Discovering the Ancients
May 1, 2017
We didn’t take our boat into Guatemala because the fees to do so are quite expensive and there is only a commercial port on the Pacific side. However, we really wanted to travel to Guatemala. The boat was safely in the marina at Bahia del Sol in El Salvador, so now was our chance to go.
We don’t have unlimited resources and have to watch our budget in order to keep on going, so planning our trip from El Salvador to Guatemala was a bit interesting. We REALLY wanted to go Tikal, one of the most famous sites of Mayan ruins. Tikal is in the northern part of Guatemala, almost to Belize. It is quite far away from where we sat in El Salvador. We could have flown from San Salvador to Guatemala City and onto Flores (near Tikal), but the prices for flying the next week were way out of our budget. So, that meant one thing…we were taking the bus. Well, multiple buses.
Our first step was catching the chicken buses from Bahia del Sol to San Salvador. (Read my previous post about the chicken bus.) We got a bit of help from the locals about where to get off and switch buses, which required walking up a hill and over a highway, but soon we were at the bus depot. We then took a taxi to a hotel where the long distance bus from San Salvador to Guatemala City would depart.
This bus was great. We had reclining leather seats, movies to watch and were fed snacks and drinks. We didn’t even have to get off the bus at the border crossing. The officials from both the El Salvador side and the Guatemala side came through the bus to check and stamp our passports and collect our customs declarations. After about five hours, we were in Guatemala City.
We were immediately impressed with Guatemala City. It is MUCH larger than San Salvador. And, the section of the city where the bus dropped us off was extremely clean and modern. But, we now had to find the bus from Guatemala City to Flores. Unlike the first long distance bus, you couldn’t get much information online about the buses or buy tickets. I had the name of one bus line and knew that they had overnight buses leaving around 9pm, so we had to wing it.
We found a taxi driver to take us to the bus station, which was in the downtown section of the city. Like so many big cities in the States, the downtown area was not exactly the high-class section of town. It was after dark and we were walking down dirty streets with bars on all the windows. It was a bit…sketchy. The bus station was pretty drab as well. There were two buses departing that night for Flores. The first one was full, and the only seats available together on the second bus were at the very back. But, we plunked down $50 for two tickets on this nine hour bus ride to Flores.
When we finally got on the bus and took our seats at the very back, right next to the toilet, we both looked at each other with our favorite expression…”it’s all part of the adventure.” The bus had no attendant, the seats were uncomfortable, there were no lights on in the bus all night, the toilet door wouldn’t stay shut. It was a long nine hours.
We had booked a hotel room inside the Tikal park, which is about an hour away from Flores, the only other place you can stay nearby to see the ruins. We found a shuttle to the park and were already in awe. The Tikal ruins are inside a jungle, and the entire area had been made into a national park. There are monkeys, toucans, wild turkeys, crocodiles, deer, coatis, jaguars, and many more all living in the park.
Our hotel was a set of bungalows just a 10 minute walk from the ruins. (If you go there, be sure to have plenty of cash (quetzal, not dollars). That is another story, but it would make the blog post even longer than it already is. The bungalows are sparse, but adequate. However, what we didn’t expect is that all of the buildings in the park run power on generators. Power and hot water were only available in our rooms in certain three hour blocks during the day and completely turned off at 9pm every night. When we arrived it was HOT. The temperature in the heat of the day was between 105-110 F. The bungalows had no air conditioning, and when the power was out there was no ceiling fan.
We were so exhausted after traveling for almost 24 hours, and it was ridiculously hot out, so we decided to rest up in our bungalow and head to the ruins just before sunset when it started to cool down a bit. The ruins are impressive. Towering pyramid structures rise out of the jungle like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. We wandered around until the light was fading, but we decided we would get much more out of the ruins if we spent the next day visiting with a guide. We immediately went back to the hotel and booked the sunrise tour for the next morning.
At 4:30 am, in the dark with flashlight in hand, we met up with our guide Ronnie and one other guest for the sunrise tour of Tikal. It certainly is something wandering around in the jungle in the pitch black. I was glad Ronnie knew where he was going. Ronnie explained lots of the structures we passed and gave us a history lesson of the Mayans and Tikal. But, soon we arrived at the tallest tower in Tikal.
We hiked up the steps of the tower to sit over top of the jungle canopy and wait for sunrise. I would say we waited in silence, but there is nothing silent about the jungle. As the jungle starts to wake up, you first hear the birds and then the howler monkeys start up. The howler monkeys aren’t huge in size, but their vocal antics sound like herds of lions roaring. As it began to get light, the overcast morning prevented us from actually seeing the sun. But, the haze over the park gave it an eery feel as you could just see the tops of the tallest towers sticking up out of the jungle.
We enjoyed our tour so much that we asked Ronnie to give us another tour at sunset to see the rest of the ruins. (There was no need to be out in the heat of the day.) We saw the rest of the ruins late that afternoon as most of the tourists on buses were departing. It was fascinating to learn that Tikal was not actually “discovered” back in the 1850’s. The first Europeans that stepped foot in Tikal were led there by ancestors of the Mayans who built it. For centuries after Tikal was abandoned, even after nature had reclaimed the buildings covering them in dirt and plants, the locals still made pilgrimages to Tikal as a sacred site. Even today, the locals of Mayan heritage come to Tikal to perform spiritual ceremonies.
It’s difficult to put into words the amazement of visiting a place like Tikal. Imagining the ancient culture that lived in that inhospitable place, taming the jungle to survive, and what happened to them? The horrible history of what the Spanish and the Catholic church did to the local populations, long after the people moved away from Tikal to other cities, still lingers and stings when you listen to the local guides tell the story of how so much of the Mayan culture was lost.
After leaving Tikal, we took another very long bus ride and ended up in Antigua just outside of Guatemala City. Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as one of the original Spanish colonial cities that retains the architecture. A stark contrast from Tikal.
We loved Antigua. It is a truly international city. Tourism is big, of course, but we met people from multiple countries who had just moved there. There were also two things in Antigua that made Mike get a huge grin on his face…coffee and chocolate! There were small coffee shops on every corner that roasted their own Guatemalan grown beans. We also visited a couple of shops making their own chocolate. Of course we ended up bringing an entire backpack full of coffee and chocolate back to the boat.
Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes, and one of the popular activities is hiking up the volcano. So, we hooked up with a tour to take us up the Pacaya volcano. A van picked us up at our hotel and dropped us off at the base of the volcano, where we were met by our guide. One of the first thing we noticed were all of the saddled horses at the entrance where each guy holding a horse’s reins was shouting “taxi, taxi.” It took me a minute to realize they meant the horses! You could pay to have a horse “taxi” you up the trail rather than walk. Funny, and ingenious.
The hike was moderately difficult, but it would have been easier if I had worn different shoes. Lesson learned. Anyway, we got to the lookout where we had a view of several other volcanoes. Unfortunately, it was not safe to hike to the caldera, as we could see smoke billowing out of the top. There was a large lava field of lava stone where the volcano had erupted in 2014. It is pretty cool to walk across a lava field!
At one point we stopped and our guide broke out some skewers and a bag of marshmallows. There was a thermal vent with people huddled around, and we got to roast some marshmallows on a volcano. Pretty cool.
Overall, we loved our trip to Guatemala. I wish we’d had even more time to explore, but it was time to get back to the boat to get it ready to head further south.