Stars And Sunrises: Tikal

Stars And Sunrises: Tikal

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From the dark of night...

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...to the light of dawn. Keep reading.

 

Random: Did you know that Tikal is the same place George Lucas chose to film Yavin IV (the location of the Rebel base) in Star Wars IV: A New Hope?

 

A screenshot from Star Wars: The Millennium Falcon arrives at the Rebel base in Star Wars IV: A New Hope

 

Well, our version is prettier:

 

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...no Milliennium Falcon, but the "temples" are still there.

 

Panoramas of Tikal by day:

 

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But the real treat, of course, are the images that the average tourist doesn’t get as often.

Tikal by sunset (yesterday):

 

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Tikal by night:

 

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and Tikal by sunrise:

 

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For the sunrise option in Tikal,you’ll have to plan ahead; it’s a little more tricky to pull off than the simple “Oh I’ll just wake up earlier and catch a tuktuk to wherever I’m supposed to be.” For starters, you must stay INSIDE the park the night before; you can’t catch a shuttle bus from nearby Flores or El Remate (the usual backpacker haunts) at 3am as the first shuttle buses between those places don’t start running until 7am after sunrise. Our original goal of heading straight from Guatemala City to Tikal early and catching the sunrise the moment we arrived were dashed away when we realized the latter fact; it’s a good way to make sure tourists pay for an overnight stay in the park.

Once you find that place to stay overnight (either Jaguar Inn, Tikal Inn, or camping out inside the tent gear you already brought over), plan to wake up at 5am so you give yourself time for a little hike to the top of Temple IV (about 2km from the park entrance). You’ll also have to buy a “Sunrise tour” ticket at the entrance for 100 quetzales (about $11-$12 USD) as well as an ADDITIONAL full-day entrance ticket (150 quetzales or about $20 USD).

We, however, were able to finagle our way out of this requirement by telling the guards in Spanish we had to catch a 7am bus to Belize and that we only intended to take 2-3 photos of the sunrise before bouncing out of there (we weren’t lying, actually!). This convinced them, and we ended up saving $20 USD at the gate.

 

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Thanks to an offered complimentary sunrise tour by choosing to stay at Tikal Inn, we awoke at 4am to enjoy a free mini tour of Tikal before sunrise; this allowed us to sneak glimpses of local wildlife including jaguars, crocs and grey foxes at night. Our guide also explained in detail about Mayan culture and civilizations as well as teaching us how to count numbers in the carved Mayan hieroglyphics. And keep in mind, all of this was free including a complimentary dinner and breakfast at Tikal Inn! Highly recommended deal.

By 6am we hiked up once again to the top of Temple IV to catch a stunning sunrise over the sound of howler monkeys (the same sound they sampled for many of the dinosaur cries in Jurassic Park) in the jungle:

 

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First break

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Of course, I couldn’t help but to do it one more time:

 

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Tikal just got served at sunrise

 

After savoring in this dose of gorgeous, at 6:30am we race-walked back to Tikal Inn to catch our 7am bus to Belize. We just barely made it: From the top of temple IV to Tikal Inn should be about a 30 minute trek . 

The bus then took us to Puente Ixlu where we waited for the direct bus to Belize…

 

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…to be continued…

 

- At time of posting in Ambergris Caye, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds

 

“My God, It’s Full Of Stars.”

“My God, It’s Full Of Stars.”

 

A picture worth (a trillion) stars:

 

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More on this picture — and another with a shooting star — in the rest of this entry…

Although I came for the sunrise above Tikal’s famous Mayan ruins, it’s afternoon light is no less impressive.

It’s been pretty much straightforward since our last update: we arrived in Flores, took a 10am 1.5 hr shuttle bus to Tikal’s parking lot, and started our day among the jungle and ruins.

