It’s been just over a week since we first arrived in Flores, Guatemala, but it already feels like a lifetime ago.
Travel truly nullifies the concept of time. It’s not much of a concern to begin with when you’re on the go - aside from a bus schedule here or there - but it loses any and all focus when opportunity flies in your direction, and you fly with it. When you begin to count by the days, rather than the minutes or hours, you become a little more integrated in the flow rather than a routine. I guess you could say this has already happened to us.
When we got to the island of Flores, we were enchanted by its tranquility and fantastic proximity to freshwater. It’s a beautiful, colourful little town with cobblestone streets that rise up towards the centre of the island, forming both the tallest peak and the town square. Staying at the same hostel I had been to three years ago was a trip. Walking around streets that my feet had already been familiarized with was too. But there was something different about it this time.
It seemed bigger, ritzier hotels and restaurants had popped up along the beachfronts in the last few years, and more of your run-of-the-mill tourist types walked the streets. A Burger King now existed on the opposite side of the bridge. A Western-style strip mall was not too far off, either. Even our hostel, Los Amigos, had expanded to three times the size it used to be.
It was said that the influx of interest regarding the Mayans (and their calendar) had sparked this development, attracting thousands of people annually to experience the nearby ruins of Tikal. With the growth of tourism, however, came the growth of prices, and although still cheap in comparison to home, they were still not entirely friendly to budget travellers such as ourselves.
Leah and I still took the time to ground out, adjusting to our new surroundings and getting to know the people we had traveled with. But within the first full day of being in Guatemala, I ended up striking a conversation with a dreaded, white-skinned Mexican who was selling his handicraft on the waterfront.
Cool thing was, there wasn’t just pretty necklaces or bracelets on his display rug. No - this guy had things like jaguar teeth, monkey skulls, rattlesnake skin, pelts, hooves, and even two hawk talons wrapped around large, precious stones. He told me it was all from the jungle, and when I inquired further he told me about Uaxactún, the village him, his wife and child live in that exists 23 km north of Tikal - even further into the remote wilderness.
This was opportunity flying in our direction.
Leah and I sat and talked with him for a couple hours. His name was Maui, a San Luis-borne Mexican with an incredibly diverse past; an ex-guerilla soldier for the Guatemalan rebels, an ex-Alaskan king crab fisherman, and now a jungle-dwelling artesian with a whole lot of knowledge and a love for weed. He told us everything about Uaxactún and it’s hardworking people; where we could stay if we went; what we’d need to bring; which bus to take and when; and how much it would cost us. He told us there were ruins there, uncovered and unrestored, that you could walk to from town and witness without the crowds associated with Tikal. And how, once we were done with those, we could still take a local bus back to Tikal and enter for free, as we’d be coming from Uaxactún.
All of this was a gigantic bargain compared to what hostels or tour groups were offering in Flores, and offered a far richer experience. Maui’s stories of the jungle and its beauty sold us immediately.
So off we went. Leah and I spent a day going into Santa Elena - the adjoining city - and buying supplies, and left the next (Saturday, March 2nd). Maui and his Guatemalan wife, Judy (‘you-dee’), even allowed us to leave some of our bags at their home on Flores, and offered us a place to stay upon our return. So we allowed ourselves to trust, flew with the opportunity, and took the 2pm local bus to the mystery that was Uaxactún.
Leah and I immediately stood out. The camioneta first pulled into the old market - an incredibly dense, narrow, colourful maze of shops and produce stands - and boarded both passengers and kids trying to sell fruit or drink. The kids came directly to the back where we sat and, even after saying ’No, gracias,' continued to stare at us, smiling, and ask us questions. It was strange for them to see foreigners on this bus. And as we moved from the city, to the countryside, to the jungle - we understood why. We were the only two white people on this side of Peten, arriving in a village of one thousand Mayan Guatemalans.
