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Published: April 23rd 2017
Sunday, May 19
US $1 = 7.8 Quetzal (Q)
I was drippy all day; as the forecast has predicted, it was easily 99 degrees outside, and the NE part of Guatemala was melting before my very eyes. I walked from Flores, across the bridge and over to the bus station, about a 20-minute walk and was told that this being Sunday there were limited buses heading to Tikal. The local bus would have cost me 30Q (about $3.84) but there just happened to be a minibus full of foreigners heading for a sunset tour at Tikal that could take me for 40Q. This was not my preferred method of travel, as I prefer to move about the local way, but I was left with no other choice.
The bus arrived, I clambered aboard the tourist-packed shuttle, filled with about 20 or 30 foreigners and one tour guide, and at 1:15pm we were on our way.
I hopped off the bus at a gas station stop and confirmed with the onboard tour guide what my plans were. He said he would try to help me if we arrived to the entrance close to 3pm in terms
of obtaining a ticket dated for tomorrow. According to what I had read online, one can enter the park after 3pm and get the ticket dated for the next day but that it would still be valid to enter the park that same evening.
We arrived to the first entrance at 2:23pm.
True to his word, the tour guide hopped out and spoke to the on-duty employee on my behalf and was assured I would be able to get a ticket dated for tomorrow at the other (real) entrance to the park.
Soon the bus arrived at its drop-off point, the Jaguar Inn, conveniently located a few steps from the actual entrance to the park. Caesar, the kind tour guide, helped me secure a spot in the back of the hotel where I was able to string up my hammock for 50Q a night. Considering the location, that's quite the bargain. He then told me to meet him at Temple 4 at 5:30 for sunset and he'd give me a “freebie sunset tour” with the rest of his group. Rock on!
I set up my hammock in the back by
My hammock strung...
...in the camping area outside the entrance of Tikal. Fortunately, no one came to occupy the tents the two nights I stayed.
the showers. There was a small covered concrete area, with four vacant tents, all for rent and belonging to Jaguar Inn. I managed to string up my hammock using a tree and one of the concrete pillars holding up the roof of the covered camping area. Once settled, I took a refreshing and much-needed cold shower in the nearby roofless shower stall, open to nature and the elements.
When I got out of my shower, still dripping and rarin’ to go, eight toucans flew overhead and settled on the top of the nearby staircase railing. I had never been so close to such colorful beauty.
I officially entered the park just after 4pm. I had no problems at the “second entrance” obtaining a ticket dated for tomorrow. The ticket cost 150Q. I was most interested in finding wildlife and wanted to catch a glimpse of the ruins in the afternoon light. As I ambled down the dirt path to the first of many temples, spider monkeys scrambled around on the branches overhead, jumping from one tree to the next. I saw coatimundi (in the raccoon family), more toucans, and heard howler monkeys in the distance. I
admired the Gran Plaza between Temples 1 and 2, the most photogenic being Temple One (this is the one seen on all tourist brochures for Tikal). I then zipped off to Plaza of the Seven Temples where I was surprised to find I had the entire place to myself. Not one single person was there, only a few coati, toucans and lizards occupying the otherwise uninhabited area. The late afternoon lighting was spectacular.
Soon enough, I found myself at the bottom of the 200-odd-step wooden staircase, and plunged right in, determined to get to the top for sunrise. I got to the top at 5:35, with enough time to see Temples 1, 2 and 3 bathed in afternoon light over the canopy of green jungle. The lighting was as good as could be expected, given the smoke in the air from all the burning that time of year. Soon we as a group moved over to the west side to view the sunset. This entailed climbing through some metal scaffolding otherwise blocking the way for non sunset-paying patrons. There was a refreshingly cooling breeze at the top of Temple Four but was too smoky and hazy to
get a good view of the setting sun.
As a group, we walked back through the darkened paths enjoying the quietness of the jungle. I soon settled in to my hammock and turned the lights out before 9pm.
