Note: This journal was posted but not emailed
Friday, April 04, 2008
I hit the internet in the morning for a bit and then we packed up and got ready to leave around 11. Before we headed out of San Ignacio, we went back to that restaurant to have one more of the fantastic burgers. We ended up waiting for about 45 minutes for a bus to the border, which wouldn’t have been that big of a deal except it was about 110 degrees in the sun. Finally it came and off we headed towards country number 3!
The bus doesn’t take you all the way to the border at this stop, you have to get out and then take a cab the last couple kilometers...I think we head to pay $1 each. Crossing the border we had to pay $17 USD to get out of the country which was absolutely ridiculous. I’m sure that money goes right into the pockets of the local police. It was the same scam on the Guatemala side to get into the country but luckily it was only $3 USD.
We managed to change the little bit of Belizean dollars we had left to Quetzales at the border. That’s a good tip for anybody who is in a place like Central America and crossing a lot of borders...you will often be given a horrible rate at the borders and also counterfeit bills can be a problem. Because of this, I always try to look at the current rate online just before leaving and usually try to have very little cash left to change. I also try not to take bills that look too new...bills that get used a lot are much safer. The only bigger crooks on the planet than taxi drivers are the guys who change money at the borders...just be aware and never take the first offer.
Anyway, we crossed the border without much incident and got hounded by taxi drivers on the other side who wanted to take us to Flores. They were quoting us about $40 USD...which eventually went down to about $25. They tried to tell us that there was not another bus for hours, which I knew was impossible. We just ignored them and walked about 300 meters into the town, where we quickly found out there was a kombi every 20 minutes that ended up costing us Q25 each ($3.50 USD). Let that be a lesson. Not only did the taxi guys try to rip us off initially, but I had this ridiculous conversation with the girl in charge of the kombis. She said it was Q25 to get to a town called Santa Elena, but Q50 to get to Flores directly. I didn’t really know the geography so I looked at my map in my book quickly. Hmmm...Santa Elena looked to be about 1 or 2 miles (if that) from Flores, yet we were a full hour from either place. “Let me get this straight”, I told her, “you’re gonna charge us Q25 to go 98% of the way and then another Q25, EACH to go the final 2%!!???” It made absolutely no sense! We kept having this circular discussion for like 3 minutes where I was trying to get her to tell me how that possibly makes any sense and she just kept repeating the prices. She would not admit that it was fishy...especially when I asked her if it was a different Kombi. She said it was the same one! She seemed to get agitated in the end as I had nothing to offer her but a laugh in her face. We borded our kombi and paid 25Q for the ride (which may or may not have been participating in a contest where they tried to break the world record for the number of people stuffed into one vehicle) and surprise, surprise, when we got to Santa Elena, we paid Q5 between us for a cool little tuk tuk that zipped us across the bridge to Flores in about 3 minutes. Not only did we save Q45 (which was LESS than a full night’s stay per person at the hostel) but we got to cruise in this bad boy!
Good times. It’s a good thing I’ve been traveling before and that I can speak the language here. I makes me shudder to think how many people they rip off that come across that border. Although, as I said in my El Salvador journal from’05, those types of things keep a very, very weak economy afloat in some cases. However, I hate to get ripped off and I know better, so I’ll recognize that they have to do it if they just recognize that it’s not going to work on some people.
We got to hostel Los Amigos and it was a cool place. Here is a video I took of it on our last day there. After we checked in, we walked around Flores a little bit...it’s a nice little town that’s actually and island in the middle of a lake Peten Itza. It’s very hilly and has a bit of a old school feel to it...much different than the jam packed streets and markets of nearby Santa Elena. There are some spectacular views of the lake and there are a few restaurants perched right on the water.
