Saturday, May 31, 2008

Guatemala Trip: Antigua, Lago de Atitlan, Coban, Tikal

When a country has such a gem as Tikal, one of the World's finest temple complexes, it seems hardly fair that it also boasts breath-taking scenery, fascinating culture and an intriguing history. How can it be that Guatemala only tore itself out of its bloody 36-year Civil War, which saw 200000 perish, in the last twenty months?

Moreover, how could the gentle indigenous people, the Maya, come from a race which could calculate the estimated duration of an Earth year to be 365.2420 days well over a thousand years ago? The exact calculation of today measures it as 365.2422 days!


1. Guatemala City- Population 2 million. Guatemala's capital and usually your first port of call. Most people advise travellers to get out as fast as possible but surely it's always worthwhile spending a little time in a nation's capital, for here is where change is usually most apparent. The centre is based around The Plaza Mayor which holds most interest. It's flanked by the Catedral Metropolitana, the Palacio Nacional and the claustrophobic Mercado Central. There's the odd bit of interesting architecture, such as the bright orange Post Office and Posada Belen was a fair hotel to stay on the first night if recovering from jet-lag! Apart from this, Guatemala did not make a massive impression and I'd rather talk about Antigua!

2. Antigua- Population 30000. Antigua is the old capital of Guatemala, favoured by the Spanish due to its cooler climate. It's a lovely colonial city, surrounded by vast volcanoes, which conceals idyllic little courtyards behind its intricate facades. If you can get here for Holy Week (Semana Santa), the week leading upto Easter Sunday, you're in for a treat!! This festival is celebrated in style with processions around the town depicting the death of Christ. Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday are the main days where beautiful alfombras (sawdust and flower petal creations) are trampled underfoot by these sombre shuffling masses, to rise once again the following day for yet more carnage. Book ahead but still try your luck there if it's a last-minute thing. A trip up the local volcanoes, dominating the scenery, is well worth it for spectacular views but take a guide for security.

3. Lago de Atitlan- This beautiful lake is once again surrounded by skyscraping volcanoes. Being such a lovely lake, this is an obvious spot for visitors to hone in upon. Unfortunately, in the holidays, the whole of Guatemala does likewise. We left Antigua on Easter Sunday and found the lake to be absolute chaos! We hit terrible traffic on the steep descent into Panajachel (the hub) and were lucky to get a room for the night! Not ideal for a soothing, relaxing time. However, there are many places to choose from when looking for somewhere to stay, all offer something different. You can stay in Panajachel which is lively and full of interest, cross the lake to San Pedro La Laguna which is very popular and cheap, but dirty and hectic or, as we did, go to San Marcos La Laguna which was absolutely wonderful. This is a lovely spot with a few secluded little havens with their own little cabins. It's extremely relaxing, maybe a little too quiet but a perfect place to escape the madding crowd. Las Piramides meditation centre is also based here.

4. Coban- Many feel Coban is the most beautiful part of Guatemala. Unfortunately, we never got there but it is highly recommended especially for Semuc-Champey famed for its 1000-foot long limestone bridge and its pools of various colours!

5. Tikal- Tikal is without doubt one of the most amazing man-made sites to be found anywhere in the World. Its jungle setting makes this old Mayan city a truly striking, yet sometimes eerie, place to discover.There are two quite distinct reasons to come to Tikal - its astonishing history plus the ubiquitous wildlife present in its vegetation. If you hold an interest in either, you can't be disappointed; if you enjoy both, you'll feel you are truly honoured in your visit.

Tikal's temples reaching 40 metres into the sky are certainly a sight to be enjoyed on a cool, misty morning. If you climb Temple IV, you can get a wonderful view of the whole complex; a view of the other pyramids jutting out from the forest's canopy all before you. You can sit atop Temple II and try to imagine the ceremonies and daily goings-on around the Great Plaza. The visitor needs at least two days to enjoy the constructions themselves and then another day to gently view the abundant wildlife - toucans, howler monkeys, woodpeckers, parrots and the odd jaguar! We would also recommend you spend at least one night actually at Tikal, in either the pricey Jungle Lodge ($70 per double) or at the immensely (obviously) cheaper campsite. This allows you to get up early and climb Temple IV to watch the sunrise over the complex. There's also fine accommodation around Lago de Pet�n Itz� in Flores and El Remate.

Who's afraid of the big, bad jaguar?

