Guatemala: Flores & Tikal
Our transportation of choice leaving San Ignacio was going to be a local bus at the “bus station” next to the mercado on the southern side of town. We needed to get to Benque, more or less a border town, and take a taxi from there to the immigration checkpoint. Prior to leaving town we attempted to convert the last stash of Mexican Pesos to Belizean dollars in order to ship our cigar stash back to the US without having to withdraw more money from an ATM. We were absolutely appalled to find out from the teller that all banks near this border would not convert Mexican Pesos (bad neighbor). They all told us that our best chance to unload the wad of now useless paper would be at the border through the modern day robbers known as change tellers. Knowing that everything would work out somehow we schlepped our belongings over to the bus station to wait for our ride. A man saw us sitting next to a comedor and gave us a decent offer on a private taxi right to immigration thus eliminating the need for a bus/taxi transfer upon arrival in Benque. Within minutes we were at the border and within seconds we were being told that this was the ABSOLUTE last place we could exchange our Mexican Pesos and Belizean dollars, at a horrible rate of course. We only changed a tiny amount of pesos for Guatemalan Quetzales regardless of the warnings and borderline mockery from the official tellers. All sorts of deceitful intimidation techniques used to try and change our minds were deployed unsuccessfully. We left it up to chance and paid our exit fee, parted ways with Belize, and walked into to the completely different and strange world of Guatemala. Walking right past the immigration checkpoint we were kindly guided back to the small awning where we were supposed receive our entry stamps. Moments later we were approached by an exchange teller with a rate that was 25% better than we were given on the Belizean side. Our refusal to succumb to intimidation paid off. I’m writing about this in hopes that at least one reader out there can avoid getting ripped off massively if they are in the same situation we found ourselves in. We’ve done this at every border crossing and have never regretted it. Spread the gospel.
With our gear in tow we crossed a small bridge over a river and took in our first Guatemalan experience. Two young boys were bathing in the river wearing their skivvies and smiles. We waved and said “Hola!” and they chimed back “Hola! Give me a dollar.” Following rudimentary instructions on how to find the bus station we stumbled upon a collectivo shuttle offering rides to Flores at a decent price. We agreed and they immediately began grabbing our bags to throw up onto the top of the van as if they were waiting for us to begin with. Almost All shuttles in Guatemala come equipped with a roof rack and a metal ladder fastened either up the side or the back. After being quickly seated in this mobile oven the driver and his slick ayudante (sidekick, aka “hype man”) took off down the street and immediately began picking up random passengers in town with his deep, throaty shouts of “FLORRRRESSSS, SANTA ELENNAAA”.
Off we were into the country side, picking up strays along the way ranging from farmers wielding machetes, Mayan women with buckets of fish, and children hitching lifts home from school. Guatemala instantly stole our hearts. En route, and always without warning, the roads would suddenly become filled with herds of cows clomping their hooves along the asphalt in unison. Trucks toting massive 200 pound pigs would putter along in the other direction, in and out of our lives too quickly. Horses grazing on the side of the road and casually crossing to the other side would bring traffic to a halt at their discretion. The slick hype man struck a deal with the Mayan woman to my right concerning her massive tub of fish, buying 6 fish for around 3 dollars, and later dropped them off to his grandma at some village along the way.
We arrived in the dusty, sweaty town of Santa Elena at the bus station to switch to a Tuk-Tuk taxi for the short jaunt over to Flores. This micro-village mushrooms up from the lake and packs a supremely small town attitude (in the best way possible) with 360 degree views of the gorgeous freshwater basin enveloping it. Red metal and Spanish tiled roofs cover colorful buildings all aiming to get that lakeside sunset view are found throughout the cobblestone hilly streets of this sleepy town. It was the low season here so the overall vibe was tranquilo. We checked into Los Amigos hostel because it was one of the cheapest sleeping options and offered the best tour prices our research could find. It was also a dangerous hostel for budget travelers due to its brilliantly engineered tab system of “buy now, pay later” run by business savvy ex-pats, of course. The goal seemed to be focused on catering towards the seemingly ubiquitous average party-going gringo trail travelers we’ve been bumping shoulders with along the way. The food here was temptingly delicious but ridiculously expensive, with the cost of 2 meals a day more than doubling the price a bed for the night would set you back. Genius, I tell you. Being privy to this system prior to arrival, we checked and immediately headed for the lake to cool off our overheated cores. Sunset prompted us to grab a meal on a sketchy rooftop terrace with views of the lake to which we caved in and agreed to. The food here was somewhat costly and pretty awful in general, but the vista was worth it.