I could see the half moon from my hammock, the silhouette of the trees overhead and hear the cicadas in the nearby trees. The air temperature was slightly cool and a welcome, refreshing change from the blistering heat of the day. Throughout the night, I heard pops, crackles and snaps but couldn't distinguish where the noises were coming from. Mysterious items dropped from overhead onto the leaf-strewn ground near my hammock, and in the quiet of the jungle, in the middle of the night, these sounds can seem deafeningly loud. Once, convinced a rabid, wild animal was under me, I shined my light and saw a little frog hopping innocently away into a nearby pile of leaves. The little rascal never knew how much noise he made.
Monday, May 20: THE NEXT DAY
The howler monkeys woke me - and the jungle - up just before 5am but I somehow managed to get back to sleep
until 6:00. I was on the trail into the park by 6:30.
I went directly to the Gran Plaza to admire Temples One and Two and before heading back to Temple Four before the crowds took over. I saw only one other couple there who seemed to be photographing something on one of the steps leading up to the North Acropolis so I went over quietly to investigate. It turned out to be a very colorful Ocellated Turkey. Moments later my attention was turned to a lovely furry fox, which seemed to just be hanging out, unafraid and completely at ease. He settled down for a little catnap on one of the lower stones, and soon my attention diverted as I watched a ringtail coati coming down the steps. The morning had turned into more of a wildlife-spotting adventure than I could ever have anticipated.
I had the top of Temple Four to myself and was rewarded with a fairly clear view. I watched the falcons, the toucans, and took in the lovely breeze and breathtaking view. It was, simply put, fantastic, peaceful, serene.
At another temple, I watched half dozen toucans in
the nearby trees, this time the Keel-billed kind (most common, with the long yellow beaks), not the ones with the razor-type beaks that I saw at my campsite yesterday afternoon, the collared-aracari.
I followed a deserted pathway and delighted in watching spider monkeys playing in the trees above me. They were quite alert, aware of everything that was going on below them. Despite this, they seemed quite disinterested in me. I clearly posed no threat.
In the early afternoon, I left the park to buy some food from the local ladies cooking up a hot meal in the parking lot and also take the time to rest up a bit.
I headed out again after a couple hours of downtime and a refreshing shower.
Just before heading into the park proper I walked around a little lake and saw a crocodile lounging on it's own private sandy island. His mouth was wide open and for the most part he was bathed in full sunlight; such a picture of beauty.
In the late afternoon, I was once again alone in the park, or so it certainly
felt. No one was at the massive Central Acropolis so I took the opportunity to explore. I caught an earful of the howlers really, really close
and so went in search of them, eventually locating them way up on the high branches. Their loud howling pierced the otherwise silent and still jungle, keeping me entertained for a long time.
Dinner was peanut butter and flour tortillas, crackers, bread, an avocado and apple juice. A carb lover's delight.
I was thrilled about the day - the abundance of wildlife I saw, the impressive ruins, the well-maintained grounds, few other human beings, the fact I could stay in the park for two nights in a row. I could leave and have lunch, take a shower and refresh my water bottle; all things I wouldn’t have the chance to do if I wasn’t staying there. Overall it was peaceful, quiet and perfect.
Staying in the park overnight is worth it just for the quiet and the solitude in the mornings. I must admit, being able to leave the park to eat, refill water bottles and take a cold shower before entering again also can’t be beat!
Tuesday, May 21: THE NEXT NEXT DAY
My alarm woke me up at 5:45am. I got up and packed my remaining things. Today I head back to Belize after a month's "holiday" in Guatemala. I finished my volunteering at the cat sanctuary and will now be housesitting for a friend on Caye Caulker, taking care of her apartment and three adorable and well-loved kitties.
I bid the friendly staff at Jaguar Inn farewell and sat outside in the parking lot, contemplating my next move, which, I decided was that I really needed to get a jump start on the day. There was only one problem - there wasn’t a single private vehicle leaving, save for the red 25Q Hilary bus.
