Updated: April 5th, 2019
My favorite earthly possession is a small blue book. Inside this book are some inspirational quotes about freedom, a phone number to call when your child gets abducted, an illustration of some cowboys, and the worst photo ever taken of me even though on that particular day in Walgreens I thought I was looking pretty hot.
As humans we all have guilty pleasures – those activities that really get us going and induce the delusion of “Damn, I am awesome.” For some it’s shoe shopping or running a marathon. For others it’s body-shaming Amy Schumer, waiting in line at the Apple store, or telling everyone they know that they no longer eat gluten. For me, it’s flashing this small blue book and the hideous photo within to the crotchety, suspicious man behind the glass wall, all the while trying to look as innocent as humanly possible for someone who knowingly packed illegal sausages in her carry on. “Please let me into your country. I’m awesome, I swear!”
I love my passport. And any time I get to use it I feel a rush of excitement and anticipation like a kid standing above an empty ball pit at the McDonald’s PlayPlace. DOES LIFE GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS? Geronimoooooooo!
My recent trip to Belize came about somewhat randomly. While taking possible destinations into consideration, I thought Belize sounded exotic and sexy. To be clear, I’m talking about the word “Belize.” I didn’t know where the actual country was.
Upon further investigation of what to do in Belize, “go to Guatemala” was pretty high on the list, ironically. So of course I jumped at the chance to use my passport like… well shit, I’ve already use the ball pit metaphor.
In the interest of traveling the world on a time budget, if a day trip to Tikal in Guatemala is among the top things to do in Belize, I was on board. Thy Maya kingdom come – thy will be done. On Earth as it is in the 13 layers above the earth that you call Heaven.
DON’T THINK CROSSING THE BORDER FOR A DAY TRIP TO TIKAL WILL BE TOO MUCH HASSLE.
Problem is, you’re judging all border crossings based on your experiences at JFK or Miami International. Not every customs line resembles the sidewalk outside a Best Buy on Black Friday or the godforsaken DMV. What gives America? Those machines that take those appalling photos of us? As if I wasn’t stressed out enough at the airport. “What if an endangered animal crawled into my purse when I wasn’t looking? Eye contact or no eye contact? DID someone else handle my bag today? I can’t bloody remember!” If I wanted this kind of stress in my life I’d use the bathroom without checking behind the shower curtain first or offer to hold your newborn baby.
Luckily, the most stressful situation I encountered at the Belize-Guatemala border took place inside my bladder.
DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT!
I know bringing your passport to cross a border seems like a given but so does not using the toaster while you’re in the bathtub yet we must still be reminded not to.
Y’all know I didn’t forget mine, but judging by the number of times I was reminded of this, I’ll assume it’s a common occurrence. Please, don’t be a statistic.
DON’T QUESTION THE BORDER CONTROL POLICIES. JUST GO WITH IT.
For someone who is telling you not to question the border control policies, I sure asked a lot of questions. (I’m basically the neighbor’s kid from Home Alone though I prefer to call myself “passionately curious.”) I’ll also maintain that you should stay calm behind the wheel but I’ll be the first person to lay on the horn and scream some instantaneously conceived obscenity at you through the windshield. You’re really rolling the dice taking advice from me.
Remember when I said crossing the border was a piece of cake? I wasn’t lying but I also wasn’t being completely transparent. We had help. Not that we couldn’t have handled it ourselves–neither of us has ever brought a toaster to a hot tub party. (And though I had a guide and a driver, you can totally cross the Belize/Guatemala border by yourself.)
Our plan for a day trip to Tikal came to fruition around 9:00 pm the previous night. We told the manager at Black Rock Lodge (where we were staying) that we wanted to visit the next day and she responded, “Meet here at 7 am. Oh, and DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT.”
That, I knew. But what I didn’t know was that we would have a Lodge-appointed escort for the entire day, a Guatemalan driver (in a brand new, AIR CONDITIONED van–oh thank you Jesus!), and a private tour guide we would pick up somewhere along the way. Our escort, Victor, handled everything for us. At the border, he exchanged money for us, albeit with some dude in the parking lot, took our passports and did the whole shebang while I chatted with the adorable tourism agent, and even gave me a dollar of his own to use the restroom. And I repaid him by asking a thousand and one questions about border control policies.
