Guatemala Part VII: Guatemala City

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Pretty kitty!

When I checked into the hotel in Coban I thought travelling to Antigua the next day was going to be simple. I thought I was going to get on a shuttle that would show up in the morning and I would get to Antigua in the early afternoon and everything would be great. This did not happen.

When I got a shuttle ticket the dude at the front counter told me to be ready for the shuttle by 1030, so I was down in the lobby at 1020 having spent the morning reading the news. I waited around because the shuttle might be there as late as 1100, I was warned. At like 1105 it hadn’t come so the dude was calling and at 1115 he led me out front where I was picked up… by a pickup truck. Apparently, we were going to go meet the shuttle elsewhere. He drove me around Coban where I was somewhat disappointed to discover a McDonald’s. Then I was more disappointed to discover we were going to the McDonald’s. I had figured out that this shuttle was coming from elsewhere and so was stopping at McDonald’s for lunch. This was all very disappointing to me. I should have gotten lunch but I didn’t come to Guatemala to eat McDonald’s. The bus showed up and I couldn’t really get on right away because everyone left the bus and I didn’t know what seats were free. It was supposed to be a 15-minute stop (it showed at 1135) but it turned into more like half an hour. I was annoyed because I knew I was going to be hungry, I was next to a McDonald’s, and I thought this shuttle would be fine because I thought it was leaving at 1030, not noon.

Eventually I got on the bus when some other people got on, selecting a seat that appeared empty. It wasn’t. The girl who had been sitting in the seat got on, but didn’t tell me, and instead wandered around confused for a bit until someone else told me. I knew it was her seat at this point but I didn’t care. But then I got up (why should she actually be able to claim it?) and we futzed figuring out where to put me until I wound up… in the jump seat right next to the girl. I was annoyed by the whole thing man but we were on our way. I regret taking the shuttle. There was the thing where it was late but mostly, I don’t like being around the other tourists. I hate saying this, because every tourist complains about tourists and if you’re going to go do touristy things then by definition anywhere you go there are tourists because you are there. But what I don’t understand about this brand of tourist is why they wear shorts. You never see the Guatemalans wearing shorts. Why do they feel the need to? It’s hot? Grow up, it’s not that hot, and if it is too hot for you don’t come to the country. I don’t like how they act and I don’t like how they dress and I don’t like being with them. But on we rode.

Some notes: I saw a field of cabbage. There were several fields of trestles growing I don’t know what. One I saw fully covered in some sort of vines, but on a lot more I saw plastic on the ground or plastic spread across the poles fully or just like plastic strips. The first part of the drive was very foggy. I didn’t get a good look out of the windows because I was in the aisle and also it was foggy. I suspect the driver didn’t get a good look either but I chose to ignore that. We passed a place that was called (in Spanish) “The cabin of the two cheeses and more.” At one point the bus pulled over and it appeared the driver was buying flowers (we were in front of a flower stand) but it seems he was picking up a bag. I would have preferred the flowers. Eventually, it started to clear up more as we gained altitude. The entire drive it seemed was uphill, passing into country that was more dominated by pines than palms. Long stretches of it reminded me of crossing the mountains in Washington, where you’re in a valley that follows a stream with small bridges crossing it. I was getting a headache from not eating but later on we stopped at a convenience store where I got some twinkies so that helped. Some people also got off which opened up some seats, so I got a real chair. I was annoyed to discover that the woman next to me was sprawled out on two seats where I had the seat behind the wheelwell and therefore had no leg room. She also had hung, I believe, her bra off the back of the seat in front of her (off the handle thing) and I think also her underwear/shorts? See what I’m saying about these tourists?

It was about this point that I decided not to take the bus all the way to Antigua. It would be too late for me to see anything. So when we stopped in Guatemala City, I got off and caught a taxi. I really need to learn Spanish because telling the taxi driver where I wanted to go was hard. It was mostly me showing him my phone which was not the best option in a moving car. But at least I was free of the bus. From the taxi I noted that there were dudes selling random stuff at intersections, so I guess some things are just universal. I also saw little McDonald’s signs everywhere, advertising I think like UberEats or whatever. Like little Golden Arches sitting on top of street lights. But the taxi driver who was very nice and helpful got me to the hotel and I got a room. I set out for dinner only to discover that my hotel was next to yet another McDonald’s. I think my new rule for travel will be to not go to countries with McDonald’s in them. They just throw me off man. I don’t like them. But I found a place called a “Pasteleria,” which lead me to believe they would have like, linguini. This was not true, it was a pastry place that was also a cafe, where I had a just fine burrito thing and then went back to the hotel where I took a shower and turned in.

