Saturday, December 03, 2016

The road to Tikal

November 2015.  Newly-licensed controller Ammon and long-suffering (training is hard on the spouse) sidekick Sasha prepare to embark on their first significant overseas trip together.  It was to be their first multi-stop, non-resort holiday, lasting a grand total of 16 days.  Nerves from Ammon, excitement from Sasha.  Sasha was to finally get a taste of "backpacking", Ammon, a chance to dust off the rusty skills and get adventurous again after a 3-year hiatus. 
The inspiration: A nearly similarly routed trip by Bre and Donovan 2 years prior.
Flights booked? Check. 
Guidebook borrowed from the library? Check.
Passports still valid? Check.
Just one thing  missing......recruit backup. 
Enter Mom.
What more could a well-adjusted, mature man do but call his mother and invite her to partake in the madness again in times like these?  She had, after all, survived everything before.

The first difficulty was encountered immediately after exiting Cancun airport on arrival.  Mom, arriving an hour earlier from Amsterdam in a different terminal was nowhere to be seen, and there was no wifi to coordinate.  And then Mom, like the shining saviour she was recruited to be, strides into the terminal to rescue the two bewildered travellers who were in the process of being devoured by time-share touts. 
Quickly fleeing to the sanctuary of an air-conditioned bus direct to Playa del Carmen, the three spent the first night in the company of a friend of Sasha's who had been visiting there at the time.  Numerous small hotels, beachfront restaurants, a pedestrianized-waterfront street, brand name shopping.  Tourist paradise on Earth?  Three differing opinions were voiced on this very topic, but no consensus was reached for early the next morning they would depart, further from development and closer to adventure.

Aircon coach bus from Playa del Carmen south to Chetumal on smooth roads, past resort and theme park entrances and views of thick green bush alongside the highway.  Brief confusion during a 10 minute walk from the bus station to a small market with buses departing for Belize city.  Bump, bump, rattle, rattle, stop for passengers randomly and often.  This, Ammon remembers. Back pain, uncomfortable seats.  This, Mom remembers.  Children in school uniforms and small settlements outside the window.  This, Sasha will remember. 
Darkness in Belize city at the bus station is less than ideal.  It's small, little more than a parking lot, a couple little convenience food and supply stands and dark, undeveloped roads around.  No ATM, no major signs of life but plenty of factors suggesting it was best to continue moving on.  So onward they continued.  12hrs of buses and transfers before stumbling off the bus and into the waiting arms of the quiet town of San Ignacio, Belize. 
San Ignacio, like all things in Belize, is small, quiet and easily manageable.  It makes an excellent base for exploring the western portion of the country and caters well to foreign visitors with nice little restaurants, a good selection of accommodation, banks, tour agencies, transportation and sites to visit.  Popular destinations from San Ignacio include cave tours, hill stations and a variety of Mayan ruins.  Using San Ignacio as a base for the following three days our protagonists made excursions to the mayan ruins of Xunatunich and Cahal Pech as well as the Belize Zoo. 
Xunatunich is an old Mayan centre of significant size and well preserved and makes a nice introduction to Mayan ruins without the crowds and chaos of the more famous locations.  It has a more open and manicured feel.
Cahal Pech is on a hill above San Ignacio a 20 minute walk away and was surprisingly deserted, allowing an adventurous scramble amongst the more moss-covered and atmospheric ruins. Beware of wicked Mayan spirits, who were surely behind Sasha's falling and earning her first lumps. 
The Belize Zoo is something special.  It is more of an animal rehabilitation and wildlife education centre and is quite small, but contains only local species.  The setting feels like walking in the jungle and is very intimate with well kept animals in well thought out pens yet still easily viewed and admired.  Jaguars, howler and spider monkeys, toucans, tapir, crocodiles, harpy eagles and macaws all made their presence known.  Crowds were small and despite a downpour on departure, it remains a highlight of the trip. 
Quiet San Igancio, Belize

