Guatemala Part II: Getting to Tikal


On my first full day in Guatemala I woke up pretty early and killed some time by reading. At about 0700 I head out to get some cash. That wasn’t too tough; I used an ATM at a convenience store. It was weird today to feel out when the world woke up. When I went out at 0700 the hotel’s restaurant wasn’t open, nor were most of the shops. There was a dude eating breakfast at the convenience store but that seemed to be about it. On the other hand, I saw tons of people loading up onto busses to head out to wherever they were going. In retrospect I should have tried to finangle my way onto one of those but eh. I went back to the hotel for breakfast. I was trying to avoid being in a hurry and take things slow. I had a lovely breakfast and then went to go try to speak with the hotel manager about getting to Tikal. The place had a travel booking office thing, and I busted out all my Spanish to try to arrange things. I walked away thinking that he was going to call me a tuk-tuk for 1000 to take me to the bus station for Tikal. I thought that was a bit late (this left me with like 1.5 hours to kill), but again I was trying to not be in a hurry and figured that he knew best. So at 1000 I went downstairs and he informed me that the tuk-tuks were the next street over. I was on my own. Oh well. I flagged down a tuk-tuk and he took me to the bus station, where a dude directed me to a shuttle for Tikal. I was disappointed to learn the bus didn’t leave until 1200 but bought a ticket anyways and waited in the bus station. At 1200 we loaded up onto the bus and it was just me and this other guy. Or so I thought. The bus (shuttle) then drove around picking up other people until the bus was full. We spent some time back on Flores and so the whole thing felt rather silly. Rookie mistakes man. The bus got going at about 1230 after stopping for gas. I took a bunch of notes. I was hoping to catch some glimpses of some farms, and kept my eye out the window the whole time because this was my first chance to really look around Guatemala. The rest of the shuttle was also tourists of course. I should talk to more of these people. The rest of the world feels so much better travelled but I never know what to think of them. Mostly what puts me off is that they wear shorts.

My first note was “multiple chihuahuas,” having noticed one going for a walk when I was getting cash and then seeing several around as we were picking up people. Then, “a horse.” I saw a number of horses along the way. Those were notable because the entire time I was comparing the place to Zambia. Guatemala along this stretch actually looked a lot like Zambia I thought. A lot of the trees appeared the same to my eye, and you had the same wooden stakes with wire fences going around. The road was much nicer though, and of course there were the horses. I didn’t see any goats, which is also un-Zambia-like, but I did see some pigs. The forest was interesting. A lot of it was low sorta scrubland it seemed to me, but then also large chunks of larger forest. One stretch looked planted (trees in rows), but I couldn’t tell if they were actually growing anything like, commercially. It kinda looked like the spice plantation we saw in Zanzibar. I also saw a number of cows (not too many, but much of the land looked like it was cattle-grazing territory), and I saw some structures for livestock (like those dip bath things and loading bays). There were mango trees and I think cassia. There were also a large number of palms, which looked too small to be palm oil palms, but that is because, as I later deduced, they were coconut palms (based on the coconuts people were selling by the roadside). The other fun thing I saw was a home-made merry-go-round, where the seats were like, former toy bikes and cars. Very neat.

Eventually we arrived at Tikal. They sell all the tickets and stuff at the gate, which is about 20 minutes from the actual Tikal site, so we had to offload and buy tickets. That was nothing too crazy and it was off to the site. After the gate though the site pretty quickly transitions into jungle, so all the low scrubland is like, clearly man-made. I reflected that if you were trying to imagine Tikal as the Mayans would have experienced it, which is what I like to do, that means the low scrubland was probably more likely to have surrounded ancient Tikal rather than dense jungle. I also noticed the road, because it was super nice. I think I read Guatemala wanted to increase tourism, and so built a nice road. Imagine that! I wonder what the ROI is? Probably great. I also noticed that the road masks a lot of topography. It cuts through hills and is on ledges so the approach to the city is probably more difficult than it seems.

We finally arrived at the site and offloaded the bus. Most of my busmates went on their day tour, and I went off to check into the redundantly named Hotel Tikal Inn. They gave me some juice upon arrival so I was enamored right away. I checked in and dropped off my bags and turned around to find some lunch (it was like 1500). Then I had to decide what to do. I wasn’t sure I wanted to blow a ticket walking into the park, but I had read in the guidebook that if you enter after 3 the ticket is good for the next day. Still. I went over o the visitor’s center to poke around there first before going in. It’s not much of a center, mostly a place for little souvenir shops. They also have a diagram of the site and a museum. I poked my head into the museum, but it didn’t look too interesting (and I wasn’t sure I had a ticket for it). I wandered through the shops, and just sorta wound up going through the site entrance.


My first glimpse of a temple in Tikal.

I decided to take an immediate left over to where the map said there was Temple VI. I could have gone straight to the main plaza, but I like to attack these sorts of things from the periphery. Plus there were no people coming from the direction of Temple VI, so I liked the look of it. I was alone for most of my time on the site that first day. It was quiet on the way there except for a lot of bird sounds. There is so much wildlife. I eventually came to Temple VI. It was hard to discern at first, because it looks like a hill, but it’s a temple. I wandered around and took a bunch of pictures. There is a small path away from the front of it that leads to a half-buried stela or whatever it is called, and on the way there there were a whole bunch of those angry army ants or whatever and I had to make sure to avoid them. It felt like they were protecting the place. Temple VI is known as the Temple of Scriptures or something because there is a whole bunch of stuff written on the back, though of course I don’t read Mayan.

At this point I was actually kinda nervous because technically the park closes at 1600 but it seems okay to stay past that, but then again it gets dark at 1730. So I didn’t know if I should head back or not and so I went to the I think “Temple of the Stripes,” which apparently is some residential place. That was cool, lots of nooks and crannies and stuff. Took a self-timer photo or two.


As I was walking back a whole tribe or whatever of the racoon-looking things came across the path, scurrying around and stuff. They weren’t afraid of me at all. That was neat. I also saw some monkeys high up in the trees and a woodpecker pecking away, and back at the hotel some vultures and a tiny shrew looking thing. As I was eating dinner, which was pretty wonderful, the waiter suddenly said “sir, don’t be afraid, but get up and walk to your left.” I was sitting by the door and I look down and there is a small snake there. Apparently, it is very poisonous though. They batted it outside with a broom and I think killed it. So that was exciting. On the way back to the room I spotted an owl so that was cool. But on the other hand the guy showing me the room had mentioned that there are jaguars around so it seemed perilous to make the long walk back to my room, which was in a secluded building.

After my first day in Tikal I reflected that it was going to be really hard to get a solid sense of it all. I think there is a modern-day vision of Mayan cities being immersed within a jungle, but that probably isn’t true I think. The jungle would have been chopped down for a long way around to make room for houses and all the other parts of a city. With the jungle covering it, however, it is hard to really get a vision of how the whole place would have been laid out, people and all. Surely at its peak it would have been surrounded by massive suburbs of wattle & daub houses or something similar. I wondered how the Mayan positioned themselves among all the hills and stuff. Easy to imagine the site now as a bunch of isolated temples but how did it look and feel as a living, breathing city? I guess LIDAR is giving us a peak into that. That jungle is pretty intense.