Professional Tikal-ing

From Caye Caulker we spent the best part of a day on boat (8-9am) and then bus (10.30-4.30pm) to get across the border and to Flores in Guatemala.

After boarding the bus we had a nice introductory speech to give us a flavour of what we’re in for in Guatemala:

“The driver is not allowed to stop anywhere but in St Ignacio for the ATM, the border, and Flores. He is not allowed to pick anyone up. He will be fined $400 (US) if he does.

You have to pay an exit tax 37.50BZ each, that’s why we normally stop at the ATM.

I advise you to change all your last BZ to Quetzals because BZ is useless in Guatemala. Lots of people will approach you at the border to change money, it won’t be the best rate but we advise that you actually use them.

Don’t leave anything on the bus while you go through the border. Your bags down below are fine, they won’t be tampered with – but don’t leave anything up here (we’ve seen things go missing).

It is illegal for the Guatemalan officials to ask for an entry tax at the Guatemalan border, and I used to advise against doing so (its a scam) – BUT, we are now finding the officials don’t stamp your passport (or put the wrong date on it) if you don’t pay. So now, I know you have your principles, but I advise you just to pay the Q20 to save any hassle – and to check your stamp!

Last thing, if you need the bathroom – go this side of the border, its clean. I won’t say anything more.”

Well, OK. Interesting.

As we near the border, the driver stops so his mate can get out and pick up his laundry. Hmm. Then he stops again so his mate can pick up a sack of potatoes. Ahem.

We get across the border with no issues, the bus waits while you pay money at different counters and get passports stamped.

We’re a bit apprehensive now we’re in Guatemala, there are stories of hold ups and robberies of tourists – but not normally on this size bus. Still, money belt on, cards hidden in secret pockets etc. The tarmac road turns to dirt track for a good few kilometres as we travel through lush green landscapes, forests and lakes. The stray dogs everywhere don’t seem perturbed by the 47-seater bus hurtling towards them (we find out later that this makes for some interesting road kill discoveries).

As we near Flores, the driver takes the third exit on a roundabout to stop at a particular petrol station (i.e. goes back on himself). A van and 2 tuk tuks are waiting. 3 people get on the bus and go right to the back, then start bringing down boxes and boxes and bags and bags of goods, and piling them into the tuk tuks. This went on for a good 10 minutes, so much stuff had been hiding down the back of the bus its a wonder any passengers fit in.

Eventually we get into shuttle vans to take us across the short stretch into the middle of Lake Petén Itzá, and into the tiny town of Flores. Very cute, you can walk around in about 15 minutes. Hostels, hotels, restaurants mostly.

We wanted to book a tour straight away so tried the local ATM to get some money for food + tour. Not working. The tour company dude took us back across to St Elena to try ATMs there, no luck. After trying 5, we returned back  – apologising to the guy who’d been driving us to each in turn, and vowing to come back to him when we found money.

Bit concerning not having any money, at all – but the hotel accepted credit card and we managed to find street food for £2.50 (for us both) to fill us up. Thank god we changed our Belize dollars at the border to get some spending cash. And Praise Be! for Guatemalan cheapness.

We did eventually find money the next morning in the local ATM, but too late to take the tour. So, with cheap beer in front of us… we thought we’d just relax, check out a few bars on the island and look at the view (which included an ‘arco iris’ at one point! Rainbow!).

Next day was fairly difficult. Groan. Eventually made it out for cheeseburgers so we could take our malaria meds, but otherwise the day consisted of watching the Grand Prix and Netflix, and wondering why we bought Bacardi Breezers home when neither of us like them and we have no fridge. Also surprised by how many people in Flores knew us after our bar crawl… restauranteurs were asking “where were you, you said you’d come back?” and the shop security guard was smiling and chatting… ha ha ha.

Monday we were up at 4am to get off to Tikal. After what must be the typical start (2 boys weren’t out of bed in time for the shuttle and had to be woken up,  4 people hadn’t brought enough money to get into the park etc) we started the tour about 7am.

Incredible place. Think Tikal ranks second on our tour of Mayan Archeology sites. Can’t quite beat the beauty and decoration of Uxmal, but Tikal is special for the different thoughts it evokes. You find yourself less in contemplation about the scale and achievement (although it is most definitely there), less in wonder at the sheer number of buildings in such a small area (which is more impressive than Chichen Itzá) but rather in that childlike excited reverie borne of finding a lost civilisation subsumed by the jungle and shrouded in mist.

The jungle setting and the amount of buildings clearly evident but not yet rescued and restored make you feel as if you are the discoverer, you’re there at the moment when this incredible place was discovered. And it wasn’t just one discovery, the first explorers would have found pyramid after pyramid after temple after temple here. It really is an indulgence of archeology. I feel like we’ve overdosed.

We had a little game of Hide and Seek while exploring – we were the only people at many of the sites, exciting! Spot one of us in each of these photos.

And some other photos….


As I’m writing this blog I’m somewhat ironically also reading this article on my mobile, while Jim reads the news on his and checks out reviews of places to eat in San Pedro:

Travel has become another exercise in narcissistic presentation, one more way of desperately extracting some semblance of uniqueness out of your otherwise soul-crushingly mediocre existence.

In a homogenising, fast-paced world, our appetite for foreknowledge has demystified foreign places. Yet the axiom that all ‘travel’ is transformative persists.

The writer does extoll a view that we’ve also started to form through meeting other travellers on this same well-worn trail, and the amount of people in our social circle who have been here before us and comment on the photos we share. Its why this feels like a holiday, not a transformative experience. You can make everything ‘safe’ by reading a hundred blogs and reviews before you start. And the well-worn trail gives rise to international food, established tourist services, the opportunity to buy most of the stuff you can get at home… the opportunity to get away with speaking English.

The advice seems to be to try ayahuasca instead.

And yet, we’re happy to be on the well-worn trail. We don’t need this to make us interesting (I hope). Its more about a change from monotony, letting the brain do something else other than forcibly work at the same thing day-in day-out, fire different synapses, be creative, learn something new. Who needs uniqueness, I’d settle for a break.


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