Guatemala….a coming of age story!

It would have been sacrilegious to have gotten so close to Guatemala and not seen the impressive Mayan site of Tikal. Since we had a couple of days to kill before catching our flight from San Salvador to Cuba, we decided to embark on our final ambitious couple of days of traveling….and what a couple of days it was!

With our bellies full, clothes washed and day packs ready, we left Lena and family in Ataco to make our way across the border to Guatemala City; to figure out if a trip to Tikal would even be possible.

After negotiating our way through what has to be the ugliest, dirtiest and most dangerous city we had been in, we managed to get to the bus terminal in the heart of the red light district of Guatemala City.

Given our limited time and budget, we decided to take two consecutive night buses to make the round trip to Tikal. The realisation that this amazing journey was coming to an end had suddenly dawned on us both and so our last ever night bus was somewhat of an emotional experience….although this was feeling was short lived and replaced by that of rage due to the pesky family of 4 squashed in behind us!

We arrived in the town of Flores early in the morning to be quickly whisked away to the site of Tikal, deep in the jungle bordering Belize and Mexico.

Arriving at the site before 7am was truly a magical experience with the entire site covered in a dense mist.

The main section of the site spans about a kilometer, with towering pyramids poking above the jungle’s green canopy. At this time of the morning, it is quite literally howling with animal activity.

I managed to climb my way up to temples no. IV; the highest at 64m high, just before the mist began to clear. Unfortunately Dre and I managed to loose each other so I had no body to share the moment with or to take any decent pictures of what was one of my most memorable travel moments 😦

Seeing the other huge temples appear out of the mist surrounded by nothing but dense jungle was just breath taking. Being so high above the canopy, all the noises of the jungle some how seemed to be amplified….I was sure I could hear the sound of the rare puma making a kill.

Of course, when Andre finally made his way up to the top he obviously had to rain on my moment by informing me that is was in fact the sound of a howler monkey :(…the only other thing to ruin the moment was an obnoxious American suffer dude who was insisting that it wasn’t the sun that caused skin cancer but the sun screen and that he only ever put things on his skin that you could eat…clearly a dismal attempt at chatting up the uninterested Australian girl that like me, just wanted him to shut the fuck up so we could enjoy the scenery!

We spent the next couple of hours wondering around the site which although is not as impressive as Machu Picchu from an architectural perspective, does allow for your imagination to run wild, particularly since it’s only 25% excavated!

The shear size of this lost city is totally mind boggling… Walking around brought back a memory of one of my favourite cartoons as a child….”the mysterious cites of gold”…I really did feel like Sebastian that morning.

Tikal is the best understood of any Maya cities and as with the Egyptians, has a long dynastic ruler list; explaining all the tombs, monuments, palaces and temples.

The Maya peoples never disappeared, not even with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the subsequent Spanish colonization of the Americas. Today, the Maya and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area and maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs.

Unlike the Aztec and Inca Empires, there was no single Maya political center that, once overthrown, would hasten the end of collective resistance from the indigenous peoples. Instead, the conquistador forces needed to subdue the numerous independent Maya polities almost one by one, many of which kept up a fierce resistance. Most of the conquistadors were motivated by the prospects of the great wealth to be had from the seizure of precious metal resources such as gold or silver; however, the Maya lands themselves were poor in these resources. This would become another factor in forestalling Spanish designs of conquest, as they instead were initially attracted to the reports of great riches in central Mexico or Peru.

Mayans are noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems.

Since our night bus back wasn’t leaving until 9pm we had more than enough time to explore the town of Flores. It is spectacularly located on an island in Lago de Peten Itza and is what Cuzco is to Peru, in that it is set up to carter for the tourist trade en route to Tikal. It is a charming place that has a 500m causeway that connects it to the lake shore town of Santa Elena.

With so much time to kill, we found ourselves eating copious amounts of the tastiest food (decisively more Mexican than we have had before) along with numerous coffee stops whilst enjoying the beautiful sunset across the lake.

