I had every intention of spending the last two weeks of this trip sitting on a beach somewhere, continuing the Cuban rum-and-cigar tradition and getting ready to head home. But when my Mexican tour of Mayan ruins ignited an interest in that culture and I learned that Guatemala had some special sites of its own, I booked a trip there instead.
Through a website called Tours By Locals I found three wonderful young people who have a passion for nature and for Mayan history. Sofia and Dulce have been friends since childhood and Sofia is currently the Coordinator
for Public Use at three national parks, working for the Guatemalan ministry of culture and sports. Her boyfriend Alfred is German but on the brink of becoming a Guatemalan citizen; he is likely the most upbeat and positive person I have run into on this trip, and he possesses considerable knowledge in the areas that interested me.
Their experience in guiding to date was limited to a one-day tour with a couple from Australia to Tikal, the largest Mayan tourist site in Guatemala. Not much of a challenge. I told them they had 10 days and I wanted to see the best sites that no one else gets to see. And they pulled it off masterfully, taking me deeper into the jungle with each phase of the journey.
Prior to that, though, I had flown from Cuba to Panama City, and there took a boat ride through the Panama Canal, which was mildly interesting. The “Canal Zone” started in 1850s with a train from the Caribbean Coast on the north to the Pacific coast on the south. The Canal is located where the train tracks once were, and a McDonalds now occupies the old train station at the Pacific end. There is a long history of the U.S. having a military presence in the Zone, and a university now resides in the former barracks.
Since the installation of lights in 1965 the Canal has operated every minute of every day; the demand is that great. We saw several dozen huge vessels queued up out in the Pacific in what they call the “anchor line”, awaiting confirmation that payment had been transacted before they entered the Canal and were boarded by a Canal captain, who guides the ship for the entire 50 miles of the passage. The Panama Canal is the only place in the world where a ship’s captain is required to turn his command over to another pilot.
The next day I flew to Guatemala City and then north to Flores/Santa Elena, where the girls picked me up at the airport and we met Alfred for dinner at his restaurant. I spent the next day around Flores, a small, charming
island connected by causeway to Santa Elena. Alfred and I hiked up to a “mirador”, a wooden overlook platform, on a hillside across the water in San Miguel. Beneath it and the ridge to which it connects lie some of the oldest of Mayan ruins in Guatemala, and later in the day we visited some archeologists, ensconced in a secret location as they chart the specific plan to excavate the area; many cartons in their limited space contain itemized artifacts, pottery, glyphs and bones which would have great value to the black market. We examined a package containing the spine and feet of a small Mayan man more than 1000 years old. It was a privilege seeing these dedicated people at work and the precision they bring to it.
The following day Dulce and I went to Tikal with a loquacious local expect named Juan. Tikal is the best-known Mayan site in Guatemala, the one place all tourists and scholars feel they need to visit. It’s in the lowlands, very close to my home base in the lakeside community of El Remate, but we left at six a.m. to beat the heat and crowds.
On the surface Tikal is less impressive than a place like Chitchen Itza in Mexico, which has many more buildings excavated and clearly a larger maintenance budget. But Tikal feels more authentic somehow. A total of 4,028 structures have been identified at Tikal and only 3% of them are visible, the remainder covered by mounds and hillsides, foliage and trees. The city is about 16 square kilometers and at one point 150,000 people lived there. It thrived from about 900 BC to 900 AD.
Tikal’s iconic monument is Temple One, built in 734 by King Ah Kakaw – also known as Lord Chocolate – and excavated by archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania between 1956 and 1969. It’s part of the Gran Plaza that includes Temple Two, which Lord Chocolate’s son built as tribute to him, a vast necropolis where kings and nobles are buried and a residential area facing it.
Temple Three is currently under repair after being hit by lightning. We climbed Temple Four, the highest point in Tikal; you can see the crowns of the other big structures over the top of the jungle, and you can’t help but visualize what it must have been like in its glory: treeless, majestic, thriving.
LA BLANCA & YAXHA
Alfred and I went to a small site at La Blanca, where excavation started in 2004 and only archeologists visit three months a year. It features the highest palace in Guatemala.
The day before Juan had given me his theory of the end of the Mayan civilization, which included draught, famine, disease, internal war and eventually being overcome by other civilizations. Alfred wasn’t buying it. He believes the Mayan ruling class used the fear of the gods to keep the working class in line, but over time that became less and less effective. The working class got smarter, questioning, rebelling. He pointed out a wall in a palace that was built poorly and quickly, indicating a threat from within. Some of the working class migrated to cities that were less punitive. His theory is that a broad rebellion led to the civilization’s demise after almost 2,000 years. (Interestingly, very little is known about the life of the workers. They did not live in these stone cities of the rulers and their servants, but outside the walls, in wooden structures that have long since rotted away.)
In the afternoon Sofia joined us at the main site under her purview and my favorite site of the trip, Yaxha (YAH-sha). They refer to it as “the Manhattan of the Mayan world” because of the number of buildings in such close proximity. Again, a very small percentage have been excavated and exposed but as you walk among the tree-covered mounds it’s easy to imagine a bustling city of 40,000 people. We checked out an administrative building at the top of a long path leading up from a lake that was once connected via river to the Caribbean; the building contained the tax office where those coming to trade stopped to make a payment. We also saw two or three contemporary altars where Mayan descendants are permitted to enact occasional ceremonies; that would be something to see, but no gringos are permitted.
NAKUN & TOPOXTE
There is a reason so few people visit Nakun, another of the parks Sofia helps manage; it’s just very challenging to get to. The ruts and holes in the dirt road are so formidable we averaged about 7.5 miles per hour in a Ford Expedition; an elite marathoner averages about 12. So most of the 200 or so people who visit each year are there professionally.
