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Bienvenidos a Guatemala, pt1

Kays Odyssey goes Indiana in Tikal, trecking up Tajumulco in Xela, and into thermal shock at the natural hot springs in Georginas Fuentes.....

Adios a Mexico. The shuttle bus pulls into a house which is apparently the Mexican Border Authority, we get our passports stamped and then pull up on a rio and load the gear onto la lancha. Have we crossed the border yet? Apparently not. Further up the river we disinbark la lancha to be greeted by the foreign currency exchange Guatemalan style, a man holding a wad of cash asking if we needed exchange. Rate was pretty close to the mark so we changed our Peso´s to Quetzal´s. Another man hands us an immigration tourist visa to fill out and we climb into a dusty bus and drive off down a bumpy dirt road (which we were advised we would be driving along for the next 60km).
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Down the road a bit we pull into a house next to a sign that stated ¨Bienvenidos a Guatemala¨, this must be the Guatemalan Border Authority. No luggage check, no worries about fruit and veg, we pay a small fee, passports stamped and we are on the road again. A very bumpy long dusty road. For what seems like an eternity later we finally reach the end of the 60km dirt road and are on a nice paved road. Relief was short lived though as a we came to a stop where a village protest had blocked the road. Funnily enough the village was protesting because the government had promised to pave the 60km dirt road 2yrs ago and obviously never got around to it.
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The bus was stopped in a line of traffic, it was searing hot and we were in the middle of no where. Up ahead we could see the villagers grouped in mass with banners, signs and planks of wood demanding that a representative from the government come and negociate. Both the Army and Policia were present, fingers on the trigger. Talking to the locals we realised that the Army had fired shots close to the protestors feet earlier on. The evidence of the bullet cartridges was scattered on the ground. Too hot in the bus we sit outside contemplating what might happen. Will we need to sleep here tonight? How long until they give up? Two and a half hours of waiting and a solution was derived. The bus company arranged for another bus to pick us up on the other side of the road block.

Once given the go ahead our bus full of gringos picked up their luggage and walked through the the middle of the protest to reach the other side of the road block. This greatly amused the locals who thought the whole thing was hilarious. Oscar was carrying a guitar and the locals must have mistaken Steve´s boards as some kind of musical instrument as they all chanted ¨lose the gringos, keep the music¨.

Once safe in the bus it was only a further 30mins drive to Flores (the jumping off point for the Tikal Ruins). A fraction further down the road from the protest we drove past an roadside accident. Somehow the Army had managed to roll a tank off an embankment at the edge of the road, there was a crane trying to pull it out as well as a lot of uniformed army personell standing around scratching their heads.

Finally we reach Flores, Oscar, Ellen, Steve and Jess stay the night next on Lago de Peten Itza as it is getting dark. Its hot and steamy and the lake looked idillic, we wanted to jump in for a swim like the locals but thought twice having seen the sewerage being pumped straight in with minimal treatment if any at all.

In the morning we have breakfast right on the lago then pack up and leave for the bus station via tuk tuk. Our very first tuk tuk ride down bumpy cobblestone streets, crammed inside with a bags and boards hanging out the sides. Once at the bus station we find a taxi driver who is willing to drive us to El Remate for a reasonable price. Hows this going to work? Four people, four bags (two of them MASSIVE - Oscar and Ellen!) and the boards?
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Like throwing elephants into a tardis somehow the taxi driver managed to fit all four bags into the boot of a Camry. He then went to the store to ¨buy some rope¨for the boards and came back with rafia string and proceeded to tie the boards on in a manner that meant that we could not open the doors. All four of us, the taxi driver, all the bags and the boards tied onto the roof with string being held by Oscar and Steve we take off very slowly scraping the road at every bump. The drive took about 40mins and we stayed at a hotel in El Remate recommended by the taxi driver, Hotel Xichmal.

El Remate is a sleepy small lakeside town about a 30 min drive from the Tikal Ruins. Theres a couple of shops and resturants and a few places to stay. You can swim in the lake apparently and you can eat the fish apparently. We tried neither although it was painfully hot and we could have sacrifced a limb for a swim.

