In Tikal, it’s a jungle out there these days

Long before they served as the Rebel moon base at Yavin IV, the skyscrapers of Tikal were part of an important Mayan urban area that sprawled over 100 square kilometers.  The Temples that remain today, which date from as early as 600 BC, poke through the jungle in the lowlands of El Peten, about an hour’s drive from where I’m staying in this tiny island town of Flores.

Tikal temple in misty light

I woke up at Stupid O’Clock yesterday hoping to see sunrise over Tikal, but on the misty morning that was in it, we instead got to watch the temples appear out of the mist, as howler monkeys roared through the jungle and toucans took their places in the jungle canopy.

If you’re visiting Tikal from Flores, an excellent guide is Caesar from Little Caesar’s Travels (e-mail), who gave us a passionate and informative tour of the site.  I don’t tend to go in for guided tours, but Caesar was very insightful about the structures, flora and fauna, and kept my interest all morning.  A few of us tagged along for his tour after ditching the abysmal guide which we’d booked through San Juan Travel Agency (something I think Caesar is used to, and he was very happy and charming while receiving tips from us tagalongs).

There’s plenty of information about Tikal’s history and the relevance of its steep-sided temples at Wikipedia and elsewhere.  The biggest mystery, it seems, is why the site was ultimately abandoned to the jungle around the 10th Century AD.  Overpopulation?  Environmental destruction?  Drought?  Warfare with neighbouring states?  Who knows.

Anyway, something to think about as you look at the photos!

‘The most beautiful lake…’

Arriving at Lake Atitlan from Guatemala City was an adventure in itself. I was the only foreigner on one of the jam-packed “chicken busses” owned by Rebuli, a company that ploughs the route between the capital city and lake town Panajachel with repurposed American school busses. The trip made for a great introduction to the very welcoming people of Guatemala.

The towns on Lake Atitlan each sport their own vibe, and accommodations are readily found in three of the largest. Panajachel‘s main drag, Calle Santander, is transformed daily into a market with brightly coloured handmade fabrics. San Pedro La Laguna is a bizarre mix of hippie vibe, party central and missionary zeal. On the north side of the lake, San Marcos La Laguna is the most low-key of the three, with yoga and massage on offer. All three can be reached by the public boats which leave about every half-hour between the towns.

Any of these could be your base for a longer stay for a formal Spanish course, but the lessons constrain you for the entire afternoon, so I have opted for a combination of Pimsleur’s audio tapes (highly recommended, which I am digesting in MP3 form on my mobile phone), and constant practice with the Guatemalans I meet. I have a long way to go.

I have been on two big hikes. The first was between the smaller towns on the north side of the lake, from Santa Cruz (perched above the lake) to San Marcos. Some of the most beautiful views of the lake I found were on this hike, particularly between tiny Santa Cruz and tinier Tzununa.

The second hike was up Volcan San Pedro, which is accessible from the town of San Pedro and rises to 3020m (from the lake’s height of 1558m), and makes for an energetic 1462m climb through hillside plantations of maize and coffee, followed by lush natural vegetation. I had met the thoughtful and friendly Julio in San Marcos the previous day and he offered to guide me up, and I would recommend that you similarly take someone familiar with the trail with you, as it branches a few times.

Julio made a mockery of my many-months-of-regular-gym-training-to-be-ready-for-this by hardly breaking a sweat either way, but that being said, we made very good time. When he was 10-15, Julio would hike up the mountain to bring back wood for the village. That back-breaking work lands a carrier about 50 Quetzals (about $6USD) per load today.

A word about the weather: it’s rather predictable this time of year, and the mood of the lake changes with the day. You wake up to a crisp morning over a calm lake. As the day progresses, the clouds build as the temperature and wind rise. It usually rains late in the afternoon or early evening. Then it cools off at night. Both sunrise and sunset are relatively early, so I am trying to be an early riser to take best advantage of my time here.

Aldous Huxley famously called Lake Atitlan the “most beautiful lake in the world,” and the vistas I have taken in — featuring volcanoes, lush vegetation and ever-changing lighting– made me understand why. But I have to confess that, while exquisitely beautiful, my Canadian-via-Ireland eyes find Atitlan not as exotic as other lakes I’ve seen (in Southeast Asia particularly), and perhaps just in terms of sheer beauty I have also been spoiled by beautiful Canadian landscapes.  But you can hardly argue with a view like this.

I’m off tomorrow for the ruins at Tikal. I am very grateful for the rapid internet connection here that has allowed me to upload the photos, and hopefully there’ll be more like this in Tikal!

p.s. Totally off topic, but… Bostowned!! Watched the final of la Serie Mundial from Bar Alegre, a fantastic (and unashamedly touristic) hangout by the dock in San Pedro.  Awesome spot with very friendly staff.  ¿Ahora consigo mi cerveza libre?