Trip Start Sep 12, 2008
Trip End Dec 19, 2008

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hospedaje Dona Goya

Flag of Guatemala  ,
Friday, September 19, 2008

Hello again!

Here´s an update from Antigua about San Ignacio, Belize and Flores/Tikal, Guatemala. 

We arrived in San Ignacio after a very relaxing stay in Caye Caulker, Belize.  The city of San Ignacio is mostly used by tourists as a stop-off point on the way to Tikal, Guatemala, but we liked it so much that we stayed 3 days to explore it thoroughly.  San Ignacio and its sister city of Santa Elena are built on a hill, with houses built on steep narrow streets.  Walking those streets in the rain, I could have sworn I was in a hill station in India. In fact, most of our trip I have been reminded a lot of India.  It seems that almost everything is the same, from the fresh fruit, to the way streets are made and houses are built, to the way people stand under awnings watching the pouring rain and chatting. A couple times I have been in a hurry to answer a question at a fruit stand and have answered in Hindi.
There is one important difference, however.  When someone is helpful on the street, it is likely that they´re telling the truth and it is also likely that they are just trying to help.

Which brings me back to San Ignacio.  The night we arrived we were approached at the bus station by a man who worked for a travel agency.  Surprisingly, though he wanted to sell us a tour, he was perfectly happy to tell us all about the area and its sites, including things we could do on our own (more cheaply than with a tour).  Following his tips, we set off in the morning for a Mayan site a few kilometers down the road called Xunantunich (Shunantanich).  After successfully negotiating the local bus, we crossed a river on a ¨cable¨ ferry (tied to a cable, operated by a man turning a crank).  The boat was filled with american tourists, but luckily they got into shuttles on the other side of the river and we were left to a lovely tranquil walk up to the site.
I wish I knew more about the history of the site, but basically it was a Mayan city and the parts of it that are exposed now are the temple and some residences of rich people (as is common in most Mayan sites).  We spent most of the day wandering around the ruins, avoiding the tour groups, trying to pick ripe avocados and watching the armed guards from afar.  We were also able to climb the highest temple and had a stunning view of probably hundreds of kms of jungle and farms.

The next day, after a somewhat whirlwind trip through the Belize-Guatemala border (and through its throngs of money changers, taxi drivers and tour touts), we arrived in Flores, the closest tourist town to the Mayan ruins of Tikal.  The city of Flores is actually an island, adjoined by a causeway to the city of Santa Elena (a different one than near San Ignacio).  All of the streets of the town were cobblestone, many winding and steep and lined with colourful colonial-style houses, which gave us the impression of being in Italy.  The entire city can be walked end to end in about 15 minutes, so we enjoyed many walks by the lake front and through the beautiful streets at night.

The day after arriving in Flores, we took a 5am shuttle bus to Tikal, which was once the most important city centre of the Mayan empire, before its collapse.  Though we missed the sunrise (it´s ok, it was cloudy anyway), we got to Tikal shortly after 6 and found that our group had nearly the entire place to ourselves.  The park of Tikal is more than 10 square km, more than can be seen in a day, and is filled with forest intersperced with 1500 year old stone buildings.  They were all built of stones cut with other stones and dragged by people to their present location. Many buildings are pyramid shaped, especially the buildings with flat roofs used as observatories.  Our guide told us that the two earthquakes in the last 200 years that left Guatemala´s cities in ruins left most of Tikal standing: a tribute to Mayan architechtural skills. 
The most famous building in Tikal is one of its temples which is over 50m tall (all these numbers may be wrong since my memory is hazy by now).  From the top of this building we were able to see a view of 250 km of forest in every direction, and the other buildings of Tikal sticking out above the trees.  These temples were built above the forest canopy for security reasons, to allow a view for a long way.  Archeologists think that given the height of the temples, the forest must have been significantly taller back then.
Our guided tour lasted 4 hours and included many walks on forest paths, sightings of howler and spider monkeys, as well as toucans and other birds, and explanations of many aspects of current and past Mayan culture (our guide was of Mayan heritage).  My highlight of Tikal was standing on top of one of the buildings in the early morning for at least half an hour, watching and listening to a group of howler monkeys at the top of a nearby tree.  Hopefuly I´ll be able to post the video of them on the blog.

Other highlights included Joseph getting heat exhaustion, since the temperature was certainly over 30 and we had been walking all day.  We enjoyed the rest of the day, especially adventuring through the buildings of ¨Mundo Perdido¨ (the lost world), which was the last part of Tikal discovered.  Our guide told us that of the estimated 16,000 buildings at Tikal, only a fraction of them have been cleaned and explored.  Many of the others are houses of poorer people, and market places of the city. 

Also, we saw an alligator!

Pictures to follow soon!!
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