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Tikal, Guatemala

Volume 12: Sat Jun 22, 2002

Amanda enjoys riding a launch around the town of Flores, seen in the background

What a week! You've already heard about my adventure getting to Flores, but I thought I'd mention some other details I've learned since that mailing. After getting into Flores, Amanda and I decided to take the next day easy by staying around and exploring the island town of Flores.

After stopping for breakfast on a shoreside restaurant and watching cute little boats motoring by back and forth, we caught ourselves a taxi to the limestone cave of Actun-Can, also called La Cueva de la Serpiente (Cave of the Serpent). We didn't see any serpents, but there were plenty of bats flittering along the ceilings. Otherwise, it's a much abused cave with many of the cave formations broken off and damaged over the years, but interesting anyhow. I've been in the air, underwater, and all over the ground, but I thought it was about time I explored what Central America had UNDERground. Most of the rooms were lit up with lights making flashlights largely unnecessary, although a couple of the rooms did require flashlights. And heaven forbid if the power went out, it's never fun to get stuck in a cave without lights of any kind! We could have rented the use of a guide (an army guy from California of all places) at the entrance, but we figured it would be more fun to enter into the caverns alone to find our way through.

Ultimately, our goal was to see Tikal, ancient Mayan ruins that towered over the jungle canopy

We paid our taxi driver to wait for us, since the temperature was rising fast and we didn't feel inclined to hike the few kilometers back into Flores, so a half-hour later we emerged from the cave, ready to return to Flores. The cab driver was a delight to talk to, and we entertained him with news of our adventure in getting there while he told us more about himself and how long he had been there. His name was Rolando. If you're ever in Flores and need a taxi ride, ask for Rolando.

This is a view from Flores with the kind of boat we rode gliding through the water

Back in Flores, we hired a launch to take us around the island of Flores for an hour or so, asking him to point out any interesting sights along the way. This was a great way to beat the heat of the day. The weather in Flores was much like the hot, suffocating humidity of Honduras, and neither Amanda nor I appreciated it much. Being on the water with a breeze through our hair felt wonderful, however.

Then we headed back into Flores to find an Internet cafe to tell of our great adventures in getting there, which took a couple more hours of our time. First just to check up on all the e-mail we hadn't read yet, then to take the time to write of our travel adventures.

It wasn't until later in the day we started gathering more information about the strike that caused us so much trouble. As it turned out, it was a much bigger event than either Amanda or I realized. Not only did they block the main road between Guatemala City and Flores and the flights between the two, but they also blocked ALL other roads to Flores including the one to Tikal and the one to Belize (the roads most tourists of Flores are interested in). Which meant a couple of things to us: First, we wouldn't have been able to reach Tikal that day even if we had wanted to since the road was blocked, and second, since the strike was still going, we didn't even know if we could reach it the NEXT day either. Or the day after THAT. In fact, we might very well not be able to see Tikal at all! Add that to the fact that we were truly stranded in Flores with no way out unless we wanted to try that jungle crossing in reverse! Suddenly, that embassy guy offering flights out of Flores was looking much more interesting.....

Tikal is a huge Mayan ruin built in the 1600s and eventually abandoned for 300 years

Wednesday, we found ourselves still in Flores, unable to visit Tikal. Many of the restaurants we found ourselves in seemed to be running out of various drinks and food items which we figured was a result of all the roads into and out of Flores being blocked. However, we did find a couple of newspapers from Tuesday that we bought to learn more details about this strike. (I guess they had trouble getting Wednesday's paper through the strikers.) The front page of one newspaper had a great picture of hundreds of angry looking strikers carrying machetes looking to kill whatever lonely tourist happened along their path.

The Jaguar Temple, is easily the most famous of the ruins. Notice the person wandering around in front of it to get a sense of the scale of these structures.

It seems that during Guatemala's 36 year civil war (ended in 1996), groups had been formed to patrol and protect areas, which—after the war ended—the groups were no longer deemed necessary and were disbanded. The thing of it was somebody forgot to pay them after that happened. Six years later, about 8,000 'ex-police' decided to shut down the area of Guatemala called Peten demanding to be repaid about $2,500 each. And those were the machete wielding people Amanda and I found ourselves running through the jungle with all our luggage trying to avoid.

