Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tikal Trip Day 3 - Winter Solstice Sunrise

3:30am… wakey wakey…
4:00am… waiting for the guide in the dark cool morning air
4:30am… STILL waiting for the guide

We saw lots of flashlight activity over by the entrance gate. But we had been told specifically to wait at the entrance to our hotel.

Nicki and Jane Waiting for Sunrise at Temple 4

Finally, at about 4:35am, I left Nicki and Jane at the waiting spot and went over to investigate. We certainly didn’t want to get left behind. Our tour was supposed to have picked up people in Flores at 3:30am and be picking us up between 4 and 4:30am, prior to entering the park.

I wandered among the milling groups of people trying to find someone in charge. The guides all had headlamps and had name tags. Not knowing who our guide was supposed to be, all I could do was ask for Tikal Travel and San Juan Tours. One guide told me that a guide had been looking for me, but had already gone in. He told me that he’d put me with someone else and we’d sort it all out after sunrise at Temple 4.

So I signaled back to Jane and Nicki to “abandon post, come here”… by flashing the red light on my headlamp on and off, as previously agreed. I got a couple of answering flashes back and soon they were by my side.

After buying tickets at the ticket booth (another $20 plus an extra $1.50 for entry before 6am), our little group stumbled off in the dark behind the non-English speaking guide. As we walked along, I was trying to get my GPS up, so I could figure out exactly what time sunrise was supposed to be. I hadn't thought to look it up, since we were supposed to have been picked up by an English-speaking guide and coddled a little. I thought it was 5:30-ish, but didn’t really know. I had taken a waypoint on Temple 4 the afternoon before, and using the ‘go-to’ function, I could tell it was going to take about 25 minutes to get there at the pace we were walking. And it was already 5:05am. Eek!

It was hard to read the screen in the dark, trying to walk fast, avoid the roots, hold the GPS still, at 5am (with Nicki saying “come on Mom, quit playing with your stupid GPS”). Also, walking through the heavy foliage, the GPS doesn’t receive the satellite signals very well, so it took a long time to get a lock. Just as we arrived at Temple 4, I finally got the sunrise information… oh… 6:22am. Oh. We have nearly an hour to wait.

Somehow, we were some of the first to arrive at the top of Temple 4, so got to pick our seats. No need to bribe the guide this time… the open area of Temple 4 is facing east. It was still full dark when we got up there. Nicki and I got set up in the front row, close to the rail. I set my ‘Gorilla Pod’ (a small tripod with bendable legs) up on the railing, and proceeded to take a picture every 5 minutes or so.

After the last group got settled at the top of Temple 4, one of the guides told us all to be really quiet and we could hear the sounds of the jungle awakening. Pretty soon we could hear several howler monkey groups calling out and answering back and forth. We could also hear all kinds of exotic birds, including macaws, toucans, flocks of parrots, and the distinctive cry of the oro pendulum. See ‘Movie of Howler Monkeys at Dawn’ in our Photo Album. (note, not much video, but lots of audio… warning, large file!)

Dawn at Temple 4

It slowly got light, but being a cool morning, we had heavy fog. Never saw the sunrise. Finally about 6:45, the spokesman for the guides gave a little talk about dawn at Tikal and some of the flora and fauna. Then they split us up among the various guides (this is where we ended up with the wrong guide, who’s tour ended at 8:30am instead of 11am).

Our guide was good. He spoke good English and knew where to go to find the animals (monkeys, toucans, etc). We started working our back back from Temple 4 toward the central part of the park, unfortunately covering areas that we had seen in our unguided walk yesterday.

Our Guide Calling the Monkeys

We had made plans to try to hook up with the guys at 7:00 in the Central Plaza. (Note: No cell phone coverage at Tikal, and we hadn’t thought about things like walkee-talkees, so we had to just wing it).

However, since we were covering areas of the park that we had covered yesterday, and I had my trusty GPS. So when the guide announced that the next stop was Temple 5, I knew I could find the Plaza, round up the guys (if they had gotten their lazy asses out of bed yet), and get us back with the group in Temple 5. I didn’t make it to the Plaza until about 7:20, and as I walked in from one side, there was Dave and Tom just getting there on the other side. Great timing!

