Guatemala

 

Flores

13 February

The effects of yesterday’s activities caught up with me overnight and I was extremely reluctant to get out of bed when the alarm went off at 5am this morning. This is the point of the tour when I regret being on it, as there is just not enough time to stop and look at things properly before rushing on again.

One of the temples at Tikal
One of the temples at Tikal

This morning we had to get to the Guatemalan border early so that we could go to Tikal on the way to Flores. Tikal is one of the Mayan sites that I had been really looking forward to seeing and it lived up to expectations (apart from the rain). It is one of the biggest sites, situated right in the jungle with many temples, popping up through the trees, that had already been excavated and restored and many more that have been left as they are, covered and surrounded by greenery. The reason for this is lack of money to initially restore them and then to maintain them following excavation as, being limestone, they erode very quickly. Whilst they are overgrown, they are protected from the ravages of the weather.

View of the temples through the rain at Tikal
View of the temples through the rain at Tikal

At its height, in 700 AD, approximately 100,000 Mayans lived in Tikal. It was built, as with all the Mayan temples and pyramids, with astrology in mind. Temples numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 all line up either with the equinoxes or with the solstices so that at an equinox, for example, the sun rises exactly over the point of Pyramid/Temple 2 and sets exactly over the point of Temple 4 and the same applies with the solstices and the other Pyramids.

The main plaza at Tikal
The main plaza at Tikal

Temple covered in greenery
Temple covered in greenery
Carved face in the rock at Tikal
Carved face in the rock at Tikal

The city was a little more forward thinking than some of the others in that it built an enormous reservoir for water collection. However, its decline was also a result of lack of water. There appears to be a common assumption with all the sites we have visited so far that their declines were a direct result of deforestation and land clearance in order to plant crops and use the timber for building. The effect of this was climate change, lack of water, crops not growing and people therefore dying of malnutrition. Some of the few Mayans who survived migrated to the highlands of Guatemala and El Salvador from the central area and some of their descendants remain in Guatemala today.

On top of a temple at Tikal
On top of a temple at Tikal
Some sort of animal
Some sort of animal

Our guide, Miguel, was very informative and he, himself, had worked for 13 years on the Tikal restoration project. He took us round for over 3 hours before we adjourned for lunch at the restaurant. One of the disappointments was that we didn’t see more wildlife. There are apparently, jaguar, tapir, howler monkeys and anteaters in the jungle. However, all we saw were a couple of spider monkeys, some very colourful turkeys, parrots and another animal I have never heard of.

After lunch we had a couple of hour’s drive to Flores, which is an island on a lake, joined to the mainland at St Helena by a bridge. We were warned that this town was a no-go zone as it had been the scene of a massacre a few days before (Mexicans killing Guatemalans with chain saws apparently). However, Flores was quite safe!

Lake at Flores
Lake at Flores

I had a wander around the town for an hour or so. This was very attractive, with some very colourful houses and cobbled streets. Unfortunately, the weather was still a bit grey and drizzly but, hopefully, tomorrow will improve.

Colourful houses in Flores
Colourful houses in Flores
Street in Flores
Street in Flores
Cobbled street in Flores
Cobbled street in Flores

We all went out to dinner at 7pm, which was a mistake. It was the first time the entire group have eaten together and the service was unbelievably slow. As I have had no real relaxation time over the last few days, I was very tired and just wanted to go to bed, especially as we have another early start tomorrow. Neither I, nor my room mate, were very happy this evening and left the others as soon as we had finished eating.

Inside the church in Flores
Inside the church in Flores

Rio Dulce

14 February

The alarm went off at 6am this morning and I was not happy! I was still recovering from the caving and am very tired and achy. We were not allowed even to stop for coffee, let alone breakfast this morning as we had to be on the road early. Becky, the tour leader, provided us with a large slab of banana cake, made specially by a local lady, to eat on the bus, which was very nice. However, it definitely needed coffee to wash it down.

A little way into the journey, I realised I had left my phone cable, international adapter and ipad charger all plugged into the wall in the hotel. As can be imagined, this improved my mood no end, especially when I found out that they were going to be difficult to replace in Antigua.

