Expecting Guatemala

There was no indication that the sun would be rising anytime soon as I pulled my cabin door open at 4:30 am. I flipped on the patio light and squinted into the darkness ahead. The chorus of frogs and insects affected by my sudden light instantaneously ceased. I flipped the light back off and switched to my head lamp, silently starting down the walk as the surrounding critters tenuously resumed their songs. I passed two shadowy figures on the road and we exchanged the barely audible, mumbled greetings of too early in the morning. The warm light glowing from reception was a welcome sight and I was pleased to step inside and find a tray of fresh coffee and cookies awaiting. The figures from the road, also guests at the Jungle Lodge in Guatemala’s Parque Nacional Tikal, entered shortly thereafter and seemed equally grateful for the coffee. We renewed our road greetings with nods, then wandered around the room aimlessly, waiting for something more than coffee to happen.

The door opened and a lanky staff member slipped in. He looked around the room briefly, then went to the reception desk and shuffled through some paperwork. A few moments later he looked up and called, “Gonzalez.”

The other guests approached the desk and after a hushed discussion, they left the room.

The man seemed to puzzle over his paperwork, then motioned me over.

“Are you waiting for a sunrise tour?”

“Yes.” I nodded, wondering what else I might be expecting from reception at this ridiculous hour.

He stared down at his paperwork again, then forced a smile on his clearly concerned face, “Ok, a moment please.”

The man disappeared and I took a deep breath. As with most of my Guatemalan experiences, this was not going to go as expected. Not that that was necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly increased the complexities and challenges of the country.

When I had emerged from the airport in Guatemala City, I had expected a sign with my name, or at least a shuttle with the hotel name, but neither was there. Almost before I could pull my reservation information from my bag, a friendly cab driver had come to the rescue, handing me his cell phone to call the hotel. Apparently the hotel primarily catered to locals and was unaccustomed to the longer waits associated with international flights. The driver had decided I wasn’t coming and left, but not to worry. He was still close to the airport and would return shortly. And so he had. The Hotel San Carlos had proven to be a fine choice – clean, friendly, good food, comfortable amenities, ultimately reliable transportation and an authentic charm. The lack of English was a fair trade-off for the window into local culture.

AntiguaAntigua also provided insights into local culture despite its current strong expat influences, the latter being beyond my expectations. One of the Spanish colonial capitals ruling Central America from the 1500s. It hosted nearly 60,000 residents at its peak. It was a prominent and wealthy town stocked with businesses, schools, churches, convents and hospitals. A massive earthquake in 1773 caused the city to be abandoned and the capital moved to Guatemala City. Ironically, this abandonment, and the fact that the few remaining residents had no funds with which to make changes, is why the town is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Antigua’s current popularity with tourists, resident expats and a growing number of Guatemalan inhabitants who commute to Guatemala City for work is not at all surprising. The town exudes character and charm with its cobbled streets, colonial architecture and exciting array of shops, museums, churches and restaurants, but only for a few blocks. Antigua was certainly smaller than I expected, its magic confined to a claustrophobically small area beyond which the age of the city shows in the less well-kept, sometimes crumbling, surrounding buildings. One of the highlights had proven to be my hotel – The Cloister. Actually established within the cloister of an old convent, this perfectly decorated and impeccably run bed and breakfast was centrally located just below the city’s famous arch, down the road from La Merced – an intricately carved and impressively restored Catholic church, and a couple of blocks from the city’s vibrant central plaza – Parque Central. Unfortunately, this gem of a hotel was slated to close permanently a few months after my stay (and in fact did).

My Tikal journey was proving to be another series of unexpectations. The commuter flight terminal in Guatemala City looked like an abandoned warehouse, especially at another 4:30am start when the front desk wasn’t even open yet. Another waiting passenger had to confirm I was in the right place and even then I wasn’t completely convinced. Once opened, the receptionist informed me that I was booked to fly to and from Tikal the same day despite the fact that my own reservation confirmation, as well as a separate hotel reservation, gave me a night in the park. Her initial prognosis had been that it was too late to change, everything was booked solid. She did, however, analyze the stack of email correspondence and printed confirmations that I desperately pushed her way. Eventually she conceded that the booking agent must have made an error. Much to my relief, she not only gave me corrected tickets, but charged the change fee to the erring agent.

Once delivered to the Jungle Lodge, I met the arrogant and rather unpleasant guide who had been assigned to me for the day. I wasn’t particularly disappointed to learn that he had declared to management that he wasn’t feeling well, and was actually quite pleased to learn that my driver, a laid-back older gentleman who’d grown up in and around these woods and had unmatched knowledge of the area, would be his replacement.

