It’s a jungle out there!
For the adventurous traveller nothing is more exciting than hacking through the jungle in the early morning mist to discover a lost empire with towering pyramids and ancient city streets. Like Indiana Jones you swashbuckle your way through crocodile infested swamps, past crazed howler monkeys to find yourself at the lost tomb of the tribal chieftain.
Making it across the Guatamalan boarder is the first challenge!
At least that was the scenario going through my mind as our party entered the national park in Peten, Guatemala on our way to Tikal, the most important city of the Mayan civilization. Once a bandit ridden and dangerous area, regular police and army patrols have made this destination much safer for tourists, however some caution should still be exercised.
There are two main ways to get to the region, either from the Guatemala City in the south or across from Belize which is how I came in. My journey had started in the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, a small island off the coast of Belize. I took the 7am water taxi to the marine terminal in Belize City where there was a connecting bus that would take me all the way to Flores in Guatemala.
This part of the adventure did not quite go to plan as the ticket I had bought in Ambergris Caye seemed to be for a different bus line that was nowhere to be seen, however after a bit of negotiation with the driver he agreed to let me on for a cash payment. The bus rambled through the rundown neighbourhoods of Belize City before the road opened out to lush green undulating farm land on the road to the Guatemalan border.
The island of Flores on Lake Peten Itza
True to form at Central American borders cash was needed to both leave and enter, Belize charges a whopping $37.50 which includes a conservation charge whereas Guatemala seems to decide somewhat randomly on how much you are worth. I rated about three dollars! There are money changers on the border to help you get rid of unneeded Belize dollars, and a bit of haggling will get you a better rate.
Once across the border the road deteriorates a little to a potholed gravel track until it eventually hits blacktop and travel becomes much easier. Signs of civilization soon appear as shopping malls and restaurants dot the approaches to St Helena, where a change of bus to a small shuttle was necessary.
The best staging area for Tikal, in my opinion, is the island of Flores on Lake Peten Itza, its link to the mainland is a newly built causeway that replaces the water taxi in a more efficient but not as romantic passage.
Flores is an easily manageable place with a score of well maintained budget accommodations that span all budgets. I chose to stay at Amigo’s Hostel just a short stroll from the waterside, the hostel itself is done out in a rainforest motif with colourful paintings, hammocks, a vegetarian restaurant and bar plus the obligatory parrot.
Amigos Hostel was a good choice for a relaxed and friendly atmosphere
Almost everyone you meet has Tikal on the agenda and tours are easy to come by, the hostel arranged mine and I was set for a 4am start! Handily the hostel is well aware of the pre dawn departures and noise was minimal after 10pm.
I struggled awake and grabbed the bag I had prepared the previous evening replete with bug spray, water and sandwiches. I put on my bush hat, stowed my revolver and hitched the leather whip to my belt; in reality I packed my guidebook and checked I had my camera!
The minibus was on time and rolled around town for a short while picking up the rest of our little group before our very cramped party headed off to the jungle. The drive to Tikal was uneventful and bland as we sat bleary eyed or dozing in the bus as it drove deeper and deeper into the darkness.
We arrived at 6am at the visitor centre to meet our guide for the day, all this being somewhat random we were very lucky to have Louis with his impeccable English and encyclopaedic knowledge of the area as our designated jungle guru.
The Pyramids rose out of the morning mist just like in an Indiana Jones movie
The point of getting to Tikal early is twofold; first we get to avoid those lovely big tour buses and second, the most important, we get to see the jungle wake up with the sights and sounds that are hidden by the noise of the human visitors.
Our group was led through the gloom along rough paths; Howler Monkeys prowled the canopy above pelting us with small rocks and anything else they could get their hands on whenever we strayed into their territory. Louis pointed out small details as we moved steadily along, things we would have had no idea about unless shown.
The highlight of the tour arrives early as, out of the dim light of dawn and through the mist, the first of several Mayan pyramids appears before us, the towering edifice seems so out of place here in the jungle, the original cityscape obscured by centuries of jungle incursion.
One by one we made the climb up the steep steps beside the Pyramid until we eventually cleared the jungle canopy and arrived in the dawn light. As the mist swirled around us and partially cleared we could see the ghostly shapes of sister monuments protruding through the dense foliage below.
It is a testament to the dedication of the archaeologists and the conservationists in Tikal that this wonderful spot is so well preserved and has maintained its wonderful evocative mystery. I am normally averse to taking guided tours however I can truly say that having a small group and such a personable guide made the experience a far more educational one.