“♫Use your sexy pants!♫”
*ahem* “♫Lose yourself to dance!♫”
That’s what I thought you said. Oh man, Mexico loves this song. The only thing they like playing more than this is the desiccated corpse of Despacito.
I stood on the street corner in Palenque town waiting for my van driver, who was already a half-hour late. There were three or four points on my trip itinerary with the potential for massive disaster, and this was one of them. If this guy doesn’t pick me up I have no other way of getting to Guatemala. The online reviews for the company I booked through went like “Thieves! Don’t let them steal your money!!” but that’s not really very helpful info when there are literally no other options.
I was simultaneously enjoying watching small town Mexican life roll by me while trying not to think about how I might live here now.
A loud ringing sound warbled through the town. What in the hell is that? A truck drove by, heavily laden with gas canisters. The truck was dragging a chain behind it that was threaded through huge metal washers, which were making that piercing ringing sound as they dragged in the street, announcing to all gathered “Look out everybody! I have gas!”
The meeting point listed for my ride was the worryingly vague “Caseta de Información” which the woman who emailed me described as being “25 mts” from where I was staying in El Panchan. Shit. Is that meters or minutes? Mountains? 25 meters is only 82 feet, that can’t be right. Palenque is about 20 minutes from El Panchan, and the whole point of choosing a location was that they said they couldn’t pick me up at my cabin in El Panchan. So after asking a few random strangers for reassurance, I hopped into a colectivo van bound for Palenque. The friendly passengers inside let me know that you can’t get to Guatemala from Palenque before dropping me off into the festive clusterfuck of central Palenque.
Also there’s no “Information Office” in Palenque. Fuuuuuuck.
I eventually found the Tourism Office, which seemed like it must be what they meant. Only it was closed. And no van.
The drunkest man I have ever seen in my life walked up and stood one inch away from me as he asked me some slurred question with his eyes closed. I moved to the other side of the street. The locals rolled their eyes as I had clearly learned nothing from the bus station cucaracha.
“♫Lose yourself to dance!♫”
Goddammit Mexico, not now.
I found the number for the company I booked through, and through a series of way, way, way too many phone calls, and me describing what I was wearing like it was a sexy good time, and me giving the cross streets I was standing at multiple times, and then me walking to the huge bank in the center of the town so as to be easier to find, it eventually came out that the van had been waiting for me in El Panchan for the last hour. Surely at some Caseta de Información that was 25 mountains away from my cabin.
The driver was not thrilled when he finally found me in front of the bank in Palenque, but I instantly won him over by being terrible at Spanish.
I enjoyed the rolling, expansive landscapes and small towns as we rambled through the Mexican state of Chiapas, the conversation with my driver about his time in the U.S. and how bad my Spanish was occasionally interrupted by him stopping to ask a roadside cowboy if the insane dirt road shortcut we were taking was still the way to Guatemala.
At the border I picked up a new Guatemalan driver and by the late afternoon I was having my ATM card rejected by all the machines in Santa Elena and then was on my way to the quaint island town of Flores. Colorful and serene in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá, I wasn’t sure if the island itself was also called Flores so I just started calling it Guatemalta.
Before I knew what was happening I was dodging Tuk Tuks as I hustled back across the narrow causeway connecting Guatemalta to the mainland, in order to buy my ticket to the Mayan ruins of Tikal before the bank closed. Why do you have to buy your tickets at a bank? That’s a question for Guatemala. Why does “mañana” mean both “tomorrow” and “morning” in Spanish, making it really difficult to say “tomorrow morning”? That’s a question for Spanish. Why was the teller at the bank totally unaware that you need a special second ticket to enter Tikal early in the morning to see the sunrise? Back to you, Guatemala.
The important thing was that my Spanish was put to the test and had come through with flying colors, and I now I either had a ticket to enter Tikal early in the morning or possibly a deposit slip receipt I don’t know I can’t read this thing at all.
My beautiful hostel was somehow both inside and outside at the same time, and it was all party.
I somehow didn’t mind this, despite the fact that I needed to be up at 2am to get to Tikal before the sunrise. I was clearly rolling with anything at all that happened at this point. In the middle of the night there was a massive crash in my room that I “who gives a shit”ed away in my sleep. It turned out that the fan I had cranked up to max to contend with Guatemala’s quirky “100 degrees and 100% humidity or your money back!” guarantee had blasted two large framed pictures clean off the wall as I slept. Whatevs, Guatemala!
Hiking through the dark jungle, something sounded off in the distance.
Jesus. What IS that?
A low, guttural roar echoed out of the black night, like a cross between a lion roaring and a demon snoring.
There could be anything out there.
We hiked along the path, the dim light of the moon barely filtering through the thick blanket of clouds, branches and leaves above us.
The night screamed again.
Closer this time.
The sound rang out above the tree tops, and we were hiking toward it. It sounded like a cross between Death Metal Rooster and the end of the world.
