Tikal and Flores

“Tikal”. The word kept appearing long before we arrived here in Central America. The Rough Guide to Belize includes a special chapter on Tikal and Flores; various friends who have travelled in this part of the world all said it was a must-do; reading about the Mayan culture invariably makes reference to it. So when we learned that Monday 22 September was a public holiday (September 21 is Independence Day in Belize) creating a three day weekend, we thought “Now or never”.


Tikal is in Guatemala, a two hour drive once over the border into the more remote eastern region of the country. It is a vast site; I quote the guidebook: “As you approach the entrance to Tikal National Park, a protected area of some 370 square kilometres that surrounds the archaeological site, the sheer scale of Tikal as it rises above the forest canopy becomes overwhelming, and the atmosphere spell-binding. Dominating the ruins are 5 enormous temples: steep sided pyramids that rise up to 60 meters from the forest floor, and around which lie literally thousands of other structures, many of which still lie underneath mounds of earth and covered in jungle.”


Having risked hiring a car for one day the previous weekend, and also seeing how tiring driving on unpaved roads can be, we plucked up our courage and planned to hire the car for 48 hours, driving from 11am on the Saturday and returning by 11am the following Monday. We hoped to persuade other volunteers to join us and cut down the costs of the car hire. Unfortunately two were leaving the following week, and despite that they would have loved to have come, because we were so last minute in our proposal they had already committed to a barbecue held in their honour by the woman in whose house they had been lodging. Another had a friend arriving that weekend from the UK, and yet another insisted that things Mayan were not interesting to her. So Conor and I ended up with just Sean to accompany us, a delightful young Canadian man who was as intrigued and excited about the prospect as we were.


I made a deal with Conor that I would drive in Belize on relatively good roads, and he would do the Guatemalan stretch. With exactly the same car that we had had the previous Saturday, we set off complete with picnics and loads of water. We reached the border crossing in a couple of hours, and since we had read alarming things about armed robberies after changing money at the border, we ignored the many touts anxious to exchange $US and $Belizean for quetzals (Q). Money did get a bit confusing in Guatemala as we ended up thinking in 4 currencies. Q3 = 1 $BZ. 4 BZ$ = 2 $US = £1. 7Q = 1US$. Etc. I found the easiest way to deal with it was 140Q = 20US$ =£10. And money was important because we had also been told that the costs of Mayan and traditional goods over there were considerably cheaper than Belize (which is expensive) and we hoped – and indeed managed – to purchase most of our Christmas presies over there.


Knowing the Western Highway like troopers by now, I confidently drove all the way to the border without a hitch. The immigration was the usual mix of bureaucracy, efficiency, inefficiency, chaos, queues, and officials more interested in maintaining their conversation between themselves than addressing you. The Belizean side was true to its ex-colonial heritage and definitely had the organisational edge as we passed from Belize into Guatemala, and into a mild sense of confusion: moving from one queue for people entering the country, another for the car, another for paying into a bank window, queue-jumping as a guard in what appeared to be a black and red conquistador-like uniform took our papers up to the window, toting a huge rifle from his belt. Once back in our car, we then also had to pay a toll over the bridge into the border town of Melchor de Menchos. We were pleased to see that the road, though rough and unpaved for the first 8 kilometres, was no where near as bad as Pine Ridge Reserve the previous weekend. A few vast potholes littered the surface in parts throughout the length of it, and Conor did masterly avoidance manoeuvres!  There were a few stretching the width of the road that were unavoidable….


The terrain was a little different to the Belizean side; still lots of small hills, and many trees, but less dense and seemingly fewer of the very large fruiting broadleaf varieties. There was far more agricultural land: fields with crops, and pastures with the handsome cows such as we saw in Mexico – much less beefy than the ones we see in the UK, with a large hump on their backs and a heavy flap of skin beneath their jaw, called a dewlap. Their floppy rabbit-like ears frame their pretty soft features, and are topped by long curved horns. They populate this area generally, and are apparently a mix between the Indian Brahman cow and European breeds, as the Brahmans are particularly tolerant to high temperatures. (They sweat better than most cows, apparently; that does sound rather familiar…)


