Nearly an hour later we were through the Belize side of the border with another stamp in our passports. We rolled our suitcases across what seemed like a neutral zone between the two countries, a birthing canal of asphalt and gravel that delivered us to the Guatemalan side. We’d left some messages for our guide Roxy, on her phone, telling her we were running late because the border was taking longer than we’d expected, but she never called us back.
Fortunately, she found us when we came through. I doubt we were hard to spot. The four of us might as well have been wearing a banner that read “white American tourists looking for guide with air conditioned vehicle.”
“Hi I’m Roxy!” she said, with a raspy half Boston half Guatemalan accent. “Follow me.”
She took us to another line where we got our passports stamped to enter Guatemala, which seemed to be moving much faster than the line before. Suddenly I felt a tug on my arm.
“Hi Mr. Philip.”
I turned to find Abel, the snorkeling guide we had earlier in the week at the Turneffe Flats ecotourism lodge. [Here’s the back of Abel from one of our snorkeling trips]
“Oh hi Abel, what are you doing here?” I asked, remarking about how small the world can be even when you’re away from home.
“My family and I are shopping for the day in Guatemala,” he said, pointing to his daughter and wife. “We live in San Ignacio so it’s easy.”
We talked briefly about the pupusas we’d just had, and I told his daughter her dad talked about her all the time, and pointed to the alligator tooth pendent around her neck, “he said he got that for you from the alligator who bit off the tip of his finger.” Which is one of many stories Abel told us. She smiled, and then it was my turn to show my passport.
“We’re running late Philip, let’s go.” Jonathan said.
The Guatemala side of the border is a lot more intense. The lines are long, and cars are jammed every which way on the approach to the crossing. There are dogs, with fleas, running around with their testicles swinging all over the place. I bet there’s a shortage of neutering facilities in Guatemala…I know that’s ballsy assumption to make, but I’m just saying. Lots of honking, lots of dust getting turned up from rundown cars puttering past us. A man was slaughtering meat and grilling it on the side of the road, and it was pretty clear we were in a different country.
Roxy drove a pickup truck with four doors. She tied our luggage down in the back and refused our help when we offered. No more than 2 minutes into the country she asked if it was alright for her to drop something off to a friend while we were near the border. Since “no” didn’t really seem like an answer we could give, she made some illegal turns (which are probably legal in Guatemala) and delivered some package I’d been squishing under my feet to someone she knew who lived nearby. Then we stopped to get gas. Once she was done running her errands we were on our way to the Mayan ruins of Yaxhá.
“Did you get our messages,” Bobbi asked.
“Oh no,” Roxy said, “I have to pay my phone bill to get more credits and it’s been like ten days since I’ve had a chance to pay it because you have to go into the office to pay it, and it’s just a hassle.” The vibe I was getting from this sweaty Central-American-Kathy-Bates-circa-Misery was that there were no rules or deadlines in Guatemala. “I would have waited a few more hours at the border before leaving you though, so it’s okay.”
“So what’s the schedule like now that we’re about two hours behind schedule?” Jonathan’s sister Debra asked.
“I’m taking you to Yaxhá” she said, “we’ll watch the sunset and then we’ll go to the hotel where dinner will be waiting.”
About a 35 minutes drive from the border in Northern Guatemala, Yaxhá was a former ceremonial center for the Maya civilization, and was the third largest Mayan city in the region covering approximately 92 square miles. Reaching its heyday in the Early Classic period (AD 250-600) the city overlooks Lake Yaxhá, which in Maya means “blue-green water” and how the city got its name.
Roxy led us into the park where we walked amongst mounds of trees, vines, and ferns, which are Maya structures that have yet to be excavated or have been excavated and then covered again, because those are the rules of excavation in Guatemala.
As we walked along slippery stone pathways covered in lime green moss, we heard howler monkeys jumping around in the canopy above. Every once in awhile there’d be a kerfuffle in the trees, and we’d stop to look up and see a troop of monkeys swinging around. As we walked, and debris from the monkeys fell like bombs sometimes just feet from where we were, we took in the rich history of the area.
We looked at lots of stelas, which are like ancient plaques commemorating a story or a member of the royal family. In some instances they’re used as gravestones.
We walked through a soccer stadium and learned that it was an honor to be invited to the sacred futbol courts where men covered in stone armor kicked an intestine wrapped stone (not super bouncy) from one side to the other, trying to get it into a hoop. The loser would be sacrificed to the gods. Sounds like fun, right?
These are the bleachers
Here’s the court. The ball is not supposed to touch the strip in the middle, and the two slanted sides are where the players run up and down trying to kick the ball into giant stone rings at the top of the walls. The rings have fallen down since they were originally used nearly 2,000 years ago.
Then we walked up to an area with three tall pyramids. The plan was to climb up one of the pyramids to take in the views. The trick in walking up and down Mayan ruins is the zig zag. By going to the side, you give your feet more of a runway to stand on, considering how tall and narrow the steps really are. And just so you know, going down is indeed scarier than going up.