On Wednesday afternoon, we learned that the strike had finally ended, and we were free to travel to our heart's content once again. Being too late in the day to get any real sight-seeing done, we planned to visit Tikal FIRST thing Thursday morning.

Amanda climbs the stairs to the top of one of the ruins—notice how steep they are!

A shuttle picked us up from our hotel at 5:00 in the morning, spiriting us away the 71km to Tikal in time to watch the sun rise over the ancient ruins. It was a brilliant idea, but not very well executed since it was so overcast, we never did see the sun rise that day. (And yet, it was still unbearably hot!)

But it was a magical place. The ruins are huge—the tallest stretching 64 meters high above the jungle. And, believe it or not, tourists are actually allowed to climb to the top of many of these structures! These aren't easy climbs. The steps are abnormally large ones treading down very steep inclines. Tourists are no longer allowed to climb up Temple I, the Jaguar Temple—which is the most famous of the Mayan structures at Tikal you ALWAYS see in pictures of Tikal—after two fell to their deaths from that difficult staircase. Fortunately for tourists everywhere, they'll still have their chance to do themselves in on other temples.

While at Tikal, it's difficult not to compare the place with the ruins of Copan. Copan is much smaller in scale, and you can get from one end to the other in a few minutes. Tikal is simply huge, requiring a minimum of 10 kilometers of hiking to reach all of the significant Mayan structures. As one guidebook says, 'Tikal will wear you out faster than you wear it out.' And the size and beauty of the structures boggle the mind. From a layman's perspective, I enjoyed Tikal far more than Copan.

Besides the ruins, we also admired the local wildlife

However, both Amanda and I noticed a distinct lack of carvings. At Copan, hieroglyphics were everywhere. Complex carvings of incredible detail are what the archeologists fawn over, and Copan wins that round hands down. There are *some* carvings at Tikal, but nothing near to the scale at Copan. Tikal is for tourists, but real archeologists prefer Copan for good reason.

These staircases are to help preserve the ruins underneath that have yet to be cleared of the jungle that's overgrown them

After admiring all the ruins, Amanda and I hid our allotment of letterboxes, checked out the museums in the area about Tikal, and caught the afternoon shuttle back to Flores.

Having lost two full days of our time due to the strike, we arranged for a bus to take us to Rio Dulce that night. It was supposed to pick us up at 6:00 that evening, but things were still on Latino time and it didn't arrive until 7:00. Amanda tried to figure out precisely where our cross-country jungle trek occurred, and noticed some cars that looked pretty beaten up by rioters in the sleepy little town of Dolores, which we figured was pretty near where all the excitement had happened.

Amanda and I call this the Star Wars picture, because this particular seen was supposedly used in the original Star Wars movie

Finally, by about 11:00 at night, we had made it to the little town of Rio Dulce. Looking for a hotel this late at night typically isn't the best of ideas, but I figured I'd beat down every door in the town until I found us a place to stay if I had to. Eventually, we found a fairly run-down looking place we were able to stay, although the price for it was absurd. Amanda and I were certain we were being ripped off paying 100 quetals for the horrid place we stayed at, but when it's that late at night, other hotels are full, and most seemed to have closed for the night, you take what you can get. So that's what we got: Taken.

Don't get me wrong—the hotel was just as nice as others we had been to. The only complaint was that the price was way too expensive compared to those other hotels where we had a little more bargaining power.

So Thursday morning we found ourselves waking up to the beautiful 'costal' town of Rio Dulce. It's not really on the coast, but much of the boat traffic does come up the river from the coast and it feels much like a coastal town. Due to time constraints on Amanda needing to get back to Guatemala City to catch her flight back to the states, we took a boat ride for an hour or so around the area. Which fascinated me to no end since I had never seen mangroves and jungle swamps such as those, but Amanda would keep looking at me like I lived the most sheltered life of anyone she's ever met and say something like, "Well, you've obviously NEVER been to Florida!" Which I haven't, but that's not the point....

