Saying goodbye to Caye Caulker was hard, as the easygoing energy was a nice departure from the hectic pace we experienced in Mexico. Rushing to pile into the water taxi before it filled up—in true Whohn Brose fashion, we were the last two to board—there was a ping of sadness. It wasn’t long before the island fell out of view and sprawling Belize City was upon us.
We had little idea of what to expect from our next stop in Flores, Guatemala, though a couple we had met in Belize said it was somewhat reminiscent of Italy. Either way, we weren’t too pumped for the long day of bus travel and our second border crossing in less than a week.
While the bus ride was even longer than expected, walking across the international border from Belize into Guatemala was more exciting than one might think. Sure, we waited in line for more than an hour, but the Guatemalans who shepherded us through the process were much more warm and welcoming than border employees from our experiences moving into and out of both Mexico and Belize.
When we finally made it to Flores, it was easy to see why our Canadian friends in Belize would compare it to Italy. Flores is a small island in the middle of Lake Peten Itza, accessible from Santa Elena only by one bridge. You can walk around the circumference in about 15 minutes at a leisurely pace, taking in the beauty of the lake and the winding cobblestone streets.
We were lucky to be in Flores during Semana Santa, otherwise known as Holy Week. Semana Santa is a huge deal in Guatemala, and when we awoke on Good Friday, the island had virtually been cleared of cars and tuk tuks to make way for the religious celebrations.
Local Flores citizens spent most of the day decorating the streets with elaborate offerings in preparation for the evening’s Good Friday procession. Sawdust, rice, grains, and other materials were arranged in brightly colored symmetrical patterns. Some even included depictions of Jesus and fruits cut into the shape of flowers, as well as candles and burning incense.
Whohn Brose spent much of Good Friday wandering around the small island and observing the decorated streets. Once we had scoped a good location from which to watch the evening’s main event, we retreated to a nearby Papuseria to fill up on an ungodly amount of bean and cheese papusas before the parade began. They got us even more excited for El Salvador than we were before.
By the time the procession started, it seemed as though the entire island had filled the formerly quiet streets. It was interesting to watch the religious procession completely demolish the art people had spent all day putting together. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, but neither half of Whohn Brose has been to church recently enough to fully work it out.
The highlight of Flores, and our primary reason for visiting, was trekking around the ruins of Tik’al. Consider us wannabe morning people, we doubt those who know us would call us early birds. That said, we opted for the Early Bird tour of Tik’al, which departed from our hostel at 4:30 a.m.
Guatemalan Time (GT) is a phrase we’ve heard often down here, but leaving for Tik’al was a hard 4:30 a.m. Coincidentally, GT aligns fairly well with Whitney Standard Time (WST), which our friends have determined to be roughly 36 minutes behind standard time.
Luckily Whohn Brose was on neither GT or WST that morning, and made it just in time for the 1.5-hour bus ride—which included a stop for gas. John had a hard time putting that one behind him, as he was rather perplexed. Little did he know this would not be the last time a paid trip would include a stop at the gas pump.
No disrespect to the Maya of the Mexican Riviera, but the Mayan city of Tik’al made the Tulum ruins look like child’s play. We were lucky to see the impressive complex of ruins under the guidance of a jolly Mayan-Guatemalan named Manuel. He provided some much needed energy to our sleepy group upon arriving to the park.
Manuel’s impressive knowledge of Tik’al’s history was complemented by some mind-blowing scientific explanations. Not to mention his spot-on impressions of a howler monkey’s call and a T-Rex. He cheered us on as we climbed our first temple—the steps are so much higher than they look—and even picked up a baby snake for us to examine. Snakes have a special meaning in Mayan folklore, and Manuel said it was a sign of good luck to see one early into our journey.
The Mayans established Tik’al—which translates to Place of Echoes—in roughly 900 BC, and stayed there until some time around 900 AD. Over the course of 1,800 years, the site was expanded to 122 square kilometers (which is just under 76 square miles), with temples reaching various heights up to 70 meters (~230 feet high).
