We had our first glimpse of Tikal on the TV reality show, Survivor – Guatemala. Seeing it in real life is so much more amazing! It is Guatemala’s most famous cultural and nature preserve. Many call it one of the most spiritually powerful spots on earth. Its towering temples loom out of the thick jungle canopy and are reminiscent of stoic sentinels. Like all unexplained mysteries, it is fascinating and so irresistible once there that you’ll find yourself wanting to stay just a little longer!
Getting there from our jungle camp in Belize was an adventure in itself. We piled into a rusty jeep with our local guide, Abel, and headed out immediately after a hearty breakfast – which proved to be not the smartest thing to do. The 1½ hour drive to the border of Guatemala, over what we in the States call “speed humps,” was enough to shake up even the strongest stomach. These mounds are a way of forcing cars to slow down when approaching a school, before entering a village, or when they occurred at unexplained interludes, just for the heck of it. They were merely a prelude to what lay ahead.
Pulling into San Ignacio, we slowly approached the border crossing…slowly because men, women, children, and dogs were milling around in confusion, due to the border guards. Suddenly Abel swerved to the right, stopped the car inches from a souvenir stand and jumped out. Like good explorers we did the same and followed him to a window in a nearby building, where a sullen man waited to examine our passports. With a curt wave of his hand we were dismissed, at which point Abel told us to walk across the border to the Guatemalan processing center, and he would meet us with the car on the other side of that building. Another 10 minutes of passport inspection and stamping, and we were on our way to Tikal. The whole experience was a scene straight out of a Laurel and Hardy movie!
The best was yet to come, however. The paved road quickly gave way to a dirt washboard with ruts three to six inches deep. Hut-like houses clung to the edges of both sides of the road, like mud on the sides of shoes. Children, in various stages of undress, wandered unattended from open doorways, occasionally directly into our path, causing much swerving, breaking and gasping on our part.
Twice we were forced to stop completely for several minutes while cattle were herded up the center of the road or chickens strolled casually across with chicks in tow. On our round trip we came across no fewer than four dead horses beside the road, lying on their backs, legs extended skyward stiff as boards, after apparently having committed suicide by running directly into the on-coming path of heavy transport trucks.
Then there were the roadside signs warning of mowing ahead. The 4-foot international yellow diamond-shaped signs were illustrated with a black figure of a man holding a machete high overhead. And sure enough, up close and live around the next corner, there was the crew of 5 swinging their machetes cutting the grass.
In an effort to relax us after nearly two hours on this leg of the trip, Abel stopped at a friend’s restaurant in a 7-house village, where we were treated to an incredible feast of eggs, steak, goat cheese, fruits, vegetables, homemade tortillas, and rich, strong coffee. Well sated, we set out for our day in Tikal, with one additional person - a wizened nut-brown little man named Louis Gongalez. We did not know what a gift had been bestowed upon us until we discovered, over the course of the day, Louis knew more about Tikal then all the guidebooks put together.