Thursday, 9th September - Flores, Guatemala
There is a direct bus from Rio Dulce to Flores in the north of Guatemala, the stopping off point for visits to Tikal, a Mayan historical site. Four of us are on our way there today. We catch the 9.30am bus, which is running a bit late and is packed. We have to stand, but let's hope it is not for the full 4 hour journey. The bus is not quite a 'chicken' bus but it is very basic. Whole families squeeze themselves onto 2 seats with luggage and kids on their laps. It is amazing the possessions locals carry on these buses, anything from regular holdalls, bags, boxes, large plastic containers and enormous colourful bundles tied together like a giant stork parcel. The route is paved the whole way, which is a blessing as we get jossled about with the driver's erratic driving. The bus stops for anyone who waves them down, despite being full to the rafters, our driver still stops and picks up new passengers. We get squeezed closer and closer into the limited aisle space while curious locals stare at us, but shyly turning away when we return their stares. After almost a year of travelling you do get used to being stared at. I find returning their glares with a smile is the best reply, sometimes you get big beaming smiles in return or a shy retreat. Kids are usually the most curious, and with men you obviously have to be a little bit careful, but the women usually always smile and give you a nod, which is very reassuring.
After 2 hours we reach a large town, and thankfully the bus empties out. We grab some seats and settle in for the remaining 2 hours to Flores. No air con and few open windows makes it is hot and sticky trip, but we all grab some sleep until the bus stops and we get kicked off. The driver instructs us that we need to get another bus to Flores, so we gather our bits together and retrieve our rucksacks from the luggage storage underneath the bus. Thankfully a minibus is waiting, complete with tour guide, who tries to sell us Tikal trips, as we finish the last 15 minutes of the trip.
Kathy has already booked a hostel, so we all opt to stay there. I share with Kathy and Robyn n Jorin get a room across the hall. The hostel is very clean and our room overlooks the lake. There is a rooftop chill out area with hammocks and views over the lake, very nice, but very very hot....I doubt we will be hanging out there for too long. We have our first proper shower in a week, bliss, and head out to lunch.
Arriving in a new place is always a bit frantic, as you plan tours, laundry and onward travel. I have to book a tour to Tikal and a bus to Mexico, so I spend the afternoon talking to tour operators. The town is quite pretty but very quiet. The narrow cobbled streets are lined with colourful buildings. Some streets climb steeply to the main square and the church. There is lots of activity in the square with locals setting up market stalls and hanging up banners. We think they are getting ready for Independence day on 15th September.
The people here are extra friendly. Everyone is smiley and charming, saying hello and waving from taxis and tuktuks. It is quite bizarre, must be something in the water, but we are not complaining, I love it here. By the early evening, I have booked my 4.30am trip to Tikal tomorrow and a 5am bus to Mexico on Saturday, ouch ! We meet Robyn and Jorin for sundowners at a great restaurant called Villa de la Chef, recommended by the others on the boat. Robyn and Jorin were victims of a Mexican airline that had gone bus, so they spent much of the day trying to book flights home to San Francisco, as their original flights were cancelled. They insurance at the moment doesn't seem to cover their expenses, but Robyn says she will sort it when they get home. Trying to communicate with authorities on a phone line from Guatemala is not easy. They seem fairly relaxed about their predicament and will have it sorted by tomorrow, good luck to them.
We hear music coming from the square, so we go to check it out and find a cute celebration involving local school kids doing various dancing and gymnastic displays in front of the town hall where officiandos watch from the balcony. There are lots of speeches, singing and dancing and even a Central American crazy firework display. The whole town is here and the atmosphere is great. There are a few 'gringo' tourists around, clapping and cheering the festivities. I am up at 4am, so by 9pm, I head home to bed.
Friday, 10th September - Tikal
4am shower, bus to Tikal is due at 4.30am, but doesn't come until 5am. I wait with a Dutch and American couple from the hostel. It takes just over an hour to get to the entrance of the national park, which houses Tikal, the magnificent Mayan ruins set in a rainforest setting. Our guide Luis Olivier meets us at the entrance and takes us to Jaguar Inn where we can have breakfast and use the facilities. He is an excellent guide, well reknowned as one of the best guides at the site. His English is a strange mixture of American and Australian English, but very good. His knowledge of the history, plants and animals in the park is incredible. He points out toucans, foxs, spiders, including 2 x terrantulas and small guinea pigs called Agutis. Luis made terrific animal noises and woke up the howler monkeys sleeping above in the trees above us. They were going mental, screaming and howling (hence the name) and jumping from branch to branch. It was quite a spectacle. I had dreaded a guided tour, but Luis was terrific and despite the huge size of the group, maybe 30 or more tourists, it was a great tour. The mix of forest, animals and Mayan temples were brilliant.
The complex is massive, covering an area of over 16 square kilometres, with only 15% of the site already excavated. The site shows signs of a settlement in 2000 BC but the temples on dislay date back to 400-800 AD. The temples are scattered throughout the rainforest and strategically placed so they cast shadows at various specific calender dates, like the equinoxes, longest day, 21st June, shortest day 20th Dec etc, it is quite amazing how intelligent the Mayan civilisation was.
Luis recommended lots of good books about their culture, I need to read up on it more. It is possible to climb some of the temple complexes, which I did, but once at the top I was terrified. Some of the temples have steep wooden ladders to reach the top, others have wooden staircases but a few are just a matter of clambering up the steep sided steps. I am glad we are climbing these early morning, I wouldn't fancy it in the heat of the day. Our tour finishes at noon and the buses back to Flores leave at 12.30pm.
Everyone would like to sleep on the way back, but we are dropping off Luis our guide in El Remate and it seems rude to sleep as he continues to talk about the Mayans. He is so passionate about the place, he has worked here for over 20 years and still shows great enthusiasm, which is incredible. The American couple Sandy and Dane invite me to join them for lunch when we get back to Flores. After showering, we head to a cute lakeside restaurant and have a fabulous lunch. Dane is dying to travel and asks if I would recommend it, ofcourse I would. Sandy has travelled quite a lot already, but I think she would be up for joining Dane on his 'mid life crisis tour' as he called it. We have a really interesting chat about their lives in San Francisco and our various travels through the years. The time flies by, it is almost 4pm and I have booked a boat trip on the lake a 4pm. I say my goodbyes and head back to the hostel. Kathy is not back yet, but arrives shortly after.
Jose our boat man is delighted when he sees Kathy get off our Tikal tour bus. She had done a later tour to Tikal, having booked it a few weeks ago. She loved it too. I had told Jose we wouldn't be going on his boat if Kathy didn't turn up, because I couldn't afford it on my own. He proudly took us to his 'lancha' a sort of water taxi and took us on a 2 hour tour of the lake, stopping at a lookout point, where we had to climb up to see amazing views of the lake and Flores across the water.
We returned to Villa de la Chef for dinner, but it was a disaster, poor service, actually no service, so decided to eat elsewhere. Dane and Sandy joined us for a couple of hours, but we all headed home early, because we were all travelling at 5am tomorrow morning. Kathy, Dane and Sandy were off to Belize City and I am going to San Cristobal, Mexico. The 23rd and final country on my tour !! Viva Mexico !!