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Bienvenidos a Guatemala!

Written by Jared on February 6, 2012

Jared and Kobus walk towards the ruins of Tikal.Start: January 25, San Jose Succotz, Belize
Finish: January 30, Ciudad Viejo, Guatemala
Borders Crossed: 1
Tallest Mayan Pyramid Climbed: 1
Hours Spent Driving: 19

Leaving the country of Belize, we head back into Spanish-speaking country and deeper into Central America. After another uneventful border crossing into Guatemala, we spend two nights in Tikal before driving farther south. Our end goal: the Global Visionaries office in San Miguel Escobar, just outside of Antigua.

It took two very long days of driving on less-than-optimal roads, some snap navigation skills and a bit of luck to take us from the border to Antigua in such a short time. On the way, we stopped in the town of Coban for one night, and spent two nights recuperating in scenic Lanquin before making the final seven hour push to our new home for the next six weeks.

Spider hole under a tent.Before I delve too far into last week's journey, I think it might be a good time for a little lesson on camping in the tropics. Specifically, where you should not put your mother-loving tent. 

Kobus claims there was no hole when they put up the tent. Personally, the thought of something digging a hole under my tent just freaks me out even more.

In either case, you'd think the previous incident involving hairy eight-legged critters at our campsite in Uxmal would have made Jessica a bit more cautious. Or maybe they are just attracted to the smell of her fear?

Anyway, see the black dot inside the red circle? Ok good...enhance...

A black tarantula that was hiding under Jessica's tent.

I hope you slept well last night.

Our campsite at the Jaguar Inn in Tikal.

After packing up our tents, dealing with the spider trauma, and settling the tab, we headed off to Tikal. Within twenty minutes we reached the Guatemalan border. We were across after an hour, having experienced no problems. On the other side of the border we stopped in Melchor de Mencos to pick up a Guatemalan SIM card for our phone, and a 3G modem to satiate our internet addiction.

A quick groceries run, three hours of driving and we were in Tikal, home of the largest restored Mayan ruins. We camped at the Jaguar Inn, it was a bit crowded, and noisy when the tour buses showed up at 6:30am, but our neighbors were interesting...

A spider monkey above our tents in Tikal.

We had spider monkeys travel through the trees above our campground a couple times each day. They didn't seem to like Blue much, one even went so far as to break off dead tree branches and chuck them at the car. Bad monkey!

Our first sight of the ruins at Tikal.

We were up and going at 6:30 in the morning after our first night in Tikal. We had to make the most of the day because we only had twelve hours to see the ruins. This shot is our first glimpse of the ruins, the top of Temple I, part of the Great Plaza.

A note for anyone else who wants to spend a night in the park - you have to pay the park fee at the entrance gate, so you have to get your ticket for the ruins before you enter the park.

Luckily if you buy your ticket after 4pm, it's good for entrance the next day. Otherwise you may have to buy two tickets. Moral of the story: if you plan on sleeping in the park, show up at the gate at 4pm for your ticket and see the park the next day. Or spend two hours at the restaurant next to the gate drinking Gallos.

The stairs up to Temple IV.

The major advantage of staying near the ruins (aside from the monkeys) is that the gate opens at 6. And it's a 30 minute drive from the gates to the ruins, meaning you have a 30 minute head start to see the best sights before the tour bus onslaught.

We went directly to Temple IV, the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas. Two other ruins may have been larger, but they have yet to be fully restored. If it was the tallest building in the Americas, it would have been so for around 1100 years, until skyscrapers were built.

Fortunately we didn't have to scramble up worn, wet and slippery stones - there was a fairly modern wooden staircase. But it was still a hike!

A panorama of our view from Temple IV.

As always, the view from the top made the stairs worthwhile. Click on the above image to see a full-size panorama. We sat on top of the pyramid for a good 30 minutes with only two other people before a tour bus showed up. The weather wasn't great, it was foggy, but sitting above the jungle, listening to the howler monkeys and watching parrots fly below us was magical.

A closeup of Temples I and III from Temple IV.

The two temples you see in the panorama are Temples I, II and III located in the Great Plaza, which we visited shortly after our respite on Temple IV. This is by far the most famous shot of Tikal, and it's easy to see why - there's nothing like it on earth.

Parrots sitting on a tree.

Thanks to Jessica's BFL (big effing lens) we have a picture of a couple parrots to share. These are Amazon parrots, and they are noisy little buggers. We took this photo while on top of Temple IV, the birds were perched in the treetops, at least fifty feet beneath us.

Temple V.

We took a round-about way from Temple IV to the Great Plaza to include this pyramid - Temple V. It's one of the most interesting ruins we've seen because of the photos and explanations that told the story of its reconstruction.

It was only partly restored - the front and right side shown in the picture being the restored half - the other side was left in more-or-less its original state. It resembles a rocky hill with big trees growing out of it. Not as photogenic, but it clearly illustrates the huge efforts that were undertaken to restore these big pyramids.

Jess and Jared take a shortcut to the Grand Plaza.

From Temple V we took the scenic route to the Great Plaza. Here, Jessica gives Kobus her best "how DARE you take a picture of me" face.

The Grand Plaza.

The Great Plaza is the central area in the ancient city of Tikal. Temples I and II sit at opposing ends, facing each other. It's a huge area. One can only dream of what it looked like 1300 years ago when the pyramids were constructed and 50,000 people lived here.

