The road from San Cristóbal de Las Casas to the Palenque ruins is a tortuously winding, pot-holed affair that left me nauseous and then relieved once we arrived at our first stop along the road — a Mexican breakfast buffet that came complete with tortilla chips and chicken enchiladas (which, sadly, I have been lacking as part of my breakfasts these past 31 years). Along the way to Palenque, my tour stopped at two waterfalls: Agua Azul (the name means “blue water” in Spanish but, that day, the water was bizarrely a murky brown due to a mysterious project going on upstream) and Misol-Ha (featuring a bat-filled cave behind the waterfall that I ventured into for a cool ten pesos — or roughly 50 American cents). Including these two stops, it took us nearly eight hours to reach Palenque, a major city of the Ancient Maya which, along with much of the Mayan civilization, strangely disappeared in the 10th century A.D. (My favorite theory: The Mayans were descendants of aliens and simply returned to their home planet. The more plausible theory: Draught due to deforestation caused them to abandon their cities and scatter in the search of a more hospitable environment).
Only 4% of the Palenque ruins have been excavated but that small area is quite impressive. The main excavated ruins area is relatively compact and organized into three major groups (Templo de las Inscripciones and El Palacio Grupo, Grupo de las Cruces, and Grupo Norte). You can easily see all of the major buildings in less than two hours, including the time needed to climb up the buildings still open for public scampering. Upon entering the park, you are almost immediately greeted by the iconic Templo de las Inscripciones, a Mayan pyramid that rises nearly 90 feet over eight tiers above the green, manicured grass and, under which, the most powerful king in Palenque’s history (Pakal), is buried. The royal palace sits adjacent to the Templo de las Inscripciones and provides a number of different ancient rooms, passages, and, restored for your viewing pleasure, toilets to explore. Mind-blowingly enough, there are also a number of preserved carvings depicting scenes from Palenque circa the 7th and 8th centuries that are decidedly trippy in nature — many have hypothesized that these scenes are likely inspired by the psychedelic mushrooms that grow in and around Palenque (after observing these carvings myself, I found this logic pretty airtight — see pictures below). Beyond the palace, is the Gropo de las Cruces, three temples that back into the jungle and are the work of the Pakal’s son, Kan B’alam II, whose street name was a much more intimidating Jaguar Serpent II. Each of these are scalable, provide beautiful vistas of the ruins below and valley beyond, and are replete with the requisite mind-bending carvings. The final group is the Gropo Norte, which seem to be the red-headed stepchild of Palenque as most tours ignore these beautiful buildings in favor of the slightly more impressive Palacio and Cruces Grupos. And I can see why — after only two hours exploring the other two sets of ruins, I already had a well-developed sense of Mayan ruin snobbery, as evidenced by the “mehh, I’ve seen better” I muttered under my breath as I walked by.
I had arrived in Palenque via an insanely itineraried one-day tour that left San Cristóbal at 4:30 am and would return at approximately 10 pm. However, in a moment of sanity, I decided to stay the night near the Palenque ruins instead of taking a six-hour bus back to San Cristóbal. I found a spot to stay just outside the ruins in El Panchan. My accommodations were in a place ironically named “The Jungle Palace,” which is basically just a set of shabby cabanas in the jungle. However, the price of 120 pesos/night/cabana (~$6 American) was hard to beat and Don Mucho’s Restaurant nearby promised live music and cheap beer, so I took the bait and spent the next two nights there.
The next day, after the first night in my “palatial” cabana, I ventured to Roberto Barrios Falls, a set of ten different blue waterfalls and crystal clear pools, a 35-minute drive from Palenque. I went via a guided trip to this spot that is decidedly off the main tourist route and found myself in a group composed primarily of Mexicans, an interesting change from Guatemala where I didn’t meet a single local tourist (a per capita GDP of 3x in Mexico certainly explains much of this disparity). Our guide was refreshingly unencumbered by trifling worries like customer safety and liability as he nonchalantly walked us up, over, and through a number of the slippery falls to show us underwater caves, rocks to slide down on top of empty 2-liter soda bottles, and harrowing jumps. (When the “landing pools” were a bit on the shallow side, he told us you were were fine as long as you “made like a bomba” when you hit the water. Thus, several times I tucked my feet upon impact to “make like a bomba” and avoid a debilitating injury.) My favorite co-touree was a short, smiley Mexican lady in her 40’s who did every single jump, cave, and slide while speaking a rapid-fire Mexican Spanish to which I could only reply “Si, si, si!” After one particularly unintelligible request from her, I found myself traipsing across a waterfall to join her for a photo in the middle of one of the pools. The man who took the photo from the bank looked over to me after I returned to dry land and, in what little English he knew, laughingly remarked to me, “This lady…crazy!”
