The Tikal Maya ruins are probably the most famous touristic spot here in Guatemala. This weekend, I finally had the chance to visit this magnificent site. My Spanish school offers trips to Tikal, but unfortunately the requirement of at least 8 people who sign up for the trip has never been met. So I was looking for a trip on my own. I went to a travel agency where two friends booked a Tikal trip earlier. I ended up signing up for a trip which involves overnight buses. The big ones, not the minivans which we have been using normally for our trips. Leaving on Friday evening, arriving in Flores on Saturday morning, looking around in Tikal and Flores, leaving Flores on Saturday evening, back home in Antigua at Sunday morning. Sounds good to me.
So, just to give you an overview of the trip: Tikal is located in the department of Petén, in the northernmost part of Guatemala. Petén is bordering Mexico on the north and west side, and Belize on the east side. It is part of the densely forested lowlands of Guatemala. Flores is the center of Petén, and it is also where the night buses go. Well, the bus terminal is actually in Santa Elena just outside of Flores. Flores itself is situated on an island in Lago Petén Itza, where no heavy traffic is allowed. The Tikal National Park is located a little further north east, approximately an one hour drive.
As usual you get very sparse information prior to the trip. 3 vouchers. One for a shuttle from Antigua to the night bus terminal in Guatemala City, one which says “Full Tour Tikal”, and a third one for the shuttle back from the bus Terminal to Antigua on Sunday morning. I’ve asked the guy at the travel agency to make me a copy of the program, just to have a rough idea what to expect.
So let the trip begin. I was ready on Friday evening at 18:30. That’s the time when the shuttle was supposed to pick me up. A quarter hour delay doesn’t make me nervous at all, but I got worried when still no shuttle showed up at 19:00. So I called the travel agency. They told me to wait another 20 mins or so, after which the shuttle finally showed up, filled with nervous people because of the delay. The reason for the delay was a lot of traffic due to the “Cuaresma” the Easter festivities which have started a little more than a week ago. Blocked roads, construction work and wide chicken buses delayed us even more. I wasn’t worried yet because according to the program I got from the travel agency, the night bus was due to leave at 22:00 in Guatemala City still plenty of time, the ride usually takes a little more than one hour. So after a bumpy ride in the evening traffic plus Cuaresma chaos we arrived at the night bus terminal at 20:45 where I got two bus tickets from the shuttle driver. It said that the departure at the bus was 21:00. Buh, that was a close one. I was actually glad I didn’t know that in advance, otherwise I would be so scared to miss that bus. The passenger name written on the tickets was “York Riter”. I have seen many variations of how to spell my name, but this particular one I have never encountered. At least they got one letter of my name correct. Well, it was not a big deal. After a short check of my bag they let me board the bus and we were on our way to Santa Elena at 21:07. The buses are very comfy, featuring inclining chairs with head support and quite some leg space. I had a front row seat, a good spot to observe. After leaving behind the heavy traffic of Guatemala City, I tried to settle in to get some sleep, which was difficult. At 01:00 there was a 15 minute break. Next stop was some kind of check point where they inspected the bus for fruits when we entered the department of Petén. In my opinion that was rather pointless, they asked some people to leave the bus, and they went in with torches and looked around. The one thing they didn’t check were the passengers bags, where I think fruits usually are. Anyway, that “inspection” was done in 10 minutes. After a 9 hour drive including all the stops we finally pulled into the bus terminal of Santa Elena.
So, here I am. The only information I have now is “Full Tour Tikal”, written on my next voucher. A bit lost I was wandering around in the terminal, which caught the attention of two guys, asking whether I need some help. I showed them my voucher, and they started to do some phone calls, and they finally told me to stay here and wait a few minutes. This happens often here in Guatemala. First I was a bit skeptical, thinking that they want to sell me something, but it turns out that they really want to help you. Asking people gets you far in this country, and I think I’ve learned to appreciate that.
