Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Up at 5:15 to await a 6:00 a.m. bus. Today we travel to Flores, Guatemala, and visit the Mayan archeological sites of Bonampak and Yaxchilán along the way. We are traveling with a group in order to expedite our journey. In our minivan are 12 friendly passengers (all gringos), a driver, and a helper. We met an English guy, Nick, who we would continue to bump into over the next few days.

Almost as soon as you leave Palenque the road begins to climb and you enter much denser vegetation. This fine blacktop road interrupting the Selva Lacandóna and enabling our journey comes courtesy of the Mexican government, who only in recent years built the road to surround and penetrate the forest where the Zapatistas move. Regrettably, this accessibility has brought an influx of settlers, and much of the forest has been replaced by sickly-looking pasture, having recently been slashed and burned.

Bonampak

Three hours later we arrive at Bonampak, in the territory of the Lacandón, the forest Maya, who until a few decades ago had scarcely any contact with the rest of Mexico. They were the only Maya never conquered by the Spaniards, and thus never Christianized by the Catholics. Traditionally, the Lacandón do not cut their hair and wear long white smocks of coarse cotton.

Estela

Bonampak, whose name means painted walls, is a small site which has some of the best-preserved murals of all the Mayan cities. Bonampak was hidden from the outside world by dense jungle until 1946 when a young explorer became friends with a Lacandón Maya who showed him the sacred site. It has elaborate stelae and is still used by the Lacandón for ceremonies.

Next we continued an hour to Frontera Corozal on the Mexican border, went through exit immigration, and there our group broke up. Nine of our group crossed to Guatemala, and three of us joined some others in a lancha (boat) and headed an hour down the Río Usamacinta to Yaxchilán for a two-hour visit. The lancha trip was beautiful, nothing but jungle and the occassional Guatemalan navy troops. The Usamacinta is as wide as the Tennessee, but undeveloped along this stretch.

Guatemalan Navy Headquarters

Yaxchilán dominates a bend in the Usamacinta, which gave it a powerful presence in politics and trade along the river in its time. Instead of pyramids, its temples and palaces are built in terraces on steep hills above the river.

Enter the labyrinth to Yaxchilán!

Arriving on the beach below the ruins, you climb a steep, sandy staircase to the park entrance, where you enter the site through a pyramid, finding your way through its dark, spooky corridors. Glad we brought a flashlight!

A temple of Yaxchilán

Its temples aside, the ultimate attraction of Yaxchilán is its gorgeous rainforest location. The site is very secluded and very lush. One gets the sense that it could be reclaimed by the jungle at any time. In the background is the extraordinary racket of screaming and moaning howler monkeys. A visit here is a must when traveling La Ruta Maya.

Lancha on the Usamacinta

The return upstream takes an hour and a half against the powerful flow of the river. On the way back, we had the extreme delight of seeing a cocodrilo (crocodile) sunning itself on the bank of the river. It was a big one! We also saw women knee-deep in the water washing their clothes and unattended children roaming the river banks. They're not scared of crocodiles?!?

¡Peligro cocodrilo!

Back at Frontera Corozal lancheros were unloading goods - bag after bag of chiles! We had a quick lunch, said goodbye to the last member of our group, a French man who was returning to Palenque, and Tom and I embarked on another lancha trip, 30 minutes upriver to the Guatemalan border town of Betél. Tom and I were the only passengers.

Mmmm... Jalapeños

Upon arrival in Betél, our lanchero had the responsibility of securing our passage to Flores, our destination. He bargained with a bus driver, who seemed reluctant to take us, then tried to get us to pay again. We weren't having it. He didn't press the issue, and he paid the fare like he was supposed to. The fare arranged for us was 80 quetzales each. The exchange rate in Guatemala is about 7.5 quetzales per dollar, so that's less than 11 bucks. It turned out to be quite a bargain, as once again we were the only passengers.

In Betél we experienced a very strange immigration process. The "immigration office" was an unlikely half mile down the road from the boat landing, past pigs and chickens and mangy dogs, and it was staffed by a woman running a tienda (a little open-air convenience store). The tienda lady came out, had us fill out tourist cards, and charged us five bucks each to enter the country. She spoke English. Our bus driver said he needed to wait 30 minutes for his partner, then we'd go.

Immigration tienda

When his partner arrived, he greeted us in perfect English and introduced himself as Jimmy. He was a tour guide from Honduras, as was the driver. As it turned out, they just happened to be in Betél before returning to Honduras from guiding a tour, and the lanchero had talked the driver into taking us to Flores. We're sure they weren't even supposed to be taking passengers with them. There were no other buses around when we were there though, so I'm glad they agreed to give us a lift.

The road from Betél is barely a road at all. It's more like a cruel joke. It is a rough path recently scraped through the slash-and-burn. It's dirt, but compact and dry as concrete. I've never seen so much dust in my life. The ride just about rattled the fillings out of my teeth. We are in the department of El Petén, which occupies fully one-third of Guatemala. We are about 150 miles north of Guatemala City. Until 1970 the entire region of the Petén was virtually inaccessible by road. The trip to Flores took three and a half hours. We arrived at 8:50 p.m.

The "road" from Betél - before it gets rough

Our room for the next three nights is at the Hotel El Itzá, 150 quetzales ($20) per night, very comfortable, but little character. It would have been only 100Q, but we opted to turn on the air conditioning. It was like a sauna in this town and we had no window. Be serious. There are no ATMs in Flores, so we changed money at a travel agency. We were tired and sore from our big day and decided to take it easy tomorrow.

Continue to Day 5

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