I ended my last night in the Palenque area at Don Mucho’s, which, as promised, offered live music and cheap beers. I was joined by two Irish I had met in my hostel at San Cristóbal; this brother and sister were traveling through Latin America together for several months together with their other brother and his girlfriend. We chatted at length about recent Irish history and politics as they are from Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, which is still part of the UK. (Fun fact I learned: The impetus for the Irish independence movement and civil war was the result of England reneging on their promise to grant Ireland self-rule for their support during World War I — which is still a sore subject for the Irish.) And, of course, the conversation did at one point turn to Donald J. Trump, the specter that follows every traveling American around. They asked me the simple, justified question of “Why?” which I hear from almost all other international travelers, who are universally flabbergasted at the onslaught of disturbing news and tweets generated by this man who, to them, represents the epitome of close-mindedness and hate. However, I have learned to steer clear of this rabbit-hole and, after assuring them that I was asking the same question myself, moved on to more hopeful topics…like 2020.
This past week, my daily routine of Spanish classes came to an abrupt and welcome end as Newman Granger, a lifelong friend and proven Central American traveler (resume: three previous trips to Costa Rica) joined me for a veritable Tour de Guatemala. (This is the second trip we have taken together in Latin America, the first being in Costa Rica, thus “Dos Guapos Dos.”) I met Newman at Aurora International Airport on Saturday morning, and — as I have found is often true when reuniting with old friends — his arrival felt oddly ordinary despite the unique, foreign location. From the airport, we shuttled into Antigua to embark on 36 hours of meandering through the beautiful colonial streets, sampling a half dozen cafes for their various preparations of Guatemalan coffee, and munching through the eclectic restaurant scene. After sleeping and eating for three weeks with a working-class family in Quetzaltenango, the Western-friendly food and accommodations in Antigua felt downright luxurious. The highlight was likely our first night’s dinner at Angie Angie, which featured delicious pasta, live music, a well-stoked fire in the open-air back patio, and a gooey chocolate brownie with ice cream for dessert. The only real downside to this dinner was the fact that I am not interested in a romantic relationship with Newman; otherwise, I am sure that the the amorous setting and Coldplay covers would would have sealed the deal.
In Antigua, Newman and I wasted little time delving into conversation topics that we would discuss throughout our nine days together, including politics (the current political situation and state of political dialogue in the United States is something that we can discuss ad nauseam), history (Virginians really can never get enough of this topic), travel stories and future travel plans (it was great to hear more details about Newman’s trip to Kilimanjaro this past summer, and then even greater still to hear this trip described to Daytona, then to Hannah, then to Maud, then again to Anna, then to Tory, then to a German woman I forgot the name of, then to a local shopkeeper, then to a cleaning lady, then to a rabbit wandering around our hostel*), funny stories from our shared past (having known each other for 25 years, there is plenty of material to draw on), religion and spirituality (Newman kicked off one of these discussions by asking a question with the appropriate amount of subtly — 0% — owed to one of your best friends: “Wait, so what exactly are your religious beliefs?”), the craft of writing (a Mark Twain quote recited by Newman captures a main takeaway that may even apply to this blog post: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”), business (maybe we should start one, sell it, then travel?), family, past relationships, and ideas about each of our futures. It would have been interesting to chart the exact correlation between conversation topic and caffeine consumption, but, if I had to guess, “business” and the “future” were likely the topics most positively correlated to our blood-caffeine (is that called “BCC”?) levels.