On my full day in Guatemala City, I went to a whole lot of museums. After breakfast I set straight out. I walked to the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Couple of points. First off, the crosswalks work differently. Back home they tell you to stop walking before the light turns. Here it is green for walk right up to the second the cars get a green, so I nearly got run over. The walk was largely about me noticing American food chains. Today I passed Taco bell and Dunkin Donuts. Last night there was Hardees and TGI Friday’s. At the zoo there is a Dominoes. Uber Eats was everywhere! I don’t like it. I also saw a dude on an electric scooter, but that’s unrelated.

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I made it to the museum at like 0920. It was supposed to open at 0900, but when I found the door the security guard had me wait a few more minutes. I finally got in at 0930. It is not a well-trafficked museum, but it is pretty fantastic. Very modern, very well done, and packed with artifacts. It was cool wandering around. They had the bones of one of the rulers of Tikal just tucked away in a corner and that’s crazy. After wandering through and I next decided to go to the zoo. The zoo was also fantastic. Super well done. Tons of animals. Frankly it felt a bit silly because the first part is “Africa Land” and well, I’ve seen a number of these animals in real life. Real life is a dumb thing to say. In the wild. But I enjoyed seeing the Spanish names of these guys, and they had jaguars and I wanted to see those while in Guatemala. So that was fantastic. I had lunch at the hotdog place at the zoo, where you could order a “Gringo Hot Dog.” It was indeed how I would normally eat a hot dog, but I had the “Mexicano” instead. Then it was across the street to the Artisan Market. I was looking for the touristy kitcsh but they didn’t have the kitsch I was looking for so I left without buying anything.

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The mortal remains of the legendary Jasaw Chan K’awiil, 18th ruler in the dynastic line of succession at Tikal.

Since I was close, I went to the Natural History Museum that was next to the Archaeology museum. It was pretty bad. That’s not fair, it was just basic natural history stuff (and an elephant and giraffe skeleton) so I didn’t spend any time in there. I decided to flag down a taxi and go across town to the other natural history museum, the USC one or something. I arrived and in some rapid-fire Spanish I believe what the lady said was that the museum was closed but the botanical gardens were open and hey it was free so I looked at the gardens. They were very lovely.

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Botanical gardens.

From there I still had time for museums so I walked to the Museo Ixchel & Popol Vuh. Or at least tried to. It’s on the campus of a college and I wandered in trying to go where maps.me took me and it took me into the dorms of Galileo college. Which are nice! I asked a security guard about it, saying “museo,” or so I thought, and he lead me on a winding route up to what I think was a media lab, where I met some more nice people, who finally understood I was saying “museo” (I can’t imagine what I was really saying), and then the security guard lead me to the right place. Those museums were nice but I was going through them a bit perfunctorily. I am not actually that interested in textiles, though they had several looms and it occurred to me I don’t actually know how to operate one. After I got home I ordered a Guatemalan backstrap loom off of etsy.

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Textiles!

Then I popped over to Popol Vuh which is full of artifacts. So that was neat. Learned about the Dresden Codex and stuff. Um yeah. At this point I was tired and my foot was hurting me so I hobbled back to the hotel where I chilled for a bit, looking forward to my flight home the next day. And then, defeated by other food options, I gave in and went to McDonald’s.

Guatemala Part VI: Aguateca

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I was worried about making it to Sayache, so I woke up at like 0630 and got my stuff together and left the hotel at like 0700. I found a Tuk-Tuk and told him I was going to Sayache and so he sped me off to the bus station and found me the right bus. I pretty much stepped off the tuk-tuk, stepped onto the bus, and off we went. We patrolled the town slightly for more riders, stopping at the market for a while, but so far, I had been impressed with Guatemalan busses by how little they stay waiting for passengers. They’ll go with less than a full bus confident they’ll pick up people along the way. The conductors in Guatemala and in Zambia could otherwise be close brothers, however. The ride out the side and yell in the same way, and today I even got a “yes boss.” So that reminded me of Zambia.

In the market I saw some stuff, including a whole stack of saddles on the back of a truck that were to stock up some store for sale. I also in Sayache saw some like, home-made saddles (I think) out of I think cow-hide. So it is a whole thing. I wrote down in my notebook that the minibus was squeezing through the market, and there was not a lot of clearance for sure. I saw a guy in a “USS Enterprise CVN-65” hat so I thought that was neat. I saw an absolutely gigantic bull on the back of a pickup truck in one of those cages they have on the back of the trucks, with its horns sticking out the top. I bothered to look today too and I saw street food vendors cooking over both gas and wood but no charcoal. I wonder why? Some other things I noted to note was that I haven’t been stared at, which, I dunno, I’m a little hurt. I also haven’t seen any dumbphones, just smartphones. Un-Zambia-like.

