The undisputed highlight of the Ruta Maya (Tikal, El Peten, Guatemala)

Published: June 5th 2010
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(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.

Now, Tikal 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).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


5th June 2010

Woww Ben, its crazy! I been to tikel 7 years ago and it felt like I never ever been there reading up your blog. You have an amazing wrtting sens. You truly make us travel with ya. Keep on going. Hope seeing along the way.
5th June 2010

I miss Latin America!
Glad you enjoyed Tikal, your pictures are fantastic (as usual), I took a similar trip in reverse a few years ago (Gua->Belize->Mex) and your recent entries make me nostalgic. Belize is simply AMAZING, I hope you have as great a time there as I did! And do take care back in Guatemala, I got robbed, not even by locals but by fellow backpackers. Que lastima!
5th June 2010

Tikal was the best place I visited. Now going to Caye Chalker , go on the 4 hour sail to the deep blue hole. I did not and regret. But we did go out snorkleing on a small boat. It's the best snorkleing I have ever seen. I tought Belize was costly. Stay away from going by public transport to The Baboon Scantury. If you take the shool bus up you can not leave unless you get up at 7AM next morn.They . soak every penny you got from you. There's nothing to eat, no resturant, nothing only a few cabins with the bare neccesties. Either rent a car and do it on your own or hire a car for the day. We did the river tour at Orange Walk. maybe it was called Old Bridge or New Bridge.It was very nice. We got on a boat that took us to some ruins up river and had an excellent lunch there and saw lots of wild life. That boat ride was nice. the ruins were nice . can t remember what they were called. Have fun. Patricia
5th June 2010

Fantastic photos. I especially love that panoramic. Tikal looks amazing and you seem to have the right idea staying overnight. You have great pictures without swarms of people, very lucky! Thanks for sharing your trip, it makes for an interesting read.
5th June 2010

Ha! Funny, I was in Tikal a couple of years ago and also remember the unbearable heat! When I think it's 'ot, it's never as 'ot as it was in Tikal...
6th June 2010

great panorama!
Great pics and panorama, Ben. It definitely seems like you chose the best option of camping there overnight - sounds a magical experience to wake up there and have the complex all to yourselves! Another place to add to the list of places we want to see (which surprisingly keeps getting longer even though we tick a lot off!). Also good on you for standing up to the Immigration Officers, too many people just pay because they are worried about the consequences! Happy travels!
6th June 2010

Tikal looks amazing! As you've summed up in this blog and also hearing from other travellers, Guatamela has so much to offer but so sad to see the country being blighted with corruption, crime and travellers experiencing a two tier pricing system for goods and services. Enjoy Central America! Looking forward to hearing all about! Take care and happy travels, Dawn
6th June 2010

Thank You
Dear Ben, Just a quick note to let you know that I've been following you for some time...I've read almost all of your posts and eagerly look forward to each one that you write. I want to let you know that you provide a beautiful service to those of us who can't go off right this minute. I have done it in the past and will do it again, but in the meantime, you continue to inspire me and to keep "the dream" front and center. Safe travels, Mary
6th June 2010

amazing as always...
What fab pics Ben it looks beautiful there and you were lucky to see it without the masses. We are toying with the idea of doing a similar route next year so really appreciate all the info. Stay safe and keep having an amazing time.
8th June 2010

Sorry to hear Guatemala is so dangerous. I went with my family to Tikal during the civil war there in the 80s and we felt safe. It was a sidetrip from Ambergris Caye. Very undeveloped then, I don't think you will find that kind of unspoiled nature any more, unfortunately. One thing unmentioned about the heat is that inside the living quarters within the great stone complexes it is incredibly cool even during the hot mid-day sun (although perhaps a bit damp). Also, there was a hotel in Tikal one could stay at. Definitely a must for any traveler. Congratulations at beating the corrupt border agent.
9th June 2010

Dein Guatemala Blog
Hola Ben (hallo Ben), so viele Rueckmeldungen, wow ich bin beeindruckt ! Ich freue mich, dass es euch in San Christobal gefallen hat. Ich teile deine Meinung zu Guatemala. In den 80iger Jahren sprach man sogar von Voelkermord. In Guatemala City gab es damals in jedem noch so einfachen Geschaeft einen "Wachmann". Der "Wachmann" war meistens ein sehr junger Mann, der eigentlich auch nicht anders aussah wie die Ganoven, mit oft einem sehr grossen aber alten Gewehr. Das sah alles nicht sehr vertrauenserweckend aus. Das andere was mir aufgefallen ist, war der Rassismus gegen ueber der indianischen Bevoelkerung. Ich glaube, da hat sich leider nicht viel geaendert. Es waere schoen, wenn ich mich hier irren wuerde! Aber das alles sollte uns nicht abhalten nach LA zu fahren. Ich war bisher 14 Mal dort und es hat bisher immer gut geklappt. Das besondere an Lateinamerika sind die vielen schoenen (Kolonial-) Staedte, etwas Vergleichbares findet man nirgendwo in Asien. Staedte wie zum Beispiel Cartagena in Kolumbien gehoeren mit zu den schoensten Staedten der Welt. Ausserdem: Bange machen gilt nicht ! I am following you! Walter
24th July 2010

Hi Ben
Hi, I don't know how fast are you going South. We are going to be just outside of Caracas on 4th July, and in Los Roques, diving from 5th to 8th July before heading to Lima. Don't know if you'll be around at the time already, but who knows. Enjoy! Peter
8th November 2010
Five on a bike, no helmets, no problem

will she make it
oh! will she make it or she want to risk, no for baby boy.
10th January 2011

Great blog. I'll add Tikal onto my destinations when I head to Guatemala this next week!

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