The last 48 hours have been some of the most interesting of my life, but I better back up a bit. Last I wrote, I was on a night bus heading west…
After the 9 hour bus ride tuned into a 13 hour bus ride, Kia and I arrived in San Cristobal on Thursday afternoon, totally wiped. She had intended to continue on to Guatemala that day but decided to crash for the day in town. After she left on Friday, I was on my own again. San Cristobal was a total contrast to Campeche in that it was at an elevation of almost 2000 m and got down to a temperature of 8 degrees at night. In a culture that has little need for central heating, I was in for a couple chilly nights. I ended up staying three nights in total, but did little other than sleep in and wander the numerous food and craft markets in town. December 12 was the feast of the Virgin Guadeloupe so the town was full of pilgrims and fireworks. Apparently the ideal way to honor the Virgin was to run in a sort of relay from your local church to the cathedral in town, followed by an obnoxious pickup truck blasting sirens and honking its horn at 5 am. My last night in town, I decided to splurge on Argentinean steak, which may have been the most delicious beef of my life (though it cost three times more than my hostel room).
On Sunday morning I took a small tour to Palenque, which was back toward the east part of the state, but closer to Guatemalan border. I tend to avoid tours normally, but this one was basically just transportation to a few cool sites on the way to my next destination, so I didn’t feel too much like part of the tourist horde. We stopped at Aqua Azul, an amazing set of rapids and small waterfalls going through a local community, followed by a stop at a 40m waterfall called Miso-Ha which you could walk behind. The afternoon ended at the Palenque Mayan ruins, but the potentially more interesting part was the small commune-like community just outside the park. Called El Panchan, it was a collection of different cabanas and camping sites with a thatch-roof restaurant in the middle of the jungle. It was full of dreadlocked pot heads and ex-pats but looked more entertaining than the box tour hotels up the highway so I booked a night at El Jaguar in my own cabana with the screech of howler monkeys to be heard out the screen window. For supper I rolled up to the restaurant (Don Mucho), book in hand, ready for my standard solo meal. Half way through my homemade spaghetti, a couple Parisian gals invited me to their table. They were visiting with a Mexican fellow named Juan (of course), and his friend Alex. Eventually another fellow named Jorhei also showed up and I was introduced to a new drink called a Mexican Flag which involved lime juice, tequila and tomato juice, which was surprisingly delicious. I turned in pretty early since I had a 6 am ride to the border on Monday, and that was where things got interesting.
The van to the border picked me up bright and early the next morning (actually dark and early since the sun wasn’t yet up). It was 3 hours to the border at Frontera Corozal, which, to be fair, wasn’t exactly a main trading route between countries, but I was not expecting to have to get on a small, tippy moterized gondola on a muddy river bank. From there it was a 30 minute boat ride to the Guatemalan landing across and up the river. No security, and no border control other than a sweaty old man at a desk with a stamp and a request for a 40 Queztal “entry fee” (Queztals being the Guatemalan currency). I paid but the New Zealand woman behind me got quite a fury from the sleepy man when she requested a receipt. I am guessing the fee was somewhat unofficial.
Next, the dozen or so people who had crossed on the boat all boarded a large minibus of questionable operational ability and we started down a bone-jarring unpaved road toward Flores, Guatemala. After fording through a few ruts and washouts, the road became a little smoother about 3 hours into the journey but my spine was not happy. After 5 hours we reached Flores and I had made some new friends. Arron and Caro from New Zealand (Caro had been the gal cheeky enough to ask for a receipt at the boarder), along with a tall fellow named Yomar from the Netherlands- a quiet guy with the bluest eyes I have ever seen. Having a bit of a camaraderie going, we decided to split a 4 person dorm at the Los Amigos Hostel in Flores and travel to the Tikal ruins together the next day. We got up at 4:30 this morning to catch the first transport to the site and arrived at 6:30 or so. Despite what the tour operator who was trying to sell us a guide trip said, we did not get lost in the jungle. It was probably one of the most amazing days of travel I have ever had.
We made a b-line for Temple IV which, at 65 m gave us a gorgeous view of the jungle canopy in the morning mist. The tour groups weren’t moving as fast as us so we had the whole place to ourselves for almost an hour. The rest of the day was spent wandering the many kilometers of jungle-shrouded ruins (some up to 2000 years old) and catching the occasional glimpse of howler monkeys and a strange creature that seemed a mix between an anteater and a lemur. We even ran into a camera crew from Discovery Channel getting some shots for their next documentary, At that point I knew I was in a special place. The last site we visited during the day was surrounded by the lemur-like animals and I just sat on the ground as they ran around me and among the temple ruins. Truly surreal. If I went home tomorrow I would have felt the trip worth it (not that I would, of course!).