Chapter 6. Guatemala
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2004 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Backpacks, bags, water jug, binoculars - and all other sundries that are needed for our two-day trip to Guatemala - sit in the lobby awaiting our van and driver. Half an hour late, a red mini van with a driver that speaks little English appears. Piling in, we set off for our first experience into a true Central American country. The owner of our hotel suggests we leave, and we do leave, our valuables with her in a lock bag. Now that does not instill much confidence in our trip. No one expresses their concerns out loud, but one cannot go into Guatemala and not wonder about all the things you have heard. A half-hour later, the driver motions us out of the van into the Belize border exit station. Here we pay a departure tax and get our passports stamped. We walk about a block to the entrance of Guatemala and get our passports stamped again. We officially are now within the borders of Guatemala. Men with cash ask if want to exchange money into the official currency, the quetzal, valued at about 12 cents against the US dollar. Declining, we get back into the van to begin the two-hour trip to Tikal. For thirty miles, the road is muddy, full of potholes with little traffic and few people. All we see through the misty foggy morning are a few stick shacks, a couple of men on bicycles, and a jungle so deep that I wonder should we stop, the vines would grow up our legs. All of a sudden the road becomes wonderful, paved, smooth and wide. Apparently the money ran out during construction and now the unfinished road is a political issue. On the park road entrance we see cautionary yellow signs warning of strange animals, deer, coatis and snakes. I wish the driver would stop so I could take a picture of the signs. I do not think I have ever seen a wiggly snake on a yellow diamond caution sign. Finally arriving, we exit the van into the lobby of our lodge. Three of our four rooms are reserved, and Bert and I have to negotiate another room. I have had horrendous trouble with the agency I used to book this package, dealing with constant misunderstandings, miscommunications and price increases since August. So, I am not surprised we have another mishap. Bert and I finally find a room that reminds me of a youth hostel. Two twin beds on a cement floor, a bare light bulb in the ceiling, shared bathroom outside about 100 feet distant, no towels, no toilet paper, and no curtains on the window. No guide is awaiting us as promised either, but the lodge manager arranges one for us. Our guide is great, and for three hours walks us to the ruins telling us not only the history of the ruins but also gives us a little appreciation of his current history and life. He carries a number of books in his shoulder pack and we stop to watch many birds. Keel-billed Toucans seem to be a dime a dozen, but I never tire of looking at their funny colorful peak. Spider Monkeys play in the trees and howler monkeys sound their territory marking. The ruins themselves are a little disappointing. Only a few have been reconstructed and to see them, one must walk a good 1.5 miles up into the jungle. At least the path is shaded. Before a restful nap, swim and shower, we partake of a buffet lunch around the pool. Drinks are not included in the price of the lunch, and the price of the drinks changes constantly. Finally we settle on a price for seven drinks, pay for seven drinks but receive only six. It takes Bert a full 5 min. to get the additional drink. This country is something else! Dinner goes a bit smoother. Afterwards we meet with the tour operator and for the next hour haggle over the price of the tour package. More misunderstandings and miscommunications occur. We even bring in the lodge manager on three separate occasions to help us understand the pricing. To make a dissatisfying story short, we end up paying an additional $474. (I want to get out of Guatemala tomorrow.) But I will NEVER use that agency again and have learned a lot about how business is done in Guatemala: a big generalization I'm sure, but the only experience I have. Next time I'll know what questions to ask and what things may not be included. Who would think a bathroom would not have toilet paper or a room no towels or soap? What buffet - bundled with the room - does not include some kind of soft drink or at least water? And why do some operators have to charge taxes and others not? When is there an entrance fee or exit fee and is it included? How many classes of guides exist? I have made a list of every dime I spent and next year it will be itemized. But knowing how these people operate, I would not be surprised to find other hidden charges: like maybe a menu charge, gasoline, or a dollar conversion charge or, or, or . The list can go on as long as your imagination I suppose. Except for Bert and my room, the other rooms are superb. Individual cabanas with nice fluffy towels, toilet paper, two big beds, windows with curtains and screens, air conditioning, clean (but jungle damp) tiled floor and nice outside patio with chairs are set on immaculate grounds. The howling of the monkeys and the strange birdcalls are right outside the windows.