I have a morbid fear of big hairy bird-eating spiders!! Cristina has a morbid fear of big hairy man-eating (or for that matter WOman-eating) cats!! With our two fears finely-tuned, we strode hand-in-hand into the jungle of Tikal one fine and very crisp morning. Our aim was to be first up Temple IV for the afore-mentioned sunrise that morning. We felt pretty cocksure as we increased the pace at the head of a large group of fellow early-risers. Urged on by our goal, we hadn't noticed the rest of the group peel off down an adjacent path. Only on reaching what must have been the epicentre of El Pet�n did we glance back to see we were alone. The disbelief of losing the whole group was soon, and rather abruptly, superceded by the nauseous reality (or unreality) of being alone and unilaterally disarmed amidst the WILDlife of the region in the gloom preceding daybreak. We heard a rustle in the dense undergrowth beside us, our stomachs plummeted and we panicked, we turned a full 180 degree and rushed back in the direction we'd come. We stopped abruptly, looked at each other and realised going back would just keep us away from civilisation even longer; the temples couldn't be too far away! So, we spun again and kept heading into Tikal. We put our heads down and just kept going, our hearts attempting to break free from the confines of our ribcages to be any place but here.

Then, we heard it, a definite low, full-bodied growl. Was it ahead of us, beside us or behind us? I couldn't tell but Cristina kept ploughing on ahead, her hearing (like everything else) had always been far cuter than mine. We must have been pretty much running by now, focussed on getting to the temples. For some reason, reality started to kick back in and just at the point where we could have panicked and lost it, a tranquillity came over us both, we reached a fork in the road and couldn't choose between left or right. We calmly took out the map, assessed our situation and turned right. Two hundred metres later, we were standing in The Great Plaza with fellow tourists. We were safe!!

I don't know if we ever were in any danger but the emotions of those ten minutes will stay with us for ever. At times of panic, nearly all rationality evades you - after all, the chances of it being a large cat without food desperate enough to take on two strange upright animals in a notoriously busy part of the Reserve are tiny. However, if we hadn't got it together like we did we really could have been stuffed because had we turned left we would have found ourselves down a notorious cul-de-sac where tourists are often mugged and raped!!

6. Livingston:- This little enclave is well worth a visit. It's a little part of Belize with black Guatemalans speaking Gar�funa, English & Spanish. Casa Rosada ($16/night) is well worth staying in with its lovely clean accommodation, excellent food, trusting atmosphere and enjoyable trips. Las Siete Altares is a lovely spot 1.5 hours' walk along the beach north of town with seven pools connected by waterfalls. Enjoy the lazy, laid-back atmosphere here before continuing with the chaos of another bus-trip tomorrow (or next week). Beware Elvis on the beach - buy a coconut and he might leave you alone!

7. Border crossing to Honduras:- In many ways, this was the highlight of our trip. I'm certainly in two minds about recommending this route into Honduras as most backpackers seem to still take the speedboat from Livingston straight to Omoa (Tuesdays & Fridays) and to divert them inland would take away the charm of this route. This route's attraction is its route which involves two canoe trips and a few short hops by bus and pick-up truck which pitch you straight into regions rarely visited by outsiders.

You need a whole day to get safely across the border, so leave Livingston early. Make sure you get your exit stamp before leaving Guatemala. On our exit, the bus stopped for us to get this stamp near the border. If you don't trust this, get it in Puerto Barrios. Take the 45-minute boat to Puerto Barrios and then catch a bus through the huge banana plantations to just before Finca La Inca. Get off the bus and walk to the R�o Motagua, sit in the shelter and wait for the next boat to come along. A little motorised dug-out canoe ($3) will come along sooner or later and whisk you off down the muddy river and up a creek to the border settlement of El L�mite. Bring a towel to cover yourself or you'll be a beautiful beetroot colour by nightfall. Here's where you switch boats. Again, relax and wait for the next leg of your journey. There's a little shop here and you may be joined by a group of local farmers as we were. A couple of boys take you further and further up the creeks until they are wading waist-high dragging their little canoe ($1.50) through the overhanging branches and weeds. This is where the romance kicks in, you are hit with a real feeling of being smuggled across the border.

At the end of this leg at Cuyamelito, you are met by a pick-up truck (if you're lucky!) which takes you the few kilometres to the nearest main road where you hang around again to catch a bus into Puerto Cort�s. Remember, once again to get your stamp in your passport. I would recommend you stay here and make your way along the coast. Instead, we headed off to San Pedro Sula and spent a miserable night in a grotty hotel with dodgy plumbing.

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