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Tikal and the Guatemalan Suicide Dogs

GUATEMALA | Tuesday, 31 March 2009 | Views [2263]

First view of Tikal through the early morning mist

First view of Tikal through the early morning mist

We left Chetumal and got a long-distance bus going straight to Flores, Guatemala.  This involved heading down through northern Belize again to Belize City, and then across to San Ignacio and over the border.  We drove through the Peten basin in Guatemala, which consisted of rolling hills with palms and deciduous forest, much cleared, but with very little in the way of villages or settlement.  After a good eight and a half hours we arrived at Flores.

With its sister town Santa Elena, this is the only decent-sized conurbation in the whole of northern Guatemala.  Flores itself is a small colonial town built on an old Mayan capital, taking up the whole of an island in Lago de Peten Itzá, and connected to the mainland by a causeway.  It´s a quiet, sleepy place, with uneven cobbled streets and old town houses.  Its just now starting to be gentrified, with new road surfaces and a promenade around the outside.  I hope local people will continue to make up the majority of the residents and that they´re not priced out.  We stayed at a great hostel ´Los Amigos´, with fine vegetarian food and a really friendly atmosphere.  

One of the immense temples comes into view...

The next morning we were up bright and early (4.30!!!), to catch the tourist bus to Tikal, the largest and most famous Mayan site in Guatemala.  The drive to Tikal takes a good hour and a half, as the site is up in the middle of a tropical forest national park, which takes up much of the Petén region.  We arrived at the park gates at dawn, and after a quick breakfast, started to explore the site.

Getting there at dawn paid off. The mist hangs over the forest, with parrots, oropendulas, and howler monkeys making an incredible racket in the trees around you, whilst spider monkeys look down at you through the foliage.  As you climb the first, immense temple, you get views out over the trees and mist, with the ´combs´ of the other temples in the city poking out above the canopy.  It really is quite magical.  Most of the larger temples have only been cleared and restored at the top, so the massive sloping walls retain their shrouding of mature trees, allowing you to imagine the site as it was found a few hundred years back, totally covered in jungle.

Tikal is enveloped in thick forest

The temples here are much steeper than other sites we´d visited – meaning that many had to be climbed via separate stairways.  Saying that, ´stairways´ is probably a bit of a strong term, as a few of them weren´t much more than ladders.  Although I´ve been much less prone to vertigo since our various adventures in Panama and Costa Rica, I climbed up a few feet, and then thought I´d prefer to have a banana on terra firma… .  The scale of the site (and this is just the centre) is huge with countless plazas and acropolises.  The central plaza was probably the most impressive set of temples and platforms we´ve seen – the scale and the labour gone in to create it are hard to take in.

The central plaza

After a few days we took a tourist bus down from Flores to Cobán in central Guatemala, and then east to Languin.  This is quite a trek (another eight and half hours).  The well maintained road passes through rolling hills again, mostly deforested for cattle (an unfortunate state of affairs prevalent in most of Guatemala, although without the really steep slopes of Costa Rica, the erosion isn´t generally so bad as there).  Every village we passed through was populated by pretty Mayan girls (ok, maybe they weren´t all pretty) in long, flowing brightly coloured skirts and lacy shawls, and packs of scrawny dogs that for some reason known only to themselves, insisted on sitting, lying, sleeping, or having sex in the middle of the road.

Our driver was generally going for it down the straightish road, but in these villages we had to slow down to a crawl to weave in and out of the suicide dogs.  And it wasn´t like they got out of the way in any hurry either.  Sometimes they might look at the minibus in an indolent sort of way, and just maybe decide to wander a couple of yards before lying down again.  But this was the exception.

It made me wonder how there were so many dogs.  Obviously the bonking rate is faster than the flattening rate, but I´m not sure how.  Its not as if Darwinian forces are at play either, as they all seem to be as stupid as the next dog.

Waiting for the ferry at Sayaxché

Our journey continued up into a series of forested gorges and then into the small town of Sayaxché, where the road stopped and we had to get an unsteady car ferry across the river.  Further on, the road scaled higher and the air got fresher until we arrive in Cobán, a large county town, before heading east toward Languin.  After about ten miles the good road gave out and we were on a very windy, very basic hard core track.  By this stage Rachel had a headache which turned into a migraine, which meant that every bump sent shock waves through her head.  It wasn´t long before she was biting her hand, curled up into a foetal position on the seat, moaning loudly.  Not a great place for a migraine.  Two hours later we arrive at Languin and staggered off to our hostel, where Rachel found the bed and stayed there for the next 12 hours.

Languin and surrounds are lovely – you´re definitely up in the mountains here, with chilly evenings and a certain crispness to the air, not unlike an autumn morning.  The rivers are clear and cold, and humble villages are nestled in the valleys.  When we got there the local kids were celebrating a saints day, and so were all wandering round covered in ash and confetti, where they´d smashed filled celebration eggs on each others heads (they have a similar thing in Mexico).

The river cahabón falls into limestone tunnel

The reason most tourists come here is to visit Semuc Champey – a small national park containing a large river tunnel (over 300m), with a set of shallow limestone pools on top that you can swim in.  A rather bizarre topographical setup.  After hitching a lift on the back of a crowded pickup (well, we paid for the privelege), Rachel and I spend a relaxing day exploring the river and the pools.

Clear limestone pools great for swimming

Various guys were hanging round with ropes where the river dives underground – at first we thought they were selling a service to climb down to view the spectacle close-up, but in actual fact they were there to fish out anyone who got clumsy and decided to launch themselves into the torrent.  Of course, my amazing water sandals took this opportunity to decide to fall apart again once I was swimming around in the pools, so I spent the rest of the day wandering around with my sole flapping off my foot.  Another case for the super glue, methinks.

The river emerges, whilst the water in the pools above cascades down to join it

To see more pictures of Tikal and Semuc Champey, click here

After a slight delay, Belizean Youtube videos now up for:

Lamanai Howler Monkeys,

Rachel´s rather wet chrimo message from MMRF, and

Cockscombe Basin Viewpoint

Tags: flores, languin, semuc champey, suicide dogs, tikal


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