20 Jan

Northern Guatemala and the Tikal Ruins

Guatemala is the place where dreams come true. This is especially true if you happen to love friendly people, cuddly Coati animals, and Mayan ruins that will knock your socks off!

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The Rio Dulce was our first stop after crossing back into Guatemala. Our last time driving through this country, Travis was suffering from e.coli, so we’ve got big hopes for him to actually see the sights this time.

Rio Dulce is a dirty little town situated at the mouth of the river Dulce, which opens up into the Caribbean Sea. The numerous sailboats and the ex-pats who own them can all be seen around town. These sailors are actually an interesting bunch. Much like our overlanding communities, there is a special breed of people who live aboard their boats and travel by water.

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Feast your eyes upon main street, which also doubles as the north-south highway – Central American chaos at it’s finest!

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We camped in front of a very popular marina and restaurant called “Bruno’s”. We just had to stay. Travis walked out on the pier in front of the restaurant to take this amusing picture – a guy starting up his boat and blowing nasty smoke everywhere.

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At night, there were some old crusty ex-pats getting drunk at the bar. As things progressively got more boozy, their topic shifted to politics and thus began the craziest conversation I’ve snooped on in a while. One of the guys (who I’ll called “The Bigot”) was not ashamed of throwing out racist remarks like it’s going out of style (which thankfully, it is). According to The Bigot, Mexicans are sp*cs and President Obama is a n*gger. Ye-haw! Thankfully, the conversation was slightly balanced out by one of the other guys who I’ll call “The Hippy”. Eventually, The Hippy, who was also very drunk at this point, had simply had enough of the hateful bullshit that The Bigot was spewing all over the place. He unleashed his wrath and frustration in an expletive explosion that involved well placed variations of the words ignorant and fuck. After this, the party was over they all decided it was best to call it a night. Since they all live on sailboats tied up directly beside the restaurant, they only needed to stumble about 20 feet to get to their homes. What great entertainment!

The next morning, after a quick stay in the area we get back on the road northbound. The views along the way are beautiful and the roads thankfully smooth!

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Farm fields can seem so colorful against the backdrop of a blue sky.

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The tiny island town of Flores sits out on Lago Petén Itzá in northern Guatemala. From the island, you can see countless colorful hotels dotting the lake shore on the mainland.

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The island of Flores is connected to the mainland by a short causeway. The town is so small and the streets so narrow (and often flooded!), the best way to see it is by catching one of these cute, colorful tuk-tuks zipping across the causeway.

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On the other hand, it feels wrong not to include Bruno in all we do, so he came to the other side with us to revel in the sunshine.

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From Flores, it’s about an hour’s drive north to Tikal. We timed our arrival to the National Park so that our tickets would be valid both that afternoon and the following day. The trick is to arrive after 4:00PM.

We drove all the way to the entrance of Tikal, only to realize that it’s cash-only at the entrance booth. Rats! There are no ATM’s in the area. At such a hugely popular tourist destination, we somehow expected more than just a shack selling tickets in the middle of the jungle. Cost of entry is 300 Quetzales, which comes out to just under $40 USD for both of us. Not cheap!

We turned around the drove back to the nearest town, maybe 20 minutes away. While Amanda was waiting in line for the ATM with several other tourists, I took this nice picture. We see you Bruno!

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Inside Tikal National Park, there are only a handful of small hotels. One highly recommended on iOverlander is the Jaguar Inn. They allow camping beside their restaurant and have extremely friendly staff. One interesting thing to note is that most hotels in the area receive power by generator only. So while we were allowed to plug in and help our ailing battery, we only had power when the restaurant did – for a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening.

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The next morning, we prepared to tackle the massively famous Mayan ruins of Tikal. Getting an early start is our usual m.o. when trying to avoid crowds in touristy areas. However, the ruins were not the first thing we encountered on the quiet morning paths. What happened next was a truly magical event!

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A gang of fuzzy-friendly Coatis descended from the tree tops! These wonderous beasts are a delightful cross between a raccoon and a large cat. In Guatemala and Costa Rica, they are known as Pizote. In English, some ridiculous person dubbed them the hog-nosed coon.

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There were so many of them! Here you can see Amanda’s brain exploding due to cuteness overload.