It drew closer and closer as we hiked through the jungle, until it was right on top of us. Up there, in the black canopy somewhere. Howler monkeys.
Or there’s a lion up there in the tree, I don’t know. I can’t see shit.
Hiking through the Guatemalan jungle in the middle of the night? Awesome. You can go online and see a video of howler monkeys to hear what they sound like, but this doesn’t give you any concept of how apocalyptically LOUD they are, or what it feels like to be in the jungle at night with this sound all around you.
Eventually we reached the base of Temple IV, and began the long climb up the steps of the tallest structure ever built by the Maya. From up top, the entire expanse of Tikal spread out before us as the sun began to peak over the horizon.
As beautiful as the photos turned out, no photo can really capture the feeling of looking out across this vast, misty expanse, ancient temples poking up through the canopy as the sun burned through the clouds and grew redder and more intense as it rose into the sky. Just like how any sunset I see for the rest of my life will have to contend with the memory of Bolivia, future sunrises have a big task ahead of them if they want to top Tikal.
By all accounts we were very lucky that the cloud cover broke enough to allow the sun through, as most “Sunrise Tours” end with the conspicuous lack of a sunrise, due to the rain forest weather patterns.
The temple we were sitting on is also known as the “Star Wars” temple, because this is the same spot where George Lucas placed his cameras to film the Millennium Falcon landing on Yavin IV in the original Star Wars.
Hiking back down from the temple, the sun was up and the jungle was alive with exotic birds, monkeys and assorted strange creatures. Spider monkeys sprawled through the trees above us like lazy acrobats and snacked on apples.
Hiking further into the jungle we stopped to climb Mundo Perdido, the Lost World pyramid, a massive structure that provides incredible views from the center of the complex.
It was immediately clear that Tikal was my favorite of all the ancient Mesoamerican sites I had visited. It had all the visual grandeur of Chichen Itza, combined with the jungle setting and beautiful vibe of Palenque, plus an active spiritual element that I hadn’t felt at any of the many other sites I had visited throughout Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.
Near the base of the pyramid there sits a nondescript platform, which I felt strangely drawn to. Our guide briefly described it as a spot where the Mayans “meditated and did ceremonies.” While the others I’d ridden to Tikal with from my hostel were looking for a shaded spot to rest in the already-oppressive heat, I climbed up onto the platform.
Walking around up top, I felt a swirling vortex of energy that was pulling me down into the Earth, like an invisible spiritual tornado. Wow, okay.
Later in the day I came back on my own and sat on the platform to meditate.
I asked for any activations available to me in this place to come to me. My body immediately began to buzz intensely. The ground in front of me waved vibrantly like reality was projected onto a screen that was rippling in a breeze, and my sense of distance and proportion broke apart and became very strange. I was glad I was already sitting down. After several minutes of everything going kind of crazy I tuned into my guide Kobo Daishi and got the all-clear that I had received what I’d come here to get. Okay then Tikal.
The postcard shot from Tikal is Temple I in the Great Plaza. If you’ve seen a photo of a stepped pyramid and it wasn’t El Castillo in Chichen Itza, it was Temple I in Tikal.
You can’t climb Temple I, but you can climb Temple II at the opposite end of the plaza.
Which gives you a wider view of Temple I from the top.
And from the palace just to the south you can see the entire plaza.
North of the plaza there is the Acropolis Norte, which features this huge and awesome Gonzo mask carving.
Everything in Tikal is ridiculously photogenic. The trees themselves are beautiful.
After showing us the plaza, our guide cut us loose to explore the massive site on our own, with a time set to meet back at the entrance for our ride back to Flores. I immediately found my way back to that platform for my meditation.
Afterwards I made my way back to what I thought was the Grand Plaza, only to find the commanding Temple V there instead.
Hmmm. I may not be completely back in my body yet. Oh, okay, the Plaza must be over here.
Noooope. Temple of the Skulls. Hmmm.
I turned down another path and wandered right into a mass of Guatemalans conducting some kind of ancient Mayan ceremony. They all looked at me like I was a lost white guy in Guatemala.
Okay, I’ll just backtrack to where I started and go from there…
Nope, this isn’t where I started. Shit. This place is HUGE. Suddenly I laughed out loud as I looked down and a coatimundi wandered right past me on the path.
This was hilarious because I’d been catching glimpses of these Central American raccoons out of the corners of my eye all morning, but I was never quick enough to get a photo. Now one practically high-fived me as he trotted by.
I looked at the photo I’d taken of the site map that morning (seriously, I don’t care if you’re at the grocery store, always take a photo of the site map). Turning it multiple ways and fighting with my phone trying to help out by rotating it the opposite way, I formed a theory about where I was. I headed off in one direction, following direction signs that soon began contradicting themselves. East Plaza is this way, and oh it’s also in the opposite direction. Dammit Tikal.