These fields and pastures, dotted with trees, are interspersed with small villages. The people are predominantly small and slight, with golden brown skins and strong frames. Many were on horse back, and horses – some very thin and mangy – were also tethered at the road side or roaming fields. Bicycles were the other main form of transport, followed by scooters and mopeds, often with a driver and passenger with one or two small children squashed in between. Everything was pretty basic, but there was far less plastic and other rubbish than in Belize. People in the villages often sat at the roadside, and I even saw a young woman suckling her child in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, calmly sitting at the side of the road. Unfortunately most of the agricultural land has been reclaimed from the rainforest, but there are regulations now about how and when this can be done.


Sean had a guidebook about the whole of Central America, and it was interesting to read that the civil war in Guatemala stopped only 9 years ago. It explained how the whole region was having a civil war in one country only to be replaced by another as it quietened down. And guess which country’s money was invariably involved? The US! They would support one regime here, insurgents there, as the paranoia about communist or fascist domination influenced their political affiliations. Belize has many immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and the Yucatan as internecine strife predominated in their homelands. We also read that Guatemala is currently owned by about 6 families.


It took us two hours to the border, and just over two hours further to our destination, with one hour in immigration. A tropical deluge which reduced visibility to zilch at various times made the driving interesting, but Conor enjoyed the challenge! As we approached Flores, we passed the pretty lagoon, nestling beneath the forested range which housed Tikal, our destination on the Sunday. Flores is a tiny island with a causeway approach, much like Crooked Tree but even smaller, in the middle of a ‘foot’ at the bottom of the large lagoon – Lago Peten Itza. It had been recommended to stay in, an attractive series of aging houses and cobbled streets surrounding a church and plaza. And it is also cheaper than Tikal for buying presies! There are two modern suburbs on the mainland by the causeway, but they fail to have the faded charm of Flores, more the bustling commercialism of Central American towns. We entered through the island’s portal at about 4.30pm, and making our way on the one way system around the tiny place, we ended up exactly outside the cheap and cheerful place the guidebook recommended.


Flores is a sort of Guatemalan Venice with a Mexican-esque feel to it…higgledy-piggledy houses, a few streets criss-crossing one another, and glorious water all around. All the shades of terracotta cover the walls, which sport attractive wrought iron shutters and verandahs. Traditional pots and containers decorate most surfaces, and yet it still feels very much lived in, people’s home. No doubt in the height of the tourist season – January to March – it would feel a bit different. The evening light was directly facing us on the west, under the odd distant rain cloud in a wide sky. The heavily wooded shores of the northern mainland in front of us were illuminated, showing the houses between the trees and the boats littered along the shoreline.


A bit of history: Flores was the ancient capital of the Mayan kingdom of Peten, and was the last local region to resist the Spanish until 1697. Guatemala became part of Mexico, a Spanish colony in the sixteenth century, which was dissolved in the early 1800s. Together with other Central American countries it became part of a Mexican Empire for two years, before separating to form the United Provinces of Central America. That too dissolved in a civil war between 1838 to 1840, and even since independence Guatemala has ricocheted from one leader to another, with the church, US and large landowners never too far away. Deep in the heavily forested north-eastern region of Guatemala, the region of Peten has up until the 1960s had closer connections with Belize than with Guatemala City.


Having found our rooms (120Q or less than £8.50 for a double room) we went to explore Flores before the light went completely, and immediately became enchanted with the dozens of shops literally crammed full of goodies. The quality was fabulous, and at first I felt so guilty at being able to purchase so much – things which would be 3 or 4 times the price in Belize, and even more at home. (Belizean prices range from the sublime to the ridiculous and I can never quite work out why sometimes.) Then I realised that actually these shop owners need people like me to be so captivated, and that it was a healthy symbiosis. It was intriguing to see how one shop had many things I could chose from, and another, equally full and varied, just was not my taste. But that is the same the world over, whatever you are buying. As someone who is normally shop-adverse, and has a very low tolerance threshold for such things, I was like a kid in a sweetie shop with her Saturday pocket money clutched gleefully in her palm, delighting in how she could spend every penny! Gauging the current size of various grandchildren was the hardest part….


