It occurred to me just before stepping off the forest green platform into thin air that this was perhaps not the best idea. The idea sounded simple enough- climb several hundred feet up a tree in a jungle and walk off of it while suspended from a metal wire-but the act itself was proving to be somewhat less than simple.
But you only live once, and with these words in mind, I leapt into the air from tree to tree and loved every minute of it. They don't call this the "Tarzan Tour" because you walk it.
The Tarzan Tour is only one of a number of activities at Ixpanpajul, a self-described natural park in Petén, the northernmost and largest of the Guatemalan departamentos, though it is perhaps not the only one that requires a certain amount of bravery.
The best way to describe Ixpanpajul is perhaps as a camp ground on steroids. But while its brochures and advertisements feature slogans like "Where adventure waits for you" and promise almost everything short of life-threatening danger and intrigue, I also found it to be a fantastic place for quiet repose. As a day trip, certainly the compound offers an exhausting morning and afternoon of rope bridges, zip-cords, mountain biking and horseback riding, but for an extended weekend, the park is serene and relaxing, beckoning you simply to enjoy a nice nap in a hammock, which I did several times.
Visitors to the 450-hectare preserve of sub-tropical rainforest (read: jungle) can drive the eight hours from Guatemala City or take the hour-long flight to Flores Airport, which is less than 10 minutes by cab or bus to the front gate of the park. Ixpanpajul can also pick you up from and drop you off at the airport by pre-arrangement.
I took the Friday morning flight on TAG Airlines, which operates one flight to and from Flores daily and arrived at the gates of the preserve when the mist was still coming off the trees and the animals were all just waking. Visitors are greeted by a plethora of barnyard animals upon arrival. Goats, sheep, mules, horses, ducks and geese have free reign over much of the cleared areas of Ixpanpajul, and while the horses may be curious enough to come and see who is in a particular hammock, for the most part, they keep to themselves.
This is the best time in my opinion to start the Skyway, a nature trail that includes canopy bridges over the rainforest and absolutely stunning views. This time of year, the area is temperate throughout the day, but the air in the morning is invigorating and thick with moisture. The trip can take as little as an hour or as many as three, depending on your pace and includes a number of hanging- rope bridges and often-steep climbs up to them. Thankfully, the trail is expertly cut-paved in some areas-and has periodic small stone-and-concrete benches. A bottle of water is highly recommended, and about halfway through the trail, a larger rest area features bathrooms, picnic benches and a breathtaking view of the rainforest valley. In the very early mornings, spider monkeys play on the ropes of the bridges near here.
The end of the trail meets at its beginning, a stone's throw from the Visitor Center, which also has a small kitchen serving from a simple and satisfying menu that includes local traditional cuisine as well as sandwiches, hamburgers and fruit smoothies. A friendly and knowledgeable staff- many of whom can communicate in English-is always available here with activity suggestions or just friendly conversation. Maps, guides and travel information are also available at the reception desk.
The afternoon offers a number of choices: ATV rentals, horseback riding, the Tarzan Tour (highly recommended), mountain biking or a siesta in one of the most comfortable hammocks known to man. After my siesta (it was an easy choice for me), I chose to wander the park and explore.
Near the Visitor's Center, I found two spider monkeys perilously swinging and jumping from tree branches on a small man-made island (appropriately named "Monkey Island"). A fox darted across one of the gravel roads. Horses grazed, the wind shifted and it was all so peaceful that I took up residence in another hammock, this time with a novel I had brought along.
Although Ixpanpajul has a few private cabin-like structures with private baths, electricity and daily cleaning available for reservation, it is at its core a campground, featuring open grassy areas made for tents and communal bathrooms with private shower stalls. Hot water, thankfully, is available, and the Visitor Center rents all the camping equipment one could possibly need, from tents and sleeping bags to lanterns and grills.
Around 6 p.m. this time of year, the sun has set, the stars are out and the darkness is so dense, it is almost tangible. Unable to see anything, including my hand in front of my face, I grabbed my flashlight from my cabin (flashlights and umbrellas are provided in each), and made my way back to the Visitor Center, as had a few of the other weekend guests, including a family of four and a young backpacking couple.
For those who choose to skip the evening flight back to Guatemala City (which leaves at 5 p.m.) and stay the night at Ixpanpajul, the park offers a nighttime "Spotlight Tour," for which we had all signed up to take. The tour lasts a few hours and circles the entirety of the preserve through the jungle. Guests are handed high-beam spotlights and ride in an open safari-like truck, searching for the animals that evade the day and come out only in darkness.
Tour participants can expect to see birds, monkeys, foxes and possibly feral pigs and may even be lucky enough to glimpse the leopard that is hunting them. Luckily, a guide accompanies the group to point out the animals hidden in the foliage.
A weekend at Ixpanpajul for me included several more hikes, horseback riding and a lot of fun and relaxation. Cellular phones do not work at the campsite, but reception is clear at higher elevations along the trail. Daytrips are perhaps most common among visitors, who arrive from around the world and take the morning flight into Flores and the evening flight returning to the capital, but a completely stress-free and enjoyable weekend at the base of a phenomenal rainforest awaits those who choose to stay. Many guests take a day trip from the Tikal complex, which is about an hour's drive from Ixpanpajul.
The park fills up during holiday weekends, so advance reservations are recommended, particularly for a private cabin or camping equipment. During Semana Santa, for example, the park staff estimates over 300 people will be staying at the camp.
*Author: John Hopkins
*Article courtesy of Revue Magazine - www.revuemag.com
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