I’ve had this photo sitting around for a long time as I posted a similar one shortly after getting back from Guatemala.
It was a sleepy Sunday morning in Flores, Guatemala. I’d been woken from a light slumber by the increase in temperature from sweltering to unbearable and made my way for a cool shower before heading out to catch the last light of sunrise. I went out with one photo in mind, this one.
After taking that picture and watching the mist over the jungle burn off, I began making my back to my hostel for breakfast. On the way, I came across this brightly painted building and decided I wanted a photograph. As I unpacked my camera, a tuk-tuk drove by and the image I wanted entered my mind. So, I stood there, waiting for tuk-tuks to drive by and attempting to perfect my timing to get one to blur nicely in the foreground. Then, I got extra lucky and caught another tuk-tuk further up the road.
So Smugmug, the site that hosts my images, has made their galleries much more customizable so I was able to make it match the main Traverse Earth site, just about. It’s an ongoing process as a few bits aren’t quite right, but take a look by clicking <Browse Photos> above. Let me know what you think of the new layout!
The Mayan Palace
This shot is of the remains of the palace at Tikal. It was a large building but the royal bedroom was nothing like we’d expect of a European palace. It was about 8 feet wide by 10 feet deep with a stone slab for sleeping on beneath a small window. There were small holes in the walls throughout the structure where, it is believed, candles or lanterns of some sort could be placed to light the interior.
Moving to the left from where I’m standing we walked around to enter a huge temple complex. Shortly after this, we heard the howler monkeys in the nearby trees. The whole experience made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
On my first day in Guatemala I was woken up by the intense heat. I’d spent the night sleeping surrounded by 3 fans but still woke up drenched with sweat. I took a shower, and set out to explore my new surroundings. After a quick lap of the island town of Flores, I flagged down a kid passing by in a launch and arranged to be taken on a tour. I took this shot as we returned to the boats after our first stop, a breathtaking hike to a viewpoint looking out over the Lago Peten Itza.
On my first day in Guatemala I planned on taking an easy boat tour around the lake. As it turned out, it was pretty hard work. Our first stop was the mirador offering a view back over the island town of Flores, where I was staying. I agreed to do this with no concept of what getting to the top entailed.
In most climates it probably would have been a lovely stroll. In Guatemala, carrying a backpack full of camera gear, it was an arduous half hour trek. My guide skipped along with ease as I panted and sweat my way to the top. Still though, the view from the top offered an interesting vantage point of the town in the lake below.
So, I decided to go into the cave. Even in the first chamber, the light from the door fell off before you could see through to the back of it. I tried to take a photo in here, but even after exposing for a full minute and trying to light paint with the inadequate flashlight I’d rented all I got was a black rectangle. It was clear that I would not be taking photos in this cave. So, I pushed forward.
It was pretty slippery and I was glad I was wearing hiking boots rather than flip-flops. As I entered the second chamber it was clear that, if the flashlight went out, I’d be in absolute darkness. There were signs pointing me deeper into the cave and towards the exit. There were also signs naming the formations in the cave, in Spanish I rarely understood. Light fixtures void of light bulbs were spread about. I’m guessing saving money on electricity and renting crappy flashlights is more lucrative.
As I began to walk through the cavern, I was startled by a snake two feet in front of me. Then, I realized it was just an old cable for the lights. Already, my mind was playing tricks on me. Then, I started thinking, “There could probably be snakes in this cave, sheltering from the heat.”
After recovering from that shot of adrenaline, I started looking around. There were black spots on the ceiling that could only be bats. After shining the flashlight up there and letting my eyes focus I realized they were just black dots. By the time I’d entered the third chamber, my mind was already running wild.
I started to think that if I encountered another person in the darkness I’d most likely scream. Then, there they were, a pair of legs, eerily stationary in the corner of the cave. I didn’t scream, but I did stop breathing. I focused the dim circle of light on them and followed them up. They were actually the legs of a formation eerily reminiscent of an Egyptian mummy.
In the fourth chamber I didn’t find much to look at, but it dawned on me that this would be a great way to rob tourists. All they have to do is wait until some idiot with a bunch of camera gear wanders in, with a faulty flashlight, then call their buddies to relieve you of your goods.
I pushed into the fifth chamber. This one was large and my flashlight wouldn’t light the far end. Maybe they’re waiting for me in here, I thought. Then, I shined my light towards the ceiling. More black dots, and by now I’d convinced myself I could see things flying out of the corners of my eyes, but of course, the view out the corners of my eyes were complete darkness. At this point, I decided pushing on any further would be really, really stupid. I searched nervously for a “salida” sign and carefully made my way back to the entrance. The whole way, I was on edge and just hoping I wouldn’t encounter another person until I reached the light.
