For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here
Three months ago I sat in this very seat next to the Rio Dulce contemplating the next stage of my journey. That stage is now history; Belize, the Yucatan Peninsular and Cuba have now fallen into the annuls of this journey and I’m back in Guatemala. The loop has been closed and I am where I’ve been before, but things are very different. Instead of rocking to the rhythms of the rainy season Guatemala is now pulsing with expectation of the coming of Christmas. In myself I am excited by the imminent prospect of higher altitudes, mountain vistas, some time learning Spanish and the visit of a friend from home. But there is still nostalgia for the guy that sat here three months ago; I’m missing the freedoms and focus of solo riding and am once again suffering the back pain that haunted me exactly a year ago.
Just like my last entry into Guatemala at La Mesilla, this border crossing into Bethel was quick and easy. The immigration officials in Frontera Corozal on the Mexican side neglected to charge us for our tourist visas and with this saving we made the quick decision to enter Guatemala. The Usumacinta river marks a meandering border between Guatemala and Chiapas, so a boat is required. Our initial plan was to take the short boat ride directly across the river first thing the next morning and ride the few miles down river on the Guatemalan side to reach Bethel. With time to spare and 500 ‘bonus’ pesos burning a hole in our pockets we instead decided to pay $300 for the privilege of being dropped directly in Bethel that afternoon. Thankfully I never had time to get reflective on Mexico. After enjoying the dubious delights of the only hotel in Bethel and having flown through a warm and smiley Guatemalan immigration office we were off and cycling.
Crossing into Guatemala at La Mesilla is so much more hectic than entering by boat into Bethel. Although the crossing itself was no trouble, my last crossing into the country plunged me into a bustling border town and onto a busy highway. By contrast, the immigration office of Bethel lies outside of a small sleepy two-horse town and releases you onto 37 miles of quiet unpaved rural road. There are small towns and villages along the way but generally the road is framed by agricultural lands; maize sprouts and cattle graze where only a couple of decades ago the natural ecosystem of thick jungle ruled.
Having just spent a couple of days up in the SIerra Cojolita on our way out of Chiapas, the dive down into the large northern Guatemalan province of Peten bought with it an unwelcome increase in humidity and temperature and a forced retreat from the tents back into cheap hotel rooms. After the good riding out of Bethel we stopped up in Las Cruces for the night before continuing on to El Remate on the eastern edge of Lago Peten. Much of that riding was ordinary and quite dull highway stuff with only a short 15 mile stretch of quiet unpaved riding between Santa Rita and San Benito to get the juices flowing. Riding the good stuff only serves to reinforce just how repetitive and mechanical hard-top riding can be.
I’ve always held a somewhat romanticized image of Peten, envisaging a desolate undeveloped network of rustic communities. What I discovered was highways, tourist traffic and Pizza Huts. The Guatemalan government have put a fair bit of time and effort into opening up this previously inhospitable and deserted part of the country and it appears they have been successful. On my first ride through Guatemala I’d even had Policemen in other provinces tell me Peten was really dangerous, leading my thoughts towards images of a bandit ruled narco funded no-man’s-land. In reality the whole area felt extremely safe and a bit contrived.
From El Remate an hours early morning bus journey took us up to the famed Mayan ruins of Tikal. Our bus had been the first through the Tikal National Park gates when they opened at 6am, so we were gifted a deserted site to explore. My Mayan ruins tour from Tulum through Chichen Itza and Palenque to Tikal has seen the scale of the sites increase incrementally. Tikal surprised me by its shear size, the city covers an area of 16 square kilometers. Partially and expertly restored a hike (its too big for strolls) around the site reveals temple after temple, and hundreds of buildings in various states. The local building material is limestone which is prone to erosion so much of the exposed stonework is weathered and little resistance is offered to the prying roots of the mighty jungle vegetation. Before and after images reveal just how overtaken by jungle the site was and what an admirable effort was required to extricate the building remains. At Tikal I was thankful for the sensitivities of the restoration and pleased to encounter numerous small hills under which cower more yet to be excavated remains. The restorations feed the imagination but the mystery of time and history is left to thrive.