Eventually we set off in earnest and I was rewarded by the sight of a full-on cowboy. Like riding on the back of a horse (I think he was the first horserider I saw) with a cowboy hat and overshirt flapping in the breeze. Magnificent. Later on one of the bus passengers had a “Wrangler” shirt (it said Wrangler), and based on his hat and boots I believe he actually wrangled so that was cool. I also saw a cow being hog-tied with a dude on a horse next to it, so this is legit cattle country. Eventually and without trouble we got to Sayache. The bus dropped us off and for lack of better ideas I took the ferry across the river to the town proper. I said I might show up at like 1000 and I actually arrived at 0900 so my plan was to find some breakfast. As I stopped off the boat however I heard a “Patrick?” and there was Don Pedro. He was ready to put me on a boat but I mentioned breakfast so he led me over to a street food kinda stand where in a bit of a daze I ordered roast chicken for breakfast. That chicken was absolutely phenomenal. I awkwardly ate (I don’t really know what to do with the tortillas) and asked for some bottles of water and I was loaded up into a boat. Don Pedro wasn’t coming but handed me off to “mi capitan.” I never got his name but he was very nice.

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We were in a small metal boat with a canopy and comfortable-ish seats. The ride to the site was pretty awesome. We went fast down the river but it was still about an hour and a half of riding. I saw all sorts of stuff on the river. There were homesteads and cattle farms. There were places where they obviously loaded cattle onto barges and that I wish I could have seen, a cattle barge. At one point a pack of dogs came running when they heard the boat and I thought that was cute. We waved to all sorts of people and there was a good chunk of river traffic. It mostly seemed to be people collecting firewood; I saw more than one boat being loaded. On the way back there was a little caravan of two canoes, the front one with a motor and towing the second one, both loaded down totally and with an old dude up front and two kids steering (one on the motor and another with a paddle in the rear one). I enjoyed speeding down the river and capitan was not bashful about taking turns. It got really fun towards the end when the river narrowed. In the meantime, we went through that big lake and that was cool. It is edged with these jungle-covered hills so it really looked like you were coming up on some sort of I dunno unexplored realm. There were tons of birds all along the path too. More than once a bird launched and then we wound up chasing it down the river as it twisted and turned around the bends. There was a small blue heron thing I took care to note. I also saw muscovy ducks.

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Path to Aguateca.

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When you arrive at Agauteca you dock in this small lagoon at the end of a narrower and narrower river. You pull up to the riverbank and then scramble up to the entrance. They had clearly planned a much bigger site as there is a partially-completed but abandoned visitor’s center that is fairly large with signs all over the place. There were dudes that worked there but they mostly just said hi and capitan had me sign in (there were three French guys there the day before, and it looks like it gets about a person a day; I had the place to myself) and he guided me through the place. First you walk along the bottom of some tall cliffs. There were tons and tons of mosquitos so I didn’t like to stop for long. At the end of the cliffs there is a viewpoint that gives you majestic views of the river you just came down and the plains beyond. Then you circle back around and walk through a ravine. The ravine splits the site and over it is a natural bridge and an artificial bridge. Scrambling down the thing was actually sorta harrowing but I made it up and down. Capitan knew where people liked to take pictures and asked for my camera to take a picture of me at every spot. Then we scrambled back up out of the ravine and viewed the site proper. I don’t know how much is or isn’t uncovered of the place, but the temples there are rather smaller than the other ones I have seen, but it seems more intimate as you visit more of the residential palaces and things. We walked through and saw all sorts of stuff and replica stelae and some real stelae still laying where they fell. I think the whole tour was about an hour and a half and I was glad to be done with the mosquitoes. So back on the boat and another great time zooming down the river.

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Not every picture he took was good.

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He also insisted on this one. Why do I pose like this?

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This is the only intact, man-made stone bridge known in the Mayan world.

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Me & Capitan.

We arrived back at Sayache and I paid capitan and retrieved my backpack and then I went to go search for some lunch. I walked around looking for something that looked like a restaurant and found nothing. Embarrassed, I went to a fried chicken place and had some chicken and fries and then found a bus for Coban by wandering around saying “Coban.” Getting to Coban was to be a bit of an adventure. Things I saw along the way were a massive palm oil planation, so that was neat, and then the sight of us approaching the mountains, with their tops clouded in mist.

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Coban.

Unfortunately disaster struck. As we were stopping to pick up a guy the engine stalled. They tried to start it and tried to roll downhill to start it but eventually ran out of hill and we were out of the bus as they worked on the engine. Another bus came though and the conductor loaded us all on that and so off we were again. We got to the hills and I noted how sharp and steep they were. Like vertical limestone dunes or something. I settled in to read, but I should have paid more attention. There is a fork in the road and I wasn’t thinking or listening to the guy and some people got out but I stayed on the bus and we went to the wrong way down the fork (or at least away from Coban). I said “por Coban?” to the conductor and he said some stuff and what wound up happening is I rode to the next down and got off there. The conductor said some stuff and I was confused but eventually it turned out that he was pointing to an empty spot saying that the bus for Coban would come but it wasn’t there yet. I figured this out talking to tuk-tuk drivers and another bus driver. Eventually a bus came and I got on and we left pretty quick. The next part of the ride took a while thought I don’t know how long it normally would have taken. The windows in the van were pretty tinted, and as night fell it started to mist and this was a whole like, mood, as we went into the cloud-shrouded jungle mountains. It kinda started to rain actually too and the van didn’t have effective windshield wipers as we navigated steep turns and hills with no streetlights and I pretended not to notice. At some point the van stopped by the side of the road (it seemed to me) and we all got out. Turns out we were in Coban. I think I left Sayache at like 1400 and got to Coban at 1900 or so. I got a taxi to take me to the hotel where a flustered seeming dude checked me in. I had high hopes when I saw there was a 1030 shuttle to Antigua.

