May 13 – 19: Itzapa, Rio Dulce, Poptun & Tikal
May 13 Tuesday: Panajachel – San Andres, Itzapa (100km, 2.5hrs)
We set off after 10:30am to spend a day at a charity project. We arrived around 1pm, had a simple but delicious lunch with chicken before having a tour of the complex. An administrator of the project explained that the project was totally funded by Italy. The idea is to provide a home for single moms with cancer so that they can live with their children. It is a unique project of its kind in Guatemala.
At present there are some 55 women and over 250 kids living in the complex. Each family is given a simple house with 2/3 rooms depending on the size of the family. Young kids have education inside the centre while older ones go to schools in the village.
We visited the church which has service once every two weeks, a junior school, a kindergarten where a celebration for the Mother’s Day was going on. Some moms were taking part in all sorts of games while the kids and the staff looked on. Then we went to a shed and saw two dozens of milk cows and a farm where they grow their own vegetables. We visited another building with classrooms for older children and a hospital with a couple of rooms. Sick moms who are too weak or dying stay here so that they can rest without disturbance. For those who have recovered, they have to move away. Some $20,000 is spent on salary for some 50 staff a month.
What a novel and admirable project! The place is well kept and orderly. I made a small donation and spoke with a few ladies. They like their life here and look happy. I took plenty of pictures for the kids and spent half an hour watching a couple of ladies making tortillas. One told me that she sold 5 tortillas for Q1. Two insisted in giving me a tortilla. I therefore ate two tortillas before dinner.
May 14 Wednesday: San Andres Itzapa– Rio Dulce (350km; 6 hours)
We got up early and were already loading our luggage by 7am. I was shocked when someone put her tiny arms around my waist: it was the 19-year old mom with a 2-year old girl whom I met yesterday. I took a photo with her and the baby. I pray she will recover soon and her girl will have a better future with education.
We had a quick lunch en route to the town Rio Dulce located at the east end of Lago de Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake where it empties into Rio Dulce. We arrived at Hacienda Tijax at 3pm. This 200-hectare estate with a jungle feel by the lake is beautiful with many nice self-contained cabins. But my room with Ulli is far from satisfactory: there are only two small beds with a tiny window: the air is stuffy and the room is dark and hot. The mosquito net is too thick. I was so hot that I had to remove the net. Luckily I had not been badly bitten by mosquitos and insects.
As the weather was fine, I took a guided walk at 4pm for Q125. Freddie Boy, Sarah (UK), Chris, Michael and I followed our guide Louise.
We had a pleasant walk before arriving at a tower for a 360-degree panoramic view of the lake and the surrounding area. We could see the mountain ranges located in Belize as well. But it was too cloudy for a beautiful sunset. We got back shortly after 6pm and I managed to have a swim before dinner. I had an enjoyable day.
May 15 Thursday: Rio Dulce
I did not sleep well owing to the heat. I got up at 5am for a 2-hour kayak trip (Q88) with seven members of the group. The weather was fine with fresh cool air and the water was calm. I had a solo kayak which is easy to manoeuver. We saw a dozen of howler monkeys which are easy to spot: they howl, make lots of noises and move around. I enjoy this trip: good exercise and peaceful and tranquil atmosphere in a swamp.
We had a good breakfast with plenty of fresh fruits, yogurt, eggs and pancakes. At 9am. We set off in two boats for Aqua Caliente near El Paradiso. The boat ride taking over an hour was uncomfortable as we were going against the wind. I had to sit tight holding onto the bench in front of me with both hands. Then we took a truck ride for 8 minutes and walked along a stream for another 10 minutes to reach a large nature rock pool.
The stream water flowing into the pool is cold while the water falling from a stream above the rocks is hot. I followed some locals to reach the source of the hot water which comes from a hot spring.
I saw people jumping from an 8-10m high cliff to the pool and decided to jump too. Somehow I was scare and had to take some 10 minutes to gather my courage. I landed on a fairly shallow end of the pool: this can be dangerous! At 1pm, Freddie Boy, Ulli and I walked back to the lakeshore while other took the truck. The boat trip back to the hotel was much better and faster. The trip finished at 3pm.
I had a lovely leisure afternoon writing and reading. We greeted Tom affectionately when he appeared in the restaurant at 8pm. He has got the radiator of Bessy fixed in Guatemala City. I was tired after a long day of activities and was able to sleep.
May 16 Friday: Rio Dulce – Poptún (185km; two hours and a half)
I woke up at 5:30am. The Wi-Fi connection was good and I spent two hours uploading photos on my website. At 10:30am, Bessy was back in action: we arrived at Finca Ixobel at 1pm. The lodge is set in a jungle with 160 hectares of land. I had a tree house far away from the main complex by myself as Emma who was supposed to stay there found the place too isolated and scary.
I love the lush vegetation and tranquility. I picked up a book on Jesus’s life and decided to read it (I heard so much about his life during my trip to Israel last year) and spent most of the afternoon reading. When it started to get dark, I suddenly found thousands of flying termites inside and outside my room. It’s time to take refuge in the restaurant and have a cocktail. The dinner was wholesome and delicious for Q55.
When I returned to my room, I found the floor covered with black wings discarded by the termites after mating. This phenomenon happens a few times a year i.e. normally at the beginning of the rain season. My friends headed to the bar close to my hut and asked me to join. As I had already settled comfortably inside the mosquito net, I decided my beauty sleep would be more important.