It’s a poor carpenter who blames his tools, but after proceeding through several nonsensical concentric looping paths, the only conclusion I could come to was that both the map and the signs were wrong. I switched to navigating by using the sun and eventually found my way out of the complex.
The parking lot was empty. My group was long gone. Balls.
I might have been worried about this, since I was now alone in the remote jungles of Guatemala and I needed to somehow get all the way to Belize by this afternoon. But honestly, it was way too hot to get worked up about anything like this, or anything at all. All of these “I might have to sleep in a ditch tonight” concerns feel very theoretical when your skin is trying to melt and slide off your body like wet pudding.
Luckily for me, Central America is a friendly kind of place and within minutes I was in a van with a bunch of people I had just met, who had offered to drop me off at the crossroads, where I was going to trade my soul to the devil for some good blues songs.
It was so hot I accidentally told my new international backpacker friends in the van that I was going to Bolivia, but nobody gave a shit. Good for you. Do they have ice there? We might come along.
The van driver was trying to convince me to pay his friend for a ride to the border of Belize, but he was asking for the equivalent of nearly $100, way too much money. I accidentally talked him down several hundred Quetzals just by not being interested at all. Regardless, he still dropped me off at his friend’s car by the side of the road. The guy was very nice and I accidentally talked him down to about $35 by no, seriously dude, not being interested at all. He wished me good luck and I made my way to the crossroads.
One road headed back to Santa Elena and Flores, where the van and everyone who wasn’t on a weird itinerary they had designed themselves was going. The other, much less crowded road stretched for hours across Guatemala to la frontera, the border with Belize.
I had a vague sense of the schedules and was pretty sure a chicken bus would be passing by soon. Guatemala’s not 100% the most safe country in the world (#13 in homicide rate), so I wanted to be careful and not flash a bunch of money around or stand out any more than I 100% absolutely already did. I opened my bag and instantly about 400 Mexican peso coins poured out cacophonously onto the sidewalk, scattering loudly in every direction. Well then. Hell of a start.
As I was standing and waiting for the bus, wondering how long I could stand there before bursting into flames in the unforgiving Guatemalan sun, a nearby dude on a motorcycle struck up a conversation in his Spanish and my shit Spanish. He reassured me that yeah, the bus to Belize does pass by here.
“Tranquillo, amigo,” he implored. “Tranquillo.”
Do I seem nervous? You do realize I’m sweating because it’s 12 zillion degrees, right?
He peeled out.
Eventually I tranquilloed further and realized there was a weird lookout tower in the middle of the road where you could sit and see the bus coming from further away.
I made my way over and sat on the bench next to a portly gentleman who was hanging out there, either waiting for a ride or just watching the wheels go ‘round. We quickly struck up a conversation and I pulled off my favorite Spanish gaffe of the entire trip.
He asked me if I enjoyed Tikal, to which I replied “Mucho gusto.”
I meant “I liked it very much,” which is “gusta mucho.” What I’d actually said was “Nice to meet you.” We were already several minutes into this conversation.
I didn’t realize my mistake until much later, when I was reflecting on why he’d looked at me like I was insane and then had suddenly remembered he needed to be somewhere else far away.
Anyway, the bus never came because of course not. Eventually I just flagged down a colectivo van that was headed for the border, which is how I got all the way across Guatemala for $3.50.
Riding in a colectivo is a fantastic experience. I’d already ridden short distances in them in Mexico, but riding for hours all the way across Guatemala was an incredible slice of life experience. The entire population of the van cycled out several times during the journey, as people were hopping on for rides into this town or that, or a ride home to their farm out in the boonies. Elderly people sharing homemade snacks, high school girls glued to their phones, mothers with six small children, Guatemalan cowboys, everyone rides the colectivo. All the little kids who boarded spent the entire ride staring at the strange white guy who was somehow in their van.
Climbing in and out of these vans when you’re 6’3” is no small accomplishment, as there are about six rows of seats inside what we would consider a mini-van, and the “aisle” is often occupied by an extra shitty seat that folds down. Being the largest person in the van, I had to climb out every time somebody needed to get in or out, until we stopped for gas and the driver suggested I get into the far back seat so I wouldn’t have to do this all the way to Belize. This worked out great except the lack of legroom in the last row meant I was holding my big pack on my lap the whole way, as I shared the bench seat with four small children.
The little boy squeezed in next to me was holding his even younger brother’s head tenderly in his lap as the toddler slept. I’m not crying guys, I just got some Guatemala in my eye.
When we finally arrived in Melchor De Mencos, the final town before the border, I helped an elderly lady from the van with her bag and as she turned out to be going to Belize as well, she offered me a free ride in her taxi to the border. Man, I must be getting good at this. Gracias señora.
The border crossing was hilarious as they had obviously not seen a gringo in a while. The entire exchange involved the border control agent looking at me quizzically, pointing toward Belize with a raised eyebrow, and me nodding. He stamped my passport like he was sorry for the inconvenience and viola, bienvenido a Belice!