Evocative Mayan ruins in a lush jungle, a quaint lazy colonial town and a tropical Caribbean beach – summarizes the theme of this trip.
It started with visiting a key Maya site, Tikal National Park on winter solstice of 2012 when a major Mayan calendar period was complete. A diving adventure, an incentive for Rhea, made Roatan necessary and my research brought me across an enterprising artist called Catherwood, which made a stop at Copan in Honduras necessary. Lot of hiking, lichen painted ruins in vine shrouded jungle, colorful macaws, hospitable people, warm sand, blue water, mind blowing sunrises and sunsets made this trip well rounded and memorable.
(At the age of 11,) Rhea puts it in her top three vacations of all times.
Preparing for a 2-week trip with only carry-on luggage
The preparation for the Guatemala-Honduras trip took several months. The area is only is on the map for backpackers. Information available on the web is very sketchy. Plus language is a huge barrier. I, typically, tend to reserve hotels and then call the concierge to get detailed local information. In this case, finding English speaking staff at the hotels was time consuming and did not always produce the results I expected. The tourism industry in the two countries is still evolving leading to teething problems like national flights not being coordinated with international flights or bus timings not connecting well with flights. That meant evenings spent in touch down hotels, and daytimes lost in transport.
The three places on our itinerary are not well connected. We had to take several national flights and cross-country busses. We decided to travel light so that we did not have to check-in our luggage.
That meant limiting the number of clothes we took with us and carrying ones that would dry easily. Hence a thanksgiving shopping spree for neoprene stuff.
While travelling light had its challenge – requiring discipline to wash and dry clothes daily, given the super humid climate in Tikal; overall, it made life a lot more easy. On most occasions, we were walking out of an airport or a bus terminal even before the conveyor belt had warmed up. Here is a link to comprehensive checklist of items to take on a Guatemala/ Honduras trip. <Link to detailed blog>
Day 1: Arrival in Guatemala City
19 Dec 2012: Our Seattle-LA-Guatemala Delta flight was uneventful other than the long layover in LAX. We arrived at 7am in Guatemala City and caught a cab to Hotel Princess Guatemala. I patted myself on the back for booking a hotel for a few hours of stay because I had not slept a wee bit on flight. As is her usual habit, Rhea had pushed up the armrest in between and curled up on my thighs, trying to get supine. She could do it easily when she was little, but at five feet and something, she struggled. Every time I moved even a little bit, she displayed her displeasure by clucking like a hen.
After catching four hours of much needed sleep, we still have 4 hours to cut before out flight to Flores. We walked to the Popol Vuh museum, just a few blocks away and got a wonderful orientation to the Maya world we were about to see. The museum is tiny, like most museums in Guatemala we would visit later, but made up for quantity with quality artifacts.
Our favorite article was a three legged ceremonial bowl from the classic period, much like the pot that sits on our apothecary table back home.
Arriving in Tikal National Park
In the evening. on the first day, we took the short Taca flight to Flores, Petén. At the tiny Flores airport, we caught a cab to take us to Tikal National park, 50 kilometers and 80 minutes away.
Thankfully, it was dark by the time we arrived at the National Park. That way we did not end up with an accidental drive-by view of a a ruin. We got a good introduction of the dense tropical jungle canopy that we would have to cut through over the next few days..
We had chosen Jungle Lodge for our three day stay at Tikal National Park; not for its most economic room rates nor for proximity to the trail to the ancient city of Tikal but because Tikal Lodge has a place in history itself. The Lodge was born out of the campsite used by the mid-twentieth century explorers and excavators like Edward Shook.
It was comforting to lay down in bed where they once did.
Day 2: Uaxactun and Yaxaha
20 Dec 2012: In morning, we met Roxy Ortiz, who would guide us over the next few days. Roxy has a degree in archeology from the San Carlo university and is participated during the dry months at a dig 40kms from Tikal that is being guided by David Stuart, my one of my favorite Mayanist.
Breathlessly she told us that we had to change our plan. Tikal was being prepared for a hurriedly arranged Presidential ceremony for B’aktun. Instead she drove us to Uaxactun (pronounced Wah-shak-toon), 22 KMs north of Tikal where we experienced the oldest known Mayan astronomical observatory and told us the amazing story of the first ever Mayan “star war.”
In the afternoon, we drove to Yaxaha (pronounced Yah-sha-ha) to experience a quite sunset on top of a Mayan Pyramid.
By the time we can back, Tikal was nearly sealed to receive the President of Guatemala and we were relieved we were not caught in the melee. Uaxactun and Yaxaha are definitely the best day-trips from Tikal National Park.
21 Dec 2012: Roxy picked us up at 4:30am at the head of the Tikal trail. Thousands of Guatemalans had descended on Tikal after the President declared free passage adding to the crowd that had gathered for the turning of the Mayan long count calendar. The Royal Plaza was lit up like a Christmas tree and loudspeakers blared ceremonial music. We circumnavigated the Plaza, and settled on a temple-pyramid to see the sunrise over the Lost World Pyramid.