The lady owner of the Hotel Xichmal was incredibly helpful and we chatted about going to the ruins and how to get there. Then she dropped the bombshell. It costs how much to get into Tikal? 150 Quetzal? Youve got to be kidding me, thats like $26 Aud! Having calculated our expenses on the entrance fee of 50 Quetzal per person as stated in the lonely planet we found our selves 40km away from an ATM without enough cash to go to Tikal, the only reason we came out here. The lady explained that the fee had only changed in November last year and that it had caused her a loss of busines from annoyed tourists.

Ok. Decision time. We better go back into town and cash up. Steve and Oscar catch the chicken bus into Santa Elena to visit an ATM. After getting some cash Steve notices a couple of blokes scoping them out. Oscar needs to use the internet so they go inside an internet cafe for an hour or so. Emails finished and its getting late they go to the Bus Terminal to sus out a way out of Flores to the next destination after the Tikal Ruins. Oscar notices two guys following them. Steve identifies as the same guys from before. Shit. Luckily enough they realise that Steve and Oscar have seen them and they disappear.

At the bus staition, visiting the various bus companies offices the information needed was collected and it dawned upon Steve and Oscar that they were in a seedy slightly dangerous bus station and it was nearly dark. Time to split they grab some groceries and start walking towards El Remate (40km) hoping that it is not too late to grab a microbus. Meanwhile Jess and Ellen were slightly concerned that it was dark and the boys were out somwhere.

Fortunately a microbus (mini van) comes along and picks them up. Unfortunatley the 18 seater bus already had about 25 people inside. Oscar squeezed in managing to get a seat in the middle holding (squashing) the groceries. Steve got the short straw and had to stand at the back in the 20cm space between the back seat and the rear door with his back and neck bent under the roof next to another guy already in the same predicament. The whole van burst into laughter when the rear door was closed onto Steve and the mans butts, causing them to yelp and appear as though they were taking one for the team. Along the way the van stopped a couple of times and gathered a few more occupants. Steve lost count at 30 people in a 18 seater van and there was also a guy on the roof!

Back safely, its dinner time. Not much to choose from its hamberguesa and gallo o´clock. The next day we decide to sleep in and relax. In the afternoon we catch a microbus up to the Tikal Ruins. If you enter after 4.00pm your ticket is stamped so that you can enter the next day as well.

