Mayan Cities, A Big Lake, And A Big Journey

Published: April 7th 2010
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Temple 1, TikalTemple 1, TikalTemple 1, Tikal

As seen on our map!

A Little Bit About Tikal

The site on which the ancient city of Tikal stands was first settled by the Maya around 700 BC, and over the next 1600 years it grew to become the most dominant city in the Mayan world. At its peak it covered over 30 sq km and had a population of what is now estimated as 100,000 people. It started to collapse, along with most other lowland Maya civilisations around 900 AD. It was then 'rediscovered' in the 19th century and slowly excavated in stages, however there are still many many buildings here that have not been reclaimed from the jungle.

At various times it was ruled by such colourfully named rulers as King Great Jaguar Paw, Lord Water, Moon Double Comb and Lord Chocolate (these are of course the names given to the rulers by historians as interpretations of the symbols used in the arts and artifacts that are left today). It is now a fascinating complex of pyramids, temples, tombs and other stone buildings set amidst thick jungle inhabited by around 300 species of birds, and many land mammals. Indeed, on the long approach road to the park you are met every
The view from Temple 4The view from Temple 4The view from Temple 4

As seen on our map! We took a very similiar picture at sunset
few minutes by yellow warning signs with a different silhouetted creature on each sign - here you need to watch out for snakes, then its what could be jaguars or another type of big cat, next turkeys, and so on. It does well to get you excited about your imminent arrival, as Tikal is as much a wildlife spotters paradise as an archeaologists.

Tikal gets a huge number of visitors, the large car park fills up with tour buses, minibuses, cars and taxis, and as well as the over 10km of pathways in the site, there are two museums (rather small, old and run down), a visitors centre with lots of souvenirs to buy, an open pond with some elusive crocodiles (and some no swimming signs!), a few cafes and restaurants and a couple of places to stay. There is even a football pitch next to the carpark! I wonder if the Maya rulers ever foresaw this for their kingdom.

We visited Tikal twice, the first day for the last few hours before it closed, and the following day first thing until midday. This was to avoid the crowds and tour buses, and the plan worked very well.
Temple 1 againTemple 1 againTemple 1 again

As seen on our map, again
At most times we were the only ones in the part we were in, and sometimes the only people climbing particular temples. The buildings are a fantastic sight, and the wildlife easy to spot with a bit of patience. The howler monkeys make a tremendous racket, and the spider monkeys (which are a lot easier to spot) where often in full view, swinging from branch to branch. We even witnessed a large fight between some spider monkeys, culminating in one unfortunate individual making a mad dash away from the angry mob and a huge death-defying leap across to another tree, where he hung one-handed for a long time, looking back at his pursuers in mocking fashion.

As with other ancient city sites we have visited in the region, many temples are climbable (although some aren't. One particular temple is closed for climbing as two people died falling from this) and even have wooden staircases to assist you. Some temples had the most incredibly steep staircases they may as well have been ladders. On our morning visit, Sarah, George and I sat atop a temple, watching the birds and the few other temple tops poking above the jungle, eating our
Some of the creatures we sawSome of the creatures we sawSome of the creatures we saw

Again, as seen on our map!
picnic breakfast (Morgan didn't join us on this climb as she has a fear of heights - these steps were exceptionally steep, and George accidentally kicked her in the head when she started the ascent). It was fantastic. A little later this day we were lucky enough to see up close a Keel-billed Toucan, hummingbirds and at one point we rounded a corner and just a few metres away were some spider monkeys lounging in a tree at our level.There were also lots of pisotes, a raccoon type creature, and many of the local type of turkey (which is a lot less ugly then the common turkey). Speaking of ugly birds, I have now seen two vultures, these things make turkeys look like peacocks! Incredibly ugly!

El Remate

While visiting Tikal we were staying just outside a little village called El Remate which sits on the shores of Lago de Peten Itza. Our hospedaje sat almost right on the lakeshore, and there was a small wooden jetty right outside so that you could drop yourself into the slightly deeper waters of this incredibly clear and beautiful lake. Our first full day here it got incredibly hot, so it was really lovely to go for a dip here. Furthermore, we were very much in need of it as we had started the day with a four hour hike through the jungle, up a big hill/small mountain to a look-out with a fantastic view of the lake. We went with a guide and went off of the trail through some very thick jungle. We saw monkeys and learnt about the many types of plants and trees there. As we started just after sunrise (6.15am) it wasn't too hot (but nevertheless, pretty hot!) and got back in time for a swim, some food, and the aforementioned afternoon visit to Tikal.

The incredibly intense heat was relieved in spectacular fashion later that evening when the heavens opened and a huge amount of rain fell for around 12 hours. The next day it was a lot cooler, and that afternoon the rains returned as we were walking back to our accomodation, soaking us to the bone!.

