Day 8: 20. December 2015
Arrived in Guatemala
Crossing the border between Belize and Guatemala felt unusually exciting. Perhaps it was the most chaotic border experience I’ve ever had. It looked like a huge bazaar, where you just happen to get a stamp in your passport. There were no direction and not much of control, we moved intuitively from a counter to counter, being guided by the crowd, consisting mostly of locals, germans, australians and few other tourists of mixed nationalities. After the check out on the Belize side a semi-large neutral area need to be crossed, afterwards waited in another line for the permit to enter Guatemala. To proceed al those little uncomplicated steps one about an hour. My “german” nature kept wondering the efficiency of the whole chain. But who cares! One hour for the whole procedure seems fast enough compared with the previous border experience in Belize.
Two hours later arrived in Santa Elena – a town located on Lake Peten, our home base for the Tikal Tour. By the time we checked in at our hotel the sun went down. We were supposed to arrive here in the early afternoon.
Learning #1: the transfers take much longer as estimated, especially the ones with a border check.
We got a nice room, very spacious and comfortable. Time for some food, real food. After the strangest diet in Belize our system desperately needed something yummy. Sure enough the street food here in Santa Elena was out of discussion, neither from hygiene nor from personal security perspective. We were not feeling comfortable at all going out here in the evening – this area looked too dodgy to us. The heavy armed guard right at our hotel entrance seemed spooky, apparently he was guarding the ATM at that corner. The barbed houses everywhere were not contributing to our sense of security either. All that felt really spooky.
So we headed to the Isla de Flores, the island on the Lake Peten, 10 minutes walk from the hotel. It is the glossier part of the town, less barbed and completely adjusted to the tourists needs: souvenir shops, tour operators, restaurants etc. can be found here on each and every corner.
Flores didn’t seem to be very crowded. There is much less traffic here, mostly tuk-tuks are racing around on the narrow streets of the hilly island. A short walk was enough to explore the most part of it. It is indeed a tiny island. We descended to the lake shore and discovered there the market, where locals and tourists come to hang out and have some yummy food.
Here we could finally eat something – homemade fresh, local food and drinks, couldn’t wish better. The first impression of Guatemalan food was good. The ingredients ant the concept of preparation were very similar to the Mexican ones, however it was not spicy at all. Some spicy salsas were available on request.
Day 9: 21. December 2015
We had no difficulties booking a tour in Flores. In fact we took the first offer without any research: our tour included the transportation, local english speaking guide and the park fees. There were various departure options: Tikal on sunrise departing at 3 am, next one at departing 4:30 am, and the at 8am and another later one. Although the sunrise tour tempted us a lot we hesitated to book it. It was raining here over many days, the sky was very cloudy anyway. Clouds and myst is very usual here, so watch the weather report before choosing the time slot of you tour. So we choose the 4:30am departure in order to be in the park at 6am and to avoid the tourists mass on site.
The early tour was absolutely worth the effort. The site was empty, we were almost alone there, so that the ruins seemed even more mysterious. The birds were very active at this time of the day. If you are lucky you’ll see monkeys and other forest inhabitants they. It was so amazing to hear all the sounds of the subtropical forest surrounding Tikal. We entered the site at around 6 am, by 9 am we have explored the monuments good enough and were ready to leave as the first streams of visitors came in. Perfect timing!
Tikal was great, it impressed me a lot. The site itself is amazing, however I was disappointed by our guide. He didn’t tell us anything I couldn’t read in Wikipedia. On my questions about the mythology, rituals and comparisons with other mayan tribes he didn’t gave me any profound answer. I had the feeling I didn’t learn much from him.
Learning #3: This king of sites I can easily go on myself and be happy with my researches. If a guide, then I rather pay more for a private one with good references.
Saved in my Bucket List: Tikal is the second largest Maya city after El Mirador, which is further back in the forests also in Peten Province.
Day 10: 22. December 2015
Things to do in Flores
We felt like we needed longer breaks between transfers, so we cancelled our Lanquin plans. It was the pre-xmas time, travelling was going to be crowded, the buses were not that clean and comfortable as in Mexico, so it was a good idea to avoid stress at that point.
Despite the various day tour options we decided just to hangout a bit longer in Flores and head directly to Antigua with the night bus stopping in Guatemala City. The plan was a lazy day and no huge expectations. At the lake we got a little boat tour to the little islands close to Flores. Surprisingly we got to see a lot of wildlife there, like huge iguanas on trees, or little snake trying to eat a frog 5 times bigger than his own head. The boat tour was about an hour or so. Afterwards we went for lunch to our (by this time favourite) place called San Telmo, where I stayed till evening. I happen to have my laptop with me, so happily killed some time before the departure to Antigua with my reading, surfing, awfully yummy nachos and cool drinks. And all that with a wonderful lake view!
Heading to Antigua
The bus station in Santa Elena was just 6 blocks away from our hotel. However it was not the nicest walk we ever had. The area was indeed very dodgy. If I would be traveling alone, I would for sure take a tuk-tuk – a woman marching there alone with a backpack in the darkness would be definitely a bad idea. We felt relieved once we entered the bus station hall. Despite the uninviting and semi-clean interior, we felt a bit more comfortable and safe seeing a lot of families with little children travelling with us. People were standing or sitting on the floor, there were no chairs in the waiting room.
We booked the highest class of busses with Cama Seats – kind of large reclining sleeping seats. There were just 6 of them in the bus. The overall night bus experience was a nightmare – dirty and extremely over-chilled. Please allow me to skip to details around the sanitary facilities there. Believe me, it wouldn’t be any pleasant reading! The worst thing however was the fact that we were freezing all night long because of the air-conditioning we couldn’t control. Luckily I had my thermo-clothes and some trekking equipment to keep me warm, which I plan to use in Patagonia! Thanks those I could sleep a bit, my travel companions suffered the cold all night long. Very, very disappointing!
So we arrived after 11 hours in Guatemala City. We had to wait for over 2 hours for our shuttle to Antigua, thus there was not much time for exploring the city.
Frankly, that what we saw out of the bus window was not intriguing us to go stroll around anyway. Trashy and dodgy, huge amount of barbwire everywhere, caged shops, heavy armed military guards – all that was visualising the presence of tension, danger and crime! The whole thing looked like a huge prison. I went out of the bus station for a block or two. The last bits of my interest to explore Guatemala City were gone forever. It was a chaotic, smelly and ugly market area, where I felt myself insecure, observed, and very much unwilling to flash around with my camera. I came back to the bus station and waited for my shuttle at the same spot.
Nest stop Antigua.