Here are the results that will hopefully preemptively answer the questions you will have as well:
So you’re telling me… we have to park our car here in Belize, walk across the border, then have someone pick us up in Guatemala… in another car? Yes.
Why can’t we just drive across? Rules.
Well what if I didn’t have a guide and wanted to go to Tikal by myself? There is only one car rental company in Belize that is allowed to cross the border. They have a license.
Where is the currency exchange? See that man walking around the parking lot with the envelope and the huge wad of cash? He will exchange it. He has a license.
Are those car washes? Yes. Cars crossing the borders must be sprayed with chemicals to ensure stuff doesn’t cross the border. DON’T WALK THROUGH THE CAR WASHES. (Re: stuff that should be a given that we still need to be reminded of.) Side note: Border control does know about wind right? How it can carry stuff wherever it damn well pleases? Just checking.
Why don’t you have to show your passport? I am tourism. I have a license.
Why does that sign say, “Welcome Prince Harry!” Because the Queen is too old to visit.
DON’T SLEEP ON THE RIDE OVER.
Traveling the world, you can learn a lot about a culture as the passenger in a vehicle. What was once terrifying and borderline barf-inducing is now one of my favorite cultural learning experiences.
- In Germany I learned anything inferior to a Ferrari should remain in the right lane at all times should you want to keep your lunch.
- In Venezuela I learned it’s OK to drive your car on the sidewalk if there’s too much traffic.
- In Italy I learned the first rule of Italian driving is there are no rules! Just-a make-a them up as you-a go!
- In Taipei I learned that a scooter makes a perfectly acceptable mode of transportation for a family of four (+1 golden retriever).
- In Puerto Rico I learned a car doesn’t need a working steering wheel, gas gauge, or speedometer to still be rented out.
In Guatemala I learned proper etiquette is to drive on whichever side of the street has the fewest potholes. Sometimes it’s both, simultaneously. Regardless of the size of the truck coming directly at you. Luckily, the driver we picked up at the Guatemalan border promptly let us know he had a PhD. A degree in pothole diversion. THIS IS GONNA BE THE FUNNEST!
And it was. We saw beautiful mountains next to beautiful lakes, beautiful people in their beautiful houses with their beautiful ponies. Dammit, Guatemala is just so pretty. We even saw a snake standing up in the middle of the street. You would have missed that!
Sleep when you get home.
DO HIRE A PRIVATE TOUR GUIDE.
Our day trip to Tikal without our guide Aquilino would have been one hell of a half-assed learning experience. I made it through high school algebra once; I certainly don’t want to repeat that nonsense. I can walk around and look at broken buildings any damn time I want. But I want information. I want this UNESCO World Heritage site to come alive. I want to LEARN! But I want someone to lead me around and tell me all the good stuff ’cause it’s like super hot out.
When Victor met us at 7:00 we told him we wanted a tour guide–and so exhausts my knowledge on where Aquilino came from. We stopped at a rest stop somewhere on the side of a Guatemalan dirt road for free coffee and when we got back in the van, there he was. And he was THE BEST. I don’t think anyone in Guatemala knows or cares more about Maya culture and history (and native wildlife, and plants) than Aquilino. He told me to tell you, “Stick with Aquilino. He won’t lose you.” Note to self: Ask all future tour guides for their stats on lost tourists. I already had one pants-shitting experience in the maze that is Pompeii and I’m not looking to make it a habit.
Maybe you already know a little about the Maya. Maybe you’re like me and the only thing you know is that the world was supposed to end in 2012. Now, thanks to Aquilino, I know everything. Even that the allspice in my cabinet is a kind of pepper made from the fruits of the Pimenta tree, not actually a jar with all the spices. I smelled some; I’m afraid we’ve been wrong this whole time.
That being said, Tikal isn’t really a do-it-yourself kind of project.Ladies: I know… I know… You don’t need no man. You are a strong, independent woman. You do your own taxes, for cryin’ out loud!
Men: I know… I know… You are perfectly capable of handling this by yourself. You don’t need to ask for directions. You don’t need to hire a guy.
