Sunday, January 10, 2010

Tikal, Guatemala

The alarm was beeping at 4:15 a.m., which was rather painful after a sleepless night listening to the locals celebrating the annual fiesta of the black Jesus into the wee hours of the morning.  We'd learned about the legend of the black Jesus from a Guatemalan while we were in Antigua- apparently the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries were intent on converting the indigenous people to Christianity, and they installed a wooden statue of Jesus in the church built in the center of Flores, where we're now staying.  In the humid Central American air, the statue turned black, which the Spaniards hadn't anticipated, and which the locals took to be a sign- since Jesus was dark-skinned like them, maybe they should convert to Christianity after all.  Apparently it stuck, since evidence of devout Catholicism is apparent in everyday life around here.

We had a bumpy, sleepy ride through the dark in a stuffy, crowded bus headed north out of town toward the vast sprawling ruins of Tikal, one of the largest of the Mayan ruins in Central America.  Stumbling out of the bus in the growing dawn light (around 6 a.m.), we had our first real look at the landscape of northern Guatemala, since we'd arrived after dark last night.  The central highlands, where we've been for the past week, are dominated by steep mountains and deep valleys covered with alternating patches of scrub forest and farmland.

In contrast, the rain forest here in the Peten region is dense, thick, tropical (coconut trees, plants with huge waxy leaves, palm fronds, etc.) and teeming with the noises of abundant animal life.  Although the sun was slowly burning through the morning fog, each breeze brought a sprinkling of water drops down from the tree tops.  We heard the intimidating yell of howler monkeys off in the distance, a variety of loud bird calls, and in the quieter moments, the constant hum of insects and frogs.

We followed our guide Jose down poorly-marked and slippery trails into the rain forest.  We'd been debating whether to pay for a guide, but were glad we did since it is easy to get lost in the vastness of the park.  He pointed out a crocodile poking his nose above the greenish water below the trail, then a pair of foraging rodents similar to a guinea pig but about the size of a raccoon.

A few leaves and a hard green nut dropped on the path next to us and Jose pointed out two spider monkeys with skinny limbs and long tails swinging through the canopy overhead.  We made sure to step out from directly beneath them after being informed that the monkeys like to defecate from above to warn off invaders below.  Further on, we saw a trio of Keel-Billed toucans with heavy green beaks as big as their yellow and black bodies.  In a clearing, there were a few ocellated turkeys, which look like a cross between the scruffy wild turkeys we see back home and more colorful peacocks.

Jose's tour through the expansive ruins, which cover several square miles, was designed to slowly reveal the Mayan city.  After a few kilometers of walking, one of our first stops was Temple IV, the tallest of Tikal's pyramids.  The structure itself was only partly visible through the dense vegetation at the base.  We climbed the rickety wooden stairs at least ten stories high and emerged above the jungle canopy.  Looking out through the mist we could see the tops (called "combs") of other pyramids rising above the trees.

In a clearing in front of another set of ruins, Jose plucked a velvety black tarantula out of his hole in the ground.  Jose says he's been bitten many times, and although the bites are painful, they're not harmful.  Still, neither of us were convinced to let the spider crawl on us (me especially, the dedicated arachnophobe that I am!).
Our further wanderings through the damp forest brought us to a half dozen areas that have been partially cleared to expose the 1000+ years-old ruins.  The pyramids, ceremonial platforms, and palace complexes were constructed beginning around 900 B.C., mostly out of blocks of the local limestone.  Archaeological evidence suggests the city was home to hundreds of thousands of Mayans at its peak, and then suddenly was abandoned around 900 A.D., for reasons that are still unknown.  We could imagine what it might have been like to be the first Spanish explorers discovering the overgrown ruins, since more than 85% of the city remains buried under centuries of humic earth, crawling vines, and tall trees clinging to the side of what appear to be steep mounds in the middle of the rain forest, their roots digging into the limestone structures underneath.  Where the ruins were uncovered only 20 or 30 years ago, they are already covered again in moss, and the forest lurks close, threatening to take over quickly if the humans rest too long.  Throughout the park, we saw rangers working hard in the humidity to trim back plants and re-clear paths.  We ducked into the door of one structure and shined our flashlights upward just in time to see several bats drop from the ceiling and fly at us!

Our exploration culminated at Tikal's Gran Plaza, flanked by two impressive pyramids positioned perfectly at cardinal east and west, each looming hundreds of feet tall.  Climbing to the top of one left us out of breath and sweaty.  It would take a year or more to construct each of these using cranes and modern construction equipment, so it's pretty amazing to imagine how the ancient civilization built these by hand so long ago.

I just finished reading "The Lost City of Z" by David Grann, about Percy Harrison Fawcett's obsessive search in the Xingu area of the Amazon jungle for a supposed lost city, a decades-long quest that ended when he never returned from the jungle on his last expedition in 1925 (which, I discovered after I read it, is being made into a movie starring Brad Pitt).  Since then, an estimated 100+ men and women have either died or similarly vanished in the jungle while trying to trace Fawcett's last steps and solve the mystery of his disappearance.  I know that the Peten rain forest is nowhere near as dense as the Amazonian jungle; still, after our experience at Tikal, it's easy to imagine how difficult Fawcett's journey must have been, and how easy it would be to walk right past the ruins without even knowing it...

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