Tikal and Livingston, Guatemala – To get to Flores, Guatemala from San Ignacio, Belize we took a taxi to the border and then walked across, paying the exit and entry fees for both countries – it’s expensive to exit Belize, and cheap to enter Guatemala. Then we had to walk down the street after crossing the border to find the minibus to Flores.
It’s always a little scary entering a new country – new customs, new language and everyone knows you just got there. We found the bus alright and soon we were jam packed in a minibus on our way to Flores.
Flores, where most people stay who visit Tikal, is a small island in a lake. It’s small and touristy and there is not much going on, but really pretty. It’s not all tourist and locals hang out by the water and swim in the lake. We enjoyed the peaceful setting and our walks around the island (it takes about 20 minutes) and watching the sunset from the shore.
There are two ways to get to the Tikal ruins from Flores – the public bus from nearby Santa Elena or a tourist shuttle. We decided on taking the tourist shuttle because it was only about 10 quetzal more ($1.30) and we didn’t have to get to the bus station in Santa Elena really early in the morning. We were supposed to get picked up at 6am but the shuttle didn’t arrive at 6:30am – fortunately we’re used to that kind of thing. The shuttle was supposed to be just a ride, not a guided tour – but we ended up picking up a guide on our way who explained some things about the Mayan culture and the nearby towns. We were a little confused because we didn’t pay for a guide and a little annoyed because we had hoped to nap on the way.
We soon got the point of the “free guide”. Just before we arriving at the ruins, he explained that there would be long lines to buy tickets, so he would collect all the money and buy the tickets for us. Seemed reasonable since we didn’t want to wait in a long line. The ride had taken longer than we thought, and we were anxious to get into the ruins. But the guide made us all stop at the bare, uninteresting museum before the entrance and then made us walk as a group down the long road to the entrance while he stopped to talk about trees.
We just wanted to get into the park and decided to leave the group, but we wanted our tickets. People had asked a couple times before and the guide said, “sure” but never handed them over. We pressed him and he kept being evasive. After we strongly insisted, he finally handed over some tickets but they were for the wrong date for this park or the wrong dates for different parks. When questioned the guide told us that the office was out of tickets. It sounded like a load of BS, and it was. We checked later and the ticket booth had tons of tickets.
We didn’t stick around to argue with him or call him out, but clearly this guy is running a scam. He most likely has something worked out with the guards at the park, where they are pocketing most of the money. When we realized this we were pretty upset. Tikal is falling into disrepair because the government doesn’t have te funds it needs to keep it properly maintained, and the money tourists think they are giving to the park is being stolen by these guys. Not cool. If tourists stop visiting Tikal, everyone in Guatemala looses.
Tikal is the grandaddy of all Mayan sites, and we were pleasantly surprised that despite this, it wasn’t overrun with people like Chichen Itza. The ruins are spread out and in some of the more remote areas we were there alone. There are several impressive structures with the standout being the unimaginatively named Templo IV, the second tallest pre-Columbian building the the Western Hemisphere. It seems to rise out of the forrest and the views from the top are pretty spectacular. While appreciating the ruins for all that they are, we were again really taken by the atmosphere. We saw parrots and other interesting birds, monkeys, and some rodent-like creature that I had never seen before. We also spent a fair amount of time watching some cutter ants at work.
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From Flores we took the bus down to Rio Dulce, enjoying the lush scenery along the way. We arrived in Rio Dulce around three, grabbed some lunch, then took a boat down the Rio Dulce to the Caribbean town of Livingston. The trip down the Rio Dulce was majestic. I really think it was one of the most beautiful places we have been. I wish I was more elegant with words so that I could describe the scenery. Stuart’s photos should give you some idea. The coolest thing was seeing hundreds of birds in the trees along the shore fishing for their dinner.
Livingston is a totally different world than the rest of Guatemala. It’s on the Caribbean coast and home of the country’s Garifuna population. Garifuna are decedents of survivors from two shipwrecked Spanish slave ships that first settled in St. Vincent and then later were relocated to the coast of Honduras and now inhabit a few central American costal cities.
They’ve definitely got the Caribbean vibe and a more mutli-ethic community. On our first morning we got a good taste of the local flavor when we watched a parade of kids in costume celebrating carnival. Some of them had really good costumes, my favorite was a little guy dressed up as a potted plant. He couldn’t see through his costume so his mom lead him down the street.
After breakfast we decided to hike along the beach to the Siete Alteras (Seven Alters) – some cascading waterfalls. The walk along the beach was interesting at first. Many of the locals have small houses along the shore and we got away from the “touristy” part of Livingston. It quickly turned depressing when we saw how much garbage, mostly plastic and soles of shoes, littered the beach. For most of the five kilometers to the Siete Alteres we had to walk through this trash. We don’t know if this had been washed up from the sea, or down from the river, or thrown there by the locals – but it didn’t really matter how it go there. It was there and it was ugly and it was a huge reminder of how plastic and waste are ruining our environment.
The Alteres were pretty dry and a little disappointing (but we kinda new the might be because it’s the dry season). They were mostly dry and the water was stagnent in the pools that did have water, which meant we couldn’t swim. But, we were happy that we had done the hike. Not everything we do is beautiful and inspiring, sometimes it helps to see the ugly side of modernization and its effects on poorer countries.
There wasn’t much else to do in Livingston so we spent most of the next day lounging on our hotel’s deck taking in the scenery and wild life where the Rio Dulce meets the sea.