Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
The last days of 48 days (6+weeks) in Guatemala. This country really did shock and surprise me from no expectations to a place that I’m sure I’ll revisit in the future and recommend everyone to go see. The stories of crime and danger may ring true for some, but we never seemed to face any real troubles. Perhaps a mix of common sense and no crazy drunken late nights walking home at 4am in a deserted place were to help. We had been relying mostly on a 5+ year old version of a Lonely Planet guide for some advice and tips. I suspect that the concerns raised at that time are no longer true. I would’ve loved more free access to hiking without a paid guide. Something I hope that changes sooner rather than later. Possibly the thing we loved most is we could live off a budget of around $25/pp per day fairly easily and that included a month of Spanish school.
A one liner for Guatemala; “a place you need to see and explore just to believe the natural beauty you never knew you would find”.
Semuc Champey to Flores Island
This is another one of those all day shuttle affairs with a departure at 8am and arriving in around 6.30pm. We did this on Monday November 25th, 2013. Same deal as usual, shop around for a price as the standard at El Retiro was 150Q ($19) but in town we got it for 125Q ($15) and could have even had it as low as possibly 100Q ($12.50). I know this sounds like we’re “penny pinching” but if you do the maths over many months of travelling, you can make a major impact on a travel budget; especially when you’re aiming for $50/day total per person. It was the same style bus that we’d taken from Antigua to Semuc Champey. Somewhere around a 24 person bus with a less claustrophobic feel of the regular van type shuttles we have been using. Amazingly we ended up with a couple of spare seats in this one.
The tiny island is a beautiful spot on Lake Peten Itza joined by a longish causeway to its sister town of Santa Elena. The island seems to be the typical spot that tourists stop to stay with a number of hostels and a range of hotels from budget to premium. This is the jumping off point for the ruins of Tikal that is around 1-1.5 hour drive away. We ended up at a place called Hotel Mirador del Lago with a private double room including hot water private bathroom for 100Q ($12.50) per night. The typical party hostel place is Los Amigos and regularly discussed along the travel path. If you’re looking for the party, this is where it’s at. If you want some sleep, this is not the place to be.
The island can be easily walked around in maybe 45 minutes. It is packed solid with buildings and not a lot of open space except for the central park. We were given a great tip for food with a lunch special at the back end of the park in a simple take away style shop. The special was a combination of 3 popular items; Empanada, Tostada and Tortilla for 15Q ($1.90) but add in a tasty Strawberry or Banana fruit shake for 5Q ($0.60) and you have a winner. We tried going back for dinner at around 6pm and it was closed, so get there during the day as is typical for a lot of local/traditional food vendors.
Tikal is an epic wonder in the far North of Guatemala. In 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some lengthy details can be found here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tikal and here http://www.tikalpark.com/. The place is huge being quoted as 576km2. It is being quoted as the largest excavated Mayan site in the American continent. With the large quantity of annual rainfall, the whole surrounding area is a rainforest. Like many of these ruins, they get covered up and lost over time to then be later discovered and excavated. In the case of Tikal this occurred from 1956 for the next 15 or so years. There are 6 very large excavated periods labelled from 1 to 6 (I to VI). Some are up to 60 metres in height and very impressive.
We had a fairly lengthy thought process on how to do Tikal once we’d arrived in Flores. This is a very common stop on the Guatemala tourist path and many people have given us many different ideas. Some people short on time or on tours even fly between Guatemala City and Flores to avoid the lengthy bus trip. Initially we really wanted to do a combination of Tikal and Yaxha ruins in one day. This is not a typical combination and we probably should have discussed this with more tour operators as we later found out that some fellow travellers had success organising this in a group of 5 people for 180Q ($20) per person. The most common is some form of day trip from Flores. The sunrise trip was 150Q ($19) standard but on discount for around 90Q ($11) at the time we were there. You then needed to pay your own entrance to the ruins which for sunrise is a standard 250Q ($31). The all day non-sunrise fee is 150Q ($19). Too many options to think about as you can see by those last few sentences.
We’d met a couple of other travellers who were keen to camp overnight at the ruins. The benefit being that you get sunset and sunrise if you enter after 3.30pm your ticket is valid through until the end of the next day. With about 20 minutes notice, we’d gotten onto a shuttle for 80Q ($10) return to Tikal so we could try camping. We ultimately decided on glamping (glamour camping) at Jaguar Inn for 230Q ($29) for the night. Very comfortable air mattress with base sheet, pillow and sleeping bag and a metal roof shelter. Our fellow travellers chose sleeping in hammocks for 170Q ($21) which they said the next day was fairly terrible and not much sleep achieved. A hotel room at Jaguar Inn was $80, so we skipped over that.
The sunset at the ruins was really quite beautiful. Be prepared for some long distance walking at this place. I think it was roughly 30-45 minutes from the entrance to one of the major ruins at the back. Then add in quite a number of other long trails to see some of the other impressive temples. The place itself is in a forest with many temples overgrown and clearly many undiscovered and unexcavated areas.
Sunrise is highly talked up by many people, especially the tour operators. We had our fingers crossed for a nice day, but sadly when waking up at 3am, it was raining. We decided to hold off until later in the morning as we suspected a cloudy and misty morning. In the month of November, apparently almost all the mornings were clouded in with not so great sunrises. If you’re on a budget consider that extra expense for the sunrise. The major selling point is meant to be the wakening up noise of the forest. Sadly we missed this, but many people swear it is amazing.
We covered the ruins in around 3-4 hours of fairly active walking around. If you’re really into ruins then I could easily see people spending at least a whole day here if not a bit longer.
The photos talk for themselves. The effort is definitely worth it to get to this place. It really is an amazing place.
Beware the Tikal shuttle promising return the next day
We had booked this shuttle through our hotel that used “Mayan Lands Travel Agency” and nearly got stuck with an extra expense at the end plus the extra hour of waiting around wondering how we’d get back. The promise was that we would go up in the afternoon of one day and be able to come back the next day on one of 3 scheduled return shuttles. There were 3 groups of 2 people from this one company including us that were promised this. In the end our shuttle never did pick us up the next day to take us to Flores. We made the choice of paying an extra 50Q ($6) per person to get a different shuttle back to Flores and then talk directly with the tour company. Thankfully we stuck together and we had one strong Spanish speaker to negotiate things. Ultimately it took us an hour or two of finding the tour operator (who was apparently elsewhere) before we forced their hand to get a refund of our extra fee. It worked out in the end, but came close to being money lost on broken promises.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/