Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ancient Mayan Ruins in Tikal National Park, Guatemala

March 9, 2013

I wake up at dawn, sunlight streaming through the bus window, after a night of fitful sleep; it’s difficult to get comfortable, even in these luxury seats designed for sleeping. The eight-hour overnight ride from Guatemala City to Flores is almost over. Peering out the window, I see two women walking, each with a large bowl filled to the brim balanced on her head. Dogs wander the streets.

Around 6:00 am, we roll into the tiny town of Flores. It’s comprised of colorful buildings, mostly hotels, restaurants, and shops, all within walking distance of each other. And, if you are too tired to walk, you can hop into a tuk-tuk, a tiny taxi car with a large, grumbling engine. Just across the bridge is Santa Elena, a larger, more commercial town where most of the locals live. As far as a place to spend the night, I think Flores has the nicer atmosphere. From here, it’s just a short shuttle ride to Tikal National Park, which is the reason we’ve traveled so far north in Guatemala.

The Mayans left Tikal over one thousand years ago, leaving their great stone architecture to be reclaimed by the aggressive jungle. It wasn’t until the 1950s that excavation began, and it continues today. While some temples are completely visible, rising impressively into the sky, many other temples have just their highest point jutting out from layers of dirt and plant growth; some look merely like a mound of earth, if you didn’t know what lie beneath.

The Mascarones Temple stands 38 meters tall. It was built in 700  AD
by "Mr. Cocoa," and the wooden carved lintel is thought to resemble his wife.

Oh my goodness, the steps are steep!

Fortunately, this engraving has not worn completely away.

This is the view from the Two-Headed Snake Temple. It's the tallest temple
in Tikal and in all Mesoamerica,built in 740 AD and standing 64.6 meters tall.

This beautiful tree is the Ya'ascche', Guatemala's national tree.
Mayans worship  it as the holy tree of life and consider it the axle of the world.

The Mayans are long gone, but the jungle is still full of life. Howler monkeys cause a ruckus in the trees, sounding like Chewbacca on a bad day. A tiny fox crosses our path on a secluded trail. Pizote (coatimundi) forage for food. A bird, I think an oropendola, sings a song reminiscent of a piece of electronic equipment on the fritz. A curious wild turkey approaches during our picnic lunch, interested in Nick’s beef jerky. Ruffling its feathers and creating its own drum beat, the turkey dances for us, spinning in a slow circle with tail feathers splayed. We are being courted! The performance ends when the turkey regally bows, a slow, deep bow as if in prayer, and lays still.

After wondering around Flores for half an hour and looking at every menu we come across, I resign myself to lackluster dining options. Most Central American restaurants claiming typico, or authentic, food offer variations of the same ingredients: rice, beans, plantains, chicken, and tortillas. No variety, no creative dishes, no enticing flavors. Tasty, authentic cuisine exists; you’re just not going to find it in most restaurants, where they tend to stick to basic, bland recipes. For this, you’ll need to sneak into a plump woman’s home or ask for what’s under the striped cloth covering the basket in the market stall. This is where the true cooking is found. Even then, expect to find tortillas, beans, and/or rice somewhere on your plate.

Of course, there are other options available, mostly pizza, burgers, and pasta. These restaurants are for tourists, as well as local families looking for a change. One family celebrated a birthday at Pizza Hut. When I was little, I loved going to Pizza Hut with my family, so excited to trade in my Book-It reading certificate for my very own pepperoni personal pan pizza oozing grease. It’s just not appealing when I’m hundreds of miles from home seeking different experiences (or even when I am home, for that matter). Then again, neither were the pork chops and steamed frozen vegetable medley I ate for dinner. Oh, Central America, how I wish I liked your cuisine as much as I enjoy the rest you have to offer. (One thing I discover that is really good here are their bananas. I swear, they taste better than the ones I buy at home.)

Hotel Casa Amelia
Calle La Unión, Ciudad Flores, Petén, Guatemala, C.A.
Tel: (502)7867-5430
Cost: Q340/$45 per night
The bus drops you off at the Gran Hotel, a large yellow building next to the lake. It’s a short walk to the hotel: Go left along the waterfront, and you will reach the back deck of the hotel’s restaurant. They were kind enough to prepare our room early, rather than having us wait until the afternoon. The room (#205) was airy and clean, with two double beds, a private bathroom, air conditioning, and a view of the lake. The shower had hot water. The staff doesn’t speak much English, but we managed to communicate.