From the top we noticed a taller pyramid off in the distance. “That’s where we’re going next,” Roxy said, “the sunset is best from there.” A pandemonium of green parrots flew out of the nearby trees, circling the area before flying off towards the setting sun. [Not the structure in the foreground, but the tiny tower at the top of the tree line in the middle of the photo below]
Having made it to the top in one piece, we decided to savor the moment for as long as we could. How often do you get to climb to the top of an ancient Mayan temple right?
The lush canopy at our feet. Full of sounds. Full of life. Full of color.
The relatively clean tropical air that’s filtered almost daily by some magical rain. Looking at at the horizon I could see why people used to think the world was flat.
We didn’t want to miss the sunset and we had some distance between us and the taller pyramid so we started to descend. We were all taking our time, and all of the sudden we hear “woaw shhhhit!” and the sound of rocks tumbling down the pyramid.
We all turned to see Roxy falling down the steps of the pyramid with bricks of stone breaking as she slid on her back with her arms spread out in hopes of getting caught on something. Debra sort of lunged towards her to help, but not enough to loose her own balance and fall too. After a few seconds, and just before a drop off the side of the pyramid, Roxy came to a stop.
“Oh my god, are you alright?” We all asked. My heart raced, at the thought that her fall could have been much worse….and who was going to drive us to the hotel where dinner was waiting?
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Just stupid,” she said, taking inventory of the damage. She had a few scrapes on her arms, and a tear in the back pocket of her khaki explorer pants. “Don’t worry about me.”
Bobbi didn’t climb the pyramid and was grateful she didn’t after seeing Roxy slide down. Especially after we’d read in the guidebook that several people die each year climbing Mayan ruins in Guatemala.
The tallest pyramid we could climb was about a 10 mins walk back towards the car and they had built some stairs and landings for visitors, because the stairs on the front of this one were steeper than the other.
On the side where the sun was setting there were several hundred visitors camped out at the top of the pyramid. We walked around the front, with the edge just inches from where we were stepping. The idea of a gush of wind coming, or someone tickling someone else freaked me out. So many things could cause someone to lose their balance and fall. What if I all of the sudden had bad gas? Would that be enough to propel me over the edge? To be certain, we hugged the wall.
Even the bird were scared of being so high, and they nestled themselves into the walls of the ruins.
Some photographers had their cameras setup on tripods on the very precipice of the pyramid, trying to capture every moment of the sunset á la stop motion.
The sunset was beautiful with Lake Yaxhá off in the distance. The rustling in the trees just below where we stood came from monkeys settling in for the night. And before it was totally dark and we were lost in the jungle we headed back to the car and continued on to Tikal.
It was another 1.5 hours from Yaxhá to the center of Tikal national park where we were staying at the Tikal Inn. We passed a few dead horses on the side of the road along the way.
“It’s sad,” Roxy said, but their owners give them too much slack on their leashes so they can roam and feed, and they sometimes go into the street.”
The further we went into the national park, the darker and scarier the roads seemed to get. Along the way we’d pass through a small town that was maybe a few street grills and a shack-sized store with a Coca Cola sign out front. I was hungry. I was tired. I was glad we chose not to drive across the border.
Dinner at the Tikal Inn
Once we got to the Tikal Inn, we checked into our rooms and dropped our bags off. Just past the lobby entrance, which is also a gift shop, is a small restaurant where they serve meals all day. The menu is limited, and with the package of a room night and morning climb we got a dinner meal included. This meant we had to chose from one of a few options. This is what we had:
After a long day of sitting in cars and almost dying on a Mayan ruin, we started the evening off with some beers. Jonathan got a Cerveza Dorada and I the Cerveza Gallo. Both local beers brewed in Guatemala City.
And a blended margarita. A lot of guide books say not to eat the ice in Guatemala because you might get sick, but after the day we had, it wasn’t worth the effort to send it back.
One of us ordered the soup. It was green. It was mushy. It tasted good, but that’s all I know about it.
One of us got the traditional stewed chicken and rice. This was a tomato-based sauce sweetened with softened carrots and potatoes and served with a side of rice and roasted beet salad.
One of got the grilled fish, which came with some mashed potatoes, some steamed bean salad (sort of what you’d find in a Green Giant can of succotash), and some roasted beets in a little vinegar. The place of the ingredients on each plate with all the space between each item was a little strange, but oh well.
I ordered the beef fajita platter and was so hungry I ate half of it before I remembered to take a photos. It consisted of a few pieces of stir-fried beef with a side of mashed potatoes, bean salad, and beets. The corn tortillas were actually really delicious and I just filled them up with whatever was on my plate and shoved them in my mouth.
And for dessert we all got a few garnishes of watermelon.
To put it nicely. You’re not staying at the Tikal Inn (or any of the three hotels within the Tikal National Park) for the food. It’s for the access to the ruins. And besides, we were going to get up at 4am the next morning to do a sunrise tour–there was no time for fancy meals.