Belize breakfast

The Dr. Pepper junkie is back
Hand-crank ferry to Xunatunich


Belize zoo - Tapir



Spider Monkey
Cahal Pech
Cahal Pech

Tikal. Mighty Tikal.  Once a major Mayan city the 1300 year old ruins are worthy of inclusion on the list of great world ruins.  In the far northeast of Guatemala, there are three main strategies for a visit. 
1.  A long and exhausting day trip as a tour from San Ignacio.  Terrible idea. 
2.  A long day trip/tour from Flores, Guatemala.  The most common strategy, perhaps best for those in a hurry or on a budget but without actually saving much budget or time. 
3.  Stay in Tikal overnight in the little village of three hotels and a couple tourist shops just outside the ruins.  There are budget options, there are nice options, there is way more atmosphere. 
In his infinite wisdom Ammon chose to take a chance on option #3. 
From San Ignacio, a bus, a walk across a border (~2km, not altogether appreciated by his sweating sidekicks), another bus, a wait at a highway junction.  The girls glow from the heat, Ammon sweats for lack of public transit going the right direction and a plan only half formed in his head.  Within 45 minutes a tour bus stops to pick up our stranded travelers.    It is a group of backpackers taking option #2. 
We quickly learn the following:
1. We would rather not be with a tour.
2. Pretty much everyone can speak better Spanish than us.
3. The entrance to the Tikal archaeological area  (where you buy your ticket) is a 20 minute drive from the ruins. 
4. We were ahead of schedule but our new and improved plan was still going to work.
Unbeknownst to many visitors to Tikal, if you enter the site and buy a standard entry ticket after 3:30pm, the ticket is valid for the following day.  So thanking the tour group, we bailed out at the entrance gate and waited 2hrs until 3:30pm to buy tickets along with about half a dozen other independent travellers that had also somehow made their way to the gate on their own.  The ticket office started selling next-day tickets (cash only) at the appointed time and, like a carefully orchestrated dance, an old beat up little school bus (the last of the day) full of local Guatemalans pulls up to squeeze all the strategic travelers in. 
Quickly checking into the very adequate budget rooms at the appropriately named Jungle Lodge, Sasha admires the view of the jungle canopy and monkeys swinging in the trees, Ammon, in well-concealed terror searches for man-eating spiders lurking under the bed...  Satisfied as to the immediate survivability of the situation, the three excited visitors quickly walk into the ruins complex for a teaser of what's to come the following day in the final hour of daylight available.  There are night tickets and tours of the ruins available as well as sunrise options but they were deemed too risky with rain in the forecast. 
The following day, packing snacks and drinks for a full expedition, our well-rested and energized heroes channelled their inner Indiana Jones and set out to explore.  Unlike most other popular tourist attractions, Tikal still retains a very wild and undeveloped feel.  It is a walk through the jungle to find some ruins without the manicured lawns, information signs and concrete pathways you'd typically expect to see.  Roots, mud and wildlife are very much part of the experience.  Monkeys, parrots, coatimundi, frogs and bugs abound.  The central ruined temples are very popular but few people have the time or energy to walk out to the lesser known and more distant ones that can be as much as a 20 minute walk from each other.  It is also possible to climb to the upper levels of some of the larger temples, from which you can catch a glimpse of the other tops rising above a solid mass of treetops stretching as far as the eye can see. 
The feeling of sitting on top of an ancient ruin listening to troops of howler monkeys roaring at each other in the distant trees below?  In a word, Chills. Eerie. Wild.  Or perhaps just Scary.  It sounds like hungry unseen dinosaurs waiting to rip you to shreds the minute you descend. Risking life and limb the adrenalized explorers climbed and crawled and wandered.  Poking a head in here, scrambling over stones there, they soared in the bliss of discovery.  7.5hrs later, exhausted but triumphant, confident in having covered every trail in search of all there was on offer, they wearily stumbled back to their jungle abode to gaze contentedly at the jungle mass from the relative safety of a fine dining room.  That night they drifted into the perfect slumber of the content.
Jungle lodge, Tikal

Off to find a temple



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