By Karlie Marrazzo
I rose before the sun on another tranquil day in Antigua, Guatemala’s magnificent crown jewel, on the penultimate day of my solo trip through the Central American country that had already captured my heart. My alarm went off at 5:30am; I rubbed my eyes, stepped into the clothes I had laid out the night before, and ate a quick breakfast on the rooftop of my hotel before catching a pre-arranged shuttle to Guatemala City. For the final leg of my week in Guatemala, I would base myself in the small city of Flores. From there I would visit the mystical Mayan ruins of Tikal.
After an uneventful one-hour road trip, I arrived once again at La Aurora Airport. I casually breezed through check-in and security and made my way to the deserted departure gate. The dozen or so other passengers trickled in as our flight time came closer, but the boarding area remained eerily quiet. There was no assigned seating on the tiny 15 passenger TAG Airlines Embraer 110 bound for Flores, so I slid into seat 2C at the front of the plane. I could see straight into the cockpit before takeoff, which I’ve only experienced one or two other times in my life. Although I have been fortunate to fly more than most people, I felt the significance of being in a foreign country and flying to, from and within it all on my own. I was proud of myself for conquering another piece of my fear of flying.
There is no need to pre-plan your transportation from the small airport into Flores. Taxis and shuttles are readily available. I got onto a shared shuttle (26Q, approximately $4.50CDN) into town with one other passenger, a woman from my flight who looked to be about my age. We chatted for the duration of the short ride, exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet up later on, after a bit of rest. The day was already scorching hot and I instantly regretted wearing jeans for the journey. I checked into the Hotel Villa del Lago and found my deluxe room at the end of the hall on the third floor at the top of the hotel. I was surprised to find that the room had a huge balcony and an incredible view over Lake Petén Itzá. I silently wished that I were staying for longer than one night.
Most people who are traveling to Flores know it as a quaint town on an island in Lake Petén Itzá, a stopping point to Tikal National Park. The majority of the city is actually on the mainland, with a short causeway connecting the two parts of town. Isla Flores is compact, the hilly town full of narrow roadways lined with colourful Colonial buildings. I had some time to kill before meeting up with Ramona and didn’t want to nap the day away, so I strolled around the near-silent small town alone, noticing how the cobblestone streets and flowers spilling forth from every window and doorway transported me halfway across the world, to my ancestral village of Donnici Superiore in Southern Italy.
I met up with my new friend a couple of hours later, in the idyllic golden glow of mid-afternoon. We found a lakeside restaurant with a thatched roof that opened onto the water and indulged in a couple of margaritas, trading travel stories and sharing laughs. After a couple of drinks we looped around town together, climbing up and down the hills, talking about our shared Italian heritage, and eventually perching on a ledge looking out over the water. She had found a yoga studio online that apparently offered free yoga classes in a plaza by the church, which we thought was a great idea. What could be better than a slightly tipsy yoga class in one of the cutest towns in Guatemala? Alas, there was nobody there when we arrived, and nobody from the studio showed up.
Later that night we met up yet again, this time for dinner. The town was more lively in the cooler night air, with tourists wandering around looking for the best spot to have their evening meal. None of the tourist spots caught our fancy, so we decided to pull up a couple of plastic lawn chairs at a simple place on the main road. It was really just a small store with a few tables and a huge grill heaping with meat set up outside. We ordered mojitos and tacos, which were substantial, filling, and more delicious than they had any right to be. So tasty, in fact, that we ended up ordering another round. Flores was busy that Friday night. Handfuls of travellers casually roamed the picturesque streets, while locals strolled along the waterfront arm in arm, everyone enjoying the warm night air. The military police were doing their rounds in a pickup truck, the box full of young soldiers that must not have reached adulthood yet, machine guns slung over their shoulders. At one point a small, grubby Guatemalan boy no older than seven years old approached our table asking for some money or something to eat, his eyes pleading up at us. The interaction stood in stark contrast to the holiday mood of everyone around us, and a harsh slice of the reality that many Guatemalans live in. We shared some of our food with him before he made his way to the next table. The evening was the perfect combination of delicious food, strong drinks, great conversation and just the general buzz of being on an awesome trip. I would’ve loved to stay out and check out some of the clubs that were blaring music at maximum volume, but I had to get up long before dawn the next day.
It was pitch black and dead silent when I dragged myself out of bed Saturday morning at 4:30am to catch a shared shuttle to Tikal National Park. Tours are plentiful and easy to find; I arranged mine at the front desk of my hotel the day before. Transportation both ways and a guided tour cost me 150Q (approx. $25CDN), not including the park entrance fee. I threw in a bagged lunch from the hotel for $5 and our sleepy bus of travellers was on its way. It should go without saying that, at that early hour, nobody was particularly chatty, and most people dozed on the way there. I gazed at the darkness through the front window, relying only on my imagination to picture what was passing us by outside the van. At no point in Guatemala had I felt scared or nervous about anything, until this moment; driving through the jungle, along the highway where murmurs of armed bandits laying in wait just beyond the bushes crept into my mind. If anything were going to happen on this trip, I was sure that this was the moment. This likely had more to do with my childhood fear of the dark than anything else. Of course, we made it to the gates of Tikal National Park an hour later without incident. We piled out of the van, stretched our legs and warmed up our limbs, joining other tour groups as the very first arrivals at the park that morning, waiting in the cool air for about half an hour to pay our park entry fee (150Q plus 100Q for the sunrise tour), the haunting screams of the howler monkeys high in the trees surrounding us. It took another half hour to reach the “beginning” of the park, where we met up with our official tour guide.
Tikal National Park is Guatemala’s architectural wonder, a rich archaeological site buried deep within a lush tropical rainforest, both natural and cultural parts of the park making up Guatemala’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage Site. Structures in the complex date as far back as the 4th century B.C., with the civilization reaching its climax between 200 and 900 A.D.
Our tour of Tikal National Park began at 6am and took about 5 hours. In that time we covered 9km (5.5 miles) on foot, passing by partially covered Mayan ruins on our way from one landmark ruin to another. Our charismatic guide was fantastic, explaining the history of each temple and ruin, as well as giving us his own personal history of Guatemala. We climbed to the peak of the Great Pyramid, the tops of other ancient structures peeking out at us from amongst the lush green jungle. The tour culminated at the incredible Gran Plaza, an awe-inspiring spiritual place that inspired a feeling of calm and reverence within me. I’m not sure if it was due to the intense midday heat, or if we just got lucky that day, but the most awesome part of the park was nearly deserted, and I was thankful to be able to take in the incredible structures that I was so fortunate to see without hoards of other people around me.
TIP: If you’re only going to be visiting Tikal for the day (there are overnight options available), I highly recommend taking the sunrise tour. The temperature was tolerable for most of the morning but did start to heat up around 10am. By the time we were waiting for the bus to depart at 1pm the mercury was soaring. I was wearing cool clothing, drank tons of water and brought snacks, and I was still completely drained on the bus ride back to the hotel and for the rest of the day.
My trip to Guatemala was a turning point for me. I had successfully planned and executed a week-long solo trip in a completely foreign country. My confidence in myself rose to levels it hadn’t been at before. Now I knew, I really could do anything I put my mind to, and enjoy it, too.
My long day and journey home weren’t over yet. That evening I flew back to Guatemala City and stayed in a small, locally run B&B close to the airport. The next morning I woke before the crack of dawn yet again to catch my flight into LAX, where I had an eight-hour layover. I had only been to Los Angeles once previously, four months earlier on my first solo trip ever. I’m sure there were other flight options available with shorter layovers, but they were probably more costly, and I thought it would be nice to grab a burger from In-N-Out and spend a few hours in the California sun. My blogger friend Mara from Vacations with Mom graciously picked me up from the airport and indulged my L.A. dreams. We waited in line for a reasonable half an hour at In-N-Out Burger so I could gorge myself on a burger and fries, animal style. The beach was calling to me. We drove along the Pacific Coast Highway, a road I would love to drive the entire length of one day, to the iconic Malibu Beach. The sun was shining, the pier was full of smiling people, and the temperature was just right, perfect for a relaxing stroll in the sand. It was the absolute way to cap off my week, and I boarded my flight home happy and with a smile on my face.