The Money Shot
The resplendent Temple I at Tikal.
Picture the scene; you’re in the back of a pickup truck in a rural Guatemalan town in the middle of the jungle, only reachable by a rocky, bumpy dirt road. A local lady in traditional dress is loading the truck with her children and a big bag of maize, while a man is flogging ice cream loudly on the road right next to you. The ride to your destination is the definition of bone-chattering – you then realise why all the other passengers in the back of the pickup are standing up. Uncomfortable as you are, you just have to laugh and a smile is brought to your face
It was another one of those moments when you realise and remember where you are – in the middle of f*cking Guatemala – and that the experience you are having is real and authentic. You realise that this is why you travel – to realise that people all over the world live their lives in different ways, a realisation that expands your horizons and often humbles you. A realisation that there are so many uniquely different experiences that the world has to offer.
Some of you are probably wondering what Atlantis
has to do with do Guatemala. Well, it is geeky, but let me explain.
Tikal was always somewhere I had wanted to go, ever since I was a kid. Into computer games – the ones that required the loading of 3½” floppy disks halfway through the game – one of my favourites was Indiana Jones & The Fate Of Atlantis. The story of the game could well have been a script for an Indiana Jones movie that was never made and it would’ve been a hit. But alas, the plot was written solely for the game which involved Indy travelling all over the world, with one of the places you visit being Tikal.
Indiana Jones – as well as Carmen San Diego – was perhaps my earliest inspiration to travel and despite the fact that first image of Tikal that I laid eyes on was a heavily pixelated one, it was no less resplendent or breath-taking.
Well, I was finally about to fulfil a childhood dream – but first, I had to get there. Having just had my wallet stolen on a chicken bus
, there was no way I was going to take them to Semuc Champey – a place I hadn’t originally planned on visiting but was
View of the cascades from the mirador.
apparently one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala. It was not going to be practical in any case as the shuttle I was taking would take twelve hours – imagine trying to do that on a series of ten chicken buses! What was
practical was Semuc Champey’s location – about halfway to Tikal and a nice stopover to break up the journey.
The shuttle ended up taking about thirteen hours, including a useful one-and-a-half hour cash-and-food stopover in Antigua. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride with the last hour being along the aforementioned rocky, bumpy dirt road, but we arrived earlier than expected which was good, as I was absolutely exhausted.
I wasn’t staying in Semuc Champey itself, but I was in Lanquin, the aforementioned rural Guatemalan town in the middle of the jungle. The place was a lot smaller, a lot less developed and a lot more remote than I was expecting. The aforementioned bone-chattering pickup ride then took me to Semuc itself – which really is a beautiful spot.
Set on the Rio Cahabon, the river’s clear, emerald water cascades into a picturesque series of pools which are perfect for a refreshing swim. It is a
A Different Perspective
A different perspective of Temple I in Tikal.
great place to chill out for an afternoon, in such an idyllic setting. The mirador had an amazing view over the green pools although it was a way harder climb than I had anticipated. Having now climbed Cerro Chato
, Volcan Maderas
and then the big kahuna of Volcans Acatenango & Fuego
, I really don’t want to do any more climbing on this trip!
If I had one more day and night here then I think it would’ve been cool to do the cave tour here which had you jumping blindly in the pitch black from three metres into a pool of water, with only candlelight able to guide you. Tubing down the river also sounded like a really fun thing to do. But then again, I’m not sure if I could stay another night dealing with the swarms of mosquitoes at the hostel I was staying at. I am really starting to miss home comforts at the moment and am getting over hostels and dorms. And since I have been moving so quick, I would really just like to chill out at my own, clean place and do absolutely nothing for a week. But with my flight out of Cancun slowly appearing over the horizon,
Surprisingly colourful town.
I had to keep going and that was exactly what I did the next day to Tikal.
It was another loooong bus ride from Semuc Champey to Flores, my base for Tikal. The roads weren’t great. Our shuttle had air-conditioning this time but we just had to open the windows by the afternoon. My arsecheeks were so sore – I had no leg room and I had to lie my heavy bag of valuables on my lap the whole time which really starts to hurt after a few hours.
Located on an island on Lago de Peten Itza and connected to the mainland via a 500m causeway, Flores was a surprisingly pleasant place. Its colourful, cobblestoned cuteness and party reputation draws a lot of gringoes to it, as does its proximity to Tikal. It even has some bad-ass, cheap-ass street food – which I had no choice but to eat. I am really struggling to stick to my US$20 a day budget and for one night I just decided to screw it. Trying to stick strictly to it is difficult and not a lot fun – I’m willing to compromise a bit on things and go through a little
Adding the Flores's cuteness.
bit of hardship in doing so, but you have to remember what you’re out here for and it is certainly wasn’t to be feeling miserable all the time. For example, decent transport in Guatemala is relatively expensive and the alternative isn’t appealing – and in some case, as mentioned earlier, completely impractical. So you shell out what you need to, which is annoying. Infrastructure here isn’t as good as some of the other countries that I have visited so far, which is surprising for a place that gets a fair bit of tourism.
The morning before my tour to Tikal was a frustrating one. I forgot my card when I went across the causeway to get money, I had laundry to organise, the shuttle ticket agency from which I wanted to get my cut-price ticket to Belize was closed, and then I got kicked out of my dorm while they decided to give it a spring clean. It all worked out though and I got to take cool pictures of this town along the way.
However, the rush and stress of the morning, a bung eye – my left eye had swollen up a little, probably a virus or
Grand Plaza, Tikal
With Temple II on the left and Temple I on the right.
something – and all the travelling and partying I had done recently left me zombieing around Tikal with a thousand-yard stare. Because of the aforementioned budget constraints, I also hadn’t eaten that much over the previous couple of days and the heat of the jungle during the first hour of the tour didn’t help either. Which all combined to take away some of the excitement about my visit to Tikal – which was a bit of a downer.
In the end though, I had always wanted to go to Tikal…and it didn't disappoint.
Taken on a guided tour of the ruins, some the temples are breathtakingly massive. And the famous Temple I and the surrounding Grand Plaza is spectacular. And to watch the sunset (hidden behind clouds unfortunately) from the top of Temple IV – the highest temple in the complex at 70m high and still almost completely buried in dirt – and the moon shining on Temple I on the way back out, was special and it was a privilege afforded to our tour group only.
The ambience and atmosphere of the place, located in the middle of the jungle, was serene. There were hardly any tourists around
The Rio Cahabon, on which lies Semuc Champey.
all day, you could clamber up almost any of the ruins, and the time of the day we were there – in the late afternoon, anyway – meant that it wasn’t too hot. It was just about perfect. So if you’re going to do a tour of Tikal, do the sunset one, for sure.
Coming back from the tour, I joined three Swiss guys and Kris from Germany for dinner at a cheap and cheerful local restaurant. The food wasn’t memorable – but Kris was.
A good-looking guy who seems completely at ease with himself, he walked around like a boss – the kind of guy that you meet every now and then who has a swagger of arrogance yet commands respect and admiration from the guys and attention from the girls. It reminds of me of an anonymous quote about James Bond – about how women walk out of a Bond flick in love, and men walk out of Bond flick standing tall; that men want to be him and women want to be with him. This could definitely apply to Kris.
And that is that from Guatemala – the country in Central America that has had
Glad I am able to take shots like these again with my camera here in Semuc Champey.
the most to see and the best sights so far. It is not hard to see why it is a much-loved and popular destination. I had my frustrations with it and I hit a few sour notes while I was here, but I would definitely recommend visiting it.
Now however, I am off to white sand beaches and clear, blue water as I head to Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
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