There’s no way I’m gonna see a place like that and not stop to have a drink or two. We sat out on one of the patios and met a few other travelers...one was a group of three girls doing an around the world trip in 6 months. It’s cool to do that, but they were trying to jam quite a lot into their trip. They were only going to be in Central America for like 3 weeks or something crazy. I’m wondering if 3 months would even be enough time. You should have heard this girl spouting off the departure and arrival cities they had set like an auctioneer...it was crazy. We also met these two girls from NYC that were doing just 1 week in Guatemala, mostly just coming to see Tikal. It’s interesting how meet so many different styles of travelers. Anyway, there was a part of the conversation that I think is worth recounting. Inevitably, whenever we tell anyone (well, any Americans in particular) that we are traveling for a year, there is always this look of disbelief. How can you do that!? How can you afford it?! Well, 10 minutes after that she told us they were paying like $150/night for their hotel that was right next to Tikal. Well, we were an hour and a half away from Tikal and we were paying $5/night for our hostel. There’s a start. They could have done all the same stuff on their trip, stayed in Guatemala for 2 weeks and seen a ton more just for the price of 2 nights in their hotel. So you have to decide what you want to do and what you want. I personally don’t have a problem trading luxury hotels for months of traveling. Some do, and that’s fine, but they’ll probably never get a chance to do something like this. It’s definitely a factor of what you’re willing to give up.
Anyway, we had a great time at the bar and watched a pretty awesome sunset.
We ended up drinking a bunch of Mojitos and pushing our table together with the girls doing the round the world trip and traded stories for a couple hours.
After awhile, we went back to the hostel. The common area was packed and everybody was enjoying food and drinks from the in hostel restaurant. After talking to a few people, it seemed that the way to do Tikal was to do a sunrise tour. Since we’re pretty far from Tikal, that means getting up at 3:00a.m. to catch the shuttle out there. We were sort of torn with doing it the next day...on one hand we were a few drinks into the night already and it was probably about 9:00, on the other hand, 3:00a.m. hurts anytime you’re seeing it because you set your alarm and not because you didn’t go to bed yet. We decided to suck it up and go for it. We booked it through the hostel for Q230 each (about $33 USD) which was a little less than the other places we had seen around town. The good news is that it included the park entrance (Q185) and the bus ride there and back...plus we would get to be there at sunrise before the place is open to the general public. On top of everything, we would have a guide, which I normally wouldn’t pay for...but in this case it was worth it. If we would have gone on our own without the tour, it would have cost us almost exactly the same amount of money with no guide.
We still hung out and had a beer or two at the hostel and met some of the people there. It was cool to be in a true hostel for the first time since Tulum. Belize doesn’t get near the number of backpackers so you end up staying in a lot of cheap hotels instead of a hostel with dorms, tons of travelers, and common space. It was cool, but again I was reminded of the downside...we met this crazy guy, Mike/Canada who told some of the most asinine stories I have ever heard. The guy could weave a tall tale better than pinnochio. He was driving me and everybody around him crazy...the weird thing was that he was completely oblivious to the fact that 1) we all knew there was no way half the shit he was saying was true, and 2) nobody wanted to hear another word. I wish I could recreate some of them word for word...but one excerpt from the end of a story was, “he got his AK-47, so I got mine out too...” Puh-leeese man. Luckily we had to get up at 3, so we tried to lay down around 11 so it wouldn’t be too painful.
Saturday, April 05, 2008
We were up a few hours later and ready to head to Tikal. There were a few other people from the hostel who went as well. Our bus had about 10 people on it, which I thought was a pretty small number considering this sunrise tour was advertised all around town. When we got the park, there ended up being a couple other buses so there were probably 60 people total. Not bad considering that Tikal probably gets a few thousand visitors everyday.
As we got off the buses things were pretty chaotic. There were people just pointing us in a direction but not telling us anything. Nobody was leading the pack so we just aimlessly followed like cows on their way to a slaughter house or something. I kept trying to find somebody to ask what the deal was but they just kept saying which way to go...we didn’t even know who we were following. We didn’t know if we were just supposed to stay in our group from the hostel, or how far we were walking. Plus it was pitch black out...they didn’t really give anybody flashlights so it was a good think we brought our head lamps. After about 30 minutes of aimless walking and not knowing what was going on, we finally arrived at temple four. We all climbed to the top and finally somebody explained what would happen for the rest of the morning.
We waited atop Temple IV in Tikal as the sun begin to come up and the jungle began to awaken. It was beautiful being up above the canopy...you could hear the howler monkeys calling and many of the toucans and parrots singing to the sunrise.
It looks a little hazy but it was actually a pretty clear day. We later learned we were lucky...everyone who went the previous 4 or 5 days were treated to nothing but fog during the sunrise and couldn’t even see the other temples in the distance that you see in the above photo.