Passing through throngs of chanting crowd, we climbed Temple IV to get a view of Mayan temples peep out of the jungle foliage amidst swirling mist. The sun never peeped over of the cloud cover.
In the afternoon, with Roxy again, we took trekked through the jungle emerging at the Twin Pyramid Complex. We then walked through the central Acropolis climbing ancient stairs and peeping into rooms two thousand years old, passing by a special building that Rhea and I would later explore <Link>, emerging in the Royal Plaza. The plaza was still crowded as the park service tried to clear the mess left by the ceremony. I got a first good look at the Grand Jaguar (Temple 1) and Lady Twelve Macaws’ mortuary temple (Temple II.) Over the next few days, I would come here again and again to enjoy the iconic buildings in different lights. We then found a quite spot on the North Acropolis and enjoyed a quite sunset.
Day 4: Tikal National Park to ourselves
22 Dec 2012: It rained heavily in the morning I sat in the verandah and watched the heavens wash down the foliage. I don’t know when it stopped raining because the jungle continued to drip moisture late into the morning. I let little Rhea sleep-in till she could not sleep anymore. I was not being benevolent. I need some R&R myself.
In the afternoon, refreshed, we took to the Tikal trail by ourselves. We stuck out our thumb at a passing army vehicle and got dropped at Temple IV. We lazily walked the routes that were by now familiar to us. We arrived at the Royal Plaza to find it mainly to ourselves.
We spent time exploring the North Acropolis and then on a inspiration, went looking for the Grand Jaguar Claw’s family residence.
Then we managed to stay back after all other people had been shooed away and proceeded to “paint” the Grand Jaguar “with light”
Day 5: Sunrise at Tikal. At last!
23 Dec 2012: I let Rhea sleep late and took to the Tikal trail at 4:30am. I climbed Temple IV for once last time, at least for this trip, and was rewarded with a booming sunrise, the first of the new era. I visited my favorite spots in Tikal National Park and walked back to Jungle lodge to pack up.
We visited the two tiny museums at Tikal to experience my most favorite stelae and altars. A chicken bus took us back to Flores, a Taca flight to Guatemala city and a taxi to Hotel Guatemala Princess.
24 Dec 2012: A Hedman Alas bus took us to the Guatemala-Honduras border. We got our entry visa stamped and crossed the border on foot. Copán Ruinas is a 15 minute drive from the border.
Rhea was super excited when we entered our hotel, Yat B’alam. With just four rooms and a beautiful décor, the hotel deserves to call itself boutique. To top that, Rina and he staff made our stay super comfortable.
I fell in love with the lovely colonial town immediately. 6 square blocks, an airstrip, a church and a soccer field, that’s Copán Ruinas for you. Clean, quaint with many small eateries and shops. The atmosphere was extremely festive as Copan prepared to welcome Christmas. People were out on the streets. Cars had their windows rolled down, music playing loudly on the stereos.
They were still bursting crackers when we fell asleep. .
Day 7: The Maya Ruins of Copán
25 Dec 2012: No wonder, back in 1850s, when John Lloyd Steven first came to Copán, he bought the site outright for $50. If I could, I would too. The Mayan ruins at Copán are a gem.
Compared to the towering structures at Tikal, Copán is puny. But the quality of the carvings makes up for the lack of size. Our guide Giovanni, yesterday, called Copán the Paris of Maya times. I second that metaphor.
I followed Catherwood’s footsteps and tried to recreate the earliest paintings of Copán. It is a shame Catherwood never went to Tikal. A post-it note has been stuck on a mental board to follow him to Palenque and Uxmal at some point in the future.
We also visited Macaw Mountain in the afternoon on Rhea’s insistence. Enjoyed it.
26 Dec 2012: Another 4:00am alarm to catch another Hedman Alas bus that took us to San Pedro Sula in 3 hours.
A 2 hour layover, a change of bus and upgrade to first class meant the remaining 3 hour journey to the coastal city of La Cieba was confortable. We took a taxi to the ferry terminal and booked our one way ticket to Roatan. Relief! The ferry ride was the only un-booked part of our itinerary, the ferry company unable to book our tickets online for reasons incomprehensible to me.
We bought fresh grapes and easily cut the couple of hours before we could board. Once on the boat, we spent the better part of the 80 minute journey on the port gangway breathing in the cool breeze coming in from the Caribbean.
We were put up at the Luna Beach Resort because it had a PADI certified dive center. Three days of nothing on the calendar. I am so not used to doing nothing …
Day 9,10,11: Tropical Beaches of Roatan, Honduras
27-29 Dec 2012: Lying in a hammock of the covered verandah of our cabin, the water of the Caribbean lapping a few feat away, drugged, partly the afternoon heat, partly the excellent Pina Colada, I was liking the doing nothing part. Yonder, Rhea had donned her scuba mask and was snorkel along the beach for sea shells.
One afternoon we went to the nearby Anthony’s Key resort to snorkel with the dolphins. another one we took the dive boat to Bikini point where Rhea experienced the Caribbean marine life. Though mostly, we lay back and relaxed in the glorious sun and sand.
Day 12: A Stop at San Pedro Sula
30 Dec 2012: