Friday, January 04, 2008

I did it Maya way ...

My Christmas break from the blog seems to have coincided with our busiest week so far, so let me whip through it for you in a rather longer post than usual;

The day after Boxing Day we set out on the five day overland route back into Mexico that would take us through the jungle of Northern Guatemala, providing opportunities visit some of the best Mayan ruins in the region.

After an impossibly overcrowded water-taxi ride to Belize City I was treated to a display of taxi-touting of unbridled enthusiasm. Whilst waiting outside the water taxi terminal for Mel to return from the post office our conversations went a little like this;

Taxi driver :"Need a taxi brother?"
Me: "No thanks, I'm just waiting for someone"
Taxi driver: "He's not coming"
Me: "Eh?"
Taxi driver: "He's gone on a trip"
Me: "Who do you think I'm waiting for?"
Taxi driver: "Erm ..."

You've got to admire them for trying.

Eventually we did take a cab to the bus station where we hopped on a similarly overcrowded bright yellow ex-US School Bus for the three hour ride to the border town of San Ignacio. Our fellow passengers included an elderly quaker couple in traditional plain dress and a retired Scottish chap who set out on a six-month trip and is still travelling. Five years later.

San Ignacio was really just a place to break the trip before heading over the border into Guatemala, but it did provide the opportunity to the watch the local sport of swimming in the river with your horse, and for a visit the Mayan ruins at Cahel Pech (above) on the Belizean side of the border.

Early the following morning and we followed our "travel agent" (I use the term loosely as his premises consisted of nothing more than a wooden hut with a pedestal fan and some plastic patio furniture) to meet the minibus that would take us over the border. Guatemalan immigration formalities aren't exactly the worlds strictest - we waited outside in the van while our driver went to get our passports stamped for us.

Guatemala's failing justice system has in recent years sent the country sprialling into chaos with gang violence, lynch mobs and armed holdups commonplace. It all made for a fairly nervous drive in from the border, our only reassurance coming from increasingly frequent encounters with pickups full of soldiers armed with assualt rifles as we neared town.

Flores sits on a small island in the middle of a lake and can only be reached by a causeway from the nearby town of Santa Elena. It's a pictureseque town of cobbled streets where the restaurants compete for business with decks on the lakeside where you can enjoy a cold beer as you watch the sun go down.

We devoted the following day to visiting the ruins of Tikal (below) deep in the rainforest. Impressive for both it's architecture and abundance of wildlife, we spotted Toucans and a monkey during our visit. Howler Monkeys were often heard in the forest canopy, although I was left wondering just how many were genuine after we discovered a group of local children producing suprisingly effective impersonations on one of the jungle trails.

For all it's reputation we didn't have a spot of bother during our stay in Guatemala, but we got regular reminders of the potential for trouble by the security guards armed with pump action shotguns pacing up and down in strategic locations throughout town. Let's hope things improve sometime soon.

We fully expected the crossing back into Mexico to be the most remote of our trip so far and it didn't dissapoint. The unpaved road to the border stretched for three very bumpy hours along a narrow strip of cultivation deep in the jungle. After a visit to the immigration office to get stamped out of Guatemala we were taken to the river in a nearby village and loaded onto narrow motor launches for a 20 minute ride through no-mans land up the river through deep jungle to reach the small town on the Mexican side.

A further two hour minibus ride and we reached impressive Mayan ruins at Palenque (top) where we explored the complex in sweltering tropical heat - probably losing a few litres of fluid in the process as we scampered up and down the staircases. Then when the sun went down, we set to work replacing what we'd lost with an equal quantity of Modelo Especial.

As the exhuastion of our 4am start began kicking in, we began to contemplate the prospect of yet another bus ride at 9.30am the next morning ...

Guatemala may not be great at administering a democracy, but they do know a thing or two about brewing beer.

All three beers I sampled during our short visit we're better than average, with the most popular Gallo being a cut above. Its the country's number one beer and they seem to sponsor absoutely everything - you can see all my photos from Guatemala by clicking on the flickr badge - including Flores' Gallo sponsored Christmas tree.

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