Part 4 -Tikal and El Remate
After whetting our appetites with a taste of some smaller Mayan ruins in Belize we headed to Guatemala for the main course: Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Of course, when we set out for Belize we had no idea we would eventually end up in Guatemala. Planning on the fly is a bit stressful at times, but compared to the plight of refugees heading north we had it damn easy. Nonetheless, crossing the border into Guatemala was a bit of a confusing adventure. Ain’t no English spoken here for the most part.
We got off a bus in the last city on the Belize border, and then took a taxi several miles to the border. It seemed sketchy, but the taxi driver assured us it was cool, so we exchanged Belizean dollars for Guatemalan quetzals with one of the many money changers hanging around. Then we walked across the border through customs, and caught a Guatemalan bus on the other side. It was all very easy, but things like this are always a bit nerve wracking the first time. On our return we were sophisticated old hands at the game.
I had hoped for a ride on a famous Guatemalan “Chicken Bus”. So named because traditionally they carry all sorts of cargo besides just people. Sadly, they are not on the roads in this part of Guatemala. I had to settle for buying this postcard.
Rather than big buses everyone gets around in what we in American would call a 12 passenger van. Here they have been reconfigured to carry 16 passengers, but it turns out they squeezed in up to as many as 19 on our van. At that point our driver pulled over to go for 21, but the two men who had flagged down the van took one look at how full it was, laughed, and waved the driver on.
From the border by van, then on foot the last mile from the main highway, we made it to the village of El Remate, a lovely little place on the shore of a huge lake (20 x 2 miles approximately).
What’s this? Moby parked on the shore of Peten Itza? No, it is a similar van belonging to a California family on an amazing journey. People think Janene and I are brave doing our Moby travels. Not nearly as brave as this couple, heading south for a couple years with their 7 year old daughter. We nearly crossed paths in Central America. They left Glover’s Atoll the day we arrived, and then we ended up passing through El Remate just before they arrived. I discovered their blog months later.
There are lots of #vanlife blogs out there. Monkeys on the Road is the only one I follow. For an in depth look at life in the Guatemalan village of El Remate check out on their top-notch blog.
El Remate is the only sizable village on the road to Tikal. As such it gets tourists, and has little hotels and restaurants. Situated on a lovely lake, it is a sweet little place. But most visitors are young, European types. As usual, for American tourists, it is too native, too different, and therefore too scary and dangerous. One star is about as good as it gets in El Remate. But what is wrong with a good local meal and a cold local beer?
Our second night in El Remate I wanted to find a “comida tipico”, or a standard non-tourist meal. Boy, did I ever find one. After a long day touring Tikal it was already dark by the time we got back to El Remate, and we weren’t sure if we could find a restaurant still open. As we walked the main street we spotted a low little cinder block house with a tiny sandwich board menu in front of it. We went in the front door, but in the main room there appeared to be a family reunion going on. As a matter of fact it was a family reunion. In our best Spanish we asked if they were open. “Sí, sí”, they assured us. (None of the dozen multi-generation family spoke any English)
The family gathering appeared to be breaking up anyway as we walked in, so most of them headed out the door. Visiting kids and parents loaded up in the car, everyone waved their goodbyes and drove away. The remaining four teenage kids quickly straightened things up, cleared the big dining table, wheeled grandma away in her wheelchair, and disappeared to the back rooms, leaving la Señora to host us alone.
It took some translating effort, but finally we made it clear to Señora that I wanted a Guatemalan meal, like she would prepare for her family. Janene, the big chicken, pretended not to be hungry. As usual, she was not adventurous when it came to eating local food. “Street food roulette” she calls it.
So eventually I got my order in: one house special and two beers. Señora hollered at the out-of-sight kids, whereupon two girls showed up and headed out the front door. They soon returned with two beers from the nearby tienda plus some tomatoes and cucumbers from the vegetable stall for the main dish.
Gallo beers in hand, we asked Señora if we could leave the big formal dining room table and sit on bar stools at her kitchen counter where we could talk with her. She seemed pleased at this. Meanwhile Señora chopped an onion and got it started in a frying pan. (My sister Nancy says every good meal starts with a frying onion) Then she pulled some meat (round steak?) out of the fridge, sloshed it in a bowl of what I assume was some sort of sanitizer, and then gave it a good thorough rinsing under the tap. Janene gave me that “you’re gonna get sick” look, but I was counting on the beer to sanitize anything that got past the rinse cycle. So I ordered another round of Gallo, and the kids ran out for more fresh ones.
