Days 174-176 – Thursday-Saturday October 11-13, 2007 – Belize & Flores/Tikal, Guatemala
Waking up at 5am on Thursday morning, we made our way to the bus terminal in Chetumal which was right next to our hotel. The bus trip to Flores via Belize was to be around eight hours including two border crossings. The other passengers on the bus were mostly backpackers, with some getting off in Belize and others continuing on to Guatemala like us. The company that operated this bus was from Guatemala and upon entering we noticed their lower standards. Perhaps the most disappointing item of note was the lack of A/C. While the bus did have an A/C unit, apparently it wasn’t working and the driver didn’t seem too concerned about it. Everything did work out though, since the bus was quite empty and as long as it was moving, the air from the half open windows was sufficient.
During our time in Belize we made a pit stop in the towns of Orange Walk and Belize City where the local culture was certainly on display. We wanted to spend more time in Belize, but with only weeks left before leaving the area, we decided to cut it out. The border crossings were fairly straightforward, with Belize getting $15 per person for an exit tax, even though we spent less than six hours within their borders.
Flores Guatemala sits on an island in the middle of Lago de Isabel. Even though it lies about an hour and a half from the Tikal ruins, Flores acts as the main hub for people visiting them. The city itself is quite laid back by Guatemalan standards, but this comes as no surprise given the amount of packaged tourists that come to visit. After the long bus trip we decided to take Friday off. This gave us time to explore the town and more importantly, to shop around for a tour of the ruins. We wanted to find a good guide, but didn’t want to break the bank in doing so. After arriving in town on Thursday night, we ate some dinner and settled in for the night in a budget hotel.
On Friday, we made our way around town, searching for the best tour within our budget. We finally found a sunrise tour with guide and transportation for just under $20 per person. To add to the value, since we were dealing directly with the guide, he included Shawn Reece for free! Considering that the other companies were charging almost $40 for the same tour, we were quite happy with our little find! With our plans for Saturday finalized, we headed across the bridge to the town of Santa Elena to visit the bus terminal.
Santa Elena is a typical scruffy Guatemalan town. The bridge almost transcends two different worlds as Santa Elena and Flores are so different. We were visiting the terminal to look into Sunday morning tickets to our next stop, Rio Dulce, which sits about four hours south. The bus terminal was quite far away from where we were in Flores, so we opted to take a tuc tuc across. Before long we had our tickets and were eating carne asada in a small comedor adjacent to the bus terminal. The rest of Friday was spent hanging around and getting some rest for our early Saturday start. In order to get to Tikal by sunrise, our guide was going to pick us up at 3am sharp.
Our guide Beto arrived at the hotel in his mini van as promised at 3am. Our group consisted of two Israeli girls, a very nice Spanish man and us. The drive to Tikal took around an hour and half. Upon arrival, Beto paid off the guards to let us in the park, since it technically didn’t open until 7am. From the entrance area we hiked forty-five minutes in the pitch black darkness to the top of Temple IV. During the hike, the jungle came to life with incredible sounds that were fascinating and often times frightening. Temple IV sits high above the jungle canopy and theoretically makes a great spot to catch the sun coming up.
Most days, the mist coming up from the jungle obscures the sunrise and unfortunately, this day wasn’t any different. When we arrived at Temple IV it was still pitch black. Over the next thirty minutes, the sun slowly ascended (behind the mist), illuminating the jungle. During this time, the jungle upped its tempo and really came to life with the sounds of Howler Monkeys and other various creatures. The scariest sound of all for us was that of the Howler Monkeys, who sound a lot like a tiger or jaguar when they call out to each other. It took quite a while before Beto let us in on this fact. For much of the morning we were walking around reciting the old line from The Wizard of Oz, Lions & Tigers & Bears, OH MY!
After the sun rose completely in the sky, we hiked down from the temple and proceeded on our three hour tour of the ruins. Tikal has an incredible atmosphere, as all of the ruins sit in the middle of the jungle. Between ruins, we often spotted different animals in the trees and bushes. Beto not only led us around to all of the ruins, he also enthusiastically led us on chases through the jungle to see some of the different animals including: Spider Monkeys, Woodpeckers and Toucans.
During a bathroom stop, one of the groundskeepers went and caught a Tarantula Spider for every member in our group to hold. Immediately, I made my mind up against holding the spider myself, but after watching everyone else in the group go, Jasmine and I finally decided to do it. I was the first Coomer to try it, followed by Jasmine. Shawn Reece refused to hold the spider in his hand, but did touch it a couple of times.
Shortly after our encounter with the spider, we came upon the massive 140 meter (~420 foot) tall Temple V. Over the years, the steps on Temple V have fallen into ruin, so the Guatemalans have cleverly built a ladder on its side that ascends to the top at an 85 degree angle. If you were paying attention before, I mentioned that I have a small (large) fear of heights. While the climb up didn’t bother me at all, once I got to the top it was a different story.
The area at the top of Temple V is maybe six feet across. As I stepped off of the ladder, vertigo immediately set in and I was forced to sit down with my back firmly pressed against the rock of the pyramid. Jasmine and Shawn Reece also climbed to the top and neither of them shared my fear until it was time to go down. Climbing down a four hundred foot ladder backwards is quite scary and Shawn Reece struggled with it, but finally completed the long journey down. All of the other people were very impressed with his bravery. It certainly gave him something to talk about for the rest of the day.
From Temple V we headed over to the main Temple Complex where the famous Grand Jaguar pyramid sits along with the Acropolis. It was in this area that our guide left us with the decision of how long we wanted to explore on our own. Seeing that it was 10:30am and the day started almost seven hours before, we all agreed thirty minutes to take pictures was enough. To put it simply, we were all exhausted. By the time we arrived back in Flores, it had been nearly ten hours since the tour started. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening napping and trying to recoup.
On Sunday morning, we boarded the bus for Rio Dulce at 8am. In reality, Rio Dulce was little more than a stop over before heading to the Caribbean coastal town of Livingston. We really didn’t like Rio Dulce and it was the scene of one our scariest moments in Guatemala. While sitting at an ice cream shop on the main drag, a group of men in a pickup truck drove down the street shooting a machine gun into the air. We were able to convince Shawn Reece that the noise was just that of fireworks, but Jasmine and I were a bit shaken up. It was a little comforting to see how taken back the locals were, as that told us that this sort of spectacle wasn’t a regular occurrence. From Rio Dulce we boarded a small passenger boat for a spectacular ninety minute trip down the river to Livingston. You’ll have to come back to see how that went!
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The Coomer Family