We just couldn’t leave Guatemala without visiting Tikal, the amazing ancient Mayan city built between 400 BC through to 900 AD. It is one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre-Colombian Mayan civilisations and the park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although there are over 16,000 buildings, many have not been excavated yet and we could see many pyramid shapes covered in vegetation just waiting to be revealed. It contains palaces, temples, pyramids and plazas and at the height of the city’s fortunes must have been an incredible place to live, deep in the rainforest.
Our week away began on Monday with the bus ride with Fuente Del Norte from Fronteras to Flores. It cost 100Q per person, or about 10 pounds each way. They don’t have the best reputation and friends recently told us of broken down buses, delays and having to stand up for hours in overcrowded buses without seat reservations. We were dreading it to be honest and were then pleasantly surprised. The clean, cool bus arrived half an hour late but there were plenty of spare seats and we had a good journey, arriving in the town next to Flores some three and a half hours later. Robert and Carla from ‘Moody Mistress’ came with us.
After a discussion with a taxi driver who wanted 20Q each to begin with, then down to 5Q each, we took a tuk-tuk to our hotels. A bridge connects Flores with the mainland around Lake Peten and it is a small town, full of hotels, restaurants and tourist agencies selling trips to the Mayan sites and into Belize and Mexico. We chose Casa Aemelia for our 4 night stay, a reasonably priced hotel overlooking the lake. Our room was clean and cool, with a good shower and quiet fan to replace the noisy air-conditioning for sleeping. A good breakfast was included in the price and their restaurant served plenty of food we enjoyed. A roof terrace could do with a few comfortable chairs but was a great place to watch the sun setting.
For the first day we explored Flores and it didn’t take long to walk all the streets. We met our friends for lunch in a local restaurant off the main square at the top of the islet. Cheap and tasty, so fine for lunch. Another cheap and tasty meal was had at the food stalls set up near our hotel each evening. For less than a pound we both had dinner and Rob had a huge slice of chocolate cake for desert.
Another evening we ate at Enrico’s, further north around the waterfront from our hotel. Good food once again. Plenty of happy hours, coffee and ice cream shops kept us more than full. The local dish of eggs with pureed black beans is not a favourite but the pancakes, muesli, yoghurt and fresh fruit goes down well. Our hotel also provided coffee and toast from 0330 for the early start to Tikal.
Carla found a good deal, just 100Q each for the return trip to Tikal, which takes around an hour. It included an English speaking guide, Lewis, who was excellent. The minibus was half an hour late, which at 0500 was a bit annoying. No explanation but if we’d got to Tikal before 0600 the park was shut unless you paid another 100Q for the sunrise tour. At the park gate we paid 150Q or fifteen pounds to get in and that was all. Much cheaper than some of the package tours we have read about. A small coffee shop sold sandwiches, crisps and drinks but by 0615 we were off, in a group of 13, walking along easy paths to the main temples, pyramids and plazas.
Along the way we saw a nasty coral snake, quite dangerous apparently, a howler monkey doing just that, very loudly and many birds, spider monkeys and insects. No jaguars though. The national park runs several different tours including wildlife and bird watching. You can also do a 3 day hike to other Mayan sites further into the spectacular countryside.
Getting there early meant it was quiet and cool. We wanted to climb Temple IV, the highest in the park so it was better to do that before 1000. The first building we climbed was a pyramid, with steps on all 4 sides. The Temples only have steps on one side. The views from the tops were beautiful, over the lush vegetation to other temples poking through the canopy. When the city was flourishing up to 200,000 Mayans lived there and there was no vegetation around the buildings just open roads and plazas. Nature reclaimed Tikal since the demise of the Mayan cities but it once thrived despite not being near water. They just collected rain. At their peak the Mayan world was made up of 52 million people and there are still 23 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala alone.
