April 1976

At the time, we never considered flying to Flores, the nearest airport to Tikal: we did not even know that there was an airport there, but if we had known, we would still have gone by bus.  So, A-M, Joe and I bought one-way tickets for the local bus, leaving late that evening.

It was very dark on the way to the depot. Few street lights in the city were functioning, but it was easy to find the bus at the depot: it was the only one with lights switched on and motor coughing and spluttering, ready to go.  It was an ancient bus that had seen better days: it was probably older than we were.  And as it turned out, we were the last passengers to arrive.

We entered the bus through the rear door and immediately the strong smell of stale sweat and unwashed clothes hit us.   We were the only ‘foreign’ passengers and we had to search for the three remaining dispersed seats.  There was no spare leg-room between the rows of seats and I felt like a giant when compared to the local Indian population.  The door was soon closed and with a roar, we departed.

Within a short time, the passengers that had been awake, were fast asleep.  Somewhere ahead of me A-M and Joe may have also been asleep.  I had a little Indian guy cuddled up to my shoulder.  He stayed there for most of the journey,  I really did not mind.

We were soon on a second or third-class road, sometimes descending, at others ascending, tossing, turning and bumping from pothole to pothole.  Twice our progress abruptly ceased.  Each time I got out with some others to watch the driver, buried in the engine, fiddling, swearing, adjusting, with only the light of a torch, until the motor finally exploded into life, to a round of applause from the appreciative audience.

At intervals through the night the bus stopped to drop off passengers or to pick up others. It was shortly after dawn when we arrived in Flores.  When I left the bus, I was no longer aware of human body smells.  How rapidly we can adjust to our environment.

Guatemala map
Map of Guatemala, with Flores about 480 km to the NNE of Guatemala City

We had no trouble in finding an inexpensive, but clean and comfortable hotel, with a view over the lake.  There appeared to be few, if any, tourists in Flores, most probably scared off by the earthquakes.  Joe headed off to find a neighbouring hostel that had been recommended to him, and we agreed to meet later that evening.

And when we did, Joe was enthusiastic about a bar that he had passed early that day.  We went in, and after our eyes had adjusted to the dim light, and we had settled down to our cold beers, the conservation went something like this…

‘Did you actually come here earlier today, Joe?’

‘Nope, I thought that I would wait for you two’

‘Joe, have you noticed anything different about the women?’

‘Well, there seem to be a lot of single women, and they are not wearing much’.

‘What about those doors along that corridor, with the couple just emerging?

‘No, I had not noticed’.

‘And the couple that have just gone down the corridor?  Joe, we are in a brothel’, at which point A-M started to laugh, and the spell was broken.

We eventually finished out beers and left.  No doubt A-M will still be recounting the story of that evening when we took her to a bordello.  And I suspect that Joe returned after we left him at his hostel.

Flores (photo from internet)

The next day we caught a local bus to the ruins of Tikal, about 65 km to the NW of Flores.  The Mayan city flourished during the era from 200-900 AD but was inexplicably abandoned over a relatively short time.  It became overgrown by the jungle and it was not until the mid-1800s that it was ‘rediscovered’, although the local Indian tribes were aware of its existence.

When we were there, it was only partly uncovered, and there were numerous mounds, smothered in vegetation, that once restored, would one day reveal their form and purpose.  In its day, Tikal encompassed a large area, connected by causeways.

The temples were massive, and we climbed two of them, Temples I and II.  They were steep, and the steps were irregular and quite worn, but the view from the top over the jungle was breath-taking.  And on the way up, monkeys were screeching at us from neighbouring trees.  It was sobering to remember that countless of human sacrifices were performed on those elevated altars.

Temple I (photo from internet)
Temple II (photo from internet)
Temple V (photo from internet)

We were travelling light and decided to spend the night in Tikal, sleeping in hammocks in a little enclosure in the jungle.  The shelter was circular, with a thick waterproof roof of fronds, open on all sides, with a waist-high wall.  There was no light, so when the sun set, we climbed into our hammocks.

Initially, I fell asleep, but was often awoken by the constant clamour of the jungle.  It was another world out there.  At one time there was a furious galloping through our clearing.  The next day we were told that it would have been a tapir.

A tapir with the mottled camouflage of the young (photo from internet)

When we returned to Flores, we decided to fly back to Guatemala City.  The Flores airport was nearby, and none of us relished another long and uncomfortable bus journey.

The next day, Joe continued on his way north and we headed off to Antigua.  You can read more of our journey here at Volcán Agua.