(This post delayed by having either slow or no wifi and cell service in Guatemala! But not full 1 week food poisoning delay, so yay, right?)
After chile en nogada and some computer time at MX Roma, we headed to the bus station to catch our over night ride to Palenque, MX. It is a 14 hour ride so after several hours of reading and writing, we settled in to sleep for the night. This bus by ADO was better than our first Greyhound experience (by a long shot), but not as nice as the Groupo Senda bus we took from Monterrey to Mexico City.
As we arrived bleary eyed in the morning, we made the short trek from the ADO dedicated bus station in Palenque to the city center. We looked around and ended up checking in to Posada San Antonio, which has no website, no WIFI, no AC, and zero frills, but we got a private room that was clean with a private bathroom for less than half the cost of the other posada we looked at ($170MX instead of $350MX). I’m not convinced that it’s worth the trouble of dealing with no WIFI when you have work to get done, but there is an internet cafe right next door for $10MX/hour. But San Antonio was comfy, cheap, and it was nice to have our own room.
Palenque itself is a very lively and colorful town, with lots of shops and restaurants on the main street. We got some of the local tamales (delicious!) and ate them in the central square, which was bustling with people.
But of course, we went to Palenque to see the ruins. And epic ruins they are. You can buy a tour package from any of the plentiful operators for ~$350MX which takes you to the ruins, a waterfall, and Agua Azul for swimming. But that’s a relatively expensive and an early all day affair. We opted to keep things simple and take the local transit out to the ruins (only) and wander without a guide, which suited us just fine. You can just flag down one of the local vans any time and for $20MX they take you out to the ruins (locals pay $10MX fyi). No reservation, no fuss no muss. There is also the $32MX park entrance fee, and then the $70MX fee for the archaeological site.
We wandered the ruins, ate our simple packed lunch, and sweated profusely as we admired our surroundings. Definitely worth the time and cost, it’s very beautiful. The greenery and jungle setting was in stark contrast to our dusty visit to Teotihuacan, though Dan and I are divided on this, with me preferring Palenque and Dan Teotihuacan.
Back in the city we booked our trip to Flores, Guatemala at the Kichan Bajlum tour company. We asked around several places, and no matter where you go, there are basically two options: leave at 6 am, take a van, a boat, and another van, and get into Flores at 4 pm OR leave at 10 am, take a van, then another van, and also arrive at 4pm. We opted for the 10 am trip, and shelled out the extra cash for it ($600MX/person instead of $500MX). On the ride over, it turned out some of our fellow passengers ended up paying $750/person for the same trip, so ask questions about prices when you book, maybe negotiate. Dan did find an account of how to do the border crossing on your own, but it seemed like a lot of work.
At the border, we got our passports stamped, paid our $500MX Mexican exit fee, and got into a second van, this one with Guatemalan drivers, who took us the rest of the way to Flores. The interesting thing is how much the scenery did seem to change after we crossed the border. There were suddenly a lot more people lounging in hammocks, animals strolling around (especially pigs), and people on motorbikes. Motorbikes seem to be super popular in Guatemala.
And Flores is fascinating. Part of the city is a small island about 1.3 km in CIRCUMFERENCE on lake Peten Itza. It is connected to the mainland by a causeway that is about 500 m in length. Tiny. Tiny tiny island. There is some cheap food to be found on the west side of the island, with burritos going for $5Q a piece, and tosadas and soft tacos going for $5Q for three. We ate there a lot, but word of warning, it only opens up sometime in the afternoon, you won’t get an early lunch there.
Flores is also a roost of thousands of birds come evening time. Seriously. Thousands. There is a slow rain of bird crap beneath the power lines they prefer.
We stayed at Hostel Yaxha, which we give a rating of “for shame”. The restaurant area is pretty, but the dorm room we were in was very cramped, there’s no kitchen for guests to cook in, and despite the fact that we paid for the dorm room with AC, we discovered it was auto-programmed to turn off somewhere around 3 am, and it got so hot that at 5 am I had to go complain. Fun. But it’s gravest possible sin was having crappy and unreliable WIFI. For. Shame. Don’t stay there. Maybe go there for the 2 x 20Q strawberry daiquiris during the 9 hour long happy hour from noon to 9pm, but don’t stay there.
We booked a trip to Yavin 4 (aka the ruins of Tikal). You have a variety of options for departure, including 3 am so you can catch the sunrise (no thank you), and we elected to take the 8 am departure, then returned on the 3 pm bus. Transit cost (no guide) was $80Q and was about 1.5 hours to the park, with a park entrance fee of $150Q per person, easily making it one of the more expensive tourist destinations we have visited.
This being our third set of ruins we have visited, the big difference was the scope of the site. Tikal is very jungle-y, even more so than Palenque, and you can see monkeys, toucans, and so. many. spiders. I exactly walked into a web a meter across and started screaming “Arañas! Arañas!” in terror (“Spiders! Spiders!”). Thankfully the enormous bloodthirsty proprietor of the web just gave me a dirty look for messing up its digs and moved on. Here is a photo of its friend eating dinner (banana (spider) for scale…?).
Tikal is also enormous, we walked 8+ km seeing the biggest sites (the Gran Plaza being the most epic of these), and we did not see anywhere near the whole thing. If you really want to go for it there are campsites available, which would enable you to really see all of it. With the heat, I was totally beat after five hours of sauntering about. The amenities are good, plenty of bathrooms, but the signs and map situation is iffy. It’s highly likely that if I hadn’t been recording our hike on Strava we would have gotten lost getting out of the there. Maybe I also forgot to turn Strava off right away when we got on the bus…
Upon our return from Tikal we got an inexpensive dinner at the stand in the Central Park in Flores. We then went to the steps near the tables with tostadas and such, and took a dip in the lake. We cooled off in the water while we watched the sunset, and it was a great end to our day. After that we headed back to the hostel to take advantage of the happy hour deals and had a daiquiri before getting ready for bed.
One of my favorite things we did in Flores was swimming across the lake to San Miguel and back, which we did the next morning. Though I desperately wanted to record the swim I didn’t have an appropriate dry bag and sure it says the phone is waterproof, but I didn’t want to take the risk. So! Instead, you get to see my skills of an artist tracing the route we swam. It took Dan and I about half an hour round trip with a detour around the island and short walk in San Miguel.
After the swim our day was largely organizational: getting cash, setting up transit to Semuc Champey and away (through Onca Travel Agency, more on them later dun dun dun), working on projects, etc. Then we left Hostel Yaxha to spend our last night in the area with Maria, a couch surfer with an absolutely adorable daughter Mia. We spent a while relaxing with Maria and her family, then went to the store to stock up on supplies. We cooked dinner and hung out a bit before bed. Maria had just run for Governor of Peten, the region in which Flores and her home in San Benito are located. She lost, but she lost to a friend at least, and she was recuperating from the campaign. She also had really cool art on the walls, from various surfers who had stayed with her over the years.
We left early the next day on our shuttle to Lanquin for our visit to Semuc Champey, which turned out to be truly impressive. Much as mineral rich water can slowly form structures in caves so the pools of Semuc Champey were formed, but somehow they formed over the River Cohabón as they flowed down from the side of the mountain to meet the river. The swimming is delightful, and we were almost done for the day before we went up to the top of the pools and saw that the river flowed under them. Crazy. The water is clear and crisp, and we got lucky with the weather and it was sunny and dazzling all day. I’d also like to give a mention to Adventurous Kate, whose post on Semuc Champey was very useful. We agree with her on the hike to the mirador not being worth the bother.
We stayed at Posada Las Marias, which was within a 1 km walk of Semuc Champey, so that we didn’t have to do the long transit from Lanquin to see the pools. This gave us the opportunity to go to the cave tour and tubing they day before we visited the pools. The caves of Kan’Ba are huge, and the casual tour we did only barely touched the extent of them. The caves are full of water, and you are given a candle to light your way as you are led with a pack of tourists in bathing suits into the darkness to wade, swim, scramble up ladders, and even jump from several meters into the pools within. I took the risk of taking my theoretically water proof phone in a dry bag in to the caves, and got a few shots (so far, my phone lives! yay!). We then got to play on an enormous rope swing, and then tubed back to Las Marias.
A word on Posada Las Marias. Pros: the property is beautiful, and it has a restaurant with a reasonably priced menu, it’s walking distance to the caves and Semuc Champey, and it’s right across the road from the river with a dock where you can swim and use the roped swing. Cons: it’s remote, so you have to pack in your food if you don’t want to eat every meal from the restaurant (which we did, bean tacos!), we got eaten by bugs because there weren’t screens in our room (we even found a tarantula in our room one evening), and getting transit back to Lanquin at odd hours was difficult.
I would have absolutely recommended Posada Las Marias for the right set of people, however something happened that makes me cautious about doing so: one night I was sexually harassed by one of the young men that work there. Now, don’t worry, I’m fine. An 18 year old boy who I towered over and probably outweighed by 40+ lbs propositioning me in the dark while knowing full well that my husband was in my room a few meters away, and with dozens of people nearby to shout to for help if need be, seemed more ludicrous than anything else. In the moment I was mostly amused at the sheer audacity of the request.
But when it became hard to dissuade him, and he grabbed me and tried to kiss me, I got annoyed. When he finally took “En serio, la respuesta es ‘no'” (Seriously, the answer is ‘no’) for an answer and I went back the my room, I realized I felt rather shaken. Not so much by what exactly had happened, but that it might happen again and that it might escalate. It didn’t, but at the time I didn’t know that and I felt scared. The next day we spoke to the boss who said he would talk to the young man about it, and Dan also made a point to speak to him (things you never thought you’d have to do in your second language…). To the boy’s credit, he did apologize to Dan. Hopefully the lad has learned something for the better, but it was a definite low point of an otherwise gorgeous excursion.
Now, we get back to Onca. They messed up our ticket from Lanquin to Guatemala City. They didn’t accurately record what third party agency our reservation was with. When we discovered we didn’t have a reservation with the agency on the ticket (panic!) we spoke with Ronaldo at Onca he said it was an error, that he would let us know who we were supposed to travel with, and then never called back. Another Onca employee who I had contact with via Whatsapp told me we would depart at 8 am and to look for “Jarry” and not to worry, everything will be fine. Sure. We were able to catch a ride (at our cost) back to Lanquin and we began asking for Jarry. There was a last minute scramble while the local tour folks found a bus for us and I have no idea if it was the intended one, but we did eventually manage to get our butts on transport to Guatemala City. In short, don’t do third party bookings with Onca.
It was a long ride to Guate, but we made it and found our way to our couch surfing host’s home. William had three guests departing as we arrived, who turned out to be from Colombia, where we expect to be in the end of September. They were lovely and a total goldmine of suggestions for what to do, eat and drink in Medellin. Once they departed, William took us to his favorite pizzeria, L’Aperó where we gorged ourselves and had some lovely conversation. Back home we luxuriated in a bed that was something larger than a twin, and got some rest before our flight to Costa Rica the next day.