24 Hours in Guatemala

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.

Decision Time

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.

Into Guatemala

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.

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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.

Conclusions

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.

Mayan Ruin #3: Caracol (and more)

When we were researching various Mayan ruins near San Ignacio, there was one that kept popping up that sounded amazing: Caracol. It was one of most recently rediscovered ruins (1937) and the biggest in Belize. In fact, it was a real rival to neighboring Tikal in Guatemala. Not something to be missed! However, it was not very easy to get to, so we had to come up with a plan!

Step 1: Decide whether or not to take a tour.
Not nearly as many people visit Caracol as do the other nearby ruins (in part because there are no easy cruise excursions here). But, several of the tour offices do offer day long trips to Caracol. The cost seemed outrageous. Up to $100 per person for trip of only 40 km outside of San Igancio. Decision: No Tour

Step 2: Explore how to get there without a tour.
The guidebook made it clear that it was perfectly possible to get to Caracol on your own. Only a few problems: there is no public transportation available AND you are going to be traveling through undeveloped jungle near the Guatemalan border and there have been reports of hijackings along the way! The good news is that it had been approximately 15 years since any of those had been reported, in part because the Belizean government had set up a military convoy into and out of Caracol. If you want the safety of the convoy, you must arrive at the starting point by 9 am and you must leave the ruins by 2 pm. Decision: It shouldn’t be too bad – let’s do it!

Step 3: Rent a Car.
We wandered around San Ignacio one afternoon visiting various rental car places listed in our guidebook. We pretty much went with the first one we found and were able to talk with someone (Matus Car Rental). Renting a car in Belize is an amazing experience compared with the US. It went like this: We ask for a car. They quote a price for the day. We say we will do it and go to sign the papers. They give us one easy to understand paper to sign. We ask for what the hidden fees are. They look at us like we’re crazy and confirm that it indeed the quoted price for the day, no more. We are shocked. Decision: Rent cars in Belize!

Step 4: Find Travel Friends!
We have discovered through our past trips that some of the best days happen when you rent a car, find some new friends, and strike out to something off the beaten path. Going to Caracol was the perfect opportunity, so all we needed were some travel buddies. Luckily, our prior trip to Xunatunich provided us with what we needed. We met a really wonderful couple on the top of El Castillo. He was from South Africa, she was from Slovakia, and they were amazing travel companions. Decision: Travel friends are one of the best reasons to travel!

Step 5: Go For it!
We picked up our rental car early in the morning. The first challenge was that the front tire seemed to be flat.

“No problem,” says the rental owner, “you can grab some air at the gas station down the road.” Suspiciously, we ask, “How much does that cost??” Long silence… “Air? Air is free!” He looks at us like we were insane. Who in their right mind could possibly charge for air? Oh…

We filled up the tire, retrieve our travel companions and head off towards Caracol. Della had to drive because Eric still hasn’t learned how to drive a stick shift! 😉 The road became pretty bumpy quickly, but not too bad when you compare it to some roads in Gilpin county. We made it to the military checkpoint with plenty of time to spare. The guards looked a little bored and were definitely not worried about anything bad happening. They told us we could wait for the convoy if wanted… or not. We took this as a good sign, but still decided to wait. When the convoy actually happened, it really wasn’t very regimented but we definitely made it safely to the ruins. The last 10 miles in were actually on paved road which was a wonderful change the from the gravelly, washboard road we had been traveling on prior.

We enjoyed a marvelous day at Caracol. We climbed to the top of Caana, which at about 141 ft is still one of the tallest man made buildings in Belize. We saw some great stellae ruins and the Temple of the Wooden Lintel which has an original wooden lintel! The great thing about how hard Caracol is to get to is that not very many people go. We often felt like we were the only ones there.

We left as recommended, with the military convoy at 2 pm. We were pretty tired, but our traveling companions suggested two stops on the way back that were supposed to be lovely: The Rio On Pools and Big Rock Falls. Rio On Pools were very easy to find and provided an excellent way to cool off on the hot Belizean day. Big Rock Falls were a bit of a harder challenge. They ended up requiring us to drive into what turned out to be an expensively exclusive resort and then to wander aimlessly through till we made a good guess as to where to park. But, despite the difficulty finding the place, it was amazing! We arrived back in San Ignacio after dark, exhausted but content!  Decision: Get yourself to Caracol! It is fantastic day!