Panorama from Temple III.

After checking out the Great Plaza briefly, we went back to our campsite to grab lunch and hide from the sun a bit. We returned to the ruins in the afternoon with the goal of exploring the Great Plaza, but mother nature had other plans. As we walked the 15 minute stretch from the Jaguar Inn to the Great Plaza it began to thunder, loudly.

Before the weather hit, we climbed up to the top of Temple II and took this panorama of the Great Plaza and Temple I in the background. Clicky clicky to see a bigger picture.

A rainbow behind Temple I.

The impending rain wasn't all bad, as we sat atop Temple II we briefly caught sight of a rainbow behind Temple I. A lucky shot, I would say.

A leaf cutter ant trail.

During our mad dash back to the inn before the thunderstorms hit, we came across a couple odd sights. The first being this six-inch-wide trail made by leaf cutter ants.

These little guys form the most complex animal society on earth (besides humans, of course). They cut leaves and bring them back to their nest to feed a unique species of fungus. Then they eat the fungus. They're the farmers of the insect world. Unfortunately, we didn't see any big parades of ants, but we did see a nest under a tree that was probably 20 feet across and four feet high.

Another incredibly useless factoid about ants: if you added up the weight of all ants in the world, it would equal the weight of all humans.

A Ceiba tree outside of the ruins at Tikal.

The second strange sight along our walk home was this ceiba tree just outside the ruins. The ceiba tree is the national tree of Guatemala, and was worshiped by the Mayans as the "world tree". This one looked like it was made mostly of other plants.

A ferry crossing on the way to Coban.

Leaving Tikal, our next stop was to be Lanquin. But, we didn't quite make it, much thanks to the hour and a half we waited at this ferry crossing. It was a case of third-world ingenuity (or lack thereof) at its finest. Jessica and Kobus had to do everything possible not to flashback to their ferry experiences in Africa.

Our campsite at Coban.

We rolled into the city of Coban at around 6 and decided not to push our luck and drive the rest of the way (around 50km) to Lanquin. Fortunately, Jessica found us a campsite in a small national park in the city of Coban. It was dark by the time we had dinner, and started raining shortly thereafter. Everyone was tired after the 7+ hours we spent on the road, so it was early to bed.

Guatemalan sea saws.

In the morning I snapped some photos of the playground we camped next to. After seeing the hoops our dad had to jump through to get a US safety-approved playground built in Washington, we decided these sea saws provided a good comparison to life back in the States vs life in Guatemala.

A view of the valley on our way to Lanquin.

On to Lanquin! Our goal was to see Semuc Champey, but unfortunately that story will have to wait for another day. However, we did make it to Lanquin, and drove through some spectacular scenery along the way.

The dirt road to Lanquin.

But, we paid for the view. It took two hours to drive the 50km stretch. The last 45 minutes was over a bumpy gravel road. It would have been a nightmare to continue on from Coban at night and in the rain. The road dropped 1500 feet over 10km, and only passed through one other (very small) town.

The view from our campsite at the lodge in Lanquin.

We setup our tents at the Zephyr Lodge, on the side of a hill. The ground was marginally flat, but we didn't care...this was our view!

The view from the shower at the lodge in Lanquin.

This is a shot of one of the showers at the lodge, it looks over the valley, and is pretty much wide open above the waist. Can't say I've ever taken a shower in direct sunlight before.

On day two we had planned to take a trip to explore some caves and the natural wonder of Semuc Champey (Google it if you want to see why). Instead, we opted out of the tour, we had work to do online and the weather was taking a turn for the worst. It was cold and rainy all day.

But don't feel bad, we decided that we'd have to come back to the area. Too many awesome places were passed on our drive from Tikal to Coban. We hope to return at the end of our time in Antigua and see more of this gorgeous part of the country.

A view of the river, covered in fog, the morning we left Lanquin.

We awoke at 6:30 on our last day in Lanquin to prepare for the long drive to Antigua. This was the view as I stepped outside my tent in the morning. Unbelievable.

A street market we passed on our way out of Lanquin.

We passed through this small market as we drove back along the nasty stretch of gravel leaving Lanquin. There was barely space for our car to fit through the makeshift stands. There were a few weird looks, and a lot of friendly waves.

A view from the rooftop of our home in San Miguel de Escobar.

After seven and a half hours on the road, over mountains, valleys, rivers and through the largest city in Central America (Guatemala City), we finally made it to the Global Visionaries office in San Miguel de Escobar! In case you're trying to find us on a map, San Miguel Escobar is an area of Ciudad Viejo, about five miles southwest of Antigua.

Bleary-eyed and brain-fried, we gladly met the GV staff and our home stay family. Everyone has been incredibly friendly and hospitable. We couldn't have asked for a better start to our cultural experiences in Guatemala.

For the next six weeks (ish) we'll be staying with a Guatemalan family, enjoying delicious home-cooked meals, and sleeping on actual mattresses. In the mornings we'll be taking Spanish lessons in Antigua, and spend the afternoons doing work at the GV office just up the street from our new home. Above is a view from the patio/roof of the fantastic house where we're staying in San Miguel Escobar. Volcanoes on two sides, oh my!

Once we've had time to get settled and start an actual routine (wow, it's been a while) we'll let everyone know what we're up to!

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