Day Four: Getting to Guatemala
Our AirBnB host was kind enough to arrange for a taxi to pick us up at 9am and drop us off at the Belize/Guatemala border for a reasonable price of 20BZD ($10). We frantically threw our stuff into backpacks and were stumbling out the door when the taxi arrived. With lots of thanks to our host, and lots of instructions from her on exactly how to cross the border, we jumped in the cab and headed to the border. Once we arrived at the border our cab driver also gave us instructions on how to catch a collectivo once we crossed the border (instructions which I forgot almost immediately).
Knowing we’d need the quetzales far sooner than we’d find an ATM in Guatemala, we caught the attention of one of the money changers and changed some US dollars and the rest of our Belizean money into Guatemalan quetzales for a pretty exorbitant change fee. The guy changing our money was happy to instruct us on which lines to stand in to get through the border and to warn us that we needed to bypass the long line, go inside and pay, and THEN stand in the long line to actually exit Belize. Thankful for the advice, because otherwise we would have undoubtedly stood in the wrong line, we paid the exit fee and then waited to leave the country.
Crossing the bridge we were pointed into the Guatemalan customs office by a soldier who noticed that I was headed towards the wrong door. Upon entering the building we noticed that everyone in our line was Guatemalan/Belizean and headed to Guatemala with just a few tourists in the mix. The side that was exiting Guatemala and entering Belize was full of tourists, I joked to Aaron that clearly we had planned our trip backwards. Also in line to leave Belize with us was a guy who looked exactly like Austin, Austin’s doppelgänger. Not-Austin. He had gone with us the day before to ATM and I had noticed he looked like Austin but while we stood in line for customs it was shocking to see how really similar they looked and dressed! We followed not-Austin through the customs office and out the other side where we were accosted by Guatemalan taxi drivers and money changers who frantically tried to guess where we were going and offer us a ride there for the cheapest price.
We shook our heads and followed the instructions we’d previously received, crossing the river using the higher bridge. Not-Austin crossed just in front of us. Upon reaching the other side we walked towards the light and I confessed to Aaron that I had no idea where we went next, Aaron said that our cab driver had said we had to turn left at the light. As he said that, not-Austin crossed the street at the light just in time for all of us to reach the same street corner, at the same time, where not-Austin was talking to a tour promoter. Right then, almost like a scene from Harry Potter where the knight bus appears, a red mini-van screeched to a halt in front of us. Not-Austin handed his bag to the driver who had already jumped out and was impatiently asking us “Flores?” I looked at the tour promoter who told me that yes, this was a colectivo, I shrugged and Aaron and I handed our bags to the driver who strapped them to the roof and then Aaron and I followed not-Austin into the colectivo. At this point, the colectivo was about half full, it had sixteen seats in total (3 rows facing forwards and one row facing backwards, sitting back to back with the driver) and was occupied by two couples, not-Austin, Aaron, and myself. The driver rolled through the small town of Melchor de Mencos and picked up a few more people and dropped off one of the couples. At Aaron’s pointed glances to me, he and I took the bench seat the couple had occupied so that we could sit together. Then the driver stopped in a busy part of town outside of a little market. He opened the door and in piled four kids and their mother, another couple, and two young women traveling alone. The kids, two two year olds, a seven year old and an eight year old, were enjoying sitting on the backwards seat behind the driver, with one of the two year olds (maybe he was more like 18 months) comfortably sitting in his mother’s lap. Then the driver reappeared and told the kids to squish themselves into a corner and the other two year old needed to also sit on mom’s lap. And then he shoved more people into the van.
By the time we finally left town, our nice little mini-bus with 16 seats was holding about 20 people not including the driver. As we drove towards Flores we made a few more stops with more people getting on and getting off depending on their final destination. In the end, Aaron and I were squished into this little mini-bus with 26 other people (28 in total). Many seats held two occupants and three people were left standing and swaying with the van as we hurtled through the Guatemalan countryside all squished together in the colectivo. About an hour away from Flores the driver pulled into a gas station and asked for all of us to pay our 30 quetzales per person fare and then he filled up the tank. As we neared Flores more people began getting off than on and eventually we were left with only one person standing when we finally rolled into the bus station in Santa Elena (the little town connected to Flores). The driver then opened the side door and we all rolled out of the van in an explosion of bodies that had been crammed together too tightly for far too long. Not-Austin grabbed his bag and headed out of the bus station at a very Austin-like brisk pace without a backward glance.
I had told Aaron about twenty minutes in to the two hour trip that I was already starving so the first order of business for me once we arrived would be finding food. Luckily for us, the bus station had plenty of food around it including “Pollolandia” a fried chicken chain of some sort. The name made me laugh so I told Aaron we should just go there since it was close and had food. As we walked over to it we found that it was in a row of shops that included two pupuserias that both claimed to be 100% Salvadoran. Since I prefer pupusas to fried chicken any day we went to the first pupuseria and confused the serving girl when we ordered two mixta and two revuelta pupusas (different names for the same thing). Luckily she laughed it off and then told us the password for the WiFi. While we waited for our pupusas, I texted Austin and berated him for not having his doppelgänger say goodbye to us at the bus station. Austin apologized profusely on behalf of his doppelgänger. Feeling better after eating my two pupusas, Aaron and I returned to the streets and walked back to the tuk-tuk stand we had seen while walking. One of the drivers caught out attention and we hopped in his tuk-tuk for a lift to the car rental place.