Tikal is set on a low hill above the surrounding swampy ground, in the middle of what is now a 550,000 sq km national park and contains thousands of separate ruined structures. The Mayan people settled here around 700BC. Within 200 years the Maya of Tikal had began to build stone ceremonial structures, and by 200BC a complex of buildings stood on the North side of the Acropolis. The Central area of the city occupied about 16 sq km with more than 4000 structures.
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Tikal is truely magic in the golden afternoon sun and worth every Quetzal spent. Towering temple pyramids pole above the jungles green canopy to catch the sun. Howler monkeys swing noisily through the branches of ancient trees and brightly coloured parrots and toucans dart through the canopy. Tikal is home to pyramid temples rising to heights of more than 64m. But certaininly what sets this site apart is that between the plazas and partly restored temples which have been cleared of trees, you wander beneth the dense rainforest canopy.
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The sunlight in the afternoon was perfect for photos casting moody shadows and giving the buildings a honey glow. Another plus is that the crowds tend to get there at opening (6.00am) then leave in the heat of the day around 1.00pm. There was only about another 8 other people there and the site being so large it felt like we were alone. After exploring the Great Plaza we climbed the Grand Temple V which is 58m tall and provides great views across the National Park and the rest of the ruins. You climb the temple up a flight of rickety wooden stairs that are so steep they are more like a ladder. Once up the top there is no barrier to stop you from plumeting to your death. We spot howler monkeys, spider monkeys, toucans and a bird which made the most bizare electro pop call. Closing time at 6.00pm so we bus it back to El Remate and grab an early night as we are going into the ruins at opening time tomorrow.
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Wake up and get ready. Catch a shuttle at 5.30am and get to the ruins just after opening. We head straight through to Temple IV at the far end of the site as it is the highest point (64m) and is apparently the best place to view the sunrise. Once at the top there is no one around and no view as it is really misty. We wait for the mist to clear. Steve has another Indiana Jones moment and walks through excavation scaffolding (Steve are you sure thats a good idea? Remember we are 64m up? and proceds to climb a ladder up to the temple roof. Very scary, Steve makes it back down before the temple guard turns up for his shift. It clears a little and we see the tops of the temples rising from the jungle peeking through the mist.
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We spend the day exploring the 16 sq km of excavated and partly excavated structures. As the day goes on it was really hot and humid, make sure you bring a ton of water. As soon as you think you have finished the site you round the corner to more amazing ruins. After 6hrs of Indiana action we head back ruined. Thats about enough archeological sites till Machu Pichu me thinks.
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We go back to the hotel where our gear is being held and head back into Santa Elena to catch a bus on the next leg of the journey, Quetzaltenango or as the locals call it, Xela. The Santa Elena bus terminal is pretty dodgey, we wait with our gear next to an armed guard until our luxury first class bus arrives. Let the fun times begin, rum, free dinner, movies and sleep. We could not find a bus that did not go through Guatemala city but we managed to find a bus that we did not need to change bus staitons. Guatemala city is a dirty, crowded, polluted and dangerous place. The advice in the Lonely Planet about the bus staitions street we had to go through was ¨not to go there¨and that the street outside was one of the most dangerous in Guatemala City. Also conerning was the news stories about the 16 bus drivers that had been executed recently. We hid in the bus station and made it onto the next bus without concearn.
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The drive from Guatemala City definatley was an eye opener. For kms the mountainous landscape had been stripped of its once lush pine forrests and replaced with scarce crops and dirt. Mudslide danger central. The road we drove along was being upgraded, the rock faces blasted and carved through by machinery, all the rubble was pushed over the edge of the mountain creating a trail of disaster. On top of that piles of dumped rubbish cascaded down the hillside and was piled in heaps at the side of the road. Some heaps on fire. This same scenery went on for kms. The scenery changed to little villiges, roadside stalls and houses. The bus grinds to a halt on the outskirts of town. Welcome to Xela.

After consulting the bible we decide that it isnt too far to walk, pile the gear on our backs and set off down the main street. Theres a hive of activity and people are lining the streets. Xela is home to a strong Mayan population, the women all wear indigious traditional clothing. The crowds of people were like a moving fuzzy rainbow with the patterned brightly coloured clothing. There was also some people dressed up in carnaval gear - whats going on here? Is it a parade? We then see a heap of young men dressed head to toe in black costumes that looked like KKK outfits, running hap hazardly down the street. Others in costume on motorcycles darting through the crowd.

Hmmm this is kinda scary, we head for the backstreets for Hostel Don Diego. On arrival we are informed that the crowd we just landed in was a political protest. Just our luck! We check in and get a really nice room on the 2nd floor with polished floor boards, two windows and a comfy bed. The shared bathrooms are pretty clean with piping hot showers and there is a shared kitchen that is very well equiped, complete with filtered water. All the downstairs rooms open onto a shared sunny courtyard perfect for lazing about with a coffee.

After paying for a few nights accom, we need to get some money out. All the ATMS are around the Parque Central where the protest is still raging on. There is definatley something slightly unnerving about taking a wad of cash out in a crowd of crazy people dressed up in black KKK outfits. It ended up being no hassle but Jess was edgey as.

Xela is a quintessential Guatemalan City. Not too big, not too small, safe enough with enough bars, eats and places to stay. It has a few tourists blow through, many stay a while and take advantage of the cheap Spainish courses, but Xela still retains its national flavour. The streets are narrow and cobblestone, lined with old buildings. There is a fab fresh food market with really cheap and delicious locally grown fruit and veg. In the covered section of the market you can buy traditional clothing and any part of an animal you desire, who feels like a goats brain, kags, hoof stew tonight? It would have been nice to show you some picks of the buzzing market but there are some places in Guatemala that you cant just pull out the camera, the market being one of them (after all our mid range camera would probably be worth more than some of the locals yearly wages).
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There are a few good bars around, we frequented the Paris Royal for a cheap litro of wine and some smoking tunes by Fernando Juarez. Xela is also a great hopping off point to a myriad of climable volcanos. After much deliberation, we chose to climb Mount Tajumulco through Adrenalina Tours. Mount Tajumulco is a dormant volcano and claims the prize for being the highest point in Central America (4220m).

