Saturday, December 22, 2007

Tikal Trip Day 2 - Tikal Inn, Sunset at Temple 4

In the morning, we had an hour to walk around the town of Flores before our shuttle bus was due. Very narrow streets and very touristy (mainly shops and restaurants). The most notable thing was the big Christmas tree in the square that was topped with a 'Gallo' ornament. Gallo is the local beer (pronounced guy-oh).

Our shuttle bus was on time at 10am. The drive only spoke Spanish so we put Dave (our designated speaker) up front with the driver.

We drove right past the 'new' airport at Santa Elena, which is also an army base. In addition to tanks and military jets, it is clear that this area has been discovered. It is rapidly turning into a major tourist destination—large hotels going up, big new airport addition, sparkling new tourist buses.

On the way to Tikal, our driver offered us a 'deal' on tickets into Tikal. He was offering to get us in for Q100 (about 1/3 off the normal price). He said it was a travel agent price. We wondered why the travel agent had not offered this option to us the day before. Long story short... it turned out to be somewhat of a scam. We did get into the park that afternoon on his discount ticket but we could not use it for entry the next day (which we had planned to do). On a regular ticket, if you go in after 3pm, you can also use your ticket for entry the next day. This was only one of several bad experiences we had with the arrangements with Tikal Travel and San Juan Tours (related agencies).

We got checked into the Tikal Inn, where Dave had already made reservations, left our bags in the lobby because our room wasn't ready yet, and went next door to the Jaguar Inn for lunch. It was an OK lunch, a little pricey and limited selections (but apparently the best available out at Tikal).

There are only 3 places to stay AT Tikal... Tikal Inn, Jaguar Inn, and the Jungle Lodge. The Jungle Lodge is the most expensive. Tikal is the middle one. The Jaguar Inn is the least expensive, and has a slightly better restaurant and common area atmosphere (and wifi/internet). None of the places has electricity during the day (except in the common areas).

When we finished lunch, our rooms were ready, so we unpacked our bags and equipped ourselves for major hiking. By 2pm we were at the Tikal Park entrance. We were disappointed to find that the museum, which used to be free, now charges an entry fee on top of the (just raised by 200%) park entry fee of 150Q ($20). In mute protest, we opted not to go into the museum.

One of the first things we encountered was the big Ceiba Tree. The Ceiba is also known in the Caribbean as the Kapok tree. In Guatemalan, the Mayans hold the Ceiba tree as sacred. It is known as the Tree of Life, because its roots go deep into the Underworld and its branches go way up in the sky. All we know is that it was one impressive tree, and we’re glad no one has cut it down.

The Girls at the Big Ceiba Tree

We had a guidebook that we had bought for $10, it had a map and some writeups, but it turned out to be mostly pictures and not that great. Tom and Jane had bought just a map for 10Q and we ended up using that as our primary map. The ‘traditional’ Tikal map is an archeologist sketch and is hard to read. Their map was a Disney World type map and much easier to figure out where we were and where we were trying to go. It clearly indicated which temples had been excavated and which were still ‘au natural’. The good map was a medium sized color fold-out map had a Gallo ad on the back. If you see it, buy it, it’s worth it.

On the way in to the Central Plaza, we went through a picnic area that had spider monkeys all over the trees. We saw a mommy with a baby on her back. Was hard to get good pics since they were so high up and under the dark canopy, but I think we got one or two good ones.

Also on the way in, the path passed what we termed a “looters tunnel”. There was no sign prohibiting entry, so of course we had to go in. Not much there, but fun to explore.

We eventually found the Central Plaza and all the surrounding temples. I have included a number of pics in the photo album and labeled them all. I won’t bore everyone here with the details. All I can say it is an amazing collection of structures rising up out of the jungle, dating from about 200 AD. There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal and only a fraction of these have been excavated after decades of archaeological work. Most structures are still claimed by the jungle. If you’re interested in and overview of Tikal, check out the Wikipedia entry on Tikal.

Atop Temple 2 with Temple 1 in the background

Below, Climbing Temple 5

We climbed all over all the structures we could access in the Central Plaza and then located Temple 5 and climbed it. As the sun started to drop, we headed for Temple 4, reported to be the best sunset/sunrise viewing site.

When we got to Temple 4, we were dismayed to find that it was being reconstructed and all the west-facing spots were blocked off. We carefully hopped the fence so we could at least get to where we could see the sun go down. Pretty soon a gun-toting guard came by and told us we had to get back behind the fence. We pleaded with him in Spanish to let us stay where we could see the sun go down, and he eventually said he’d let us stay for 20Q ($2.65) per person.

Dave didn’t want to do bribes and was getting ready to climb back over the fence, but I wasn’t going without seeing the sun go down, so I whipped a 100Q note out of my pocket and gave it to the guide. Before the sun went down there were about 15 people hanging out on the prohibited side of Temple 4. The guards must fight for who gets to guard Temple 4 during sunset!

I did feel like a bad tourist. But then… I couldn’t believe that with the newly-increased $20 per person fee we paid to get in, there wasn’t some information passed out about having the west side of Temple 4 blocked off. They surely need a PR guy managing Tikal.

Anyway, we stayed for the sunset and then hiked out in the dark back to the hotel (about a half hour of hard walking). Got some great pics of the sunset, and then of the full moon rising over Temple 1 as we walked past.

Our dinner at Tikal Inn was mediocre, but we were hungry after all that hiking.

After a couple of drinks, Tom and Dave informed us that in order to take advantage of the free breakfast that comes with our room, they were going to skip sunrise and meet us in the park later. (WIMPS!)

Nicki, Jane, and I turned in early, as we had to be out at the curb at 4am the next morning for the sunrise tour.

Tikal Photo Album

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