El Petén is 300 miles and a 40-minute plane ride from Guatemala City. This is the home of ruins from a powerful civilization that saw its prime from 200 to 700 AD. Lots of jungle. Often hot. Here's a map.
Tikal. One of the world's holy places. Center of Maya religion and civilization. Still in part under the carpet of the jungle. After an hour's drive from the Villa Maya, we arrived at the main entrance of the Tikal National Park. The fee, I think, was Q150. Twenty minutes later we arrived at the real entrance to the park. For $40 we hired an English-speaking guide, Antonio; he was a gem.
Antonio walked us slowly along the less-traveled trails. In the photo on the right, he is holding a cut "superglue" plant; the sap dries very fast, creating a strong bond.
At the "Acropolis," Antonio told us that in 1996, he had led the prayer at a gathering of tribes of the Americas. He met a powerful medicine man who miraculously gave him the ability to speak not only Mayan and Spanish, but also English, French, German, Italian, and Japanese. Granted, Antonio had been in the employ of the national park system for eight years when this happened, and had undoubtedly been exposed to many foreign tourists, it is miraculous that he instantly found the ability to speak five new languages. The next day he was at a ceremony when the medicine man appeared again. He told Antonio he would reconcile with his wife, from whom he had been separated a year earlier. Soon. And in fact, while this was far from their village, Antonio found his wife in that very room. They've been happily married ever since.
Antonio studied with an expert in Maya ways. If a snake bites, you kick over a log, find a frog, cut it in half, and spread it over the bite. As it dies, it sucks the venom from the bite. He told of the beer made from fermenting sarsaparilla. Natural viagra. He was at a conference where it was served every day for five. When he got home, he was a superman in bed. Unfortunately, sarsaparilla set off his diabetes, he had to stop, and his wife was disappointed things were back to normal.
After five and a half hours of ruins and jungle tours, it was about 100o in the shade, we were totally pooped. We ate a meal at the comedor and headed back to Villa Maya and thence to Santa Elena's El Patio for an undistinguished but passable supper.
Hotel Villa Maya in El Petén is set on the shore of a lagoon containing crocodiles and turtles. Individual casitas, tastefully decorated, here's the view from our porch...
Hotel VIlla Maya
502 9260086. fax 3348134
The staff at Villa Maya leaves something to be desired. The restaurant service is lackadaisical; the front desk is uninformed.
Thursday. Started with a walk, then watermelon juice, tostada francesa, fruit salad, and an amazingly rich hot chocolate. Rented a Mitsubishi Montero for $60/day and headed around the lake. Flores, on an island & reminiscent of Sirmione in position but otherwise drab. We continued around the lake. Brahma bulls on former jungle land. Bumpy roads. Beautiful vistas of the lake.
As if by magic, the Hotel/Restaurant La Lancha appeared - four months old, great placement overlooking the water, howler monkeys. Clean and tasty. We are debating going back. We checked out El Gringo Perdido and Casa Don David. El Gringo has gone downhill; it's only fit for hippies. The former owner sold it and started Don David. Casa Don David (room with hot water costs $38) but it lacks charm. We arrived too late for a nature tour at Cerro Cahui. Headed into Santa Elena; Looking for a short cut, I got stuck driving through the town's labyrinthine village market.
Overlooked by the guide books, Antonio had suggested this zoological park vale la pena. It was great. We wandered around a nearly deserted, free zoo and nature park. Strangely, there were almost no signs leading to it -- and it's at the end of a 30 km. dirt road. (Some people arrive by boat.) We saw ocelot, koatlmundi, spider monkeys, jaguar, parrots, ocellated turkey, everglade (snail) kite, javelinas (coches de montagne), and more.
Time here is less precise. At home, if I say I'll arrive around 8:00, I mean anywhere from 7:45 to 8:15. Here we'd have more latitude. 8:00, mas o menos, means "between 8:15 and 10:30." I wonder if this comes from different metaphors for how the world works. In spite of the fact that Einstein debunked Newton's view that the universe is a giant mechanical clock, Americans tend to think in terms of on/off, cause/effect, gears meshing, and everything running "like a Swiss watch." I sense that Guatemalans are somewhat pre-Newtonian, seeing things in spiritual terms. Things are more loosely coupled, bound together with magic and beliefs instead of drive shafts and fan belts.
Before the Spaniards arrived, the Mayans had come up with a calendar that was only off by 30 seconds everything 30,000 years, mas o menos, but the timing was left to the priesthood. Priests were astronomers; astronomers were priests. They built Tikal to calculate and celebrate equinoxes, solstices, and eclipses. On one wall in the departure area of the Guatemala City Aeropuerto hang clocks displaying the time in California, New York, Paris, etc. The hours are of course all different. Here, so are the minutes. It's 9:32 and 11:03 and 6:15..
El Remate and vicnity
The road along the northern shore of the lake is not developed. There are a handful of low-budget restaurants and crash pads. And the super-fancy Westin Camino Real Tikal (at $134 a night).
La Lancha Village is a charming new hotel and restaurant overlooking Lake Petén Itzá. Run by a Frenchman and his wife, Didier y Isabelle Torchut, the food is great, the six rooms tastefully decorated, and you're right in the middle of the jungle. This place is heaven on earth. I recommend it without reservation. Only four months old when we visited, the hot water wasn't in but everything else is perfecto.
Hotel La Lancha Village
Saturday afternoon. I climbed the stairs to the main (top) level of La Lancha to join my brother. Didier told us the parrots were coming. Three or four dozen parrots flew to the ramon trees to eat the ripe fruit before flying west along the lake. Squawking galore. We watched a red-headed parrot nibble fruit from 40' - close enough to fill the field of vision from the binoculars. The parrot parade subsided and I took the owner's small pet parrot on my finger. A beautiful bird with a green body and red splashed over its bill. Our host Didier, a handsome man in his mid-forties, sits in an Adirondack chair staring at the beautiful parrots, as he must have done for months. I wonder what his story is. (Turns out his wife Isabelle is in la capitale shopping. Hence, l'hotel is running out of cheese, wine, and other imports.)
Sunday morning: The screeches of howler monkeys woke me up around 6:30. I hopped out of bed and captured their sounds with my IC recorder. After a cold shower (hot water has not made its way here yet), I slathered myself with Jungle Juice and 45 SPF sun screen and climbed the hill to the outdoor restaurant/lobby of la lancha. Birds chirping; more recording. Some parrots dropped by to sample the fruit of the barone. I just drank a cup of good, strong coffee, a glass of fresh oj, and French bread with a couple of exotic jams.
We return to Guatemala City tomorrow evening. I'm writing this from the porch of La Lancha Village, waiting for the procession of the parrots to pass by.
© 2002, Jay Cross, Berkeley, California. Feel free to use any of these images so long as you acknowledge the source and provide a link back to it.