Upon arriving we entered and explained we had a reservation, my spanish skills felt rusty as we made our way through the conversation. At one point, he asked for a phone number and I haltingly gave Aaron’s phone number as I struggled to both remember his number and weave through the confusion that was happening around phone numbers in my brain (how do I group the numbers? Do I pair them off as in Spain? Do I need to say +1?) The result was the correct phone number with a garbled mix of formats that was clearly so far from my usual that the guy helping us smiled kindly and complimented my spanish once I had made my way through the last four digits. Aaron and I hid laughter and I thanked the guy.
Car keys in hand we hopped in our car, reveling in the fact that we were in a vehicle that was not carrying max capacity plus ten people. We returned down the road we entered and headed to our AirBnB in El Remate, a town about twenty minutes from Flores and situated much closer to the Tikal and Yaxhe ruins than Flores had been. By a happy coincidence, Aaron’s phone had decided to update that morning and, in the process of restarting, turned off airplane mode giving him 24 hours of cell phone service. When we arrived in El Remate, our hosts had yet to contact us or send us a map of where the house was. With no other recourse, I used Aaron’s phone to call our host, Nino. This time around the conversation went much better in Spanish as Nino gave me directions to a point near the house and told me to call back for specific directions to enter when we got close. The town is very small so it was about two minutes later that I picked up the phone once again to dial Nino. After one misstep that required us turning around, and a lot of laughs when I forgot the word for “hill,” so I just used “little mountain” instead, we pulled up outside the house. Nino showed us our room and brought us towels, we exclaimed over the gigantic bed which, Nino informed us, had been delivered yesterday.
Afterwards, I went downstairs where Nino introduced me to her friends, the dogs, and gave me a tour of the public spaces. The best part of the place, in my opinion, was the plethora of hammocks that hung around the area. I happily settled into one just as Aaron re-appeared after his nap, ready to go find food. The hammock would have to wait.
We found dinner down by the lake and used their WiFi to double check the details we would need to know for Tikal the next day. Conflicting accounts on the internet told us to buy the tickets beforehand in a Banrural bank, and others that we could buy them in the park, and others that we needed a guide and others that we didn’t, but no matter what, the consensus was clear: get there early and bring lots of quetzales. They wouldn’t accept USD. With that information, we decided that we should probably head back to Flores and go to the nearest Banrural and use the ATM to pull out cash and buy our Tikal tickets just in case.
Getting to the strip mall where the bank was located, we found a line of cars waiting just to get in to the place, (two days before Christmas is NOT the best time for going to the mall) we decided that Aaron would drop me off, I would head into the bank, and Aaron would find parking. Leaving the car, I got in line behind everyone else waiting to get inside. We were let inside in small groups and patted down by the armed security guard just inside the door. I grabbed my number and my heart sank to find that I was number 53 and they were currently serving number 16 with only three clerks working.
I futilely looked for WiFi so I could text Aaron. I was also told off by a different armed security guard for having my phone out. No phones, not even for reading. Twenty minutes later when we had progressed to number 22 and I had listened to the sounds of the really old school printers, I realized that there were no credit cards accepted and I didn’t have any cash. I hopped up and, taking my number with me, walked out, asking where the ATM was and was told it was right next door. I found Aaron once I emerged and explained the situation as we went to find the ATM. Since we were looking for a wall-side ATM it took us two tries and asking two more people before we found the ATM itself, I felt a little silly afterwards as it really shouldn’t have been so hard to find…It was literally right next door to the bank in a little room. Once we had gotten the cash, I encouraged Aaron to go grocery shopping without me as I knew I still had about an hour to wait inside the bank.
I hurried back into the bank with a sudden fear that the line would have sped up and I would miss my number. Luckily they had only made it to 24 when I got back into the bank and I sat back in my seat for the long wait. As I waited I started to worry, what if I got up there and they didn’t sell the tickets anymore? What if the internet was wrong and we’d waited all this time for nothing? When they finally made it to my number an hour later, it was a five minute transaction to buy the tickets themselves and I was grateful a thousand times over that I tended to carry both of our passports in my belt pouch (they were necessary for buying the tickets). Tickets in hand we headed back to the car. Aaron had not found a grocery store while I was in the bank so I googled where we could find one outside of the shopping center and found that there was supposedly a grocery store in El Remate. Hedging our bets we drove back to El Remate and found that a Christmas festival was just beginning of be put together, folks were doing the traditional walk from house to house with the candle lit altar, and there was not a grocery store. We made do with the little convenience store which had enough snack type options and some milk and cereal for breakfast for me. Back at the hotel we prepared to go to sleep when Nino texted us asking if her friend could catch a ride with us in the morning, he wanted to see Uaxactún and we had a car that would get him there. We agreed reluctantly, wanting to help him but not particularly wanting to be stuck in lines (because he hadn’t bought his ticket ahead of time), but we figured we could all go to the park and then go our separate ways. That sorted out, we tried to ignore the sounds floating up to the house from the festival and the firecrackers that occasionally went off, and fall asleep.
Day 5: Uaxactún & Tikal
As planned, we were awake at 5:00am and were ready to leave at 5:30. True to her friend’s word, Nino’s friend met us in the kitchen at 5:25am, just as I was finishing my cereal. Together we all drove the thirty five minutes up to Tikal. Once we arrived it was just before 6:00am so we couldn’t go into the park quite yet, the tour bus in front of us was full of passengers buying their tickets to get into the entrance. One of the guys who worked there came and checked our tickets and told Nino’s friend that he would need to go get his before we could go further. He hopped out and was back within five minutes, ticket in hand. I tried hard not to gnash my teeth at the fact that Aaron and I could have just as easily bought OUR tickets through that process rather than sitting in the bank for an hour and a half the night previously. Prepared to enter the park we pulled forward to have our tickets checked where we had a lengthy conversation with the gatekeeper that went approximately like this:
Him: Ah you’re going to Tikal, excellent, oh but he’s going to Uaxactun?
