Friday, July 17, 2009

Guatemala I: Tikal

We set off on the bus for the Guatemala border around 7:30 in the morning last Saturday. About half of us were armed with snacks from the market, while the other half had just rolled out of bed. Half an hour to the border, where we had our passports stamped to leave Belize, then walked a few hundred yards and had them stamped to get into Guatemala. An AIR CONDITIONED tour bus picked us up on the other side of the border. We were cold. I was sitting with Tabitha, the Virginian, whom I really like and whom I ended up rooming with that night.

Once in Guatemala, the drive to Tikal was something like an hour and a half or two hours, most of which I spent staring out the bus window (that’s what I do most of the time in Belize, too). Guatemala is amazing. It’s officially one of the top three most beautiful places I’ve ever been, the other two being southern France and north-central Arizona. I love Belize, and a lot of it is pretty, too, but Guatemala has the mountains and rolling landscapes and winding white gravel roads. And Lake Peten Itza, which is stunning. And remember how I said everything in Belize is green and brown? In Guatemala, there’s only green. People in traditional clothing. Horses everywhere. Cows, pigs, and chickens most everywhere. All of the above wandering loose along the roads, which as I said are narrow and bright white along a large portion of our route.

When we arrived at Tikal, there was still a drive of several kilometers after we arrived from the national parks gates to the visitor’s center. Along it were “animal crossing” signs for deer and snakes, but also for coatimundi and jaguars. At the site, we had approximately four hours before time to meet back at the bus, which isn’t nearly enough time to see all of Tikal. I suspect that would take at least a full day and a half, possibly more. But we had Martin* as our tour guide and he led us in a circuit that took us to all of the most important groups and ended with the most spectacular, and got us back to the bus only half an hour late.

Tikal is very much in the heart of the jungle. I thought I’d seen the rain forest around San Ignacio. I was wrong. This is dark in the day, twisted fantastical tree roots, tangled vegetation as far as the eye can see (which usually isn’t very), knowing that the jaguars and cougars are watching you from the trees (no, really, they’re there, and they do) kind of jungle. It was intense. And the sounds. I had wished before that I could record the sounds around the Midas, especially at night, but at Tikal I heard things I hadn’t even heard here. Martin said it’s called “The Place of Voices”, that a lot of the Maya won’t even come there, and that “if we want to go to a haunted site, this is it.” I don’t know about all that, but I do know that I’ve never heard (or seen, or smelled [both pleasant and decidedly un-]) anything like that forest before. Martin also told us that when camping out at a site like this (I think he was talking specifically about Tikal, but I’m not positive), he’s had horrible, vivid nightmares unlike any he’s otherwise experienced, about eerily Maya-related things that I now can’t remember. Creepy.

Tikal was amazing. I love the feeling of seeing for real, in person, structures I’ve been looking at pictures of for years. It’s breathtaking. This was like seeing Buckingham Palace and the Eiffel Tower, only better because it really means something to me. Ruins are such a spiritual experience, and these perhaps even more so than Europe’s walls and castles and cathedrals just because I have absolutely no conception of what they should be like or would have been like in their day. It’s extremely frustrating to me not to be able to imagine them properly, but it also makes them that much more powerful. (Not that I don’t still love walls and castles and cathedrals.)


So we saw the North and Central Acropoli, and Temples I and II where a major king and queen were buried, and Temples IV and V far away, and I know none of this means anything to you, and the Lineage House, which is a palace that’s one of the oldest buildings at Tikal and was unmodified throughout history (which is really unusual for the Maya), and a lot of smaller and slightly less majestic things along the way. I didn’t climb to the top of the first acropolis because I wanted to save my ankle, and I didn’t climb Temple V partly for the same reason and partly because I couldn’t have handled it anyway.

[Something way too big to be a gecko just scurried under my porch…]

Temple V is like a zillion feet tall and the way up (built recently, of course) is by one long set of stairs that are really more like a ladder. Like, people literally climb them, and come back down them backwards. I was honestly a little bit surprised that I was the only one in the bunch who didn’t go up. Fortunately, I don’t feel I missed much other than the experience, because there’s nothing much around it to see from the top. Also fortunately, I had my ankle as an excuse for not going, since I really had decided I wasn’t climbing the pyramid before I saw what climbing entailed (I did fess up to being afraid of heights, too, though), plus it gave me a chance to sit for a while and prop my foot up on my purse. And I got pictures of the group sitting at the top that would not have existed otherwise.

From there it was a long walk past a lot of other interesting but less dramatic things (like some small temples and shrines) to Temple IV, which was the last stop for the day. About halfway in between, we starting hearing some low thunder. Then we heard howler monkeys,** and got a photo op, and while we were oohing and aahing over the monkeys there was the loudest thunderclap I’ve ever heard. I think everyone there jumped and/or swore. Then we saw a spider monkey swinging through the trees pretty much right above our heads, and I and a couple other people essentially chased it through the jungle for a few yards trying to get pictures. I don’t know about them, but I failed. Then Martin led about half the group up the steps of a small temple-pyramid. I stayed back because I wasn’t that interested and was still thinking about my ankle. As they were climbing, it finally started to rain. Rain took about two minutes to change to drenching downpour. We fled from the base of the steps to the nearest tree, which filtered the rain back to normal quantities. Those who’d had sense enough to bring ponchos or raincoats into the park (most of us just had purses and water bottles, having left our backpacks on the bus) pulled them out. We all got wet and sad-looking and watched the puddles grow around us and waterfalls form on the stairs. It was dark. We were cold, which I am of the opinion should not happen in the rain forest. When the rain finally let up to a drizzle, the other half of our group emerged from whatever shelter they’d found at the top of the pyramid completely and annoyingly dry and somehow managed to climb down without anyone slipping and falling, which still seems miraculous to me.