From Antigua, Newman and I made our way to beautiful Lake Atitlán for three nights, starting Monday. The first night we stayed in Santa Cruz at the hip, low-key La Iguana Perdida Hostel, nestled against the banks of the lake. In the course of our twenty-four hours there, we swam, enjoyed a family style dinner with other guests of the hostel, sweated through a three-hour hike to the top of a mirador overlooking Santa Cruz and the lake, and relaxed while reading on the porch of the hostel. We continued on from Santa Cruz to the relative hustle-and-bustle of San Pedro La Laguna, my September home, to find, unsurprisingly, nothing had really changed. Our hotel, Mikaso, provided adequate accommodations, but, more importantly, an outdoor hot tub that gave us a delicious shvitz under the stars both of our nights there. I showed Newman around my San Pedro haunts (Café Idea Connection, Sublime, Sababa, Hostel Fé, and Clover Restaurant) which were largely empty, as they had been back in September. However, the month prior, with my San Pedro School compañeros, scheduled classes, and meals with my host family, I had found the low-season vibes to be charming; however, this time around, with Newman and I looking for some social life, the place, missing many of the faces that had become familiar, struck me as more of a ghost town. Therefore, we spent the duration of our third day at Lake Atitlán in the nearby town of San Marcos, exploring the nature preserve, perfecting our jumping form into the lake off of the 8-meter high dock in the preserve, and venturing to the secluded Yoga Forest, a 25-minute hike above town, for a scenic yoga session.
Thursday marked the halfway point for Newman’s trip, and as we traveled from San Pedro to Antigua and then on to Guatemala City airport, we marveled at the amount of ground we had covered together in just four days. Also, we noted how Newman’s devoted watching of Narcos had given him a few choice Spanish phrases that allowed him to more effectively communicate in the language. For example, while ordering from a waiter or waitress, Newman’s exclamations of “muyyy, muyyyy import-TANT-tay” would reassure our server that, yes, their job was indeed important. However, Newman’s frequent quoting of Pablo Escobar — “¿Plata o plomo?”– was largely unhelpful, as we never really had to confront the gut-wrenching choice between silver or lead.
From Guatemala City airport, we took a flight into Flores, our launching off point for our exploration of Tikal, the ruins site of a famous ancient Mayan city, and, possibly more important to two Star Wars buffs like Newman and I, the filming location for the Rebel base on Yavin IV from the original Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope. Thursday night we arrived in Flores, a beautiful island town in Lago Petén Itza that features Spanish colonial architecture and a hopping bar and restaurant scene for tourists. Exhausted from a full-day of travel, all we could muster for the evening was dinner at our hostel (Los Amigos) before crashing for the evening. We had the entire next day to explore the Flores area, so we decided to rent a canoe from the hostel, which came complete with straw hats, wooden paddles, and a small plastic bucket for bailing out water in case we started to sink (this must have been in lieu of the lifejackets we were never offered). The highlight of our lake expedition was our stop at Jorge’s Rope Swing, where a local guy has set-up a row swing on his lakeside property, charges admission for its use, and then sells nachos, beers, and soda to visitors. This enterprising Guatemalan’s swing has climbed to the #2 position on “Things to Do In Flores” on TripAdvisor, which speaks both to the quality of the experience he has created and to the lack of actual things to do in Flores. (I can say this with authority after swinging on Jorge’s rope, eating his nachos, drinking his beers, and then trying to find actual other things to do in Flores.)
On Saturday, we headed for Tikal and our accommodations for the evening — the Jungle Lodge. After finding the Jungle Lodge to be mostly empty and realizing that our initial plan to watch the sunrise from the park would likely be disappointing given the heavy cloud cover we had experienced in the area each morning , we decided to coordinate a sunset tour of the park instead. Our guide for this tour was Samuel, a Guatemalan from Flores that spoke slow and clear English, largely for dramatic effect, as he described the rich history of Tikal and the Mayan people. (Quick summary of Tikal history: Tikal was located in the geographical center of the Mayan civilization and was one of the most powerful Mayan city-states during the height of Mayan civilization, known as the “Classic Period,” which lasted from roughly 250-950 AD. Sometime in the 900’s, Tikal was abandoned due to drought and famine and was never repopulated. Thus, when the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s, the site was empty, and was not “rediscovered” until the mid-19th century when a Guatemalan-led expedition mapped the site for future exploration and excavation.) Samuel led us up to the top of Temple IV, the tallest building in Tikal (70 meters/230 feet) for sunset, and, after a few minutes on the relatively crowded east-facing side of the temple, told us to quietly follow him as he led us, with a few acrobatic moves, around some scaffolding to reach the “off-limits” west side of the temple to get a glimpse of the sinking sun. Once there, he said we would stick around until well after dark to listen to the growing “jungle sounds,” but as the dusk fell and darkness began to envelope us on top of Temple IV, Samuel embarked on a monologue about his Mayan heritage and his own aspirations to be a Mayan shaman which would “probably happen in two or three years.” This monologue drowned out most of the growing “jungle sounds” filtering up to us. When the stars began to emerge above us and all other visitors had left, Samuel led us down the stairs off the temple, mentioning that “it would be better that we not hold the railing” which prompted an obvious “Why?” from one of the members of the group, as we all struggled to maintain our balances without the help of the railing. “Scorpions,” replied Samuel.
