Monday, February 23, 2009

The day after our day of wandering around the San Ignacio area, we packed up and took a cab to the Guatemalan border. We had arranged a driver to pick us up on the other side. We had to pay about $30 in various fees and taxes to leave, and got our passports stamped twice. Here's the scene on the Guatemalan side; lots of taxi drivers waiting, and money-changers wearing fanny packs (they ended up being legit), with a few cops wearing semi-automatic weapons.

The roads in Guatemala are way worse than the ones in Belize; tons of huge potholes and ruts, and cars slow to a creep in order to traverse them. The trip to Tikal from the border took about an hour and a half. About halfway through our driver stopped at a very nice and clean and way overpriced tourist shop which also had bathrooms and free coffee. Parked at the house next to the shop was this car:

(It refers to the end of the Mayan calendar, which some think means the end of the world, or the time the aliens will finally come to collect us, or something.)

The Tikal ruins are in the middle of a huge nature reserve, so they have a lot of animal crossing signs: turkeys, snakes, coati, and of course jaguar:

Our hotel was the Jaguar Inn, one of the three right at the entrance gate to the ruins themselves. It was kind of like Midas -- very jungly, but even moreso since we were in the middle of a reserve. In fact, the power is from a generator that they shut off every night at 9, and hot water is only available a few hours a day.

Here's a path to the dining patio:

We put our stuff in our room and got lunch and watched some toucans while we ate. There's one in the middle of this photo:

Then it was time to do the ruins. At the gate we decided to save the $50 a guide would have cost, and bought a guide map for a few bucks instead. It takes about 10 minutes to get to the beginning of the ruins, and then a half-hour to get to Temple IV (which is what our guidebook suggested). The paths are well maintained and travel through serious jungle. Before we reached Temple IV we passed a bunch of smaller structures -- Tikal is enormous -- and so we looked to the map to explain what we were looking at. That is when we discovered that we should have sprung for the guide. Here's what it says about the first ruins we passed, Complex Q:
"This complex of twin pyramids is the biggest constructed in Tikal. To the north of its square there is located an enclosure inside which one finds the complex alter - stela. To the side south, a structure is located with nine income and at the head of the placed pyramid eastwards, nine stelas and smooth altars. The monuments esculpidos dedicatory for this complex are the Estela 22 and the Altar 10 that date the end of the katun of 771 Classic Late and there were constructed by the leader 29, Yax Nuun Ayin II."

(The map also gave "recommendations to enjoy his visit" such as "To behave for qualified paths, not to take paths it does not know." And "It uses the accesses authorized to rise and to get off only the structures." And "leads 45 kph and avoids to knock down the wild fauna. It takes to himself record of his speed.")

So yeah, we pretty much gave up on trying to glean any information from the map besides where things were. We did eavesdrop on another group's guide a couple of times, which was nice.

Anyway, on to the photos:

Here's the aforementioned Complex Q:

And this is Temple IV peeking out of the canopy; it's in the process of being restored, thus the scaffolding. The six big temples had wooden stairways to use to get to the top, instead of letting you use the steep, railing-free stone steps (which they used to do, apparently). Those signs say stuff about how you have to walk around to the side of the temple to climb up:

And the view from Temple IV:

It is high. Those are some big-ass trees, and the temples just rise right up above them!

Near the base of Temple IV was a rest area with actual bathrooms and even a little soda-selling counter. You can see it in the background here, with a pretty wild turkey hanging around in the foreground:

There was also a coati, which is like a raccoon; it was searching for tidbits in the leaf litter near a trash can, and was totally ignoring all of the tourists taking photos of it:


(That's CJ on Mundo Perdido.)

The main attraction at Tikal is the grand plaza, which has two big temples and a ton of smaller buildings, full of little rooms to explore. The coolest-looking temple is Temple I, which you're no longer allowed to climb. This shot is taken from the top of Temple II, just across from it:

Temple I from the side, showing some of the Acropolis in the background. There are little people there, for scale:

I captioned this photo with Central Acropolis but I think it's the North Acropolis. But I really don't know for sure:

From, um, one of the Acropoli, we could see Temple V rising up in the distance, which reminded me of the shot of Endor they filmed here (from Return of the Jedi, OF COURSE):

We did a LOT of walking and climbing but I had heard Temple V was the most insane, so we went. We didn't see anybody there, or on the way there or back. Here's the approach to Temple V:

What's insane about Temple V is the way up: A rickety-looking staircase that's so steep it's really more of a ladder. A seven-story-tall ladder.

I was not going to not climb this. DAMMIT, WE HAD COME TOO FAR. So we did. At the top, of course, there was no railing or anything to stop us from slipping and tumbling forward down the steep stone steps. Here's the view from the top:

The climb down was much scarier. We climbed down backwards like we were descending a ladder. Note the angle of the stairway railing, and how very acute it is:


After that we went back to the entrance and explored our dinner options at the other two hotels. Not great. While we were peering through the twilight underbrush at a gibnut (we had no idea what it was at the time, but it looked like a cat-sized capybara), a guy in his late 50s or so started talking to us. He said that he had heard the cheap place near the campsites was supposed to have authentic local food, which would be a huge step up from the weird American-diner-like mixture offered by the hotels. So we ended up meeting up with him and hearing about his interesting life as an ex-Earth Firster who had spent some time in the clink, but who now just travels most of the time (possibly financed by his wealthy son). He was a friendly and intriguing guy, and he generously bought us beers, but at the end we decided that one of the reasons he liked traveling around third-world countries so much is that it enabled him to be rude to the waitstaff without any consequence.

The power did in fact go off at 9, and I had a hard time falling asleep without my sound machine (such a delicate flower I am). And then we had to get up and catch our ride at 8 the next morning, so we could get dropped off at the Guatemalan border, take a cab back to Midas, meet a shuttle van there at 12:15, and then get driven an hour and a half or so to Belize City, where we would catch the water taxi for the 45-minute-ride to Caye Caulker. But that's for the next post.

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