The continued hike was very unpleasant because of the mud and standing water and because it was still rather dark. We stopped for a long break at the next soda stand, where we saw more howler monkeys and my first toucan, after which I had to admit that my camera battery was dead, which was especially disappointing because I had not brought the charger to Guatemala and would have no more pictures for the rest of the trip.

Then we climbed Temple IV, which it turned out we had been sitting right next to that whole time without any of us knowing it because you can’t really see it in the jungle unless you know it’s there. I went up this time, because there was an actual wooden staircase, with legitimate steps divided into manageable flights, and I figured I could manage to come back down that. You couldn’t even really see how high you were because of the vegetation. It went up for an eternity before we finally stepped onto the stone platform below the last staircase up to the temple proper.

I have never seen such a view. An ocean of green treetops as far as the eye can see, with pockets of mist rising up and the very tops of that first group of temple-pyramids sticking up from the trees. It’s so beautiful, and so impossible to imagine the whole area cleared and farmed and full of people and buildings, even though you know that’s the way it would have been.

Some people climbed that last set of steps for the highest vantage point possible, but I was content to sit on about the third from the bottom and not move in any direction. We stayed longer than I though necessary, partly because I was ready to get down and partly because it was already three o’clock and we were supposed to meet the bus at 3:30. When we eventually did climb back down, it was a good 45-minute hike back to the entrance, so we were more than late. It was worth it. And I spent part of the walk encouraging Martin to ramble about Palenque, which is one of the sites I want most to visit. He told me that one is no longer allowed to enter Pakal’s tomb in the Temple of Inscriptions, which is a great disappointment to me and probably meaningless to you.

Back on the bus, it was a little over an hour to Flores, our overnight destination, a beautiful island in the middle of the beautiful lake. We stayed at the Hotel Itza, which reminded me of some old hotels in France. Actually, the whole island reminded me very much of Europe—crowded narrow streets lined with narrower alleyways and buildings that were tall by Central American standards, a very nice walkway along part of the shore, and taxis everywhere. It was decidedly Latin American in character though, with the dozens of identical souvenir shops and convenience stores, and the plethora of pay phones in the noticeable absence of ATMs, which is kind of the opposite of Europe or America, and the sketchy, leaky boats offering tours, and the bright colors and faded handpainted signs. Some streets were muddy dirt and most that weren’t had been torn up and didn’t appear to be close to finished yet.

Anyway, Hotel Itza was clean, and our rooms were roughly twice the size of the cabins at Midas (for half as many people, in my case), and we had air conditioning and hot water (even though Tabitha missed out on the hot water because she showered before me and didn’t figure out that the hot and cold knobs were switched).

I've fallen behind in updating because I've been sick and haven't felt like doing anything, literally. But this weekend we'll have Guatemala, Part II, as well as anything noteworthy from the workweek. Plan for tomorrow: Market, zoo, canoeing?

* Martin is the lab director, and was the official staff chaperone for the Guatemala trip (largely, he and I suspect, because no one else wanted to deal with it). He’s been with BVAR for 5 seasons, and he’s crazy about dogs and cats, and he likes to talk a lot. He’s really fun, and I really like him, and it was absolutely wonderful to have him along at Tikal because we all decided to just follow him around and make him the unofficial guide. He’s been to Tikal like a dozen times, starting back before most of it had been excavated, as well as to pretty much every other major Maya site. So he basically knows everything.
** Other people had told me they heard howler monkeys in/around San Ignacio, and I was disappointed that I had not. I was equally disappointed that we had gotten that far in the trip to Tikal and I still hadn’t heard any. I was beginning to think that maybe I’d been hearing them all along and I just didn’t know what howler monkeys sounded like, though I didn’t like that theory because I’d always thought howler monkeys must be very distinctive. Surely you know a howler monkey when you hear it. And then we heard them, and I learned I was right after all. It was like a roar, like a dinosaur sound, and even though I’d never heard anything like it and it was nothing like I imagined the sound of a howler monkey, I still knew exactly what it was even in the split second it took before someone announced it.


  1. I'm so jealous that you got to go to Tikal! It sounds amazing, except for the getting-wet part. You're going to post pictures, right? It's really fun for me to hear a little bit about what these ruins are actually like, since I have such vivid memories of studying the Maya in fifth grade. (I actually had to write a journal entry from the point of view of a priest from Tikal.)


    P.S. What happened to your ankle? Did I miss that? Are you okay?

  2. Sounds so cool. Whoever thought you'd be chasing monkeys through a jungle. Enjoy!