Galloping thru Guatemala
Trip Start Jan 09, 2011
53Trip End Oct 13, 2011
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We crossed into Guatemala at El Florido after having to detour through the actual town itself because the main road was washed away and the truckies, who can't drive through town because of the narrow streets, were trying to repair it. We took on the challenge of the streets and then passed a reasonable line of trucks (normal at all borders) on the Honduras side. We worked our way through the scrum of each border post, changed some money into local currency - what was this one called? ......... 'quetzal' and worth about 15 to the $1. I gotta tell you this does get confusing - changing currency every few days along with the rate!
Then about 40km down the road at a major road junction we got caught up in a major traffic jam caused by a political demo
Got to the southern side of the town of Rio Dulce, on the river of the same name, that connects the two big lakes of Lago de Izabal (the big sucker) and the smaller El Golfete, where the Rio Dulce runs 15km into the sea at Livingston. It makes one incredible waterway and because it is so far inland from the sea it is a popular lay-up spot for boaties during the hurricane season - which it is now!
Pulled in and set up camp at the very nice Hotel Nava Juana which is situated on a hilltop overlooking the waterway - it is quite a spectacular view with nice gardens, a large pool, the grass sweeping down past the bar and restaurant to the water where docks were lined with big (up to 100') boats.
Next day we cruised north through some poor rural villages before heading into the large Parque Nacional Tikal and setting up camp near the great ruins of Tikal itself
Tikal is considered by many to be the most spectacular of all the Maya cities and temple complexes so far discovered. The site is dominated by five great temples that tower upwards 60 metres or more above the forest floor.
But what people enjoy most about the site ... and we certainly did ... was the magnificent forest that you walk through to get to different sections of the vast city. What is really surprising is that the forest you walk through is not natural but one cultivated by the Maya to provide many of their necessities of life - the red nut tree being the major provider and the 'mother of the cocoa'. The species has been recently recognised as one of the great plant species of the forest by the UN.
Tikal sits on a man modified plateau and surrounded by the 370sqkm Parque Nacional Tikal which is itself on the edge of the much greater Maya Biosphere Reserve which stretches north into Mexico and east into Belize.
Met our guide, Luis Ramirez (email: email@example.com) who turned out to be brilliant
Our walk through the city which takes you along many of the ancient causeways that linked the different temples and parts of the city, ended with a climb to the top of the magnificent Temple 1V. Built in 741AD it is 64m tall and rises above the surrounding rainforest to give a birds eye view of the sea of green that sweeps away to all points of the compass. Only nearby do a couple of other of Tikal's great temples break through the canopy of green to jut above the verdancy.
A Brief History of Tikal
The early ancestors first came to this place, surrounded by jungle swamps and rivers, about 900BC and by 200BC the first version of the Northern Acropolis had been built. By the birth of Christ it was a major Maya centre but was dominated by the El Mirador Maya city state, 65km to the north (this site is now being excavated with funding led by Mel Gibson and supposedly has the biggest pyramid, by volume of rock, in existence - bigger than Cheops in Egypt by all accounts
Around 300AD Tikal's influence expanded under King Great Jaguar Paw 1st and over the next 300 years the city grew to have a population somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000. In 562 AD however the Maya city state of Calakmul all but destroyed Tikal but that wasn't the end of the game. In 695AD King Heavenly Standard Bearer beat the crap out of Calakmul and began Tikal's reign as the most important city in the region.
Around 900AD, although no one is sure, a prolonged drought that dried the rivers and slowed or even stopped the trade route, started the downfall of Tikal and by the end of that century the great city was abandoned.
The site was rediscovered in 1848 and until 1951 remained basically untouched and un-researched. In that year the Guatemalan army built an airstrip allowing scientists into the area. Today many buildings remain covered in tropical foliage while others have been restored and major finds are still being unearthed. Visitor numbers peaked a couple of years ago at around 300,000 but are now running less than half of that.
We headed out of the park and later that afternoon found ourselves about 10km from the main road where we came to Hotel El Sombrero, on the edge of Lago de Yaxha. Run by an Italian woman we set up camp about 10m from the water's edge. There are two Maya sites in the immediate vicinity of the hotel - Yaxha, which you could see a couple of tops of temples from along the main access road, and the smaller island site of Topoxte. There's a few crocs in the lake - the hotel used to have a croc proof enclosure for swimming in - but they even stopped that when the crocs circled the enclosure. The lake and the island were used in the Survivor Guatemala TV show a few years ago, but we didn't have it that rugged.
Next day we were to head for Belize - the small English speaking country clinging to the edge of the Caribbean and surrounded by a sea of Spanish speakers!
For overlanders and those with a particular bent on travelling this continent there's more access, driving and camping info. You'll find all that and more on the pages of www.guidebooks.com.au; just follow the links to our South American Overland page.