Wandering on round, a restaurant caught our eye, and a bit later the three of us were sitting at a table in the open sided dining area, enjoying the lovely cool of the evening – the best time in this climate. The storms of earlier had gone and the lights were reflecting off the still black water. A charming waiter welcomed us in, and my fish from the lagoon was delicious. Incidentally, Guatemala produces very good coffee. Strolling on, we made our way to the central plaza, and delighted in seeing all the different age groups playing ball, climbing railings, courting, families congregating, having a beer or licking an ice cream, all hanging out in the pleasant  evening in the plaza-centred way of Mexico and other Spanish speaking countries. 


What is Tikal? Tikal is believed to have been at the centre of the Mayan culture between 300BC and 900AD, known as the Pre-Classic and Classic periods, though there is evidence of people having been there from at least 900BC. The site is the pinnacle of Mayan architecture, with some of its most impressive pyramids being built around 700AD, which was towards the culmination of the Mayan culture. (Lowland Mayan culture began to ‘fade’ around 900AD.) Other significant cities in that period include Corozal to the east, near the Rio On Pools in Belize, Teotihuacán just north of Mexico, and Kaminaljuyu in modern day Guatemala City. Like any great city at any time, it was a leader in terms of culture, the arts and religion. It was also a warrior nation. I have written elsewhere here about how their shamanic traditions were integrated into Christianity, and how the culture is not too far away when you talk to modern folk, who readily refer to the use of ‘bush medicine’.


Setting out about 9am, we made our way back around to the east of the lagoon, and then went north climbing gently all the time deeper into rainforest. There is a barrier at the entrance to the national park, with a fee to pay in exchange for a piece of paper with the time on it. The road was wide and very well surfaced, and the lovely light was dappling through the trees. Every now and then we would pass the Tikal equivalent of our local deer sign, warning motorists about animals which maybe crossing the road. These included: a jaguar; a coatis; a monkey; a snake; an armadillo; a paca or rather large guinea pig; and a peccary or wild pig! 15k down this road we came to a large site complete with a parking lot, full scale model, over-priced ‘tipica’ and cafes, a museum and a booth full of rather over-zealous tour guides. Before we could get in to park, another man asked to see the ticket which we had been given. He looked at his watch, wrote down the time, and then very sternly in funny half–Spanish told Conor off for coming through the park too fast – a speed limit of 25 k an hour. Ooops!


While acquainting ourselves with the model, comparing it to the map in the book, and noticing the orientation of the main pyramids was on an east west- north south axis (the Mayans were superb astronomers) Sean excitedly called us over. One of the stall holders had asked him if he wanted to see a crocodile, and there in a swampy lake just behind the tourist facilities was a small 3-4 foot croc basking in the sun at the water’s edge with a turtle breaking the surface just behind it! At last!!! Sean had been with us at Crooked Tree and witnessed our many attempts to track one down, and was as pleased as punch to lead us to this trophy!


We set off, scanning the ‘You are Here’ map conveniently placed at the first cross roads, and began what felt like a pilgrimage as we ambled slowly along the forest path. Only about 10am, the sun was already hot and high in the sky, but the wide paths and verdant trees created constant, welcome, dappled shade. This was some of the most beautiful rainforest I have ever experienced. Even without the architecture, it was worth the journey and was balm for the soul. A deep sense of peace pervaded everywhere, accompanied by the loud silence of the natural world – birds and insects providing the drone of life’s heart beat in our ears. The forest is a curious paradox – all is in superabundance, and yet there is always a feeling of there being space for each and everything. None of the squash of a planted forest, or the lack of light; more the gentle placing of everything in just the right corner – low enough here, broad enough there, sinewing round or towering above – it reminds me of TS Eliot’s description of each word being perfect and in the right place. The sense of the garden bully, or the bracken which would take over the hills, things out of balance, does not seem to exist here, yet without a doubt the forest as a whole would take over any space it could and very quickly, too.


