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Tikal, Palenque, Merida and Uxmal
San Pedro, Guatemala, 4 April 2003
This is the first part of our Maya tour through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. It covers Tikal, Palenque and Merida.
On March 10th, we left Antigua at 04:30, to be on time at the airport of Guatemala city for our 06:00 flight to Flores. For 49 USD we flew over the roads which otherwise might have been blocked by teachers in their second month of a nationwide strike, that attempted to paralyze the entire country.
Those of you who know me well, can image how difficult it was for me to be up in time to be picked up by our airport shuttle so early in the morning...
Once in Flores we checked in at our Hotel. In the afternoon we went to explore the cave of Uctan-something. Since the owner of the cave and the electricity company had a disagreement about the electricity bill sometime last November, the electricity had been cut off!
Armed with our travel flashlight we were allowed to enter the cave, unescorted. We were told to look at the map at the entrance of the cave to get an idea where to go. I took a picture of the map, with my digital camera, so that we could check it once inside the cave. This turned out to have been a good idea, since roughly 25% of the visitors don't make it out alone, but have to wait for the guard to come and rescue them...
Inside the cave we also used the light of the camera's LCD screen as a second "flashlight", just to see where to walk... The real darkness, the flashlight, the vague map on the LCD screen, everything added to the mystique of the cave. A much more exiting way to experience a cave.
On the morning of the 12th, we took the shuttle to Tikal, for our first visit to a Mayan ruin. Tikal is set in the middle of the largest rainforest in Central America with 6 temples (or pyramids) towering over the rainforest. Climbing up them, besides being a intense exercise, allows you to see a never ending extent of rainforest, uninterrupted by any human activity, with the exception of the other Maya structures.
March and April are the driest months, and this rainforest looked like it hadn't seen any rain in quite some time! In spite of that the forest was magnificent, we saw many colorful birds, and several howler monkeys hanging around in the trees. These are supposed to be the loudest monkeys on the planet.
To get from Flores to Palenque, we needed to cross the border river, while there is no road or bridge to use. The originally planned route, over El Naranjo was not available for some reason, so we took the alternative route over Bethel and from there a 30 min boat trip downriver to the Mexican side.
The Palenque ruins are much closer together then those in Tikal. What makes Palenque different is the fact that there is a tower with several floors. But the most striking thing is the tomb of Pacal II. It was discovered in the 1950s After the rubble filled staircase had been excavated by archaeologists.
The tour guides said that visiting the tomb was no longer possible, but that wasn't quite true. If you went to the museum, and applied for permit, including a written statement of why you wanted to see it, you could be issued a permit. We got a permit, and had to wait until 15:40 when we would be allowed a visit for a maximum of 20 minutes.
The tomb was covered by a 5 ton slab with a carving of the king surrounded by all kinds of things. Erich von Däniken, a Swiss author with a vivid imagination, who wrote the book "Gods from Outer Space", claims the carvings represent a space ship. I read this book when I was a child and used this knowledge to acquire the visiting permit, allowing me to verify this theory for myself. The fact is it could represent anything you want, and yes it is possible to see some kind of transportation device in it. A photo can be found at the bottom of this page.
We left Palenque on the night bus to Merida, but only after visiting a waterfall called Misol-Ha and a whole collection of smaller waterfalls with swimming areas called Agua Azul (which wasn't as idyllic as made out to be because of all of the tourists and shops next to the water). From Merida we visited Uxmal and the Loltun caves, using local transportation called colectivos, minivans that leave when filled with passengers, it was a lot cheaper than the organized tours at around 70 pesos (6,5 EUR) instead of 210 pesos (per person) the tours charge for transportation excluding entrance fees.
The Loltun caves were very nice and the guided tour was entertaining, but Uxmal was a little disappointing because the most important building "the pyramid of the sorcerer" was closed for renovation. However on the positive side, because it was Sunday, when most museums and sites are free in Mexico, we only had to pay 37 pesos instead of 87.
Merida is very pleasant town, with a nice atmosphere, on weekends streets in the center are cut off for traffic and outdoor events are organized. We were lucky to be there during a weekend. We also went on the free city tour organized by the helpful tourist agency. The guide told us that "people in Yucatan a very different from those in Mexico, people in Yucatan are friendly". He told us that the Mayas had predicted that their civilization would be destroyed by the monster with two heads and six feet bearing a cross. That monster turned out to be a Spaniard riding a horse.
Before the Spanish conquest, Merida was know as the place of the 5 pyramids. Nowadays there isn't a single Maya building left, since the Spaniards destroyed them all and used the stones to build churches and other colonial buildings.
On our last day in Merida we visited the museum of Anthropology. There we learnt that the Mayas used numbers in base 20 (we use base 10). So their numbers ran from 0 to 19 instead of from 0 to 9 like ours do. This matched up nicely with their calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days, and a short 19th month to make up for the missing days and include a leap day every 4 years. Their calendar system was pretty accurate to say the least.
In our next travel update I will write about the rest of our Maya tour, to Chichen-Itza, Tulum, Belize, Livingston and Copan (Honduras). If you want to be informed of future updates of our travel stories, send me an e-mail.
e-mail Otto de Voogd
To my knowledge the information provided here was accurate at the time of our visit. However time passes and things can change.
(ATMs for Maestro/Cirrus bankcards)
Mexico: Some ATMs in bigger cities. Exchanging Euros is possible.
Guatemala - Quetzales, approx rates: 1 USD = 7.80 GTQ, 1 EUR = 8.50 GTQ
Flight - Guatemala City -> Flores: 49 USD
Mexico - Pesos, approx rates: 1 USD = 11 MXN, 1 EUR = 12 MXN
Palenque - Hotel La Selva: 80 MXN for a double room with private shower.
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