Us: Yes, but we’re going to Uaxactun too.
Him: Well he can’t go to Tikal, he can only go to Uaxactun. He will have to stay here you you will have to come back and get him when you’re ready to go to Uaxactun.
Us: Well that’s silly, we’ll just go to Uaxactun first and then he can hang out in the parking lot while we go to Tikal.
Him: That is a fine plan, but you need a permit to drive to Uaxactun!
Us: ……how do we get a permit?
Him: Just pull over, I’ll write you one really quickly and then you’ll be on your way.
And so we continued. From there it was another twenty to twenty five minute drive before we got to the entrance to Tikal. Along the way we passed many signs urging us to go slowly with signs depicting the animals we might hit if we went too quickly. When we arrived there was another person waiting to check our paperwork again. This time we asked if it was possible for us to leave our friend in Uaxactun and then come back to Tikal and then meet him in Uaxactun later in the day. The guy told us no, we shouldn’t do that, we should just go and enjoy Uaxactun first and then come back to Tikal together and our friend could grab a shuttle or something to get back home or he could wait for us. And WOW was that good advice — for multiple reasons that will be explained later.
Inside the park we followed the road to Uaxactun where there was a gate and we were told we needed to park really fast and have our tickets punched and get wristbands that would let us visit Uaxactun. We took care of that and then we were finally on our way to Uaxactun. While the road to Tikal was paved, the road to Uaxactun was dirt and very bumpy. It took us another forty five minutes to get to Uaxactun, which, we realized upon arrival, was not only an archeological site but also a very small town. It had a health center and a school and everything. Signs led us to Groups A & B, our first stop of the day. We had to drive between most of the ruins so it became obvious quickly as to why we couldn’t just leave our friend there and come back for him later.
Aaron and I were hungry so he made himself an PB&J sandwich and I ate some of my golden Oreos while (unsuccessfully) photographing the monkeys swinging around the trees above us. Then we were off to the first ruin, there was not a lot of information at each of the groups, just a few informational signs, but these ruins were very fun because they had been made tourist proof! That meant that we could crawl all over the outside and one of the ruins even included a Palace that had corridors running along the inside and we could climb up three stories and check out the view from the top! There was enough information on the signs to convey to us that we were in the part of the city where the elite lived.
Having seen the ruins in Groups A & B, we met back up with our friend (we’d planned to spend an hour at these ruins and then meet at the car). Once there we realized we’d missed one more area. While walking to the ruin, Aaron and I were distracted by the sight of an orange-breasted falcon sitting at the top of one of the trees, shrieking at us. Aaron tried to get a picture of it while I explored the ruins. As I exited the back of the ruins, a group of spider monkeys swung past, me of which hung from a tree branch with both hands and stared at me for a solid ten seconds. What a bad moment to not have the camera! Luckily, Aaron had the camera and was clicking away, attempting to get photos of the monkeys.
Back in the car we followed the signs to sites E & H. Now, the map we had seen at the beginning showed that Site E was next to Site D and Site H was next to Site F and that Site F had parking. That map was telling lies. (Or maybe it was just outdated). We never did find Site D but we enjoyed Site E which consisted of the astronomy quarter of the city. My favorite building was a pyramid with re-created faces of the gods on all four sides that faced another building with three towers on it. Upon reading the information sign at the base of the pyramid we learned that from the pyramid looking at the other building, each tower was aligned with the sunrise on the equinox and the solstice.
Finished with that area, Aaron and I saw a path leading towards where H might have been but we saw our friend walking a different direction so we followed him, I thought maybe he knew where D was. Despite following three different paths to their end we didn’t find D so we hopped back in the car and I began leading us towards where the map said the road to F was. We found the path to F but were blocked by a large muddy section that we didn’t really trust we’d get through without four wheel drive so we hopped out and continued on foot. We found a section just ahead with what looked like a parking lot and thought maybe the mounds next to it were Group F. We continued on in search of Group H, we walked for half an hour, I used Gaia + Google Maps + the Uaxactun Map, and we found H nowhere. Finally we returned and explored Group F a little bit, none of it was excavated so it mostly just looked like a large hill and we were on a trek through the jungle.
We finally made our way in a large circle back to the car where some locals were cutting firewood (we assume?). We stopped one of them to ask if he could help us understand where Group H was, he said that we had to go straight ahead, turn right, and then make two lefts, apparently where we went wrong was by not making the two lefts. At this point we were tired, hungry, and I was happy to give up on Group H and return to Tikal.
Back in Tikal, our friend told us he’d find a colectivo (bus) to get back to El Remate, and we told him he was welcome to meet us back at the car later this afternoon if he couldn’t find a shuttle. Aaron and I got our tickets punched, received our Tikal bracelets and walked into the park.
We first passed the famous giant Ceiba tree in the front of the park that required photographing.
Then we made it to the map, I snapped a picture of it, and, Aaron, worried about time, suggested we start with the main plaza. So off we went, around 12:00pm we began our Tikal adventure.
We arrived in the main plaza and admired the giant temples erected in honor of Jagsaw K’awiil, a previous king of the Mayans, and his wife. The two temples faced each other with the acropolis off to the side. We were allowed to climb the rickety staircase installed for visitors to get to the top of the temple dedicated to K’awiil’s wife. According to the app I had downloaded, 7,000 people had visited Tikal on December 21, 2012 (the end of the Mayan calendar, there was a big fuss) and while climbing this temple they had managed to damage the stairs so the wooden staircase was erected.
After admiring the temples we went over to the acropolis where I tried to get my app to explain what we were looking at but it was confusing enough that we decided to move on soon after that.