Guatemala Part V: Flores & Yaxha

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Horses.

On this day I woke up super early to loud, regular banging. Some investigations later in the day lead me to believe that it was fireworks being set off by the church on the top of the hill for reasons I am unaware of. There doesn’t seem to be a large party or anything. But that was fine because I wanted to set off early this morning to try to see the sights over across the lake again. I got over across the lake at like 0830, so I thought I had set myself up well. I even had my camera. I walked up to the museum that is over there and was disappointed to find out that it was closed Mondays. So that plan was shot. Then I thought I would walk to the zoo. It didn’t seem too far. I went down a road I thought would lead me to it, which then went down to a footpath along the lake. This turns out was nowhere near where I needed to be, so I turned around and went down the right road, thinking I could make it if I hustled. I turned back at like 0945 though; it was too far to walk and a convenient tuk-tuk hadn’t come by. I should have grabbed a tuk-tuk by the harbor but I didn’t think this through, like much of the rest of the vacation.

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Gardens!

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More gardens! Jeez I love gardens.

However, the walk was very nice. I got to see a lot of people’s gardens and that rather excited me. They had a whole wide variety of things growing, along with my absolute favorite, which is cocoyam (taro) and banana planted close to one another. That gets me excited every single time. I got barked at by a number of dogs, including wee little ones, and I saw some horses. There were coconut palms and dugout canoes and it was a very good walk even if I had nothing in particular to report.

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I was worried about making it for my noon bus, so I went back to Flores, but I got there at like, 1030. So then I had time to kill. I was, however, getting worried about Aguateca the next day. My plan was to just go to Sayache and figure it out, but this seemed like a bad plan based on experience. So I wandered into yet another tourist agency to ask about a tour. There I learned there are no collective trips to Aguateca like there are to Tikal or Yaxha, so I was never going to find an easy book. He could arrange a private tour, but the last one he did was 8 months before and it would be about 2000Q. That was good info but didn’t solve my problem. I decided to get lunch to make sure I wasn’t hungry at Yaxha, and at lunch I realized I could text this Don Pedro guy the guidebook talks about. I was afraid of talking to him on the phone because I felt like we couldn’t communicate. But by texting I could use Google Translate so it worked out. Over the course of the afternoon I got things sorted out and I think his daughter speaks English. We communicated over a number of phone numbers. It will cost 600Q which is kind of a lot for just a little trip but by now I was invested in this. I was still worried about making it to Sayache at a reasonable hour and I just hoped the busses would work out.

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Yaxha ball court.

After lunch I ran back to the hotel to grab my passport which I kept forgetting (I didn’t need it, turns out) and went to the I ❤ Peten sign for the bus. I got the bus and it was pretty smooth sailing from there. I took notes on the trip again, but for a while there I fell asleep. It was like a 2-hour ride. I finally saw some saddles hanging on a railing; I hadn’t seen one yet despite all thase horses. I saw sugarcane which I hadn’t noted before. I have talked about wondering what houses are made of and so I noted I saw wooden plank houses and a shed made of sticks like they did in Eastern Province in Zambia. I saw a wooden plank house with a garage for a jeep Cherokee looking thing. I finally saw some goats in a pen but they could have been sheep. I also noted that tourists keep worrying about Tikal being busy; but it never gets that busy it seems to me. It isn’t Disneyworld. I noted to look up how they generate electricity in Guatemala, and what they cook on; I hadn’t seen any charcoal. I also hadn’t seen any land cruisers like they have in Zambia either.

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Lake view (lake level).

As we got close to the park I think I started to see palmfruit palms, and noted there were more thatched roofs, even alongside like nice elevated houses or cinderblock construction. We eventually got to the gate of the park to buy tickets. It seemed like a confusing system to me. You first filled out like a comment form, then went around the corner to a ticket counter where you bought a ticket at one window and then next to it was another window where they gave you an armband which I almost missed. I wandered around looking for the ruins thinking we were there, but we had to get back on the bus. We arrived at the actual site at about 1430. I was in the group with the guide so I listened to him for a while but he really annoyed me. He did that engaging with the audience thing that I hate and also talked about a lot of cultural stuff that wasn’t Yaxha (turns out pronounced “Josh-Ha”) so half an hour into this thing we were still in sight of the car park. So I ditched and wandered around.

