How do you describe to someone the feeling of standing alone atop a 2000 year old Mayan temple watching the sun set with nothing in sight except tropical rainforest and other temple peaks? After playing with words for over an hour trying to describe the scene in its ineffable beauty, and my own emotions with their complex mix of sensations, I have concluded that it is utterly impossible to put into words my experience. I ripped up the sheet and threw it away. Some things are better left unsaid. I can only say that it is something I will never forget for the rest of my life…
Two years ago I first heard of El Mirador, one of the largest pre-classical Mayan cities that lies a two days hike from any form of civilization. Six days ago I took a bus four hours up an endlessly bumpy dirt road to arrive at the frontier town of Carmelita. My plan was to wait for a group of other tourists to latch myself onto in the attempt of cutting costs. After a brief look around Carmelita I concluded that this was not a place I wanted to spend any more time then absolutely necessary and with no other tourist groups coming I made a decision. I hired a guide solo and the following morning we trekked north into the Jungle. These forests are incredible, so filled with life and sights that for a while the walking was quite slow as all the wildlife had to be photographed. My guide was a wonderful, honest, family man of 40 years who knew every plant and animal species we encountered and pointed out many medicinal plants as well. We hiked for 6 (28km) hours the first day and overnighted at a Mayan ruin called El Tintal. The sounds of the forest at night are incredible, Howler monkeys screaming along with Owls and the chorus of crickets to round out the symphony. More beans, eggs and tortillas with a spattering of watermelon and the other odd fruit or vegetable rounded out the camping diet. Lots of carbohydrates here, it is difficult to find a good source of healthy fat. I have been mostly subsisting on avocado, peanuts and coconuts. The second day we hiked a gruelling and steaming hot 7.5 hours (30km) to reach El Mirador. This city once supported a population of over 100,000 people in the time of Christ´s birth, and is absolutely massive with over five different temple complexes and countless residential establishments. Upon entering the city walls we had to walk for over 30 minutes to reach the camp. Very little has been excavated at Mirador so I experienced it basically as the other more well known sites such as Tikal were found years ago. The third day was spent exploring the site, climbing all the temples and seeing the excavated carvings. Pottery shards litter the ground all over and I found many. The fourth day was a return to El Tintal and the fifth was a hike back to Carmelita with an afternoon bus back to the noise and commotion of civilization. After spending 5 days in the forest seeing nothing but jungle greenery and old decaying stone buildings it is hard to imagine that places like NYC or Miami even exist in this world, and it makes me sad to think that the majority of people living in the world will never see the beauty that I have seen. The simple rhythmic daily cycle of the forest lulled me into a sense of peace and tranquility that I hope will last for quite a while.
The politics behind forest conservation here in Guatemala are very interesting and quite complex. On the one hand you have the environmentalists (some nationals but many foreigners) who want the forests completely sealed and guarded, and on the other hand you have the business men who see nothing in the forest except an exploitable resource (wood and land to raise cattle mostly). In reading and talking to everyone I could (my guide and the guards I encountered in the forest) I learned a lot about the potential fate of the forests. CONAP is the Guatemalan environmental protection agency and is in charge of caring for the natural resources and parks of the country. The problems plaguing the forests today are illegal settling on lands by poor farmers, illegal hunting of exotic species, illegal harvesting of timber and the clearing and burning of huge tracts of land to raise beef cattle. All along the road to Carmelita on both sides of the road is nothing but desert like cattle pasture, where just 20 years ago was a thriving, and living forest. The problem is that here in Guatemala (and in other developing nations) ecological conservation really only exists on paper. In reality there are very little monetary resources dedicated to conservation from within the country and the money that comes in from outside sources is plagued by corruption and people taking their cut. The end result is that there is very little enforcement of rules and regulations designed to protect the forests because there is insufficient funds to pay for the manpower and technological resources needed. Additionally, corruption within the organization itself allows the illegal harvesting of timber and animals, as those few at the top benefit immensely from turning a blind eye to illegal behaviour. I don’t know what will hold in store for the future of the El Mirador basin forest (which as of right now is the largest tract of rainforest left intact in Central America), but I certainly hope that it can be saved. It does make me feel better that every common man I spoke with (the rangers and guides) professed an undeniable love and respect for the forest, I hope they can make their voices heard.
Just a quick note on coincidences. When I was in Tikal there was a very friendly man who ran the campsite whom I spoke with for quite some time. When I returned to San Jose, 2 hours away, I was walking down the street and heard Marimba music (the national instrument, basically a giant xylophone played by 4 people simultaneously). Upon entering the patio where the music was being played, guess who was one of the players? Of course the man from Tikal. And the past week when I was walking on a very out of the way backroad to see the small Mayan ruin of Motul, I was passed by a man on a bicycle. We chatted for a minute but I didn’t really think much of it. This past week when I arrived at El Tintal, 6 hours walking from civilization, guess who is one of the rangers who guards the site? Of course the man with the bicycle! Wake up people!! There is some crazy stuff going on here!
I will leave El Peten tomorrow and head south for Chisec and Coban where I plan to explore caves, hike through mountainous high altitude cloud forest, explore volunteer opportunities and enjoy more beans and tortillas!
Wow Evan! I am coming down to meet up with you. I don’t thing I could handle the long hiking through the hot forests anymore though. What you are doing is special.
Sounds like one heck of a trip, Evan. Glad you are living your adventures! Nice writing!
Hell yeah! Did you sign the log book?
Keep posting great stuff. I read all the updates. Cheers!