When the driver of this microbus pulled out of the Jaguar Inn parking lot, I swallowed all pride, stood up and walked over to the slowing vehicle. I poked my head into the driver’s window and asked politely if he could please take me for 20Q to the Ixlu junction, and after some hesitation, he said he would. When I got on the micro I noticed only three local guys, the driver and the
helper. We picked up two more guys a short distance away and as usual, I was the only female. The driver pulled over at one point to watch two ocellated turkeys mating, prompting nervous giggles from the boys in the vehicle. Once outside the official park boundary, the bus then became the sole transport for villagers until the micro was packed to the gills. It was just before 7:30 when the bus got to the crossroads.
I jumped out, crossed the street and headed in the direction of the Guatemala/Belize border, standing on the side of the road to flag someone down. Within moments, a minibus pulled up alongside me and I hopped on after negotiating the 40Q quoted rate down to 30Q with no hesitation on the driver's part. There seemed to be a mix of foreigners and a couple of locals in the spiffy new transport van.
At 8:30 a herd of wayward cattle ambled down the center of our lane and a few minutes later we arrived at the border. I got stamped out of Guatemala with no issues. The young immigration officer asked me for 20Q (a bribe I was anticipating, but wasn't about
to pay), but all I had to say was “uhhhh,” while looking him straight in the eye, eyebrow raised, my head slowly shaking side to side. He exchanged a few words with his supervisor and then he passed me back my passport. No money exchanged hands.
I asked my minibus driver about buses from the border to Belize City. He said his bus goes all the way and he’d take me for US$10. I talked him down straight away to US$8.00 and he went for it immediately. Hm? That was too easy. I was only slightly suspicious at the ease of the negotiation, but he was apparently going there anyway with the three passengers that had been sitting behind me, or at least this is what he said. For proof and verification he showed me a printout that said he was dropping these three passengers in Belize City. If I wanted to go with him I would have to pay right then, before crossing into Belize. He assured me the bus would be on the other side when I got there. I paid him $20BZ and he gave me back $5BZ so I really only had to
pay $15BZ, or US$7.50.
It wasn’t until I had easily crossed to the Belizean side that I thought to myself how stupid it was I didn’t get a receipt for paying the driver. The bus wasn’t there and neither were the three people supposedly going all the way to Belize City. Uh oh. I asked a few taxi drivers but they hadn’t seen this group of “three or four or five foreigners.” I thought I might have been duped and looking back on it, it was a rather hurried, unofficial transaction of cash. Why did I have to pay so hastily – and more importantly, why did I
? I didn’t even know if the original passengers were the ones listed on the printout let alone if the printout was bogus or not. I was told by a tout that I might have to wait "up to half an hour" for the bus to get through the border. I didn’t know if I was to believe the guy or not or if he just wanted me to take a taxi so he could earn some commission. Never mind, I found a shaded spot and settled in for what
could have been a very long and very nervous wait.
Thankfully, I only had to wait for a few mind-racing minutes when I saw the group of three from my bus. I went up to them and told them what I knew. They joined me in the shade at which time I found out they were all friends from Guatemala City and heading to Caye Caulker and then San Pedro for a week’s vacation. They had paid this through-shuttle all the way from Guatemala City to Belize City. Within moments of gathering together under the shade of the taxi waiting area our vehicle arrived. Whew! My heart stopped fluttering and I scolded myself for being such an idiot and handing over money without getting a receipt or finding out first if this was a truly legit bus trip. We four shoved our packs through the back window, piled ourselves in through the front door and took off, without further ado. I could finally breathe again.
The driver dropped us at the San Pedro Belize Express Water Taxi terminal just before 11, which left us enough time to get our tickets for the noon water taxi, check
in our bags and nip across the street for some $6BZ take away. I got stewed chicken with white rice, stewed peas, and a slice of plantain, but didn’t have time to eat it. The water taxi pulled away exactly at noon and wasn’t even half full.
It is now 12:40 and we are nearly at the dock, just rounding the south side of the island. Ahhh, Caye Caulker. Home. How I missed you.
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