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Lake view (temple level).

The place was pretty cool. It is next to a lake and you can go down to the lake and check it out (the tour group didn’t go down there), and there is a big covered temple where you can go to the top. The site is smaller than Tikal, though he said only 10% was discovered. One of the more remarkable parts is a well-preserved causeway, so you can actually kinda see and understand what they were talking about in Tikal. Throughout the place were these howler monkees that were screaming and sounded like dinosaurs, because I guess Jurassic Park used them for dinosaur sounds. I was trying to keep an eye on where the group was because I needed to leave with them of course, but I misunderstood where they were watching the sunset. I didn’t want to hang out long so at 1700 I arrived at the temple where I thought we were watching the sunset (the sunset was going to be at 1740) where thankfully there was a park ranger dude. He said they watched the sunset from this totally different temple, so I ran over there and tried to act cool. I took some pictures from the base and then went up and pretended I wasn’t sweaty and panting.

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Causeway.

It was gorgeous up there though, seeing the sun right in front of the temple and over the lake. The thing was to keep quiet, so it was pretty silent up there, and again like at Tikal I just liked the sensation of a bunch of people watching the sunset like they must have done back in the day. From there it was back on the bus and home. I ate dinner here at the hotel, got cash for the next day, and took a hot shower.

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Not the right temple.

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Also not the right temple.

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And here is your reward for scrolling!

Guatemala Part IV: More Tikal & Flores

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This is the one photo of me I got someone else to take.

On my final day at Tikal I woke up early to go on the sunrise tour. I reported to the hotel lobby at 0340 (a bit of a harrowing trek to get there; they had turned out the path lights and as I was walking a big ole’ spider descended from the trees into the path; I skirted it) to find a large and kinda boisterous group of Americans waiting to go. We set out and were supposed to split into two groups; a Spanish group and an English group. I was with the English group until we got to the gate. There, we discovered the Americans didn’t have sunrise tour tickets so they left and I was with the Spanish group. Fine by me. We wandered up through the park to Temple IV, pausing at group N I think to talk about the stelae and stuff. As we hiked through the woods it was nice to just listen to the forest.

We got to the Temple and ascended the stairs. I was in front and was in fact the very first person at the top of the temple that morning. So that was kinda neat. My Spanish group came up behind me and as the morning went on more people trickled up of course. I had arrived at the top at around 0500. I would say at 0530 the forest got a little boisterous with the howler monkeys calling to each other from across the valleys. At this point the sky was had maybe of hint of brightening. It wasn’t a good sunrise morning, as it was overcast, but as the guide pointed out we are in the rainforest (so, you know, expect clouds). Some things I liked about being up there were watching the flashlights snake through the trees making their way to the temple. I thought it was like a procession before a ceremony. I liked being up there with people because I felt that it was something the Mayans would have done, watching the sunrise together. There was one American couple with some nice camera equipment (phone Steadicam thingy), but they kept shushing some Japanese ladies that were up there with us. The Japanese ladies would talk and most gallingly for these people their phones weren’t on silent. I don’t know why the ladies were looking at their phones but I am on their side; they paid for their ticket too. No one cares if their dings are getting into your instagram videos. Despite that I liked the communal nature of the experience. There was a family to my right with small kids, talking quietly with each other and just enjoying the company of family. Another woman eventually came and sat next to me. Later I learned her private guide never showed up so she was worried he stole all her stuff, and had only gotten into the park by joining another group.

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People at the top of the temple.

At the top of the temple we listened to the forest wake up. Twittering birds and monkeys calling each other, and frogs croaking along. There were monkeys swinging around in the trees just below the top of the temple so that was cool. I wonder what they were doing all the way up there? I think I saw a bat flit by while it was dark. Eventually the sun came up more fully, directly ahead of us from the temple (though we couldn’t see it), illuminating the other temple tops in the park. Then at about 0630 it was time to go and I descended the temple with my guide. We walked slowly back to the entrance passing by some more temples. He was kind enough to explain things to me in English after speaking in Spanish, but mostly I was anxious for breakfast. Good end to my time in Tikal.

