The Place of the Voices

When people think of Guatemala, the places I’ve already visited in the country don’t really come to mind at first. When I told friends back home that I’ve been to Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and Acatenango— they had no idea what i was talking about. When I told them I was in Guatemala, they asked me if I’ve seen the Maya ruins yet. I guess those ruins are the country’s claim to fame. That’s also the reason why I decided to place the trip to Tikal on the tail end of my itinerary.

To reach Tikal — which means “the place of the voices” in the Itza Maya language, one can either take a plane or a bus from Guatemala City. There are several bus lines running this route. You can take a bus during the day time, but most backpackers take the night bus for two reasons: the travel time is shorter (about 7-8 hours) and you get to save some money since you don’t need to book a place to stay for the night. Luxury night buses costs anywhere from 30-40 USD each way, and they will take you to the bus station in Santa Elena which is right beside Flores, the so called gateway to Tikal. I heard there are cheaper buses that run during the day time. A one way fare costs only about 15 USD. Keep in mind that these are ordinary buses with no air conditioning and the seats do not recline. And since they run during the daytime, it could take 10-12 hours before you reach Santa Elena. Try to weigh the pros and cons, it could turn out to be a very uncomfortable ride.

A more expensive option would be to fly directly to Flores Airport. For some reason though, Avianca had a sale a week prior and I’d end up spending less money if I flew to Flores compared to taking a night bus. And the best part was, the flight only lasts for about an hour! It was a no brainer, so I flew to Flores expecting to be there by 7 in the morning. No such luck. Just when we were in the vicinity, the pilot announced that we can’t land yet because of low visibility. Apparently there was a thick fog over the airport and it happens often— could that be the reason why flights were so cheap? So we went circling over the area until the pilot decided to just land in a nearby airport in Belize since the plane was running out of gas. We waited for about 2 hours in Belize before we were cleared to fly back to Flores Airport. i didn’t really mind the flight delay since I just slept the entire time, but I do understand why the other passengers were pissed. lol. I’d still say we were lucky the pilot decided to land in Belize. The other airline went back to Guatemala City so they arrived a few hours later than we did.

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From the airport, there are lots of taxis waiting outside, and they will take you anywhere in Flores for 20 Quetzales. A cheaper option would be to wait for tuktuks passing along the highway. They would take you to Flores Island for only 5 Quetzales. Now if you really want to cut costs, you can simply walk. From the airport, it’s only about a mile away to the causeway connecting the mainland to Flores Island. Yup, Flores is an island on Lago Petén Itzá, and it’s where most hotels and hostels are located. It’s not hard to see why. Since it’s surrounded by the lake, almost any spot in the island is picturesque. It’s not too big either, so you can just walk leisurely to any place within the island. It’s a really great place to spend a few days just relaxing. There’s not much to see, but the way the place is set up makes you want to stay for a couple of days at least. It’s quite a shame most travelers don’t take time to appreciate Flores. A lot of travelers just spend a night here after doing a day trip to Tikal. I’d recommend allotting one day for a Tikal day trip, and then spend at least one more day to experience Flores. You certainly won’t regret it.

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Los Amigos Youth Hostel

I stayed at Los Amigos Youth Hostel which deserves special mention. They really know what travelers want. Prices for beds are reasonable, it’s easy to book any activity with them, and they have a lot of in house services like massages and such. They have their own restaurant and their food is delicious. It may be a bit pricey compared to cheap eats outside, but i’d say the food is still fairly priced. The in house bar sets them apart from other hostels. It’s located inside a sound proof area. So those who want to party all night can continue partying without disturbing the other guests. If they just had a pool it would have been perfect! No wonder this place is often fully booked. Best to reserve your bed a few weeks prior.

I decided to just book the Tikal tour with them since they seemed to offer better deals than the other travel companies scattered in town. When booking tours, take note of what’s included. The entrance fee to Tikal is 150 Qeutzales. There is no way around this. If you choose to book a sunrise tour, you have to add 100 Quetzales to pay for administration fees (i.e. to pay for the guards) since you’d be entering the park before it opens. If you choose the sunset tour, you have to add 20 Quetzales for the same reason— you’d be staying inside the park long after it closes. I dunno why it costs more during the sunrise tour. They need more people to guard the premises in the morning i guess. If you choose to go during the middle of the day it would be cheapest since there are no additional fees, but there’s a reason why few people choose to visit in the middle of the day. It gets crazy hot in Tikal, I was literally sweating buckets even at sunset. From Los Amigos, the tour costs 110 Quetzales, and this includes a round trip shuttle transfer plus a tour guide. It does not include the park entrance fees. I took the sunset tour so i paid a total of 280 Quetzales. I opted not to take the sunrise tour for a number of reasons. First, it’s more expensive. Another reason? People who went on this tour before us said it was really foggy in the morning and you can’t see much on the horizon. Also, there was no way I’m waking up before 3 in the morning just to join a tour— especially not after a night drinking inside the soundproof bar lol.

Now you’re gonna hear people booking tours for less than 150 Quetzales all in. Since there’s no way around paying the park fees, these people were scammed. You have to watch out for scammers since there are a lot of them in Flores. There were a couple of folks who took the shuttle with us and were surprised when they were asked for entrance fees. One couple didn’t have enough money left when we got there, so they were not able to enter the park. Again, if you hear people offering you Tikal tours for 150 Quetzales or less including shuttle transfers, that’s definitely a scam.

It took us 2 hours to reach Tikal from Flores. We had one stop along the way so that people can withdraw money from an ATM.There are no ATMs in Tikal so it’s best to load up on cash if you plan to purchase food, drinks, or souvenirs. The stores inside the park do not accept credit cards. We arrived at around 2:30 PM, and at first the jungle heat was unbearable. The place is huge, one whole day probably wouldn’t be enough to explore all the ruins that were already excavated. And it’s crazy that the excavated area only comprises a small percentage of the entire ruins! A huge chunk of the area hasn’t even been mapped yet! And since it’s huge, it doesn’t get as crowded as other tourist attractions. Once you’ve seen the first of those temples up close, you’ll surely marvel at the authenticity of it all. Then you’ll be overwhelmed once you realize there’s more of them! And just when you start to grow tired of those temples, an even bigger one pops into view. By the time you reach the center, your senses will be overwhelmed. The fact that the place isn’t too crowded adds so much to the experience. When you don’t hear people chatting, you can’t help but be immersed in the surroundings. Nothing to be heard but jungle noises all around. Call it good timing: we all witnessed a couple of Maya descendants  doing some sort of fertility ritual by the temple. We felt so privileged to witness this. Nothing like experiencing other people’s customs and traditions first hand.

 

We reached the tallest temple just in time for sunset. Fans of Star Wars would be treated with a familiar view— Yavin 4! I got a real kick out of that, i didn’t even realize they shot Star Wars at Tikal! I should have had a clue, even the headquarters of the rebel alliance in Rogue One looked awfully like Tikal. So if you’re a fan of Star Wars, you have another reason to visit the site.

Checking out Tikal was quite pricey, but it was worth every penny. If you have more time there are other Maya sites close to the borders of Mexico and Belize. And if you’re the adventurous type, there are even more Maya ruins up north that are off the beaten path and even more isolated. If you don’t have the luxury of time though, just make sure to put Tikal in your itinerary. There are lots of beautiful places to visit in Guatemala, but none of them can compare to Tikal.

 

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