And so we crossed the border into Guatemala, shuttled from one official to another for a series of payments, stamps, passport checks and tourist demographic surveys. Finally we made it through to the other side and were immediately mobbed by taxi drivers, all vying with each other to offer a ride to our destination of Flores. A French-Canadian couple in the immigration queue behind us had suggested we share a taxi to split the cost, so between us we kept bartering the cost down until eventually there was only one driver left. That should have been our first warning, really. We bundled our bags into the back of his rather shoddy-looking car of some unidentifiable make and jumped inside where our worst fears were realised. If this car ever had seatbelts they were long gone by now, along with all the dashboard instruments (the odometer had stopped around the 400k km mark). The suspension and steering were so bad that the car constantly drifted left or right, prompting constant adjustments from the driver. This all probably would have been OK if the driver had taken it slowly but he seemed hell-bent on breaking some kind of land-speed record on this particular journey. It didn't help that (just as in Belize) the roads are not in great shape so the modus operandi is to stay in the centre of the road, following the white line and then only move back into your lane to avoid oncoming traffic. So it went, the four of us clinging on for dear life as we played a crazy game of chicken over the 90-odd kilometres to Flores. Our driver seemed unfazed, even when we had to do an emergency braking manoeuvre (with a tortured squeal of brakes and suspension, leaving long black skid-marks in the tarmac) to avoid a couple of horses which had ambled into the freeway. It was only when he was stopped by the police (toting some serious firepower and bandoliers of spare ammunition) and had to show his documents that he seemed a little worried. After a long conversation with them we were free to go on our way, even getting a friendly wave from one of the meanest looking policemen I've ever seen. Needless to say we were very glad, thankful and a little amazed to make it to Flores safely. Lesson learnt, always ask to see the vehicle before accepting a lift anywhere! I won't be caught out like that again.
Once the nerves had settled we found our hotel, dumped the bags and headed out to explore the area. Flores itself is a tiny, pretty island in the middle of a vast lake, Petén Itzá. We walked a few of the colourful streets which are filled with tuk-tuks plying their trade and ended up on the hill in the centre, overlooking the town. There we found a tiny local cafe selling a tasty local brew for the equivalent of 40p a bottle, so we sat in the sunshine in the square, gazing at the lake, drinking beer, chatting to fellow travellers and planning the next few days.
We decided that we'd get up early the next day to see sunrise over Tikal, one of the most famous Mayan ruins, only about 20% of which has actually been uncovered and restored by archaeologists. That 20% still covers a hefty sixteen square kilometres, so there's lots to see. We went to see about booking the early tour, and as we rounded a corner who did we see but our old friend the taxi driver and one very irate tuk-tuk driver. It transpired that after dropping us off, the taxi drove the wrong way down a one-way street and crashed into the tuk-tuk! I can't say we were surprised but did feel bad for the innocent tuk-tuk driver. We got everything booked up and had an early supper as we were due to be picked up at 3am the following morning.
We really questioned the wisdom of this idea at 2.30am when the alarm went off, but once we made it to Tikal, about an hour and a half away by a safe, seatbelt-equipped, well-driven and robust mini-bus, we knew it was going to be a bit special. Still pitch-black, we walked for about forty minutes to reach Temple 4 (which you might recognise from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back) and climbed to the top. We were told that it was a place of meditation and not to make any noise as we waited for sunrise. We thought we were in luck as it seemed to be an unusually clear sky, but just as the sun was rising some cloud obscured the far horizon and the jungle mist rose from the tree canopy (or tree canapé, as Sophie keeps mistakenly calling it, making me laugh every time), so we couldn't see much of the sunrise. It was still pretty amazing though, even for no other reason than we could hear the jungle waking up. Howler monkeys and loads of birds made an incredible cacophony of sound, I've never heard anything like it before. After sunup we continued to walk around, we had a great Mayan guide who explained a lot of things we'd never have known had we been walking around by ourselves. The Mayans were an incredibly advanced civilisation, not just in terms of astronomy but also mathematically and in construction. (Geek fact: the Mayan counting system was base 20, yet they only made use of three distinct digits.) Apart from the impressive ruins we saw spider-monkeys jumping effortlessly from tree to tree, toucans perching, marching columns of warrior ants and two-hundred and fifty year old mahogany trees. Time passed quickly. Getting to the ruins early also meant we beat the crowds who were arriving in droves as we were leaving. Back home I caught up on lost sleep before waking up for an amazing meal at a local restaurant before hitting the sack again. What a tough life!
The next day we took it very easy as it was very overcast and squalling intermittently. We had vague plans to explore the lake, but the weather didn't play along. One upside was that after many attempts on our journey we finally found a place which made a decent coffee! This seems ironic since a lot of the coffee I buy in London is sourced from this part of the world, but to date we've had nothing but bland, featureless brews and have completely given up on ordering anything more complicated than an Americano. Hopefully this was the turning point!
As I write this we've just boarded an overnight bus heading to the Guatemalan town of Antigua. The bus seems comfy so far except Sophie has just spotted a cockroach so I'm sure the peace and quiet I was hoping for will probably not materialise! That'll be her story in a few days time...