After watching the sunrise our tour finally began. We ended up being broken up into two groups of about 30...which I thought was going to be way too many people. In the end it was pretty comfortable...Tikal is HUGE and there is quite a bit to see. Our guide did a great job answering all our questions and I didn’t feel like being in a group took away from the experience at all.
We visited all the major parts of Tikal...and we got to climb in several ruins which was awesome. A couple things that are worth mentioning...one of the temples we saw had some rooms that they used to let people go into. It was impressive from the outside but the reason they didn’t let people go in was that hundreds of people had scratched their names into the walls! What kind of person thinks it’s a good idea to put graffiti on a MAYAN TEMPLE!! Ugh. The people in this world disgust me sometimes. It really ruins it for the 99.9% of us who would like to enjoy and preserve these beautiful pieces of history. We were fortunate...our guide let us go in and take a quick peak at one of the rooms...we actually saw a couple bats that had made the dank, cave like atmosphere their home.
Another thing I enjoyed was that Tikal had a few examples of what goes into restoring these temples. Here is one temple that was almost completely restored but some of the original stairway was left as they found it.
That gives you a little bit of an idea of what they do to restore these temples...but this picture of 4 small temples shows it even better.
Look at the two in the middle...completely covered with rocks and tree roots. You also notice that the stairway for the one on the end is almost completely reconstructed. No wonder it takes them years to excavate all these things. I have to admit, somehow, getting this “behind the scenes” look at things took some of the luster off for me. I don’t think I realized how much the temples we have been seeing have been restored. It made me wonder how accurate the depictions of all the temples we were getting...but then later we learned that archealogists in Tikal and in other sites have often found small scale models that the Mayans built of their cities...they also have found drawings and other “engineering” items that show them how the temples were conceived and constructed. It’s pretty amazing to learn how meticulous the Mayans were, even all those years ago.
Another highlight for us was climbing to the top of Temple V. It was a very steep climb up...luckily they had constructed some ladder like stairs.
It was VERY narrow at the top but we took some amazing panoramic pictures from up there and also I shot this video.
The last area in Tikal that we visited might have been the best. It was a huge courtyard with a bunch of different temples we could climb on. We were pretty tired by then but we had to investigate as much as we could. Here is a nice view of a huge structure in the plaza.
The heat of the day we getting into full swing by then...it was about 10:30 by then and we had already been at Tikal for 6 hours! I’m not sure what time they open to the public, but it was starting to get a bit full by then. As we walked back to the entrance and the heat of the day really started to kick in, I felt sorry for all the people that were just getting there! Doing the sunrise tour was perfect! There was almost no other people in the whole park and we didn’t have to deal with the smoldering heat. It felt great to have done so much already and the day was still young.
We got back to the hostel around noon...surprisingly we were not that tired. It was however, very hot so we decided to go down to the lake to take a dip and try to stay cool. When we got down there, we saw Nick and Tracey/England (who we had met back in San Ignacio). We had been in touch and knew they were in town but it was cool to just run into them. We all stayed in the water for the rest of the afternoon and we told them all about Tikal and that they HAD to do the sunrise tour. It was a pretty fun afternoon except that tall tale Mike/Canada from the hostel showed up and started telling a bunch of asinine stories again. What was funny was that we didn’t have a chance to warn Nick and Tracey so they got stuck listening to him. I think he chased them off b/c they ended up leaving before us...but we planned to meet in the hostel that night for drinks and dinner.
That night we had an AWESOME time in the hostel. We started off with some really tasty ice cream drinks...a slight luxury for travelers. We stayed in the hostel drinking and talking for hours...I even got to talk about Brazil for almost a solid hour with some girls who were heading in that direction. Later on that night we finally got the munchies so we headed out to a local little taco stand.