Bright grey skies and a thick jungle canopy made photography at Tikal a really interesting challenge but with so much incredible architecture sitting in the lap of natures might it would have been impossible not to get at least a few rewarding shots. One thing that managed to evade the lens was the wildlife. Getting to the site early was supposed to reward us with lots of animal life, however I was disappointed not to see too much. The demented cry of the howler monkeys (imagine an elephant being raped) rang out in the same fashion as has haunted our canvas nights for a time now, but I’ve still never seen one. There were plenty of fantastic birds around but sadly I couldn’t tell you what they were. The only animals I could identify for sure were the Spider Monkeys that live in notable numbers in the jungle canopy. Their controlled and fearless movement through the trees is such an impressive ballet that it’s almost possible to forget their penchant for pissing and shitting on tourists below. I think it would take a some kind of psychopathic disorder not to feel something for monkeys, although I’m yet to be treated to a golden shower.
It remains a mystery to me why Chichen Itza is classified a modern wonder of the world, a sentiment that deepens when I visit places such as Tikal. I was initially a little underwhelmed by the scale of all the Mayan buildings and the craftsmanship although impressive fails to amaze next to the precision exhibited by the Incas, but over the course of our ruins tour have learnt to appreciate the beauty and engineering inherent in their constructions. There are perhaps as many as eleven individual buildings or complexes on the Tikal site that stand alone as attractions in themselves: Templo’s I and II on the east and west sides of the Grand Plaza exhibit authoritative dominance through their steep sides and looming auras. On the north and south sides of the same Plaza spread the Acropolis Norte and Central, labyrinths of courtyards and domestic buildings offering up a more human side to the ritualistic temples. Then there is the huge stone face in the Palacio de las Ventana, the large twin pyramids of Complex ‘Q’ and the individual majesty of Templo’s III, V and VI. In my eyes though, the pièce de résistance was Templo IV, the highest temple of Tikal and the whole of Mesoamerica. Hailing from around 740 AD this giant looms 70 meters high and affords breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. A stairway has been constructed to take visitors up above the forest, onto the higher parts of the building. From here the views over the gentle rolling hills and jungle thick Peten are astounding. Upon witnessing the heads of Templo’s I,II and III poking cheekily out from the rich green canopy you’re really hit with an appreciation for the human effort involved in creating such impressive buildings in an unforgiving environment.
After a day off the bike to take in Tikal we remounted the next day for a pleasant little jaunt around the north side of Lago Peten. The sun had reappeared and the blue skies returned for an unpaved rumble from El Remate west to San Andres where the hard top sadly reappeared. Some short and sharp hills made it a good ride into lunch on the lakes edge at San Andres. This little town took an unexpected form, it’s like a small British seaside town that’s been plonked on the shores of Peten Lake. Another marker of my surprise and slight dismay at the development that’s recently taken hold in these parts. From here it was a short ride around the western tip of the lake and into the tourist enclave on the island of Flores.
Flores has a bit of a theme park feel, a separate reality created to satisfy the quaint expectations of passing tourists. The island is connected to the mainland by a raised causeway that for the most part is tree-lined, a feature that detracts strongly from the island feel. First thing we did on arrival was jump into the lake for a swim. The water was clean, fresh, warmish and instantly seduced me into taking a day off the bike in Flores. Next morning I was in again first thing, having vowed to swim across to another island and back. Half way there it became apparent that I’d left my swimming fitness somewhere back down the road so I turned around… the local kids were impressed though. Aside from the lake there is absolutely nothing else remarkable about Flores so it was with guarded relief that we cycled out the next day.
From Flores we’ve ridden just under 130 miles down the Peten Highway into Rio Dulce. There has been a few cute little hills around to keep the eye occupied but otherwise the stretch has been an unremarkable bout of standard highway riding. Finca Ixobel provided us a comfortable night at the halfway point just south of Poptun. Breaking my first rule of camping, which is never to pay for the right, the expenditure was vindicated by the kind people we encountered and the Q65 all you can eat buffet which was frankly outstanding. Twenty-three miles out of Rio Dulce we hit Modesto Mendez, the junction where I rejoined my previous route and retraced my steps for hopefully the last time on this tour.
Returning to Rio Dulce has closed off another episode of my tour. When I head west back up into the Guatemalan highlands tomorrow I will shed no tears for the hot and humid lowlands I leave behind. It’s been fun but I’ve spent too long away from the mountains… Xela is at 10,000 feet and it’s calling my name.