Tiny stores, or tiendas, are on every street in Flores, selling snacks (chips, cookies, candy) and cold drinks. I bought two large water bottles and two bananas for Q22. The bananas taste really good here - probably because they’re so fresh.

A Central American processed snack - marshmallow on a soft cookie. 
Tikal Restaurant - At the restaurant under the same roof as the gift shops, I ordered a Tropical Fruit salad, consisting of watermelon, papaya, and cantaloupe (Q38). I was surprised, and a little disappointed, that it didn’t contain any mango, pineapple, or banana, which are also common and currently in-season.

Cool Beans - We chose this restaurant for dinner after a short walk around Flores to check out the options. Most restaurants serve burgers, pasta, and meat/vegetable dishes, including this one, but it had a nice vibe. Nick ordered a hamburger with guacamole, and he received a bun filled with eggplant, tomato, guacamole, a mayonnaise-based sauce...and no hamburger. Thankfully, my pork chop special (Q50) came with two, so I gave him some meat. Instead of mashed potatoes, I requested a double serving of vegetables. The vegetables arrived steamed...and that’s it. No oil or butter, salt or pepper, garlic or spices. Cools Beans is... not so cool. But it is cheap.

Casa Amelia - The hotel has an attached restaurant, and we ate breakfast here the morning we departed. I ordered the egg breakfast, which included eggs cooked to order, bacon or ham, tomatoes, onions, cheese, beans, fried plantains, corn tortillas, and coffee or tea (Q35). I was served eggs scrambled with cheese, bacon, and ham with a side of beans and sliced bananas. Not what I expected, but it was really good.

Tikal National Park -
Tikal National Park is open from 6:00 am - 6:00 pm every day, and the entrance fee is Q150/$18 (cash only). If you want to visit for the sunrise (4-:00 am - 8:00 am) or the sunset (6:00 pm - 8:00 pm), you can pay an additional fee of Q100/$12 - it is two separate fees, not one fee for both. Another option is staying at a park lodge, but this is more expensive than staying in Flores or Santa Elena.

At the front gate, we bought a map for Q25. It was nice to have because it helped us know that we weren’t missing any ruins, and we also learned a little bit about the ruins. I think five hours is enough time to explore all the ruins at a leisurely pace, with time to have a picnic lunch. (There are restaurants, but we brought food.)

Traveling to Flores from the Guatemala City Airport
Bus Companies:
- Autobuses del Norte (ADN; tel. 502/2251-0610 in Guatemala City;; Estación Central, 8a Av. 16-41, Zona 1)
- Línea Dorada (tel. 502/2232-5506 in Guatemala City, or 7926-0070 in Santa Elena;; 16a Calle 10-03, Zona 1)

Both companies have regular buses between Guatemala City and Santa Elena/Flores. The trip on either bus line takes around eight to nine hours. We took a taxi from the airport to the ADN bus station for Q125 because it had the latest bus available (10:00 pm). Since we arrived at night, we took an overnight bus, which I think is a good choice because then you can sleep through the long drive. A one-way ticket costs Q180 if you pay with cash and Q189 if you pay with a credit card. Our 10:00 pm bus arrived around 6:00 am.

Traveling to Tikal National Park from Flores/Santa Elena
When we arrived at our hotel to check-in, there was a man offering round-trip shuttle rides to Tikal for $10 per person at 8:00 am. The shuttle picked us up in front of the hotel. It was as easy as that.

Receptores Turisticos
Peteneros, S.A.
Calle 15 de Septiembre, Flores, Peten
Telefonos: 5175-2263, 5805-5362, 5175-1894, 5746-8852

We drove for about one and a half hours (after reaching the gate of Tikal, you drive in another 17km). Once there, we decided with the other passengers in the van to get picked up at 4:00 pm. If you aren’t sure when you want to leave, it seemed like there were other shuttles available.

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