Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Lost City of Tikal

I was pretty excited about going to Tikal, and had our excursion schedule gotten somehow messed up to exclude Tikal, I would have flipped the hell out. Tikal is located in Guatemala, putting me another step closer to my secret and ridiculous goal of visiting every country in the world. Not only that, but it is the stand-in for Yavin 4 in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Oh, and it was a major Mayan city, too.

There was an orange juice press available at every breakfast.

Once again the drive to our adventure was an exciting part of the experience. The Belize-Guatemala border really had nothing to do with security, and was more about getting us to pay. I think it was $40 a person just to leave Belize, and another $5ish to enter Guatemala. Luckily we didn't have to pay anything additional on the reverse trip. Paying for the privilege to leave a country is pretty hilarious.

Our guide found this pretty awesome looking peanut head bug while we were crossing borders.

We had plenty of drive time to become familiar with the other couple in our adventure crew. Their names escape me but one worked for Google in Mountain View and the other was some sort of a military doctor. Over the course of many shared dinners and adventures we heard lots of people's stories and then later we would laugh about how much better their jobs were than ours. Lydia is a school teacher and I am pretty much a self employed bookmonger at this point, so when the couple sitting across the table from us said "surgeon" or "Lehman Brothers" it was quite the riot. You might think that this would cause some sort of feelings of inferiority, but I didn't feel that at all. I actually thought it was pretty awesome that we were vacationing like a couple of successful people. Now all we need is some success!

I was startled pretty quickly after crossing into Guatemala. A stoplight! I hadn't seen a single one in Belize. And the roads were way nicer. I had just assumed that Guatemala would be worse off than Belize just by reputation, but that didn't seem to be the case.

Dogs really love to be in the road in Guatemala. Like head down, snoozing in the middle of the street. We were constantly slowing and swerving for them. I imagine they have pretty short life spans.

We stopped for a quick breakfast which included the most delicious piƱa colada (virgin) that I have had. I think it must have had pineapple blended in instead of just the juice. It was thick and frothy.

When we reached Tikal we were stopped at the gate for more entrance fees. One of the employees popped his head in our van and asked if we would like to buy a little map/brochure of the grounds for $3. Sure why not. I forked over some sweet, sweet American cash and waited for my prize. Rejected. The guy didn't like the tiny rip in the $10 bill I'd handed him. The other couple handed him their own tenner. Rejected. Finally our guide just handed him something local and we paid him back later. Very annoying. You might recall me having some experience with passing shady banknotes in Peru.

We didn't have to walk very long before the beautiful ruins of thousand year old buildings revealed themselves.

Lydia has conveniently added fear of heights to her list of terrors. Other classics include fear of being home alone and calling people on the phone. In fairness, the buildings in Tikal have some massive staircases. Each step was higher than normal, and there were always a lot of them in a row. It was especially odd considering how much shorter the average Mayan was. Our guide hinted that the steps up the front of temples may have just been ornamental, with a less permanent structure behind the building providing actual access. Seriously unhelpful to Lydia's fears was our guide's habit of telling us about all of the past tourist's gruesome deaths. Most notable was a 300 pound woman in heels falling down a massive staircase, surviving, but killing two other people on her way down. Sacrifices to the gods, he called them.

Give and take tree. I don't know why they call it that.

There were a couple of areas where the reconstruction work was left half finished in order to illustrate what had been done.

There were probably just as many of these as visible structures. Massive piles of earth and jungle plants that clearly have a building or something beneath sit waiting to be unearthed. Our guide said that the restoration process is so time consuming and expensive that the government just doesn't have the resources to uncover everything. According to a 2008 Smithsonian article (here), only 15% of the site has been excavated.

Ball court.

Termites on parade.

The Ceiba tree had religious significance. Our guide told us something about the branches representing the levels of heaven and the roots reaching down into the underworld, so the tree connected the two realms somehow. To me it mostly looked like a giant honkin' tree.

You can't have a jungle without cartoonish vines everywhere.

Jungle John, Jungle John. He looks around and does other cool stuff.

I believe that this guy is a spider monkey. At one point we got so close to a group of them that they were peeing from their tree onto the ground to keep us away. It worked.

We were able to hear some howler monkeys but could barely see them. That makes sense. According to Wikipedia they "are widely considered to be the loudest land animal" and "their vocalizations can be heard clearly for 3 miles".

This is one of the most striking pictures that I took. I assume that this is another one of those "before and after" scenes where they purposely left a part of the site untouched. Turns out the jungle really likes to eat buildings.

Tikal's tallest building, Temple IV, is where the Star Wars scene is filmed from. My only prop was a water bottle, but you get the idea.

The scene in question. I should really go on a Star Wars scenes tour of the earth.

Back on the road, we had a quick lunch before passing back into Belize. I think the tortillas we ate on this whole trip are the best I've ever tasted.

Back in Belize, we passed some Mennonites selling produce out of a cart on the side of the road. I saw them regularly, and learned about their position influence on the country. We would make a couple of solid attempts at contact with them in the coming days, but would ultimately fail to interact.

Our room's sole method of temperature control was a ceiling fan, which was just barely enough. The power went out a few times, but not usually for very long. We quickly learned that if we had to wake up super early for an adventure, like we did today, that our shower wouldn't work. They must turn the water off at night? There wasn't a single normal power outlet in the rooms, only four USB power outlets, which is really odd. Luckily our iPhones plugged into those, which served as our cameras, or this would have been an uncomfortable trip for everyone involved.

We had no internet access either. I know, it's amazing we survived. We both got a lot of reading and writing done, so after the initial "no internet access shakes" wore off, it was actually quite nice to leave the world behind for a little while.

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