(There are some photos in this blog showing the tangle of vines or the huge girth of some of the trees, but they do not do it justice.)


The city, like the jungle, is vast. Though much is still not excavated, and all but the most central plazas have been taken over by the jungle, the sheer number, size and magnificence of the steep sided pyramids cannot fail to impress. Once magnificently decorated, the many friezes and stellae are in various states of preservation. Some adorn platforms, some lie at the base of pyramids and some are in the museum back at the Visitor Centre. Despite the heat you haul yourself up to the top of the ones you are allowed to climb, and as well as enjoying the increased breeze, the view of the pyramids breaking above the canopy is wonderful.


Slowly we made our way around, making sure that we got to both Temples 5 and 4.  We had seen from the scale model that they towered above the others, and couldn’t miss that. Heading towards Temple 5, a deep, loud, repetitive ‘Hoar, hoar, hoar’ could be heard from the tree tops some distance away. Howler monkeys, and this one was either displaying to its troop or not very happy! A quick bend of a branch caught our eye, and looking up we saw a spider monkey just above our heads, leaping agilely from tree to tree, hanging from its tail gracefully.  Rounding a corner, Temple 5 suddenly soared above us. It is surprising that such a vast structure cannot be seen until you fall over it, but the trees are so dense that until the pyramid breaks your immediate horizon they are superbly camouflaged. (In the city’s heyday the area would have been cleared of course, and the magnificence of the city as a whole would have been more than apparent.)


Boy oh boy, straight up! Narrow, steep sided and awe-inspiring! The original steps were roped off, but a series of wooden ladders moved up the left hand side, much like a ship’s ladder. Up the right, down the left. A cabana provided shade for those too young, old or just plain scared to make the climb. Occasionally cheers and clapping would break out as a friend or relative reached the top. Now, I get vertigo, but I really, really, really wanted to get to the top. Sean and Conor were hugely kind and promised to stay both in front and behind in case my knees went, and also promised not to go near the edge at the top which can alarm me as much as anything else. Despite how ramshackle the wooden structure seemed it was actually easy to climb, and because your face was constantly only a foot away from the side of the pyramid, there was no opportunity for an accidental glance down. For those of you unfamiliar with vertigo, the difficult moments are those of transition. Despite solid ground beneath your feet, you only seem to notice the lack of solidity all around you. The sensation is a bit ‘Alice down the rabbit-hole-ish’, but creates anxiety because if your knees do buckle or you do faint, the consequences are not insignificant. Clinging to the side of the pyramid like a limpet, I inched my way across to a narrow ledge and sat down. After a bit, my body relaxed enough to be able to look out (not down!) at the most stunning panorama. The pyramids in the central plaza broke through the canopy in front of us, and all around a mass of tree tops for as far as the eye could see. As you watched, a fast-moving branch would reveal the whereabouts of a troop of monkeys, and black vultures soared on the up-drafts.


Never completely relaxed but so pleased to have made it to the top, the slither along the ledge to the ladder was achieved, and once more the descent with one’s nose against a strong wall immediately in front of you was remarkably and surprisingly reassuring!


Still following the roar of the howler monkey, we sauntered on to Temple 4, the highest of them all. Spider monkeys graced us with their dancing, and at one point a furry brown kinkajoo, related to the coatis, ambled across the ground about 15 feet in front of us, totally un-phased by the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ following it. Temple 4 is the most northerly pyramid in the city, rising 60 meters in the air, but climbed much more easily in a series of graded steps. The structure is wider, vaster, less phallic than the previous one, and there is a sense of space on it. The top has many steps and ledges, and does not create the feeling of imminent demise. Slowly one’s eyes adjust to the vastness of scale, beginning to see more details, notice ranges of hills, orientate oneself to the skies. No wonder they were fabulous astronomers.


By now pretty tired, thirsty and hungry, we mistakenly took the long way back! A fabulous large butterfly fluttered past, and while we stopped to photograph it, two toucans moved out from the branches just above us. Eventually we made our weary way back to the car park, only to find that I had foolishly left food in the car. Barbecued bananas in their skins, baked ‘raw’ carrots and shrivelled lettuce!