However, the absence of signs and information placards means the only thing you’re going to learn all day is that SPF 8 is a freaking joke and boy, are you out of shape! Besides, Pinterest ain’t gon’ save you in the 222 square miles of savage jungle you’re sure to get lost in. Hold on to your butts!
DO PREPARE FOR SUN AND HEAT.
When I envisioned visiting Tikal and acting out scenes from Indiana Jones, the Nazi face-melting scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t what I had in mind. And this is why you should be as specific as possible when setting life goals. You’ll understand when you get my Christmas card this year and it’s just a picture of a skeleton holding a Belikin.
The sun is not your enemy. Your own denial is. The last thing I remember saying before my skin ran down and puddled in my shoes is, ” I don’t know how much we’re going to be in the sun. I mean, it’s in the jungle. I think we’ll be under trees most of the time.”
Ladies and gentlemen, that was a stupid thing to say. Even Indiana Jones wore a hat. Here are my tips from someone who once took an archaeology class in college:
- Dress like you’re going to the hottest place you can conceive. This is where your talent for getting by on the bare minimum will benefit you.
- Whatever SPF you normally use, double it. Unless you use 8… you’re going to want to square that.
- Wear hiking shoes because you will be shocked what’s allowed in other countries without signing a waiver. Psshh, waivers. Such an American concept…
- Read my previous post on what to pack for your trip to Belize (+Guatemala)
- Bring a bottle of water. And then another as backup. Per person. This will get you through the first hour if you ration. You can buy water and, more realistically, beer at the halfway point of your tour so make sure you have extra quetzals. That’s a fun word.
- Bring snacks. Trail mix, Cliff bars, a banana, whatever you prefer to replenish the energy you’re going to lose mock-escaping a temple in a mine cart with Short Round, played begrudgingly by your husband as Big Sexy.
DO VISIT DURING THE LOW SEASON
It’s really no secret–I’m a space hog. It’s not my fault–I grew up in Tennessee where everyone gets their own county and pumpkin patch parking lots are big enough to host state fairs. Which they do. I sleep in a king-sized bed and wear my husband’s sweatpants. I’m not even wearing a bra right now. I turned an entire bedroom into a closet… for unused bras and highjacked sweatpants. I like my space.
How I prefer my ancient archaeological sites is no different. If I wanted to be shoved, spit on, corralled, robbed, sweat on, grabbed, harassed, called a ‘bitch,’ chased, insulted, knocked down, or ripped off, I’d visit [insert any major European city here] in the summer. Lucky for me, the Central American low season is May-December.
Maybe I’ve just been traveling around Europe too long, but I expect the crowds at top tourist destinations to resemble the pages of a Where’s Waldo book. That shit cray. For instance: Roman Colosseum, the beach, a train station, a wizard gathering. Sorry in advance if you had plans tonight.
As you can see we almost had the entire park to ourselves and what a refreshing change that was. Totally worth the bra.
DON’T ASSUME THIS WILL BE A LEISURELY WALK IN THE PARK.
I mean, you’ll be walking… in a park… don’t get me wrong. But it’s going to be more exhausting than listening to your friends compare diaper rash creams on a Friday night after you’ve already tossed back three coronas and a shot of Fireball. More exhausting than trying to procure the most ironically well-orchestrated “messy bun.” More exhausting than hipsters.
Physically. Mentally. Cosmetically.
To illustrate, here’s a photo of me taken just after our day at Tikal:
Yup, I died. I’m just flat out dead and the vultures have come to consume my body. (Shout out to Victor and our driver for pulling over so I could take pictures of some birds eating a dead cow and not thinking any single bit of it was weird. Full disclosure: it was Victor’s idea; I won’t steal the credit for this one.)
DO TRY THE LOCAL BEER.
Even though this is a piece of advice I will give you no matter your destination, I may have put it in here just so I could say “cock-a-doodle-brew.” No really, Gallo is an egg-cellent beer.
DON’T PASS UP CLIMBING THE TOWERS BECAUSE IT LOOKS LIKE A LOT OF WORK.
It is. Descending is even harder. But not only are the views up here spectacular, this is also where all the good air is. The gods are bogarting all the breeze! I guess that’s what happens when you’re “under trees most of the time.”
