Guatemala 2 – North to Tikal in the El Peten region and returning south to Antigua.

24th February – Peten is the northernmost department of Guatemala, as well as the largest and is home to a number of archaeological sites belonging to the ancient Maya civilisation.   Of these, Tikal is probably the real highlight and this is where we are heading.

The further north we go, the hills disappear and it is very strange to have flat land all around us.  We pass many palm plantations but mainly it is big cattle farming country, which has unfortunately led to even more deforestation within the area.  Before Sayaxche, we have a fruit check, bringing back memories of Argentina and Chile where we had many, however, they are only interested in locally grown fruit here and not imported.

We are planning to stop at Sayaxche, situated on the banks of the Rio de la Pasion.  It’s not a very attractive place however and the Rio is giving out some unpleasant smells, but Hotel Los Rio has secure parking and a large room with a hot shower.  The fan works but not the air con. but our biggest problem is the mosquitoes.  Although there are screens on the windows, the room is full of them and as we move the curtains, many more fly out.  it is useless trying to kill them.  Although a restaurant is advertised, it is unfortunately not open tonight, the streets outside are in darkness and deserted, so it’s a tin of soup and a sandwich in our room.

25th & 26th February – Our Anniversary today!  We are celebrating it with our room still full of mosquitoes and the mesh behind the curtains is now covered in them.  We can’t wait to leave the room as early as possible, and then drive down to the river bank, where a ferry will take us across the huge Rio de la Pasion.  More memories here, as the scene is reminiscent of when we crossed the Senegal River at Rosso in Africa, almost as hot but just missing all the colourful people!

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It’s now an easy tarmac road all the way to Flores and Santa Elena on the shores of Lago de Peten Itza.  A causeway connects these two towns, Flores being situated on an island in the Lago.

We arrive at Tikal at approx. 3.30 pm as we have been told that our tickets will then remain valid for tomorrow also, between 6 am and 6 pm.  We discover two campgrounds, one in the grounds of the Jaguar Inn and Tikal’s own campground  in a big, grassy field with thatched shelters and plenty of space.  However, we are not sure about security there when we go off for the day tomorrow and so choose to stay in the garden of Jaguar Inn (50Q each), next to the main reception/restaurant area, where we know that staff will keep an eye on Moby for us.

‘ Tikal ‘ in Mayan – (Ti ak al), means ‘ in the lagoon ‘ but it is still known as ‘ the place of the spirit voices ‘.  It was discovered in 1848 by Modesto Mendez and Ambrosia Tut who were leading an expedition organised by the government of Guatemala.  Scientific exploration began in 1881, following the arrival of an archaeologist from England.   In 1995 it was opened to the public and was later recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

The Maya settled here around 700 BC and slowly began to build a complex of buildings on a low hill above surrounding jungle and swampy land.  These buildings included many stone, ceremonial structures.  The city and population grew under many rulers with wonderful names such as King Great Jaguar Paw. However, it was powerful King Moon Double Comb and his successors who were responsible for building many of the spectacular temples that still stand today .

The Great Plaza is the most important part of the park and where Tikal’s most impressive buildings stand.  Temple 1, also known as ‘The Big Jaguar’, was built for King Moon Double Comb and many precious burial objects were found within his tomb.  However, this towering, 47m high temple can no longer be climbed since in the past,  people have fallen to their deaths.

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Wooden steps however, will take you up Temple II, that stands at 38m opposite The Big Jaguar.

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Both these huge, towering temples rise above the canopy of the jungle and can be seen from the top of Temple IV, also called ‘Two-headed Snake Temple’.  Built by the son of King Moon Double Comb, this temple is the tallest in Tikal at 64.6m.  We resist the expensive ‘Sunrise’ tour guide and instead, get up ourselves soon after 5am to climb the steep steps that take you close to the top of Temple IV.  How glad we are that we do this ourselves, as although we wait patiently, the mist has still not cleared by 7.30am.

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We decide to explore the rest of Tikal and return here later in the afternoon.  We then have a clear and wonderful view of jungle stretching to the horizon towards both Mexico and Belize.  Temples I and II from the Great Plaza can be seen above the canopy along with Temple III, its top partly covered due to restoration work.

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Tikal is different to many other great Mayan sites due to its location deep in the forest.  Everything has had to be cleared to reveal these amazing structures and its many plazas.  Paths take us past ancient trees with huge roots and spreading canopies.  We hear many plaintive bird calls, noisy green parrots fly between the trees, Golden Orioles display their bright yellow tail feathers and branches sway as monkeys leap amongst them.

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One beautiful Ceiba tree, regarded as sacred to the Maya people, stands many metres tall, its base supported by huge buttresses and its branches covered in a myriad of plants.

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The North Acropolis leads off from the Great Plaza, an area where archaeologists have uncovered a number of structures as the Maya rebuilt on top of older buildings, gradually creating many layers.  Stone steps lead up to a large platform where many temples would once have stood.

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A short walk from here is Temple V, another enormous structure that suddenly appears from around a corner in the forest.  This is the second highest temple at 57m.  Photos close by show the incredible restoration that has taken place.  Seeing these buildings today, one tends to forget that they were once completely covered with a tangle of huge tree roots and jungle.

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More forest trails lead to The Plaza of the Seven Temples, the name coming from the seven, small temples at its eastern end.

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El Mundo Perdido (The Lost World), has a complex of structures with a different architecture from the rest of the buildings in Tikal……hence the name.  This Plaza however, has the Great Pyramid, the oldest building in Tikal, 32m high and 80m along its base.