From there we traveled a somewhat meandering path up to Temple III before going to Tikal’s crown jewel, Temple IV. Temple IV is the tallest structure in Tikal and rises far above the jungle canopy. The climb to the top (again, up rickety stairs) is best done at a very slow pace to allow your already aching thigh muscles the opportunity to brace themselves before each step.
Upon arriving at the top, my jaw dropped and all I could do was stare around at the amazing view out over the jungle until I heard Aaron say, “Hey! It’s you guys again!” I turned to look over and one of the older couples on the ATM Tour with us was standing just ten feet away hugging Aaron. At this point we all felt like best friends having done the ATM tour, passed in the customs line in Belize, and now once again found one another on top of Temple IV. We asked them how their trip was going and what their plans were next and then they began the descent down the temple and we took a seat on the large steps at the top of the temple because I insisted that I needed to sit up there and enjoy this for a few minutes. After taking it all in, taking lots of photos, taking other people’s photos, taking our selfies, and then reading about Temple IV on my app, Aaron and I began the relatively quick trip down the temple. At the bottom we headed over to Mundo Perdido.
We had seen from the top of Temple IV that there was another tall temple that could be climbed in Mundo Perdido and I wanted to climb it! Mundo Perdido was the astronomy quarter of Tikal but didn’t have any cool buildings that aligned with the solstices or equinox (or if it did, no one was telling me that). At the top of the pyramid, we decided that we weren’t in any hurry. So Aaron switched the camera lens to a long distance lens and we spent some time bird watching, hoping to see a toucan from our cool vantage point just above the canopy of the rainforest.
Finished with Mundo Perdido we strolled back, vaguely headed towards the entrance and came upon Temple 5 half excavated. It was a gigantic pyramid that was off the beaten path. The information sign and my app indicated that it was one of the earlier temples built in Tikal and that it was most likely abandoned earlier in Tikal’s history because it was located away from any causeways and was found in a worse state of disrepair than the other temples in Tikal. The temple was also built in a slightly different style with a rounded edge that we had seen that morning in Uaxactun but nowhere else in the park. The information sign explained that the round edge was unexpected and that it was also found in Caracol, Tikal’s historical rival. In addition to all of those fun facts, my app told me that when they were excavating Temple 5 they realized that a jaguar had been using the shrine at the top as its den because the den was filled with the remains of the jaguar’s prey.
Aaron immediately decided that Temple 5 was his favorite temple in the park and I tentatively agreed, although I think I would have liked Temple 4 better if it had been fully excavated. At this point we had seen most of Tikal and I was interested in going to see the twin pyramid complexes on the opposite side of the park. We were doing well on time, having seen all of the main sites in under three hours so we began the hike to the other side of the park. As we walked I looked at the map and realized that once we visited the twin pyramid complexes we would have seen everything at Tikal except for Group G and Temple VI. Unfortunately, Group G and Temple VI were on the far eastern side of the park and we were about to walk to the far western side of the park. We nonetheless decided we probably had enough time to make it so we continued our journey. As we headed to the less used trails in the park I told Aaron that if we were going to see a jaguar, this was where the guide and internet had said we we would see one.
The trail became rougher, the howler monkeys that had been screaming all day became louder as we headed towards the park of the park where they were hanging out, spider monkeys were swinging from tree to tree overhead, and with the sun gone behind the overcast sky, the whole park felt a little spookier. It was awesome.
Walking through the Twin Pyramid Complexes Q & R we learned that twin pyramid complexes were called that because each on consisted of two large pyramids facing each other with two smaller structures facing each other, bisecting the pyramids. So each building was essentially on the point of a compass. In between each complex there had been nine stela with depictions on them (although some were blank).
Finished with those complexes we headed back to the path to continue to Complex H our final destination on this side of the park. Just before we arrived with came across a giant rock with an inscription drawn on it, according to the sign, the inscription showed the defeat of one of the other Mayan kings by the king of Tikal.
We took our photos and then bounded up the steps to the Complex H. Upon arrival we were immediately distracted by the presence of spider monkeys swinging above us, one of which had a baby on its back that Aaron managed to get in a quick picture. Just when we were finished with the monkeys, a toucan arrived!
Once Aaron had gotten a picture of the toucan we realized lots of time had passed and quickly studied the ruins in the area. Complex H was the two pyramid/two smaller structure format that we had come to expect and my app informed us that these complexes were built at the end of every twenty year period according to the Mayan calendar to commemorate the passage of twenty years, and that’s why there were so many of them in Tikal.
The other structure was a large military fort of sorts that hadn’t been fully excavated nor did it have a sign to explain much about its presence.
Back on the path, we started our trek to the other side of the park. The map predicted it to be a forty five minute walk; despite getting turned around because I had one of my maps oriented incorrectly we STILL made the walk in about half an hour and walked on two extra paths meaning that by the time we were finished in the park, we had walked on almost every single path except the largest causeway and probably some smaller vias.
Back on the correct path we made it to Complex G, a palace of sorts that felt more like a castle and had a very different structure than the other Mayan palaces. It was not a traditional pyramid shape but rather a long rectangular building that once upon a time had a second floor and was lined with rooms with doorways facing out, one side to the jungle, the other side to the courtyard. A tunnel and a somewhat ornate doorway led from the courtyard back to the front of the building. Off to the side was a mostly un-excavated building that looked like it could be either a temple or a pyramid but they would need to finish unburying it first. Group G was much like the Uaxactun ruins and other ruins that we had experienced in that they had tourist-proofed it as they excavated so we were allowed to climb all over it and go inside the tunnel and rooms.