After breakfast I went to go do some souvenir shopping. That went fine and I bought some bone carvings (one for me, one for my brother) and a bracelet for another friend, which the lady threw in free. My left leg starting hurting a whole lot, like shooting pains, so I hobbled back to the room and took some ibuprofen and read some until it was time for me to go. I checked out and then went to go see where my bus was going to show. On Friday the guide had told people to wait at the restaurant, but I wasn’t sure that was right so I waited at this information booth thing where I could see the road in front of the restaurant and the parking lot. Eventually a driver from one of the busses came over and asked if I was going to Flores. I showed him my ticket and some broken Spanish later he agreed to take me; I guess they have a pool arrangement. But then I got passed through a series of very friendly drivers who found me a spot. So that was very nice. As we were going around for passengers, I saw the girl from the temple who recognized me and waved; she was wearing a dress she wasn’t before so I guess she got her stuff back. Then we were off for Flores. I had to work to stay awake so I could look out the window. What I saw was some people playing soccer in a basketball court, so that was neat. I also reflected the Maya didn’t have any large grazing animals, so the landscape you see now outside the park wouldn’t be totally the same because they wouldn’t have grazing land for cows. I also wondered what the average Guatemalan house was made of because I saw a pit that could have been for brickmaking but I don’t know if they use mud bricks. I think it is mostly cinderblock. I also saw something that looked like a monument to a plane crash outside Flores and I wonder what that was about.

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I had remembered the guy that sold me my ticket to Tikal saying they had a bus to Yaxha that left at 1230, so I was hoping to make it to the station in time to see Yaxha that same day. We got back at 1215 but unfortunately the busses for that day were “finished.” Disappointed, I took a Tuk-Tuk back to the hotel and got a room and decided to have lunch and think things over. I was upset my trip wasn’t as efficient as I had hoped but I had been reading Paul Theroux and he seems to spend a lot of time hanging out reading. So maybe it isn’t all bad. After lunch I went to go investigate travel and was again disappointed to find out that Yaxha busses only leave at like, noon. I was hoping to see Yaxha in the morning and make it to Sayache in the afternoon. I also asked the guy about Aguateca, but again no good news. The travel agencies advertise for Aguateca but there are no group tours; they can arrange solo travel but that becomes very expensive. That travel agency gave me a coupon for a free shot at a place called Sky Bar though. I wandered off around the island and eventually came to the ferries over across the lake. I decided to hop on it and then remembered the reason I was intending to go back to the hotel first was to grab my camera. Oh well; I had my shitty phone camera.

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Across the narrow part of the lake from Flores is the very small town of San Miguel. I got over there and wandered up the road to where the guidebook says there is an archeological site. I wandered along gravel roads which was nice actually because I got to see some of rural Guatemala I had been hoping to see. Eventually I came to an actual nice trailer and a guy who works for the department of whatever it is in charge of this stuff (Culture & Sports, I think), who had me sign a book but didn’t charge me an entry fee. Neat. You wander up some stairs to find an observation tower on top of what is apparently an unexcavated temple. They should really excavate it so people will stay here instead of going all the way to Tikal. I admired the views around at the lake and then wandered off to find the stelae the guidebooks talk about. There are lots of paths and I wandered mostly at random until I found a sign for “Acropolis,” which I followed and which lead to a sort of clearing with a single stela under a roof. They should really do some excavation man; there is what is obviously a wall and I am always agog at the thought that the Mayan were just chillin’ where people today are also just chillin’.

After I had my fill of walking, I wandered back and caught a boat back and then took a shower at the hotel. I had the idea to watch the sunset at Sky Bar (given my free shot) so I went there. The place was pretty terrible. I did manage to sit next to two girls from London who were friendly, but I wasn’t exactly suave. In the hour and a half I was at sky bar I managed to only get one beer despite also ordering food so in disgust I left (the girls had already bounced). I found some small mom and pop shop where I had a fairly priced but pretty bad steak, thought I enjoyed it because it was there and the place seemed friendly. They had a nativity scene lit up with flashing Christmas lights though and with like, model Mary & Joseph but a life-size baby Jesus. Also they had an old typewriter like on display near the door. After that I wandered to the top of the island where I thought they had been setting up a party. I mean they had but it seemed like it was going to start later than I was willing to hang out for, so I came back to the hotel and read.

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This is a random temple from Tikal. I, too, question my photo choices.

Guatemala Part III: Tikal

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I’m beginning to understand why my mom complains when I make “that face.”

When I sat down to write this, I was going to try to reconstruct the day using my handy park map, but earlier in the day it split in two and I seem to have lost half of it to whereabouts unknown. So I got a map of half of Tikal. We’ll see what we can do.

I woke up pretty early though I didn’t get up. My back hurt. My back hurts all the time now when I wake up. I used to prefer hard mattresses but now I am thinking I am too old for it. Maybe it was two years of sleeping on foam in Zambia that did me in. I was awake for the knock to go on the sunrise tour, but since I wanted to do that the next day, I sent him off with a “manana.” Eventually I got out of bed and read some and then went off to breakfast which was great. No snakes but the eggs were good. Got my stuff and head into the park. I might have been the first non-sunrise-tour person in there. So I had large swaths of the place mostly to myself for a large chunk of the day. In fact though, I think most of the park is rather empty for most of the day. (An aside; I keep calling it the “park,” because that is what they call it, but that makes it seem like an amusement park in my head instead of an archeological site. I don’t know how to feel about that.) It seems most people stick to the central plaza and like, Temple IV. I think this is an effect of day trips and people only seeing the highlights.

