Published: June 5th 2010June 3rd 2010
(Day 790 on the road)
Guatemala has recently been rated the worst democracy in Central America. Well done! Considering how stiff the competition here is and that other countries are doing their best to snatch the title, this is quite an achievement. To take this trophy home in this part of the world, you really have to excel in various categories: Biased elections, restricted personal and political rights, a weak separation between the three powers of the state, a state-influenced media, a couple of human rights abuses here and there, and generally a weak governance favouring corruption.
After having been ripped off for the fare to Flores by the bus driver at the border in La Tecnica, we soon got our first taste of government corruption right at the immigration office in Bethel, when the friendly officer there asked for five US dollars each as an entrance fee. There is no such thing of course (which we knew), but had agreed amongst ourselves to pay anyway to avoid hassle, but to nicely ask for a receipt at the same time.
This course of action turned out to be semi-successful, as of course the immigration official couldn't issue a receipt
for a bribe. Instead, he returned our money but also took away our immigration cards, laughing in our face as he did so and telling us that we would get into big problems when leaving Guatemala. We had no idea if he was right or not, but we knew that in some countries you are indeed in serious trouble if you cannot produce these cards upon leaving the country. But all amount of arguing came to nought, so in the end there was nothing else to do but to leave without the cards. This move was very much appreciated by the 15 or so locals in the bus outside, who were patiently waiting for over 20 minutes whilst us two foreigners haggled with immigration. Sorry, not our fault I have to say.
Anyway, four hours on an uncomfortable and overcrowded minibus later we were in Flores, a government purpose-developed but nonetheless charming "Zona Turistica". The main part of Flores is essentially an island on Lake Peten Itza and is the stepping stone for the nearby Maya ruins at Tikal. We had seen very few tourists over the last three weeks or so in Mexico and were a little taken
aback just how many backpackers were around in Flores, but of course Tikal is the big draw card for the whole region, if not even Central America (where foreigners pay six times for more for the entrance than locals by the way).
After spending a couple of days in Flores and enjoying many a great swim in its very well-tempered lake, we were off to Tikal, a mere hour's bus ride away. Instead of taking a day trip as the vast majority of visitors does, we opted for an overnight stay at Tikal (camping in a rented tent is by far the cheapest option at 110 Quetzales for two), enabling us to enjoy the park devoid of most visitors save for maybe 20 fellow travellers who were doing the same thing. We were thus able to enjoy sunset amongst the ruins on the first day and spend the whole next morning in the vast complex.
as such is really nothing short of spectacular. Founded in the fourth century BC, it was the capital of one of the most powerful Maya kingdoms, reaching its Zenith between 200 and 900 AD. The main area comprises of over 3000
structures in an area of more than 16 square kilometres - in other words: This place is huge! At its peak, it is estimated that over 90.0000 people lived here. By the 10th century Tikal was abandoned - and as with most if not all Maya cities the reason remains a mystery; common theories include draught and over-population.
Despite the whole region being a UNESCO world heritage site, many of the temples and structures are freely accessible (the main Temple I is not unfortunately, but interestingly not because of worries for the pyramid but because tourists have died falling down the steep steps). We found the best best spot for sunset to be on top of Temple IV, from where one can see the Gran Plaza with the (main) Temples I and II sticking out of the vast expanse of jungle all around it, whilst the sun is setting from behind. An unforgettable sight. Tino called it one of the top five experiences of his life.
The peaceful atmosphere atop Temple IV was only slightly disturbed by the two armed guards who were up there with us and the maybe ten other backpackers (and later escorted us back
to the entrance after sunset): Violent crime in the Tikal region, and indeed many parts of Guatemala, is extremely high, and the guidebook and government warnings
outdo each other about travel warnings about Guatemala; they are scary to say the least.
I have been to a few unstable countries I would say, but I have never heard such stern warnings for any other country or region. Just a few weeks ago Italian backpackers were robbed at gunpoint in the border region to Mexico, losing all of their possessions. Highway robberies, murders, muggings, rape, gang-related violence - you want it, Guatemala apparently has it. In a recent study Interpol looked at the crime rate of 21 countries; Guatemala came up on, no prices for guessing here, position 21. Pretty unnerving.
Apparently there are more private security guards than police in the country, and a walk through the outskirts of Flores seemed to confirm this, with many a shop (and certainly all banks) featuring one or more armed guards, often in addition to other security features such as security lock doors (where the second door is opened manually only after the first one behind you is closed). Anyway, nothing happened
to us during our first stint in Guatemala (we will only check out Tikal for now, then head over to Belize, and come back to Guatemala in a few weeks or so to see the rest of the country).
On our second day in Tikal, we were up early and back in the park before the first tourists from Flores arrived and were rewarded with another magical experience. Wandering this huge areal, gazing at the structures, climbing a few ruins every here and there, and wondering what this place must have been like at the height of the Maya civilisation 1.200 years ago or so is a pretty darn good way to spend any morning. It is in my opinion (after having visited a number of Maya sites in Mexico), the undisputed king along the Ruta Maya, this loose route which runs through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
The absolute highlight for us on this second day was climbing Temple V, accessible by an impossibly steep wooden staircase that was attached to the side of the pyramid to protect the actual stone-steps of the pyramids. The climb was thrilling (outright scary might be a better word, I can't imagine this dangerous staircase to be open much longer), but the views from the top were just amazing. Not quite as amazing was the heat - it was unbelievably hot with temperatures exceeding 35 degrees and no wind at all; I can't remember the last time I was so hot or have been sweating as much - the picture on the left speaks for itself.
In the late afternoon, our short first glimpse at Guatemala came to an end when we crossed over the border into Belize. And to finish the immigration story at the start of this entry: It is absolutely no problem at all to leave Guatemala without the tourist card - the friendly female official didn't even ask for it. The corrupt officer at the entrance immigration simply attempted to scare us by taking the card away. Who is laughing now, my friend?
Next stop: Caye Caulker (Belize). Also have a look at my pictures at http://pictures.beiske.com