20 June, 2010

Mayan Ruins

Date: June 20. 2010
Location: Tikal National Park, Guatemala
Position: N 17 13.330 W 089 37.416

We started this Khronicle back in June and are just now getting back to it. And we actually have some pictures this time, too!

Inland travel is one of the best perks when you're “on the Rio”. Guatemala is rich in Mayan culture and ruins and there are several well-developed sites within reach. Back in June we took a trip to the Mayan ruins at Tikal (“tih-cahl”) and Yaxha (“yah-shah”) in the northern part of Guatemala along with our friends on “Osprey” and “Diva”.
We made arrangements with a local tour company for a van and driver for four days for $50 each – a pretty good deal, considering he'd be available to take us wherever we wanted to go in the area. We met at Tienda Ingrid at 8 am and by 8:30 we were loaded up and on our way. With 7 adults and two kids the van was full but comfortable – just as well, since we had a four hour trip ahead of us. Our driver Enrique didn't speak English, so we all got to practice our pidgin Spanish on him, poor fellow.

This was the first trip inland for all of us and we enjoyed seeing the small towns, the rain forest, the mountains, the farms, and all the beautiful views.

Lots of Guatemalan stuff for sale
Our first stop was the town of Flores. This small town is on an island on Lake Petén Itzá and is connected to the mainland by a causeway It's a quaint tourist destination with steep winding streets, colorful buildings and really interesting architecture. We're not sure if tourism is down or if everyone heard we were coming, but the town was very quiet.

We had a great lunch at Restaurante Los Peches.
The food was cheap and delicious, but the big draw was the sign reading “5 beers for Q40” (that's just $1 each). It was a hot thirsty day and we made the best of it. The owner even brought his pet parrot over to visit with us while we waited for our lunch.
From Flores we drove to El Remate, a small town on the opposite end of the the lake. El Remate is not far from the Tikal park, making it a convenient location for us. We stayed at "Casa Don David" for three nights.
These are our rooms at Casa Don David
The gardens at Casa Don David, check out the topiary
Enrique connected us with a guide he knew who lives next door to the hotel and we arranged to all meet outside the hotel at 5:30 the next morning.

The next morning we all met as scheduled, although the adults in the crowd were a little subdued after celebrating Wendy from Osprey's birthday the night before.

We can't say enough good things about Tikal. Our guide Luis was amazing. He really brought the ruins to life through his stories of growing up there, explanations of Mayan culture and religion, and his love of nature.

The first thing Luis did was lure a tarantula out of it's hole!
He took us on back trails where we barely saw any other tourists giving us the chance to really get a feel for the site.
Luis is not only a student of anthropology, he's of Mayan descent, an avid birdwatcher with a degree in biology, and the second licensed archeological guide in Guatemala. As expected, we saw a lot of ruins.

We are sitting way up on top of Temple IV
....and here is the view
Temple I, II and III
But we also saw tarantulas, 21 species of birds, howler and spider monkeys, crocodiles, and loads of other wildlife during our 7 hour walking tour.

Wild turkey

A ceiba tree, the national tree of Guatemala
Luis' enthusiasm was infectious. He'd periodically say “Look...a [insert animal or bird name here]. See it?” and go dashing off into the jungle trying to get a good photo of it for us. He coaxed a tarantula out of it's hole and let the kids hold it. He got the howler monkeys howling for us.
Spider Monkey
Huge grasshopper


He showed us a site where, if you stood in the right spot and clapped your hands you'd hear not only the echo of the clap but a loud, distinct squeak following it. No idea how the Mayans arranged that.
The 'squeak' was right here where Kaeo is being prepared for sacrifice
Jaguar Temple
Central Acropolis

The day was hot and muggy but luckily most of the time we were walking through the jungle in the shade. Then we'd suddenly burst out into an opening and be confronted by a huge pyramid or series of caves or a ball court, or the Plaza of the Lost World , finally ending up at the Great Plaza.
His explanations about the sun, solstices, construction, and sacrifices were amazing. He gave us just the information we needed to bring the ruins to life without overloading us with details. We were all so glad that we'd hired a guide and specifically Luis - he was great.

Wendy, Debbie and the kids obviously had not got enough exercise for the day (though, after walking around the ruins for 7 hours, the rest of us were ready for a break) so we stopped at a zip line on the way back to the hotel!! While they did the zip line a.k.a canopy tour, the “non-zippers” relaxed watching the World Cup with frosty beers in hand.
The next day we could identify every muscle in our legs, they all ached from climbing up and down those pyramids. We spent the morning loosening up by wandering around El Remate, then Luis went with us again to another archeological site named Yaxha.

The ball court at Yaxha
A stele , a stone slab inscribed and carved in relief
Temple from afar
Temple close up

Yaxha - North Acropolis where the TV show “Survivor Guatemala – The Mayan Empire” held their tribal councils. Does that make us special, or what?
Yaxha was about an hours drive away, smaller and less developed than Tikal, but still different and very interesting. Being less developed we were able to see many pyramids and buildings as the first explorers must have seen them – rather steep hills covered with trees. This gave us a much better feel for the vast amount of work that goes into excavating a site like this.
One of hundreds of unexcavated pyramids dotted around Guatemala
still waiting to be uncovered
We spent a couple of hours walking around the ruins and then Luis arranged special permission for us to stay late so we could watch the sunset over the jungle from the top of one of the pyramids – Wow!!!

A couple of other pictures we wanted to share
Carniceria = Butcher shop!!! Wouldn't want to be that cow!
Insulation - Guatemala style.
Plastic bottles framed and covered with stucco, recycling at work.