Fortunately, when I did find people it was as I approached the exit – two pairs of legs stood exactly where I had as I contemplated whether or not to enter. I called out to try not to startle them as I appeared. They were an Australian couple, also holding a dodgy rented flashlight. I told them what I’d found and we decided to head into the cave, feeling comfort from the fact we had two dodgy flashlights. In the second chamber we discovered their flashlight was worse then mine as it flicked on and off occasionally. They were in flip flops so moved a bit more cautiously than me through to the third chamber. Here, I paused to look at the ceilings. This time, one of the black dots moved. I got excited as I’d finally confirmed there were bats in this cave. I shone the light upwards at them until the one I’d awoken took flight. This startled me and I dropped my flashlight and a metal lens cap from my camera. An expletive echoed through the cave followed by a nervous, Australian, female voice yelling,”What happened?”
I explained I’d just been startled by a bat. We continued to push on into the cave. By the time we reached the fourth chamber, the Australians were suitably freaked out as their flashlight misbehaved more and more. We made for the exit.
I didn’t want to leave this place without a single photo from inside Actun Kan, so when we neared the entrance I paused to take today’s picture. My new accomplices were kind enough to wait with me as I took long exposure after long exposure for what must have been 15 minutes. They even held my water bottle and other bits and pieces for me.
Just as I snapped the last shot a handful of bats flew past us and out the cave. I asked what time it was. Then, confirmed it was getting close to sunset. Realizing that as the sun goes down, bats leave their caves, we made a hasty exit.
After returning our flashlights we began the walk back into town, but found a taxi a short way up the road.
After aimlessly wandering up and down the incredibly steep hills of San Jose, on Lake Peten Itza, in intense heat, I decided it was time to go somewhere a little cooler. The cave near Flores, called Aktun Kan, or la Cueva Del Serpiente, seemed like a great idea.
I boarded a minibus to take me back to town and began flicking through photos from the past couple of days on my camera. At this point a local woman, of Mayan descent, sat down next to me. We had a quick conversation about where I was from and what I was doing there. At this point I was shocked at how well my basic Spanish skills, which had lay dormant for ten years, were doing at carrying on a conversation. I almost understood most of what she said. Then, when I ran out of Spanish, I decided to show her my photos. She smiled broadly as I flicked through images of the temples at Tikal and some spider monkeys I’d found the day before.
As we approached the bus station in San Benito she asked where I was going. At that point I couldn’t remember the name of the caves so just said Flores. She said that I could hop off in the next market and grab a tuk tuk there. As we piled off the packed minibus she recommended I protect my bag, but the tuk tuks were lined up ready.
I hopped aboard one and the little old lady told him I was heading to Flores – cue a confusing conversation where I try to tell the driver I don’t want to go to Flores, without actually knowing the name of the place I want to go to. I remembered La Cueva del Serpiente, but as it turns out, the locals have never heard of that name. Out came the guide book and off we went to Aktun Kan. On the way to the caves I snapped the photo of the view from a tuk tuk featured a couple of weeks ago.
The road took us off through the back of town and out into the hills. When we arrived I asked the driver to come back for me in an hour. He wasn’t sure he could do that. He kept telling me to call but had no phone number for me. Then, he gestured at the gate. As I turned to look at it, he sped off. So, there I was, stranded on the outskirts of town.
Upon approaching the desk, and paying to enter the cave, the lady there asked me if I had a flashlight. Now, I have an excellent flashlight, first purchased for camping on the lower Zambezi. This flashlight was designed for combat – it’s compact, with a metal casing, and beveled end. This flashlight will light up a hippos eyes in pitch dark from half a mile away. If you point it up on a cloudy night this flashlight will brighten the clouds. However, this flashlight was back in my room, in the hostel, on the floor – good planning on my part.
As it turns out, the price for renting a flashlight is exactly the same as the cost of entry – that’s a neat little trick. The flashlight I was given could definitely not light up a hippos eyes at half a mile.
When I got to the caves entrance, I had doubts. First of all, this system was pretty complex, as you can see on the map below. On top of that, it had no “you are here” dot on it. On top of that, the little orange dots you see marking the formations listed on the right, did not have numbers on them. If this untested, untrustworthy, dim flashlight decided to die on me, I was stuck in there.
This is what the cave looked like from the outside, I spent a good 10 to 15 minutes debating whether or not to enter. In the end, I decided it would be too embarrassing to go back that quickly, and return the flashlight, because I was scared. So, I entered.
Check back tomorrow to find out about the inside of Aktun Khan and see the one photo I was able to take in there.
When I got to Guatemala I was surprised to discover that one of the main modes of transport around the cities is the Tuk Tuk, typically synonymous with Thailand. They’re good fun, if not entirely safe, as they bounce over the cobbled roads of Flores and Antigua. I used them to travel around quite a lot and on this occasion, while on my way to el cuevo del serpiente, I decided to catch a cool photo of the view. If you look closely you’ll notice this photo also includes a self portrait.
On my boat trip around the lake, my last stop was ARCAS, a center for trafficked wild animals. While there I met some, a parrot that says “hola” and two baby jaguars.
I also took what felt like my first good photo of the trip, of a sunken launch off their dock. There was an Australian girl there fishing to feed an otter they’d just gotten in who said that the boat got damaged and they couldn’t afford to fix it so they sank it there.