Flores and Tikal

Friday 22 to Sunday 24 May

It was a particularly long day – we left Chichicastenago late morning, taking the chance that five hours for a 2.5 hour journey of 128km was enough to reach Guatemala City Airport. The hardest part of the journey was Bruce returning the hire car – they thought we should pay for a tiny break in the protective shade on the rear side window. Well that’s their job, to find a minor scratch or dint and charge the customer. After a lengthy argument, the break in the protective shade had been noted from a previous hire!

A pleasant short flight to Flores in the north of Guatemala – the city nearest to the ancient Mayan site of Tikal. It wasn’t until the captain announced the temperature when arrived that I realised we had a female captain – I think it is the first time I have been aware of a female pilot on a flight. No wonder it was a smooth and timely flight!

We had booked a hotel on the island on Lago Petén Itzá. A short causeway joins the old town of Flores on the island with the twin towns of Santa Elena and San Benito. This area is only about 200m above sea level. We had been living at approximately 2,000m above sea level for the last week and a half, so we found this place much hotter and humid.

There isn’t much in the towns, but we did find some very cold beer and decent food. An ATM across the causeway and a church on the hill was all that interested us.

We had pre-booked a tour of Tikal. Never having pre-booked a tour over the internet, we were anxious that we would be found and the tour guide would speak English as promised.

Well they did and he did, so all was well. We travelled the 60km in a mini bus with a mixture of English and Spanish speaking tourists and a guide for each language. Most of the tourists had flown in on the day, making a very long day. Some were even flying out that evening, others were staying overnight.

We made one mandatory ‘opportunity to buy’ stop. Free coffee was on offer, which was a bonus. We had found free coffee on a few opportunity stops – further encouraging the punters to buy, I suppose.

Our guide, Manuel, turned out to be quite a character. He was part Mayan, and like many guides we’d met, was passionate about his part of the world.

The ruins, and climbing them was part of the tour, as was the history. He even climbed some with us, and literally ran down those very step steps which I take one at a time. And he was a more mature person, probably 5 to 10 years older than us.

He showed us a relief model of the ruins. Actually many of the ruins on the model are covered with soil and forest, so what we saw in the model didn’t match what we saw on tour.

He also pointed out the trees that are native to the area such as all spice, the sacred Mayan Ceiba tree, the rubber tree that the ball for the ancient ball game was made, the chewing gum tree, and massive cedar and mahogany trees.

Some of these trees were off the normal path, so we found ourselves scrambling through narrow tracks in the jungle. I don’t think these paths are part of the regular tour.

At one stage it rained. Bruce & I brought out our umbrellas, not for our sake, but to keep our cameras dry. So there we were trundling through rain forest in the rain. Manuel was in his element. Rain is what makes the forest.

All through the day they was a roaring growl coming through the forest. The howler monkeys were protecting their young from the gawking tourists. The howl is deafening and these monkeys are considered as one of the noisiest in the animal kingdom.

We climbed a few of the monuments – temples and pyramids, always with the preservation of the monument in mind. There were well defined steps on the side of one pyramid, and discrete wooden steps behind another two temples.

One temple is not available for climbing, not after a couple of tourists died after falling off it. They are incredible steep – no photo gives that steepness justice.

The view at the top was magical – tops of other monuments peering through the jungle. It was spring, and some trees were barren, showing off the many bromeliads that grow on them. The bromeliads are non-invasive and in fact provide important water resources for insects, frogs and birds.

I have already written a post about the demise of Tikal. In the 2000 years that it was inhabited, the area grew. The forest was slowly destroyed, to make way for housing, crops and the temples. As the forest was destroyed, so the climate dried, so the crops couldn’t grow. Over a relatively short period the area was abandoned and it took hundreds of years for the forest to grow back and the rains to return.

Tikal grew slowly, and the monuments were built to coincide with important calendar events. For example nine small pairs of pyramids were erected every 20 years, which was a Katun. Only one pyramid has been restored, the rest remain covered in forest, whether for longevity or because of lack of funds.

The temples were extended by each king, getting taller and taller. They are actually a temple built over the top of a previous temple and each are filled with rubble. They were built by the kings, often as a funerary temple, built during their lifetime.

The history of these ancient sites is amazing. I am not a historian, so I can only lead you to some historical information on the internet:

We had booked the only flight from Tikal to Belize City the next day. Unfortunately it left quite early in the morning – not our best time of day. But to our delight it was a small single prop 20 seater plane – not what you expect for an international flight. The view, as we flew over the forests of Guatemala and Belize, were stunning.