Transportation to Tikal was booked for the following day without a guide. Since we were about 5 hours away from the coast we were quite surprised to find out that the sun begins to rise around 4:30 AM in Guatemala, which was also the first available tour departure option. We would come to find out that most everything in Guatemala begins very early and follows the schedule of the sun, just like their ancestors had been doing since the beginning of their existence. The enormous distances between destinations coupled with the overall condition of the roads would also set the pace for very early morning shuttle runs.
Our tour guide for the drive was a super friendly and full of very interesting information about the history of Guatemala and the Mayan culture of the past and present. He was full of passion and pride when speaking about his cultural upbringings and on the verge of being slightly over dramatic in his long pauses paired with sullen off-in-the-distant-past look in his eyes. His dialogue claimed that 70 percent of Guatemala’s population is of Mayan decent with 20 different Mayan languages spoken today. The mysterious fall of the Mayan empire prior to Spanish arrival is part of the allure of these almost perfectly preserved ruins, aside from the sheer beauty. A pit stop at a souvenir co-op had us sampling natural gum cut from a rubber tree that the Mayan’s have been chewing on for centuries while showcasing a replica of one of a king’s tomb found buried at the site.
After arriving at Tikal we followed the tour for a bit while our guide explained some background on these ruins. He lured out his 10 legged “friend” from a hole at the base of a giant Ceiba tree and had us pose with this massive tarantula on our heads, hands, and shoulders. This man gave Mel Gibson a 2 hour tour when he was doing research for Apocolypto (laughable considering a normal spin around the park will run you at least 3 hours) and seemed to be in love with Sylvester Stallone for his symbolic work in the Rocky series. I have been noticing that this has been a common theme in central America, and almost weekly we come across a TV beaming the Italian Stallion. Tikal itself breaks down to place of voices, and this is very apparent when you play with the acoustics of the triangulated structures. Priests used to stand on top while people below listened to their naturally amplified vocals created from the positioning of structures and the composition of the stone. Clap halfway between the buildings and you will be surprised to hear the noise that results.
An hour or so of following the tour we began desperately trying to find a moment to break away. This was partly because tours are too structured but mainly because we didn’t pay and knew he was trying to rope us in for the entire lecture and expect payment at the end. Soon a fork in the path presented itself and off we went. Wandering around the park we were in the thick of the Guatemalan jungle amidst spider monkeys, lizards, frogs, huge insects, and finally Tucans (we had been trying to spot these for weeks now)! We went straight for templo 4, one of the taller and better vantage points to see the jungle canopy and the tops of the other buildings. After climbing the cartoon-like steep wooden stairs built to preserve the ruins during the excavation process we fell into an instant meditation once our eyes were casting their gaze on the panoramic view from above. For a good 10 minutes it was just us and this amazingly surreal vista. Then about 50 Guatemalan children in some sort of school group came flooding in and we made our retreat. We ventured over to the central plaza and stood amongst the infamous temples. There we explored small structures housing perfectly preserved Mayan larger-than-life face sculptures before heading for the gate. Tikal was everything we imagined it to be and we needed to catch the bus or we would have to wait out another 4 hours in the intense heat. An oven-like midday bus brought us back into Flores fully cooked.
We booked our 9 hour trip for the following day to Semuc Champey and sought out cheaper eating options in town. We found a little row of stands up near the basketball courts that had ridiculously cheap, delicious food and 60 cent liquados (my addiction). We dined the way we liked it and ate for less than a 1/3rd of the price of our hostel. We walked into Santa Elena at night for cash, something we were warned against, and ate with locals at a small taco and sandwich stand right on the main street. Guatemala was welcoming us with open arms and we went right in for the hug.