Copán Ruinas and Copán Ruinas

We arrived in Copan on a Thursday, which just so happened to be a major night in their annual festival. On this particular night, there was what felt like a beauty-paegent-meets-high-school-prom hybrid during which the “queen” of Copan was crowned. This, mixed with a carnival-gone-wrong mix of gunshot-like fireworks and really bad candied apples, made for an interesting entry into the town.

Copan is actually Copán Ruinas, a town made a destination due to the nearby Mayan archaeological sight of the same name. Most people come for the ruins, but the town itself is surprisingly charming and enjoyable, and it’s easy enough to spend a couple of days. I wondered aloud at one stage how many people come to Copan for the ruins, and then learn about the brewery. Indeed, we came across a handful of people who never even visited the ruins at all.

This, in my opinion, is a mistake. Copan isn’t the grandest, or the most picturesque of the ruins that we’ve visited on this trip, but it does offer elements that the others do not. Primarily, Copan is known to have some of the most extensive and interesting hieroglyphics of Mayan sites in the area. This includes the Hieroglyphic Stairway, and amazingly detailed staircase with carvings on each block of each step.

Copan Staircase

Much of the carvings, sculptures, and hieroglyphics visible amongst the ruins are reproductions. The originals are housed in the museum, which has an additional entrance fee of $7. The general entrance fee to the ruins is $15. This is perhaps the biggest drawback of Copan: it’s well expensive. There are also tunnels you can pay another additional fee to view, though they are reportedly not worth it. They are archaeological tunnels dug for research purposes, not traditional Mayan tunnels, and allow you to see some of the temples buried underneath the current structures.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

We enjoyed spending a couple of hours of our afternoon at Copan, though the heat can get intense. We returned to town that afternoon and indulged in some rum, some excellent street food, and some general merriment that went along with the festival weekend. The quantity of rum made it rather impossible for us to catch our planned 6 a.m. bus the following day, so we ended up with one more day of relaxation in the heat before making our leave from Copan.

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Tikal

We headed straight to Tikal from the Belizean border. Once you past border control, head over the bridge on foot and you will come across public buses and shuttles. There is a shuttle here that will head to Flores (a popular place to stay for trips to Tikal) that also passes through El Cruce. If you’re heading straight to Tikal, alight at El Cruce (tell the driver Tikal, and he’ll drop you at the right corner). From here, another shuttle/minibus will pick you up and take you the remainder of the way to Tikal. There are places to stay inside the gates, including a campground (50Q a person). If you are arriving in the afternoon, you must purchase a ticket after 3:30 p.m. for it to be valid for the following day; otherwise, you will end up paying two 150Q entrance fees. This is applicable for the shuttle as well; they will charge you around 20Q per person from El Cruce to Tikal, but the entrance gates are 17 km short of the ruins. If you’re on a shuttle and will need to wait for a little while to pass the 3:30 p.m. cut off time, try to negotiate the price down as you aren’t going all of the way to Tikal. One the clock ticks over and you have your tickets (check to make sure they are dated for the following day), you’re free to continue on. Wait for another passing shuttle, or hitch a ride on the back of a pick-up truck as we did (thanks to the initiative of a cheaper-than-thou Frenchman and a truck full of friendly Canadians).

Once we’d arrived, we scouted out the camping options. There is a large campsite, set against the trees, that charge 50Q per person for camping or stringing up a hammock. The Jungle Inn, with onsite restaurant, wi-fi, and bathrooms, charges the same for camping (though there is no place to put a hammock up). We opted for the Jungle Inn, though the camping set-up was a bit less magical, as we though the security might be a bit better. We ended up having no problems with our gear. One of the French couples that we hitched a ride with ended up heading down a road to see about freedom camping in the bushes. They deemed it certainly possible, though I’m not sure if they ended up doing it or not. It should be noted that Tikal guards wander around armed with shotguns, so I wouldn’t want to surprise one of them in the woods at dusk.

Tim shot off to take some afternoon snapshots of the majestic ancient city; I opted to putter about instead. I figured I would get my fill in the morning. Once he’d returned, I tried my hardest not to look at his photos, as I wanted to see Tikal with fresh eyes in the morning.

We woke early. The gates open at 6 a.m. and our experience had taught us well: it is well worth getting up at the crack of dawn to beat the crowds to the ruins. Though we weren’t as keen as some. It’s a popular exercise to jump on guided sunrise tours of Tikal (roughly an extra 130Q per person) that involve waking up around 4 a.m. to, presumably, view the ruins and the jungle come to life with the first light of day. This particular morning was so misted and fogged in that we would have only been able to appreciate the sunrise if it happened closer to 10 a.m. In the damp jungle, I would predict this is a frequent occurrence, so I’d check the weather and weigh your quetzales carefully before jumping on that particularly bandwagon.

With the dim morning light that did manage to filter its way through the fog, we made our way towards the main square of Tikal. The grounds themselves are huge; it takes hours to walk up and around all of the corners encompassed in the park, and I have no doubt we didn’t even see it all. We wandered through the main plaza and climbed up the Central Acropolis; this vantage point offers great views of two of the main temples in Tikal. We sat there, the surrounding grounds shrouded in mist, no other people around, and simply revelled in it for a few quiet minutes. We rose with the slowly lifting mist, and explored much of Tikal over the next three hours.

Tikal Mist

Tikal

The sheer scale of Tikal is outstanding, and it’s almost impossible to grasp as you wander amongst the buildings. From vantage points on top of temples, it’s possible to see the jungle stretching out for miles, with temples poking through the trees. Birds rule Tikal, particularly around these less-disturbed view points. Spider monkeys fling themselves from branch to branch overhead, pizotes (raccoon-like creatures with pointy noses and long tales) scamper around in packs, and the frighteningly loud cry of howler monkeys echo through the trees as the natural and man-made beauty surrounding almost overwhelms the senses. It’s impossible to describe Tikal. It’s as famous as it is for a reason, and I’d put it high on my list of things to do during a visit to Guatemala.

Pizote

The early start offered us an early finish as well, and as we left the gates around 9 a.m., we were greeted with an influx of tours and groups arriving at the ruins. Tikal trips are organised from as far afield as Belize, and I would really recommend not trying to do a huge amount of travel and visit the ruins in the same day. Come, stay, go early, and then carry on. It’s worth it.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

 

Jungle Ruins

The next morning, we travelled from San Cristóbal to Palenque. Palenque town is a bit dusty and a bit unremarkable, at least from the small couple of corners that we saw. Palenque ruins, on the other hand, are completely remarkable.

We travelled by taxi from town to a campground along the road to the ruins. There are numerous campgrounds, cabañas, and hotels in between town and the ruins that offer excellent, jungle-y escapes for as long as you want to spend in the company of howler monkeys and an abundance of magic mushrooms – I’ve heard the area is famous for them. The following day we woke up to rain, and thick clouds as far as we could see. We nevertheless stuck with our notion of heading to the ruins early, and we’re quite glad that we did. We were among the first to arrive near the entrance, mostly accompanied by people ready to start work in the shops, restaurants, or ruins themselves. Poncho sales were in full force that day. Though not normally the keeners of the tourist group, Tim and I were there before they opened their gates at 8 a.m., bought our tickets, and were the first ones through the door. Accompanied by a slight drizzle and thick grey skies, the ruins of Palenque emerged to us out of the mist, rewardingly missing the crowds of tourists who would descend on the grounds in a couple of hours. Bundled up in raincoats and shorts, we wandered the grounds of the ancient city, scaled the crumbling stone fascades, and admired the views of the surrounding jungle.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Palenque is one of the most amazing archaeological sites I’ve been to, for a number of reasons. The ruins themselves are impressive, and less restored than many of Palenque’s counterparts, which to me adds to the magic, if not the grandiose effect. The are also very accessible; roped off areas are few and far between and it’s not an issue to scale temples or explore the innards of palaces. The setting itself is amazing, as the ruins rise out of thick surrounding jungle. While Mexico and Central America offer no shortage of Mayan ruins, I’m very happy that we put Palenque on the list.

PalenquePalenque