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We would certainly recommend a visit to this outstanding Maya site.  It has been a long journey north for us but certainly worth it.   Camping in the grounds of Jaguar Inn can also be recommended. There’s a very nice restaurant if you need it, very clean toilet blocks and rustic, outside showers to share with many mosquitoes but a very nice surprise to find hot water!   Kitchen staff arrive around 5am to begin washing last night’s pots and pans it seems, judging by the clattering and banging.  This doesn’t worry us however, as it serves as an alarm clock for us……there’s a lot to see in Tikal, our ticket lasts all day and we can come and go as many times as we please.

27th February – We begin our journey early in the cool of the morning to return to Coban and to then continue on to Guatemala City.  It’s an excellent stretch of tarmac road after leaving Tikal, except for the many ‘tumulos’ – (speed bumps) that stretch right across the road and catch us unawares on a number of occasions, as trees are also casting their shadows across the road.  By the time we reach Sayaxche however, it is too hot to stand outside  whilst waiting for the ferry to make the return crossing over the Rio de la Pasion.

A distant line of hills ahead of us is a welcome sight as we know that Coban has a more pleasant climate.  Fields of maize dominate the landscape now and coffee bushes climb the hillsides.  Wood and logs are stacked neatly for sale at the sides of the road.  Men are plodding up the hills, bent low with bundles on their backs, a big band passing around their heads to help with the weight.

We return to Parque Las Victorias for camping once we arrive in Coban, but not before a coffee, tea and cheesecake at Cafe Dieseldorff that has pavement tables and wifi….a very civilised place!

We take our same camping place in the parking area, it was very peaceful here before and we look forward to another quiet night.  But suddenly  we have company with the arrival of three massive vehicles with a number of French speaking people.  They park over on the grass area and the guard here tells us that there is going to be ‘ a lot of eating meat and music.’  I wonder at the time how he knows this but then realise that they must have all parked up here before.  And he is right!  It’s not long before the music (very loud) begins and a big fire is lit.  A guy comes over to the ablution block and shaves all the hair off his head into a sink….nice!  The thumping music, loud voices, clapping and singing is still continuing at midnight.

28th February – 5.30am and the music continues.  I feel sorry for the guard here but at least it’s probably been keeping him awake to do his patrols.  Light misty rain finally dampens down the music but we are away by 7.30am heading for Guatemala City.  Not a stop that we are looking forward to but there is a Land Rover agent there and Bill wants some filters and a piece of hose.

Our thanks must go to a very kind couple who are parking their car in a restaurant car park as we are leaving and begin asking about our Land Rover and travels. The man turns out to be a doctor from the city, who also owns a 1997 Land Rover and so is a real enthusiast.  When he discovers where we are heading, he phones the agent for us so that we can find out if they have the parts that we want.  Another example of kindness from people that we meet purely by chance.

For any other Land Rover travellers out there, the Land Rover agent is called Reyca and can be found in Zona 4 of this huge city.   Very helpful people there and we get all our parts, so Bill is well pleased and fits the new hose in their parking yard.

From Guatemala City we continue to Antigua.  It will be a long day of driving but we want to arrive there before dark.  It is not always easy to find camping in a large town but Asistur – the tourist police, allow travellers to camp in their grounds free of charge and it is only a short walk from there into the town.  The young police guy on the gate is extremely friendly and helpful.  He gives us a set of rules to abide by and shows us the very basic toilets and showers (cold and without doors), to share with all the police guys.  Looks as if it will be bucket washes inside Moby for a while!   We find an excellent Italian restaurant however only a short walk away and look forward to exploring this very interesting town tomorrow.

1st March – We discover Antigua to be a surprisingly large town, in fact you could spend quite a few days here and probably still miss many of its interesting streets.  Antigua was the former colonial capital, until the government was relocated to Guatemala City after Antigua was severely damaged following a major earthquake in 1773.  The town however, was slowly rebuilt and many colonial buildings still remain, along with some impressive ruins.  UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1979.

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Three volcanoes dominate the skyline from different parts of the city streets – Volcan Agua, Volcan Acatenango and Volcan Fuego, easily recognised by its plume of smoke.

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Although this town is very popular with tourists, Antigua’s plazas, markets and streets are very much alive and made more colourful by its indigenous people.

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Antigua is easy to explore on foot, with its brightly coloured houses, secret courtyards, grand town houses and once opulent churches, before they suffered from the earthquakes.

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Monasterio La Merced however, has a beautiful, yellow and white facade………

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…….and nearby Calle del Arco with its lovely archway and clock tower, is a popular area for street artists and just strolling.

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Las Convent Capuchinas, originally founded by nuns in 1736, was again badly damaged in several earthquakes but a quick visit at the end of the afternoon, revealed grand pillars and archways around a central courtyard.

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In the late afternoon sun, women have set up a colourful market in front of what would once have been, another grand church but which is now in ruins.

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There are so many fine restaurants, cheaper eating places and hot food stalls on the streets, that you are spoilt for choice when it comes to eating.  Cafe Candesa can be recommended for a great menu, but my favourite lunch here, is their amazing spinach quiche followed by a pot of fresh fruit.  Our favourite place in the evening however, has to be our Italian restaurant in a beautiful, old colonial house, open to the sky with ferns draping the walls and a fountain in the courtyard.  Their fish is cooked to perfection, served with fresh vegetables and their desserts are mouth watering, especially the panacotta.

2nd March – Before we leave today, the little white cat that has befriended us in the campground, has another meal of pilchards in tomato sauce.  She lives under an old car here with two kittens, that occasionally creep out from their hiding place.  We also leave her some water as she had a long drink from our bucket this morning.

We hand over a ‘goody’ bag to the police officer on the gate to share with his mates, as there has been no charge for the camping.

Volcan Fuego is puffing well as we leave Antigua for Chimaltenango and the Highland area of Guatemala.

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