Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tikal – Welcome to the Jungle

Walking around in Tikal and seeing the Mayan ruins was worth all the border hassles from yesterday. Despite having seen quite a lot of Mayan sites over the last month or so, these are still impressive. We camped at the campground near the ruins so that we could start early the next morning. A good move as there is a lot to see. 

There is something I'd like to get off my chest first. Over the last few weeks I have slowly but surely been getting the impression that Mayans in general aren't as friendly as they portray to be. Reading about all the religious sacrificing that has been going on here for centuries, I can't help but feel that it must have embedded something in Mayan DNA. The faces are grim and the looks we get clearly give me the impression they see us as an inferior race. 

The other thing I can't help but wonder is if the Mayans actually want tourists to come to their country, or if it's just the wallets they're after. We feel it is the latter. 

You may think my observations made above are somewhat harsh, and perhaps they are. However any country that charges admission prices for foreigners 5 to 10 times as high as they do for their own people is in my book not very 
tourist friendly. When I asked for an explanation as to why, each and every Guatemalan we met just shrugged their shoulders and made it clear they couldn't care less. How's that for friendliness and equality? If for instance the listed price for something is 10 Quetzals, expect to pay a minimum of 50 Quetzals or more. In Mexico you may give a waiter a tip, in Guatemala they automatically charge a foreigner 10 percent more, if you like the service or not. Welcome to Guatemala, we love tourists… and we accept Visa! To come back to the first part of the previous paragraph: we believe Mayan religious sacrificing is still going on today, but these days they seem to sacrifice you financially.

Guatemala is also the first country we have visited where I wonder about safety. Safety in general that is. In Guatemala every delivery van has an armed guard with it… as all these guys have to be paid, I can't help but feel there must be a need for them. Going into a national park means you'll have to pass a small army of armed guards too. Heavily armed guards. Even the tourist information centres seem to need them. It's all a bit unnerving.
There are of course exceptions. For starters there seems to be no such thing as 'Mayans'. In Guatemala alone there are at least 26 different ethnic groups that live in the mountainous areas of Guatemala. They are perhaps all commonly known as Mayans but each ethnic group differs from the other.

The Mayans we met in Chiapas in Mexico for instance are different again, yet we conveniently call them Mayans. The Tikal area we've just been through is by the southern Guatemalans also know as less developed and educated. It's also a rather poor area while there is a lot of wealth in Guatemala too. As we go further south-west we will get to see a very different Guatemala, we were told.

All this aside; Tikal is very much worth a visit as it is huge and they have done a massive amount of work to restore it all! We really needed the whole day to see it. It's also a good idea to wear decent footwear. I've seen people walk the ruins on flip-flops. I've also seen the biggest scorpion ever here just outside my tent…! I would not want to walk here on flip-flops and definitely tap and shake your boots upside down to make sure there aren't any biting creepy crawlies in them (something we learned to do in Australia for venomous spiders).

For good photos it's best to start the day early, have perhaps a bit of a rest at midday if needed and come back later in the afternoon. The site opens at 6 am, so you can't see the sunrise… well, actually you can, if you're willing to pay extra for a guide as they let them in at 4.30 am! Again demonstrating how well they love to see you… but love your wallet even more. The palaces are quite well preserved and a lot of conservation work is still being done. 

The spider monkeys were for us a big part of why we wanted to visit Tikal. They are the most active early in the morning and a lot bigger than I expected. They have quite long legs and their tail acts as a very versatile 5th limb. The way they can curl their tail around a branch and hang from it is bizarre.

Seeing them hop around effortlessly emphasises how clumsy we humans have become… assuming we are related to monkeys of course. We've seen them in full flight jumping from tree to tree right above our heads! Magic! Photographing them proved quite difficult as they are very quick, but Mike proved a couple of times quicker and got them on his camera! He even managed to make the short movie below.

Still being uncovered
The Tikal complex consists of no less than 7 temples and 7 acropolises plus numerous other buildings. Arguably the Gran Jaguar temple, which was built in 734 AD and rises up to 47 metres from the ground, is the most well known. It towers above all others and houses the tomb of Jasaw K'awiil. The Jaguar temple is located on the main plaza. On the west side of the Plaza is the Temple of masks and the great temple of the Jaguar Priest is further to the west again. There is also a palace of bats, a serpent palace, a temple of inscriptions and the lost world pyramids, to name but a few. All of them are huge majestic buildings and many temples, complexes and perhaps even palaces have not been fully unearthed yet. There is continuously conservation work going on here. 

Renovation work in progress
We were quite impressed with Tikal and the effort they have put in it. Effort in un-earthing them all, making walkways and wooden stairs up the ruins. Unlike Chichén Itzá, where everything is roped off, Tikal is quite accessible. There are no-entry signs here too, but most of them are understandable. Parts which look very unstable for instance do not benefit from people walking over them.

One thing missing in Tikal are the 'one dollar avenues' found at every tourist venue in Mexico. It actually made our visit to Tikal much more enjoyable as we were not continuously harassed into buying 'souvenirs'. There are a few vendors outside the complex, but even they don't harass anyone.

Late in the afternoon we went to the main square again. Downtown Tikal if you like, if that name existed in 700 AD :-) We went early so we could walk up at a leisurely pace. In the end we did have to run to be there in time though! Why? Because we met a whole family of Cotamundis! It's good enough to see one, but we suddenly found this family of 8 all together. Mike managed, again, to get the best shots. There must be something about him that attracts animals, just look at the photo of the Coatamundi walking up to him!

While we made photographs of the whole family, another family drove past. A busload full of locals! People that work in Tikal and sell their wares there. 

We did get to the main Jaguar Temple in time though and made some good photos after all. So was it all worth it? Well, the entrance fee is quite steep. Entry to the park is 150 Quetzals per person per day (US$ 21,40). If you want to camp then it's another 50 Quetzals per person per night and as we'd like to see the afternoon sun on the temple we needed two camping nights. 250 Quetzals may not sound all that much but for the three of us that adds up to 750,- (or US$ 107,-) to visit the ruins and pitch a tent on a grassy field. That is, let's face it, quite steep.

When I compare it to Palenque in Mexico for instance, Tikal is 5 times more expensive and Palenque has a beautiful museum included, which in Tikal will cost an extra 100 Quetzals. Camping in Tikal is twice as expensive as well, while Palenque has the better campground too. 

Different prices for nationals
and foreigners
It's not only about the money of course and comparing one ruin complex to the other is difficult. Having to pay 5-10 times what a local has to pay leaves a bad taste though. Both Palenque and Tikal are in the jungle. Tikal is bigger but in Palenque there is much more to see in tablets and decorations. Palenque is also much closer together, making it easier to see. Tikal is beautiful, but if I had to choose 3 ruins to visit, they would all be in Mexico…