Friday, August 28, 2009

Backtracking a Few Days

Well, we made it to Coban today, a long, interesting journey, and now it's time to update the past few days at La Lancha.


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August 25 -- Chaa Creek to La Lancha


Awakening early, Ellery and I ventured out, with Chad and Henry, to do some bird watching. Alas, my lucky finds of yesterday were far more interesting than anything we spotted today. Still, it was a nice walk around Chaa Creek one final time.


Then, after breakfast, Ellery, William, and Henry did a treasure hunt through the nature preserve and while I did not accompany them, it was reported by Chad and Elizabeth that a good time was had by all.


With that, it was time for us to leave Chaa Creek. We took a cab to the Guatemala border, and easily negotiated both the border crossing and the money changing. We then hopped on a bus coming from San Ignacio and headed to Flores, populated by the usual assortment of travelers: a friendly Israeli couple (fatefully, Ellery was wearing her Hebrew SpongeBob tee shirt), a sullen Italian couple, and four somewhat confused Americans, along with several Guatemalans.


The scenery from the border to Ixlu, where we would be getting off, was far from the jungle I expected. Rather, it was mostly clear cut grazing pastures for the many cows, bulls, and horses we passed along the way (including one herd of cows that blocked the road for a short while). Most of the road was unpaved,which made for a dusty, bumpy trip – just the way I like it.


Getting off at Ixlu, in the middle of nowhere, gained us some respect from the other travelers on the bus, all of whom wanted to know what we knew. Of course, if I told them that we were headed to La Lancha, all of our “street cred” would have been lost, so I vaguely said that we were staying someplace closer to Tikal. Waiting at the bus stop were two drivers, one hoping to take someone to Tikal, and another hoping for a local fare. We, of course, were of the later variety and while I was tempted to walk down the road to El Remate and wait for a chicken bus or shared taxi to come by, I opted for the taxi to take us to the hotel.


La Lancha – rustic, serene, isolated, and empty. Except for the silent and somewhat sullen gay couple from Sydney, it’s just me and Els. But I should have expected it given that it is the rainy season and there are only ten cabanas here to begin with.


The rooms themselves almost hang on the side of the mountain leading to Lake Peten Itza, all with hammocks swaying on the porches and a beautiful view. There’s an open air lodge at the top, a very small swimming pool, and a very steep path down to the lake where there are some chaise lounges and canoes. (I can’t imagine that Francis Ford Coppola, who owns this place, has actually been here; at the very least, I can’t imagine that he has hiked up from the lake to the rooms).


We arrived around 2:30, had lunch, walked down to the lake and back, napped, read, and then I sat by the pool while Ellery swam. Then it was dinner. Despite the uninhabited nature of the resort, our path from the room to the lodge was lined with small luminarias placed there just at dusk by the nearly invisible staff, and the food was definitely wonderful. (At the same time, this attention to detail isn’t available 24/7; this is being posted a day late because by 8:30 p.m., the lodge was dark and hence no internet access).


With the exception of a trip to Tikal and maybe a horseback ride or two, I expect this action-packed routine to continue for the next two days. I may go crazy with boredom; we’ll see.


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August 26 -- Tikal


This morning I awoke to the very eerie sounds of howler monkeys. Like something out of “Lost,” it’s a very strange sound. Alas, none were seen.


After breakfast, we headed out to the main attraction of this area of Guatemala, Tikal. Julio was our guide, and Juan our driver. Until this morning, I didn’t realize how far La Lancha is from everything – it is quite a ways down the road from the turn off at Ixlu; I’m not sure how I missed this yesterday. Along the way to Tikal, we passed through several small villages, and along the sides of the roads horses, cows, chickens and pigs.


Tikal consists of 5 main temples, several pyramids complexes and many other buildings. But you can’t see them all at once; you walk through shaded jungle paths and each plaza area is almost like a surprise. The complex itself is huge and the buildings are imposing. We climbed several of the temples, include Temple 4, which provided a wonderful view of the other temples rising over the tropical forest below. Just as fascinating were the buildings that have not been excavated; some you would never know existed because the trees and the vegetation have completely covered them; others are visible only as a few stones in between monstrous tree trunks.


Almost as amazing is the wildlife in Tikal. We came upon spider monkeys swinging from tree to tree, a coatimundi, toucans and turkeys, and even an interesting little yellow caterpillar that even Julio had never seen before. And the trees – cedar and mahogany and red gumbo limbo, each one towering overhead and with roots so tangled and huge that they brought to mind a kind of medieval fantasy world; I almost expected Bilbo Baggins to pop up and join us.


And our weather luck continued, because it wasn’t until just as we finished lunch that the afternoon rains began, which meant that we had the afternoon to laze on our porch, take in the beauty of the lake, and relax. Which is, needless to say, killing me.

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August 27 -- Zipline!


Today was another adventure – this time to Ixpanpajul and Flores, a small town on the other side of the lake.


The drive to Ixpanpajul passed through much of the same territory as before, but after the turn off at Ixlu, there was a decidedly different atmosphere along the road. Many small guest houses, hostels and roadside restaurants lined the road; people moved with some sense of purpose, whether it was on foot, on horseback, or on truck. And churches … every few kilometers there was a simple, stucco church. The lake side was thick with marshes, crude wooden docks jutting into the blue lake, and horses grazing in the small grassy areas between the road and the water.


Eventually we reached Santa Elena, a standard-issue concrete commercial center with all the usual trappings, including a small airport, a Burger King and a Pizza Hut. However, just 5 miles away was Ixpanpajul, a private jungle reserve where one can ride horses, walk along a skyway, hike, or do as Ellery and I did -- tour the jungle canopy by zip line. Although only a fairly small track of 6 lines, it was tremendous fun and quite different from our South Africa experience. Ellery even did 2 of the lines on her own, without anyone helping her. Ixpanpajul also brought us another crocodile (I’m sure that, like the crocodiles in Tikal, these are imported for the tourists) sighting and a few more exotic birds that we hadn’t seen before.


We then headed to Flores for lunch. While it is touted as a “quaint colonial town” on an island in the lake, quiet doesn’t begin to describe Flores. It’s dead; almost all the shops were closed, and there were more people working on the roads than anything else. But we had a nice lunch at a restaurant overlooking the lake and then took a leisurely boat ride around the lake.


We returned to La Lancha to swim and relax (some more), again just before the afternoon rains, and settle in for our final night. Tomorrow, we leave at 4:30 a.m. to catch the 6 a.m. bus to Coban, spending a night there, and then making our way to Chichicastenango by Saturday night so as not to miss the “not to be missed” Sunday market.