With just a little ways left, our tired feet carried us to Temple VI, the only structure in Tikal that we hadn’t seen. The informational sign said that this temple was special because on the back of the roof comb had been a huge inscription, the largest that they had ever found on any temple. Walking around to the front of Temple VI we found a stela and altar at the base of the temple as we’d come to expect and we found the ruins in a pretty terrible state. The large staircase on the front was entirely gone and the shrines were falling apart. We nonetheless enjoyed it for a few minutes before heading out. (It was a little dark at that point so none of the pictures came out well).
Our route back to the front of the park was on another “little used trail where one might find jaguars” and the map predicted it would take us 25 minutes. So far we had beat the map’s time every time so we expected to be back at the front of the park by 4:30 or so (an hour before sunset). Walking quietly down the path in the hopes of seeing wildlife, I was nonetheless surprised when Aaron flung his arm out to stop me at the sight of piggies crossing the road. But those were just someone’s pigs, so it was fine. We edged a little closer and then I noticed that they all had the same collared pattern around their necks and they all looked exactly the same. Those were not somebody’s piggies, as I had thought. We had a pack of javelinas in front of us which Aaron had already realized. Aaron seemed to be torn between worrying about them being spooked by us and attacking us, and wanting to take as many photos as possible. I just sat and stared as javelina after javelina crossed the path in front of us, including lots of babies. In total there had to be about twenty of them, with their lead javelina stopping in the jungle after it had crossed and giving Aaron and I a very mean look. It clearly didn’t want us there. We began to talking loudly and I banged a couple sticks on each other as we edged past the pack, they let us pass without incident.
Just after leaving the javelinas behind, we once again screeched to a halt when a little agouti hopped out in front of us, clearly taking its time as it sniffed out food on the path, doubled back lazily so Aaron could try to get a good picture of it, and then wandered back into the rainforest.
Despite the interruptions, we made it to the main path in exactly 25 minutes, maybe the map was calculating stop time for wildlife. Almost back to the entry gate I finally spotted a coati while I was with Aaron (I had already seen them a couple times but it had been while I had been walking towards the bathrooms and Aaron hadn’t been there). It was my turn to fling out my arm and halt Aaron so he could take some pictures, he was worried for a second that the coati would run at the sight of us but I told him they were like raccoons and loved tourists and, indeed, the coati totally ignored us and continued rooting around for food.
In the end, despite Uaxactún’s small size in comparison to Tikal, we were glad to have seen both. Uaxactún’s astronomy center was really cool and the ability to be able to run around the ruins (and climb a three story tall palace!) were unrivaled. The advantage of doing Uaxactún first meant that we were there early enough to see some animals, and we weren’t trying to subconsciously compare it to Tikal, nor had we built up any expectations of what we would see there based on Tikal. Clearly no one (except maybe Caracol) is able to rival Tikal in the height that the temples soar to.
Finally back in the car we made it out of the park just before five with a whole hour to spare before the park closed. Back in El Remate we dropped the car off and walked to an “Italian-Mayan” restaurant downtown and used their WiFi to start googling what we would need to know to visit the Yaxha ruin the next day. In addition to park maps, our search revealed that from Yaxha it was possible to take a little boat to visit ruins on an island in Laguna Yaxha. Unable to find information beyond that in either English or spanish, we tabled the topic until our arrival. With that we headed back to the AirBnB to catch up on sleep before another early rise.
Day 6: Yaxha & Topoxte
We decided to let ourselves sleep in until 7:30ish because everyone celebrated Christmas Eve by spending an hour setting off fireworks off at midnight and I woke up freezing around 6am (67 degrees is cold!) and between those two events neither of us got much sleep.
When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed, I ate breakfast and then we jumped in the car to head to Yaxha. When we arrived at the Visitor’s Center I was amazed at how beautiful a building it was. We went inside and got our tickets, passing by a stall that offered the boat rides to Topoxte. Aaron told him we’d be back to ask him questions. After we’d handed over 80 quetzales each as an entry fee we returned to the Topoxte person and asked him how much it cost to visit Topoxte. He told us that the boat ride was 250 quetzales, about $40. It was a lot, but on the other hand, Topoxte had post-Classic era ruins, and it was a little island in the middle of the lake, and it was Christmas. We decided it was worth it and followed the boat person down to the docks and his boat.
After a quick ten minute ride across the lake, we pulled up to the dock on Topoxte and were greeted by a national parks ranger, he asked if we were headed to Yaxha and we told him yes. He took our tickets, tore off one side and had us sign his clipboard. He told us that he would radio in to the folks at the entrance to let them know that he had the other half of our ticket. With that settled, I asked our boat person how long we had and they said we could take as much time as we wanted, but that generally it took folks about 45 minutes to an hour to peruse the ruins. The visitor’s guide I got when I bought our tickets said it was a two hour trip in total so that sounded about right. With that Aaron and I set off to explore Topoxte.
Being the first ones on the island that morning we stayed quiet in the hopes of seeing some wildlife. From the looks of it, the island appeared to be inhabited mostly by toads and birds. (Itty bitty tiny toads though! So cute!)
The ruins themselves were supposed to look different from other ruins because they were from the post-classic period meaning that they were inhabited after the decline of the Maya, so after 900 CE. In addition, I had read online that archaeologists suspected that the Mayans who had inhabited these ruins were much shorter than other Mayans because the ruins were smaller.
While the ruins /were/ smaller in the sense that they weren’t nearly as tall as others, the scale of the ruins themselves was ALSO much smaller. Whereas before Aaron and I could fit our entire foot with room to spare on each step /and/ the spacing between the steps was ginormous, the Topoxte ruins had steps that were just as long as the width of my foot (which meant climbing it by sidestepping) and only a couple inches tall.
