I hate border crossings (in general, but particularly) in Latin America. For starters, there never seems to be clear information before hand on how much money (or which currency) you need- and, there are rarely ATMs present if you do come up short. Secondly, Border Officials tend to be sleazy, and from time to time new 'fees' are created...i.e. shakedown money. Thirdly, aside from the Border Officials, border towns are swarming with unsavory types all trying to get a piece; changing money, giving rides, selling crap; many of whom will outright lie to you to make a buck. ("No, there are no public buses, only taxis"- from the Taxi Driver.) On top of everything you have got all your stuff with you. In short, it's when you're at your most vulnerable and simultaneously when everyone is coming for you. But, it comes with the territory.
We worked out how much cash we were going to need to cross into Guatemala on a 'worst case scenario' according to the information we could find. We had more then enough. Still, by the time we crossed and were safely on the micro-bus in Guatemala headed for Flores, we were down to 2 Belizean Dollars (US$1). Way, way closer then we like to cut it.
Anyway, aside from a bit of nerves regarding our cash on hand situation all went OK. Rule #2 (after to bring extra money, just in case) is to cross as early in the day as possible, which we did. By 10am we were rolling towards Flores in a minivan and we were dropped at our hostel, Cafe Arqueologico Yax-Ha, by lunchtime.
Just as we arrived at our hostel the clouds ripped open and began pouring down buckets of rain. We have well and truly seen the start of the wet season. In the comforts of our very modest accommodation we waited out the rain and got ourselves cozy and situated in the hostel lobby, with a deck of cards, music, and a few books to pass the time.
Before long the rain had let up and the sun once again shone through the diminishing storm clouds. We packed up our things and went out in the now increasingly humid heat to investigate our best option for a tour the following morning to Tikal, which was the purpose of our stop in Flores.
Tikal has always been high on our list of must-dos. Like so many of the ruins you find in Central America it is ancient and spectacular beyond comprehension, but Tikal differs in it's sheer size and the fact that it is set in a dense and beautiful tropical rainforest.
After a stop at several local tourist agencies, we settled on a tour to pick us up at our hostel at 4:30am, including transport there and back (1hr each way) and guide fees for 100 quetzals/ person ($12.50), which was the best deal we saw anywhere.
We strolled the small island for the rest of the afternoon and ate an early dinner before heading up to bed to get as much sleep as possible before the brutal 4am wake up call.
The sky was still as dark as night when we sat on the stoop of our hostel awaiting the arrival of the van to bring us to Tikal. As are almost all the vans we've had the pleasure of taking, this one too, was filled to capacity. As you can imagine the ride up was almost completely silent with passengers sleeping or staring out the window watching the passing scenery in a zombie-like state as the sun slowly began to illuminate the Guatemalan countryside.
Our group was the very first to arrive at the park, 5 minutes before opening. We paid our additional 150 quetzals entrance fee each and made our way to the cafe at the entrance of the park.
We had two rather expensive, but very necessary cups of coffee and dined on our typical brought-from-home, budget breakfast of yogurt, granola, and fruit. After the 15 minute stop to caffinate, eat, and use the bathroom, our guide Luis began to huddle his group together for the start of the tour.
Luis explained in his very impressive Midwest American/Canadian that we were very lucky today. He very regularly hosts groups of 40 or more, and today we were an intimate group of 13. Also we were there before all the big city tour groups and we were going to have much of the popular ruins all to ourselves. What he didn't mention, but another reason we were lucky, and unbeknownst to us at that point, is that Luis is widely considered the hands-down best guide in the park. He grew up in Tikal and has been guiding it professionally for 25 years. He has all the energy of a brand new guide, yet all the wisdom of an old sage.
Luis guided us through the thick jungle pointing out such interesting things as an 150 year old Ceiba Tree, or "Tree of Life" to the Mayans, many medicinal uses for jungle herbs and seeds, local and sacred jungle birds, several species of monkeys, and of course countless stories and tidbits of the Mayan civilization that had thrived on this land from almost 3,000 years ago.
As we got closer to the main complexes we stopped a few times at spots where you could catch the first glimpses of the massive buildings jutting out of the forest. Luis led us into the Gran Plaza by way of a few older complexes.