 

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The only really tough decision you have to make is whether or not to stay overnight back in Flores or within the Tikal grounds itself. If you choose the (pricier) latter, you have the only chance at seeing Tikal by sunrise (But that’s for tomorrow’s entry). Once you buy your ticket at the booth (around 150 Quetzales which is close to $20 USD), be prepared for a small hike before you actually get to see some temples. But before arriving there, make sure you stop and admire some nature along the way. Of all the Mayan ruins, Tikal is possibly the only one actually still covered by a real jungle.

 

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And then from  a dense blanket of nature, you suddenly notice a hint of temples peeking through the jungle. Come at the right time in the afternoon and you may be lucky enough to be the only person to play among these sacred grounds. And for a moment it may seem as if you’re the first spelunker, rediscovering a set of ancient ruins before the rest of the world finds out. Congratulations, Indiana Jones. You made it to Tikal.

 

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Tikal just got served.

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To see all of Tikal, you need at least 4-5 hours in covering at least 10km of trails. We elected to explore Tikal in the late afternoon as that afforded us the pleasure of having the whole place to ourselves as well as catching the sunset in time.

 

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The ultimate showstopper, however, was to be able to also be out and about in the darkness of night…

 

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Do you see the shooting star around the top right corner?

 

Can’t end an entry better than this.

EDIT (5min later): Yes I can. I managed to publish this entry about 30 seconds before they’re about shut off all the electricity and hot water within a 5 mile radius of this park (they take this nature conservation bit seriously!)…15 seconds left…boo-yah!

 

- At time of posting in Tikal, it was 25 °C - Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds

 

“My God, It’s Full Of Stars.”

From Antigua To Tikal

 

Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage city rich with history (and foreign tourists), is known for many things. From its defining pastel facades to quaint cobblestone streets to the fact that it survived everything from wars to natural disasters, Antigua has come a long way to become Guatemala’s premier global hotspot.

Don’t have a lot of time here? Start with Parque Central to get a feel for the city life, and then head west towards Iglesia y Convento de la Recollecion,  a massive church built sometime between 1701 and 1708 that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1778. Rather than rebuilding, the good people of Antigua reconverted it to its  current day manifestation as a tourist attraction (30 quetzal entry fee, 20 if you have a student ID).

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Antigua just got served.

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Stone ruins scattered like forgotten jewels of time...

 

To the east of  these ruins is the smaller set of ruins: the Colegio de San Jeromino , which feels like a smaller cousin.

 

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Walk past these ruins and you’ll come upon Antigua’s signature picturesque cobblestone streets with its litany of gorgeous volcanoes in the background:

 

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Try to keep walking around so you can find Antigua’s recognizable city symbol, the Arco de Santa Catalina:

 

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While walking around, we happened upon a nice little student music festival taking place in front of the arch:

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Unfortunately we only had a few hours here before having to hop on a shuttle bus to Guatemala City, where we were then dropped us off at our overnight bus to Tikal (around $20 USD). There, we parted ways with Cynthia who’s been an absolute trooper on her first backpacking experience; even through the crappier parts of the chicken bus rides, she still thought the entire experience was “addicting.” That deserves lots of respect, and I’m already looking forward to having her join us again on future trips. I’m holding you to that!

While waiting for our bus to depart, we took the liberty of wandering around the streets of Guatemala City at night, which we were told isn’t the safest thing to do. But it certainly isn’t boring to look at either:

 

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After exploring around without incident, we  then made our way to Tikal on an overnight bus. 9 hours later, we arrived at the enchanting little island of Flores:

 

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Gone fishin'

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Flores is so small you can walk the entirety of it within an hour, the little streets included. It’s hard to imagine that as many as 30,600 people live in such small a space without making it look crowded.

Ultimately, we found Flores to be so charming of a place that it’s worth a short detour before you make your way to Tikal, which is what we’re about to do now…

 

- At time of posting in Flores, it was 36 °C - Humidity: 65% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

“My God, It’s Full Of Stars.”

Chickening Our Way To Antigua


Not sure if this is supposed to be an exit sign for hotel patrons or Justin Bieber:

 

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What we woke up to this morning at 6am:

 

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We begun our day with an early morning boat ride across the lake to to the west, which is off the beaten trail (tourists usually head eastwards to San Pedro). We headed instead to San Catarina.