After yet another night sleeping on a bus we arrived in Antigua feeling some what jaded and excited about the thought of resting for a while in an actual bed. Unfortunately we were unable to find a room available until the afternoon and so agreed to freshen up and get some breakfast before cracking on with the day.

Looking at pics below, you can understand why Antigua is Guatemala’s tourism showpiece. A former capital, this town is jam-packed with historically significant buildings and relics and is a place of rare beauty….which surprising considering it has been flattened by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes throughout it’s history.

After a couple of hours we were pretty much done with Antigua and so decided to solider on back to Salvador that afternoon to spend the night at El Tunco and rest by the beach the following day.

In order to avoid ever having to ever go back to Guatemala City, we decided to cross over to El Salvador along the cost and the border crossing of La Hachadura. Given that this isn’t a usual traveler route to take, we found ourselves at the crossing used by all the large cargo lorries. Thankfully we were able to just walk past the insane queues of lorry drivers waiting to clear customs, which given the sketchiness of the place (made even worse by the thought of sunset approaching) was a welcomed bit of luck.

Unfortunately this is where our luck seemed to end since we hand some issues with border control; something we were expecting given the complete lack of any stamp in our passports from our previous crossings into the country. By the time we had explained our route up through Honduras and our quick visit to Guatemala we had missed the last bus to the beach town we had been longing to reach.

After trying to see if there was absolutely any way of getting to El Tunco, we finally gave into the fact that the only bus leaving the border town was to Sonsonate. We were told that this was the place where all the gangs of El Salvador lived and so we were not best pleased about the thought of staying in a dingy, expensive motel for the night only having to leave the next morning.

Since it was beginning to get dark and I was feeling a little on edge anyway, I had taken the smart move of hiding all my credit cards in my shoe and my iPhone down my pants…just in case the bus was robbed en route (something that we hear is very common in El Salvador).

As we drove along the cost we were both frantically looking through the guide books to see if there would be any way to get to the beach….we even toyed with the idea of just getting off at the last junction and hitching a ride for the rest of 40km journey.

We both quickly dismissed the idea as being a ludicrous risk to take, especially so late on in our trip…we had somehow managed to avoid any trouble over the past 6 months and still have all our valuables (I.e camera and iPad); getting mugged just before we were about to leave would be something that would take a while to come to terms with.

As we edged closer and closer to the junction in question we both began rationalising the idea of getting off and standing on the roadside to hitch hike. Since there were another 3 buses due to follow, I thought that it wouldn’t do us any harm trying and then hopping on the last bus to Sonsonate as a last resort.

The more I thought about it the more I wanted to be able to say that I was most defiantly a seasoned traveller, having hitch hiked in one of the most dangerous countries….at night! Within a second of telling Dre that I was game if her was…we found ourselves at the junction of the main road and the pitch black road that continued along the coast line.

Having never done this before in my life, I wasn’t really too sure what to expect; after the first five failed attempts, I began thinking that this was a horrible mistake.

In order to prevent an argument; proportioning blame to either party, I just kept my head down, avoiding eye contact with anyone passing by, praying for someone to actually stop. My prayers were finally answered and an opportunistic ‘thumb out’ to a large cargo lorry was successful!

After climbing up into the lorry, we were delighted to find a young and relatively attractive lorry driver, only too willing to give us a lift. Sitting in the comfy sprung seats of this huge vehicle, speeding along the cost line, I couldn’t help but feel pretty smug with myself for having pulled this off!

The feeling of elation soon turned into a slight panic as the lorry driver pulled over to the side of the road for no apparent reason. No doubt Dre’s feelings were centred around ejaculation where as I reached for anything sharp…just in case he was a complete nut job.

Thankfully there was no ‘job of any kind since he simply stopped to get some water from a tap at the side of the road 🙂

We spent the next hour our so learning all about the export trade and the tough life of a lorry driver on the road; he works for 6 months straight living in the thing. He drives day and night across the county, unable to take the lorry off the route at any time.

We left our new friend over cum with joy about what we had achieved in the last couple of days and more generally the past 6 months. I most definitely feel that I can now say with 100% confidence that I have travelled hard core!