Crossing the land border from Belize to Guatemala could not have been easier. We paid an exit fee and got our passports stamped at the Belize border, then walked across the short no man’s land to the Guatemala control building. No queue and no paperwork to get an entry stamp for Guatemala. The whole process, including changing our remaining Belizean dollars to Guatemalan quetzales with one of the gaggle of money changers who hang around the border post, took about 10 minutes.
We walked about another 10 minutes through to the centre of the dusty little town of Melchor de Mencos looking for a microbus to Flores. There isn’t a bus station, but like many such places, locals know there’s really only a couple of possible destinations that wandering gringos would be looking for, so it wasn’t hard to find one.
Microbuses with the destination ‘Flores’ handwritten on the windscreen in white-out don’t actually go to Flores (go figure). They terminate at the bus station in Santa Elena, from which tuk tuks run to Flores.
Flores is an island on Lake Peten Itza with a causeway joining it to Santa Elena on the lake shore. It’s small enough that you can walk the promenade which runs around the entire perimeter of the island in about 30 minutes. The buildings are Spanish colonial in character and there’s a mix of the dilapidated and the spruced up.
The island’s cobble stoned streets are a pleasant place to stroll as most of the traffic is limited to the outer perimeter road. And there’s quite a few little restaurants and cafes facing the lake.
People come here to swim in or take boats out on the lake, but mostly it’s a base for visiting Tikal, one of the most impressive Mayan ruins in Central America.
At the height of it’s power, Tikal had a population of over 100,000 and the city was spread over 30 square kilometres. The site now sits deep in a 576 square kilometre UNESCO listed national park.
Although many of the structures are huge, the dense forest means you don’t see them until you are almost upon them. It’s easy to see how they were lost to man for centuries.
There’s a real Indiana Jones feel to the place.
Apart from it’s sheer size, what makes Tikal different from other restored Mayan temple sites is its environment. Areas around each significant structure have been cleared, but otherwise the whole park remains native forest. The jungle scenes from the 1935 movie, The New Adventures of Tarzan were filmed here and it looks like not much has changed since.
Walking from one temple area is a stroll through a national park. Elusive creatures such as jaguar roam here, and while you are unlikely to see any, you will certainly hear and see howler monkeys and lots of birds including these fine fellows – he’s an ocillated turkey.
The 44 metre high Temple of the Grand Jaguar was built to honour a king known as Ah Cacao (Moon Double Comb). His tomb was discovered beneath the temple, in a chamber filled with burial goods which included stingray spines used for ritual bloodletting. Macabre as it sounds, the royals were enthusiastic self-mutilators including piercing their tongues, cutting the flesh around their ears and even slicing into their manhood.
Climbing the temple isn’t permitted, but you can climb Temple II which faces it from across a large open plaza, and itself has some interesting decoration.
In another sector of the site, the 65 metre Temple IV is the tallest structure at Tikal and the second tallest pre-Colombian building in the Western Hemisphere. At the top, you get a panoramic view over the treetops, with the peaks of other temples emerging from the canopy. It really does look like a lost world.
More forest paths lead to El Mundo Perdido (the Lost World), a group of 38 structures including the huge Grand Pyramid, 32 metres high and 80 metres square at its base.
Climbing to the top gives another stunning view of the temples otherwise hidden in the forest.
Tikal is huge and as interesting for the opportunity to walk in its unspoilt forest as for its ruins. Which is fortunate since John’s assessment of the ruins themselves was ‘well, it’s not a pile of rocks. It lots of piles of rocks’.