Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Tikal Adventure Part 1

Part 1 - From Panajachel to Flores and our first day
Part 2 - Tikal
Part 3 - Last day in Flores/Santa Elena and our trip home
We booked our trip through Xocomil Travel, which is located right near the docks in Panajachel. They were very helpful and responded quickly to emails, plus they had a better price than I had been quoted at another agency. We paid Q750 per person for a return ticket from Pana to Santa Elena. It was a colectivo (minivan) from Pana to Guate City and then a first class bus from the city to Santa Elena.

TIP: Santa Elena and Flores are virtually the same place and the names are often used interchangeably. Santa Elena is the name of the city on the shore of Lake Petén Itzá. Flores is what they call the town on the island. It helps to know your bus is actually going to Santa Elena when booking tickets.

The trip to Flores all happened exactly as predicted.... spooky! I love the power of the Internet and the observations of previous travelers. Made my trip easier and less stressful. I had read this interesting account of taking the night bus plus this traveler's warnings about a so-called con man. Things happened just as they said, except that my opinion of what occurred is different than theirs. But, hey, that's travel. Actually, that's life!

The day we left was a crazy flurry of errands and racing around town. We had to drop off the dogs at various locations and scramble to find someone to watch the foster puppy for a few hours. Only after all the madness had settled and we were in our shuttle bus to the city did we start to finally get excited about our trip!

The shuttle from Panajachel to Guatemala City was uneventful. We left Pana just past 4 pm. We drove through Antigua but it was too dark to see much. We arrived in the city at around 8:30 pm, so we had a half hour to grab a few snacks from the tiendas nearby and get on our overnight bus to Flores.
first class bus FDN Maya de Oro Guatemala
This is our GIANT double-decker bus in the Guate City FDN terminal at 9pm. It left exactly on time.
There was a security guard checking bags as we entered the bus.
The dude in the hat is selling neck pillows. There was also a lady selling fuzzy blankets.
first class bus FDN Maya de Oro Guatemala
The biggest bus I had ever been on! As big as a plane! Pretty similar to an airplane setup as well, with each seat having an overhead reading light, little cool air fan, and even a tray table.
I was pleasantly surprised at how comfy the first class overnight bus was. The seats were soft and clean and had ample headrests. They reclined quite a ways back and had a neat fold-down thing for your legs to rest on.
first class bus seats FDN Maya de Oro Guatemala
Our tour company sent me this picture of the bus seats. Comfy!
We left Guatemala City at 9pm sharp. The ride was a bit bumpy due to construction but I dozed a bit. At 1:45 am, the bus stopped for 15 minutes at a gas station that also had a cafeteria, Q1 bathrooms, a tienda, and a 5B bank machine. At 2:35 am, the bus stopped briefly, perhaps only to let someone off in a town.

Then the fruit inspection rumor came true! At just past 4 am, the lights came on and a person came onto the bus and told people to get off for fruit inspection. Bert went outside and had a cigarette while I feigned sleep in order to stay on the bus and guard the bags. I would say probably only half of the passengers got off the bus. The rest were sleeping or just didn't care to get off.
Several men came through the bus with flashlights and moved people's bags around in the overhead storage areas. One man came up to me and motioned to the plastic bag I had on my lap. He said something about "frutas" so I just said, "No, no frutas." That seemed sufficient and he moved on. Soon enough, everyone was piling back on the bus and we headed off.

As we were pulling into the Santa Elena bus stop at 6 am, the second rumor came true. A man in a purple t-shirt got on the bus and started talking in English about Tikal and Flores. He worked his way down the aisle with his eyes on us, the only white people on the bus! But I was prepared for his schtick. I don't recall exactly what he said but he wanted us to go with him. Then he said we needed to get off the bus because the big bus couldn't go through the streets of Flores. I said, "I know. We're okay." That seemed to do the trick and he left. 
The forum article I linked above said that this guy was a con man. I don't think he was. He was doing a job. He was trying to get people to go with him so he could take them to Flores and get a commission for putting them up at a hotel. (Most likely.) To unprepared or unknowing people, he could be a helpful guide. He was polite, non-pushy, and spoke good English.
The trick is: you don't need to go with him. It is not necessary to go with him. Of course, the big bus can't go through the streets of Flores! It never said it intended to! You get off at the bus station in Santa Elena, then walk or take a tuk-tuk to your hotel on the island of Flores. Easy peasy.
And that's what we did, choosing to walk as we'd been on the bus for endless hours. It's a straight walk from the bus station down to the island. Just ask any of the taxi dudes or guards or just plain folks hanging around the bus station which way to the island and off you go! The walk is a bit far and there aren't really good sidewalks, so if you have a big backpack, troubles walking, or are just tired, then flag down a tuk-tuk for Q5 per person.
The Crow gun store. Sweet. 
Santa Elena Flores Peten Guatemala lake
Sunrise in Santa Elena, Petén, Guatemala

