Guatemala #2 – El Peten, Tikal

This past weekend I spent two days in Tikal, exploring the ruins, hiking through pristine jungle, camping under the stars, talking to local tour guides and workers about the politics of conservation in Guatemala and meeting other interesting tourists as well.

To start, Tikal is simply incredible. Located 50 miles from any cities or towns it is totally isolated in the middle of the Peten jungle, save for a single road leading to the ruins. The whole time I was riding comfortably over asphalt I was thinking of my Father telling me that when he came to see Tikal in the 1980´s the road was all dirt and mud, and how he got stuck and had to push. Sorry dad, times have changed! Anyway, I arrived at 8am and basically had the ruins to myself for quite some time before I saw anyone else. There is a main central plaza of ruins and then many smaller temples and acropolises spread throughout a few square mile site. It took me until 6pm, however I walked over practically every inch of the site, soaking in the magical sentiments that I felt there. Seeing the mist rising from the jungle while standing alone atop an ancient mayan temple with nothing but jungle greenery around me, birds and howler monkey screams permeating the thick air, is a feeling I will never forget. There is power in this place, at times palpable…just a magical feeling one gets when they are in a very sacred place. The architecture is stunning to see in person, with many of the temples built to cleverly coincide with astronomical phenomena such as the rising or setting of the sun during the equinoxes. I walked around with my jaw on the ground the whole day. Before coming I had read of the history of the city, its various rulers and importance as a center of commerce.

One interesting aspect of Tikal is that the site has been excavated from the ingression of the jungle ever since the majestic city was abandoned by the 100,000 inhabitants around the year of 870 A.D. When the site was rediscovered in 1847, the temples that stand so beautiful and majestic today were totally covered by trees and earth. I can only imagine what it would be like to discover a ruin of temples this large, completely enveloped by jungle. The process of excavation is very interesting. The trees that have grown over the site must be cut, but cannot be removed until the root systems are dead and dried as tree roots have grown between the blocks of stone used to build the temples and to pull them out hastily is to pull out large chunks of building. Then the process of removing the tons of earth that cover the temples must commence, with finally a refinishing of the surface with limestone taken from the original quarries. It took a team of hundreds of men 7 years to excavate one temple due to this lengthy and delicate process.

Seeing such a large city in all of its ceremonial grandeur completely empty and abandoned leaves one with a very eerie feeling. Imagine walking through Times Square, or around the Eiffel tower or any other major hallmark of modern civilization and seeing it completely desolate and in ruin. It was wonderfully humbling to see that no city or civilization lasts forever. Tikal is especially interesting however because of the mystery that surrounds it´s collapse. There are many theories that have been proposed as to why the city was abandoned and in no particular order, for only a brief sampling they are:

  1. Over population leading to resource scarcity, pollution of water sources and food shortages.
  2. Dissatisfaction with the hierarchical societal structure in which there was a small ruling elite with hordes of poor masses, leading to unrest and war.
  3. Climate change caused by the cutting of the rain forest to make room for croplands, leading to a dryer regional climate, crop failures and collapse.

I began thinking, what does our modern society have in common with the Maya? All three themes listed are in the process of realization in our own society! Are we just a few years away from realizing a similar fate? Albeit the situation is much more complex due to the global scale of our technological achievements, the basic premise is the same; if you live in a manner out of balance with the ecology that supports your particular lifestyle, the whole system will collapse. There are no technological fixes to this law of nature that one way or another we are going to have to come to terms with. I wonder if people among the Mayan culture saw the problems mounting and tried a campaign of educating the rulers and masses. I can jokingly imagine a Mayan ¨green movement¨ in which the scientists of their time cried to stop cutting forests and having babies! It just appears to have come a bit too late for them. I hope it is not too late for us.

I continue to be blown away by the hospitality and friendliness that I have witnessed here in Guatemala. Most people are very willing to engage in conversation, on buses, in the streets, in restaurants etc. They seem to be impressed that I can speak Spanish, apparently not many tourists make the effort. Not only that, I have met many apparently ¨normal¨ Guatemalans who are well versed on issues of our times such as environmental degradation and political corruption. It is refreshing to find that more enlightened ideas have spread to even very poor countries such as Guatemala. I had dinner with a family last night in a small village where I stayed the night. It started as an innocent question of asking where I could rent a canoe and five hours later I left their home. It has become clear to me that in order to have an “authentic cultural” experience here in Guatemala I must avoid other tourists and tourist spots. This will be my plan for the remainder of my quest.

In talking to many Guatemalans I have had many “why me” moments in which I can only ask myself the question “why me”? Why was I born in a society and part of the world so rich in opportunity to learn, enrich and grow? The social safety net that we have in the U.S. simply does not exist here. It is extremely difficult for people to advance in this type of society and receive advanced education that would allow for a different lifestyle. I have met many young people who want more education, they want to learn and study, but they cannot because of finances, they have to help their families earn a meager living peddling trinkets in the market or selling tortillas. It seems that only a lucky few are able to receive a college education and hope of scaling the social ladder. On the opposite side however there is also a sentiment of apathy and neglect in this culture. I have seen many people who do not have jobs, they either do not want to work or do not want to look for work and are just scraping by, usually relying on their families. I really wonder how these people eat every day. It is much more common here for young people to just do nothing once they have graduated from high school. Coming from a culture in the U.S. which is almost the polar opposite, very much focused on work and “doing”, it is interesting to observe and difficult to understand.

I will stay near Flores for two more days to witness a local Maya Itza ceremonial festival, then I plan on going north to Carmelita, a small jungle outpost. There I will hire a guide and hike 5 days round trip through the jungle to a very remote (no roads go there) Mayan ruin called El Mirador. I think this will be an incredible experience as these forests are unlike any I have ever experienced in my life. A veritable riot of life; so dank, dark and lush that sunlight cannot even penetrate the forest floor. These jungles are the type that men fear more than any other in the world for their collection of venomous and or harmful inhabitants. I think I will be safe though, the guides are professionals!

Adios, Por ahora.



One response to “Guatemala #2 – El Peten, Tikal

  1. I was in Costa Rica last week, having similar experiences with people and language. How large and beautiful is the door that opens, and the light of potentiality that shines when locals realize you can speak spanish and exchange the intimacy of thoughts and feelings or even simple platitudes! I feel they sometimes receive it as a personal gift, the gift of understanding and communication and for the many giving, gracious and sincere folk I have encountered, a gift of human connection across the chasm of difference they might perceive exists between themselves and someone from the USA. I asked my friend Andrea, what folk might think of me, being an american, what kind of life might they imagine I experience, and she cited the common american tv shows that would inform that vision. I cringed a bit at the thought, but remembered that with language I could mitigate some of those images or impressions with a bit of conversation, aah…

    I loved reading about your mystical moving experience in the ruins, Evan. I can only try to imagine your experience, thanks for the seed to do so you planted here. Love, Kathleen

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