Tag Archives: Tikal


This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

Finally, Tikal.

This was where I regretted being a cheapskate and buying a rain jacket at the Goodwill.  It looked like a rain jacket and—most important—it looked good on me, but it turned out to be about as waterproof as a burlap bag.

It was raining when we arrived and it rained for the first hour.  And I don’t mean drizzle, I mean full-on, relentless downpour.  I guess this is why it’s called a rain forest.  And this was the dry season.

There were no modern buildings, and only a few sheltered places, like the toilets.  But it wasn’t like I was going to get cold.  It was around 90F, so I made up my mind that it was just water and it wasn’t going to spoil my time in Tikal.

I don’t know what I had expected.  I have been to Machu Picchu and Petra.  Tikal turned out to be similar in scale to Petra but verdant like Machu Picchu, and of course completely unique.  We were there from 8am until 3pm, so I won’t try to retell all the history or describe the structures, society, or ceremonies that took place there.  We walked as José Luis talked, stopping here and there to really dig into something, like this stele:

These are some of the structures you may have seen in movies.

What I hadn’t expected was the amazing flora, especially the tree bark, which called to mind abstract impressionist art.

This is the (a?) Tree of Life.

This photo isn’t great, but it’ll give you an idea of how, high in the Tree of Life’s branches, there are air ferns.

You know, those little plants you can buy in the checkout line at the grocery?

Except that at Tikal, they were as big as tumbleweeds.

“And inside those ferns,” said José Luis, are growing other ferns, and cacti and other plants.  The birds nest in the air ferns and leave seeds in their droppings, which grow into plants.”

So the Tree of Life is host to ferns, which host birds, which result in other plants growing a hundred feet above the forest floor.  It was a “wow” moment.

Here’s another codependent but deadly plant relationship:

The vine uses the tree to reach the sunlight, in the process killing the tree, and then the vine dies as well.

We stopped at a gum tree and José Luis explained how gum was harvested and the history of Tikal and the Wrigley Company.  I have a piece of gum every day and I knew it had fake sweetener in it but I didn’t know that most gum is synthetic (plastic!) nowadays. [Note to self: research gum that actually contains gum.]

We walked through miles of hill-lined paths, which I thought were unremarkable until José Luis pointed out that the “hills” were actually unexcavated pyramids and other structures that had been buried under centuries of plant life and death. There would never be enough money to uncover all of them, but new technologies like lasers were being used to at least trace their outlines.

We hiked to the top of one of the tallest structures and again—a wow moment—what a view.  That’s me on the right, a snapped by Stan.  Everyone on the trip was very thoughtful about taking photos of each other, especially of the people who were traveling solo.

The last stop was the plaza major; there’s no way to capture it all so I plucked this aerial photo off the Internet.

As I wrote in a previous post, Tikal wasn’t a city, but a ceremonial center.  José Luis went into great detail about the sports played here.  They sounded tiresome, but then I am not a sports lover.

It was a very long day, like walking through the biggest museum in the world, a museum without a roof.  I had worried that my fellow travelers who had allergies, illnesses, martyr complexes, and possibly broken bones, would fade long before we reached the plaza, but Tikal’s magic must have sustained them. We rode in silent awe all the way back to Don David’s.

I Don’t (Do) Mind

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

Tikal would be a bucket list visit for anyone. This is from the itinerary:

“Tikal has over 17,000 stone buildings, most of them unexcavated. Our guide has a wealth of knowledge about Tikal and the Mayans—he helps you hear the roar of the crowd as if a Mayan king were making his entrance. From the scene of Temple V in ‘Star Wars’ to the growl of the Howler Monkeys, Tikal offers an experience like no other.”

At dinner with our guide, José Luis, he told how he had studied with professors of archaeology, anthropology, and cosmology at the University of California Berkeley and Yale.  “Study” probably isn’t the right word.  He had spent months at a time consulting with these professors in Berkeley and New Haven and had hosted them here. I don’t think he had an actual degree in anything, but so what—he was from the local area, had been a guide for 30 years, and had read and studied and consulted with other experts.  He was a seeker, curious, open minded.  José Luis was soft spoken, with a shaggy mane of hair and big mustache that make me think of Albert Einstein.  He was also that wisest kind of man—who knew there was much he didn’t know.