After Temple 5, the guide headed straight for the Central Plaza. Oh well. After he gave us a briefing on the temples surrounding the Central Plaza, he announced that the tour was over.

What!? It’s only 8:30 and we booked a tour until 11am! It was only then that we found we’d been directed to go with the wrong guide, when the groups split up atop Temple 4.

Fortunately Tom’s 10Q map had made it back into the park with the guys. We spent the rest of the morning locating and walking to the several large outer temple complexes that we hadn’t gotten to the day before.

By 11:30 those of us that got up at 3:30am were feeling pretty tired. Not just sleepy tired but very footsore, so we headed out to catch the 12:30 shuttle to our next hotel.

We started looking for our shuttle about 10 til noon. There are 20 or so vans hanging out at the entrance to the park, waiting for groups coming out. When the guy had dropped us off the day before, Dave made it clear we’d be wanting to go back on the first (12:30) shuttle, and he said “I’ll be waiting right here.” Well, after each of us checking the parking lot over the next half hour, still no shuttle.

At 12:30, Dave finally used the hotel phone to call the company we booked the tour with (Tikal Travel). The guy said the shuttle should be there and just be patient. 5 minutes later, he called back and said “I’m coming to get you.”

It’s an hour trip from Flores to Tikal, so we went back to the Jaguar Inn for lunch and to wait for the van.

Long story short… our tour company, Tikal Travel, had subcontracted the tour and shuttle ride back to San Juan Tours. Somehow the whole thing was miscommunicated. Probably why we didn’t get picked up at the Tikal Inn in the morning as we’d been told, and why there was no shuttle driver looking for 5 gringoes and luggage at 12:30. To complicate things, the Tikal Travel operator is closed daily until 3pm (she teaches during the day), and of course, there’s no cell phone signal out at Tikal. The guy we’d gotten ahold of is Tikal Travel’s brother, who happens to have a van (and who charged us the normal fare after he picked us up at Tikal. Dave made several phone calls to Tikal Travel’s owner, who indicated it was San Juan Tours’ fault. She said she’d get them to give us partial refund, if we stopped by their office the next day. (we did and they wouldn’t). We felt really scammed by the whole thing. Not so much that an honest mistake was made, but that both operators refused to refund any money. We do not recommend either Tikal Travel or San Juan Tours, for any Tikal trips.

Anyway, eventually we got out of Tikal and on to El Remate, where La Casa de Don David awaited us. This turned out to be a really nice alternative to staying IN Tikal. It is located on the eastern shore of Lake Peten (the same lake that Flores is in), and is considerably closer to Tikal than Flores. It is well-run, has good food, and reasonable prices. We saw a spectacular sunset over the lake there.

Dave Relaxing at Casa de Don David

Tikal Trip Recap and Recommendations

After we finished it all, if we did it again, here is what we would do.

1. Go at a less busy time, and make less reservations ahead.

2. Avoid San Juan Travel and Tikal Travel at all costs. Their organization stunk, and they absolutely refused to give us any refund for services we did not get because they were so disorganized (we got neither the guide we paid for nor the trip back from Tikal).

3. Book 3 nights at Casa de Don David in El Remate vs any hotel in Flores or Tikal. Don David is 'muy tranquilo', reasonably close to Tikal, nice rooms, much better food, and well run. They will help with transportation to Tikal and away from the area when you are ready to leave.

4. Don't pre-book any tours to Tikal, but wait until you get to the front gate and negotiate your own deal directly with a guide. Make sure he speaks good English and is familiar with Tikal (perhaps ask other travelers for individual recommendations).

5. Skip the sunrise tour unless your just into listening for the animals in the jungle. I don’t think the sun is seen very often at dawn.

6. If you want to do sunrise or sunset, do it at Temple 5, not Temple 4. Temple 4 is really crowded these days at sunrise/sunset.

All of Our Tikal Photos.

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