They actually had a few tables and some cool young local guys were sitting next to us. One of them had a guitar they were singing (I use the term loosely) some popular latin songs. I love when that happens...those drunken, nobody really knows all the words and none of us can sing but we are having a great time moments. I’ve found that no matter what country you’re in or what language you speak you find people in these situations...you’re happy and there isn’t a care in the world and you’re just there with your friends. It’s awesome. I joined in with them for a few tunes. I’m gonna stumble through what I want to say here but bear with me. I love the latin culture and it has been my “scene” for many years now. I have been listening to lots of latin music and going to latin bars for almost 15 years now. Because of that, I’ve gotten to a level of understanding of the language, the people, and the music that far exceeds what the average gringo might be able to understand. I always felt like a good window into a person or into a culture is the music...there is a lot of expression of inward emotions that manifest themselves through music and you can make connections with people just by something as simple as having the same favorite song. Anyway, I remember back in college when I was trying to fit in to latin culture that surrounded me, one of my first real connections was how much I loved the music. I would hear all these awesome songs at parties and in the beginning, I just loved the rhythm...then I would start hearing the lyrics and then the songs as a whole. Suddenly out of nowhere, I began to recognize songs...the classic hits or those that were destined to be classics. It was an awesome transition that came along with understanding the language, the culture and many other things that go with it. It’s very difficult to describe how it feels...but the end result is that you’re sitting at a taco stand in Guatemala, singing songs with guys from a completely different world, with which otherwise you might not have had a connection. That’s what I call good times. That’s why I’m down here. But that wasn’t the best part for me. The best part of all of it was that as they played a few songs, like Jarabe del Palo or some Mana songs...I saw Jodi getting all excited...”I know this one!” she would say and then she would try to mimic the words or sounds...which are nothing more than that to her at this point. That little piece of excitement...that “I know this one!” feeling...that recognition and understanding is what I want her to get out of this trip. I’m noticing that as we travel along, she is going through a lot of the same transitions that I went through over the past decade+ and it’s so much fun to see. It’s imperceptible moments like that that sometimes get lost when you look back and somebody asks you how in the world you know the words to some latin rock song from 1992. You don’t see it when it’s happening to you, but DAMN it puts a smile on your face to get to see somebody else going through it.
Sunday, April 06, 2008
It was a pretty chill day...I spent the morning hanging out reading and then almost the whole afternoon at the internet place uploading pictures. I also went around to a few different places trying to sort out getting a bus down to Coban so we could go to Semuc Champey. I went there back in ’05 and it was serious highlight...I wanted to share it with Jodi.
We had dinner that night up at the street stands with Nick and Tracey/England. We decided that we would all move south together from there. They had the Tikal sunrise tour the next day and the buses only leave going south in the morning so we figured we’d all get the bus on Tuesday morning together. Sweet! I love having some travel companions.
All the activity of the previous couple days finally caught up with us that night and we both ended up crashing pretty early around 10:00.
Monday, April 07, 2008
The morning started off a little frustrating...I had to call back to the US and deal with some issues with the bank...after 3 or 4 different calls and a few emails, everything got worked out. After that, Jodi and I went out to do a little shopping...my headphones were broken and that is cause for alarm for me...I gotta have my music. I also needed to get some new sandals as mine were ripping...well I thought they had plenty of life left but Jodi insisted I get some new ones. Women don’t understand the male concept of wearing something as long as there are atleast 3 threads holding it together (note: this is especially applicable to boxers and old college t-shirts).
We got a tuk-tuk back across the bridge to Santa Elena which is more of a city that has several shops. We found everything we needed and walked around in the main market in town...it reminded me of the markets in Sao Paulo...about 500 different little booths selling the same 16 items. I’ll tell you what...if you’re ever in Latin America and need generic batteries, a “universal” adaptor, or a keychain you will be all set.
Back in Flores we went to the internet to discover that Nick and Tracey had overslept and missed their bus to Tikal that morning! Down at the lake we ran into them and busted their balls for awhile. They decided to still leave the next day with us anyway and just do Tikal on their way back north. I managed to find a place that had a bus directly to Lanquin the next day for Q120...which was only 10 more than going just to Coban. Perfect. We all had a few drinks at the bars on the lake and then went back to the hostel for awhile. As things died down, I somehow ended up in a game a stratego with this German guy...it brought me back to my days at the boteco back in SP...except that this time I didn’t win:)
Anyway, that was it for our time in Flores...it really was a nice little town. Most people stop here just to go to Tikal...which was definitely worth all the hype, but the town itself is really nice too. The next day we were set to push forward with our new traveling companions...definitely one of the best parts of traveling is the people you meet and get to have new experiences with. Now the four of us were off towards the next adventure together.