Step One: Beware the Bandidos
I didn’t, and I blame the corn chips.
Immediately after reading the phrase “beware violent bandidos” in our Guatemala guidebook, any thoughts of concern were immediately replaced by that catchy jingle from the 1960’s commercial (when advertising went out of its way to be politically incorrect):
Ay ay ay ay! I am the Fritos Bandido! I like Fritos corn chips, I love them, I do… I want Fritos corn chips, I’ll get them from you!
A catchy tune stuck on repeat is really all it takes to derail my brain’s engineer, and instead of being concerned, I sang and went to the cupboard for corn chips and danced with my chips and didn’t give the bandidos a second thought.
Then folks in Belize kept asking which tour Mr. M & I would be taking into Guatemala for our day trip to the great Mayan ruins of Tikal.
Tour? Why tour?
After a gruesome 36-year civil war (which ended in 1996), Guatemala has seen more than its fair share of violence. Safety records have certainly improved, but the country still suffers all-too-frequent kidnappings, assassinations, and drug cartel violence. As recently as 2012, armed robbers were violently attacking vehicles on main roads in broad daylight.
Clearly, it’s a lot more serious than a gun-toting cartoon shooting up the sky to scare tourists out of their snacks.
While you certainly shouldn’t be scared off visiting Guatemala (we were totally fine, met nothing but friendly people, and thought the country to be prettier than Belize), at least be more prepared than knowing the words to the Fritos corn chip song (see below for some tips)!
NB: As soon as we arrived at Tikal, the first thing Mr. M & I did was buy giant bags of chips.
Touché, Fritos, touché.
Step Two: Go Right For the Good Stuff
The Tikal National Park covers an area of 222 square miles! That’s a lot of ruins to explore!
Anticipation is a good thing, but not when it’s 90 degrees in 99% humidity, and every step taken is one you could be using to summit a Mayan ruin.
On a macro level, going right for the good stuff meant doing Tikal on our first day in Central America. On a micro level, this means heading for the Gran Plaza, Tikal’s main square.
The Gran Plaza was the center of the ancient city of Tikal. Although Tikal reached its zenith between 400-900AD, archaeologists have uncovered signs of agriculture here dating from 1000 BC!
Overlooking the empty ball court, it was hard to imagine that this used to be home to 100,000 Mayans.
Although most visitors seemed to make a beeline for the Mundo Perdido (Lost World) Complex next, we found Temple V in the South Acropolis to be our personal favorite.
There are a whole host of other sights (The Plaza of the Seven Temples, various other complexes, and the friendly gentleman selling Guatemalan beer out of his cart) that are all worth a visit if you can muster enough energy in the heat!
Step Three: Take In the Silence
Before it was ‘rediscovered’ in 1848, Tikal was seemingly abruptly abandoned over 1,000 years ago at the end of the 10th century.
I expected Tikal to be overrun with visitors wanting a look at what was one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Mayan civilization.
But it was SO QUIET.
Almost creepily so.
Tikal is massive. Archaeologists have been excavating the UNESCO World Heritage Site for decades and still, only a fraction of the architectural structures have been explored. With grounds this extensive, Mr. M & I found ourselves walking through the jungle for up to 10 minutes at a time without seeing or hearing another person.
While beautiful, it was also a little disconcerting- partly because we’d read a casual line in our guidebook that “at least one Tikal tourist gets lost to the jungle each year.” ?? Seriously, though, what is this ‘lost to the jungle’ thing?
Cuz that’s a pretty big thang.
Possibility of being eaten by a jaguar aside, it was extraordinary to spend time in the Tikal ruins alone.
It felt eerily appropriate exploring this lost city when it was all but deserted.
Still have a ruin itch that needs scratchin’? Explore my day having a moment in the Incan site of Machu Picchu!
You Can Do It, Too!
To keep yourself safe while in Guatemala, make sure that you drive only during daylight hours. Don’t leave your vehicle, if you can avoid it; we made sure to stock up on gas before leaving Belize, so we could drive straight to Tikal & back. If you’re nervous, it’s always better to be safe than sorry: join a reputable tour company, or one of the tourist shuttle buses that leave from both Belize and the town of Santa Elena in Guatemala.
A day trip from Belize was plenty of time for us to appreciate Tikal, but if you’re big on archeology or your knees aren’t what they used to be (Mayan ruins demand a lot of stair climbing), spend the night in one of the hotels within the Tikal National Park, and spread your visit out over two days.
It was crazy hectic making the border crossing– and I consider myself a relatively seasoned traveler who speaks decent Spanish. Here are some (super-detailed) tips I wish I’d known before crossing the Belize-Guatemala border on your own:
*You MUST rent from Crystal Auto Rental. Crystal is the only Belizean rental company that will allow you to drive across the border, and you’ll need the paperwork they provide to get into Guatemala.
*When you get to the border in the Belizean town of Benque Viejo, you must park your vehicle and go inside the main building to pass through immigration & customs. Bring $37.50 Belizean dollars for the Belizean exit tax. Keep your receipt to avoid paying twice when you leave Belize to head home (although most airline tickets include this fee).
*Roving money-changers will exchange either Belizean or US dollars for Guatemalan quetzals. We found these men to be quite trustworthy in giving us an appropriate exchange rate, but it helps to have an idea what that is before you get to the border. I recommend exchanging your cash on the Belize side, so that no one knows how much cash you’re carrying when you cross the border to Guatemala. It never hurts to be safe!
*After passing through Belizean immigration & customs, return to your car, and drive through the border crossing car wash into Guatemala, then park again. Pay for the (non-negotiable) car wash at the window just ahead and to the right. We had to knock several times for someone to open the window and take our money.
*Take all your rental car paperwork to the Guatemalan Immigration line. After you get your stamp, get in the line to the left (which is customs) to re-show your rental car paperwork, and to receive a necessary window decal. The customs agent will give you a sheet of paper that you’ll then take to the cashier window (behind you, look left) to pay… you then have to return to the customs agent to get said window decal for your car.
*ONLY then can you get back in your car (remember to affix your removable decal to the lower, righthand side of the windshield!) and head into Guatemala.
*When you’re going back from Guatemala into Belize, remember to bring your decal back to the customs agent.
*If you get overwhelmed, there are local kids around who’ll help you navigate the process in exchange for a tip at the end. These kids are really helpful and will aid you on the way back to Belize if you make it worth their while. :)