96 Hours on a Postcard: Flores and Tikal

Our taxi into Flores drove us along the slim bridge out to the island and left us in front of the first row of restaurants and shops.  On our last couple quetzals, we desperately needed to find an ATM.  Apparently, there is only one on the island, at the new convenience store.  In the next half hour, we found a tour guide for our expedition to Tikal the following morning and the check in desk for our hostel…which was actually a boat ride away in the village of San Miguel.  The hostel boat would not pick us up for a few hours, so we locked up our bags at the front desk and took to wandering the streets.  Flores is a charming village painted in bright colors and crowded onto the tiny island, with boats whizzing to other destinations around the large Lago Peten Itza.  A hub for tourists and expats, it has plenty of shops and cafes…but it also has quiet back alleys full of large frogs and squares where kids play ball games.  The lake is two meters higher than usual, so several streets have gone under and fish swim along what used to be lamplit promenades.

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At 3 o’clock, we retrieved our bags and followed the hostel proprietor to his boat and made the short trip across the water to San Miguel.  From there, we all hopped in his van for the ride uphill to our hostel.  We walked into the front patio and bar and were presented with a stunning view over Flores and the lake…a perfect spot to sip a beer and watch the sunset!  Our hut was the furthest from the bar and the quietest, at the end of the path.  Closer to the bar and restaurant was the crytal clear green swimming pool, where we took frequent dips to cool ourselves off.  In short, it was a little slice of paradise, and the perfect place to reflect on the year that has passed from the moment we stepped on a ship to China.  As promised, the sunset view we enjoyed as we awaited our dinner was breathtakingly gorgeous.  Each fluctuation of light creating yet another photo op…and even when it was finally fully dark, the glittering lights of Flores and the surrounding towns seemed to be bright reflections of the flocks of stars visible overhead.

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The stars were still bright, though most of the lights were no longer on when we woke at 3:30 the next morning for our 4AM boat ride back to Flores and 4:30 pick up for our ride to Tikal, often referred to as THE Mayan ruin that everyone must see.  Groggy and hungry, we ate our packed lunches in the van to help wake us up.  We arrived at the gates of Tikal shortly before 6AM and waited patiently to pay our ticket price and pass into the park.  The sun was just coming up as our van parked and we all descended upon the intelligent businessman who was selling coffee to the early comers.  A few minutes later, our guide rounded us up and led us first to the large model of the grounds to explain our route…then onward to the paths that would lead us to the monuments themselves.

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We started at the twin pyramid complexes, where we learned about the importance of numbers and mathematics to the Mayan system of thought and worship.  The numbers of altars, the numbers of steps, the numbers of corners, and so on, all adding up to the 365 days of the year and the importance of the four colors that mimicked the colors of corn, the greatest of their crops and deities.  Minds spinning with the complexity and sophistication of their construction, we made our way through the thick trees, catching glimpses of the tall temples in the Great Plaza on the way there.  We came out of the trees nearly at the foot of the Templo del Gran Jaguar, or the Jaguar King Temple, which has been filmed in movies and graces most of the Tikal postcards.  It stands across the Great Plaza from the Templo de las Mascaras, also called the Queen Temple.  We could climb the latter and get our first bird’s eye view of the Acropolis and the Great Plaza spread out below us.  With howler monkeys filling the jungle with sound around us and the screaming of waking parrots, goosebumps prickled my skin as I felt that we were stepping into a place that exists a bit outside of time.  We had time to inspect several of the buildings around the North Acropolis before we had to rejoin our group and move onto the next spot.

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A huge pack of coatis trotted in front of us as we made our way to the Mundo Perdido or “Lost World” area, stopping to learn about different plants, including finding allspice leaves to chew on.  Scaling the tall stairs of several structures, we caught more glimpses of the really tall temples that seemed to be leading us onwards.  We passed the offset Templo III, whose shadow was meant to hit the steps of one of the other temples each winter solstice…but the top was covered with tarps because of a recent lightning strike.  Our tour ended at the foot of Templo IV, which is considered to be the second tallest structure in the Mayan world.  Using the wooden steps, we made our way to the top, where we could sit and look out at the “Green Ocean” of the jungle and imagine what this city looked like when there were no trees here (at its peak).  A few other temples peeked out of the trees, and the hills stretched forever in the distance.  We spent a good half hour relaxing up there before heading back to earth.

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As our first three hours had been spent with the guide, our ensuing three hours were left to our own explorations.  We meandered alone through the Bat Palace, or Palace of Windows; returned to the Great Plaza to crawl around Maler’s Palace, on the Cetnral Acropolis; followed a hidden path to the perfectly lit Templo V; and on to the mysterious Plaza of the Seven Temples.  Dripping sweat and feeling sore, but awestruck, we made our way back toward the front gate, managing to match pace with a school group with an amazing and knowledgeable guide who was giving his final comments.  While waiting for the 12:30 bus, we guzzled the remainder of our water and lounged in the shade, reflecting on all we had seen.

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We returned to Flores, and spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool and watching another amazing sunset.  The next morning, we followed the advice of our hostel owner and walked through San Miguel village and the dusty back road to the next town, home to the Petencito Zoo.  It perches on the tip of a peninsula and incorporates the natural surroundings into the zoo design, including the lakeshore and a tiny offshore island that hosts a family of wild pigs.  We got to see a jaguar, entertaining spider monkeys, ocelots, a crocodile, and several other animals spread around the zoo’s large grounds.

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On our fourth day, we swam in the pool, took our last boat, wandered Flores a last time, and turned up at 10PM for our overnight bus to Guatemala City and onward for a week in colonial gem, Antigua.

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