May 17 Saturday: Poptún
I had a good sleep and got up at 6am. It stopped raining and I enjoyed the fresh air and tranquility in the jungle. I wanted to do a full day cave walk and swim for Q75. But no one was interested and I had to abandon my plan.
Today, I joined Eva & Michael, Catherine & Steve, Yvonne & Gordon, Sarah (UK) and Emma on a self-guided jungle walk. We set off at 10:45am. The trail is well-signed and we reached a hill-top affording 360-degree view of the area. Then we followed the stream going through a jungle with lush vegetation. We hopped across the stream three times without getting wet and were back in the hotel at 12:10pm. It is one of the most enjoyable short walks I have had so far.
In the afternoon, some took a guided tour to a nearby cave. I was very satisfied with my morning walk and preferred to have a lazy time in my tree hut for the rest of the day.
May 18 Sunday: Poptún – Tikal – El Remate (180km; 4.5hrs)
We set off at 7am with a stop at a large shopping centre outside Flores to buy food. Yves got five roast chickens for lunch while my cook team under the leadership of Gordon brought beef and vegetables for a stir-fry for dinner. By noon we reached the Tikal National Park and had a lovely lunch with roast chicken and salad. Around 1:15pm, we began a 3-hour guided tour.
Tikal world famous for its steep-sided Maya temples is another must-see in Guatemala. The Maya settled in Tikal around 700 BC. By about 250 AD, Tikal had become an important religious, cultural and political centre. King Yax Moch Xoc began his reign around AD 230 and founded the ruling dynasty. Under King Great Jaguar Paw who ruled in the 4th century, Tikal became the dominant kingdom in the region. By the mid-6th century, Tikal extended over 30km² with an estimated population of 100,000. After a period of decline, Tikal revived around the 8th century under King Moon Double Comb (682-734), 26th successor of Yax Moch Xoc. He was also called Ah Cacau (Lord Chocolate). He and his successors were responsible for building most of the surviving temples around the Great Plaza. He was buried beneath Temple I. The dynasty with some 36 kings declined around AD 900. The central area of the city occupied about 16km² with more than 4,000 structures.In 1848, the Guatemala government sent an expedition to Tikal. In 1877, Dr Gustav Bernoulli of Switzerland came and removed lintels from Temples I and IV to Basel. Scientific exploration under Alfred P Maudslay began in 1881. Since 1956, archaeological research and restoration has been carried out by the University of Pennsylvania and the Guatemala authorities.
Today, Tikal National Park with an area of 550km² contains thousands of ruin structures. We began our walk at Complex Q and made our way to Temple IV for the post-card view of Tikal with Temples I, II and V standing majestically out above the jungle.
We crossed a causeway to reach the Great Plaza where the iconic twin temples (I and II) stand. The 44m-high Temples I built for King Moon Double Comb is also known as the Temple of the Grand Jaguar. I climbed the 38m-high Temple II which affords a fantastic view of the plaza and Temple I.
I joined the group and walked around North Acropolis which had more than 12 temples atop a vast platform around AD 800. We then went over to the Central Acropolis made up of a maze of courtyards, small rooms and temples. Some think it might have been a residential palace. We passed by the East Plaza before leaving the park. There are still many ruins and two museums to visit. But it is impossible to see the whole place in three hours on a group tour.
The original plan was to camp inside the National Park. But as there might be heavy rain in the evening, Yves arranged us to stay in a hostel instead. After the tour, we drove to El Remate, a small village by Lago de Petén Itzá known for its wood carving. I walked to the lakeshore for a quick glimpse of sunset and had a beer at a local bar before joining Gordon at the kitchen at 6:15pm. I could hear loud music and my friends’ screaming and laughter from the bar which is right next to the kitchen. They had a jolly time. For the first time on this trip, I had an urge to join them on the dancing floor!Gordon is an excellent cook and prepared a delicious beef stir-fry. We all had a wholesome meal. I shared a room with Ulli and we had the fan on and the door open. As a result, the room was airy and cool. I had a decent sleep.
May 19 Monday: Tikal, Guatemala – San Ignacio, Belize (70km; 2hrs)
It is a short drive to the border with Belize. We set off at 7:30am and arrived at Melchor de Mencos in about an hour’s time. I said good-bye to Guatemala and entered Belize around 9am.
I almost made a trip to Guatemala with Ah Bing, an old friend ten years ago. But I had to abandon my plan owing to work. My 11-day journey with Bessy (the yellow school bus) with Dragoman covering some 1200km in Guatemala turns out to be much more interesting.
Guatemala is the most popular tourism destination in Central America, is renowned for its cultural and natural heritage. The main draws are its two iconic attractions namely Antigua, a well-preserved colonial capital and Tikal, a Maya ruin. Without surprise, both live up to their reputation and are worth visiting. But the nice surprises for me are the visit to the home for the women with cancer in San Andres, our stay at Rio Dulce and our last night in Guatemala at El Remate.
As the weather was poor during my stay by Lago de Atitlán, there was no postcard view of the lake and surrounding volcanos. Most of the towns by the lake are touristy anyway. I am also disappointed by Chichicastenango which is best known for its market filled with colourful textile, weaving and Mayan artifacts. I like markets but am not interested in this one which I find touristy. Nonetheless, the Iglesia de Santo Tomás is interesting and most atmospheric owing to its beautiful interior, wooden architecture, Mayan features and practices. It is impressive and spiritual.
Like the rest of Central and South America, Guatemala is beset with lots of problems. As a tourist in a group, I have not seen the real Guatemala!