Adrenalina picked the 4 of us up from the hotel at 6.00am, the morning was chilly and Oscar and Ellen were on time for once! The two day tour cost 400Q each which includes a guide, camping gear and all meals. You have to bring your backpack and carry your own water, food, sleeping bag and every item of clothing you own in order not to freeze.
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The shuttle ride was short lived, we are dumped at the second class bus station with our guide Rooney who is brandishing a machete (to look tough for our protection). The second class bus station consisted of a large area of ashfelt next to a shanty market. There are people selling fruit, veges and milk fresh from the goat!. After mass confusion, Rooney handed us some food and cooking stuff to carry, we climb onto a chicken bus and get ready for the ride. We all get seats, the bus pulls out of the mayham and we are on the road. What a ride, 3 people on a 2 person seat, with a couple of kids between us, isle packed all with the bus flying at lightspeed. We change buses at a lil town, while we were waiting for the next bus a local gave our stuff the eyeball, Rooney gave him the eyeball back whilst holding a machete.
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Next bus and we start the hillclimb and get our first peek at Mount Tajumulco. We get off the bus at 3000m, its sunny, windy and VERY dusty. We bump into a group that had just made it down who were estatic about the whole experience. Snot and dirt over their faces they also warned us how filthy dirty and cold we were about to get.
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We cross the road and head into a dirt track and start to climb. The dirt track was very steep and the dust so fine that when your foot touched the ground swirls of dust cloud would rise up and coat everything blackish - brown. Straight away you could feel the altitude - a little short of breath, if you are sitting down and get up quickly you get chronic head spins. Further up the mountain the track narrowed to a path and the vegetation changed from cleared pasture land to high altitude pine forrest. The pines are covered in a variety of mosses and lichens. We were all hot and sweaty when pushing up the mountain but as soon as you stopped the crisp air would send a chill down your spine. Ellen was the first to struggle a lil with the altitude, having to stop and catch breath, heart thumping. The climb never seemed to end, ticking off 100m altitude at a time, dragging our arses and our heavy bags up 45 degree angle rockfaces.
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We stopped for lunch and had an awesome sandwich that had egg, cream chesse and the meat of a couple of animals. We added some avo and it was the bomb. The climb continued.
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We reached 4000m at about 3.00pm in the arvo and set up camp in the high altitude pine forrest. Tent pitched, fire built and marshmallow sticks prepared we sink some rum oscar had lugged all the way up the mountain. As soon as the sun disappeared behind the mountain it was frikin freezing. We donned all our layers and sat around fire as Rooney the champ cooked us up a feed. Yummy soup and spagetti, more rum and fire roasted marshmallows. Its really getting cold now - thermals, jackets, beanies, gloves, every pair of socks, every tshirt you own and you can still feel the cold creeping into your skin... the air temp hits minus and the mist rolls in.
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Visibility is only a few metres and it looks decidedly creepy, dark, freezing, spooky shadows from pines that look like people and a foggy mist that looks like the scene from a horror movie. A midnight wee is terrorfying. Jess sensed a bit of a high altitude headache and popped a couple of nurofens - all sweet. We all snuggle up in the 4 man tent (5 people) which was being efficiently heated by Ellens arse which was in a spot of bother and releasing the fury every couple of minutes. We all had an ok sleep on the rock hard freezing ground except for Steve. Altitude sickness had kicked in, he couldn't sleep, shallow breathing, accellerated heart rate (pounding), chronic headache...shit scared... all the while listening to the constant emmisions of Ellens trombome bum for 2.5 hours. He finnally fell asleep after knecking several pain killers only to be awaken at 4.00am for the final part of the accent.
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OH MY GOD ITS FREEZING. Dark. Some confusion as there is another group who camped searching the forrest in the dark for their guide. They find him huddled on the ground in the cold. He had removed himself from the tent as he had food poisoning and had followed through in his pants and called to the dinosaurs all night. Sick as a dog in the shitest place to have tap arse/mouth. The other group joins us in the dark and we follow the guide into darkness. We brought 2 torches, the svenskins didnt have one so we surrended one of ours. The other group was not as well prepared, one torch between 3 climbing up a volcano in the pitch black darkness... Guatemalan saftey first.
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The icey wind bit at our cheeks, streams of snot ran down our faces as we smashed the back end out of the remaining 220m. Up through the clouds. Close to the top with no pines to block the wind its minus 7 wind chill. The wind rips through your joggers and our toes are in a world of pain. Really misty at the summit unbearably cold and amazing. The sun peeks over the clouds but provides no warmth. The clouds shift and reveals pockets of views but overall it is too cloudy to see into Mex and El Salvador. Everyone is frozen we begin the decent.
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On the way down we pass Maya who are climbing to the top to prey. Here we are absolutley freezing in a world of pain and the locals are climbing up in traditional dress - falda (skirt), blouse, bath towel for warmth and open toed heeled sandles. WTF?
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Back down to 4000m we have some rank cappacino flavoured porridge for brekkie, pack up the gear and head down the hill. It was sunny and warm at the campsite at 4000m but as soon as we walked down through the clouds the weather had changed. Cold and misty, the landscape looks completely different to on the way up. Amazing views on the way down, breathtaking landscape (nice change from breath taking altitude). We get down the bottom after a few slide outs, hard to go down dusty steep slopes knees constantly locked. We pass the guide that had double donut fury passed out on the side of the track, he was slowly making his way down...world of stinky pain.
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We wait for yonks for the bus back... when it arrives it is PACKED. We all stand, then squish into seats. Jess got offered a seat next to an old man and a little boy. The boy happened to be eating peanuts (Jess allergic) and he was mashing his grubby peanut mits all over her. To boot the little darling had pink eye and was covered in rashes. Freaked out Jess jumped at the opportunity to offer an elderly lady her seat and scored one right up the front next to the driver. Speedo not working. Check. Odometre not working. Check. Fuel gauge not working. Check. The bus flies around the narrow roads that snake down the mountian nearly avoiding a few collisions. Us tourists look rather concerned, if not a tad frightened. The locals look as through the experience is nothing out of the ordinary. The bus driver honks the horn long and loud to announce to other drivers that he is going to fly round a blind corner on the wrong side of the road at 80km/h.