Jetty at Rio Dulce
Jetty at Rio Dulce
Waiting for the ferry at Rio Dulce
Waiting for the ferry at Rio Dulce

The morning was cloudy and drizzly when we set off and improved slightly along the way so that by the time we reached Rio Dulce, the sun was attempting to shine. The scenery we passed through along the way was very attractive with both steep and rolling hills. Initially, the villages seemed very poor, judging by the state of the houses and the gardens, but there were certainly some very well kept land and houses further along. The houses were generally made of wood and a lot of them have thatched roofs, although there are also many made of plaster and tin roofs. Many of the men we passed carried very large machetes tucked into their belts. They obviously have to be prepared for any eventuality!

Rio Dulce
Rio Dulce

Rio Dulce itself was a very bustling town with a large number of little shops and lots of traffic in the narrow main road. Our driver, Elvis, was very skilled at getting through narrow spaces, however, so it wasn’t a problem for us, except when a truck stopped and blocked the entire way. We caught a ferry across to Catamaran Hotel, which is on an island on the lake. On the way, we went up to the mouth of the river where there were quite a number of fishermen in canoes.

Caste at the mouth of the river at Rio Dulce
Castle at the mouth of the river at Rio Dulce

We were unable to check into our rooms, which are wooden chalets on the water, so we left our bags and got straight onto a boat for a trip across the largest lake in Guatemala. The trip also took us up the canyon where the first Tarzan movie was filmed in the 1940’s, and on to Livingstone, which is a small town on the Caribbean.

Tarzan's canyon
Tarzan’s canyon
House on the river
House on the river

Our boatman stopped along the way in little channels to look for wild life but all we saw were a few birds and a water snake up a tree. There were a number of people living over the water on these channels in quite impoverished conditions. By contrast, there were also some very fine looking houses along the lake and canyon. Apparently, Rio Dulce is a haven for yachtsmen escaping from hurricanes in the Caribbean, so they were a lot of marinas with some very expensive looking boats in them. The population of Rio Dulce comprises of these boat people, poor and very wealthy Guatemalans.

House on the river
House on the river
Pelican on a shrimp boat
Pelican on a shrimp boat

We eventually reached Livingstone and some much needed coffee after which I almost felt civilised again. We ate in a local restaurant and had homemade tortilla with a filling that was a local speciality. After this, we had a wander around the main street, which didn’t take long as it is very small. The ladies, here, have a very pretty costume of skirt and lacey top, which they wear in all different colour combinations. There are apparently a lot of drugs here and we were advised not to go into the more local area but stay in the tourist part.

Livingstone main street
Livingstone main street

The journey back to the hotel was much quicker than the one going out. Once there, I sat in the reception area for a while to use the wifi and then went for a quick swim before dinner. This was another local speciality – fish soup, which was very tasty. It had a lot of different fish in it that were a bit hard to eat. After that, I sat on the veranda for a while doing my diary before I started getting eaten by the mosquitoes and decided it was time for bed.

On the boat
On the boat

Antigua

15 February

The last few days have been the epitome of what I really dislike about group travel. We have been racing through places at a pace and now feel as though I can hardly say that I have visited them. We have spent very long hours sitting cramped in a bus after very early starts and have had few stops. The buses have been private (no less cramped) because it is considered to be too dangerous in Guatemala at the moment to use the public ones.

Today was no different. Being charged for cereal after I ordered a Continental breakfast added to my ill humour (my misunderstanding). We left the hotel at 7.30am to get the ferry across to the bus and we were on the road by 8am. We were heading for Antigua but had to leave early in case the traffic in Guatemala City was exceptionally bad. (It is always bad.) The day was grey and drizzling.

Guatemalan bus
Guatemalan bus

To start with, the scenery was jungle and the villages were very poor looking. Visibility was not great but there were probably some hills. However, after a couple of hours, it suddenly changed considerably and the mountains became very steep and extremely dry. The sun came out and when we had a rest stop, it was very hot.

We continued along our way, having one more stop just before Guatemala City. Once there, the windows had to go up and we couldn’t stop because it was too dangerous. I noticed the usual security guards, policemen armed with some serious weaponry and barbed wire on top of fences and walls to support the danger this theory. Being on the road was probably just as dangerous, given the standard of driving. I suspect they don’t need to take a driving test here!