Often ranked as the most impressive Mayan ruin in the world, I expected to be wowed in the same way that I was by Angkor Wat. I quickly discovered it wasn’t the same. Nonetheless, my newly assigned guide rapidly discerned my affinity for wildlife and distaste for crowds. He wound us in and out of small, forested trails, back routes and lesser known paths, pointing out machete scars in Chicle trees from pre-park harvesting, a variety of birds and the occasional mammal or other wildlife encountered. In stark contrast to these intimate trails, they connected one large clearing of looming rock structures and observing audiences to another. The city and its buildings would have been magnificent in their era, but the loss of most intricate carvings and brilliant colorations to time and museums has considerably diminished its splendor. TikalNonetheless, the structures remain architectural feats and there’s something very cool about having them emerge from 200+ square miles of virgin rainforest with Ocellated Turkeys scratching around the base and spider monkeys swinging about the canopy. Some of the missing carvings are housed in the park’s small museum, but aside from the Morelet’s Crocodile in the museum-side pond, time was truly better spent walking amid the ruins and their consuming forests.

Back at the Jungle Lodge, lunch was a rather depressing affair. Unaware that I didn’t have to, I had signed up for a meal plan, which limited my menu choices to no vegetarian options despite reassurances ahead of time that my dietary preferences would be no problem. The waiter pondered my dilemma, then broadened my selections to include some uninspiring salad choices. They tasted about as good as they sounded. Not that I expected much from the food, nor the hotel itself for that matter, all reviews claimed the Jungle Lodge would be overpriced for what it was and that was true. It was comfortable enough, but the real reason to stay at the Jungle Lodge was to be surrounded by the forest and it’s wildlife, to have the park to oneself after all the tour groups left and to watch the sun rise above the forest from Temple 4.

The staff member returned to the desk, “Are you sure you booked a sunrise tour?”

“Yes,” I nodded again, “I confirmed it at check-in yesterday.”

The man shook his head woefully, “They did not request a guide for you.”

“So I got up early for nothing?” I let out an ironic laugh.

“No, m’am. But, if you do not mind, you will have to join the other group.”

Once again, things would not be as expected, but it would work.

Our guide led us through dark, forested trails. Stopping occasionally to point out space-age looking insects or charismatic tree frogs. We climbed the stairs and the sky was just beginning to gray as we emerged above the canopy at the top of Temple 4. There were about a dozen of us respectfully awaiting the sun; the only sounds being from awakening howler monkeys and macaws. Fog in the valley beyond the forest began to glow pink, creating a spectacular backdrop for the silhouetted temple tops looming above the jungle. The scene morphed through shades of gray, pink, gold and blue before the sun broke through the clouds well above the horizon. I waited for the rest of the visitors, including the group I’d come in with, to leave before I stood. I gazed at the carpet of trees and emerging stone pyramids bathed in gold below me and felt at peace, renewed in my belief that things generally work out for the best in the end. Travel is always a good reminder to appreciate the unexpected.

As I approached the steps to climb down, a Keel-billed Toucan landed in a tree mere feet in front of me. Case in point.

Tikal 2 Tikal sunrise

Travel Tips: 

  • Watching the sunrise from Temple 4 in Tikal is absolutely a highlight, but be sure to pack in breakfast and lunch if you intend to spend the day in the park. On my visit I found out unexpectedly that sunrise tickets were not valid for re-entry later in the day.
  • Aside from sunrise tours, guides are not essential in Tikal. Most guidebooks provide sufficient history, the supplied maps are accurate and trails are well-marked.
  • While Tikal can be crammed into a one-day visit, part of the joy is wildlife watching in the jungle and that is better accomplished with more time, particularly with morning and evening jaunts when the park is less crowded and the critters more active.
  • As mentioned above, Jungle Lodge does not live up to its price tag. It’s accessibility to the park does make it worthwhile though. Tikal Inn and Jaguar Inn are other on-site hotel options. I chose against them based on reviews, but have no other personal insights to offer on these alternatives.
  • Guatemala has a reputation for being unsafe. While precautions should always be taken, I encountered no sketchy scenes and both Antigua and Tikal were bristling with tourist police.
  • Hotel San Carlos is a good lodging option in Guatemala City.
  • Antigua is not a high priority from a nature travel perspective, but it does merit a stop. The architecture and character of the city center are stunning, and both history buffs and cafe-loungers will find plenty to fill their time.
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