A bus took us into the heart of Guatemala City after dark. We’d spent a day here earlier in the week, photographing some of the most interesting buildings which also were some of the best examples of brutalism that we’d seen since San Jose, Costa Rica. Apart from these concrete monoliths declaring the supremacy of the state, the architecture of the city was uninspiring. Nothing much remained of the old colonial city that the Spanish built after abandoning their first capital, Antigua – Antigua being plagued by earthquakes and volcanoes. Unfortunately Antigua got the better end of the deal as it remained a pretty, old capital and Guatemala became modern, urban and a bit messy.
Boarding a night bus to Flores we prepared for another long sleepless night, but ended up arriving at dawn surprisingly well rested.
The little town of Flores surprised us. When the Spanish arrived it was the little fortified Mayan city of Noh Petén, complete with temples and pyramids. It was the last refuge of the Mayan Itza, and for a certain time the conquistadors left it alone. When they turned their attention back to it though, it was destroyed in its entirety. They pulled down the Mayan architecture and replaced it with a quaint town with narrow streets, cobbled undoubtably with the ruins of Petén Itzá.
Though not a colonial gem by any means, Flores is a charming, floating in the middle of Lago Petén Itzá. Following meandering alleyways up the hill to the center, a lovely white church stands watch over a post-modern plaza that is dominated by a basketball court and a bizarre set of sculptures painted the colors of the Guatemalan flag.
Flores is the jumping off point for some of the most impressive Mayan ruins in Mesoamerica. Much of the island is geared towards selling tours to these sights, so two unspoken-for tourists taking a walk instantly make a lot of new amigos. We took a risk, defied our golden rule (no group tours, ever) and signed up for a trip to Tikal.
As expected, Tikal was fantastic and the tour was ridiculous. We’d been assured that there were only two or three other people in the group but there turned out to be 19. So like an army of pasty conquistadors we marched into the jungle, tripping over each other while trying to snap a photograph that would give the impression we were the only ones there. Fortunately the ruins are massive and the jungle is such an immense organism that even a large group feels somewhat tiny when swallowed in.
Toucans and toucanettes flitted through the branches overhead. Spider monkeys acrobatted from the tree tops, casually defying gravity. All day long, howler monkeys roared from above, a sound terrifying enough to send a primal chill up your spine every time.
The temples were no match for the rainforest. Despite their impressive height, the trees were higher and willing to climb on the shoulders of these ancient mounds to reach the sun. A small army of men with machetes were constantly beating the jungle back, but several of the largest pyramids had been cleared, covered and cleared again multiple times since the site’s discovery in 1848.
An old Mayan highway, now not much more than a path, leads to a great central courtyard that has been almost entirely freed of the jungle’s strangling reach. The pathway is covered by a thin wet layer of clay, laid down to protect the original Mayan plasterwork that used to cover the entire site. With a constant mist and a nice mixture of sun and shade, the pathway was slick and dangerous. My big complex hiking boots were as effective as new socks on a waxed floor. Before long I was covered in mud and had fallen with a thump several times. Israelis in flip-flops and Germans in sundresses somehow stuck to the earth like flypaper, remaining upright and spotless. Magda also seemed unaffected, tutting every time I threatened to topple over. It was very frustrating.
Fortunately I stuck fast to the stones when it counted as we climbed the temple steps. From what’s known as Temple Four, its possible to pull yourself up through the canopy (coming face to face with some curious monkeys while doing so) and look out over a veritable sea of unbroken forest. Here and there the grey stone tops of the other pyramids pop up like islets. Where occasionally the sea gives an upward bump it’s possible to see still covered ruins and get a sense of both the size and grandeur of Tikal and the ferocity of the the encroaching jungle.
After our tour was over we opted to stay at the site and wander the grounds alone. While I stopped at the grand plaza to sketch one of the great pyramids, Magda disappeared to take tourist-free photographs. It was oppressively humid, my sketchbook felt damp as I drew. There was only the jungle sounds to keep me company, frogs and crickets whirred and murmured in the thickets. The occasional scream of a howler monkey punched through the stillness. When she returned, Magda declared it the best part of the day, and it was. It was difficult to leave to make the last bus back to Flores but were were encouraged by an approaching black cloud.
Back in town, the end of the day didn’t thin the dense air. Tired from a long trip, we ran across the street from our hotel to plunge into the slightly murky but refreshing lake. Only when I’d pulled myself back up onto the dock did I realize that in our hurry I’d failed to zip my pocket. The pocket where I’d put the hotel room key.
We gazed down into the cloudy green water. It was becoming less transparent by the minute thanks to the setting sun, so, with me kicking myself the whole way, we hurried back to the hotel and explained to the manager what had happened. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t heard before, so when we told her we were going to get our goggles and try to find the key, she just laughed and said not to bother. It was gone. The lake was deep.
Afterwards if we wanted to get into our room we had to ask her to break out her giant key ring and follow us upstairs in order to open our door.
On our final day in Flores we hired a taxi to take us to a lesser known Mayan ruin called Yaxha. It was a bit farther and on a worse road than to Tikal, but our chatty taxi driver took the crumbling blacktop in stride, telling us his life story while dodging the nastier holes.
Yaxha was almost empty when we arrived. At first the only people we met were the groundskeepers who only too eagerly explained everything we needed to know about the ball courts, palaces and still buried mounds surrounding us. Like in Tikal, the biggest thrill was climbing to the top of the highest pyramids, but unlike Tikal it was just us, some bees and a passing fox that jumped effortlessly across the ruins.
Sitting atop a pyramid with one of the park employees, we appreciated the view, the breeze and the solitude. The groundskeeper told us about all of the other ruins in the area that were uncovered, and many more that were still buried. We were again and again impressed by the shear size of the Mayan realm, an area that we’d still only explored a small part of.
Despite a cover of clouds, the setting sun managed to paint the western horizon a dull orange. It reflected off of a big lake that the Mayans once used for water and transportation, but now was just another big body of water in the jungle, teeming with crocodiles. The treetops beneath us still occasionally swayed while spider monkeys jumped from limb to limb. Further away the roar of a howler monkey sounded exactly like a jaguar and sent the last chill of the day up my spine.
We returned to the taxi as darkness fell completely and woke our taxi driver from a nap. He hastily put his shirt on (cue the raised eyebrows) and we were off, dodging potholes all the way back to Flores. Back by the lake we walked to a little boat launch where a half dozen stalls sold delicious tortas, tacos, stuffed plantains and exotic juices of all kinds. The little dock was only slightly above the level of the lake so when a new little group of people was ferried in, the water gently lapped over the edge and wetted the flagstones. As we sat in a pair of plastic chairs, finishing our tortas and staring out into the darkness, a little boy approached and asked if we spoke Spanish. I told him yes, a little, and he asked us to buy him some milk. There was no hard sell, he just asked sweetly, hoping we’d say yes. When we seemed agreeable, he changed his request to a taco. Magda walked with him to the food stall and asked again what he’d like. He replied politely that he’d like a taco, but what he really wanted was a burrito. Magda bought him a burrito and he cheerfully walked off into the night.