Having rested in San ignacio, I set off to the the ATM cave the next morning. I did pop by a mayan ruin called cahal pech, though to be the oldest, dating back to possibly 1200BC.
The ATM cave, or actun tunichil muhknal which is Mayan for the cave of the stone sepulchre, was only discovered in 1983 and then reported to arheaological authorities by 1986. It has seen several different reports by national geographic, discovery channel etc. and it’s currently still undergoing archaeological excavation so only part of the cave is open to the public. It was used in from around 200 till 750 AD for sacrifices, including human sacrifices. It lies about 7 miles from the main road and then you have to hike for about 45 minutes across a path, and crossing the river 3 times, to get to the entrance of the cave. No wonder it’s been hidden so long! (a lot of Belize’s momuments are far from the main road, which is why I think they’re so well-preserved). To get into the main chamber of the cave you spend about 80% of the time in water, sometimes swimming, sometimes wading. Some bits are quite tricky to get through so it’s not good for claustrophobics! But once you get in it’s still a living museum. A lot of the original ceramics offered to the gods are still lying around, along with about 5 skulls – one of which has a full skeleton! It’s all pretty damn impressive. Once a tourist got so excited though that she dropped her camera onto a skull that only had 2 teeth left and consequently broke 1 off. I don’t think cameras will be allowed for much longer! It was so beautiful down there, all of the stalactites were still shimmering. It was worth the money!
The next day is left for Guatemala bright and early. Crossing the border was pretty hassle free, but it’s clear that not many people speak English even 5 minutes from the border, whereas people in San Ignacio were bilingual.
Guatemala feels a lot different the minute you enter it. The buildings are low, often one story, everything feels a little bit more open and more laid-back but more vibrant than Belize. It’s also a lot more Westernised, spotting a burger King or a Subway here and there.
I took a taxi to Flores. I’ll be honest and let you know I wasn’t sure whether I should as there were some brutal drug-related killings (with chainsaws and machetes) in this region of Guatemala 15 days previous, and the givernment issued a 30-day non-essential travel discouragement. But I’d heard from several people that it was fine and i really wanted to see Tikal.
Flores still was pretty busy with tourists so I immediately felt reassured. Was I was surprised by, however, was the presence of tuktuks (they call them that too) on this side of the world! It makes sense, as Flores on a little island built in very European fashion, with the main square on the hill in the middle, all of the roads are very badly cobbled and narrow, and the houses are attached, circling around the island (reminding me of Siena in Italy) but they have the mutlicolouredness of Spanish houses.
The next morning (it’s the 1st now right? I have lost all track!) I got transportation to Tikal, but I didn’t want to do the tour.
Tikal is probably the most famous and beautiful Mayan ruins. Estimated to be from around early AD, it was a thriving community until the Mayans in Belize beat them in 750-ish and moved the entire population to their site called Caracol (the biggest Mayan community ever). Tikal has several very tall temples (the highest around 55m) and other acropolises that are thought to be the most complicated in the Mayan world. Pretty amazing right?
I would say it ranks in my current top 2 archaeological I’ve ever seen, along with Angkor Wat (mind you, I’ve not seen the Acropolis or the pyramids of Egypt). What made this one so special to me, being a lover of nature, is that the ruins are situated in the 2nd biggest protected rainforest reserve in Guatemala. Taking pictures of these huge, old ruins with howler monkeys screaming so close to you in a very interesting experience. I was able to enjoy the running around (and climbing up) the ruins as well as catching some good wildlife shots – double whammy! You can go up some of the temples and you get this beautiful view of the tops of the other temples and a vast expanse of rainforest. I also frequently saw spider monkeys, coatmundis and cool birds like woodpeckers and oropendolas.
For a few days now, I’ve been having some knee pains, which meant climbing down the ruins was not fun! Got some bandage but I hope that looks up soon.
I had decided to travel on to Antigua, guatemala’s old capital, on an overnight bus. Whilst I was waiting for 9 to strike the power went out around 6. Not only in Flores, but 2 other towns as well. When it came to heading to the bus station I wanted to find a tuktuk but there were none around, and I couldn’t find a taxi easily eithrr, so i walked some of the way in the dark (with my headlight) and I felt VERY uneasy, especially considering the government warnings! I started worrying a bit and asked a police woman (there were A LOT of police around, which kind of made it worse is a way) where the bus station was and they were nice enough to drive me, with a little hurrying from me. Having a inflatable neck pillow meant I was able to sleep quite well in the bus, surprisingly enough for me!
Guatemala City didn’t look that great, just very big. But Antigua is lovely! There are a lot of foreigners here, possibly for all the Spanish language schools, but it has a very calm, international atmosphere, with cobbled streets, decrepit old Europeans buildings (the result of an earthquake in 1773), again the low multicoloured houses against a backdrop of mountains & 3 volcanos. I think I’ll like it here for the next couple of days!