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People just hanging out on temples and ruins.

Anyways, in I went. I went off to the right first. This was because I like to attack these sorts of things from the peripheries like I said, and also because I wanted to wait until some of the tourist busses showed up before I went into the central plaza. I complained/commented at Great Zimbabwe that it would be cool to see the place with 10,000 people in it so you could get a sense of what it was really like as a city, so I thought if the central plaza was crowded that might actually give some sense of it. It never really filled up, but I liked seeing people just like, lounging around on the edges of temples and stuff. That seemed to me, I keep wanting to say “realistic” but “contemporary” is maybe a better word. Later on in the day I was pleased to see some little kids running around and then jumping over a wall. That was perfect. Back in the day man the city would have been full of life, like trading going on and cooking fires and little kids running around playing on stuff. It would have been filled with shops and stalls and people buying and selling things. The gift shop plaza thing is probably the best representation of the whole place back in Mayan times. People would have been coming from miles and miles around to see the temples and stuff, so the city would have been full of people camping in random spots and people selling them stuff. I kinda wonder if it resembled Edinburgh (Edinburgh rock has been occupied since the 2nd century, though a castle wasn’t built until the 12th, so Edinburgh and Tikal are kinda sorta contemporaries). But like there were causeways between the big plazas and I think those would have been lined with shops like the royal mile, and then the valleys would have inevitably filled up too. That was the other thing. I mentioned the jungle last week but at times I tried to peer into it to see what I could see. The archaeological site isn’t these pockets of temples in the jungle but is the whole area and miles around. There is plenty of uncovered stuff. You look into the forest and see a small hill, is it just a hill or a ridge or is it a manmade object? I bet it is man-made.

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Where was I? Temples. I think it was like, group N or something first. On the map they look like four temples in a row but not so much in real life. First off, the map has them like, as totally uncovered temples. Except for the grand plaza none of the temples are totally uncovered; the backs are almost always still hill-like. They’re covered with dirt and trees. I wonder why they keep them that way? Does it just cost too much to restore, or are the temples better off still covered? Are all the trees keeping the temples stable? I dunno. But these temples were almost totally covered so it took me a sec to spot them. The four temples are also, it seems, actually a set of two complexes, with temples to the east and west and then two smaller shrine things to the north and south. Throughout today I kept wondering if I had circled back accidentally because this is a common motif, so I would come into a clearing and then think I was back where I started. It was very confusing.

So those were neat and then I wandered up and came across Temple IV. I didn’t realize it was Temple IV because there were signs pointing away from it that said “Temple IV,” and I knew you could walk up it but there didn’t seem a way up it. Turns out it was Temple IV, and the signs were pointing to the walkway up it, but that wasn’t clear, and I somehow missed Complex O, Zona Norte, and Groups H&P. So I wandered back down and came across those. Very cool. Then it was off to the grand plaza. That was pretty neat. You come across first (the way I came) the back of the Temple of the Jaguar, which is pretty impressive in its own right. I stopped first at the stand there to get some water and tried to talk to a dude in Spanish but that fizzled quickly as we hit the end of my Spanish after like, one sentence.

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Eventually I went around and into the plaza and it is pretty impressive. The temples are almost like, oppressive. Plenty of people milling about and taking pictures. I tried briefly to get someone to take a picture for me but failed. Tons of selfies were taken that day. I went up and down and all around and looked at all sorts of stuff. Eventually I decided to get a beer and some cookies at the other stand. The beer felt appropriate because I felt like people would have drank beer in much the same spot when the Mayans were here. Again to beat this horse I keep reflecting about where I eat food here or sleep here the Mayans were doing the same thing in the same spot 1500 years ago. I tried to imagine the forest denuded, and a skyline just dominated by all these temples. As you went around the city you could often catch glimpses of Temples IV, V, and the Temples of the Mask and Jaguar poking above the skyline but back in the day you would have been able to see most of these things like, all the time. Must have been crazy. But yeah. After my beer it was up to the top of Temple IV. I had my bearings and found the staircase; they have wooden staircases up several of the temples instead of having you scramble up the steps. It was kinda like a Disney ride going up Temple IV because you had to pause and wait in the line.

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Top of Temple IV

At the top of the temple there are no handrails so that is scary and there are lots of people but you can see for miles over the jungle so that is super neat. Then it was down and off to “Mundo Perdido,” “The Lost World.” It is called that because the architecture is different from the rest of Tikal. That was cool to go around but a little after I got there it started raining. I went to the top of the big temples with a wooden staircase just as it started to rain, went back down, and dashed under some coverings with some other people waiting for the rain to stop. The rain made everything slick, and although after the rain I had a temple all to myself as I climbed to the top, it was very very scary going down (no wooden staircase on this one).

