Saturday 6th December (Day 22)
We left Copan at around 6.45 a.m. for our drive across the border to Antigua in Guatemala. The border formalities were over possibly even more quickly than when we entered Nicaragua and it did not present a problem that we had no stamps in our passports. Jackie did manage to persuade the Guatemalan authorities that we should have a stamp – although they passed the job to her!
We passed through spectacular mountain scenery and stopped for breakfast at a rather upmarket hotel which was situated in the midst of petrol stations and cafes beside the main road. It was there that we probably first realised just how hot the sun was (at 9.30 a.m.!) and the sky was clear blue. After a stop of about an hour, we continued on our way.
We finally arrived in Antigua at around 2.30 p.m. with its one way streets that were all cobbled. Our hotel was centred on a 16th century house and had two court yards.
We were given a welcome drink and settled our things into our rooms. Then, at around 3.30 p.m. we went on a city tour lead by a guide who had come in specially from Guatemala City. The tour lasted for getting on for 3 hours and was heavily orientated towards the town’s many churches and various notable religious personalities. Unfortunately the guide was somewhat boring and uninspiring so the tour was not as good as it might have been. However, it did liven up at the end when he took us to an extremely upmarket hotel in what had formerly been a Dominican priory. It was extremely beautiful.
As we drove into Antigua, we had noticed red “devils” hanging up by the s ide of the road and our guide took us, at the end of the tour, to a place where there was a large effigy of a devil. He told us that, tomorrow, the devil would be burned – a little concerning as this public one was sited between two petrol stations!
At 7.00 p.m. we went out for our last group meal to a local restaurant. We had known that Jackie would have her birthday whilst we were in Guatemala and a cake had been organised for her. It turned out to be her actual birthday today so it all worked out rather well. The meal and ambience were very good and many photos were taken.
Sunday 7th December (Day 23)
We needed to get up at 5.30 a.m. as we had opted for the “combo” tour to a local market at Chichicastenango and to Lake Atil. This meant leaving our hotel in Antigua at 6.00 a.m. for a drive of about three hours. At the beginning the road was new and excellent but as we travelled on through the beautiful countryside the road correspondingly deteriorated becoming extremely bumpy (aided by sleeping policemen) and very bendy. tIn places there were road works and great boulders were at the sides of the roads.
We had breakfast at a restaurant at Chichicastenango and then walked through the colourful market to a Museum of Masks where Jackie explained to us some of the Mayan customs that had been incorporated into Catholic worship locally – including the lighting of different coloured candles according to whether people wanted to marry, have children, mourn a loved one etc.
We then climbed a very steep hill to a holy place that was venerated as a national place of pilgrimage. There people gathered to make sacrifices and a shaman prayed for them by a lighted fire. One of the two shamen there indicated that he did not mind if we took photographs and the family with him were extremely friendly – waving to us when we left.
We then climbed down the hill again and went to visit the market where we bought a small nativity set with the figures clad in mayan dress. Jill also bought a cord for her glasses.
We went back to the restaurant where we had breakfast and had some lemonades – benefiting also from the free wifi there.
Then we were back to the minibus for another hour’s travel to Lake Atil. We stopped at a mirador to take photos of the lake before going down to the lake itself and boarding a boat to the village of Santiago. We went up the hill to the church and then behind that to a private house where a “smoking cowboy” is venerated and the subject of offerings of alcohol, candles etc. It was all rather odd.
We returned to the lake side via the church (which we entered) and looked around, noting the various figures all clad in different coloured clothes. Near the bottom, we had lunch at a local café and were interested to see the staff scuttling out to another café and to shops to buy ingredients for the items we had ordered from the menu.
A return boat ride took us back to the other side of the lake where we were to re-board our minibus. Before doing so, Jill bought three head-bands from some young girls who allowed us to take their photos as part of the deal.
We then headed back to Antigua, arriving there shortly after 7.00 p.m. We had noticed bonfires all along our route and also people with sparklers. Many “devils” were being burned – although we were too late to see the one in the centre that we had been shown on yesterday’s city tour.
Monday 8th December (Day 24)
We got up at 3.20 a.m. since we were awake any way and our alarm clock was to go off at 3.30. At 4.00 a.m. a mini-bus (rather than the two taxis we’d been expecting) came to take us to Guatemala City Airport for our 7.00 a.m. flight to Flores. We collected several others and arrived there in good time as the streets were deserted – however, having to wait for over half an hour for the person in front of us to be checked in, slowed us down somewhat. Nonetheless, we had plenty of time and were able to benefit from the free wifi service that the airport offered.
Our flight was about half an hour late taking off but we still arrived before 8.00 a.m. and met our guide who was waiting for us with another minibus. We set off on the hour or more journey to Tikal.
En route, we stopped at a tourist shop offering free coffee where many things were for sale and where profits go to benefit local children by providing schooling. We bought a paperback book about the Mayan culture and sites which was incredibly expensive at around £25.00! However we felt it was a good memento and were happy to pay extra if the money was going to a worthy cause.
Our guide gave us much interesting information on the bus but understandably said that he did not want to be as open when in public places. He told us that Guatemala has a democratic election of a dictator every four years; that the country is impoverished and corrupt and that any profits are privatised whilst losses are socialised!
Only 30% of children attend school and of that number, only one child in one hundred finishes their education.
There is a 40% overall illiteracy rate.
The population of the Tikal area is now half a million, whereas it was under 100,000 twenty years ago. It is an agricultural economy with 40% of the population engaged in subsistence farming. Tourism is not yet significant. It is the largest area of tropical rain forest in Central America. However, there is considerable clearance due to illegal logging and slash and burn cattle farming (Walter: “Macdonalds”)
60% of the population own 1% of the land and he feels there is racial discrimination against the Mayans.
We arrived at the ruins at between 9.00 and 9.30 a.m. and had a fascinating day visiting what is the largest of the Mayan cities. We climbed up many structures but were particularly wary since we learned that three deaths have occurred in recent years and that last year a Canadian girl died having fallen down the steps. An ambulance given by the French for such situations had been appropriated for illegal logging in the Tikal national park and she was not transported to hospital for three hours. Had she been taken sooner, it was felt she could have been saved.
We walked about five miles through the jungle and amidst the ruins, having an excellent all inclusive $10 lunch before finishing.
We left the park at around 3.15 which meant that we were back at Flores airport almost three hours before our return flight would leave. We therefore visited a nearby mall looking for an ATM but the one we found only offered local currency. Since we were pretty short of cash, and there was no opportunity to buy food any way, we decided to go without an evening meal.
Back in Guatemala, we got through airport formalities very speedily and therefore had a short wait for Samuel, our driver for yesterday’s trip. The city looked spectacular at night with a myriad of Christmas lights and trees. It was a very different impression to the one we gained when driving through the city when we first arrived in Guatemala and had driven through run down areas where we were told crime is rife. The population is 3 million out of a total population of 13 million in a country the size of England.
We were back in Antigua by 8.30 p.m. but, having been up for such a long while decided not to join others who were eating together at a local restaurant. We therefore went to bed – although our sleep was broken for some while at around 1.30 a.m. by loud voices in a nearby room spoke for ages until eventually the culprits were remonstrated with by hotel staff.
Tuesday 9th December (Day 25)
We got up at around 8.00 a.m. and packed all our things for our long and convoluted journey home. Shortly after 10.00 we went into Antiqua
Tour ended Guatemala City. Transferred to Guatemala City to connect with group flight.