While standing at the top, admiring the view, Aaron and I heard squeaking that could only belong to bats protesting our presence. Carefully scouring the walls of the temple with our eyes, we finally found the little bats hanging upside down, tucked behind a wall. The continued squeaking angrily at Aaron as he took their photo.
Carefully descending down the pyramid we walked further along the path to find a mostly buried temple of some sort next to the main area. That temple was incredibly tall and we walked around it with our heads craned back to see the top.
Finally we reached the end of the trail and began making our way back towards the boat, taking almost exactly as much time the boat person had said.
As we walked back, the ever-present Howler monkeys started screaming in such a way that we suddenly realized they must be directly above us. Pausing our walk we started carefully watching the canopy above us and then they suddenly got very active and started jumping between the trees, we watched as two of them began to fight and one of them was knocked from the tree entirely. Done fighting each other, they turned their attention to us and began really shrieking at us, since we had learned that they poop on visitors at Tikal, we were very concerned when we started hearing poop splattering around us and we started running down the path and didn’t stop until we were once again a safe distance away.
At that point we stopped and started recording the sound of them yelling at us before we finally turned and walked the rest of the way down the path.
Back at the boat, we joked with the guys hanging out there that the monkeys had found us and were not happy with us. In the boat again, it was a ten minute trip back to the Visitor Center where we got in the car and drove the rest of the two kilometers to Yaxha.
Arriving in Yaxha we checked in with the national park person who confirmed that he had heard about us coming. As he tried to get our information to fill out his clipboard Aaron and I were distracted as a fox ran past us. I was so surprised that I exclaimed “Que mono” from my Spain days and realized that it was somewhat ridiculous to use a phrase that refers to monkeys to describe a fox. The ranger must have been sitting there like “does this American not know the difference between a fox and a monkey?” But it’s not my fault the Spaniards use monkeys to describe cute things!
Check-in complete, we headed into the park, which was designed in such a way that the first sight you see is the tallest temple, one of the few fully excavated sites in Yaxha. Already exhausted by the sight of the stairs, Aaron and I trudged up to the top.
After enjoying the view we climbed back down and headed towards the twin-pyramid complex next door. It looked just like the twin-pyramid complexes in Tikal — though not fully excavated. The sign told us that this twin-pyramid complex was never finished.
We kept walking, passing lots of mounds that still hid residential neighborhoods and smaller temples and pyramids according to my map. Finally we came up on a fully excavated ball court that was a more fully formed ball court than any we had seen previously, and much larger.
Now we could see the walls that likely formed part of the court and the stairs to platforms behind the walls for spectators to watch. The nearby informational signs said that these courts were likely for teams of three and that they were located next to this particular pyramid because the loser were decapitated at the base of that pyramid and it was facing such and such way to be in the correct location for that. We finished admiring the ball court and the hill-that-was-a-pyramid and continued onward, looking for the astronomy quarter.
We finally found the main astronomical quarter but none of it had been excavated yet. There were signs showing what they expected it to look like once excavated, but all we could see was a hillside. Luckily for me, the large astronomy platform, although just a hillside, had a staircase and wooden platform at the top for us to enjoy the view. From the top of the platform we could see the first temple we had originally visited and the highest temple in the north Acropolis. I was shocked by how far away the first temple looked from that platform, it hadn’t felt as though we had walked nearly as far as it looked.
Climbing down the stairs from the lookout we finished our walk over to the acropolis. There we discovered three more fully excavated pyramids standing on a semi-excavated platform. In what would eventually be the middle of the platform, and guarding the entrance to the acropolis in between two staircases, was a giant Mayan carving that looked unfinished.
Walking up into the acropolis we admired the pyramids and then climbed the highest one in order to admire the view. Despite knowing that there were two more ruins in the distance, we couldn’t see any of the temples. We were, once again, able to view the top of the temple we had first been standing on. After enjoying our time alone on the top of the pyramid, different tourists began to climb it so we headed back down to give them the opportunity to have the top of the pyramid to themselves.
At the base of the pyramid we read the informational sign that said that the large pyramid that we had climber had seven different terraces to match the seven different levels of the Mayan “heaven.” The pyramid to the left had nine terraces to represent the nine levels of the underworld. I assume that the pyramid to the right had some numerical significance with Earth but the informational sign didn’t mention it.
Deciding we had finished what we wanted to accomplish with Yaxha, we left the acropolis and headed back towards the entrance. Along the way, we were once again accosted by Howler monkeys who were unhappy with our presence. We sat and continued trying to photograph them for a few more minutes before letting them have their privacy again.
Done with the ruins we headed back to the AirBnB and gave ourselves the afternoon the relax, read, nap, and then grab a bite to eat and pack up our stuff to change hostels in the morning.
Day 7: Flores & San Miguel
As I counted the growing number of mosquito bites across my legs, arms, feet, and anywhere else that occasionally gets to see daylight, I realized with a sinking feeling that the mosquitoes were winning the war. 44 bites in total, with more certainly hiding from me or that I got the first day but have healed over. Perhaps they were winning this battle, but I knew I’d get the last laugh, not only were these bites less itchy than I expected, they were also much smaller, clearly my skin was enjoying the humidity down here; besides, in two weeks I’d be back in California where we laugh at the people who have to deal with mosquitoes in other climates.
Our final full day in Guatemala was something of a rest day, with us heading to Flores with the plan to spend the day there. We got WiFi in a Burger King after eating breakfast in a small cafe (where I forgot that I don’t particularly like tostadas so I ordered three of them because that was all the place had, but at least their hot chocolate was good?). Using the WiFi, we looked at our options for enjoying the day. They included an expensive conservation park that didn’t look all that interesting, an overpriced national park that looked reasonably interesting but not worth $40, or heading to a lookout in San Miguel and exploring Flores. We opted to leave our bags in our AirBnB, drop the car off early, and figure out how to take a little boat over to San Miguel.