The rooms at Casa de Don David were basic.  A bare bulb hung from the ceiling, and the beds were so crammed into the small space I had to climb over the foot of Liz’s bed to get to the bathroom.  My mattress sagged in the middle and the pillow was lumpy.

“Are you okay with AC?” I asked.  “I don’t really like AC, but I’ve got Restless Legs and they’re always worse when it’s humid.”

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Liz replied.  “But we could just open the window.”

“Do you prefer to have the window open?” I asked.

“I’m fine either way,” she said.

“Okay, then I’ll turn on the AC.” I waved the remote toward the window unit above her bed.

“What if we opened the window?” Liz hinted again.

“You said you didn’t care either way,” I answered.

“Well maybe we could sort of open the window just a little bit.”  And so we turned on the AC and left the window open a crack.

The next morning we assembled at 5:30am in the lodge, gulped down cups of coffee, and inspected the bag lunches the kitchen had prepared.  The gluten-free people handed over their sandwiches and cookies to others.

Mike’s wife, Joan, appeared with a black eye and her arm in a makeshift sling.  Her hand and wrist were puffed up to twice their normal size, and horribly bruised.  “I tripped on a sidewalk paver,” she explained.  We suggested she see a doctor.

“Don’t worry about me; I’ve got high pain tolerance from my fibromyalgia.”

That’s good, I thought.  It would be really inconvenient if her wrist was broken and she had to be airlifted from Tikal.

We piled into the van with one extra person, José Luis.  Stan was a good sport and huddled in the luggage section in the fetal position.

As we entered the grounds of Tikal, José Luis warned that we must never, never, never wander off by ourselves.

“The jungle is so dense,” he explained, “that once you are a few meters in, you can’t hear or see the road.

“There was a German explorer who thought he would go of on his own, since he had climbed Kilimanjaro and paddled the Amazon.  He had a GPS.  But GPS don’t work here.  It’s a dead spot.  He was missing for four days and nearly died of exposure.  We have to rescue people all the time”

“How far is a meter?” Liz asked no one in particular.  “I can never remember my metric system.”

“It’s about the same as a yard,” Stan answered from the back.  “A yard and a few inches, I think.”

“Close enough for government work,” Liz said.  I had never heard this phrase before and didn’t give it much thought until the third or fourth time Liz used it.

Signs and Wonders

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

We had a couple hours to kill before having dinner with our guide for Tikal the following day.  I wandered around the thatched-roofed lodge, which overlooked a broad lawn stretching down to the lake.  The lodge had the usual things you find in such places: piles of musty old board games, shelves with books in German and Swedish left by past travelers, wall-mounted maps with the “You are Here” worn away by hundreds of fingers pointing and saying to their companions, “Look, we’re here.”

There was a small gifty area with bags of coffee, cacao products, and beautiful carved hardwood objects.  I bought a couple pairs of earrings for $5 each.

There was wireless, but the signs providing the password were clear that it was extremely weak and that to be fair to others, no one should be streaming movies or playing online video games.

Bird-feeding platforms were mounted around the railing circling the dining hall, and although it was dark now and there were no birds I was curious to see what kind of food they used.  I reached the farthest one that was tucked in a corner, and noticed a man sitting at a nearby table watching me.

He was around 60, with a full, bushy beard not like a cool hipster one, with a baseball cap pulled down tight and smeary aviator glasses.  This look typically says—in my opinion—“I’m not good with people and if I could get away with wearing a mask, I would.”

He smiled at me in an encouraging way.  I am always curious about solo travelers in far-flung places, so I said hello. That was enough to initiate an hour-long lecture by him about Tikal, the universe, aliens, and how he was better qualified to lead tours of Tikal than the native guides.

His name was Brian, he was Canadian, and he had applied for one of the coveted official Tikal guide licenses.  “I would be the very first non-Guatemalan guide,” he said proudly.

He lived at a nearby B&B and came to the lodge for the wireless.  I noticed he hadn’t ordered anything.

He thought he would hear about the license the following week, but his visa was about to expire so he had to return to Canada and then come back.  He didn’t speak Spanish, so he wasn’t 100 percent clear on what was going on, and he suspected them of being partial to Guatemalans.

“I’ve followed the Guatemalan guides around and listened to the rubbish they spout,” he said, as our Guatemalan waitress came by and asked if we wanted anything.  I nodded enthusiastically and ordered beers for Brian and myself.

