilling, chirping inhabitants.

Day 3

On my last day I take another jungle hike, this time into the Biotopo Cerro Cahuí, a forest reserve near El Remate. As it’s the middle of the day, most of the animals (at least, the ones with any sense) are asleep in the shade. On the map it looks like only a few kilometres to the two miradors (lookout points), but it takes me over an hour – walking uphill in the tropics is like trekking through treacle, and by the time I get to the highest point I’m awash with sweat and panting like a teenage dog.

Hiking past the mahogany and cedar trees, I finally make it. And luckily, the views are worth it – Lago de Petén Itzá spreads out below, El Remate is just a cluster of dots in the distance, and there’s nothing but jungle in every direction.

Admission to the reserve includes access to the dock opposite the entrance, which is perfect, as I’m still covered in sweat after the walk down. The lake is clean and cool, and I try not to think about whether there are any crocodiles in it.

From El Remate, I get a lift back to the crossroads from a local guy in his auto rickshaw taxi (I insist on calling him Señor Tuk-Tuk for the whole journey, even though his name’s Jorge, or Manuel, or something Spanish). He drops me off, and I wait by the side of the road for over an hour, as collectivo after collectivo drives past me (there don’t seem to be any buses, and every minivan is filled to bursting).

Finally one stops for me, and I throw my bag on the roof and squeeze myself in. There are 14 seats, and I count 22 passengers, including me, half-sitting and half-crouching between a sleeping old man and small child eating some fruit whose sticky fingers are waving dangerously close to my face. There are so many occupants that the conductor can’t close the door (he can’t even get in, he’s hanging on outside like a stuntman). But it does mean that there’s a lovely cooling breeze for the journey.

Despite the lack of comfort and room (and the inability to breathe or turn my head), I always find these kinds of journeys interesting – from being hit in the face by low-hanging electricity wires while travelling on the roof of a bus in India, to sharing a seat with a Buddhist monk and a pig in Thailand, to the chicken buses and packed minivans of Central America, local transport is always an experience. And if you want to meet the locals on your trip, what better way than to have several of them on your lap?!


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