Sunday, April 10, 2011

Guatemala – Flores and Tikal

Tikal, Temple V
The roadtrip from Cobán to Flores would be the longest of our travels through Guatemala so far (in distance). The 245 km (152 miles) road descends gradually from the midlevel highlands to the tropical lowlands of El Petén, Guatemala's largest department (province). We were told to take a direct Minibus to Sayaxché where the road dead ends – there is no bridge across the Río La Pasión. From there take a small boat across the river and take the next minibus to Flores.

We arrive well before 8am at the north terminal, to find out that there was no bus for at least another hour. Actually, depending who we asked it was even up to a 3 hours wait.
Cobán is really not our lucky city to catch buses.
Patrick spotted a Minibus to Chisec (which is on the route to Sayaxché) pulling out to the main street, we spontaneously hopped on and left Cobán. We now would have to change buses two times instead of once, but that's still ok. We even managed to get the two front seats next to the driver. This is a good start; 1½ hours later we arrived in Chisec.
During the trip, we noticed that the green hills became flatter and the road was less and less curvy. We definitely left the cool climate of the highlands, when we got off the bus in Chisec we were both sweating buckets: we felt like we were sitting in a sauna! From here on it's going to be hot!

It's a man's world.
Or in this case: A boy's world.
The Shoe-shiner uses his hand to
apply the black shoe cream.

We had bad luck connecting to the next bus. It just left as we were asking for directions, they pointed to the back of the bus as it was driving away. The next direct bus to Sayaxché would be at 3pm, in 5 hours!

Ok, time for plan B, wait... plan C actually. We already had changed plans once this morning. Hence, we had to come up with plan C on the spot. The friendly traffic warden instructed us on the best plan C: Take any Microbus (called "colectivo") towards Frey or Raxrujá, get off at the gas station in 30 minutes (near Las Cruz del Andreas) and from there we would have a better chance to get a minibus to Sayaxché. This now adds two extra change-overs to our trip, and we don't even know how long we would have to wait for the connection to Sayaxché?

The Minibuses to get to this critical gas station intersection were zipping through every 20 minutes or so, all packed like sardine cans. We eventually got into one more than an hour after we arrived. That much for our smart idea about getting a head start and not waiting for the 9am direct bus in Cobán.

The Minibus from Chisec was already full when we got on, but we squeezed in. Julane in the front seat (with the driver and two other passengers). Patrick got into the rear of the bus. The regular seats were already taken, and the Ayudante wanted to squeeze him into a row where 4 adults were already tightly packed keeping each other warm, or glued together in sweaty comaderie ;-).
Red sardine can:  fitting 27 people.
No problemo!
There was a stool in between the seats one row forward that was taken by a small women, so Patrick decided to share this stool with her by sitting backwards, facing the rear of the bus and all the other passengers. It was like he was the quarterback of his own team and they all focused on him as he broke the normal seating pattern rules! Once they figured out his plan, it caused a huge outburst of laughter with the other passengers. Maybe he just invented a new way to stuff the buses with even more people.(Julane had done this once in Vietnam to try and find a bit more comfort in the tight space crammed with people. Despite being very tightly packed we were not "full full" yet, the sides of the bus didn't bulge outward ;-). We loaded at least another 5 or 6 people to a total count of 25 passangers plus a driver and a helper, all inside of course, who knows if anybody was sitting on the roof as well. The bus was originally designed for about 9-10 passengers, check out the Foto above.

The connection at the gas station was as good as a connection can possibly get. We peeled ourselves out of our vehicles and, walked across the street and into a waiting vehicles. Patrick had just enough time to take a picture of the red sardine can on wheels and our next vehicle. Less than 5 minutes after arriving at the gas station, we were on the move to Sayaxché, finally!
The temperature got hotter and hotter during our 90 min trip, it was high noon and judging by the vegetation and long straight roads we have reached the lowlands.

High-tech ferry across the
Río La Pasión
We arrived at the Río La Pasión soaked to our underwear, what we had thought was hot earlier in Chisec was really only the warm-up phase.

Crossing the river was easy, a small little boat goes back and forth all the time as soon as two or more people are on it. On the other side the Minibuses to Santa Elena (the sister town of Flores) were lined up.

Once on other river bank, we really needed a break. Sitting in the shade of a small store, sipping on an ice cold Pepsi we observed the activity around the river. This is the first time we really appreciated a cold drink in Guatemala, before we were more excited by a hot coffee or tea.
Patrick loved the design of the car ferry. It's actually a barge that definitely has seen better days. For propulsion, they mounted two outrigger boat motors onto a pontoon, one for each direction. They looked hopelessly underpowered to push such a big barge over the river, especially when it was loaded with cars and even trucks! But somehow it worked, though the distance of about 100 meters took almost 5 minutes to cover. We wonder how that works when the river is flowing faster during the rainy season.