So Señora proceeded to cook away on my meal of beef, onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes in a dark sauce, with fried potatoes on the side. Meanwhile Janene and I did our best at conversational Spanish. What did we learn about life El Remate? We learned it may look different on the surface, but loving mothers all over the world have the same concerns. We learned the following from Señora:
• There aren’t many jobs in the area, and she worries about the future of her four children. It is tough to get by as a single mom raising four kids and taking care of grandma in a wheelchair as well.
• Her ex-husband was “no good”. There is no more “violence in the house” now that he is gone. Señora and Janene exchanged a big high five and had a good laugh over him being gone.
• Her oldest son just graduated from college (high school?) in business administration. At first we misunderstood, and thought he had just finished seminary, and was a newly ordained priest. He and his mother thought that was hilarious once we got things straightened out. He said he had studied English in school, but that none of the teachers could speak English, so all they ever did was bookwork in English, never anything oral. Consequently he could not speak English with us at all, or was too embarrassed to try.
We stayed at La Posada Ixchel, or The Ixchel Inn, right in the heart of the El Remate tourist district.
The staff at the Posada Ixchell was sweet and helpful, the rooms were simple, clean, and came with mosquito nets. What more could one ask for? Why is it we rarely encounter other Americans in places like this? I realize most Americans are pressed for time, but I think there is more to it that that. Mostly Americans just want to go someplace warm, sit on a sandy beach, and sip cheap drinks. The country they are in is irrelevant.
It seems to me that most Americans only want to see locals and their native culture when looking out through the tinted window of an air-conditioned bus while on a package tour, or when looking out over the fence of a gated all-inclusive resort. Stopping at a gift shop midway through a charter bus tour is about all the cultural interaction they really want.
The Americans who do go to Tikal usually come on charter bus tours straight through from Belize.
Tikal is a Guatemalan National Park, and in 1979 it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of the largest archaeological sites of the Mayan civilization. Tikal was the capital of a state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. The peak period of Tikal was from about 200 AD to 900 AD. 700 years, compared to less than 200 of our own American peak years. Even if we Make America Great Again, we have a ways to go to catch up with the Mayans.
This “lost city” was always known to the locals, but known to Europeans only by second or third hand accounts until the mid 19th Century. There were numerous expeditions to and some archeological work done at Tikal in the late 1800’s.
But access to Tikal was a difficult multi-day slog through the jungle until an airstrip was carved out of the jungle in 1951, and then serious excavations began.
The more tourists there are, the more rules and restrictions there will be. And the less fun for me. At world famous sites they don’t like to let tourists kill themselves. As we walked around Tikal, or climbed where permitted to look around, there were untold numbers of jungle-covered mounds, hills, lumps, ridges, depressions, etc, all around us. All were the buried remains of ancient public works. There is enough work there to keep future generations of archeologists busy for a very long time.
I love the huge buttress roots on the Ceiba trees.
Tree hugging is not just for environmentalists
Plenty of wildlife to see here too, like these parrots.
A blue head adorned with orange facial warts is what drives the lady turkeys wild.
When I saw my first Toucan fly by at a distance I thought it was a black bird carrying a banana in its beak.
Many butterflies have coloration that mimics eyespots and a mouth to scare away predators.
Before excavation and restoration began in the 1880’s even the tops of these temple were covered in soil and jungle vegetation.
This photo taken in 1882 shows Tikal after only the vegetation had been cleared.
This temple has had all four sides excavated and restored.
This temple has only been partially uncovered. After 1000+ years of being overgrown by the jungle the surfaces of the stone buildings are seriously damaged. It is not like they just chop down the trees, scrape away a few roots, sweep off some loose dirt and end up uncovering a pristine structure. The limestone rock is eaten away by water, and tree roots totally devastate the surface rocks. Therefore much of the surfaces have to be remade and rebuilt.
The Great Plaza and the North Acropolis (out of the picture to the left) are very busy places during a solstice. They were sets for both Star Wars and James Bond films. I’ll bet they let George Lucas and Roger Moore climb anywhere they wanted to go.