Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Country Review: Guatemala

Dates there: 19th to 22nd September 2014: 4 days

Guatemala's Wonders: Tikal

On the Longlist: El Mirador, Yaxha

Guatemala isn't a big country, and it doesn't have a big profile. What it does have are ruins. Lots of ruins. Mostly they are Maya. And they are pretty damn fantastic.

This is Tikal, and it's amazing, currently riding high at number 6 on my leaderboard. It's the big attraction of Guatemala, and if my leaderboard is to be trusted, one of the big attractions of the world. It's dripping in atmosphere and lost world charm. It's a large site that rewards exploration. These two meagre photos don't do it justice.

Danielle and I were only in Guatemala for four days, specially to see Tikal. We wished we'd time to stay longer. We stayed in the delightful little colonial town of Flores, about an hour away from the ruins. Flores is situated on a small island in Lake Peten, on the edges of the larger and grimmer Santa Elena. It has charming bars and cafes, and very cheap cocktails. Sure, it's geared toward the backpacker crowd, but that didn't stop it being a delight.

Part of why we wished we'd stayed longer is because it's a mission to get there. At least by the route we took. Before Flores, we'd been in Palenque in Mexico. Google Maps tells you that it takes 5 hours 42 minutes to go from one to other. It is not true. Something closer to 14 hours is the reality. Fourteen hours of tiny, bumpy tracks, crossing rivers, in cramped minibuses or battered old schoolbuses. Leaving Flores is no easier. We wanted to return to Mexico, and took a shuddering minibus to the Mexican border town of Chetumal, via Belize. Fifteen hours later, we arrived.

So, if you ever visit Flores and Tikal, I would advise going by a different route. But once there, it's worth it. Flores is a charm; Tikal is incredible. And two cocktails for £1 can soften the edges of your nerves after a long bus journey.

We didn't have any time for the rest of Guatemala, so I can't pretend I got much of a feel for it. It's not a wealthy country and has its issues, but the other travellers we met in Flores, those who had already been through it, all seemed very positive. It has abundant natural beauty. As far as man-made marvels, you've got to look far into the past. Modern Guatemala is low-level and run-down. But a thousand or so years ago it was a different story. Tikal was just one the city-states that ruled. There were many others. This Wikipedia page lists some.

The two that I think stand out, in terms of what remains today in a form that impresses the visitor, are El Mirador and Yaxha. El Mirador was one of the big guns of the early Maya world, lasting for over a thousand years, peaking around 3rd Century BC. It was so lost in the jungle that it wasn't rediscovered until 1926, and today remains pretty untouched. It contains three pyramids, one of them - La Danta - being the tallest Maya structure ever built, at 70 metres, and including its large platform is often considered one of the most massive ancient structures in the world. The civic centre covers 10 square miles and has several thousand structures, many of them huge. But it's very overgrown, and very lost in the jungle. If a concerted effort is ever made to excavate this properly, this could be special.

A more obvious attraction is Yaxha. It's cleaner and less overgrown, and its big boys are easy to readily appreciate. After El Mirador and Tikal, it's the largest in Guatemala, with over 500 structures. Here's one of the best, the North Acropolis.

Cheap cocktails and loads of jungle ruins, what's not to like? 


  1. That top photo, I'm pretty sure, shows a location that was used in Star Wars. It looks very familiar.

    1. It was indeed. A pretty adventurous shooting location for the 70s.


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