Can you tell how how and sweaty Amanda is in this photo?

Amanda seemed to enjoy the mangroves and crocodile-infested waters of Rio Dulce which reminded her of home

In all honesty, Amanda was clearly enjoying herself too, since she kept saying the area reminded her of where she grew up in North Carolina. She wanted to know if there were crocodiles in the water, so I asked the boat driver who confirmed that there were. "Yep, just like the waters back home!" Amanda would say with a silly grin on her face. =)

The boat ride also took us to an old Spanish fort called El Castillo, or The Castle. The fortress was built in 1652 to keep pirates from looting the villages in the area, but a pirate force captured and burned the place in 1686 after which it became a prison for awhile. Today it's a cute national park for tourists such as myself.

And finally, Friday afternoon, we boarded a bus back to Guatemala City. This bus was only a couple of notches above the chicken bus level, but it was cheap and leaving when we wanted it to. It would stop at every third shady tree in an attempt to pick up more passengers with the money collector hanging off the door shouting "Going to Guatemala City! Going to Guatemala City!" Whenever the bus actually stopped for more than five seconds or so, an assortment of vendors would jump aboard trying to sell newspapers, ice cream, water, and any number of contraptions, not all of which I'm sure I understand the purpose for. These antics are quite common on the chicken buses I've experienced, but it was a new experience for Amanda out here.

When you sit on a bus for five hours straight, it gives you time to think and reflect. And while sitting on that bus, next to the window, sun beating down on me, it suddenly occurred to me. Why am I sitting on the north side of a west-driving bus in the northern hemisphere, and the sun is beating down on me? (This isn't the type of thing I usually think about except on long, rather boring bus rides.)

El Castillo was a fort to thwart pirates, but pirates burned and pillaged it multiple times over the years

Delving into the darkest corners of my mind, thinking back to seasons, equinoxes, tropic of cancer, and so forth, I suddenly realized the sun IS in fact to the north! While in the United States the sun will never cross the sky in the northern half of the sky, here in Central America, at certain times of the year caused by the tilt in the planet, the sun actually does go farther north in the depths of summer.

Birds were common. If you look at that right picture closely, you'll notice little orange dots near black splotches. Each of those dots is the beak of a bird and the black splotch is the rest of its body—there are over a dozen of them in the photo!

Then, it suddenly occurred to me, HEY! It IS summer! Or at least it was—either the 20th or the 21st. I always get those two dates mixed up. But that means the sun has reached its most northernly march across the sky and will now start marching southward once again. How fascinating to actually be in the northern hemisphere and have the sun beating down on me from the north! Then I closed the curtains to gain some relief from the sun and tried to get some sleep.

At long last, we arrived in Guatemala City, which is were I am now. Amanda and I walked into town to exchange more money—we were down to about about five quetzals between the two of us—and saw all sorts of interesting places along the way.

A view of El Castillo from a distance

And, for the first time I've been out here, I've finally found a movie theater that's playing Spiderman! I've been wanting to see this movie since I first heard of its existence, but its always been one step behind my travels in Central America until today. Then, to add insult to injury, it turns out the movie has been dubbed completely in Spanish. I know a little Spanish, but I'm NOT fluent in it by any stretch of imagination. wanted the movie to be in English with Spanish subtitles like all the other movies I've seen, but noooo..... So I STILL haven't seen Spiderman, and probably won't while I'm in Guatemala City. (However, Star Wars Episode II isn't dubbed in Spanish, so many I'll check that one out instead....)

Amanda left for the airport this morning, but she promised to come back to torment me some more if she gets bumped from all the flights going back to the states today. And tomorrow, I'll be heading off to the grand city of Quetzaltenango (aka Xela) in western Guatemala where I'll probably spend the next few weeks continuing to learn Spanish.

Speaking of which.... One thing this past week has done for me if it's done nothing else—I feel FAR more confident with getting around in my broken Spanish than I ever felt possible! =) I had no trouble finding hotels, talking to taxi drivers, making jungle crossings around machete wielding mobs, and so forth. It's an exciting realization.

— Ryan

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