Antigua
Antigua

We arrived in Antigua just before 3pm, left our bags in our rooms and went straight out for an orientation tour, after which it was free time. Hooray! I wandered way out of the crowded tourist area and ended up talking to an American woman, who told me the cafe up the road had a garden I could walk around. It was in fact, a garden centre, so I sat and had a coffee in the cafe amongst the plants. Very restful.

Motorbikes in Antigua
Motorbikes in Antigua
Plaza in Antigua
Plaza in Antigua

Antigua is a beautiful old city at the foot of a couple of volcanoes, one of which towers above it and is a convenient landmark for when you are lost. I walked back to the main square and sat and watched the people for a while. These plazas are always busy. A group was playing music, local people were selling their handicrafts and overseas tourists mingled with local ones. There were also fireworks being let off periodically for some reason, possibly a festival.

I got back to the hotel about 6.30pm feeling a lot better. Luckily, I bumped into two group members on the way, or I might still be wandering as I had got into the vicinity of the hotel but just couldn’t find it’s little blue entrance door!

The hotel in Antigua
The hotel in Antigua

We all went out to dinner tonight as it was the last night for 3 people who were leaving the tour here. After that, it was back to bed for me and a bit more drinking for some of the others, including my room mate so I got a bit more time on my own.

Antigua

16 February

Volcano in Antigua
Volcano in Antigua
Dog in window in Antigua
Dog in window in Antigua

I woke early after a good sleep and felt a lot better. Becky and I went for an earlyish walk to take some photos before the tourists arrived and to catch the early morning light. It was a beautiful blue sky day. We came back for breakfast at a cafe nearby, having the ‘tipico’ choice of revueltos eggs and beans, which was one of the better meals of this variety that we had had. The rest of the group appeared at intervals, some of whom were in a more precarious state than others.

Man selling jumping dinosaurs in Antigua
Man selling jumping dinosaurs in Antigua

Musician in Antigua
Musician in Antigua
Macdonalds playground in Antigua
Macdonalds playground in Antigua

Once I had eaten, I came back and took my boots, which were still absolutely soaking from the cave trip, to the other hotel that the tour company normally uses, so that they could be put on the roof to dry in the sun. (Ours didn’t have anywhere in the sun.)  If they didn’t dry today, they would be walking to the rubbish bin on their own and I would have cause for another sulk.

Local lady in Antigua
Local lady in Antigua

After that, I trekked off to try and find a shop that sold phone cables and adapters to replace the ones I had left in Flores. Success! The day was going to be a good one. The next four hours were mostly spent either parked on the edge of the pavement (just like a local) or on a bench in the park where I listened to music and people watched. It was all very entertaining.

Of course, there were the inevitable hawkers, as they are unavoidable but, generally speaking, they did not hassle too much and once ‘non gracias’ has been said a couple of times, they usually went away. I did, however, succumb to one lady, who came and sat on the bench next to me. We had a little chat (she had a little bit of English) and she said that she had 3 boys and her husband was dead so she made all the cloths herself to support her children.  I am now the proud owner of a woven table runner for which, no doubt, I paid over the odds and which would not have been my first choice of cloth. However, I would like to think I have fed her children for the next week and at least we had a laugh in the process.

Happy lady in Antigua
Happy lady in Antigua. I had just helped feed her family with my purchase!

Musician and man in furry jacket
Musician and man in furry jacket
Market place in Antigua
Market place in Antigua

I wandered back to the hotel after this to do the blog and relax a little before tonight’s meeting and dinner. However, once there, one of the group members was talking about the lookout, so I decided I should go up there instead of a rest and relaxation. Helen came with me and the effort was definitely worth it. There was a beautiful view looking out over the city and the volcano (as I suppose one would expect given that it was a lookout!) in the late afternoon sun.

View from lookout in Antigua
View from lookout in Antigua

We just got back in time for the meeting about the next part of the trip, my boots had been delivered back, now all nice and dry, and all was right with the world. We all went out to dinner en masse again, with 2 new additions (another two were arriving later), and then it was off to bed.

Baroque church in Antigua
Baroque church in Antigua