Sunday, March 01, 2009

Guatemala

This article is a continuation from Chiapas - Part I.

At 8 in the morning, a delicious breakfast of toast, marmalade and huevos a la Mexicana was ready at the forest lodge we stayed in. We had breakfast, thanked Vicente for his hospitality and boarded a mini-bus that dropped us to San Javier. We waited at San Javier bus station for about half hour, before we were picked by another mini bus that took us to Frontera Corozal. At Frontera Corozal, we boarded the launch on the same Rio Usumacinta on which we had sailed to Yaxchilan ruins the previous day, just that we sailed in the opposite direction.


The river was crowded by people busy with their laundry and ablution. I kept pondering how courageous those people were, they were carelessly swimming and bathing despite the fact that Usumacinta was crowded by crocodiles. The day was bright and the air was clean. The journey lasted for about 30 minutes, we passed a sort of sand island where few villagers were busy fishing and they waved us when our boat passed by. We disembarked at Bethel on the Guatemala side.


I feel it's worth describing the entire arrival scene. The boat came to a stand still at Bethel on the Guatemalan bank where few ladies were doing their laundry in river, it reminded me how my aunts used to do their laundry in the lake behind my granny's place near Thirthahalli. It had no wharf or no air-conditioned immigration office. There were no cops with sophisticated weapons or walkie-talkies or sniffer dogs to sniff us, instead there were some hungry, malnutritioned stray dogs. The place was so tranquil and silent that I felt I had just arrived to a remote village, definitely it wasn't the feeling one would get after crossing a border. There was a mud ramp we had to ascend to reach a shop where you can exchange money, fill in immigration forms and boards our connecting bus.


Quetzal (read ket-szal) is the currency in Guatemala. We got 500 quetzales for every 1000 pesos, which was indeed exorbitant. The conductor of our connecting bus (San Juan Travel Agency) told us that we get worse conversion rates in the city, but it's NOT really true. Trust me, you either get same or better prices inside the city though, in our case, the most lucrative way to get quetzales was to use our international debit card and withdraw a huge sum in single transaction. Anyway everyone of us must convert some money at the border to pay at the immigration office.


Our luggages were tossed up the bus, the driver fastened them with ropes and weather-shielded them with tarpaulins. We waited in the bus for everybody to finish their currency conversions and fill their immigration forms. The journey started by 11 in the morning and conductor of the bus introduced the upcoming journey. He said, "It takes two and half hours drive on metal road before we hit the asphalt. In another 10 minutes, we're gonna stop at immigration office for document check and then the next stop will be at gas station on the asphalt road for toilet and buying snacks and water. Once we reach outskirts of Flores, we stop at an ATM for withdrawing money, sometimes it works and sometimes it does not." And after 10 minutes the vehicle indeed came to a halt.


The immigration office was a blue building with few arches. Had it didn't bear the board "Immigration office", the wildest guess one would make will either be a rich farmer's house or an elegant toilet. We were not too behind in the queue, we entered the office and the officer at the counter was stupefied to see my Indian passport. "Hindu???", he exclaimed, "tienes que tener visa"...Indian??? You need to have visa. I didn't have any Guatemalan visa, I told him, "Soy residente de Mexico, no tengo visa de Guatemala" and handed over my FM3...I'm a resident of Mexico and I don't have Guatemalan visa. He scrutinized my FM3 and asked me, "Tienes visa de Estados Unidos?"...Do you have visa of United States? I said I've got one and turned to the right page which had a 10 years long B1/B2 visa. He then discussed something with his workmate and thanks heavens! he approved my entry into the country. He then did a noisy stamp on my passport and made a remark that I'm resident of Mexico with valid US visa and I don't need Guatemalan visa. I paid 40 quetzales as an entry fee, for which you'll not be given any receipt. With a wide grimace I said "Gracias" and quit the office.


Our slow and bumpy journey on the metal road began once everybody got their documents checked. We passed through villages which resembled Indian villages to a great extent - cattle grazing, stationary tractors, stray dogs, children merrily playing in courtyard, good old rustic houses and Guatemalans speeding on their motorcycles. The tropical selvas gradually turned into arable lands, we saw vast expanse of maize and papaya crops during our journey. As the conductor had promised, we stopped at a gas station once we hit the asphalt for snacks and loo. The journey continued and the conductor started his explanatory speech.


"We will reach Flores in about an hour or so. Flores is a beautiful, colourful island town where all the tourists from Mexico stay and continue their journey down south. If people have reservations in hotels, we shall drop them there or atleast we shall try to drop very close to hotels for some roads are too narrow for our vehicle. Those without reservations need not worry, Flores has too many hotels and hostels; we shall help to get some accomodation. There are many restaurants dishing out various cusines."