Every structure was created to serve a specific purpose, be it spiritual or practical. Some were designed to track equinoxes and solstices, while others were designed to communicate the Mayan numbering system. All buildings were designed to amplify sound, and our guide was sure to tell the group before anyone thought about talking smack about their fellow tourists.
According to Manuel, the Mayans were incredible astronomers and mathematicians. Unfortunately they were not great arbolists or meteorologists, as it was their clear-cutting of the jungle to make way for Tik’al that resulted in the city’s demise. The more trees they cut, the less rain that came. Eventually, this led to a desertion of both the city and a belief in their gods.
This probably won’t come as a surprise, but walking up and down tall and steep steps all day is quite tiring. The Mayan method for walking up and down the temple steps is to zigzag from left to right. This helped to alleviate some of the burning sensation that was building in our thighs—a pain that would stay with us for three days after Tik’al—as well as assauge our fears of tumbling down dozens of steps. Whohn was diligent in using this method after Manuel casually mentioned that a tourist had fallen to her death roughly 10 years prior.
After nearly 16,000 steps worth of trekking around Tik’al, Whohn Brose was ready for the nap olympics. We chugged water, dozed off for a few hours, and woke up with sore legs and empty tummies. Having learned not to ignore the pangs of hunger for fear of hangriness creeping in, we set out for some veggie tacos to make up for the bean and cheese papusa feed we put our bodies through the previous night. Things took a turn back toward the naughty side when we bought some chocolate cake from a street vendor and chowed down as we watched the sun setting over the lake.
The day after Tik’al was supposed to be a day of rest, but John has a habit of conflating rest with more strenuous activity. After a nice lakeside breakfast and some of the best coffee we’ve had so far, John convinced Whit to look past the feeling that her thighs felt like they were going to fall off and walk to a cave system on the outskirts of the town on the other side of the bridge.
The walk that was 30 minutes according to the internet turned out to be 50 once we finally approached the caves. Lucky for John, the caves were about 15 degrees cooler than the stuffy 99 degree heat that was adding to Whit’s annoyance at even allowing herself to be convinced to abandon her much desired day of rest in favor of more walking. Whit concedes that the caves were actually a really cool experience and she’s glad they made the trek—especially since Whohn Brose had the caves all to themselves on account of the fact it was Easter Sunday.
Inside the caves, there were numbered arrows to guide you through different openings and offshoots so you didn’t end up lost deep in the side of a Guatemalan hill. As we reached the deepest recesses of our self-guided tour, we discovered that we were not alone after all. The slight sound of chirping and flapping wings prompted us to turn our lights toward the ceiling. We looked up to find a number of bats hanging between the stalactites, and took that as our sign to make our way back toward the entrance.
Emerging back into the humid heat and scorching sunlight was almost enough to make us go back and hang out with our winged friends. But alas, we began the long journey back to Flores. We made it about 300 meters when a tuk tuk came bounding down the dirt road. Whohn locked eyes and said, “Yep, tuk tuk us home, por favor.”
Tuks tuks are quite common in Guatemala, with more than 700 zipping around the greater Flores area alone. Similar to the taxi numbering system in John’s home city of Chicago, tuk tuk numbers are issued in order. This is notable because, just recently, John’s dad Charlie lit up the family group chat with a photo from the Magnificent Mile of the ever elusive and rare taxi #1. This sparked John’s quest to find tuk tuk numero uno in Flores.
On our last night in Flores, John prepared questions in Spanish for the woman who served us some tasty veggie tacos. It was Whit’s job to translate her answers. John asked if it was a big deal to see tuk tuk #1, and if she had ever seen it. She seemed a bit confused as to why these two gringos were so interested in tuk tuk numbers, but proceeded to share that she had mostly seen it on the other side of the bridge. Unfortunately, the closest we came that night was tuk tuk #11.
Heading to the bus station the next morning, Whohn accepted that the goal of spotting tuk tuk #1 would likely go unfulfilled. Even so, John was craning his neck throughout the entire ride hoping for that one special sighting. It all seemed in vain until he pointed to tuk tuk numero uno and let out a squeal. Unfortunately, we were too slow to get a picture of it; Charlie Rose is always so much better prepared.