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Caught in the rain.

Over in the Plaza of the Seven Temples I tried to imagine the place back in the day but could ony conjure a nice park, which is what it is now. Maybe that’s what it was then, too. After being lost for a bit it was off to Temple V which, lemme tell ya, is huge. Apparently it was built all in one go which is super impressive. The forest is close around Temple V, unlike in the Grand Plaza, so I think the closeness makes it seem even bigger, but it is big by its own. No help needed there. I might have swung by another plaza or something on the way back but by this time I was ready to leave. I had visions of coming back in, but I was hungry and my leg was hurting. So I left the little park enclosure and went to go eat some food at the restaurant. That was pleasant and then I had to decide what to do. I swung by the visitor’s center again to take a look at the model of the city and that was more informative now that I had been around.

I walked to the gate but then decided the CCIT or whatever, the Japanese-funded investigation center, needed looking at. They have a small collection of artifacts and so I looked. I think you’re supposed to pay but I tried to listen to the guy in Spanish and heard “gratis” so I went in. I also took pictures which you are not supposed to do so yeah. I left and again thought about going in again to the site but it looked like rain and my leg hurt and I decided against it. I went back to the hotel and read Moonraker until I was done with it and then tried and failed to find some Wifi.

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I was very tired.

Guatemala Part II: Getting to Tikal

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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.

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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.

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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.

Guatemala Part I: Getting There

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Reading this week:

  • Range by David Epstein

Buckle up people – I’m going to milk this Guatemala trip for all it’s worth.

So over Christmas break I went to Guatemala. I mostly went because I was jealous of other people doing cool stuff. I’m in the Global Affairs program and because the affairs we care about are global, you get people who just casually go to Jordan or Vietnam or Portugal and stuff. So I wanted to go somewhere, and I figured I should practice my Spanish, and I have already technically been to Mexico, and Guatemala is the next closest place. I also have not ever traveled to Central/South America, except for a spring break in Cancun and a trip to Manaus, and I figured I should get some exposure to the region. I was very interested in how a place like Guatemala contrasted to Zambia or the other African countries I had been to. And then finally, ancient stone cities are like my jam, dawg, and Guatemala fortunately has quite a number of Mayan ruins.

So off I went to Guatemala. My mom dropped me off at the airport at 0400 and at 0600 I was on a flight to Texas and from there Guatemala City. I was hoping to find a Spanish phrasebook in one of the airport bookstores but no luck. The flight was fine. We landed a tad after noon and I got off the plane. As I walked to customs I kept asking why I had done this to myself. I was nervous about being in Guatemala and totally alone and not quite sure what I was doing. After customs, I changed money and bought a sim card at the convenient if overpriced stands in the airport, and then exited the airport and was like hrm. My original plan had been to take the overnight bus to Flores, but I had wussed out and decided to fly instead. So I needed to find the departure gate, and that was tougher than it sounded. I had found the departure entrance, but it looked like an exit, and so there I was wandering around with a bright orange shirt and a salmon colored backpack looking confused. Luckily, they had a cafe across the street so I ducked in there because I needed some lunch anyways. I got to sit down finally and eat some food and I observed the departures gate and concluded it really was departures. I sat around reading for a while and then went in at the appropriate time and then hung out in the departure gate. We eventually boarded the very tiny plane and took off just a few minutes before the sun went down. It was a fairly pretty ride, though clouds covered most of the way so I couldn’t get a really good look at the landscape. But I met some nice Canadian ladies.

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The most jarring thing about landing in Santa Elena was that there was a huge McDonald’s sign visible from the runway. And right before the causeway to Flores there is a Burger King. I came all the way from the United States only to find this. In Zambia you don’t run into this stuff so it feels more exotic. Guatemala seems much more developed. But I got off the plane and found a taxi, and the driver found some other people to split it with me. They were either French or Quebecois. I almost forgot to pay the taxi driver but he got me to “Hotel La Mesa de los Mayas,” which I picked out of a guidebook. I asked if they had a cheaper room than the Q150 one he offered, so the proprietor gave it to me for Q125. I took a shower and then head out to finally see some of Guatemala.

The island of Flores was jarring when we first crossed the causeway because I could see a lot of what seemed like tourists but now I think they might be Guatemalan. Still maybe tourists. So I didn’t really know if I was comfortable with the whole place. But the island isn’t large and I went for a stroll around the whole thing, stopping for dinner. Literally all around the island were couples enjoying the night air and each other’s company and I thought it was very very cute. My Spanish was really terrible. However, the place I picked for dinner had a nice view across the lake and it was good food and everything was great. As I was sitting there, I was very happy to be in the tropics but it felt like it would be a while before I really understood the vibe of the place. After dinner and back at the hotel, I pondered before I fell asleep what the Mayans that originally inhabited Flores would think about it these days. Would they be into commerce and trade? Would they like the food?