When we’re writing these blogs, we hope to pass along our stories in part that they may help others in the future with their travels. Most of the time we hope our decisions provide examples of what one should do… but this will be more of an example of what not to do. Seeing Tikal was great… but seeing it in 2 hours is not really recommended.
As we were planning our time in San Ignacio, one of the selling points was the fact that Tikal, one of the most impressive Mayan ruins, was located just across the border in Guatemala. Della had been there previously and really wanted to share it with Eric. Tour companies offered day trips there, but we decided it would be cheaper and more flexible to use public transportation to get there.
Our original plan had been to get to the Tikal area in one day, do Tikal, and then head back the next. However, as our time in San Ignacio wound down, we began to question if we should do it differently. We spent one less day in San Ignacio than we originally planned, so we could spend two nights in Guatemala. On the other hand, we were starting to feel a little bit jaded by Mayan ruins, since we had seen so many in San Ignacio already. So maybe we should just not go at all?
We dawdled a bit in the morning as we tried to decide between the two options. In the end, Eric decided that he didn’t want to miss seeing Tikal so we decided to do the two-night option. We bid farewell to San Ignacio and headed west.
There are a few different options for getting to Guatemala from San Ignacio. The main public bus only runs as far as Benque, a town which is still 2 miles from the border (so you would have to take a cab once you got there). The other option is to take a cab from San Ignacio directly to the border. We were able to negotiate a reasonable fare, so we chose the latter option.
At the border, we made a decision which was the main contributor to our later travel mistakes. At the border there are many money changers who would convert Belizean dollars to Guatemalan quetzales. We hadn’t really thought about how much to convert, so we tried to quickly calculate how much we thought we would need for two nights in Guatemala plus Tikal entrance. The money changer was helpful in telling us how much things would cost, plus Della felt that Guatemala was very cheap based on her previous visit, so we felt pretty comfortable with the amount we exchanged…
Quetzales Left: 700
We then crossed out of Belize and into Guatemala on foot. On the Guatemala side we found the building for people coming in (not immediately obvious), paid a fee, and got our passports stamped.
Quetzales Left: 660
As soon as we were done, we were asked by a cab driver where we were headed. We told him El Remate, a small town that is on the way to Tikal. He wanted to drive us all the way there, but we declined since our plan was to take a cheap colectivo (shared minibus). Eventually we agreed that we would pay him to drive us to the place where the colectivo picked up. There was still some confusion at the end because he thought we agreed to 10 Qs per person, but we thought 10 total. As we pulled up, it appeared a colectivo was about to leave, so we rushed out of the taxi and only gave him 10. This left a sour taste in our mouth though.
Quetzales Left: 650
The colectivo conductor threw our bags on top and we piled in. Riding a colectivo is quite the experience! The vehicle is about the size of a normal passenger van, and they cram as many people as possible in them for each trip. We were some of the last ones on, so we had to ride on a tiny bench facing backwards, knee to knee with another row of seats. We got to dust off our Spanish skills to communicate with the conductor about the cost (English is not very widely spoken in Guatemala – quite a shift from Belize). The cost was 30 Qs per person, which was more than we had budgeted. We wondered if we were getting a tourist upcharge but there was no easy way to tell.
Quetzales Left: 590
The colectivo did not go all the way to El Remate, so we had to ask to be let off at a highway junction called Ixlu (also called El Cruce). We then hiked a mile or so along the side of the road into town. We then had an unpleasant surprise when we discovered that the cheap hostel listed in Lonely Planet was closed. So we continued on to the next listing we liked in the book, Hostel Hermano Pedro. We decided to get a room there, because the one we were shown was nice and spacious. We probably should have tried to negotiate a lower deal, since we seemed to be the only ones there, but the desk clerk didn’t speak English so we didn’t try.
Quetzales Left: 490
At this point, it was only about noon. We talked it over and decided that it didn’t seem like much was going on in El Remate, so we decided to try and go to Tikal after all. This would mean switching back to our original one night plan, but it seemed like it would be a waste of an afternoon not to go.
Plus, we were starting to worry about money. We knew that the entrance fee to Tikal was 150 Qs per person, so that would leave us with 190. Then, we needed to reserve 30 Qs per person for the colectivo back to Belize – so 90 Qs left for transportation to and from Tikal plus dinner that night. Also, the only ATM in town was broken. Everything in Guatemala so far had been more expensive than Della remembered, so we didn’t have much optimism about being able to survive on such a low amount. And we knew we didn’t have enough for another night’s worth of lodging, so our best thought at the time was to go ahead and go to Tikal.