The walk out of the park took roughly 15-20 minutes and, at the exit, were greeted by a tarantula (not a scorpion). An excited Samuel scooped up the tarantula, turned it belly-side up to show us its fangs, then asked which of us would like to hold it. Unsurprisingly, none of us accepted despite Samuel’s insistence that it was “safe” while holding out the tarantula toward us in anticipation that one of us would offer our arm for the giant spider. After Samuel dropped the tarantula, Newman and I said goodbye to the quirky yet endearing Samuel and proceeded to have a leisurely dinner of mediocre food at the Jungle Lodge before bed.
Sunday, we arose to a steady rain (decision to do the sunset tour vindicated!), so we took our time at breakfast before heading out to explore the park for the morning. The rain had mostly cleared by the time we entered, but it left a picturesque mist that clung to many of the ruins. We spent the next several hours exploring the temples, palaces, residences, and religious monuments of the Ancient Maya before heading back to Flores mid-day, satisfied at the impressive additions to our iPhone camera rolls. As we pulled out of the park and headed home, I let my imagination wander to a galaxy far, far away, where Newman and I bumped into Luke Skywalker and some of his Rebel friends on the route home, who insisted that we turn the shuttle around and head for the Rebel base as X-wings, prepped for the impending assault on the Death Star, awaited us.
Our last afternoon together, Newman and I jumped into the steam room at Los Amigos for our fifth and final shvitz together before he headed off (some quick shvitz accounting: two hot tub sessions in San Pedro and three steam room sessions in Flores insured that we stayed properly shvitzed during our time together). The delicious Masala chai served by the hostel’s wait staff into the rest area outside of the steam room topped off this high quality steam experience, which proved to be the highlight of our stay in Los Amigos Hostel. We finished our time in Guatemala together by chatting for a few hours with two other travelers in the common area of Los Amigos, Anna and Sarah, who were about to embark on a tortuous twelve-hour, overnight bus ride to Antigua, and then dining at the lakeside restaurant of Raices, where our attention was occasionally distracted from our rehash of the prior week’s events by the magic tricks an elderly Belgian tourist was performing for a Guatemalan boy at the neighboring table.
As Newman heads back to the States and I have a few days to catch my breath before my brother arrives in Guatemala for 10 days (Dos Guapos to Dos Hermanos), I will have some time to do reflect and be introspective. In my time here, I actually have had less time alone than I had initially thought as I have been surprisingly quite busy with school and generally surrounded by people. This has been overwhelmingly positive, but I am looking forward to a few days to be mostly alone, enjoy the beauty of this part of the world, allow my mind to wander, and finish a book or two. When I left the States over two months ago, I did not have any expectations that I would have a specific revelation or develop a concrete next life step while here. I figured this adventure would, quite simply, be an interesting life experience and offer a bit more perspective before I take my next life step. When I left New York, there was this sense that my life was not completely in touch with what I care about most and conflicting, strong desires were making the decision of what to do next a bit confusing. (For example, I wanted to have more career momentum but I wanted “career momentum” to have less of a pull on my life. Also, I wanted more time time to spend with people I care about but I wanted other people’s opinion of me and what I do next to have less influence over me.) New York, in a lot of ways, turned up the volume on these internal conflicts that, I acknowledge, I may spend my entire life working on without ever completely resolving. However, some time away certainly has allowed me to turn the volume down and free my mind up. The point of this rambling conclusion is that a visit from an old friend with a thoughtful soul has helped to nudge me in the direction of taking some time for productive introspective while I am down here. Although this will largely take place off the pages of this blog (God invented journals for a reason), I will, from time-to-time, share with readers any insights or feelings that bubble up that I think may be worth sharing.
* = In reference to Newman’s Kili story, in all fairness, he patiently listed countless times to my rendition of the “what are you doing and what have you been doing with your life for the last 2+ months” spiel that I explained to each of the characters mentioned above. I.e. “I was living in NYC, wanted to move and find a different job, figured traveling would be cool before getting a job, now I’m in Guatemala, no specific future plans, but have general life goals, yes, blahblahlbahbleedeeblahblah…”