Tuesday, 5th August
We got next to no sleep last night due to the combination of a screeching cat, noisy neighbours, church bells for to a 6:30am mass right opposite our window, a mis-informed cockerel crowing at 3am and a roadside mechanic at around 5am. So, more than a little tired we eventually gave up on sleep at around 6am and after a quick shower we grabbed our bags and made our exit from the ‘Acropolis Guest House’. It did the job for a one night stop, just. It certainly won’t feature on our favourite places to stay list. We headed to ‘Pop’s’ for breakfast, a place close by that does all kinds of breakfast variations and in true Belizean form offers up fry-jacks, those tasty deep-fried triangles of dough. So, with an unhealthy breakfast under our belts we loaded ourselves with our packs and walked down to where the cabbies hang out to barter our way to the Belizean-Guatemalan border. As it turns out no bartering was needed and we secured a cab for a good price of US$10 to get us right to the border. We could’ve caught a bus and then another taxi or walked but the taxi seemed like the easier option, especially on little sleep.
It was the easiest border crossing yet. After paying our Belizean exit fee of BZ$37.50 each (for the protection of their natural wonders, apparently) we walked through the border and only just noticed the desk for the Guatemalan immigration, off to one side. We could have easily just walked into the country but then trying to leave without an entry stamp could prove difficult. They stamped us for 90 days each after we paid the US$5 entry fee. We had changed our leftover Belizean dollars into Guatemalan Quetzales through a tout on the Belize side of the border so had some money for a cab to where the shared mini-buses (‘collectivos’) leave for Flores (shortened from Isla de Flores), our first stop in Guatemala. The fare was only QZ30 each (about AUD$4.50) for the one and a half hour journey although the bus was rammed. Over 20 people easily and as many sitting as standing, we got on first though so we had seats luckily. We were also wary that our luggage didn’t fall from the roof-rack but when the roads got bumpy the conductor man took a peak out the window to make sure nothing was left behind. The roads here so far seem to be about two-thirds made up and a third a mixture of gravel and rubble. Makes for a bouncy ride.
We got to Santa Elena around midday, the town from where we would cross the bridge to it’s sister town, Isla de Flores. There was a small catch in our arrival though. Upon driving into Santa Elena we noticed that we were passing a lot of stopped cars and trucks. As we got closer it turned out there was a protest blocking the road which meant we all had to get out and walk a couple of miles before we could flag down a tuk tuk to take us the short distance on to Flores. The protest seemed to have something to do with tourism, not sure what and not sure if they thought it was a good thing or not. Anyway, we were the only tourists there, walking on through with our backpacks but everyone was very friendly and showed us through. I guess they wanted to keep tourism.
Situated on an island on Lake Petén Itzá, Flores is a small town with a colonial feel. It feels like Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico with cobbled streets and pastel coloured buildings but much much smaller and kind of cramped. Being an island, it is of course surround by water, the lake, which you can take boat tours on and if you’re brave enough go for a swim. There are also hotels and restaurants offering views of the lake all around as the island is so small.
Once there we did our thing of one of us staying with our luggage whilst the other did the rounds of the hotels and hostels. The island is tiny so this didn’t take long and we found the ‘Hotel Villa Margherita’ for QZ200 a night which gave us spanish cable TV (useful), a private bathroom and most importantly air-conditioning. We were happy with that, it was almost within our budget of US$20 a night. We then set about getting some more laundry done and sorting out a tour for the next day (Tikal, a Maya temple ruin complex) and onward travel southbound (Semuc Champey). This was whilst an almighty rainstorm took hold of the island. It lasted about 20 minutes but the volume of rain that was dumped was astonishing. I guess we are in the tropics here though. We found a great place for a cheap dinner with views of the lake that surrounds Flores and had some Guatemalan food – tostadas topped with guacamole and pupasas (stuffed fried corn dough). We then headed back to our hotel bearing in mind we had booked ourselves on a tour which picked us up at 4:30am the next day.
Wednesday, 6th August
We woke at 4am to catch our ride to Tikal, about 50km from Flores. Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilisation. Tikal was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Architecture at the site dates back as far as the 4th century BC, with Tikal reaching its peak during 200 to 900 AD. During this time, the city dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily, while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica. From around 900AD, no new major monuments were built at Tikal and there is evidence that elite palaces were burned. These events were coupled with a gradual population decline, culminating with the site’s abandonment by the end of the 10th century. Tikal is the best understood of any of the large lowland Maya cities, at one point there were up to 100,000 people living there. That was a brief background on Tikal.
We arrived at the park gates before they opened at 6am but didn’t wait long before we were shown in and had the obligatory stop at a restaurant to buy some food and drinks. We had brought our own however so weren’t at the mercy of the bus drivers friends this time. Our guide then took us on a 3-4 hour walk around the site of Tikal. He was certainly informed about the whole thing and it was great to have someone talking you through things that otherwise you would just stare at blankly. The temples here are taller than we have seen before and set in dense jungle which gives the place a great atmosphere. We finished up the tour around 10:30am and had a couple of hours to ourselves to do some more wandering and exploring if we wished. We just walked up Temple IV for a view of the other temples peaking out above the tree canopy before heading back to the area where the buses head back to Flores from. Tikal is a very impressive collection of temples and has nice tracks to walk through in-between buildings. Most of the buildings standing have been reconstructed from original found stone with the rains and jungle destroying and consuming the original structures, being constructed from soft local limestone quarried on site. Some temples are still beneath mounds of earth and trees.
Getting here early was a plus and great for wildlife spotting. We saw huge caterpillars, a crocodile, a coati, toucans, a tarantula and spider monkeys. We heard but didn’t see the howler monkeys, they are ridiculously loud, and saw a feeding hummingbird as we waited for our ride back to Flores. I would have a photo but they are impossible to shoot as they flit around here and there, staying still for maybe two seconds at a time whilst feeding on nectar. It was a great way to spend the morning and so glad we got up and did it early. Not only did we see some great wildlife but more importantly we missed the heat of the day. By midday the heat was rising, with a forecast top of around 35 degrees and high humidity.
The van got us back to Flores around 2pm after which we collected some supplies for the next two days (we are on our way inland to a remote part of Guatemala, Semuc Champey) and then settled in to enjoy the air-conditioning of our hotel. We made it out of the air-conditioned comfort to have some dinner and buy a couple of postcards for the folks back home. They actually have post boxes here unlike Mexico and Belize where you have to post at the post office by and large. For dinner we found a place with a view over the lake, but at night to be honest you don’t see much. We shared some tacos, tortillas and I sampled the Guatemalan national beer – Gallo (means cockerel or roosters in spanish). We then turned in for a much needed sleep after our day of travel followed by a 4am start. Tomorrow would only be an 8am pick-up, a sleep-in by comparison.