9 March 2015
After an early start we reach Tikal in time for breakfast as 7.00am and then begin our exploration of the Tikal archaeological site. It covers a huge area and according to satellite imagery only 22% of the site has been excavated. 78% remains covered with soil: just looks like earth mounds or hills in the jungle. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site under two categories: cultural and physical.
As we start our walk we see a tarantula that the gardeners found and left for those in the know. Hugo shows us how to handle her gently so that we can hold her – afterwards he turns her over and gently blows on her and her fangs come out.
First stop is the Group F ruins- there is a perfectly flat plaza surrounded by mounds that are unexcavated temples and pyramids. Temples generally face a particular direction and have a roof whereas the pyramids tend to have a flat top for astronomical purposes. We also see a bird with a bright red front that is a Trogon, the El Salvadorian cousin of the Guatemalan Quetzal (but without the 2ft long tail feathers that make the Quetzal live up to its name of ‘beautiful’ or ‘precious’. Quetzals only live in the Guatemalan cloud forest area.
We climb the hill up to the main plaza area, seeing first Temple I – the first to be uncovered and said to have been built by and for the Chocolate King (most famous of the Mayan kings). He apparently built Temple II first for his wife and then built another opposite for himself that was bigger (of course). His body was entombed inside in AD734. The temples were used for ceremonial purposes but on the other sides of the plaza are 2 acropolises or living areas. The buildings have been built over 800 years. There still remain carvings representing the rain god and the sun god.
In the plaza we see the beautiful ocellated turkey and oropendola birds. And we are treated to a whole family (females plus babies) of quatimundi (related to racoons) playing on the bank. They have spectacled faces and tails that stick straight up in the air.
We carry on further into the jungle and see Temple III that has recently struck by lightning and is being repaired. Hugo also shows us an old kiln that archaeologists built 60 years ago to learn how the stucco was made: the limestone has to be heated for 26 hours before being crushed.
In the distance we see Temple IV. You have to climb it to see a magnificent view of the other temples sticking up out of the jungle. The scene has a claim to fame in a 20 second clip in Star Wars.
We also visit the Lost World complex that has a pyramid/observatory structure that has architectural influences from the Mexican Teotihuacans. In the jungle were are also very lucky to see a toucan and to watch spider monkeys.
Some of the group are going zip-lining while the rest of us stop for a drink and view a scale model of the Tikal site. We also get to meet Hugo’s mother and sister, who are both tour guides at Tikal. His sister is the only full time female guide at Tikal and had just been filmed with a National Geographic crew – see here for the YouTube video.
From there we have about 1.5 hours to the border with Belize, with a stop for lunch at a traditional restaurant on the way (Hugo phones ahead with our orders).
At the border, going out of Guatemala is easy: we just hand our passports & Q20 to Hugo and they are efficiently processed. Money changers come to the van so we can convert any remaining quetzals to Belizean $. Hugo’s wife Waleska and daughter Ixchel are also there. Ixchel is very cute and definitely doesn’t want her daddy to go.
On the Belize side, entry is free but we all have to line up with our bags and go through Immigration and Customs. Once through we are piled into very dilapidated taxis for a 20 minute drive to San Ignacio and our Casa Blanca Guest House right in the town centre.
As we discover on our orientation walk, there isn’t very much to the town centre – no need for a map and we can’t get lost. There is a pedestrian zone with cafes, bars and tour shops. There are all sorts of cave tours available – some of our group go cave canoeing. Lily had been in contact with a local guy with a private cave tour but unfortunately he was unable to take us. Although we are disappointed, there is much more to do here than we will have time for. The Maya used caves as ceremonial sites and many have been found with skeletons and ceramic pottery. The Ceiba (or Kapok) tree is also sacred to the Maya – it is known as the tree of life and its roots grow down to make the connection with the underworld.
After a big late lunch Lily, Gill and I just have mojitos at a little café table right on the street.
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