March 5, 2006

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

We just got back from our big splurge for this trip: an inland visit to the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. It was fantastic.

We sailed Zora from Utila, in Honduras, to the small strip of coast that Guatemala has on the Caribbean. There, in the far southwest corner of the Gulf of Honduras, the Rio Dulce meets the sea. With our 6 foot draft, we had to play the tides in order to cross the bar of sand and silt that's built up at the river mouth. We arrived at dawn for the morning high tide, which was only a high of 0.6 feet above datum, rather than the 1.7 foot high tide in the afternoon. But we figured we'd give it a try. At exactly 15 minutes before high tide, we started across, at full throttle. We'd heard that sometimes you just have to plow your away through. We watched the depth meter read: 7.0, 6.8, 6.4, 6.2, 6.0, uh-oh!, 5.8, 5.6!!!!!!! bump, bump, bump.... but we kept on going and soon we were across. Phew! After clearing into the country in Livingston (with some of the friendliest officials we've met yet) we started up the Rio. The first section of the river is breathtaking: you sail between vertical cliffs towering 600 feet over your head, dripping with jungle plants and flowers. It was like an all-natural version of sailing down New York's East River. Very dramatic!

By late afternoon we were anchored near the village of Rio Dulce, where a dozen or so marinas have sprung up to accommodate the growing yachtie population. We fell asleep listening to the Howler monkeys on the nearby shore, and the next morning checked out the marinas to see where we'd leave the boat while went inland. We let Olivia choose, and her pick was Mario's Marina, with it's nice pool and hammocks and pretty grounds. It turns out there's also a 10-year-old girl here she's been able to play with some days.

It's great to have the boat in fresh water. We washed all the salt off the deck using the raw water washdown: fresh clean water! The heads have never smelled so sweet. The barnacles are falling off the propeller. Apparently a lot of boats who stay here for 6 moths at a time (and many, many do) have problems with blisters, but we'll only be here a week, so we should be fine.

We'd been told that there was no place to rent a car in the Rio Dulce, so we figured we'd be taking busses to Tikal. At the last minute, though, we heard that one of the marinas has a car to rent. We found it at Susanna's Laguna Marina, for $50 a day. Compared to the cost of three of us taking busses and shuttles to Flores and Tikal, the car was actually cheaper! And it turned out to make all the difference for our visit. We were on our own schedule, not the busses'. It was very relaxed. We picked up the car first thing Wednesday morning, and started driving. The Guatemalan countryside is gorgeous: we wound through steep dramatic hills and jungle, then cleared plains with ranches and cattle, through a mountain range, and finally into the more arid area near Lake Peten Itza and the little island-city of Flores, near Tikal. We stopped for lunch at a backpacker-type ecological hotel/farm called Finca Ixobel, and saw scarlet macaws, pacas, and Great Curassow birds.

We continued on to Tikal and arrived just after lunchtime. We checked into our hotel, the Jaguar Inn, which, despite warnings from other travelers that it was shabby, was actually really very nice!! After resting a little bit, we headed for the ruins.

WOW!!!! It was even more awe-inspiring than I remembered from my visit 17 years ago. A lot more has been excavated since then. There is so much to see, and it's all amazing. First of all, the wildlife is fantastic. Since we were staying right in the park, we were able to spend late afternoon and early morning at the ruins, when there are very few tourists and lots more wildlife. We saw Spider monkeys and Howler monkeys at fairly close range (including mothers with infants); flocks of Red-lored parrots; Keel-billed Toucans, brightly colored Moctezuma's Oropendulas with their teardrop-shaped hanging nests; Lineated woodpecker; Oscilated Turkeys; Great Kiskadees; Chacalacas; Ivory-billed woodcreeper; hummingbirds, brown jays, and other birds; as well as a Coatimundi ambling along the path.

The ruins themselves are really awesome. Liv had gotten a wonderful book about Tikal for Christmas, so we knew the history and something about the people who lived there. It was exciting, after reading about their lives, to see the tombs of Lady Twelve Macaw and Hasaw Chan K'Awil.

The "Great Plaza" is the most impressive, but we had fun exploring the other sites as well. Near sunset we climbed up the tallest pyramid , Temple IV, for a fabulous view in the golden light.

The next morning, early, we went back into the park and explored some more. At Temple V, an incredibly steep building just recently excavated, Liv and I chickened out halfway up. Neil made it to the top, though, and had an awesome view. Amazing that the Mayans climbed up the steps of these temples; we had wooden ladders with handholds and even that was too scary: they had to ascend only the nearly vertical shallow stone steps!! Here's Neil's view looking down the steps: those tiny ants are Liv and I at the bottom...

We also really enjoyed The Seven Temples, and area that is currently being excavated and restored. You can see a real archeological dig underway, and wander around looking at all aspects of it. We also liked The Lost World, with many of the structures still covered with jungle. It was fascinating.


Walking through the jungle between sites, we also saw countless other structures as yet uncovered, which looked like steep jungle hills with slightly unnaturally precise corners and edges. It was easy to imagine the first European explorers coming across the site in the jungle 150 years ago....

After a fantastic lunch of Guatemalan chicken and tortillas, we left the park and drove to Flores for the night. At dinnertime, we ate at an "archeological cafe" run by an archeologist: he gave a slideshow on Mayan life that was fascinating. In Flores we also did some souvenir shopping. Poor Liv: at the tourist shop at Tikal she'd found this cool carved wooden jaguar she wanted. There were lots of them there, and a traveler we met said, oh, everything's cheaper in Flores! So, Liv didn't buy her jaguar at Tikal. But in Flores, we could not find the same kind of jaguar! The shops had every other type of souvenir and textile that the Tikal shops had, but not the jaguar. Liv was crushed. We couldn't go back to Tikal (an hour away) without paying the expensive park entry fee, but we made a compromise: the next morning (after a delicious and cheap "tipico" breakfast) we drove halfway to Tikal, to a lakeside village called El Remate, where lots of woodcarvers worked. There she found a jaguar that was beautiful and had great character: phew!

Our drive back to the Rio Dulce was again beautiful. We marveled at how well-kept the roads are here. There were several groups of roadside workers cutting weeds with machetes, freshly painted white curbs everywhere. Also many many signs announcing reforestation projects, and admonishing people to keep the countryside clean, conserve the wildlife, and drive safely. It was certainly not the bedraggled, impoverished, VERY 3rd world country I remembered from my last visit 17 years ago. Everyone we met seemed cheerful and happy. It made us happy. We stopped at a churrasco restaurant in Poptun and had a wonderful lunch of Guatemalan stewed chicken and vegetables, guacamole, rice, tortillas and limeade ($8 for the three of us in a relatively "fancy" restaurant!) It was nice, though, to come back to the Rio Dulce and breathe the humid air and see the river and the sailboat masts and be "home" again.

Next: on to Belize...