 

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Curiosity.

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After exploring Lake Atitlan, we decided head to Antigua for the afternoon before hopping on an overnight bus to Tikal. Deciding against spending extra on tourist-friendly microbuses, we went for the cheap but maddening public chicken buses as our mode of transport. Although not as insane as our Nepal “Bus Ride from Hell,” it was somewhat more intense in that the bus operators will do their bus to cram as many people as possible without caring about such thing like “potential fire hazard” or “total body limit.” It’s as if they feel they could defy the laws of physics in the name of making an extra buck.

So we crammed hard in 4  separate buses to Antigua: Panajachel -> Solola -> Los Encuentros -> Chimaltenango -> Antigua. Although finding connecting buses is a piece of cake (simply shout your destination to someone and they’ll take you to the right bus), it also involves trusting that your bag won’t fall off the roof of the bus, cramming with 3-4 other locals into a bench meant for 2, and even having some people sit on your lap.

 

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But after 4 of these buses on a total of a 4 hour ride (and spending only 40 quetzals! an equivalent of $5 USD), we finally made it to Antigua.

Unfortunately, we now have to book it to our overnight bus to Tikal within the next 20 minutes, which means no pictures from Antigua until I settle down on the north side of Guatemala. I literally wrote this as I was eating dinner, by the way, which was pretty rude of me.

 

- At time of posting in Guatemala Aeropuertola Aurora , it was 20 °C - Humidity: 60% | Wind Speed: 12km/hr | Cloud Cover: n/a

 

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

 

About a month ago I was still debating where I wanted to go for Thanksgiving weekend. To make a long story short, it was seeing a picture of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan that helped me decide. Consistently rated as one of the top 2 things to see in all of Central America, this lake bore high expectations.

To get to the lake, you have to take a regular public bus from Guatemala City to Panajachel or arrange a private driver from wherever you’re staying. The ride takes about 3 hours and not recommended for those prone to motion sickness. But by the time you get there, it’s worth it.

 

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First view of Lake Atitlan

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What happens when you stop to go shopping by the road...

The bag is wider than she is tall

 

Our situation turned out a little bit off the beaten path. I had booked reservations at a nice little backpacker haven the night before and unfortunately it turned out to be a double booking. The owner of the place, Richard Morgan, was nevertheless kind enough to upgrade usnto an upscale hotel located right by the lake without costing us anything extra. He also went above and beyond in arranging a private driver to pick us up directly from the airport at a cost no more than regular public transportation.

Suffice to say, it was a lucky chance encounter. After arriving at the hotel, he showed us around the area which included a former coffee plantation. We were able to sample (and chew on) Guatemalan coffee beans straight from the trees that they were growing on. Not the coffee color that we’re all led to believe.

 

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Coffee bean "fruits" as they're grown

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After chewing the pulp off, we get the actual coffee bean as we all have come to know and love.

 

Finally, we also would find out that Richard Morgan is a famous author and a cross-border cultural exchange program entrepreneur (yes, you can google him).

From our last night chance shmoozing with world famous DJ Steve Aoki on his birthday to getting to know this big-name author in our first few hours in Guatemala, it was already going in the books as another Monsoon Diaries-style serendipity.

After parting ways in Panajachel, we then explored the town…

 

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…and then kicked back and enjoyed sunset views of the lake and its surrounding volcanoes.

 

Panorama of Lake Atitlan pre-sunset

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…and with a dinner at Sunset Cafe:

 

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A dinner with a view

A tilapia caught from the lake: divine.

 

This is one of the few places I can say that Google Images didn’t ruin for me; it’s still just as, if not prettier, than the photoshop/filter-enhanced photos you’d find online. And that’s saying a lot.

Tomorrow: more of Lake Atitlan and then we make our way to Antigua and Tikal.

 

- At time of posting in Quezaltenango, it was 14 °C - Humidity: 50% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: n/a