Nakun is unique because it has massive walls, like a fortress, different from all other Guatemalan sites. Mayan cities were generally within 35 kilometers from other cities so they could communicate with smoke, fire or mirrors (shiny rocks), and thus maintain peaceful relations. The walls indicate that Nakun didn’t have the necessary alliances to trust they wouldn’t be attacked.
The weather during my visit to this point had been unseasonably dry, with many fires creating a very smoky environment. We were exploring a palace at Nakun with 48 rooms, probably an administrative area, each room an office, when the dry season in Guatemala ended with a vengeance. The temperature dropped appreciably, the smell was in the air, we could hear the storm like an engine, making its way across the jungle, and then it was upon us. It was a powerful experience to be the only ones there as this torrential rain returned the lushness to the jungle. “Imagine the party”, said Alfred, referring to how the Mayans must have reacted when the rainy season finally returned.
In the afternoon, after a tough ride back, we took a short boat ride to Topoxte Island, actually a peninsula this time of year. We were again the only people at the ruins, and walking up the hill toward the site amid the guttural, angry wail of the howler monkeys was a wonderfully foreboding and mysterious moment. The ruins at Topoxte are mysterious as well because everything is so small. The short narrow steps, the doorways, the tiny beds; everything indicates that Mayans who lived there were much smaller than at any other location, and no one knows why.
The remainder of the Guatemalan visit consisted of two road trips that continued the progression of going deeper into the jungle, starting with a two-day journey to ruins at Aguateca. Sofia, Alfred and I took a long boat trip down the Petexbatun River, cruising comfortably in the narrow sections, having to pole through the shallower, wider sections. We ended up at the wonderful Hostal de Isla Chiminos, went for a kayak ride, had a terrific dinner of whitefish that were caught a hour earlier and slept soundly until the howler monkey alarm went off around dawn.
After another boat ride further into the jungle led us to the entrance to Aguateca, ruins that are surrounded by a natural canyon more than 100 feet deep. This city apparently had a lot of enemies and was always under attack. It was occupied briefly around 100 AD and then abandoned, and then repopulated in 600-800. Some upper class hotshots from Tikal came to live in Aguateca about 761 but were gone by 810, fed up with the attacks from the locals. “The people from the big city came and pissed off the rednecks,” said Alfred.
We ventured down into the canyon, the walls were so steep and unassailable; it was dark and ominous and fascinating. We found a deep cavern where archeologists rappelled down and found many bones, the remains of those who had been sacrificed.
Alfred and I and an American naturalist named Lou made the final journey, a three-day trip to an archeological site called Waka. Truthfully we knew there wasn’t much to see there; this was all about the trek, the jungle, the birds and wildlife.
We started with a tough two-hour drive over a rocky road to the edge of the San Pedro River. Nearby, women did laundry on the rocks, and some of their children came over to check out our canoe and kayak and binoculars. These kids didn’t speak Spanish; they spoke a Mayan language called Qeqchi. We loaded up the boats and headed south on the river, and several hours later arrived at Las Guacamayas Biological Station.
We had a late lunch and met seven Brits who were there to study snakes and lizards. The leader of the group, a guy named Rowland from England, had been bitten by a snake previously thought to be safe to handle; the middle finger on his right hand was three times normal size and surrounded by a massive blood blister that extended onto his hand. The swelling had initially gone halfway up his forearm. It got our attention.
After an intense rain shower Alfred, Lou and I went for a walk in the jungle and climbed a wooden tower overlooking the river. There was a very Apocalypse Now moment as a small boat made its way around a bend in the river and into the heart of darkness, the protected jungle on one side and uninhabitable wetlands on the other. The next morning we made the same trip by canoe and kayak, with Lou, whose specialty is birds, pointing out the wide variety of herons and egrets, kingfishers and hawks. We pulled into shore at the remains of an old dock, hid the paddles in the woods and started out on the long trek to Waka.
Thirty minutes in we heard the unmistakable sound of a chain saw in the distance. “Maybe Mafia, illegally cutting trees,” said Alfred. Apparently there is organized crime that extracts cedar, mahogany and other valuable wood from the jungle canopy. This part of Guatemala is also heavy with drug traffic, as trucks bring the product up here from Colombia and Peru before it gets flown to northern Mexico. But the sound was nothing so exotic, just workers at a ranger station.
Another hour or so in and we heard the rumbling of a vehicle coming toward us on the muddy road, and in advance of it a couple of guys with AK-47s. It was an uncomfortable moment until we realized they were army, maybe 25 young guys in all, armed and on patrol looking for bad guys.
We finally got to the archeological site and as expected it wasn’t much. There are three plazas at Waka, each with a number of steles – large stones carved to tell a story – in various states of decay. There was a cave that had been plastered up to make it harder for looters, who are every bit as knowledgeable and capable as the archeologists; there is always a market for Mayan artifacts. The highlight of the walk back was an encounter with a couple of families of angry spider monkeys offended by our presence. From far above their screeches echoed as they broke off branches and shook the trees until the branches rained down upon us. It was hysterical.
We worked hard that day in the Guatemalan heat and humidity, and upon return to the biological station drank a cold beer and shared a sense of satisfaction from the day’s effort. At that moment I was especially glad I hadn’t just mailed in the last two weeks, that I’d found Sofia, Alfred and Dulce, these extraordinary young people who guided me to remote Mayan cities, to the serenity of the river, the mystery of the jungle, and the incredible variety of wildlife that you are fortunate to see once in your lifetime.
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During the brief trip yesterday from Flores to Guatemala City I pulled a muscle in my back and my left knee swelled up with no help from a snake bite, very inconsequential things, but after dragging a 45-pound backpack around for a year I feel like my body is telling me: enough is enough, it’s time to go home.
And indeed it is.