Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tikal, Guatemala

The next morning we woke up in time to explore the property a bit. Casa de Don David is located next to a lake near El Remate, 15 minutes outside of Tikal itself. There are some cute fruit trees and all the rooms are well air-conditioned, which turned out to be really important, as it was much much hotter in El Peten than in Antigua.

After a hot breakfast, we were picked up by our driver and our guide for the day, Samuel. We made a quick stop to buy our entrance tickets (about 20 USD per person) and then we were on our way.

We started out over by Complex Q (and the matching Complex R). Pretty much every place we stopped, Samuel asked us if we wanted to climb up to take a look, and we said yes. At the top of the Complex Q pyramid, we had our first glimpse of some howler monkeys, but they were too far away to get any good photos.

We wondered why Complex R and Complex Q were so similar, and Samuel told us that each set of twin pyramids was built at 20 year intervals to mark the end of a "k'atun", a unit of time in the Mayan calendar. These particular pyramids were built in the late 6th century.

At first we were really psyched to see these coati running around, but we soon realized they were really common.

From there we hiked up towards Temple IV, the highest point in Tikal. This is the view from the top of Temple IV, with Temples I, II, III, and V visible in the distance:

There were some people working on replicating of the original carved lintels that had been inside of the temples, and Samuel persuaded them to let me (and my camera) take a peek:

It was a hot day and we were a bit tired from all the climbing already so we stopped at some picnic benches after descending from Temple IV for a snack and some cold drinks (amazingly there was a guy there selling drinks, and even more amazingly, they were not a total ripoff).

Afterwards we looped by Complex N and saw some of the giant underground caves that the Mayans had used to store food and water, and then went to climb "El Mundo Perdido", aka the Lost World. Samuel explained to us that it was the oldest part of Tikal, and had been built in the 4th century.

Nearby he showed us a series of seven temples which were built for astronomical observation purposes; when viewed from a nearby platform, the first would line up with the sun at the winter solstice, the middle one at the spring and fall equinoxes, and the last at the summer solstice.

Next we attempted our highest climb yet; Temple V.

The climb was not so bad despite the wooden stairs being a little rickety, but it was a little scary to look down from the top.

After catching our breaths again at the bottom, we headed for the famous Great Plaza. On the way we spotted some spider monkeys at close range:

The Great Plaza and its temples (I & II) are probably the best known structures at Tikal. Samuel told us we could climb up Temple II, so we went up and were able get some nice shots of Temple I.

That was pretty much the end of the guided part of our tour; from there he set us loose in the North Acropolis and we wandered around exploring by ourselves for an hour or so. It was amazing that there weren't more tourists; I think the whole day we ran across maybe ten small groups of other people. We guessed that the rest had been scared away by the reports of gang violence on the Mexican border, and enjoyed the peace and quiet immensely.

On the way out we spotted some toucans; one living inside a tree trunk, and this one just hanging out on a branch:

We got back to our lodge in mid-afternoon, and were eager to shower, change, and just lounge around in our hammocks for the rest of the day while we waited for the heat to subside. For dinner we had beef shortribs and some delicious fresh juices (mango and watermelon), and of course eventually we ended up playing some Settlers.

We'd had a good time with Samuel the previous day, so we asked him to take us to another site the next day called Yaxha. It's most famous for being the site of Survivor Guatemala, but also has several impressive ruins and borders a lake.

This is one of the temple pyramids at Yaxha:

I think we were all a bit tired from the previous day's excursion, and certainly Yaxha is not as impressive as Tikal, so we mostly just wandered around, occasionally climbing some ruins and spotting monkeys and other wildlife.

There was a large ballcourt near the entrance, which prompted Samuel to explain the Mayan ball game to us. The players were not allowed to touch the ball with their hands or feet, but were expected to put the ball through stone rings to score points. The games were sometimes played as part of rituals and could even involve human sacrifice (we were unclear if it was the winners or the losers who would be sacrificed).

After leaving Yaxha, we proceeded on to the Belizean border. We had arranged for Samuel and our driver to take us all the way to our lodge near San Ignacio, so they coached us through the border crossing. First, we had to pay an entrance tax to Belize. Then, we got our passports and unloaded all our luggage from the van. We crossed the border on foot with our luggage, so they could inspect it if they liked (they didn't bother), and then we reloaded the van on the other side. Samuel cautioned us not to speak to him in English while we were crossing; I wasn't clear on the rationale but it seemed there was some hostility between the English-speaking Belizeans and the Spanish-speaking Guatemalans.

The border crossing took a good half hour, and it was really hot, but otherwise everything went smoothly. There were tons of guys trying to help us exchange money on both side of the border, but they were pretty good at going away once we refused.

It was less than twenty minutes from the border to the town of San Ignacio. We stopped there briefly to get some Belizean dollars from an ATM (roughly 2:1 vs the USD). We had booked two nights at the Table Rock Jungle Lodge, and distance-wise it was only about three miles from San Ignacio, but unfortunately it was down a really nasty dirt road. I think it took us another 20-30 minutes of very bumpy driving to get there, so we were quite exhausted when we finally arrived.

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