Flores in a fun city because it’s located on an island in the middle of Lake Petén. A land bridge was created to connect Flores to the city just to the south of it and little boats go regularly between Flores and the city on the shore to the north of it, San Miguel, and they take passengers for 5 quetzales. Flores is a pretty touristy little town full of tour agencies, restaurants, and brightly colored buildings. Being surrounded by a lake certainly didn’t help my battle with the mosquitoes but it was a very fun place to explore!
The car rental folks at Alamo were kind enough to give us a lift to Flores after we dropped the car off so all we had to do at that point was find a boat to take us across. Luckily the boats are expecting people to want to cross and float up to the malecón around Flores every few feet to pick people up. Because of the number of willing lancha pilots, we had no trouble grabbing a boat and getting over to San Miguel. From there it was a mile walk through the tiny town of San Miguel to the Tayasal Ruins. The Tayasal Ruins are completely buried, but someone was kind enough to build steps and an observation treehouse over the tallest temple for tourists to enjoy the view.
Stopping to chat with the park-ranger-of-sorts with whom we’d checked in, we double checked to make sure there weren’t any other ruins or anything else over here that we wanted to see. They acknowledged that the vista was it so we wandered back into San Miguel. We popped into a grocery store where I got myself some ice cream and Aaron got a bottle of water. We took a nice picture in front of the “Yo Amo Tayasal” sign and then a water taxi conveniently pulled up to take us back to Flores. Back in Flores, we continued our meandering route through the city as I poked my head into souvenir shops looking at what they offered and trying in vain to find fabric. Then we stumbled into a legit fabric store. After looking over the fabrics that she had and not finding any synthetics or cotton/rayon mixes (she only had crepe fabrics and those need constant ironing), I asked her for what I was looking for and she told me she didn’t have it. Sadly, we left the store and headed back to our AirBnB for some down time in the afternoon.
After my short nap, we headed back out to get dinner at the little park where some vendors sell some amazing looking street food.
We ended up getting tamales and chicken empanada covered with salsa and “blended chicken” sauce on top. It sounds gross, but the empanada was fantastic, although the cotija tasted a little weird. The tamales were pretty good, but I like my tamales to have more beans than tamale so it wasn’t my favorite.
We enjoyed watching the sun set over the lake as we ate dinner and then returned for dessert in the form of a sweet empanada (it was filled with a banana pudding thing, a gigantic, whole, platano frito with sugar on top, and tres leches cake. Thoroughly stuffed we once again returned to our AirBnB where disaster struck!
I opened my email to find one of those “Your flight has been changed, if you didn’t request this, call this number to find out what happened and give them this confirmation number” emails. I immediately called Priceline who informed us that our flight from El Salvador to Managua had been moved from the reasonable time at like 8pm on the next day (the 27th) to the unreasonable time of 4:30am on the 28th. Not wanting to get stuck in El Salvador, or find a hotel in El Salvador, or sleep in the airport in El Salvador, we told the Priceline agent that this was unreasonable. The Priceline agent then called Avianca and acted as a go between as we said things like, “Is there any way we can just have our original flight back? Are you sure? How about the 8:30pm flight to Guatemala City tonight and then a 9am flight to Managua tomorrow?” And Avianca said things like, “No we cancelled your original flight entirely, yes we’re sure. No it’s too late to put you on the 8:30pm flight tonight.” and then they said, “You can have the 4:30am flight to El Salvador or we can refund your ticket.” So then Aaron, who had been helpfully searching the internet for an alternative flight, said, well, if we’re going to have to fly on the 28th anyways, why don’t we take a 9:00am direct flight from Guatemala to Managua on the 28th? Then we get to have a full day in Guatemala City tomorrow and we can go to Antigua AND we can get a good night’s sleep in the hostel before our second flight AND then we don’t have to deal with the hassle of a layover. I provided this suggestion to our friend from Priceline and she said “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh, hmmmm, let me ask Avianca.” A moment later she returned to tell us that Avianca was in agreement with this new plan. Once I had received an email with our new tickets, I emailed our Managua hostel to let them know of the change of plans (because we’d now be arriving a day later), request the change of times for our shuttle, and double check that we could still do the volcano tour on the 28th. Then I booked a hostel for us for the following evening in Guatemala City, and emailed them to let them know that we’d be arriving at 8:30am, would the shuttle be able to pick us up, and did they have a luggage locker for our bags while we went to Antigua? Those chores done, I settled back into my pillow ready for a good night’s sleep before the 7:30am flight the next morning.
Day 8: Antigua
The next morning I found emails from Nicaragua assuring me that all was well and that they received the new flight number, and from our Guatemala City Hostel, a form email with information about transportation from the airport. If nothing else, the email let me know that we wouldn’t be able to take the free shuttle when we arrived because they only did shuttles from the airport beginning at 10:00am.
When we left the AirBnB, the streets were silent, I started losing hope that we were going to be able to find a tuk-tuk and accepted that maybe we would just walk to the airport, and at least we had left with enough time to do so. As we walked nearer to the road leaving town, we did finally start seeing motorcycles and tuk-tuks on the streets despite it still being dark. It was only about three minutes of standing at an intersection before an empty tuk-tuk arrived to take us to the airport.
We were way too early. We sat around and waited for the little coffee stand to open, and when it did, I gulped down some hot chocolate before we went through the world’s easiest security (we managed to accidentally sneak on a half-full bottle of water because they confused Aaron’s empty bottle with my half-full bottle, so when the security office asked about the water bottle, her colleague told her that he’d checked it and it was empty.