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One of the tallest man-made structures in Belize!

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Climbing Caana

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We made it!

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Top of Caana

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Beautiful Stella

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This is what ruins looks like before their excavated. It’s a wonder they’re ever found!

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Wooden Lintel – original!

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Our trusty rental car

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Enjoying Rio On Pools

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Beautiful way to end the day: Big Rock Falls

Click here to see the route we took. 

Cave Adventure: Actun Tunichil Muknal

One of the activities we were most looking forward to in our time in San Ignacio was a visit to the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (called ATM for short). This cave is undeveloped so it is quite an adventure just to explore. Plus, there are also Mayan artifacts and skeletons in a large chamber inside. We enjoy cave formations and we enjoy Mayan ruins, so this was an excellent activity for us!

Because of the unique nature of the cave and its artifacts, you have to go there as part of a guided tour. The tours were quite expensive, but we decided it was a unique opportunity. We evaluated a few different tour guides and eventually chose Mayawalk because their offering was slightly cheaper. (We were warned their their tour would be rushed and impersonal, but that would turn out to be far from the truth).

Our ATM tour was composed of us and 6 other people. We drove out to the trailhead with our guide Martin and started the mile-long walk to the cave.

By the way, we don’t have any pictures from this adventure. A few years ago, a tourist dropped a camera on an ancient Maya skull, leaving a giant crack. So, the powers that be decided to ban cameras altogether.

The walk out to the cave turned out to be pretty interesting just on its own. Martin would stop frequently to show us something interesting, such as leafcutter ants or cohune nuts (which we ate). There were also three river crossings which we had to ford. After some recent rains, the water was moving pretty swiftly!

After a quick snack break, it was time to go into the cave itself. We put on our hard hats and headed for the cave. The entrance to the cave is pretty unique-you have to swim 20 feet across a deep pool of water! Some people indicated it was going to be difficult to get across, but it turned out to be easy.

The first mile of the cave was definitely a pretty wild experience. This is not a calm path with a handrail – you are walking into an undeveloped area. The cave has water running through it which you are walking against most of the time ankle deep but in some cases chest deep!

At one point Martin had us stop so he could look at our neck size, We were a little confused, but after going through the obstacle it made sense – you had to go through some chest deep water between two boulders.The best way is to go through with your neck between the skinniest part!

Martin had us walk one calmer stretch without flashlights – only being guided by placing our hand on the person in front of us. Here is a re-creation of what that looked like:

Pitch Black Darkness

After about a mile of spelunking,we got to the chamber with the Mayan artifacts. We took off our shoes because the artifacts are just lying on the ground right next to you, so they really didn’t want us stepping on them.

First, we looked at many different examples of Mayan pottery. It seemed as if they were arranged into ceremonial offering sites. Martin had us as a group try and interpret what the layout might symbolize. We weren’t ever sure if we got it “right,” but that might have been the point.

Then, we got to see actual skeletons of the Mayans that are still in the cave today. Over time, they have been calcified by the elements and almost look like part of the cave. It was pretty amazing to be able to observe them from a few feet away with nothing separating us. The most impressive remains are what they call the “Crystal Maiden,” a well-preserved female skeleton whose calcification causes the bones to sparkle.

Crystal Maiden - from Wikipedia

Crystal Maiden – from Wikipedia

Because our group spent so long doing various interpretations, we were the last of the various tour groups that day out of the cave. At this point we were also starting to get pretty cold – our clothes were still wet from going through the water, and there isn’t any warm sunlight to dry us off underground! Therefore, we walked out of the cave and then down the trail much faster than we did one the way in. We had a late provided “lunch” back at the van, and then headed back to San Ignacio.

Overall, we really enjoyed the trip and would highly recommend seeing ATM if you are in San Ignacio. It is worth the cost if you have any interest in caves or ancient artifacts. It certainly does not feel like something that you would be allowed to do in the US without filling out extensive paperwork!