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After regaining our wits, we chose to say goodbye and continue down the path toward the Tikal ruins. Again, seemingly by magic, the coatis proceeded to follow us! Not because they hoped to beg something from us. No, to the contrary they didn’t seem to care that we existed at all. Instead, they seemed to be completely preoccupied with exploring the edges of the jungle path for food and eating fallen fruits. We must have just happened to be on their normal morning routine!

Since coatis are so wonderful, the question must be asked: are coatis a good candidate for domestication? If so, it is possible that every household in the world would want one to be their best friend forever and ever. Get your own coati to love and snuggle for only $1000 now! Or, Donate $1000 to the “Protect Coatis From Domestication Obsessed Humans” fund now!

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Ok, no more coati pictures. Here is the first of several glorious Tikal temples, Templo I (also called Temple of the Great Jaguar). It’s a giant tomb temple of one of the kings of Tikal, buried here at 734 CE.

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This map shows the city center and helps give perspective.

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A wooden staircase allows you to climb to the top of Templo IV, for a stunning view of the other temples poking out of the jungle. Although the base is only partially excavated making it look smaller on the above map, it currently stands as the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas at 70 metres (230 ft). The top of Templo IV is a very popular spot during sunrise and sunset, to the point where the temple is crowded with people. We enjoyed our mid-morning view solo!

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Below is Templo II (also known as the Temple of the Mask). It was built around 700 CE and was dedicated to the wife of ruler Jasaw Chan K’awil.

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Tikal was at its peak during the Classic Period, 200 to 900 CE. Being a capital of one of the most powerful Maya kingdoms, the city dominated much of the region politically, economically, and militarily.

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Below is the huge Templo V built around 700 CE – it’s a tomb pyramid although researchers don’t yet know for which ruler it was built for!

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The city was in communication with areas throughout Mesoamerica, including the great metropolis of Teotihuacán in the distant Valley of Mexico, near today’s Mexico City. These Mexican ruins are also on our list of places to see!

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Tikal ended up being conquered by Mexican Teotihuacán in the 4th century CE and afterwards there was a gradual population decline, ultimately resulting in the site’s abandonment by the end of the 10th century.

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Tikal certainly lived up to the hype and it is possible to avoid the tour buses by staying overnight in the park. Wandering back to our campsite for lunch and heading back in the late afternoon. This is the place where Mayans lived and died. Held hands and went on dates to the local watering hole. Imagine the parties they must have thrown in this great plaza! What a life!

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  • Jay

    What an exciting post. Looking forward to following your journey north!

  • Justin @ Root of Good

    The ruins look amazing. Very different feel compared to Teotihuacan which is in a much more arid and barren location (at least inside the ruins proper; there are trees and paths outside the main areas).

    Sooooo, how many coatis did Amanda smuggle out of the park?

    • Amanda

      We’re definitely planning to hit up Teotihuacan, so it will be interesting to compare. Am noting to bring a hat for Travis, since it doesn’t sound like there are many trees there!

      Coati smuggling was kept to a minimum, but we’ll be setting up shop on our breeding farm when we reach the US 😉

  • The ruins look amazing. Very different feel compared to Teotihuacan which is in a much more arid and barren location (at least inside the ruins proper; there are trees and paths outside the main areas).

    Sooooo, how many coatis did Amanda smuggle out of the park?

  • code name GoldenEye

    I like the way you present your blog, map, route, pictures and description. Easy to follow and feels like I am traveling with you. My question is, how do you decide on your short term itinerary? Do all three get a vote or does one wear the pants in the group?

    • Amanda

      Hey GE – short term itinerary is really based on how far we feel like driving. There are certain areas we had individually researched and want to go to, so we fit those in. I’m usually the one who wants to stay in one place longer and Travis likes to keep moving. Bruno always votes for the roughest roads and largest river crossings, so we have to veto him every now and then. Happy to have you following along!

  • Great travels. I would be too afraid of getting kidnapped to venture out that far.

    You should get one of those Coati’s and keep it for a pet. Then, it can be in your pictures going forward.

    • Amanda

      Have no fear, No Nonsense Landlord, these are well-traveled roads. National parks and tourist areas sponsored by the government. Locals seem very used to foreigners, happy to have them spending money in their little towns. The world is a friendly place! That fact just doesn’t make for good news headlines.