The early morning flight circled down over Lago (lake) de Peten Itza in the northernmost department (state) of Peten. Small islands shimmered below us each surrounded by a turquoise halo in the clear water. The town of Flores, an island connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land, wide enough for a highway, held tightly packed in pastel buildings with red roofs.
group traveling with an archaeologist shared
our van to the Jungle Lodge, inside Tikal National Park. Our guide, Cesar,
was there to meet us at the airport and begin his informed, animated ramblings
on the hour ride. After a rushed snack of fruit and coffee at the lodge,
we hiked off into the park. The huge stone temples of Tikal loomed above
the rainforest as we made our way to the grand plaza area, a wide courtyard
ringed by structures of stone containing stairways to rooms at various
levels, stone monuments with carvings, some now covered with thatch roofs
for protection, faces and symbols in hidden doorways. We explored the
many structures around the plaza, drifting in and out of tour guide explanations.
Temple IV, the only one that can be climbed now, is only partially excavated. The great stone staircase leading up the high tower is still covered by hillside, but has been fitted with steep wooden stairways. A line of tourists followed each others footsteps up and down in a river of people leading up and down the temple. A few from our group went up since they were only there for the day, but Cesar encouraged those of us staying to come with him at 5:30 in the morning for a sunrise hike. In the afternoon, Adam joined a canopy tour, swinging through the trees on a zipline, while I visited the museum, with fascinating commentary by our archaeologist friend.
Eight of us met Cesar at the lodge in the dark, the two young couples went off ahead on their own. With flashlights, we took the trail into the park and found them waiting at the entrance station, unable to get in before the park opened at 6. Cesar chatted with the guards and arranged for our early entry, we were with him. We hiked at a brisk pace to the most direct route and climbed the wooden stairs. At the top, the jungle was heavy with mist. We sat on the uppermost steps for an hour and a half, serenaded by the hoarse breathy sounds of howler monkeys and cacophonous birds calling, as the mist slowly parted and allowed us increasing longer glimpses of the tops of Temples I, II and III in alignment over the canopy in the growing morning light. With no other visible signs of civilization, I could imagine the same view through Mayan eyes almost two thousand years ago. As other hikers began to arrive, we made our way down the stairs and back to the grand plaza, surprisingly empty at this hour of day, a rare opportunity to linger among the quiet stone walls.
We made two more excursions into the park later in the day, finding the more remote temples and other complexes less excavated - some with mysterious names like Mundo Perdido (lost world), and named some of our own - Snake Way, a narrow path covered with curving tree roots.
During discussions in the lodge with fellow travelers over these two days, we found that Eric and Lisa lived in our little Colorado town of Georgetown and enjoyed dinner with them the first night, interesting conversations with a NYC doctor and her Yale professor husband, and a wise-cracking New Zealand teacher ("See those photos on the wall? Those are people who have died here waiting for their breakfast.").
Our flight was not until afternoon, so we joined some others on their trip to the airport, checked our bags early and spent the day exploring Flores. I told a taxi driver he would have to take us to a cajero (ATM) to get paid, so we stopped in the town of Santa Elena along the way. The highlight was a boat trip around the lake with Yoseph, a 14 year old who insisted he had been driving his boat for 2 years and would give us a good tour. He pointed out his village of San Michael de Flores along the shoreline, we circled a fisherman out for his morning catch, and enjoyed the stories of our talkative young drivers family. After walking around the tiny island at least 4 times, we sampled a restaurant, Internet cafe and coffee shop. Our same taxi driver returned for us later in the day.
The election news was predictable, Oscar Berger is our new presidente. After the turmoil of the civil war that just ended in 1996, most voters are looking for stability and status quo.