Standing in the center of the Gran Plaza, Luis clapped his hands loudly and the echo rang back in the sound of a bird, the Quetzal to be precise, which was a sacred peacock-like bird to the Mayans and is the national bird of Guatemala (along with the name of their currency). The echo sounds also help support the Mayan translation for the city's name: "City of Sounds". He further explained that, in it's hay-day, all the many buildings of Tikal were painted in different vibrant colors so that when viewed from afar it looked like the iridescent colors of the Quetzal's feathers. It is beautiful now, it must have been mind-blowing back then.
You are able to climb onto several of the large Temples for photo opportunities as well as on top of many of the other structures which give you great panoramic views of the area. A few of the Temples are closed for climbing as they are either in a bad state of repair or are just too steep, tall and therefor dangerous to have every tourist climb. One Temple in particular, Temple 1, is closed since more then one tourist has taken a fatal tumble down the stairs. Judging from the steepness and sharpness of the lime-stone blocks, that could not have been pretty.
Eventually, Luis led us to Temple 4 which is the highest building at Tikal (64 meters) and is open to climbing. (There are steep wooden stairs with hand-rails on this one to prevent "tourist-tumble"). The view from the top is incredible; it's THE famous view of Tikal, looking East back towards the Gran Plaza where you can see the tops of Temples 1,2 and 5 towering clear of the rain forest canopy. Pretty epic!
Another interesting fact is that back at the height of the Mayan Empire all the trees had been cleared, so from the vantage point we now had, you could see literally thousands of structures in Tikal laying out in front of you as well as other Mayan cities (some friendly, some not) in the distance. Like I said, it must have been something to see.
The final stop on Luis' tour was at "Mundo Perdido" or "The Lost World" which is the oldest section of Tikal dating way back to 700BC. At this spot Luis explained the layout of some of the key Temples in Tikal including many of the ones I have referenced in relation to each other and the Pyramid in the "Mundo Perdido". Essentially, everything is in line with the Solstices and Equinoxes so that even now on those 4 mornings every year you can see the sun rise perfectly in line with everything. Yeah, they were some smart, smart people.
By the time we got back to the buses everyone was exhausted. On top of having been up early and walking all morning it was 12:30 now, meaning it was hot. We thanked Luis profusely (as he cleaned up on tips) and hopped back into the van for the ride back to Flores.
We were back in Flores by 2:00 pm. The timing couldn't have been any better. As we climbed the hostel steps to our room, the gathering storm clouds finally got their way and rain began falling on the streets of Flores. This couldn't have bothered us less as we took in a wonderfully lazy afternoon, venturing out only to dine at Las Puertas around the corner from our place. By 10:00 pm that evening, we were both fast asleep.
In the morning we headed out for a walk to some local caves we'd read about. We brought our headlamps and after paying a small fee, we were allowed free reign inside. It feels like we've been into a lot of caves recently but these were different, even if nowhere near as spectacular as the A.T.M. Caves in Belize. I can't believe they let you just wander around down there without a guide, it would be so easy to get turned around and lost. We actually found ourselves walking in circles for a few unsettling minutes before finding our way out. The guy at the gate told us, as we left, that if people are gone for more then an hour, he goes in to find them.
In the afternoon we had a nice long cafe session at Cool Beans, who makes a great iced coffee for the record. For dinner, Adrian had 3 tacos for 10 Quetzales from the street food stall and Gina had a decent falafel from one of the restaurants in town. During dinner we noticed flashes of lightning out over the lake. Not long after we finished eating we got caught in a crazy downpour which pinned us under an overhang for 30 minutes before we finally ran to another restaurant where we ordered a slice of Tiramasu, more to be allowed to sit out of the rain then for anything else. It was awful tasting.
Finally, it let up a bit and we made a mad dash back to our hostel, running, skipping, and jumping through rushing torrents and massive puddles that accumulated more and more water by the second. Alas, we arrived back at our hostel and soon after turned in for the night.
The morning brought slightly better conditions. The rain had stopped, but the grey clouds remained. We hit an early morning run, four laps around the island. We showered, packed, and grabbed one last delicious iced coffee from Cool Beans, before the shuttle van picked us up from our hostel promptly at 9:00.
We stopped several more times to pick up passengers, but after apprx. 20 minutes we were on our way across the bridge and out of Flores. We are heading to Cóban for the next couple nights, not for much in particular aside from the fact that it sits nearly half way between Flores and Antigua which is our next destination.