An Afternoon in Tikal
We headed out to the main road in El Remate to catch a colectivo to Tikal. We thought they ran fairly regularly, but a local expat did come by and warn us that they ran less frequently in the afternoon. We waited… and waited… and waited,… and just when we were about to give up we see the colectivo coming up the road. We decide to take it. It is also 30 Qs per person, but only crowded instead of ridiculously crowded.
Quetzales Left: 430
Unfortunately, the colectivo took a long time to travel the distance to Tikal. Since these are shared buses, they stop whenever anyone wants to get on or off. This one made a lot of stops, including two where we had to spend about 5 minutes waiting for bags and bags of dry goods to be unloaded for the passenger getting off. We didn’t get to the park until almost 2:15. We knew the park stayed open until 6, so while not ideal, we still had some time to explore. But… the conductor told us to be back by “cuatro y media”. Once the translation hit us, we realized we only had two hours to explore Tikal! But, at this point we didn’t have any choice. We paid the entrance fee and started race walking into the park.
Quetzales Left: 130
We made it to the Gran Plaza, took a few seconds to catch our breath and admire the tall ruins surrounding the courtyards, and then dashed off on a loop of what seemed to allow us to see the highlights. We walked at a brisk pace past the many impressive ruins, pausing only briefly to read something about them. Certainly not enough time for any sort of reflection, although at the same time we had just seen a bunch of other Mayan ruins so we could somewhat justify a quick glance.
One big difference between Tikal and the ruins we saw in Guatemala is that you are not allowed to climb to the top of most of the ruins in Tikal. The one exception is Templo IV, which has a steep wooden staircase going up the side. We took this up and finally paused for a moment. The shade and breeze from the top of the 210-foot tall structure were a welcome relief, especially since we were getting pretty worn out from walking so fast in the summer afternoon heat. The view from the top is pretty neat because you can see the tops of the other tall temples just barely sticking out of the thick jungle. When we were there, we could see and hear a thunderstorm in the distance as well. That plus the grunts of the howler monkeys made for a fun aural experience.
We eventually regained some stamina and headed back down. We completed the loop back to the Gran Plaza and did a little exploring there.
We made it back to the colectivo pickup point with 15 minutes to spare. The ride back to El Remate also cost 30 Qs per person.
Quetzales Left: 70
Food, Food Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Eat
Back in El Remate with only 70 Qs left, and knowing we needed 60 to get back to Belize, we were at a loss for what exactly to do about dinner. We decided to walk around and see if we could find a place that would accept a credit card. We walked up and down a few times trying to find the places listed in Lonely Planet, and we struck out at multiple – no credit card machine or closed due to the low season. We thought we had found one place but their machine was broken!
We almost lost hope, but then Eric remembered on the walk into town there was a fancy resort, so we decided to take a long walk down there as one last hope. As it turned out, this was our saving grace. They would take a credit card for dinner, but we decided it was an even better deal to use their money changing service to change some US dollars into quetzales. Even though their restaurant didn’t look to be the cheapest option in town, we were so worn out/relieved that we just decided to eat there anyway. We had a Gallo beer and some decent food and watched the sun set over the lake.
The next morning, with fresh quetzales in our pocket, we left El Remate and walked back down to Ixlu. A colectivo came by almost immediately. We hopped on and rode back to the border. At this point we actually had a few extra quetzales left, so we bought some snacks and then changed the rest with a moneychanger on the Guatemala side. We got our passports stamped and headed back over the border, just about 24 hours after we had done the reverse.
We really regret that in the end, we only were able to spend two hours in Tikal. Such a rich site deserves to have much more time devoted to it. Reflecting back on the experience, we can say
- We should have given more thought to how much money we got in the first money exchange. It was bad to assume that Guatemala was going to be so cheap. Plus, it was bad to try and cut it so close with what we did get. A buffer is always better.
- We should have thought more about the decision to go to El Remate in the low season. The cheap hostel being closed affected our budget. Plus maybe in the high season the ATM would have been functional, or there would have been fellow travelers to provide some advice. We still enjoyed El Remate as a base to visit Tikal, but we should have budgeted more money to cover these incidentals.
- Sometimes it might make sense to pay attention to when everyone else is going someplace. We had heard that more people visited Tikal in the morning, but we figured it would be better to go when it was less crowded. But, if we had stuck with the plan to go in the morning, there would have been more transportation options,and it would have been more pleasant.
- It’s not good to let panic drive your decisions. When we started to get worried about money, we charged ahead with plans to go to Tikal instead of sitting back and really working through our options. Perhaps if we had not tried to immediately go to Tikal, we would have remembered sooner about the fancy resort where we eventually changed money.
- Fast travel is not necessarily the best travel. We got to “see” what we wanted to see, but it wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as the rest of the stops on our trip.