We spent the following five days completely immersed in the jungle community. Maui had directed us to 'Aldana’s Lodge,’ home of the 68-year-old Alcalde Don Elfido, his wife Ampalo, and three of their sons (out of five other children). Maui lived here with Judy and their baby in a bungalow on the property, and this is where we stayed.
We were immediately welcomed. Even when we first got off the bus, a group of children relieved of us of all our baggage and escorted us to Aldana’s upon our request. They took us to Ampalo, who set up our beds and offered us kitchenware and a stove that fostered a perpetual wood-burning fire. Elfido showed us around, pointing out where the showers and outhouses were. The children surrounded us when we started unpacking our bags, prodding us with questions until the sun completely disappeared.
It wouldn’t be the first time in the days to follow when we’d be surrounded by kids. It seems that poi, guitar, ukulele, pencil crayons, and two funky lookin’ honkies tends to draw a crowd.
Uaxactún is a village north of the ruins of Tikal, which themselves are famous for being located deep in the heart of the jungle. You can imagine what this makes Uaxactún. It’s connected to the mainland by a long, twisting, bumpy dirt road and one servicing bus. It’s been on the map for a hundred years and has near a thousand people who call it home, and was first established back when Japan ordered incredulous amounts of chicle, a natural gum that the surrounding trees are rich with. An airstrip was initially made to fly workers in, but homes eventually began going up and a village grew around it.
Archeologists caught wind of this not long after, only to come and discover large neighbouring ruins on either side. They named the village Uaxactún - Mayan for 'Eight Stones’ and a play on the name Washington, where the discovering archeologist was originally from.
The beautiful thing about this was, unlike Tikal, these ruins had not yet been opened to the public. The two days we spent checking them out it was just Leah, myself, and the jungle. Even the following day we spent at the typically busy Tikal there weren’t many people, and the experience was very similar to the tranquility we felt at the ruins in Uaxactún. Just more monkeys, and three times as much walking. We climbed eight temples that day, one of which sat at 64 meters high, far above the canopy of the jungle. Makes you think… how did the Mayans manage any of this?
The villagers there are indeed a strong, hardworking people, and contend with the reality of the jungle on a day-to-day basis. Of the more dangerous things, this includes boars, jaguars, poisonous insects and venomous snakes, including the coral and terrifying barba amarilla, whose skin alone is enough to kill you upon contact. Fortunately there are hundreds of exotic birds, monkeys, and flowers who share the forest with them (you can imagine the sounds we’d hear upon waking every morning). The people live in modest wooden homes with thatch-roofing and dirt floors, and let their animals roam free. There are two hours of electricity a night. They survive off maiz, or corn, and have several diesel-operated machines in town that grind it up to form the dough used in their tortillas. When they need water, they rope two buckets onto a piece of wood and shoulder it back from the little lagoon, which is home to a crocodile. The men work Monday to Friday in the jungle, the women take domestic duties, and the children study and play.
It’s a simplistic way of living, when looking at it from our Western perspective of go-go-go, get a career, get ahead, be successful way of thinking. These people worked to survive. And they were happy to have what they have. A little insight in to what we actually need in our lives, and how much luxury we take for granted.
It was an amazing experience overall, and Leah and I really got a first-hand look into how these people lived. We’ve since returned to Flores with a better appreciation and understanding of the Guatemalan lifestyle and country as a whole. There are so many little stories and details and conversations that I wish to include but can’t, otherwise I’d risk making this already lengthy post longer. The photos will suffice, and to anyone who’s curiosity is unfulfilled I am more than happy to answer questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Climbing our first temple of Tikal:
We are leaving northern Guatemala tonight, after having lived with Maui and Judy for the past few days. Our bus leaves around 10:30pm, and will arrive at Guatemala City sometime in the morning. It looks like we’ve connected with a couchsurfing host who runs a communal home and vegetarian restaurant, so we’ll see what the next few days look like.
Thanks for reading.
*All other photos can be found at http://www.flickr.com/klphotograph