Indeed, a couple minutes later a friendly guy called Fredy showed up, looking for a guy called “Jurgen”. I figured that was me. After showing him the voucher he confirmed that I was at the right place, and that we are waiting for more people. Shortly after that, we were joined by 3 girls. It turns out that they were from Costa Rica. After telling them that I was from Switzerland, I got slightly confused when one of them started to talk to me in Swiss German. She explained me that she went to college for one year in the German speaking part of Switzerland, and therefore speaks German and even Swiss German perfectly. What a coincidence. We loaded up in a minivan, and drove to Flores to grab some breakfast because it was too early for the tour. After this delicious breakfast, we headed to a hotel, picking up two Guatemalan ladies, and to Flores airport, picking up a guy from Colombia. We also got company from Edi, our guide for the day. With that our casual and perfectly sized group was complete. Notice something? I’m the only non-Spanish speaking guy. Anyway, I agreed that the tour will be in Spanish, as I was confident enough that I would understand quite a bit as per now. We hit the road towards Tikal, and Edi was providing us with some preliminary information about Tikal and the Mayan culture.
We were so lucky with the weather. There were some clouds at the sky, but still a lot of sun. And a breeze made the heat of the Guatemalan lowlands a little easier. After entering the Park, we started our 8 km hike, and instantly saw some wild turkeys, monkeys, and coatis (Nasenbär in German). Tikal apparently also is a wildlife park! 🙂 We hit the first Mayan temples, and I was really impressed with what kind of precision they built their monuments. These structures survived more than 1000 years, in a geologically very active zone. And they excavated only as little as 20% of the buildings of this immense city. All over the place there are hills where more treasures are waiting to be discovered. We were told that excavating and then maintaining all these structures is extremely expensive, and advances rather slowly for that reason.
The main plaza is so impressive, situated between 4 temples, one of which collapsed unfortunately. It is even possible to climb some of the structures, providing different views and angles of the place. Simply spectacular. Just imagine how it would have looked like back in Mayan times. All the buildings would have been painted in different colors.
While wandering on, our guide noticed some excitement among some park staff. It turns out that they found a huge spider when moving some rocks. Some might find them frightening, I find them fascinating. I even carried it on my hand, what an interesting experience!
Shortly after, we reached the tallest structure of Tikal, Temple IV. Its highest point stands more than 60 meters above its base support structure. It is even possible to climb almost to the top of this temple. Once at the top, you get rewarded with a spectacular view of the never ending forest of Petén, except of some temples surpassing the treetops.
While we climbed Temple IV, our guide bought himself a beer, knowing that our group wouldn’t mind. We hiked a little more, to places and temples where not a single tourist could be seen. In general I was surprised how little tourists were there, and of course I liked that fact. Like this it was even possible to take pictures without tourists spoiling the image.
We finished our 8 km hike at around 14:00, and went straight to the restaurant of the park, where we had a delicious lunch which was included in the package. We were all starving at that point. We hit the road again after lunch, back to Flores. The guide asked me how to pronounce some German sentences along the way, apparently he is studying a little German. The fact that he was probably having his 4th beer this afternoon made this “German class” even funnier. I was glad that we had a driver other than him at that point.
Back in Flores, we went for a drink in a restaurant at the shore of the lake, which also was a rather interesting experience. After 20 minutes, we still didn’t have our drinks, so we had to ask again. Eventually they brought us drinks, but some of them were not what we have ordered. When they finally arrived with the correct drinks, the waiter spilled some of them all over us, and if this was not enough, he wanted to charge me too much for the beer I had ordered. Sorry, no tip from me today!
After that experience, it was time to say good bye to some of the people, as they were heading back to the airport or the hotel. As my bus was leaving at 20:00, I went for a stroll around Flores with the remaining people, which were the 3 girls from Costa Rica. Flores is a really small, but picturesque little town. Very touristy though. After watching the beautiful sunset, we went for another drink, before I had to head back to the bus terminal to catch my night bus to Guatemala City. Due to some problems with their ordinary vehicles, they put me into a Tuk-Tuk, which brought me to the terminal.
The ride back was uneventful. After 9 hours, during which I was even able to sleep a little, we reached the bus terminal of Guatemala City. Time to use my 3rd voucher, the shuttle ride back to Antigua. Again, I didn’t have any idea where and how to use that. I asked a guy in the bus terminal, and he told me to wait inside for a couple minutes. And indeed, while I was chewing on some Doña Luisa banana bread that I have brought with me, a guy showed up looking for me. The shuttle brought me back to Antigua within an hour.
On purpose, this is not a post about the Mayan culture and history. What I would like to show in this post is how it is to travel around in Guatemala, and I hope it will help some people to decide whether traveling to Guatemala is the right choice for them or not. Well, most probably it is! 🙂