I have learned a few things on my way from Lake Atitlan (which was nice, but very hazy…) to Flores, which is a teeny-tiny island that juts out into Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala.:
1) I'm really not a LAKE person (boring, no surf, contained, usually murky, always a mist over them, surrounding towns - kinda bland).
2) When a guide book uses the word "gritty" in ANY description of a town, skip it. EVEN when everyone else raves about the place. Once you've come to trust your guide book, don't doubt it. "Gritty"
translates to "crack-den-ish" like the Van Dam exit en route to the 59th Street Bridge.
Everyone seems to love Flores, the way station for trips to the Mayan ruins (Guatemala's largest) of Tikal. My flight from Guatemala City was purchased in the (aforementioned hazy) lake town of Panajachel at this shady travel agency with folding chairs, a cash box, and lone Guatemala poster taped to the wall as a sell-tool. So at 4 AM, when I got to the airport and nobody, and I mean NOBODY, showed recognition of the airline I was flying, snickering to each other in Spanish when I showed them the ticket (HELLO, I CAN UNDERSTAND YOU, PEOPLE!!!), I felt a little upset. Finally, a lady with a walkie-talkie walkie-talkied a voice who told her that I had to go to the small planes part of the airport. One taxi, 30 minutes, and 50 Quetzales (Guat currency, ripped off again by a taxi driver!) later, we find ourselves near a deserted airfield with one bulb of a light way off yonder. Check-in, yeah...well, there's no room on the 6-seater for me. I'll have to transfer to yet another flight, at yet another terminal that is yet harder to find. When I landed in Flores, I had wanted to be refreshed, I wanted to be enamored. But, well, I was a little tired, and Flores was a little…"gritty."
While the colorful buildings, the sweet people, the culture and authenticity of place all were alive and well in Lake Peten Itza's Flores, it just lacked the charm of the other cities I visited in Guatemala, reminding me of the setting for a scary movie where someone gets killed strolling the banks. Similar to other cities in Guatemala (I think Central America really), though, there is a young expat culture here too. They study Spanish, bum around, frequent the same places each night saying "Hasta Manana" at closing time, and backpack the region. They're all in college, or left college for Central America, scraping by each day on whatever money they can muster. I have actually seen TWO instances where these types hover in restaurants and, very discreetly, make their way around the restaurant eating the leftovers off of unfinished plates on vacated tables!!! One time, yes, was in Flores. And the girl devoured a whole leftover fruit plate, licking her pineapple-juiced fingers after each steal! Very unsettling...
From Flores, I went to Tikal for the day. Starting at dawn, watching the sunrise, strolling the park before the mass of people entered around 10 AM, Tikal is a very-mini Maccu-Picchu: predominantly jungle dotted with excavated remnants of Mayan civilizations, mostly temples. The day was hot, VERY hot, and I kept leaving my water bottle in various places as I stopped to take pictures and had to go back and find it. It was like a day of hide and seek with an inanimate object. I specifically wore black on black because, for any of you that don't know this, I am a sweater. I am not (and never will be) one of those
perfectly dry girls who can hike in a skirt and pastel colored shirt and stay wedding-day photogenic throughout. Nor am I one of those people who can walk around sightseeing spots with four backpacks and a guitar, nary a glisten on my brow. Me, I carry an airline ticket through a 90 degree region in a bathing suit, and I sweat. Anyone who has seen me after running at the gym for an hour (Ilysa, Rosen...?) aren't looking to hug me close (or at all). That's for sure. But, I thought the black-on-black ensemble would help the situation. Foiled again. As evidenced the last time I was in South America, I have sightseeing-outfit-troubles. Consistently. This time, the white powdery atmosphere of the ruins set into my black outfit as a light layer of dust, drying when I wasn't climbing temple stairs, as white outlines of previously soaked areas. I looked like a pavement on which chalk outlines were drawn. Reverse sweat rings. I was mortified, keeping my arms crossed a lot... But, I kept on keeping on, listening in awe to the sounds of the howler monkeys (they sound like ferocious lions and I actually turned back and sought company to walk through the dense jungle paths to each ruin amidst the lion roars of the howlers), woodpeckers (have you ever heard woodpeckers peck? they sound like old doors creaking open in haunted mansions...), and various species of birds that sang like no birds I've ever heard before. I felt like a sweaty Snow White in black. It really was pretty amazing, Tikal. And cheap. Compared to Maccu-Picchu, which is quite costly to enter, Tikal is a mere $7, but as the guards told me, Survivor filmed a stint near Tikal recently (is this true, my reality-friendly friends?), and since then they're trying to raise their prices to $10. Hearing a guard in Mayan ruins talk about the inflation of entry b/c of a American reality-phenomenon like Survivor, in Spanish, was pretty amazing, as well...
Not being an archeological lingerer in these types of tourist sights, I was ready to go (and change my clothes...) by about 11 AM and caught a bus through the countryside back to Flores to wind down my time in Guatemala. I spent more time than I planned here. Despite parental Don't Go's, I really fell for the country, the obviously charming parts, and the not so charming parts, alike. I highly recc a trip down here to anyone looking for a little adventure. Tomorrow, I'm off to Belize for some sun, sand and scuba. Very much looking forward.