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.
EVII-Sub at Uaxactun, Guatamala, Maya Epi-Classic, 100-250 c.e.
This 27-foot radial (four sided) pyramid contains staircases on all sides flanked by large masks. The structure’s primary orientation is to the east and is used as an annual calendar, with the sun rising directly behind the facing buildings on solstices. EVII-Sub was built to celebrate the completion of the solar gods, the radial plan being derived from the Maya glyph for the sun (k'in). All radial pyramids symbolize cyclic completion. The masks display the crocodilian earth, the solar deity, the sky deity and the sun deity.
Solar cycle completion rituals were introduced to the Maya from Teotihuacan in Central Mexico, the largest city in the world at the time. The city ruled Tikal and Uaxactun and traded in all directions. They introduced atlatl (spearthrowers) which were a technological advancement over regular spears.
Chan Chan, Uaxactun, Caracas: patrimonio amenazado en Latinoamérica
Las ruinas de Uaxactun en Guatemala, el complejo de adobe de Chan Chan en Perú, y la Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas son tres de los 15 lugares de Latinoamérica y el Caribe incluidos en la lista 2014 de patrimonio amenazado del World Monuments Fund (WMF), revelada el martes. (…)
Chan Chan, Uaxactun, Caracas: patrimonio amenazado en Latinoamérica
It’s been just over a month since we stepped over the figurative line that signified our entry into Guatemala - a month since our passport said ‘Yep, you’re here!’ And yet, these short four weeks of March don’t come close to justifying the several lifetimes we’ve lived. From jumping on a bus to the small, deep-jungle community of Uaxactún, to working in a vegetarian restaurant in the heart of Guatemala City, to joining in on a six-day liquid fast in the hippy-haven of San Marcos la Laguna, these experiences can’t measure to any specific amount of time.
No, these experiences were a genuine reflection of the jellyfish tattooed on my wrist. Of going with the flow.
As stated in a previous entry, counting by the days rather than the minutes and hours helped us achieve this. In such a short span of time we’ve managed to see and learn so much about this one country, and, although its landmass is but a fraction of our own, have come to understand how diverse and culturally-rich this region is. From this, we’ve also gained the understanding that it will take more than a single month to truly identify and comprehend all of Guatemala, but that’s no surprise.
What we do know: beyond Guatemala’s diversity and cultural richness lies historical scars going as far back as the 1500s, with the arrival of the Spanish, all the way to 1996, with the conclusion of a 36-year-long Civil War. Having only been sixteen years since stability was somewhat formed, it’s no wonder we’ve seen what we’ve seen. Poor working wages, poverty and crime reflect this period of restructure, where a democratic government (as opposed to prior dictatorships) has only begun to set its roots and grow. The extreme pollution, trash buildup, and animal conditions are a consequence of education, which is sometimes completely absent in poorer communities.
With the direction the country is going in, however, this will hopefully become a thing of the past soon.
What else we know: despite a bloody past, its proneness to natural disaster, and its infamous reputation of 'being dangerous,’ the majority of people here have displayed a sincere curiosity and friendliness towards us that easily could’ve been replaced by cautiousness or malcontent. Being totally immersed in Uaxactún was the biggest reminder of that, where we were welcomed with open arms and spent a good chunk of time answering questions by children or by our hosts, the Aldana’s. Even on our way to Uaxactún, a local woman working at the bus terminal invited us to her home in El Remate - something we never had time to do but were touched by the sentiment regardless. With that, I’d like to express my thankfulness to the people we’ve met in Guatemala - to the indigenous, the locals, and everybody else (especially you couchsurfing hosts!).
We are also thankful for experiencing the markets and having the ability to buy fresh, local produce for next to nothing. Wherever you are in the world, the state of the nation is consistently reflected by the prices of its grocery and its selection. The pleasure of this cheap shopping has been accompanied by concrete realization, where enough food to last a couple for three days costs less than twenty dollars. Our gratitude for these hardworking people, many of whom spend their entire lives growing and selling crops, is immense, as is our appreciation for the new foods we’ve got to try.
Gratefulness extends beyond the people and the food to the land itself. From the scorching tropical rainforests of the north to the far cooler highlands region of the south, we’ve only really seen a portion of what Guatemala has to offer. And yet, we’ve been thrilled by it. Whether it was stargazing in the jungle, climbing ruins, or watching active volcanoes smoke on the horizon - we’ve been thrilled by it.
Leah and I leave tomorrow at six in the morning for Chiapas, Mexico, with the memories of the last month fresh in our minds. A growing excitement has begun to tickle our hearts, however, anytime we begin talking about home. The visualization of Canada in the late spring/early summer has become all too enticing, and our northbound first steps hold a special bounce to them.
The last week has been a wonderful experience, and we’ve met some equally wonderful people. The fundraising fast, the music nights, the artisans, the artwork, the eco-building and permaculture… symbols of unmistakable good intention behind the San Marcos community, and we’re happy we’ve been able to give back something. Collectively, we raised 8k with the other fasters for the nutrition centre - two thousand dollars more than they were shooting for. Amazing!
Speaking of which, Leah and I broke the fast last night with a vegetarian chimichanga and mole sauce, and have been happily chewing since.
After a sleepless fifteen hours of overnight travel consisting of two buses and a taxi, Kale and I made it to Flores.
Traveling overnight was our best option as we needed to transfer onto a new bus in Belize City; a get-in-and-get-the-fuck-out kind of place.
And that’s exactly what we did.
Our bus got in at 8:20am, and we were on our next bus to the border at 8:40am.
This was my first experience on what the locals call a chicken bus: an old school bus that is super cheap to ride and packed full of people, their luggage, and cardboard boxes with chickens in them.
