The Land of the Maya IV   Leave a comment

Guatemala

A misty view of some of the major temples at Tikal, the huge ancient Mayan city in Guatemala.

This is the last of my posts on the land of the Maya.  I may continue to post on my swing through Central America, but once you have traveled southward into the highlands straddling the Honduras – Nicaragua border, you’ve left the Maya behind.

A bird of paradise flower blooms in a Central American cloud forest

I visited Tikal in the Peten of northern Guatemala.  This is without a doubt the most impressive Mayan ruins I’ve been to.  I already posted on the birds of Tikal and they are, along with the other wildlife, one of the best things about the ancient city.  Tikal lies in thick jungle, with plenty of room between the temples and pyramids to get lost in nature.

I stayed in El Remate, the nearest village to the ruins.  Many people stay in Flores, a much bigger, busier place that involves a longer drive to Tikal.  In El Remate, you can visit near the end of the day or very early in the morning, thus beating the crowds.  Simply take a taxi or hop in one of the many vans that ply the route to Tikal.  It’s a quiet village sitting on the huge Peten Itza lake, and lacks resorts & nightlife.  But that’s the way I like it.  By the way, there is also a hotel near the gate of Tikal, but then you’re not staying in a village, not soaking up much culture.  And Remate is cheaper.  My humble little room, but with it’s own private bathroom, cost $7/night.  A huge steak dinner one night cost $5.

On my first day, fresh from the Belize border, it was cloudy with showers.  I almost decided to wait until morning but then on a whim caught a ride up to the ruins, arriving less than two hours before they closed.  It was a great move, as I got some nice moody shots of the temples in misty, foggy conditions.  Also the weather had scared off most of the tourists.  Tikal gets plenty of tourist traffic, but the ruins are large and spread out, so you can always get away from people if you need to.  I’m not going to detail much about Tikal, since it is an easy thing to look up.  I’ll just say that this place has some fun (and steep!) temple climbs.

I thought about doing a trek in this area of Guatemala, to the relatively newly discovered ruins of El Mirador, deep in the jungle.  But I didn’t, thinking of all those countries left to explore.  You can trek or ride horses to El Mirador.  Check around Flores for guides.  It’s pretty exciting to think about exploring the remote Peten, which is prime hunting ground for uncovering new Mayan ruins, and as a bonus hosts abundant wildlife.  It’s also a drug-smuggling corridor, but I still want to return some day for an adventure.

So I headed south, stopping on the way at a wonderful farm-stay called Finca Ixobel.  It’s written up in Lonely Planet (of course), and has good, healthy food and truly excellent coffee. It’s situated in lovely partly forested country that just begs to be explored on horseback.  And so I did!  They have some horses and a good guy to take you out.  My mount, Frojo, looked lazy and a bit too small to me, but boy did he ever prove me wrong.  He was a real pistol, wanting to run more than I could handle!  You can also hike at Ixobel; I did the trek up a small mountain covered in beautiful subtropical forest.  I love this part of Guatemala.

A carved stela at the Mayan ruins of Quirigua in Guatemala suggests extra-terrestrial influences.

Tropical flower

A tropical flower blooms in the forest of central Guatemala.

I stopped at a fairly small Mayan site called Quirigua, in the far south of Guatemala just off the main highway.  While the temples are small, it contains some of the nicest carvings I’ve seen.  There are tall stelae (sculpted towers) and squat zoomorphic sculptures (see images).  There are also carved calenders, and together with Copan just across the border, it represents an excellent original source for the Mayan calender.  I don’t believe the Mayans thought the world would end in 2012, but there is so much we don’t know that they might have known.  So who knows?  We’ll find out in December.

I went on to El Salvador, but concentrated on other things (nature, surfing) while I was there.  So I won’t detail it here.  It is certainly a tough country in which to travel, and the most poverty-stricken in Central America.  The surfing set mostly is unaware of the reality there, since they plop down on the coast and don’t travel around.

Looping back into the blessedly cool hill country of western Honduras, I visited Copan.  My last Mayan ruin, I wanted some great pictures.  Unfortunately the light did not cooperate.  But I did get very close to one of the many scarlet macaws roosting in the trees near the entrance.

The little town of Copan Ruinas near the Mayan city of the same name is quite charming, with a nice cool highland climate and attractive architecture.  I met an American guy there who moved there from Texas and bought a coffee finca (farm).  It was interesting talking to him, finding out how he made it work.  His relatively high elevation means he has to find just the right genetic mix to grow coffee that survives, let alone tastes good.

Copan has some very impressive carvings.  There is a ball court flanked with carvings of macaws.  One of the more unique structures is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which is the longest hieroglyph in the Mayan world.  The story told is still being deciphered.  Much of the artifacts and structures have been damaged or taken away by the Copan River. Copan was occupied for about 2000 years, and for much of that time was subject to flooding.  I always find it funny when some people remark that the new world is very poor in culture and history compared with the old world.  I guess they just don’t know.

A zoomorphic sculpture at Quirigua, a Mayan site in Guatemala. It is about 7 feet tall and 10 feet across.

Mayan Ruins

The highlands around the Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras are made up of rolling hills and coffee farms.

Copan

The famous Hieroglyphic Stairway at the Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras represent the longest untold story in ancient Mayan history.

Well that does it for the Maya.  I will always have deep admiration and respect for their stunning achievements, especially in astronomy and mathematics.  But this trip really opened my eyes to the Maya as they exist today.  The Maya who are living a simple agricultural lifestyle in Guatemala are not very different than their ancestors.  The ancient Mayan civilization after all, consisted of a few priests and elite while the bulk of the population were farmers and laborers.

This makes me wonder how many of these simple folk living in poor villages have, lying dormant within them, the ability to conceive of and accomplish great things, just as their ancestors did.  How often is a life lived, however fulfilling it is, where this latent potential is unrealized?  And how could I tell by just meeting them on my travels?  It’s interesting to think about.

A macaw perches near the entrance to Copan, the Mayan ruins in Honduras. Appearing in carvings in the ancient city, they remain to this day, roosting in the trees above the crumbling temples.

Copan

Large carvings of scarlet macaw heads adorn the side of the ball court in the ancient Mayan city of Copan. They would have been painted brightly.

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