Guatemala….we’re headed to Guatemala? We never had the inclination to go there, but the suggestion to spend Semana Santa (Easter Week) in Antigua intrigued us. Two other families that we know online, the Lybberts of Living Outside of the Box and the Dennings of Discover.Share.Inspire were going to be there, and we were in need of a vacation…so we said, “why not, let’s go!”
The bus to Flores from Belize
We were to meet in Antigua on Wednesday, so we left a few days early to break up the long bus journey and to experience Tikal, the capital of the Mayan empire. The first class bus to Flores from Belize costs $25 US and is a 4-5 hour journey. It’s really a mini-bus and besides being one hour late, it was relatively comfortable. It took 2 hours to get to the border and there was only 7 other people on the bus, so we had lots of room to spread out and relax.
There are several tour companies that sell the bus trip and they are all the same price. You can find the companies at both the Caye Caulker Water Taxi port or the San Pedro Belize Express water taxi port in Belize City.
The other option is to fly, which is much faster, but also much more expensive. You could also take the Belize chicken buses, which are cheaper, but take over 3 hours just to get to the border. And then you’d have to take a Guatemalan chicken bus to Flores. It’s a savings of $12 US and we didn’t think it was worth the time to do it this way.
The Belize Border
Upon entering the Belize border, which is clearly marked and nicely organized with the first section of exit fee payments ($37.50 bz) and beyond that another passport check and exit stamp. We didn’t have to pay an exit fee for our children. I’m not sure at what age they charge it, but it seems like little ones get a free stamp. Leaving the Belize building, there were many hawkers trying to exchange money and tell us that we were going to need to pay 20-50 quetzales ($2.67-$6.67US) per person to get into Guatemala. We walked right past them, knowing better. Luckily, none were aggressive and they didn’t hound us.
The Guatemalan Border
After paying our exit fee and getting our exit stamp in Belize, there is a narrow sidewalk that we walked over to get to Guatemala. We were impressed at how organized and clean the Guatemalan border was. Lines were clearly marked as either exit or entry. A quick look at our passports, stamp, stamp, stamp, stamp and we’re done!
Note: some people on our bus did pay a 20 quetzal fee, but it wasn’t to the people behind the counter, so be careful who you give your money to.
The entire border crossing took less than 30 minutes and our mini-bus was waiting on the other side. We had time to grab some really cheap, delicious tacos and have our first taste of Guatemalan beer – Gallo.
In less than 2 hours we were entering the island town of Flores. We were dropped off at the tour operators office and told/sold that we should book our tickets to Antigua now even though we weren’t leaving for another 2 days. Semana Santa is the busiest time of year for Guatemala, especially Antigua. We took his advice and booked the overnight bus to Antigua ($45 US) and also an early morning tour to Tikal ($20 US) that included transportation and a walking tour. (We were glad to have booked the bus, we took some of the last seats. Normally you could probably just do it the day of, but it was Semana Santa. More on the details of this bus ride in a later post.)
Next, the tour operator dropped us off at our hostel, Los Amigos Hostel in Flores and we tried to check in, but it looks like they lost our reservation and didn’t have room. Arg! Eventually, they did find a private room for us and we plunked down our bags and ate at their delicious restaurant onsite. We were happy with our $15 US/night accommodations and the eclectic people that were there. There was the typical European college/post college backpackers, but also a surprising number of older travelers (40s – 50s) that were staying there. Goes to show you that a Youth Hostel is not only for the young party crowd. We have come to love staying at hostels for their social nature. There are always some very interesting people to share world philosophies and travel stories.
Los Amigos had a wonderful restaurant and bar with plenty of comfy places to sit. A soundproof room played movies during the day and turned into a nightclub at night. They also book tours. We really enjoyed it, especially since you could charge things to your room…loved that!
I highly recommend the veggie panini and the Banana-cinnamon smoothie that my children couldn’t get enough of. And if you go, watch out for the crawling turtles on the ground. They normally stick to the corners of the room, but you never know.
Our room had a set of bunk beds and a queen size bed, clean sheets and towels and it’s own bathroom with a hot shower. What more can you ask for at $15 per night.
