Hundreds of years before Columbus departed for
the New World, spectacular Mayan temples towered over the surrounding rainforest
of the Peten in Guatemala. Most of these ancient cities were abandoned
by the time he arrived, and the encroaching jungle slowly covered the lost
cities. Though abandoned, the largest of the temples managed to retain
the incredible status as the tallest buildings in the Western Hemisphere
until the end of the nineteenth century. Tikal is the most spectacularly
restored example of these great cities, and is one of the most impressive
archaeological sites in the world.
The Blue Hole
Separated from the Guatemalan heartland by high mountains and a vast expanse of forest, the Peten is geographically more closely tied to neighboring Belize. It is far easier to reach Tikal from Belize City than from Guatemala, and combining visits to both areas can be richly satisfying. Belize offers Caribbean beauty and world-class diving, while northern Guatemala offers Latin flavor and fascinating ruins.
The ruins of Tikal are just over an hour north of the Guatemalan city of Flores, a charming town built on a small island in Lake Peten-Itza. Getting to Flores from Belize requires either a short flight in a terrifyingly small plane (US$80 one way), or a five-hour trip by bus for a nominal cost. The road isn't paved from the Guatemalan border to the Tikal junction, but it is in good enough condition to keep the trip from being too uncomfortable.
Very active tourists can see most of the ruins in a single day, but a two-day trip would be more satisfying -- especially if it is combined with a stay in one of the lodges at Tikal itself. The sounds of the active jungle animals at dawn and dusk can be a quite memorable experience.
The ruins themselves are spread out over a huge area and vary from the wonderfully restored and unforgettable central plaza, to the crumbling and tree-covered temples on the periphery. Both extremes are of great interest, as they allow the visitor to experience the temples both as they once existed, and as they were first discovered by archaeologists. The flora and fauna surrounding the ruins is equally impressive. While at Tikal, you will undoubtedly come across a variety of wild creatures ranging from colorful tropical birds to monkeys high in the canopy to curious peccaries that scour the ground with their dexterous snouts.
If you take the land route from Belize, consider making a rest stop in the laid-back border town of San Ignacio. There aren't any major attractions in the city itself, but there are a number of good restaurants and lodging options, a small Mayan ruin to the west, and a pretty riverside park just north of town. Ample tour operators will try to sell you rafting trips, tours to minor Mayan sites, and visits to Mennonite villages.
Belmopan, the capital of Belize, is another possible
stop. There is virtually nothing to do in this drab town that resembles
a junior college campus, and food and lodging are quite overpriced. It
does make a good base for visits to the Blue Hole and St. Herman's Cave
parks several miles south of town. Take any southbound bus to get to these
spots, where you can explore the large and spooky cave unaided by a guide.
The Blue Hole is a swimming spot where the cave roof has collapsed to expose
the underground river surrounded by virgin forest. Don't miss the chance
to swim in the iridescent waters of this beautiful site.
Belize City is not much of a tourist stop, but it is the necessary jumping off point for ferries to the islands. Cay Caulker is the center of independent travel on the coast, and is just and hour by boat from Belize City. The heavily developed island has countless cheap places to stay, varied restaurants, and a nice Caribbean swimming area on the north side of the island. Don't expect idyllic beaches to surround Cay Caulker -- the offshore reef ensures that the lagoon is covered in sea grass. Be prepared to fight off voracious mosquitoes and sand flies, but don't let them spoil your trip. A visit to the island is very relaxing, and fantastic snorkeling, diving, and manatee viewing trips are available for bargain prices.
If taking a tour, be sure to seek out a Mestizo guy
named Chocolate, the most experienced tour operator. He's half conservationist,
half showman, and almost as entertaining as the tour itself. Just don't
be surprised when he regularly talks about himself in the third person.
David G. Young toured Belize and northern Guatemala in late August 2000.