He then continued with his business talk, "We are San Juan Travel Agency, based in Flores, Guatemala. We are the biggest travel agency in north of Guatemala and could be found in any travel books. We provide travel service from Flores to Tikal, Antigua, Guatemala city, Palenque and Chetumal, via Belize. You can buy tickets to any of these places right now or once we reach Flores." He gave prices to each of them and also promoted the early morning tour to Tikal. We bought return tickets to Tikal, for the next day which cost us 60 quetzales per person and also we bought ticket to Palenque for the day after, paying 275 quetzales per person. We alighted at the bank to withdraw more money, after we realized that the amount we had converted wouldn't be enough. There were countless colourful, autorickshaws and motorcycles, which made me very much at home.


We reached Flores at about 5 in the evening without any hostel reservation. The bus dropped us in front of Hospedaje Doña Goya, which had beds at disposal for as less as 25 quetzales. A young boy in his teens, ushered us to our beds and asked us to choose one and directed us to stick to the one that we choose. We lowered our bags, refreshed ourselves, paid for the beds and head out to explore Flores. Flores is a very small island town, surrounded by the lake Petén Itzá, and is connected to the mainland by a causeway. It's a colonial style city with red roof tops and narrow lanes. Most tourists come to Flores due to its proximity to Tikal, accomodations at Tikal are exhorbitantly priced.


We walked around the narrow streets and reached the lake. It's a tranquil lake with people lazing around on boats and swimmers doing their calisthenics. The water was warm and clean, there was an island museum which, it seems, contained some of the ruins recovered in the nearby areas. We kept strolling on the streets till twilight and then settled down at "Cool Beans Cafe" for a cup of coffee. The coffee, though was very delicious, was expensive when compared to Mexico. We then head out for dinner at "La Mesa de Las Mayas", we had some pollo rostizado and some fish; bought fruits and bread for next day breakfast and retired to hostel. Not sure if the birds in the courtyard had their biological clock screwed up or if they were into some violent sex, they made the night pleasingly noisy.



We were up and ready by 5:55 in the morning, the bus picked us up right in front of our hostel at 6:05. The 65KM journey from Flores to Tikal lasts for about an hour and a half, the forests and small towns enroute Tikal made me feel I was travelling somewhere Chikkamagalur in my state. It seems Tikal area is known for it's vivid fauna - jaguars, panthers, great curassows, badgers, rodents, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, armadillos, pumas, toucans, parrots, woodperckers, herons, humming birds - the list is endless. It seems the odds of spotting any of the fauna is higher if we take the early morning tour at 5 in the morning, but it's expensive (150 quetzales) which includes hitch-hike and guide service). We reached Tikal at around 8 in the morning, bought the tickets (150 quetzales for tourists, 25 quetzales for Guatemalans), bought a map costing 20 quetzales and started our exploration. Entrance to any ruins in Mexico is as cheap as 50 pesos (25 quetzales), while in Guatemala it was exhorbitantly priced, nearly 6 times of what we pay in Mexico. And the sad part is, park authorities offer the following for such price - no maps, no guides, no introductory boards near ruins, non-functional toilets, defaced ruins (I saw countless numbers of mushy Jose-Loves-Maria kinda scribblings on the walls of ruins).


It seems the total size of Tikal ruins is about 570 square kilometers!!! And only about 29 square kilometers has been excavated and open to tourists. Most of the unexcavated structure resemble a mound with trees on them. Map is highly recommended, for most times it's very hard to locate yourself in such vast expanse of dense forests. It was drizzling when we started, we head to our right at the entrance, towards 'Complejo Q' where we saw the first of the pyramids of Tikal. It was a small one and it had an obscure stela in front of it protected by the a thatch roof. We continued to 'Complejo P' which had bigger pyramid, but very poorly maintained. The steps were eaten up by algae and rock lichens, making it slippery and the inside walls of the pyramid had lots of contributions by the damned lovers. We found dozens of badgers near the pyramid, one intelligent traveller told me that they were howling monkeys!





























From there we continued to 'Complejo O' which had more pyramidal structures and we were close to Plaza Central. Each of these places are located quite far from each other, which requires 5-15 minutes walk to reach each of them. Plaza Central is the most visited, the biggest and the most beautiful part of Tikal. It's got Templo I (Gran Jaguar) and Templo II (Temple of the Masks), two gigantic temples facing each other. Templo I is 45 meters high pyramidical structure, the entry to this building is forbidden for the tourists. Templo II is 28 meters high, the original steep steps of which is now blocked for tourists to climb, instead they've put a makeshift wooden staircase on the side of the temple. The view of the Plaza Central from top is mindblowing, I was imagining how magnificent should have been the lives of Mayas in such dense forests back then, totally isolated from rest of the world.


The weather changed thankfully and the sun shone bright and the tropical heat started soaring high. We visited the Acropolis Central, a chain of 45 buildings from which one can get a top view of the ball court (located next to the Temple I). Unfortunately, most of the walls were infested with green algae. North Acropolis is right in front of Acropolis Central, which requires one to climb steep steps to reach the top. The courtyard formed by Temple I and II and the aforementioned Acropolises contain many stelae and you can see great currasows lazing around.


We head to Templo III (Temple of the Grand Priest) behind Templo II. Imagine a gigantic pyramid 50 meters high, all covered up by forest except the top portion. That was how Templo III was. It's huge and unexcavated, after the fall of Maya the ruthless selvas swallowed this gigant structure, leaving just a protruding temple tower on top.

























































Templo IV (Temple of Two Headed Snake), needed about 15 minutes walk from Templo III. Templo IV, like Templo III, is also devoured by forest, but they've made makeshift staircase to each the top of the highest structure in Tikal - 65 meters! The view from the top is incredibly mind-blowing. An infinitely big carpet of evergreen selvas, meeting the universe at the horizon and decorated by protruding temple towers of Templo I, II and III. Templo IV was crowded by tourists, most of them relaxed atop the temple for a snack or drink.





























We stopped by at Palacio de las Ventanas (Palace of the windows) on the way to Mundo Perdido (Lost World). Palace de las Ventanas, probably had a some kind of a special window system and interconnected rooms or something, but enrty was blocked for the tourists. The walls were badly defaced by people. Mundo Perdido is a complex with many structures and it has the Grand Pyramid, 35 meters high which was closed for restoration. Plaza de los Siete Templos, the seven temples plaza had seven temples in line, some of them devored by forest and some being restored.


We reached Templo V,it was a 57 meters high pyramid with makeshift staircase to the side of it. The mind-numbingly steep steps were forbidden to take, probably due to it's slipperiness or something. We climbed the crowded stair case which was very steep too, and the view from the top was much better than what we had seen from Templo IV. The towers of Templo I and II had adorned the infinite selvan carpet. We relaxed on the top of the tower for about half an hour, for we were a bit tired and we knew there wasn't much to see from there on.


After descending, we head to Grupo G which has the Palacio de las Acanaladuras (Palace of the Canals). It's a palace with U shaped chambers and has tunnel at it's entrance. In one the chambers we smelled pleasant incense, on questioning the guide, he told us that it's the smell of the incense used in Shaman rituals that happens sometimes in those chambers. We then head back to the entrance and awaited for our vehicle.



Tikal ruins are marvelous, I only hope that they could maintain it better by atleast cleaning up the algae and lichens on the walls of the ruins, provide better toilet facilities atleast for the price they charge for the tourists. I paritcularly loved the location of the ruins in the densest selvas and I was awestruck by the size and scale of the some monuments and I pitied Mayas for having disappeared all of a sudden. The Tikal exploration is an exhausting activity, the tropical heat drains you of your energy. I would strongly suggest, that if you're not in good shape avoid climbing some steep pyramids. Take lots of fruits, energy bars and water to beat dehydration. The exploration we started at 8 in the morning got over by 5 in the evening!






















Finally our bus arrived and we reached Tikal at about 7. We surely were tired as hell, we had the coffee at the same "Cool Beans Cafe" and did some souviner shopping before we head out for dinner at "La Mesa de Las Mayas". We were left with no energy for anything else do be done, we retired to our hostel for we had to wake up early the next day for heading back to Palenque.


Early morning at 5, we were picked right in front of hostel by "San Juan" travel agency bus. Thankfully, the bus took a different road and we didn't have take the 2.5 hours long metal road detour. By 9:30 in the morning, we were at El Ceibo border town split between Guatemala and Mexico (Tabasco state). We were told that we couldn't take anything organic across the border, we gulped the yogurt and binged on the fruits instead of wasting them. We had to pay 80 pesos per person (no receipt again) on Guatemala side for having let us in without visa and had to get our bags checked at Mexican immigration side. Think of this...Mexicans don't give a shit to what you bring when from US of A...countless number of times I've passed without being frisked...but when I'm heading from Guatemala, as though Mexico is a drug-clean country they frisked our bags. So the rule of thumb of immigration in American continent is: WHEN YOU'RE HEADING FROM NORTH TO SOUTH, THEY DON'T GIVE A SHIT. WHEN YOU'RE HEADING IN THE OTHER WAY ROUND, YOU'LL BE FRISKED DOWN TO YOUR UNDIES.


After coming out clean from baggage check and stamping on our FM3s, our baggages were put in another van waiting for us on the Mexican side of El Ceibo. The worst part of the whole border crossing exercise was the absence of a toilet. I saw even ladies struggling their way behind the rock for nature calls, which was a pathetic thing to happen. I cursed those immigration authorities for not having as basic an amenity as toilet for the travellers and continued the journey ahead. The driver told me that the "El Ceibo" highway was opened recently and it was a great thing for the travellers coming up north from Guatemala. We passed through the town of Tenosique and crossed the Rio Usumacinta, not by boat this time, but on the bridge "Puente Boca del Cerro" (Mouth of the mountain). The area is known for the beautiful canyon cut by Usumacinta river. By 12:30 in the noon, we had already reached Palenque city. We first bought the tickets to San Cristobal de las Casas, we preferred AEXA bus service, which was on par with ADO but costed us much less. We then satiated our hunger by delicious Pollo rostizado (roasted chicken) at Yashalum II restaurant, after which we boarded the bus to San Cristobal.


San Cristobal de las Casas...to be continued.

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