We let two Minibuses go by before we hoped on for the last 87km stretch. We like our perch above the river watching the transport activities…and having some space again to stretch!
By the way: did you notice that we haven't been writing about Chicken Buses any more? That's because the entirely disappeared from the landscape since Nebaj. Occasionally, we would see really old ones plowing the city streets in Cobán, but any of our longer distance trips were only possible using Minibuses (Colectivos). It actually seems that the chicken uses are used more in the indigenous areas which is ironically in the more mountainous and rough areas too..

This bug has seen better times (Flores)
We finally reached Santa Elena around 4pm. There we had to argue a bit with our driver who dropped us at the terminal out of town instead near Parque Central where we requested.
Santa Elena is connected to the Island of Flores by a short 300m causeway from the Parque, but how far would it be from the terminal?
We were very disappointed by what we saw: Santa Elena was noisy, overpriced and ugly. Plus on top of everything, it was unbearably hot. Why in the world is this area one of the top tourist spots in Guatemala? It can't be because of Tikal alone? We had read that the backpacker's haven was another town on the northeast side of the Lake, but we seriously could not handle another 30 km journey. We were wiped out.

We headed for cover in a shaded backyard restaurant. Gulping down the next ice cold drink, Patrick set off over the Causeway to Flores. And what an amazing transformation: from one of the worst placed we've been to, it changed to a little commune with quiet streets, colorful buildings and a breeze blowing from the lake (it's still hot though). The streets are lined with small guesthouses, cafes, and shops. Yes, it's quite touristy, but much better than what we've seen in Santa Elena.

Flores is a bit like Antigua
We settled in our guesthouse just in time to catch the sunset. Whew, that was a loooong and exhausting trip. Maybe we should have tried a direct (foreigner) tourist shuttle this time, but there were so few tourists in Coban, that we didn't see any offers for that option. They are organized by travel agencies and for major tourist destinations well utilized, but for less touristy venues, you need to hire the entire vehicle which can get very costly. Although, later we found out that a transport company called Fuente del Norte is offering a regular, direct service all the way from Cobán to Flores. Hindsight everything is obvious and easy, right?

Finally we arrived in Flores!
Our first day in Flores was dedicated to sleeping in, getting used to the hot temperatures and relaxing. The next day we hat to get up super early again (4am) to visit the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal.
We also spent quite some time planning the rest of our time in Guatemala and postulating how we can escape "Semana Santa" (the Easter week): Some towns in Latin America shut down during this time, while others become the Christian equivalent of Mecca. Since we got stuck in Dalat during Chinese New Year, we definitely want to do better this time. Spending a good amount of time reading up on Honduras, our next country and where we probably arrive there
before the big Easter weekend.

Our Trip to Tikal:

First some history: (skip the italic text if you are not interested in the history)
Tikal is one of the largest archeological sites and urban centers of pre-Columbian Maya civilization, and became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the Maya in this period. It dominated the region economically and religiously between 200-900AD, an estimated 90,000 people lived in Tikal at its peak. Archelogists believe that the City lost its power around 900-950AD, when increased population created excessive deforestation, stretched natural resources, and there was a consequent decline in food supply. Central authority seemed to have collapsed rapidly and the place was eventually deserted after 950: leaving the jungle to conquer the physical remains again.

Tikal "Gran Plaza"
with Temple II in the background
Tikal is different from other Mayan ruins, as even today it is in a very remote area, a good 70km from the closest city (Flores). The site is surrounded by dense jungle and the walk between the different ruins is through the trails of this protected national park. Tikal is also known for the superior height of its temples, dwarfing Copán, Uxmal, Chichén, and others. UNESCO declared Tikal in 1979 a "world heritage site".

Tikal was never a truly lost city, the local Mayan people passed information about Tikal on through generations, although the Spanish did not mention Tikal in their records when they conquered Guatemala. The first explorers visited Tikal in 1848, mapping and photo records started in 1881. 

An airstrip was built in 1951, cutting the travel time from several days hike through the jungle to a short flight. The site was consequently mapped in great detail and excavation work started under the leadership of the University of Pennsylvania Tikal Project. Much restoration work has been done in the period from 1956 -1970. The site also was shown in a Star Wars movie that was released in 1977.
Today, Tikal is a major tourist attraction – likely the most visited in Guatemala.