On this bus we met and chatted with a few locals, played some songs on my ukulele, and I got to sit on top of the luggage in the back of the bus for a good hour after giving my seat up to a woman toting a two-year-old son and freshly-made three-week-old baby girl.
Once at the border, we packed ourselves into a taxi alongside seven other travelers and arrived at Los Amigos Hostel in Flores a few hours later.
Los Amigos - the first hostel of our trip - chosen because Kale had stayed there three years ago and had a really great experience.
The place was buzzing; a pod of hammocks were hung to the right, a restaurant and lounge at the back, treehouse bedrooms above, and beautiful paintings were covering the walls.
We were swept away into a quiet second building and given a private room hidden under the stairs. We had to duck under a staircase, climb through a hole in the wall, and jump off a counter to get into our room. As interesting of an entrance this was, it was now our home for the next three days.
Getting to know our surroundings, eating a good meal, and napping was definitely needed. We walked around the streets and Kale was amazed by how much had changed on the island. There were new restaurants, bars, hotels, and hostels all over the place. Even Los Amigos had tripled in size. All of this had happened over the past three years because of all the attention on the Mayan calendar. Flores had become a hotspot for tourists for a place to stay in order to get a look at the Mayan ruins in Tikal.
Menus in English consisting of giant portions of hamburgers and fries, pasta with cream sauce, and ice cream sundaes – although tasty - didn’t really seem too Guatemalan to us, so we went out searching for the locals.
As we walked over the bridge into the city of Santa Elena with a mini-mall and Burger King at the main intersection, we found ourselves sitting at a local restaurant eating tacos made by a mother and thirteen-year-old daughter, followed by a large coconut purchased from the back of truck from a twelve-year-old girl packing a machete.
We had begun to find what we were looking for, real life in Flores, but that all changed once Kale met Maui – a white Mexican with mop-top dreadlocks and countless tattoos who sells his handmade jewellery and exotic animal bones on the street along side his wife Judy and six-month-old son Olie.
We sat and chatted with the couple for about two hours, going over all the crystals and different animal parts that covered his blanket before he begun to tell us about Uaxactun; a village in the jungle about a four hour bus ride from Flores that he has been living in - off an on - for about twelve years.
Our eyes lit up and we sat like children while he told us story after story. When he told us how to get there, and told us we could stay in his hut and leave our extra baggage at his house in Flores we immediately started to pack. We bought all our groceries, firewood, water, and candles and set off on Saturday afternoon.
We spent four days and five nights living amongst the people of Uaxactun. The moment we got on the bus we were instantly the minority causing giggles from children, staring and funny looks. The citizens of this one thousand people village don’t see Caucasians very often.
A pack of boys ran after us once we stepped off the bus and took everything we had and carried it to our new home. They stayed with us for about an hour and returned at least three times each day.
The young girls made eyes at Kale, drew pictures with me, and danced around. The boys played the ukulele while Kale played guitar and yelled my name as they ran by hoping I would look up at them.
The hut we were staying in was located on the property of Don Elfido, the mayor of Uaxactun. He and his wife Ampalo live on and run a small campground called Aldana’s Lodge. Aldana’s was equipped with showers, washbasins, an outhouse, cabins for rent as well as room for tents, and livestock roaming the property.
Everyone cooked over an open flame and Ampalo was kind enough to share hers with me. She would come in and out of the kitchen while I cooked taking a peak at what I was creating. We had more then a few awkward moments when she would try to strike up a conversation with me or tell me the names of the foods I was using and I had absolutely no idea what she was saying to me. For the first couple days I felt like she didn’t like having me around because of our language barrier, until one morning she grabbed my waist and said “Bonita” - which means “beautiful”. I wish I could go back and pick her brain; what is it like being the Mayor’s wife, having raised eight children, feeding the children at the school house, having to put up with random strangers who stumble upon her property looking for a place to sleep and call home for a few days. But now that I think about it, I don’t need to ask her, I already know. She does it all out of love – for her husband, her children, her community – she is very much a woman; a woman who reminds me a lot of my Grandmother.
Kale and I set off on a few adventures while in Uaxactun. There are two sets of Mayan ruins on either side of the village that have not been made public just yet. We got to explore all alone. The sizes of these structures were massive and completely boggled my mind as to how the Mayan people built them.
In the village there is a small museum filled with artefacts found while excavating these ruins. The shelves were filled with clay bowls, cups, had two skulls, and special jars for drinking cacao. There was a table with different whistles, arrowheads, and earrings just like the ones we saw in Cozumel in Alejandro’s collection. The shopkeeper told us that there would have been plenty more but a lot of pieces were demolished when the workers first started excavating, having used dynamite.
After exploring the local ruins we headed off on the bus at six in the morning to Tikal – a giant set of Mayan ruins and major tourist attraction. With a backpack full of food and walking sticks in hand we set off on a four hour hike around Tikal.
Monkeys swung in the treetops overhead and bright yellow butterflies danced by. The deeper we went in the larger the temples became. We hiked up eight different structures, one of which was sixty-four meters high. We sat in one structure which overlooked four others in a court yard and imagined what it would have been like to live there, to have it filled with life. How they used different seeds for paints, fruits for glue, animals for clothing and giant rock slabs for buildings. My mind is still completely dumbfounded by how they could have made these buildings so large, some perfectly symmetrical, and for what purpose? I guess we will never really know…
When Kale and I returned to Flores we were warmly welcomed into the home of Maui and Judy and stayed for a few days. We shared our stories of Uaxactun and begun to plan our next move.
Guatemala City was on the radar as a get in, get out kind of place until Kale received an email from a random man on Couch Surfing inviting us to his Communal Home.
Having just been in the jungle for five days, the thought of being in a city was a little overwhelming but hey, what are we here for - to experience as much of Guatemala as we can.