Yaxha: Rain Storms, Temples, and Wildlife

After a month traveling through Belize, we were apprehensive about crossing the border into another Spanish-speaking country. As we knew would happen, we forgot most of the Spanish we had learned while we toured English-speaking Belize. Luckily the border crossing was fairly simple, and we had the accounts of previous travelers to guide us across the more confusing parts.

Border crossing for those curious:
The Belize side was incredibly easy and efficient, we paid our exit fees ($40BZD each) and returned our vehicle import permit, then were stamped out of Belize. We changed our remaining Belizean Dollars to Quetzales (losing about $20 in the process because of the shitty exchange rate they give you at the border) and headed toward Guatemala. They sprayed our truck down again with chemicals designed to kill… I still have no idea what, probably any Belizeans that might be hanging on to the under-carriage… and we parked in the very confusing “parking area” to get our paperwork done. We got our passports stamped into Guatemala by the slowest and most bored looking official we have seen to date, and then paid 160 Quetzales (about $20) to import our truck. All told it cost us about $90 US and took about 1 hour to enter Guatemala. Bienvenidos a Guatemala!

We arrived in the border town of Melchor de Mencos and went in search of an ATM, groceries, and gas. After an exhausting hour of finding the first two, we made our way to the gas station, where thankfully we paid only $85 to fill our truck instead of the $120+ we were paying in Belize! I ran into the small store at the gas station to stock up on local beer. When I set them on the counter, the girl asked me in Spanish if I’d like them opened. I looked at her with confusion, thinking that my translation was wrong until she lifted an opener and pointed at the beers. I told her “no thanks we had to drive” to which she shrugged and finished ringing me up. As we later saw, many a Guatemalan will hop out of their vehicle with a half-finished beer, so apparently drinking and driving is not against the law here. Just one more reason for us not to drive at night, though most Guatemalans don’t seem to need to wait until the sun goes down to have a few. In fact, we had a guy walk up to our camp a few days later and ask if we had a couple beers for him and his buddy… it was 7:45am…

We left the border and headed toward the ruins of Yaxha, a smaller and less visited site than the nearby Tikal. Once you pay the entrance fee to the park –which actually contains two additional smaller sites - you can stay as long as you want at their beautiful and well-developed lakeside campground. We drove in, found our perfect spot and started setting up for a couple-day stay. A man approached us as we were getting settled and introduced himself as Guillermo. He said he ran a restaurant up the hill and he would like to make us dinner that evening for 35Q per person (about $4.50 each). We declined since we had brought dinner from town, but told him the following night we would love to. He left in a hurry mentioning something about rain and we looked up thinking “ya right.” In Belize, it had looked like rain almost every afternoon and never rained once so we thought we were ok.

We decided to put our awning out just in case, and just as we were swinging the legs down, the downpour started. It was not rain so much as buckets of warm water being dumped on our heads. The awning protected us from above, but the wind blew in through the sides, and the river that formed in the parking area quickly overtook us, so we hid in the camper until it eased up about 20 minutes later. It continued to rain most of the afternoon, but less violently so we were able to move back outside and watch as the abundance of wildlife emerged from the jungle. Foxes, agouti (kind of like large guinea pigs), colorful turkeys, and tons of birds surrounded our quiet camp until we heard a new noise coming up the road. It was the sound of a giant tour bus coming with a gaggle of teenage girls from Guatemala City. They unloaded their camping gear and set up on the above-ground platforms for what would prove to be a very giggly and loud night. Luckily they packed up and left by 8am the following day.

Before we went to bed we heard someone at our door say “hola?” We saw it was our new friend Guillermo and he asked us if we wanted to see some cocodrillos. Uh, duh! We followed him down to the nearby dock with flashlights in hand and shined our lights around all the weeds near the shore. We didn’t find any cocodrillos, but we watched the beautiful lightning over the lake and talked with our new friend. He asked us (in Spanish of course) if we wanted to go on a night tour of the temples after dinner the following night, mentioning we might see lots of wildlife on our walk. Mind you this took about 5 minutes of back and forth before we figured out that was what he was offering and for the crazy low price of 150Q. We again agreed immediately, still not fully knowing what we had signed up for, but feeling excited nonetheless. He also asked what we wanted for dinner the following night offering us a choice of pasta, spaghetti, or eggs and beans. We couldn’t resist having a Guatemala man make us Traditional Guatemalan Spaghetti, and he seemed to think it was as funny as we did.

We explored Yaxha the following day, an incredibly beautiful site with tons of large structures, and incredible views of the lake and surrounding jungle from the tops of the many pyramids. On the largest structure, three armed guards sat at the top protecting… we’re not sure what, but they were very nice and seemed to be pretty bored, which I took to be a good sign we were in no danger.

After a quiet afternoon (no more busloads of squealing girls), we were greeted again by Guillermo telling us our Traditional Guatemalan Spaghetti was ready and escorting us to his “restaurant.” This turned out to be not a restaurant, but a huge outdoor kitchen area, with stations for each of the different men who worked at the Archeological sites to cook their meals. Each had a small grill for a pot or tortilla pan, and room underneath for a small but very efficient cooking fire. We arrived just as all the men were preparing their own meals, shirtless due to the heat inside and out, and were escorted by Guillermo to a small table near the middle of this area. We jokingly referred to this as the “Chef’s Table” as you had the perfect view of the preparation and cooking happening all around you. Guillermo brought us our Traditional Guatemalan Spaghetti - and a basket of warm tortillas of course – and we ate while watching the men around us prepare their own meals of soups, beans, eggs, and tortillas. They seemed to be unfazed by our presence in their kitchen, so we assumed Guillermo did this fairly often.

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After dinner Guillermo said it was not dark enough, so he’d come get us in half an hour. He arrived promptly at 7pm and we followed him into the darkness having little to no idea what was about to happen.  We walked up an unfamiliar trail and past a building where Guillermo said we needed to turn off our lights. Strange but we didn’t worry. After passing by, we turned our lights back on and began to climb up the hill to a side entrance of the site. Hundreds of stairs later, which seemed much farther in darkness, we reached the top and Guillermo stopped saying he saw something. In the nearby brush, we could just make out a pair of round, cat-like eyes, and Guillermo exclaimed it was a "insert Spanish word here." We didn’t know what "insert Spanish sounding word was" until he said it was a Jaguar paquena (small Jaguar)… ok, Guillermo I guess you weren’t kidding about the wildlife. We saw other large shapes cross the path ahead of us a few times as we explored the site, but other than seeing two large scorpions in the road, the wildlife left us alone.

Guillermo led us through the site to the tall temple that we had ascended earlier that morning. As we reached the top we were treated with the same incredible view of the lake and jungle, now lit up by distant sheet lightning. We sat in awe of the incredible night sky above us and the storm just a few miles away and wondered again about the craziness of our lives these days. As we walked back to camp with Guillermo he told us how he wanted us to take him to America. We have heard this throughout our travels in poorer countries, mostly Uganda, Mexico, and now Guatemala, and we explained how we wouldn’t be back to the states ourselves for many years. He was a sweet guy and did not push further, but we know that for these people, there is the glimmer of hope that an American will come visit, and help them to return alongside them at the end of their vacation.

We walked in silence back by the same building from earlier and turned off our lights again. We didn’t ask why but assumed it was because these “night tours” were maybe not exactly supposed to be happening. We said goodbye to our new friend and gave him the agreed upon 220Q (less than $30 US) for our dinner and two-hour tour. We went to bed as the thunder and lightning we had seen in the distance rolled over top of us.