Guatemala – Chapter 1

Guatemala is seeping under the skin like Malaria into the veins. Dirt roads weave together villages and farms; cattle graze and turkey present. At once nowhere, with a simple path proving a link to isolated settlements, at other times, a well trod highway. In the rural and troubled northern province, Peten, where a welcome should be harsh and troubled, we found smiles. We entered Guatemala across the Rio Usumacinta, and soon turned north, destination Tikal. Our border affair was the easiest of my traveling life. A calm trainee scanned and stamped our passports in Frontera Corezal, Mexico, so we could spend the next 18 hrs as nomads in between countries. Our early arrival in Frontera, and easy pass through immigration, resulted in a quick decision to catch a boat up and across the river to the Guatemalan town of Bethel. The small launcha plied the swift currents with the ease of habit, and soon we were docked on Guatemalan soil. We briefly toiled with our bags and bikes up the steep sandy embankment and began our crawl through the craggy streets in search of accommodation. We were pointed one way, redirected back, all the while bouncing brutally along rocky roads. It was quiet, abnormally so for the border town feel I am used to, but soon a hotel appeared and an outlandishly low price was quoted and agreed upon. It would mark the lowest price I had ever paid for a room in my life of budget travel, but it turned out to be a bit of a border-town scam that saw the price increase ten-fold the following morning (still beating the price we would have paid the other side of the border). The stark room with a menacing fan, and the challenging negotiation over the room, tarnished our initial impression of Guatemala. Word must have reached those in our path, because the remainder of the day was met with kindness and generosity above that dictated by job or simple courtesy. As we rolled into Las Cruces at the end of the day, the happenings and sour dealings of our morning were as distant as Mexico, and Guatemala was firmly enthralling me.

This bike ninja is ready for Guatemala.This bike ninja is ready for Guatemala.


This bike ninja is ready for Guatemala.


When Nathan’s bike tipped over as we had a breakfast Coke stop before even making it out of town and through Guatemalan immigration, a cold bottle of water rolled around in the dirt, and because of the incessant humidity, became dirty. The shopkeeper quickly sent out a pale of water with her daughter to clean off our purchase. The Guatemalan immigration official had us processed and back on the road in a matter of seconds. Following a few border sign pictures we were happily wished a pleasant journey by the gun-wielding security guard. For me, the highlight of a rather uneventful dirt road day, was the random cafeteria we chose for lunch. Simple fare, deliciously prepared, kindly served, and beautifully supplemented with fresh jalepeno salsa and fruit smoothies. I would have stayed the remainder of the day happily lapping up whatever could be offered, but the dusty road needed riding.

Lago de Peten ItzaLago de Peten Itza


Lago de Peten Itza


Our following day was mainly along a paved route north in order to reach the ruins of Tikal buried deep in the jungle. We found a shortcut along a section of dirt road that actually did feel a bit out-there, but it too soon dropped us into the urban densities of Santa Elena and Flores. And, of all the unexpected oddities, we ended up having lunch at a mall near the airport on our detour around town. It was becoming clear that the rugged and rural Peten region was not entirely true, especially for the key areas that are common among visitors. As we watched the sun set across the Peten Itza Lake we hatched plans to rise at 4:30 in the morning to feed and coffee ourselves in time to catch a bus to the ruins for their 6am opening. It is safe to say that any number of worse hardships would be well worth the effort for the grand result of seeing such a tremendous set of ruins carved out from under the dense jungle foliage. Hell, if we had to, Nathan and I would probably set out through the dense jungle to uncover it ourselves; but, as it was, that wasn’t necessary. Instead we had much of the meandering jungle pathways to ourselves, and the temple summits often left quiet for contemplation. We perched over the main plaza discussing the impressive heights the Mayans managed to build their temples without the use of animals, metal tools, or wheels, while enjoying a refuel of coffee from our thermos. There was little for us to uncover except the expansive reaches of our imaginations, envisioning what Tikal would have looked like at its height of power during the mid-6th century when it covered 30 sq km and had a population estimated at 100,000.

Tikal's Grand PlazaTikal’s Grand Plaza


Tikal's Grand Plaza


The area was selected because of its slightly higher location in an otherwise flat expanse, but that isn’t to say that it is hilly. The hills that scatter the area have a man-made core of stone that has been swallowed up by the jungle. It is only with extensive time and man-power that some of the hills are scrapped away to reveal the treasures underneath. As we walked the root chocked pathways we kept our eyes open for oddly shaped, or abrupt mounds, which always indicated a ruin may be exposed on the other side. This play between jungle, soil, tree, and stone was thoroughly engaging, and gave us a fun filled day of exploring beneath a cloudy white sky and the dark green canopy of the jungle. I felt as though Tikal’s temples and buildings were a bit brutish in appearance, and strict in their efforts to reach impressive heights. So, while I prefer the layout and characteristics of Palenque, Tikal astounded me because of its immense size, both in area and height. Few views are as captivating as standing atop Temple IV looking across the jungle landscape and seeing the tops of temples stretching up above the green cloth of the jungle.

Tikal's temples rising from the Guatemalan jungleTikal’s temples rising from the Guatemalan jungle


Tikal's temples rising from the Guatemalan jungle


The progression of our Mayan journey started at the coastal site of Tulum, south of Cancun, and ended with the grand site of Tikal. We couldn’t have picked a better route, and feel fulfilled in the search for the lost world of the Maya. I don’t feel much closer to understanding the rise and fall of one of the Americas pre-Columbian empires, but I do have a better understanding of just what an impressive empire it was.

Remote northern road around Lago de Peten Itza.Remote northern road around Lago de Peten Itza.


Remote northern road around Lago de Peten Itza.


We completed a loop around Lago de Peten Itza the following day, finishing in Flores. A dip in the lake across the Malecon from our hotel and we were seduced into a relaxing day off. We have just made quick work of Peten Highway 13 south to Rio Dulce with an overnight at the eco-resort of Finca Ixobel. I suffered a flat day yesterday, but not in the sense of terrain or tires, simple a physical and mental low that made the ride demoralizingly long. It used to occur on a weekly basis throughout the travels south from Alaska. Because of its recent infrequency (maybe once in the Yucatan, and once in Cuba), it has shone a bit of positive light on the travels in Latin America.

docked at Hacienda Tijax, Rio Dulce, Guatemaladocked at Hacienda Tijax, Rio Dulce, Guatemala


docked at Hacienda Tijax, Rio Dulce, Guatemala


I am writing with a perfect view of the Rio Dulce to soothing, sleepy music, and feel just a bit like we have been removed from Guatemala. It has been a fun treat, to see what we have seen, stay where we have stayed, and eaten the delights we have eaten (lots of fresh banana bread and vanilla muffins, and a gourmet buffet), but our rugged cross-country tour begins tomorrow. We are hoping to avoid the drudgery of pavement as much as possible as we wind our way up into the highlands for Christmas. If we have time, which it appears we do, we are going to pass through the tourist mecca of Antigua and ride by Lago de Atitlan on our way to Quezaltenango, better know by the native name Xela, for a month of Spanish instruction. More and more it is becoming cumbersome to have our limited Spanish skills. It contributed to our hotel misunderstanding at the border, or so they say, and has often left us short of valuable information and conversation with locals. I don’t harbor a false hope that I will be fluent in a month, but followed with another year of bike travel and we just might get somewhere close.

One Response to “Guatemala – Chapter 1”

  1. Martha says:

    It seems to me you’re living the best Christmas present possible. Merry Christmas and a spectacular new year to both of you.

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