(Bert) We each pay the BZ$37 exit fee as we leave Belize, even though we will return tomorrow. Immediately we see a sharp contrast between Belize and Guatemala. The paved road of Belize turns into a terribly eroded dried-mud road of Guatemala. In front of us, deep furrows in the mud suspend the tires of semi-tractor truck such that only one-half of two of the four tires makes contact with the ground. The driver of our transport van swings left and right, trying vainly to find a flat surface, but for the first 20 miles he only reaches 15 mph in short fits and starts. We pass little villages of ramshackle houses huddled between dirt road and tall forest, but the trees are only in remnants, separated by cleared patches of green not clearly evident of agricultural use. We once thought of Mexico as being poor, until we saw Belize. Now, both seem rich compared to Guatemala. Some distance from Puerto del Cielo, without fanfare and with no association with a village or boundary, the road transforms to smooth pavement, a reasonable shoulder, and easy driving. In my log I jot down notes of what I see: Aldea Las Viñas, 4 Rock Pigeons, tall trees lightly barked, cleared land, palms, hilly, horses, pigs, mangy dogs, blue sky, thatched roofs, open houses, Aldea El Zapote, puffs of low clouds against a ruby red horizon. We pass a large lagoon on the right, turn north and stop for a few moments to view Peten Itza lake on our left. This area is a resort of sorts, with lots of tourists and buildings not hinting at the poverty we saw earlier. We continue for another half-hour to the entrance of Tikal National Park. Here the road becomes even better as we wind northward under an archway of trees. Curious road signs warn or entice us of the presence of wildlife: snake, jaguar, deer. We see our first Ocellated Turkey, then reach the lodges, restaurants and shops that border the Tikal ruins entrance. It is 9:58 AM, three hours since we left San Ignacio, Belize. After checking into the lodge we begin a tour of the ruins with Benecio as our guide. Every Mayan ruins has its own personality and setting and certainly Tikal is different as well. Bordered by marshes on two sides - unseen by us since they are densely covered with trees - the Mayans moved tons of limestone rock to build a tall island in the jungle. Then they built their temples on the hill, eventually accumulating 4000 monuments and housing 100,000 people. From our lodge and the ruins entrance, we hike a long distance to the first structure and even more to the other groupings. Along the way we encounter three Spider Monkeys, three Yucatan Black Howlers, a Coati, a Gray Fox and four Yucatan Squirrels - a remarkable mammal count for midday. We soon draw other inquisitive tourists when we stop to watch Keel-billed Toucans and Collared Aracaris, but among our best birds I'll list the Bright-rumped Attila that waited patiently while we tried to identify it in the dark shadows of a tall tree. Dave and I climb one tall temple - Tikal is unique for the number of well-preserved tall temples that reach well above the jungle canopy - and have a panoramic view of the forest and other tops of temples. From there we can hear an Orange-breasted Falcon calling, but cannot locate it. The walk back to the lodge is long and hot, even under the forest shade, and we work up an appetite for the late lunch we have around the pool. Shari and I swim in the pool later and then I join the others for some late afternoon birding. A reservoir built by the ancient Mayans now is an oasis for water-loving birds and we find colorful Purple Gallinules and camera-tame jacanas. Along the old airport runway I get a brief, but satisfying, view of a Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, a skulker rarely seen and a first for me. We have dinner again poolside, this time under the stars.
(Shari) "Bert, Bert," I whisper into the blackness, "I have to go to the bathroom." I want him to go with me since it is so dark. The electricity was turned off about 10 PM and now it is 1 AM. I cannot see my hand in front of my face. Bert gets out of the door before I do and I hear him mutter that this will be impossible. I "see" what he means since even outside, we cannot see anything. The bathroom looms about 100 feet down the covered veranda that separates our rooms from the jungle. Even if we feel our way to it, we will never find our way back, much less which room is ours. Bert says, "I can go here." Oh great, what do I do? Well, I manage and step back to our room door. But Bert cannot find his way back even though I am only five feet from him. Sticking my arm out from the doorway, I tell him to feel for it. After stumbling over a chair, he touches my fingers and I pull him inside. For the next two hours, every sound I hear must be, in my mind's eye, some insect, snake or animal that somehow crept into our room while we were out. After showering, I meet the group for breakfast. Judy rushes the delicious buffet of omelettes, fruit, toast, pancakes, refried beans and juice, to search for a Pheasant Cuckoo. Don and I go on a hot date. The temperature and the humidity must be hovering around 90 and it does not take us long to shop the stalls filled with Guatemalan crafts. After lunch our mini van awaits to take us back to Belize. Not hindered by fog, I see that very few people live on this jungle-surrounded road. Periodically the jungle opens to fields interspersed with palm trees, but no people. What few people we see live in dilapidated stick hovels covered with rusty corrugated metal sheets. Don't even imagine curtains on the open windows with no screens. These places do not even have doors. Open archways give us a view inside of bare dirt floors and a few plastic chairs. Children with bare feet stare at us, as do their parents. I used to think Belize was a poor country, but today it looks rich and I am happy to see the "Welcome to Belize" sign on the hillside at the border. I cannot get my passport stamped for entry fast enough and I am very happy to be back in the Queen's Room at San Ignacio.
(Bert) "When you are a parrot, its hard to smile and sing at the same time." That's Dave's quip when he reports our observation of two Red-lored Parrots copulating while perched on a high branch near the Mayan reservoir. I'm surprised how close we can get to the wildlife at Tikal. I've tried many times to get good photos of Olive-throated Parakeets and today is the first time I've succeeded in getting close enough to these fidgety birds. I find a Black Vulture trying to extract some garbage from a trash barrel and when I photograph its head - I'm so close that the rest of the bird spills over the edge of my close-up lens - the vulture grunts at me. I always thought of them as silent birds, but if you get within three feet, you can hear this low-pitched pig-like grunt. We hike to a lagoon near the other end of the runway, hoping to find Pheasant Cuckoos that have been reported there, but when we arrive the lagoon is still but for the flutter of a few pretty butterflies. After lunch, we board the van for our return trip to Belize. The ruins were remarkable and well worth seeing, but we end up a bit short on the bird list.
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