El Mirador

I should have realised how hellish the journey from Lanquin to Flores was going to be when I went on my ATM foray to Coban mid week. Collectivos get a bad rep because the drivers tend to pack twice as many Guatemalans into a mini-bus than it can cater for, but then Guatemalan’s are only half the size of westerners at best, and at most you only have to endure a squeeze for twenty minutes or so before someone gets off and you can have a bit of reshuffle.

The shuttle buses on the other hand actually fill a mini-bus to its proper capacity, but this time its full of giant 6ft Aryan westerners, and its normally for an eight hour slog rather than a quick trip up to the next market town. And when I say proper capacity, you shouldn’t read ‘proper’ as ‘comfortable’. Instead read it as, extra fold-down seats all occupied and no special compensation for copping the seat above the wheel arch.

For the almost 10 hour trip to Flores, the gateway to the El Peten region of Guatemala and the much hyped Tikal ruins, I’d managed to get the back seat. This meant both wheel arch and no window. Furthermore, the distance between the back of the seat in front, and the backrest of my seat was shorter than the length of my upper leg, which is a long way of saying I had to constantly sit at an angle to fit all of me in. Fortunately for me, half way through my trip a kind Aussie lass volunteered to take the window seat so that I could at least stretch one leg down the narrow gap in the minibus sometimes referred to as an aisle, however even then, sitting on your ass for prolonged periods of time inevitably leads a whole world of pain you never knew existed.

To top it off, just before our arrival we stopped off in Santa Elena, the sister town just across the water from Flores. We were told by our driver and the apparently helpful and bilingual bystander that there were no ATMs in Flores and if we wanted cash we’d have to get it out now at the ATM we’d just pulled over at. In situations like these I am instantly sceptical; not only does the situation involve money but it also involves fat greecy looking men by the road side being overly helpful. Nevertheless the guidebook did seem to display a distinct lack of ATMs available in Flores and so I took the driver’s word for it and used the ATM.

The Banco Indsutrial ATM on the main road running from Santa Elena to Flores island, its blue, apparently accepts VISA and Plus+ network debit cards, but it also doesn’t give you your cash. I’m fortunate that I hesitated before hitting the 1000Q button and instead just opted for 500Q (and a $1 user charge, the cheek of it), otherwise I’d be another £35 worse off. A couple of others from our mini-bus tried after me despite my warning and had the same results. And all the bank could say was to check my internet banking to see if it had been debited from my account. Well it had. The odd thing was that a couple of other Brits used the ATM shortly after I’d found an alternative and had no problems withdrawing cash (and they were using Nationwide cards too, but the inferior Cash Card not the VISA card). This only further fuelled my suspicion that the ATM had been tampered with by our helpful friends.

Having made some good acquaintances on the bus, as is usually the case when a group of people are forced into difficult surrounds, I had planned to join Alex (Canadian, pinched a pill-head’s arse for beer) and company in El Remate the following day. However, it was whilst chilling with a much needed Moza beer at the Los Amigos hostel bar that I got talking and re-ignited the idea of a five day hike to the much undiscovered Mayan ruins of El Mirador.

Pete (Newcastle) and Hailey (Lancashire), who incidentally were the only Northerners of my age that I met on the whole of my trip in Central America, were trying to find a group of people to spend five days walking through the north Guatemalan jungle in search of the largest Mayan temple complex in the whole of Meso-America. Well I couldn’t say no to that eh? The next day we finalised the trip and then went shopping for a few essentials after some helpful words from a jungle battered Israeli who had returned from El Mirador the night before.

We were up at 6am the day of our departure to meet the rest of group and make the three hour drive north to Carmelita from where we would start out trek. Our group turned out to be much larger than we originally envisaged, along with Pete, Hailey and I were two more from Los Amigos, Tom (Norwich, big football fan), and Tony (Belgium, teacher at a vocational school). On the mini-bus we were joined by Antonia and her brother (Hamburg, Germany), Nora (an exceptionally tanned Austrian), and Martoni (Italy) and his Spanish girlfriend. All in all we were a pretty continental contingent with everyone speaking at least two languages, sometimes three, with the exception of the Brits. Typical. [To be fair, Pete and Tom’s Spanish wasn’t that bad].

The first day started at quite a pace, Alex our guide was taking advantage of enthusiasm for walking early on. The only problem with that pace of walking is that you spend so much time looking at your feet trying not to trip up that you often forget to look at your surroundings. My first impressions of the jungle were that it wasn’t quite the jungle you’d typically envisage. Whilst there were vines, it wasn’t dense tropical Tarzan jungle. Throughout the five days it didn’t rain, so it was quite a dry environment, making the humidity pretty bearable.The canopy kept us out of the sun so we avoided most of the heat of the day, yet the tree tops didn’t stretch as high as you’d imagine. The ground was littered with leaf mould the further in we got, and so all in all I’d probably more accurately describe the environment as forest rather than jungle, but not rain-forest, and in parts it certainly resembled the dappled shady woodlands we sometimes get at home.

Lunch was marmalade or tuna sandwiches, made in the field with a Bimbo loaf and spread with whatever poor sapling happened to come in the way of Alex’s machete.  Alex carried lunch in his backpack along with some spare water, whilst the rest of our kit, the water, food, and camping gear was taken by a line of mules which had gone on ahead. We just carried what we needed for the day, which for me was water, DEET, waterproof poncho (never used), camera and sweeties (or dulce en Espanol). The only slight exception was the first day when Pete and Tony drew the short straw and were told there was no room on the mule’s for their bags so they had to carry them themselves.

Throughout the five days we came across an assortment of wildlife. Bugs-a-plenty, we saw cicadas, both old brown skins of the nymph and bright green adults, huge spiders, stick insects, spider monkeys, toucans, and in the trail of the mules the occasional solitary  dung beetle as it toiled along the path pushing in front of it a big ball of pooh. Delightful.

However the king of this jungle has to be the howler monkey. On the first night of our arrival at El Mirador, at around 3 to 4 in the morning, I awoke in my tent to the terrifying sound of a guttural primeval roar. It came from right above me, it was loud, and it was scaring the pants off of me. First I thought maybe a jaguar, then my mind flitted towards the scene from Jurassic park with the kids, the jeep and the T-Rex, and I didn’t feel like my situation was too dissimilar. Finally, as I slowly gathered my wits about me from an uncomfortable yet fatigue driven sleep, I realised it was just the howler monkeys. But, even after eliminating long extinct giant lizards from the slew of possibilities, every time another howler let out a roar it shocked me from my sleep and the mental check would begin again.

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