If you like more Tikal info click here to visit Wikipedia

Julane posing on the path
to Temple I
Visiting Tikal is best done early morning or late afternoon. We opted for early morning hoping it would not be so hot. Taking a 4:50am tourist shuttle brought us to the main entrance just before 6:30am, unfortunately too late for sunrise. It was a misty morning, so there wouldn't have been too much dawn colors anyway. When we got off the bus we bumped into Melissa, the girl that was with us at Semuc Champey, small world eh!

Our first destination was "Templo IV" the highest in Tikal (64.6m) and also the temple furthest away from the park entrance. Temple IV is actually regarded as the highest man made structure in the Americas during pre-Colombian times. We read in our guidebook that the views from up there are especially good in the morning.
When we reached the top of the stairs we were greeted by Josh, the Canadian that was with us at Semuc Champey. Now this is really a small world, we met both of our fellow travelers from Semuc here in Tikal (and they did not arrive together).
The view from Temple IV
The view from Temple IV was nice, not so much because of the view to the other temples; it was more for the view over the rain forest and hearing all the myriad of sounds coming from the massive the jungle canopy below us.
We next went to the "lost world" (Mundo Perdido) with the only pyramid in Tikal, then continued to the "7 Temples". Walking at this time in the morning (before 8am) is very quiet and the temperatures are still cool.

Julane in from of Temple V
We enjoyed the view from "Templo V" the most, it has great sight over to Temple I and II. Temple V is actually the one that is most frequently shown in photographs of Tikal. And we had it almost to ourselves after a big Romanian tour group finally moved on.

Tourist picture at "Gran Plaza"
Temple I in the back
At 10am, it was already pretty hot and sticky, we spend over an hour in the "Gran Plaza" area where also "Templo I" (known as the Jaguar Temple) is located. Although the thermometer kept climbing, the number of people arriving in Tikal constantly increased too. We, at this point, were more concerned finding shade than looking at ruins.

Woodpeckers at work.
Can you see the second one?
While Tikal is a nice site and definitely worth a visit if you are in the area, we were not nearly as impressed as we thought we would be. Tikal is certainly no Angkor Wat, maybe we simply expected too much. Of course, we also realize that Tikal is much older than Angkor, thus the construction techniques used here must have been a lot more primitive and adornment was minimal. Perhaps this has to do with the density of the limestone that was one of the main building materials utilized, which doesn't have much longevity due to it's softness. Julane expected more sculpture. But on a size level, wildlife and the general jungle mood and vibes, it gets a good rating. For the inconvenience of getting there, we subtract a few points though..We heard howler monkeys everywhere, although did not get a glimpse of them. We saw lots of birds, including a pair of woodpeckers hard at work and weaver birds with their interesting hanging cocoon nests. And at the end we even spotted a white-nosed Coati

White-nosed Coati
At the end of our visit we visited the two small museums. They are worth a visit if you have some time to kill; especially, the Ceramics' Museum has some nice displays and interesting photographs of the temples before, during, and after excavation… The Q10 ($1.30) entrance fee gets you into both museums, that's a nice bonus.

At 2pm, we were super hot and very exhausted; hey we've spent over 7 hours at Tikal! Unfortunately our scheduled tourist shuttle, that was supposed to leave at 2pm, never showed up... We had to wait a full hour for the next one. Next time, we would definitely not use "San Juan Travels" any more for the transport to Tikal.
Ocellated Turkey near the Tikal
park entrance. They can fly too!
Frankly speaking, we probably would not return to Tikal again. It was nice to visit once, but a second time would only be worth, if it was the time of a special festival, such as the summer solstice or the turn of the Mayan "Great Cycle" on December 23, 2012. That’s when the first great cycle in the Mayan calendar completes, after 5125 Gregorian solar years; many people predict this will be a day of great significance for our world.

Julane feels the same way about Flores (not worth to return), she didn't really like it so much nor the energy of the north (El Petén). Patrick thought it wasn't that bad, although it is definitely the most touristic place we've been to in Guatemala (Antigua is a close second). We both did not like the general attitude of the people that work in hotels, restaurants, travel agencies… they all displayed that certain arrogance that comes from thinking of a tourist as cash cow, and taking them for granted. While this attitude is common in many place around the planet, it was the first time we've noticed it so blatantly in Guatemala.

We are happily leaving Flores after 2 days and will take our tourist dollars where there are fewer tourists and friendlier locals. This should not be all that difficult; we just need to avoid the places that have an airport nearby.