DON’T GET SO CLOSE TO THE EDGE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.
Watching people get photos taken of themselves at the top of Temple IV is enough to make anyone’s heart race with the same intensity as when you slip on a staircase. With only about three feet of standing room up there and no rails, you’re actually risking your life taking that selfie. That is a legit, serious statement brought to you by somebody who JUST CAN’T WATCH.
DO KNOW THIS IS STILL AN ACTIVE SITE FOR MAYA RITUALS.
Oh, you thought the Maya disappeared thousands of years ago? Never to be heard from again? Do you believe everything you were told in middle school? Then I guess you remember that girls rule and boys drool, right? OK, good.
I guess it’s time I let you in on a little secret: the Maya are still around. They’re still people, guys. You’ve just been looking in all the wrong places.
In 1996 the Maya people were given the right to once again worship in their ancient sites however they pleased. Here at Tikal, major festivals and casual Sundays are devoted to practicing their rituals and ceremonies and there’s even a not-at-all-unreasonable anti-Columbus day. Maya–back with a vengeance!
DON’T FORGET THAT TIKAL IS LOCATED IN A LIVING, BREATHING, THRIVING JUNGLE.
A day trip to Tikal is just as much about wildlife as it is ancient life. As much about monkeys as it is monuments. As much about roots as it is ruins. Don’t be shocked when a toucan flies right past you or when a monkey swings from a tree ten feet from where you’re standing. Or when a tarantula crawls up your leg while you’re scrolling through pictures on your phone. Seriously, just be cool.
As you can imagine, this was one of my favorite aspects of my day trip to Tikal. Seeing how the jungle has completely overtaken this once prominent metropolis leaves you with the same sense of wonder and imagination as when you first played Jumanji and you had to live alone in the jungle for 26 years. Man, those were some good times.
DO LISTEN FOR ACTIVITY IN THE TREES.
I know what you’re thinking: “It’s probably just a couple of squirrels chasing each other…” That’s a valid assumption by any North American. But at Tikal, it COULD BE ANYTHING. Seek out the source with the same gusto you seek out gluten-free wines at the grocery store. It’s probably a monkey! With a baby monkey! In a group of other monkeys! I’ve wanted to see monkeys in the wild my. entire. life. And there they were… munching on some cojones…
I just want the record to show that this mama monkey is carrying a baby on her back, pregnant, and HANGING UPSIDE DOWN FROM A TREE BY HER TAIL to get food. Anyone who says humans are a superior species are out of their goddamn minds.
DO PRETEND (& TELL YOUR GEEK FRIENDS) YOU’RE VISITING YAVIN 4. ⇠(SOMETHING ABOUT STAR WARS)
Maybe you know what this is? I didn’t. According to, *sigh*, Wookiepedia… Yavin 4 is the jungle-covered fourth moon orbiting the gas giant Yavin. Something about a rebel base… I don’t really know. Pew pew!
My husband knew. Aquilino knew. He explained how George Lucas heard about the site and made the trip all the way to Guatemala to film the five-second scene. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away before Tikal was even open to the public. Again, geeks just be cool.
DO EAT AT THE TIKAL ON-SITE RESTAURANT FOR LUNCH.
I recommend, like you’d expect anything different from me, the fried chicken and french fries. And a homemade limeade. Victor said it was thirst-quenching. I said, “GIMME!!!!!!!!!!”
Also good: fajitas and a Gallo. It really is an eggs-quisite beer. Chicks love it.
DO PLAN ON SPENDING MORE TIME IN GUATEMALA IN THE FUTURE.
We dropped Aquilino off at the same rest stop where we found him now knowing the beauty and history of his country. He schooled my husband on all the different types of Guatemalan liquor at the gift shop and, despite Aquilino’s advice, my husband still purchased the stuff called “fire water.”
A day trip to Tikal is definitely a must if you’re in Belize, but one day in Guatemala is not enough. Especially if you’re trying to figure out just what the hell “fire water” actually is. We’ll be back.
UPDATE: So I’ve since tracked down Aquilino–fine, stalked, whatever–and I’ve gotten his contact information for you. He is a freelance tour guide and the best there is. If you’re planning a day trip to Tikal, do yourself a favor and get in touch with Aquilino:
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