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Source: Croatian Traveller
Central America is interesting due to many aspects: Mexico, which is almost four times as big as France, offers excellent Caribbean beaches (Tulum, Progreso…), famous Pacific beaches (Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta), the rich gastronomic diversity, merry music and many other things, suited to everyone’s taste. People who are willing to travel also visit the neighboring Guatemala, the cradle of the largest civilization in Central America – the Mayan civilization. The heart of the largest and least settled Guatemalan region of Peten, used to be full of Mayan state cities.
The Mayan civilization lasted for three millennia, only to completely disappear around 900 AD. None of the reasons for the disappearance are generally accepted. It is possible that it was caused rather by one of the environmental causes (over-exploitation of the soil, draught) rather than the human factor. Either way, Guatemala and Mexico still have around five million Mayans, speaking one of the twenty or so Mayan languages that are often completely incompatible. However, their numerous achievements are covered by dust, and their cities covered by the roots of centennial forests.
In Yucatan, on the far eastern side of Mexico, numerous tourists enjoy the monumental and beautifully presented remains of the youngest, post-classical age of the Mayan culture. However, if you wish to see the oldest and biggest cities, you have to head deep into the heart of the Guatemalan jungle. It is necessary to work out the logistics a little bit: when it comes to timing your travel, it would be best to avoid summer because of the rainy season – it is humid and full of mosquitoes that spread malaria and denge fever (it is not fatal, but it is not overly pleasant). As far as arriving to Flores is concerned, the best starting point for sightseeing, you have two options: either from Mexican Palenque (with the beautiful park with Mayan monuments of the pre-classical period; the travel costs 350 pesos (=35 US$, 9 hours of travel), or from Belize City (around 5 to 6 hours of travel. Attention: Croatian citizens require a visa to visit Belize).
Once you arrive to Flores, a picturesque town with a population of a thousand (very friendly) people, located in the middle of the lake, with its decent and rather cheap hotels (US$ 8-30 per night per person, and yes, the entire Central America accepts US dollars, and you will not lose much in exchange), you can start planning your visits to the Mayan sites. Each hotel is connected with a tourist agency that will push you to take all possible excursions. It helps if you speak Spanish, but you will find enough people who speak English. You have the following possibilities: the famous and best presented town of Tikal (1 hour away by bus from Flores) is visited by most tourists. You can see everything in one morning and afternoon, and you can also spend a night (much more expensive than in Flores) in the park itself – a recommendation to those who wish to take nice photographs of nature and archeology in the morning and evening hours. The forests are not so rich with fauna as some people might imagine, but you will see monkeys, coati (animal similar to a raccoon), toucan and other birds. Jaguar, the symbol of Mayan rulers, was hunted almost into extinction – there are 71 still left in the whole of Guatemala. Even if there were more, you wouldn’t be able to see them: they lead such a secretive and private life that some institutions (and individuals) offer up to a million dollars to anyone who manage to capture on film only a few minutes of jaguar’s life.
As far as some gastronomic excursions are concerned, apart from the usual Central American dishes like fajitas, salads, rice, beans, you can try iguana (only during the season, in January and February) or the Mayan meat plate for two, with four types of meat: turkey, deer, armadillo and forest rat (the first three are delicious, the last one did not thrill us in any way, but it is far from not being delicious).
One of the biggest and oldest Mayan towns, El Mirador, is located deep in the jungle, some 63 kilometers from the nearest village. Although it was discovered in 1926, serious archeological excavations were started by Dr. Richard Hansen in 2003. Only a smaller portion of the buildings was excavated, like pyramid El Tigre (55m) and La Danta (Tapir), one of the biggest structures of the old world in general: from the base, it is 70 meters high, but if you take into account its volume, with the volume of the platforms it is located on, you get the monumentality paralleled only by the Pyramid of Cheops. You could see other Mayan towns from their tops, but today you can only see the tree tops, with other big buildings sticking out between them.
From Flores you can go on an organized excursion (we recommend it) to El Mirador in a three-day or five-day version. The first one is intensive and interesting to those who have less days at their disposal, but it is rather demanding. You pay the agency/guide around $450, which is divided onto 2 to 5 persons, depending how many of you there are in a group – perhaps you will find someone in the city to join you and split the costs. You start around three in the morning by jeep to the village of Carmelito, where you have breakfast and prepare the mules for the trip to the jungle. You start out on mules around 8 am – the guide will explain how to ride it, and if you have never rode one before, you can expect two problems on the way: mule is a wonderful animal, but it listens more to someone who is authoritative (a trick: flick a stick her ear, so it can hear the sound). The far bigger problem is sitting on mule’s back: you have ten hours of riding in front of you, and the first one is wonderful. In the second hour you start feeling the pain in your knees, in the third you stop feeling your knees at all. In the fifth hour, everything starts aching, from your knees to the lower back. In the seventh hour you start believing that the consequences will be permanent and you simply can’t believe yourself why you ever agreed to go on this adventure. It will not be of much comfort that the entire experience is wonderful, the locations fascinating and the consequences of riding for ten hours for two days will not be permanent; will just won’t be able to sit for a few days. All in all, we could recommend the five day tour – it is easier on the body and you will have the chance to look around the side attractions more thoroughly.
The guide – make sure you get Alex – is a rather witty guy in his late twenties, incredibly enthusiastic nature lover and a full blown member of the archeological team, although he has no formal training. He will explain everything you see in the jungle, point out the things only a trained observer can do, give you an expert tour of some of the buildings, take photos for you, cook excellent food… He’s a jaguar man, simple and open – he’s the only one who said to Mel Gibson’s face (when he asked for his opinion) that his movie Apocalypto (about the downfall of the Mayan civilization) is full of kitsch and inconsistencies. Still, this movie that was partially shot in Guatemala will give you a nice idea about the towns in Guatemala and Mayan languages. It is all in a Hollywood version, but still very much watchable. Just like the aforementioned Australian who comes to El Mirador at least once a year, you can take a one-day excursion by a helicopter. It will cost you around $1,000.
Along with Tikal, something you definitely shouldn’t miss is the Uaxactún, another city from the classical period. In some (overly) ambitious version, it is possible to see it in the same day with Tikal. There are still some twenty partially explored or unexplored locations remaining. True fans of things like this will know how to find them with the help of people from the agencies. It all depends on the amount of time you have, and on your will to walk around the jungle in the heat and humidity. If you have health issues, it is better that you don’t go, but don’t be frightened by the fact that there are 700 snake species living there (it is highly unlikely you will see them), tropical diseases (perhaps in the rainy period) or the third world label. In a single two-week trip, we generally recommend you visit Chichen Itzu, a beautiful town of the post-classical period (Mexico), travel down to Palenque (Mexico), over the river to Guatemala. From there, you can very elegantly go to Tikal and Uaxactún, or (those adventurous can go) towards El Mirador. You can wrap up everything with a trip through Belize (scuba-divers love the Blue hole, near Key Caulker) towards the north further to Tulum, a combination of dreamy sandy beaches, with ruins of Mayan pyramids outlined above them. The southeast of Mexico is very safe and predominantly a tourist area. Because it is so huge, you will very easily find other people enjoying themselves just like you, but you will also be able to find remote beaches where you can enjoy just the sand and turquoise sea.