Monday, November 10, 2014

Flores & Tikal: Jungle Pyramids

I learned a lot on my trip to Tikal, not all of hit historical or archaeological. For example, I learned that the ATM is called the Cajero.  I learned that potholes are not just for roads, but also for sidewalks. I learned that the logic behind decisions like: "Just take the night bus and skip spending money on a hostel that night; you'll save some money and make better time" is the sort of nonsense best left to travelling 19 year-olds.  It worked for me in Bolivia.  Less so in Guatemala.  I also learned that the Guatemalan people are beautifully indulgent of their children.  Babies cry.  In the States, it's cause for embarassment when your screaming kid keeps an entire bus full of people up all night.  Not that there's anything an American parent can do for their child that a Guatemalan parent can't.  But that's exactly my point -- the parents tried, failed, and it was OK.  They got support from the people around them.  Nobody threw a fit or made a scene.  There's something about children throwing tantrums that tends to translate to adults throwing tantrums in the USA; not so in Guatemala.  The people (excluding myself, because I REALLY wanted to sleep) were amazingly patient, and took turns holding the baby.

My overnight bus to St. Elena & Flores (two sister cities, one on an island and the other on the banks of Lago Peten Itza), the gateways to Tikal, took me via Belize.  We all got off the bus at the border, a few other passengers got on, and we looped back into Guatemala, where I was dropped off at around 4:30 AM.  Blessedly, my restless night was not spent aboard a Chicken Bus (more on that later), so it was at least a reasonably comfortable night.  The Touts at the station wanted to immediately sell me on a ticket for an early-morning trip to Tikal, but I had given myself a bit of time and planned to camp overnight in the jungle; so I wasn't in any rush.

I grabbed a nap at a real hole-in-the-wall hostel (so much for saving money), and then grabbed a sunrise breakfast of Juevos Rancheros overlooking the Lago.  It almost made up for the bus ride.  I had a bit of time to walk through Flores, and I got to enjoy all that this terracotta-tiled tourist trap had to offer.  Quaint cobbled streets, narrow alleys, tightly-packed homes, and passels of short, stout Guatemalan ladies selling everything from live chickens to Tide laundry detergent.  But the highlight - by a long shot - was finding a giant, plastic Christmas tree in the town square, with a glowing, red rooster on top of it.  (They don't have pine trees in the tropics, but that didn't stop Gallo beer from sponsoring one more than a month ahead of the holiday.)

Later that afternoon, I borded my combi for Tikal National Park.  The ride lasted around an hour, over rough roads, We made it in time to check in at the hotel (I was renting a tent from the Jaguar Inn), and then to walk into the park.  I took the opportunity to explore a bit around Teples I and II, surrounded by macaws and howler monkeys.  As the day wound down, I made my way to Temple IV, and hiked up the scaffolding stairs for sundown. There's an extra fee to access the crest of the pyramids for sundown and sunrise, but (after a lot of research), I found that Temple IV had the better view for sundown, and Temple I for sunup... so that's what I did.  There are fairly reasonable entry rates (around USD $20-30) for combination entries that include both a sunset and a next-day sunrise. Paired with the rather economical camping arrangements I made, the two most expensive days of my trip actually came in slightly under estimates.

After a slight adventure in the jungle after dark with my new friends, an Irish woman and a young Amerian WOOFer, I retired to the bar for Gallo beers and a bit of stargazing.  The summer prior, I'd treated myself to astronomy lessons at the local observatory; they came in very handy in the near perfect darkness of the Central Amerian Jungle.

I found Tikal to be well worth the expense, and it was a definite highlight of my trip.  But I can see how, when faced with the boatloads of tourists pouring in around midday, the experience becomes a bit lackluster.  A late-day and early day visit provided plenty of times to take in the whole park, climb everything you're allowed to climb (and some of the stuff you aren't); the temperatures were a little cooler overall, and there were far fewer people to contend with.  Plus, viewing the Temples by moonlight (which I don't suggest, as it's a shooting offense... but if you get lost, hey, take advantage of the opportunity) is amazing.

Trying to cram it all into one day... it's doable, but I imagine that it's a hot, sweaty, exhausitng experience that starts and ends with 20 people crammed into a 15-passenger van.  Granted, the 2 day experience also goes kind of like that... but it's much more tolerable when you have time for a beer and a shower in between.

It's kind of amazing to look at this place and think that it saw its golden era around 750 AD.  To put it in perspective, that's the same time that most of Europe bowed to Charlemagne; the Chinese had just invented gunpowder; the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem was still brand new; and the pyramids at Giza were already over 3,000 years old. By the time the Mayan people abandoned this site around 900 AD, the Franks and Saxons were still at war with the Vikings.

No comments: