Through to Uaxactun!

GuatemalaPosted by Malin Sat, March 19, 2011 14:56:43

Coffee never tastes as good as it does in the forest or jungle, probably because of all the insects and stuff that fall into the pot when brewing. The tree that had stopped us the night before was gone in less than 15 minutes, and we were again ready for the road to Uaxactun. Then something funny happened. There was a weak sound of an engine growing stronger and stronger, and we all stopped doing what we were doing and waited for what was to come. Out of the jungle came a local guy on a motor bike and I would definitely say that was the most surprised look on a face I ever saw. But after a few seconds of mild shock he gave us a big smile, and when we explained what we were doing there and asked if we were on the right way he just started laughing and laughing. Eventually we got around to ask what he was up to in the middle of the jungle, and he explained that he was cutting certain kind of leafs that was exported to Canada for use in flower decorations. No wonder so many of the locals down here think of North America as a strange and exotic place….

After some small talk he hid his bike in some bushes and disappeared into the jungle, and we got back into our vehicles and started towards Uaxactun. The flower decoration guy told us it was still about 15 kilometers to go, and that there was another huge tree in the road that we couldn’t get past. We, of course, wanted to “take a look”…

And there it was. Definitely a bit of work without a chainsaw, which we didn’t have. And this tree had a nasty twist and tension on it that added a little bit of excitement to the cutting.

In the end we had cut all the branches but one, and that one wouldn’t let go without a fight. Even if the trunk was cut all the way through, the weight of the upper part of the tree was so heavy that we couldn’t haul it away using a strap attached to the Land Rover. We set up the pulley again to change the direction of the pull and used the winch. After almost two hours the road was cleared enough to get through.

The last section was more or less brush and lianas, and we didn’t have many problems negotiating our way through these. However, a liana must have missed our attention, as Judith and Christof got some damages to their roof top tent mounted on the front of their roof rack. 10 kilometers later we saw the first signs of car tracks, a few buildings, and then a road sign saying “Rio Azul”!?! (this could be the “back road” up to El Mirador…), before ending up on the airstrip in Uaxactun! We were through!

After the high fives and an ice cream, we drove over to the Uaxactun ruins for a look, and these were really amazing. Hardly any restoration, but they are remarkably well preserved. In here were also a couple of buildings that were quite different from any other sites we have seen so far on our way through the Maya world.

We will absolutely recommend driving up to Uaxactun from Tikal if you are in this area (or through the jungle if you have a good 4x4 (and a friend also with a good 4x4…)). Three hours later we were back in Tikal, and the road from Uaxactun comes out through the site of the ruins. The guard asked if we had a permit for driving up to Uaxactun, so we showed him the ticket to El Zotz. He needed a couple of minutes… But in the end all was fine, and after checking that we hadn’t brought with us any animals or rare plants (fortunately he overlooked all the lianas hanging from our roof racks …) he waved us through. From Tikal we drove straight down to a campground in El Remate for a beer and a shower! A wonderful little detour indeed!

Oh! I almost forgot about Jack. Back in El Remate we checked our email, and we learned that Jack HAD driven in towards El Zots later that same day. He found the big mud hole… And got stuck… For two days! He told us he had learned an important lesson in 4x4ing: Make sure you have 4x4!


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El Zotz and a jungle road

GuatemalaPosted by Malin Sat, March 19, 2011 14:44:12

After breakfast the next morning we went to look for the El Zotz ruins. This site is still unexcavated, and all the ruins are in the jungle just as they were when they were found. Here we could actually climb to the top of the ruins by the help of lianas. Fascinating! From the top of the highest ruin we could see the highest pyramid of the Tikal ruins 25 kilometers away (in a straight line).

Back in camp we were discussing what could have had happened to Jack as he never showed up the last evening. We concluded that something had come up, and that he never left Carmelita. And IF he had tried to drive in to the ruins, he would definitely have come across the mud holes, and turned around. After all he didn’t have 4x4 on his pick-up truck…

We packed up and decided that we should take a look at the road continuing further into the jungle. This morning we had talked to a guy that told us that there was some kind of a road, but he thought it only would be passable on a motorbike. Seeing is believing...

The first few kilometers weren’t as bad as we had been told. Only smaller trees across the road, and the mud holes were passable. The Land Rover was in front as it would be a lot harder for him to pass a mud hole after us (with 37s), not to mention that we are about 1000 kilograms heavier to pull out if we would get stuck.

Some smaller trees and brush to get through, but most stops took only a couple of minutes. We were about 20 kilometers in when we had our first little setback. A huge tree across the road, and it was just about to get dark. We had different info on how far this drive should be, ranging from 20 to 35 kilometers. We were of course hoping for the first, so potentially it could be as little as a couple of kilometers left. However, we had some very inaccurate maps on our GPS, and they indicated at least 10 Ks more.

After assessing the situation we saw that it could be possible to clear some smaller trees and moving a big log to get under the big fallen tree on the “higher side”. After some sawing and axing, we attached the winch to the log on the ground, and pulled the whole thing away from our path by the help of a pulley anchored to another big tree some 10 meters past the obstacle. When the road was cleared after about an hour work, we could just pass under the fallen tree. And if you come the same way later this season, you can get through if your vehicle is not higher than 2 meters 54 cm. NOT 2 meters 56!

By now it was pitch black (camp pic above is from next morning), and we continued driving for another kilometer or so before we ran into the next tree across the road. This wasn’t very big, but we were too tired and too hungry to start on that one. We camped in the middle of the “road” being pretty sure nobody would come driving through this night (as nobody had been driving through here for quite some time..). After dinner we popped the roof top tents and climbed in for a good nights sleep.


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El Mirador?

GuatemalaPosted by Espen Sat, March 19, 2011 07:10:44

When we drove through the town of Flores on our way up to Tikal we noticed a road sign saying “El Mirador: 145 kilometers”. This triggered our curiosity. El Mirador is one of the biggest Maya ruins out there, and they are not yet excavated and restored. According to all the guide books the only way to get there is a five days arduous trek through the jungle with mules or, for the people with fat travel budgets, a flight in with a helicopter. But a road sign saying “El Mirador: 145 kilometers”??? We just had to drive up there to have a look…

In Tikal we had met up with Christof and Judith in their Land Rover 110, and after a nice dinner at Jaguar Inn they were in on the plan! So the next morning we drove around the Lago de Petèn Itzá lake on the north side, and headed north towards a village named Carmelita, which is where the treks start from. The road up is rough, but not difficult. When we got there it was getting late, and we asked around for a place to stay. Jack jumped out of nowhere and told us this was a friendly place and that we could camp pretty much everywhere we wanted. So we decided to camp just next to the air strip in the middle of “town”.

The road to Carmelita

Jack turned out to be from Africa, but now living in Guatemala working as a tour guide. He had just transported a group of people up here for a trek in to El Mirador, and he told us that driving in could not be done. And we had heard the same thing from the military check point a few kilometers down the road. Not promising… The least promising detail was perhaps that El Mirador was now a National Park, and making new roads is strictly forbidden. Cra#! Now what?

The next morning Jack came over and he had had a chat with some locals that mentioned a few other possibilities for driving in the area. Jack didn’t have a 4x4 truck (make a note of that for the next post…) so he was interested in joining us if we wanted to check out some local 4x4ing. And there are ruins up here that are not on the maps! One is supposed to have a fantastic location in a lake, but would require a chainsaw. We saved that one for the next time… And then went for another road going out to a different ruin via a jungle lake. We had already decided to drive a bit back south to try another “missing road” that would take us through the jungle and back to Tikal from the north, so we didn’t want to spend the whole day looking for these ruins. But after two and a half hour chopping our way through the jungle, we were exactly half way by the lake, and realized that we wouldn’t make to these ruins and back the same day.

We turned around. Going back the same road took us about half an hour as all the trees were cleared away and we knew the mud holes.

It is possible we were driving kind of fast on our way back out. We wondered for a long time what this frog’s last thoughts could have been... (sorry for the graphic pic (but it didn’t suffer, as it was most certain instantly fried after landing on the hood...)) :-)

Back in Carmelita we had a break and then started driving south to some Maya ruins called El Zotz. Jack had some stuff to do in Carmelita, but told us he would try to drive in to El Zots a later to check out the place. The road in was a lot tougher than we expected, and the 30 minutes that the military check point guys told us it should take, was suddenly more like two hours. On the way in we drove through quite a few big mud holes and had to clear trees laying across the road.

At El Zotz “park” there is basic camping facilities even including cold showers. And if you ever decide to go there, remember to keep driving past the first group of houses, and up a small hill to the left. The road ends there in a big “parking lot”. Only minutes after we parked our vehicles we saw in the sky why the Mayan called this place El Zots, meaning “bat”. When the sun goes down millions of bats fly out of nearby caves and fly over the temples. An amazing sight!

We did of course ask the guys working in the park if it was possible to keep driving through the jungle to Uaxactun north of Tikal, but they all told us that this would not be possible. Hmm… Would we have to turn around a second time? We postponed the decision to the next morning. And where the he## was Jack…?


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GuatemalaPosted by Espen Thu, March 10, 2011 03:36:38

The Maya ruins of Tikal is one of those places you just can’t miss. We drove north from Lanquin along a narrow and winding road trying to cut short to the highway north to El Petén area. It was pouring rain. We hadn’t given much thought to the fact that it was Saturday, but when we got closer to the first village we understood that something was going on. There were heaps of people walking along the road, and they were all going in the same direction. Market day! And the main road through the village was closed… After detours and detours from the detour, we finally managed to get back on the main road on the other side of the village. Now driving against the flow of people. It would probably have been both fun and interesting to see what you could find on a market in a small village up in the Guatemalan mountains, but we had a long way to drive this day and the roads were really slippery from all the rain.

As you drive down from the mountains going further north, the landscape changes into more and more farmland. It has probably been dense jungle at one point, but now it all seems to be banana production. On the road north (Highway 11) we also got to try a nice little river crossing (this time on a ferry…).

The closest bigger town to Tikal is Flores/Santa Elena, and we stopped there to fill up with food and fuel. From here the roads in to Tikal are paved and pretty good, and with some quite entertaining road signs….

We camped behind the restaurant Jaguar Inn that is located just next to the Tikal ruins. We spent a good five hours to explore the old Maya city, and this is a magical place. Several of the temples are well restored, and the view from the highest pyramid is nothing less than spectacular! The archeologists think that there could have been as many as 115,000 people living here, and the city must have been a majestic sight in the jungle with all its temples painted bright red.

Back on the parking lot we ran into Judith and Christof in their Land Rover Defender 110, and they camped next to us the following night. It is always fun to catch up with other travellers, and we were discussing ruins and jungle roads until quite late….


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GuatemalaPosted by Malin Sun, February 27, 2011 04:03:38

From Antigua we wanted to travel north via Cobán to Lanquin before taking road nr. 11 north to Flores. Then we heard that Cobán and the department of Alta Verapaz region was under “State of Siege” since mid of December when the army moved in to help the police fighting the Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel. Reading the US embassy’s advice about Guatemala we should probably not be in Guatemala at all. We wrote some emails to the Norwegian embassy in Guatemala City and they told us to that robberies happened quite often in the most popular tourist destinations so look after your valuables. Something we learned our self a Saturday night in Antigua when a friend’s purse got stolen in a restaurant. When we asked the Tourist Police they said Cobán was safe, so we decided to drive the way we had planned to go.

We left Antigua in the morning, and we wanted to drive a road that did not take us through Guatemala City. Driving into the city once was enough. So we took some back roads from Antigua and north to Salamá.

When we came to Rio Grande O Motagua we found that the bridge had been washed away so for the first time on this trip we actually had to drive across a river and not just doing it for fun (The road out past Petersville in Alaska doesn’t count as that whole drive was for fun..).

Since the bridge had been gone for a while it was kind of a “road” where the cars and motorbikes crossed. No problems. It was a really nice drive in these valleys north to Salamá. From Salamá we were back on the “highhway” to Cobán. Took a couple of wrong turns in Cobán, but found our way out of the city at around 17.45, we were pushing to get to Lanquin since we did not really wanted to spend a night in Cobán. And that was good since we later this evening learned from some other travelers that it is actually a 6 o’clock curfew in town…

Spent a nice and quiet night in a hotel’s parking lot in Lanquin. Next day we packed up and drove to Semuc Champey witch is one of the attractions in the area. It was just a totally amazing place with turquoise water in the jungle.

It was great to jump in and swim around in the different pools. Cahabòn River is flowing down the valley and then the rivers runs into a natural limestone tunnel for 300 meters.

On top of the tunnel water flows out of the sides of the valley and forms the different pools with the turquoise water. Amazing place to spend a sunny day.

Second and third night in Laquin we spent at Zephyr, a true backpacker place, and they had a spot where we could park our car and put up the tent. So we joined in for happy hour and stone oven pizzas J

Last afternoon in Lanquin we looked around in the Lanquin Cave where there was no need for a guide and we could walk around by ourselves. At sunset we and a few other travelers were sitting in the entrance to the cave as the bats were flying out to look for their dinner. I had never been so close to so many bats before and I was truly impressed about their navigations skills as not a single bat hit us as they were whizzing by our heads.

After some nice days in Lanquin area it was time to head north to one of the major tourist attraction in Guatemala, the Maya Ruins in Tikal.

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