Coming down from the mountains, where the Kings and priests climbed high to speak to God, meant they had to build the pyramids and temples to replicate them. The sides of the pyramids face north, south, east and west and were for astronomy. The temples were built for prayer and so the sun shone through doors and windows at different times of the day and year. Winter solstice on 21 December is celebrated at Temple IV for example. Under Temple I a King was buried with jade jewellery and death mask. His necklace was made of 114 huge jade beads which weighed nearly 4kg in total. He was very tall for a Mayan at 1.8 metres whereas most of the lower classes were around 1.5 metres but strong and stocky. There were 52 pots of offerings around him including jaguar skins.
One acropolis contained 2 big temples and many smaller buildings. There are wooden staircases to make climbing the temples easier and we went up Temple II for a view over the acropolis. Standing stones were inscribed with the history of the people and round stones were used in ceremonies, for offerings and sacrifices, some human. We heard that it was the winning rather than the losing team that was put to death, an honour in Tikal. Work continues on renovating the buildings but it is slow and expensive. Mayan culture is fascinating and I should spend some time reading up on it. The tribes seem to have been very blood thirsty.
We continued through the lush rainforest and passed some workmen making repairs. They were using an old motorbike as an engine to get the materials to the top of the pyramid. Ingenious.
Temple IV is over 70 metres high and the highest pre-Columbian Mayan structure remaining in the New World. From the top you can see Temples I, II and III poking out from the rainforest. Once we had taken in the beauty of the view from the top of Temple IV the tour was over and we were free to explore the rest of the huge park. Buses returned at 1100, 1230 and 1500 so we opted for the middle one to give us time to visit a few areas we had missed on the way in. As luck would have it we passed by Temple V just as a Mayan priest was setting up the altar for a specially requested offering. A couple having relationship problems had asked him to get help from the Gods and he had come to the sacred site to lay out a variety of items.
He told us that Temple V faces north and he was laying out coloured sugar with black denoting north, symbolising death, red was for south, the beginning, yellow was west and white east. He lay out huge cigars, candles, incense balls, honey, bay leaves, pine needles and several other items in the circular pit ready to be lit. Like God speaking to Moses in the burning bush, they believe fire and God are connected. He also told us the temples were painted when the city was inhabited. The ceremony was held at Tikal the day we visited but the priest also conducts it on a smaller scale every day at home.
The following day we chilled out around Flores, walked into the town and were pleased to find a well stocked supermarket with goods we hadn’t seen in nearly 5 months, such as shower gel and Heinz ketchup! They had put up some Christmas decorations in the mall complete with old-fashioned plastic reindeer and a Father Christmas. In the afternoon I joined a Mayan family for a chocolate making workshop, the drink rather than chocolates. This initiative helps supports the local people as their tourist trade has dropped to 20% of what it was, a huge change. It was interesting to see how the family lives and cooks, to meet the children and help with the process. We first toasted cocoa beans in a dry pan over lit wood. Then we had to take the shells off by hand, a sociable task the women do whilst chatting. Next the dark chocolate beans were ground on a special stone but it’s a long and tiring job so we only did 5% of them before using a grinder.
Next we ground this into a paste, adding honey, vanilla, chilli and pepper and mashed the flavours in. Then we formed big discs using the heat of our palms and finally melted a couple in a pan of boiling water until it turned into thick, creamy hot chocolate. The chilli and pepper was a bit overdone but the result was very drinkable and full of antioxidants. Might try it again with rum, nuts, cinnamon and raisins instead. The workshop cost 150Q and the 3 of us were picked up at a hotel in Flores to drive the few miles to the farm. Volunteers stay with local families helping to drum up business and learning Spanish. Courses are also run in making avocado oil, coconut oil, the Mayan calendar and crops. The entire session was in Spanish but I understand they also have English ones.
The return bus journey was late starting due to a mechanical failure but the booking office had a computer terminal and we had reserved, numbered seats. We were only an hour late, not bad! We are now back on the boat for just 2 days before heading west to Antigua and the kite festival with a host of friends. I am looking forward to another cultural experience in lovely Guatemala.