…there were the ancient Mayan people. They lived on the third moon of Endor where they built a city known to them as Tikal which also served as their secret Jedi base in their battle against the evil Spanish Empire. Thankfully, the real life city never faced a Deathstar even if it did house the rebel base in the original Star Wars.
And so began our trip to Tikal, all day long I kept making Star Wars references (I mean really, who wouldn’t) and I’m quite sure that the girls (Jill and her sister Ponch – err, Rebekah – who had just joined us for the week) were quite happy I left my harmonica behind and could not play the Star Wars theme around every corner. Having arrived via overnight bus in Santa Elena (the nearby modern city) at around 4:45am, we were on our way into Tikal just 45 minutes later and entered the park at 7am; before the sun was strong, while the monkeys were quite active, and with fog surrounding the temples.
Tikal itself has a long and storied history. First occupied about 600BCE it reached its zenith about a millennia later with somewhere between 50k and 100k inhabitants over more than 100 sq km. That prosperity did not last for long as the site was completely abandoned in the 10th century, likely on account of warfare, over population and environmental degradation, and ultimately drought.
For the most popular attraction in Guatemala, the ruins were virtually empty. (We later found out about swine flu, maybe that is why no one was there?) The most amazing thing about Tikal is the shear size. Unlike Palenque or other ruins in Central America, Tikal is HUGE so the lack of crowds, the size and the fact that we actually found monkeys (successfully this time!) made Tikal a great trip.
After six hours at Tikal the sun was out and the mosquitoes began to bite. We headed south for the evening to Poptun, a small city two hours south of Tikal. As if climbing pyramids wasn’t cool enough, we ended our day at Finca Ixobel. Open your Lonely Planet and there is almost a half page description of this hostel/ranch/hang out. Whatever you’ve heard its true, and although I’d been there before, it was on my “must do again” list in Guatemala. The food was delicious and we didn’t mind sleeping under mosquito nets for the first time.
The next day at Finca Ixobel was my idea of a perfect day on the road. I got up at sunrise and set out to go for a jog, up a still buried Mayan pyramid. Straight up and down, I finished my run covered in sweat, mud, and as I later discovered…27 ticks. After breakfast we headed out on the Finca’s headline trip… a cave swim. A two hour walk to the cave (let’s keep in mind I had already run two hours) through jungle and a very “full” cow field, we happily jumped into the cold water at the cave and began our journey in darkness. With headlamps and candles, we first encountered bats (hopefully they weren’t having any bowel movements) and as we got further and further we found little rapids, tons of wild rock formations, and finally the leap of faith. Standing above a subterranean waterfall with a guide (speaking only Spanish) shining his light down 10 meters in darkness, telling you there is a big rock right below you so its really importante to jump as far away from the wall as possible is a little nerve racking…but a ton of fun. We jumped one at a time into the freezing cold yelling all manner of obscenities on the way down. No one hit the rock, our only casualty was someone else’s headlamp.
Swimming back out of the cave, we ate some lunch and headed back to the Finca for my celebratory meal… cake and french fries! What could make the day any better you ask? I’m so glad you asked! Somehow we managed to wrangle a game of ultimate frisbee together for the better part of an hour, the first I’ve played since leaving my daily DC game behind. Aside from missing people, the thing I miss most about home is being able to exercise and get sweaty on a daily basis. Many of the places we’ve traveled to are not friendly to a pedestrian let alone a runner. Additionally, add to that the constant work (yes, I said work) at managing our finances, finding places to sleep, and working out our transportation, and we’ve had our hands quite full. Don’t get me wrong, I’m having the time of my life and doing some incredible things…but suffice it to say, backpacking can be difficult. Our time at Finca Ixobel was the perfect mini vacation from backpacking and the frisbee game was the perfect end to my perfect day.