After a nine-hour, miserably hot bus ride, and I mean sweltering, no air conditioning, sun-beating-through-the-windows, craving-anything-even-slightly-cooler-than-your-body-temperature hot, we finally arrived on the island of Flores. Flores is the coolest little town! Yes, I wrote all that correct, it’s an island and a town. Flores is located on a small island in Lake Peten Itza. You cross a short bridge to get over to it, and it seems a little out of place with the pastel-colored, red-roofed buildings. It reminded me a lot of something I would see in the Caribbean.
Kathy, a British woman who I had originally met on my tour bus up to Lanquin and then on my tour into Semuc Champey, just happened to be on a very similar route as me and was yet again on the same bus. We chatted a lot on the way up, before the heat had all but overtaken our souls, and once we arrived in Flores, determined that her tour company had booked her hotel in the town just outside of Flores. However once we figured out there was a lake and absolutely had to swim in it to cool down, I offered to let her come and change in my hotel room before we headed for a dip in the lake. After the lake, we walked around a bit and grabbed drinks and a little food, as neither of us was very hungry. We had a great talk and I learned a lot about her life and family in London, she was on a three-month leave from her job that allowed her to come to Guatemala, specifically Panajachel, and volunteer with a company called Maya Traditions. Finally she grabbed a taxi and I headed to bed for a rough night’s sleep — as the heat made it so difficult to sleep well.
The next morning I woke up bright and early, ready to be picked up by my tour bus. Now some of you may know of ‘la hora Chapina’ or “Guatemalan time,” and in many places they have their own name for it – ‘island time’ in Hawaii for example. So when people are 5,10, 20 sometimes even 40 minutes late, it’s rarely something to worry about. But after discovering I had my tour pick up time off by 30 minutes, and realizing that my tour guide was in fact over an hour late and not just 30 minutes, I decided it was time to give my tour guide a call. So after a bit of confusion on the phone, I got a call back from the lady saying that there had been a problem with the bus that was supposed to pick me up, and a guide was on the way to get me. I’m not sure if it was my travel agent’s fault of not informing me, or the tour company’s fault of not informing her, but about 30 minutes later a tour guide showed up to get me!
Heber was the nicest man, and we had some great talks about life in Guatemala versus life in the States. He was very curious about all kinds of things, and I love practicing my Spanish so he kept me entertained for the hour-long drive out to Tikal. When we finally arrived the tour guide was still waiting for the rest of the group, so I went to grab a much-needed coffee. Once it started, I realized that I had ended up in the Spanish-speaking tour, as I watched the other tour start and overheard the English-speaking guide. While I certainly love to practice my Spanish, I also love to learn about history, and something as old and full of history as Tikal, I wanted to make sure I was able to understand everything. Luckily, my guide quickly caught on quickly and asked me if I would prefer the English speaking tour. And being my stubborn self, I quickly declined. But once the other tour caught up with us and I realized how much I was actually missing, I asked if it would be okay if I did in fact switch over. He said it was fine and I once again ended up on a tour with Kathy! I was extremely glad I switched groups because I know it would have been too much of a struggle to spend so much time trying to decipher all the numbers and years and strange words that the guide would have been quickly tossing out.
For those of you who don’t know, let me indulge in a bit of history. Construction of Tikal began in approximately 800 BC and continued until about 950 AD. However, archaeological studies only began in 1956, after the site was declared a national monument in 1931, and a UNSECO World Heritage site in 1979. The buildings were lost to the jungle until then, with only the tips of the tallest structures visible to the outside world. The Mayan structures were built with stucca in between the blocks to fill the cracks, rather than having perfectly cut stones, although the way the giant stones are cut is very impressive. The structures were built using ramps and scaffolding constructed of bamboo and wood, and a single layer of a large temple could take up to 20 years to build! One of the cool multi-purpose uses of the temples was how to tell time, including time or year or season. When the sun would cross over a structure and diagonally cross a central structure, it would then fall on a third structure, telling whether it was around December, March/September, or June.
Around certain structures, there would be many other artifacts, such as the Mayan altar, which contained hieroglyphs as well as the Mayan calendar. Oh and that Dec. 21st “end of the world” scare? That was just the Mayan calendar restarting itself. That’s how it works; it never ends, just starts over and continues the cycle. The altar also contained information such as the priest who would frequent that temple; it’s location, etc. While we got to walk through and see many temples and pyramids, because of the amount of structures constructed, we only ended up seeing a small fraction of them, of which included: Temple #’s 3, 1, 4, 38, and a few others, including the main plaza. Fun fact: only about 16% of Tikal is excavated and we spent 5 hours roaming the grounds to see what seemed like a lot of places. One of the places was called the “Tikal Market” because it had been exactly that way back when. Archaeologists have found everything from obsidian from Mexico and the Guatemalan highlands, to shells from the Caribbean coast.
There was a lot of wildlife in Tikal. We got to see the elusive Howler Monkey, Spider Monkeys, and the coati, which is a cousin of the raccoon. We saw of pack of them roaming around with their tails high up in the sky, scrounging for any food they could find, whether that be bugs or trash from visitors, definitely related to the scavenging raccoon.
Seeing Tikal and trying to explain it, and the view you have after climbing to the top of the tallest tower, is so difficult. Pictures don’t do it justice, and I am so lucky I was able to go see one of the wonders of the world, built so long ago and left with so much mystery!
After a long day in Tikal, I met up with Heber again and ate lunch before heading back to Flores. Heber and I had more great chats on the ride back, talking about family sizes and family values and again the differences in US homes versus Guatemalan. We finally arrived back in Flores, but not before stopping for a cold coconut to drink. Once I was done drinking it, he even stopped the car to grab his machete and cut it open for me. And since I still have several hours until I had to be at the bus terminal for my overnight bus to Guatemala City, he offered to keep my backpack in his car and meet me at 8pm to take me to the bus terminal. So I had the opportunity to explore Flores for a bit longer, grab some souvenirs, and take a few photos and eat dinner. However the weather had other plans and this crazy wind and rainstorm found its way over and I had to quickly find shelter. So I wandered around in the rain for a while (warm rainstorms can’t phase this Seattleite) before finding a restaurant with Wi-Fi so I could go on the Internet for a while before boarding my eight-hour bus to the City. And around 8:30 I met up with Heber, and he took me to the bus station. We said goodbye and he offered to be my tour guide for the next time I cam back to Flores and Tikal and brought my family.
I waited in the terminal for over an hour, and before long it was time to board the bus. It was very comfortable with nice, plush seats, and I settled in to fall asleep. But the universe had other plans and of course the ride was anything but perfect (as I always expect in Guatemala). The bus was freezing cold, and since I knew Semuc and Flores were supposed to be super hot, I hadn’t packed anything more than a light sweatshirt, and even wearing that and leggings I still froze. We also stopped a lot throughout the night either to pick up more passengers or to have the bus driver relieve himself. And somewhere around 5 or 6 am, we arrived in Guatemala City. I hurriedly disembarked and grabbed my backpack from below the bus and went to find my shuttle driver, who was standing in the terminal with a sign, and I hopped in the shuttle for another cold bus ride. I guess it just happened to be an absolutely freezing night/early morning in Guatemala, because when we finally arrived in Antigua it was also extremely cold. So it felt like heaven when I arrived back at Katy’s house and tucked myself into a warm bed and fell asleep for several hours to recuperate.
More to come soon!