We went to bed early so that we would get up on time to catch our 4:30 am shuttle to Tikal to catch the sunrise. Unfortunately, we were so paranoid of oversleeping, we didn’t sleep much. In the wee hours, I fell asleep. Luckily, K woke up spot on at 4:30 am! We scrambled to get dressed, forgot to brush our teeth and while quickly walking through the hostel, I twisted my ankle on the cobblestone stairs and pierced the side of my foot on a sharp piece of stone. But it didn’t matter…we HAD to go! Our shuttle was patiently waiting. Off to Tikal with a bloody foot and flip flops!
Tikal – The Capital of the Mayan Empire
The van ride from Flores to Tikal is about 1 1/2 hours. We picked up our tour guide, Luis, along the way.
Tikal was the center of Maya activity during the height of the Mayan period. It was discovered on accident by a gum collector finding ‘chicle’ (gum in Spanish) trees. Today, Tikal is one of UNESCOs World Heritage sites and is preserved as a National Park.Tikal is the largest excavated site in the American continent and holds a particular mystique that is fascinating. It is 222 square miles of jungle all around the ceremonial center. Tikal was abandoned by the Maya over 1000 years ago, but no one knows exactly why.
Entrance for foreigners is 150 quetzales ($20 US). There are a couple of hotels at the site and a restaurant to grab some breakfast, coffee, and something for lunch.
Tikal “Land of Sounds”
Tikal means “Land of Sounds” and our tour guide demonstrated the unique acoustic properties of this area. He explained that the Mayan hierarchy could ‘talk’ to each other from the tops of the temples and the sound waves could be heard at the other temple tops, but not below to the common people. Many messages were relayed this way.
He also had us stand in front of one of the temples, cup our ears in our hands while he clapped. Amazingly, the sound that reverberated from the temples and trees was the sound of the quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. It was SO COOL!
The Sacred Ceiba Tree
We came to a Ceiba tree (aka Kapok), a tree that was sacred to the Maya since it roots point to the 4 cardinal points. It’s a tall, tall, tall tree. The Ceiba tree is the energy connection with the Cosmos, Earth, and the Underworld. It is also used in many medicinal and holistic Maya treatments. Unfortunately, the Spaniards burned most Mayan books so there is little written down about Maya healing.
Luis, our tour guide was awesome. He explained the different ways the Maya used plants and trees, why they built temples, the reasons for the architecture and lots more. The Maya were incredibly connected to nature and the heavenly stars. They looked to the sun and stars to plan when to plant and harvest crops.
I was surprised to learn that they clear cut the entire forest area of where they built, plus a radius outside of Tikal, so as to not interfere with the sun and sounds. I think, how ‘non-environmental’, but I see how we build our modern day cities and we do the exact same thing. And then we plant trees and grass to give a little bit of green. And back then, there was a lot more green around than there is now.
We climbed temple after temple after temple. It was wonderfully tiring, especially with a bum foot and carrying our children. G and I could climb some of them, but the steps are very steep and the rise of the steps are tall. Why would that be since Mayan people are really short? The top of the temple was reserved for heirarchy, who tended to be quite tall. The steps were reserved for priests to stand on during offerings and ceremonies. They stood in a snake pattern and the commoners had just enough room on the bottom level of steps to ‘kneel’ and pay tribute. Interesting, eh?
All temples had offering stones on them where sacrifices would take place. Mr. King held Miss I over one of them. She kicked and screamed. Apparently she didn’t think that sacrificing herself was an honor. It must be a cultural thing.
Temple IV – the highlight of Tikal
Temple IV is the highlight of Tikal and Luis made sure we got there early before the regular tour groups and park visitors would crowd it. It is the highest temple, standing over 70 meters high. Luckily, we didn’t have to climb the stone steps, there were safer wooden steps built on the side of it for us tourists to climb up.
The view was magnificent.
We spent some time up here and then filed back down to continue the other half of the tour, seeing monkeys, brilliant turkeys and coati. Tikal is huge! Our visit to Xunantunich was tiny in comparison, both in size and different architectural structures. Only 15% of Tikal is uncovered and they say it’ll take another 300 years to dig out the rest. The jungle has covered it with dirt, trees, and plants.
It was a magnificent morning and we were exhausted at the end, but extremely pleased that we visited. A MUST DO for anyone visiting Belize or Guatemala.