We make it back in one peice, absolutly filthy and exhausted. The next day after a sleep in we catch a shuttle to the natural hot springs Georginas Fuentes for a lil R&R. The drive to the springs reveals the urban sprawl of Xela and the surrounding cleared steep terrain. The weather is a bit cooler, the sky filled with fog. As we near the springs the vegetation turns tropical shrouded in mist. Once entry was payed we were in for a bit of a shock. The pristine natural springs we had in our minds resembled more of a human soup with an ajoining bar and restaurant which was pumping out corny 80s relaxation music.

Not game enough to get amongst it we chill and sip a few beers. As the afternoon goes by the pool empties and we gain enough courage to jump in. After all if you block the bar out the setting is magic. The spring seeps out of a natural rock face to form an aqua pool which is lined with tropical vegetation. Steam spirals up through the air to mix in with the mist. The water is to die for. Steve thinks he is all tough and lies in the water up to his neck and gets a mild case of thermal shock.
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It was even barrelling at the springs!!!!!!!!
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After an hour or so of lounging in the water we catch the shuttle back. Now foggier than before the bus narrowly misses buses and bovines on the narrow road back to town.

With so much guat gold we overloaded travellerspoint and had to cut Guatemala into 2 parts - so for more Guat adventures see pt2!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by jessnsteve 16:04 Archived in Guatemala Tagged backpacking

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