For those long-term travelers craving a taste of home, there is a Burger King right at the causeway that goes from Santa Elena to Flores. There is also a Pollo Campero there, plus a neat little mall that has a 5B bank machine. On the second floor of the mall there is even a movie theater! We rode the escalator up and were tempted to take videos of ourselves riding up and down as if it was an amusement park ride. I think we were a wee bit overtired at this point!
Burger King opened at 6 am -- hallelujah! -- so we grabbed a coffee and some breakfast sandwiches and sat by the lakeshore to enjoy our breakfast.

TIP: Burger King prices -- large coffee with milk Q11, medium coffee with milk Q9, sausage & egg muffin Q13, BK croissandwich Q15, Whopper combo Q40, double cheeseburger Q21
There are some fun Mayan artifact replicas all around the mall and Burger King right at the bridge.
Santa Elena Flores Peten Guatemala
The causeway bridge across Lake Petén Itzá from Santa Elena to Flores.
Santa Elena Flores Peten Guatemala
Bert and the sign that looks like a Wheel of Fortune puzzle!
Flores Peten Guatemala
Welcome to the island of Flores!
Santa Elena Flores Peten Guatemala
I heart Petén! This sign is on the Flores island.
(BTW, Petén is the name of the state or province.)
We knew we couldn't check into the hostel until 10 am, so we wandered around the island for a bit. It didn't take us long to circumnavigate it, even with some lovely flooded areas like below!
Flores Peten Guatemala
Perhaps the lake level is rising?
The streets in Flores are cobbled, and badly so! Kinda dangerous on the ankles. The houses are mostly painted in bright shades of blue, yellow, pink and green. There is a small treed park at the peak of the island in the middle, and there was a big Christmas tree set up there...sponsored by Gallo beer.  :)
There are many restaurants around the edges of the island, with great views of the lake. In the picture above, you can see one of the flat boats that take people from the island to the shore, or just around the lake on pleasure tours. I thought the lake was very calm and the surrounding land very flat compared to Lake Atitlan. I missed the volcanoes!
A cute sign I couldn't resist taking a picture of!
We eventually got tired of walking and headed to Los Amigos Hostel. We went inside and were open-mouthed at the colourful style of the place! We asked at the bar about checking into our room and were told we could hang out in the lounge area until it was ready. Bert grabbed a coffee and we chilled with the hippie backpackers. We felt totally out of place. Everyone at the hostel was 25, beautiful, and writing in their journal. Ha ha!
Los Amigos Hostel Flores Guatemala
Bert snoozing in Los Amigos hostel.
Los Amigos Hostel Flores Guatemala
Amazing colours, decor, plants, and details of Los Amigos Hostel in Flores.
The hostel is hard to describe in words, so here is a video!

After a nice nap in our air conditioned room, we went exploring around Santa Elena. To me, the city was boring and too urbanized. Bert really liked it though. That is, until it got sooooooo freaking hot at midday! Like, 32 degrees! Ouchies.

Checking out the market in Santa Elena. They had a lot better selection of stuff than we normally find in Panajachel. 
Chickies! This pet store even had guinea pigs. (But maybe they were for eating.)
The little mall near the bridge, next to Burger King. Very new and stylish.
Santa Elena Flores Peten Guatemala
The mosaic floor of the mall, looking over the lake to Flores. Later in the day, Tigo set up here and blasted loud music for hours. All Guatemalans must be deaf!
A huge tree in the park in Santa Elena. Bert said it was the biggest tree he'd ever seen. And then we went to Tikal the next day and blew that record out of the water!
We tired ourselves out, headed back to the hostel, and there was my friend Mark from Canada! I hadn't seen him in 10 years or so, but we picked up like it was yesterday. So much fun! We headed out to grab some food and catch up.
I forgot to get the name of the restaurant we ate at. Oops. I had a nice plate of chicken nachos, Bert had horrible pizza (why do we try?), and Mark had a traditional pepian stew.
We knew we had to get up at 4am to catch the bus to Tikal the next morning, so we called it an early night and went to bed.
Los Amigos Hostel Flores Guatemala
Late night lounging hippie backpackers in Los Amigos Hostel. :)
Come back tomorrow for the blog post about our amazing day in Tikal!

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