Guatemala certainly isn’t the biggest country in the world but it manages to pack a lot within its borders. We’d already seen volcanos, an amazing water park, a beautiful lake, a World Heritage city and the sublime scenery of Semuc Champey, and now it was time to visit another must-see sight in this must-visit country – the ancient Mayan site of Tikal (incidentally, another on the World Heritage list).
Predictably enough though, getting there involved another lengthy journey, the highlight of which was crossing a river by ferry: now this was no ordinary ferry, but was basically a glorified raft with oil drums at each corner, attached to which were four outboard motors. Now you might think there would be some sophisticated steering system in place to coordinate these motors, but you’d be mistaken; instead they only operated one, or occasionally two, at a time and weaved their way across the river. It was only a short journey across and there were signs that a bridge was in the early stages of construction – although we were glad to reach the other side it’d be a bit of a shame to lose such a quirky transport solution.So, after eight hours and with numb bums and lethargic limbs we reached Flores, a pleasant town jutting out into the middle of Lake Peten Itza, connected by a causeway to the mainland. This is the main tourist town for visiting Tikal, and some people (and guidebooks) do it down a little but we liked it – it felt like an island, being almost surrounded by water, had hilly little cobbled streets, a few craft shops and a couple of very decent places to eat. It also had auto-rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, which the girls loved; to top if all off it had an enormous Christmas tree in the square, with blaring music and glaring lights, and a chicken on top courtesy of the sponsors, Gallo beer. (Just in case anyone’s confused, we’re so far behind with our blog that we were actually there before Christmas and as such the tree was entirely appropriate, with the possible exception of the chicken).
We had a couple of quiet days exploring Flores, recovering from our bus journey and preparing for a sunrise tour of Tikal – this was to set a new record in early starts as we were being picked up at 3 am. Yes, that’s still the middle of the night, but somehow we were able to get ourselves and the kids up in time. The girls have proved remarkably resilient in getting up early for buses and enduring epic discomfort on long journeys – sometimes the things you think they might moan about are the things they take in their stride with very little fuss.
We left Flores at 3 and arrived at Tikal at 4 am, ready for an hour’s walk by torch-light through the jungle to climb Temple IV for sunrise. On the way we saw a jumping tarantula, which jumped down onto the path in front of the people in front of us – these are canopy dwelling spiders and apparently its quite rare to see them – this didn’t make the arachnophobes in our party feel much better! That aside, it was quite atmospheric walking though the darkness, with vast temples looming out of the gloom and a dotted line of torchlights leading the way. There was then many steps to scale before we could take our place near the top of Temple IV as the first signs of light and life began to appear. Unfortunately there were some people already up there who seemed to expect total silence and at first the main sounds we could hear were tuts, sighs and shushes. Considering there must have been about forty people there and that everyone had just climbed a hefty stairway to get there we thought it was a bit rude, particularly since nobody was making that much noise – that is, until everyone started getting their cameras out. This heralded a cacophony of bags being unzipped, followed by the distinctive ‘der-ding’ noise of digital cameras springing into life. Everyone comes here to listen to the sounds of the animals in the jungle waking up; maybe the monkeys and toucans come to listen to the curious song of the digital traveller, the photo-call of the often-spotted Western tourist.
However, in amongst all this, there was a moment of magic to savour. To hear the sounds of the jungle waking up and to see Tikal’s other temples slowly define themselves against the sky, with mist moving through the trees all around was quite an experience. It wasn’t much of a sunrise but we did get a brief burst of colour before the cloud descended and somehow all the man-made noise didn’t seem to matter so much.
We then had a guided tour; now we don’t often do guided tours, thinking it might be too much for the girls, but this was certainly worth doing, and Luis, the guide was fantastic. We’d already heard spider monkeys and toucans but then we went and found coatimundis, various birds and more monkeys. This was just on the walk between the various temples and ancient ruins themselves.
And the ruins were pretty amazing too, with huge monumental pyramids soaring upwards at improbably steep inclines. The jungle setting adds a dense green backdrop and the early morning mist adds an air of mystery; it was also really quiet too, with no stalls and very few people, making that 3 am start all the more worthwhile. If all that wasn’t quite enough it also starred in the first Star Wars movie, though George Lucas seems to have had better weather than we did.
Later, the girls were telling Luis about all the Mayan ruins we’d visited, and counted eight including Tikal. Luis said it was a shame we hadn’t seen nine, as this was a lucky number – we then recounted and realised we’d missed out Tonina, so we’d done the magic nine! We’re not sure that Tikal was our favourite but it wasn’t far off, and we saw another tarantula and some amazing trees, to round off a great trip.
We then headed back to Flores and got back in time for lunch – we’d been on a nine hour trip and still got back in time for lunch! Needless to say we were quite tired for the rest of the day, but still managed to see a glorious sunset over the lake. It’s not all that often we see both sunrise and sunset but then this hadn’t been an ordinary day – we would soon be leaving Guatemala but what a way to leave it. It had become one of our favourite countries, with fantastic sights and friendly people – what more could you ask for?