With only one day left on my vacation, I had to choose between a second day in San Ignacio, Belize with a daytrip to the ATM cave or a quick trip over the border to see Tikal.
It was an easy decision. I’ve always wanted to see Tikal, and I was not sure when I would have another chance. If I fly to Guatemala someday, I’d base myself in Antigua, which is far from the ruins.
The nice thing about guided tours from San Ignacio is they are small. My tour only had one other couple. We were dropped at the border to go through customs where a driver met us on the other side. It was a two and a half hour ride past beautiful lake scenery and the town of Flores, some fruit and vegetable stands, and some rather bumpy roads.
The tour guide at the ruins was incredible. He knew every detail, and could answer any question we threw at him. He had boundless energy, and we gladly climbed every temple we could with him, despite temperatures hovering near 100F. The ruins are everything I hoped they would be…not too crowded, beautifully preserved, fascinating, awe-inspiring, and surrounded by toucans (and the vocals of howler monkeys, although I did not see any). A tourist note: it’s nice to report numerous and clean bathrooms too.
I asked the guide about his background, and he paid to go to a tourism program that offers government certification as a tour guide. He said he was very lucky to have the extended family help him with funds to go to school. He now runs tours of Guatemala, but is also sent to Honduras regularly to introduce tourists to the ruins of Coba. Every now and then, he gets to participate in larger Latin American tours and gets to tag along to South America as a benefit, acting as a translator as he speaks French, English, and some German.
He emphasized how hard work is to come by in Guatemala, and that he goes to night school every day to learn better English and pursue a TESOL certification. His salary goes to his schooling and to repay his family for their generosity.
The driver also works multiple jobs in order to provide for his family.
I was already aware of how hard immigrants to the US work to better their lives, but meeting the Guatemalans made me even more disgusted by the rhetoric that often plays on the airwaves about “these people” who are unfairly depicted as violent drug lords.
I have often wished travel abroad was a part of an American student’s education. Study abroad, unfortunately, often is considered a specialty…the student usually already has a great desire to explore, and has a background in languages, international relations, or international business. It would be great if those who were fearful of travel abroad had an experience in their youth where they could face their fear and hopefully conquer that fear, and make some international friends along the way!
The only negative about the tour was the mandatory stop at a restaurant on the way back where each small tour stopped. The gift shop was Disney-like, with every Guatemalan craft and trinket under the sun for sale at higher prices than you know you’d find elsewhere. The food was safe and sadly boring with little flavor. But, in Guatemala, you knew your purchases were helping people make a very small living wage, so I really shouldn’t complain at all. Interesting note was the waiter informed us ahead of time that the coffee wasn’t great, because the good stuff goes abroad.
The trip made me a better consumer. I mentioned how exploring the coral reef in Belize made me really aware of my plastic use. Guatemala has made me read coffee and chocolate labels – free trade, sustainable, certified by programs like the Rainforest Alliance – it’s worth the extra few dollars. I also recommend buying online gifts from places like novica.com which support local artisans.
(photos by me)