The only excitement on the plane came from our descent into Guatemala City where I looked over and admired the three volcanos nicknamed “Las Tres Hermanas.” One of which, the Acetenanga Volcano had smoke coming out of it. My brain immediately said, oh look, there’s a forest fire over there. The tour guide attached to some Israeli tourists who were also on the plane with us told them that that was volcanic activity and that this was an active volcano that was almost always smoking.
When we landed in Guatemala City we got turned around a couple times before we made our way out of the terminal into the waiting arms of the car rental booths and tourist agencies. One of the tour agencies was offering a 90 quetzales/$12 per person shuttle to Antigua. This being far cheaper than the prices I had seen online, and it being about what we would have spent on taxis if we’d decided to stay and explore Guatemala City, we took their offer and hung out for about ten more minutes as they corralled a few more tourists to join our colectivo. Traffic wasn’t bad and we made it to Antigua in just under one hour where our shuttle driver told us that they would pick us up again at the hotel they were dropping us off at at 6:30pm giving us a solid eight hours in Antigua.
Delighted by this turn of events we headed out to find breakfast. We ended up popping into the first restaurant we saw that served Guatemalan food at a reasonable price. I had a fantastic dish of fried eggs, beans, and too many tomatoes (Aaron ate those for me) on top of some tortillas. Aaron ended up with a dish that came with a giant sliver of broken glass in his frijoles. We sent his plate back and then shared mine, I rather cautiously ate each bite.
More or less fully fed, we headed back out to explore Antigua, a colonial era city that was declared a world heritage site and is protected as such. Remembering my aunt’s advice that I would probably be able to find fabric here, I asked Aaron if we could start in the giant local market on the western edge of the city. He agreed and we wandered over to it and found ourselves in a cramped indoor market, much like those that are famous in the Middle East. Tiny aisles, cramped stalls, and absolutely no way of knowing what direction you’re facing (unless you’re Aaron, who is somehow able to retain some sense of direction). I decided that if anywhere was going to have a fabric store it would be here, the challenge would be finding it. So I just started wandering somewhat randomly, tuning out the shopkeepers who called our attention.
Eventually we found one fabric shop but they didn’t have any patterned polysynthetics, they only had solid colors or crepe fabrics. I thanked them and we continued. At the second shop we found the same thing. Finally, we stumbled upon Taller de Telas de San Cristobal. This shop was twice the size of the other shops AND they had pretty Guatemalan striped fabrics hidden in the back which the shop person promised me were a mix of cotton and polysynthetic. The fabric felt like that was true so I studied their patterns feeling torn between the red and purple patterns. Eventually I went with the purple and asked her to cut me three yards. Delighted with my purchase, we left the market and began exploring the rest of Antigua. Mostly it consists of old churches, convents, and Italian food.
The main attraction is a large arch downtown where the nuns in the convent were able to sneakily cross the road through the top of the arch without being seen, as, apparently, they weren’t allowed to be seen.
We also hiked up the Cerro de la Cruz to check out the view over the city and see if Aaron could get a better photo of the volcano smoking. Unfortunately the wind was playing tricks on us, we could no longer see the caldera of the volcano because it was surrounded by smoke and the smoke was creating a haze over the entire valley, beginning to cause the other two volcanoes to fade from view as well.
In addition to visiting the local market, we also visited the touristy artisanal market that mostly felt like a gigantic jackalope.
After spending the whole day hiking around Antigua and enjoying the sites and food (we also stopped by a pupuseria that sold us this beauty:
A “Plátano Canoe” filled with a creamy thing with raisins and cinnamon that we devoured) we had about two hours left and i decided that I really should have just bought the red fabric too, because I loved it dearly and couldn’t live without it. The challenge now was finding the store again….
It took about a million tries, but when we started seeing familiar landmarks and we felt we were close, then we found the little store that sold needles, felt, ribbon, buttons, etc. and I knew that the fabric store was just around the corner. And indeed! We rounded a corner and both of us entered the store in exaltation as the store owners looked at us like we were crazy for being so excited to have found them. I explained that we had been there this morning and had found them again, they continued to look unimpressed. I looked over at the woman who had help us before and told her I was back for the red, she helped me and cut out three more yards and Aaron and I headed off to find dinner.
Antigua is full of Italian food, Aaron googled it later on and found that they Italians had put a lot of money towards restoring Antigua, so maybe that was why? Either way, it meant that everywhere we went we were only finding Italian food (or steakhouses) and we didn’t want Italian food or steakhouses. At one point in our wandering we stumbled across a bright yellow hole in the wall that sold fries, hamburgers, hot dogs, and quesadillas. At this point, I was starving and would have eaten anything but I was happy to see that there was a quesadilla on the menu. Aaron was happy to see that they offered fries “pilbil” style which was a local dish. So we discussed our orders and finally settled on a hamburger, a quesadilla, and fries pilbil style with chipotle sauce to share. Then we climbed the steep stairs to the dining area upstairs. There was an outdoor patio that was full and one more two person table in the indoor seating area. The chairs were super cool and the whole place was clearly well designed by someone with an artistic eye.
I had just sat down and set down the bags of fabric, and my little backpack, and Aaron’s new shirt, when Aaron rushed back over and said get up, we’re switching tables! There are SWINGS! Best. Restaurant. Ever.
After dinner we moseyed back to the hotel where we had been dropped off, picked up our big backpacks, re-packed a little bit to fit the fabric inside my bag, and then waited for our shuttle to take us back to Guatemala City.
The ride back only took an hour and a half (there was a lot of traffic leaving Antigua) but we had managed to draw the short straw and were the last ones to get dropped off by the colectivo, meaning we had an extra hour in the car as we dropped everyone else off first. Back in the hostel we headed to bed, ready to fly to Managua the next day.