“The natives don’t know what they’re talking about.  They have no education or training; sometimes I think they just make things up.”

Brian had written books on Tikal.  Here is his card, which tells you everything you need to know:

If you go to the website on the card, you can buy the domain name for just $19.99 a year.

Brian was passionate about Tikal.  He whipped open his laptop and showed me elaborate schematics of the temples and their relations to constellations.  Of course I’m getting this all wrong because I’m not an expert.  Who knows, maybe Brian really does know more about Tikal than all the local experts and professors at McGill.  It must be painful to know all the answers and not be recognized for it.

I have a knack for finding one-way talkers.  Sometimes I avoid engagement; sometimes I give them 10 minutes to see how entertaining they are.  Tonight I had nothing better to do so I listened to Brian go on.  Eventually though, he got so deep into his theories that it was time to make my escape.

Just then, Mike helpfully wandered by.  Like an insect into a spiders’ web.

“Mike!” I said, “Meet Brian.  He’s an expert on Tikal.  Let me buy you a beer,” I said as I got up and went to the bar.

When I delivered Mike’s beer he was so engrossed in Brian’s story he didn’t notice I had abandoned him.

Herding Cats

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

My post about overbooked flights coincided with the story of that guy who was dragged off the United Airlines flight. My bumping experience was different, to say the least.

Flying from Minneapolis to London, Delta picked me out of the crowd at the gate and told me I had to give up my seat.  I started to protest, when the gate agent said, “We’ll put you on another flight that leaves an hour from now … it gets into Heathrow an hour earlier,” she added in a low voice.  “And we’ll give you a $750 voucher.”  Still, my reflex was to open my mouth and complain but something stopped me.  “And we’ll seat you in first class,” she added.

“Um, okay?!” I said.  My luggage went with the first flight but that turned out okay, because I was staying on a farm in a remote village called Oddington.  If my bag had come with me, I would have had to schlep it on and off several trains and buses.  This way, the airline delivered it the farmhouse door the next morning.

You are probably thinking this story belongs with those mythical tales about unicorns, but it really happened.

I stood by the border agent’s booth in Belize for 30 minutes.  She granted me permission to use my phone to try to contact the tour leader, Mark.  I tried a text, then phoning, which later cost me $15, and I got voice mail.  I tried an email but my phone or the connection was too slow for it to send.

Two drunk Canadian women in their 50s came through and noticed me standing there.  I explained the sitch.  “We’re staying at the Funky Dodo Hostel,” one whispered loudly, six inches from the border agent.  “Tell her you’re staying there.” She fumbled in her purse and pulled out the address and loudly “whispered” it while looking in my direction with unfocused eyes.  The people behind her in line were getting irritated.  She repeated the address several times, then shambled away with her friend.

The border agent and I smirked at each other.  She made me sweat another 10 minutes, then led me over to another booth where second agent flipped through my passport, stamped it in the most bored, sarcastic way, and let me in.

It was a rookie mistake.  This was Mark’s first time leading an international trip, and someone at Wilderness Inquiry should have trained him on it. It wasn’t his fault.  But I should have known. Each of the nine other members of my group was similarly detained, so Mark had been waiting in the arrivals hall for four or five hours.

Well, we were finally all here.  The arrivals hall was chaotic.  The Belize airport was built in sleepier times, and now Belize is a hot tourist destination so it’s just too small.

Mark kept trying to round us up and get us into our 12-passenger Ford Econoline rental van.  This was complicated by the fact that we had a deaf woman among us, Trudy.  Trudy was a firecracker—in her 70s, maybe 5’ tall, divorced with four grown children, retired—she had traveled with Wilderness Inquiry to Peru, Australia, and New Zealand.  As I’ve written, WI’s thing is inclusion, which is great, but Trudy was all over that airport checking out the gift shops. Mark would yell after her, realize that was pointless, then yell at her interpreter, Emily, who was also with us on the trip.  Then Emily would march after Trudy and sign furiously.  There were others who ignored Mark throughout the trip.  Today was the first of many times we would wait for them in the van.  That sounds worse than it was; we were a pretty easy going group.  After all, we were on vacation.

At last, we were all gathered in the Econoline with our luggage and on our way to the Crystal Paradise Resort, 70 miles from Belize City and only about 13 miles from the Guatemalan border.  This would position us for the crossing into Guatemala and on to Tikal the following day.