Our plan was now to leave Guatemala that afternoon, cross the border and stay in Belize for one night. Then travel through Belize up into the Yucatan in Mexico, spending one night somewhere there before catching our flight to Cuba. Except things didn't really go to plan. What with transportation options in our chosen direction seemingly being very spartan at that time, and also our phone (which is also our main time-ascertaining device) getting left behind in a bus shelter, we actually spent the night in Flores, which involved back tracking somewhat.

Flores, and leaving Guatemala

Flores is a spectacularly situated town, built on what was an island - I assume that it now isn't technically an island as a causeway was built linking it to the mainland - in the same lake that El Remate sits on. It is quite touristy, with loads of souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels and internet cafes, but this suited us just fine for the night.

The next morning we caught a 7.15 mini-bus that took us all the way through Belize and out to Chetumal in Mexico in one fell swoop. Quite a drive. We intend to return to Belize and see it properly. The next problem encountered (which turned out to be a false problem) was that we needed to visit the Cuban embassy in Cancun on the following morning before 1pm, when it closed. We were under the impression that we needed to buy 'tourist cards' from them, similiar to a Visa. But we were too far away in Chetumal for this to feasibly happen. So we jumped straight onto another bus (glad to be back in Mexico where the buses are big, airconditioned, with toilets, films and big comfy reclining chairs) bound for Tulum, a town we had wanted to see that is a lot closer to Cancun, and thus making our grand total of hours on the road as 12! (As we soon found out, these 'tourist cards' could be obtained from the airline desk at the airport, which saved us a lot of hassle. We only found this out when we were already in Tulum though!).

A Brief Stay in Tulum, buses Northwards and Cancun

Tulum is famed for its Mayan city ruins situated on its picture perfect Carribean coast of white sand and turquoise waters. The town of Tulum that we were staying in was a few kilometers away. We didn't see much here, and there is little to report other than sleeping in a bed that was about three times as high as a normal bed (but not a bunk) in a hostel that didn't have any water, ordering cheese enchiladas, being served chicken enchiladas but eating a few mouthfuls presuming it to be utterly flavourless and chewy cheese, and meeting an incredibly friendly guy from Poland who shared his pancakes with me, who looked just like Harry Potter (i thought, though Sarah wasn't so convinced).

The next morning, two big comfy buses and we were in Cancun, land of American spring breaks, high rise resorts and more carribean coastline. We spent the day buying necessities like shampoo that may or may not be hard to find in Cuba, eating, using the internet, waiting around, getting fed up with Cancun city centre (masses of traffic, people hassling you to eat in their restaurants, and everything being quite expensive), then set off for the airport. Our flight was not until 7.20 the next morning, but rather than get up early to be there for 5am, we decided to sleep in the airport.

It wasn't the best idea as it was airconditioned beyond belief and there was nowhere to sit other than the really hard chairs that had armrests (making lying down next to impossible, if it weren't for the couple of chairs dotted around that were missing armrests). On the plus side Sarah found four beers in a bin, so we took them. However, in my rather sleep deprived state, when it came time to check in at 5am I managed to smash two of the bottles, one after the other, making an incredible mess of the airport floor. The remaining two didn't actually get drunk until many days later, when we were in Panama City, but I will get to that in due course.

On Our Way to Cuba

We checked in and entered a huge and much more comfortable waiting area, annoyingly, and shortly after we were in the air. Such is the machinations of the airline industry, that our journey took us on one flight to Panama City, before catching another flight to Havana. Ridiculous when you look at a map. However, at around 3pm we were in Havana, Cuba. It was a bit of a strange airport, with the many unfathomable stages of passport control and immigration checks attended to by incredibly morose, blunt and unfriendly people. It was the first immigration control that i've experienced that will only process you one by one. It also involved pictures being taken and passing through unmarked doors one by one. However, once out of the airport things picked up.

Our young taxi driver was a really friendly guy who we chatted with in our rudimentary Spanish (we began to notice here, and confirmed it shortly afterwards, that we just could not interpret Cuban Spanish, it seemed like an entirely different language!). The drive through Havana reboosted our excitement - the taxi itself is worth a mention, an incredibly old and beat-up lada missing door handles but with an excellent sound system. The taxi driver made a point of having his seatbelt over himself but not plugged in - and soon we were booked into our hotel (for one night only, before we found our feet and booked into a Casa Particular) and ready to go out and see Havana. What happened in Havana will all be revealed next time!

The Photos of Tikal -These are our photos of someone elses photos that are used on the map that we bought at Tikal


8th April 2010

Hi Sarah and Ben, good to see you back in Blog land. Looking forward to the next thrilling installment! xx

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