Tikal National Park, Guatemala
The Maya Long Count calendar read ‘22.214.171.124.0’ (‘thirteen b’aktun’) for the first time in 5,125 years on the 21 December. Some westerners predicted that it was going to be the end of the world, the apocalypse. But like so many doomsday scenarios most presented by hippy lunatics or religious extremists, there was absolutely no science to back it up and most importantly for the Mayan’s, it was simply the end of their calendar and the start of a new cycle, nothing more, nothing less.
So feeling slightly let down when we awoke to yet another perfect day on the 21st, we had to cheer ourselves up and get enthusiastic about the commute another 350kms north to where it was all, or not, happening – to Tikal. Even if we weren’t going to be transported to a hell on earth or greeted by aliens, the remains of the lost city were suppose to be pretty astounding and hey, there was also a chance of running into Bono or Elton John in the small town of El Remarte. Having no idea they had come from a Mayan background, rumor had it that they were invited by the Guatemalan government, along with a host of other popular artists to participate in a meeting of the most ‘creative minds’ to bring in the new cycle, whatever that meant.
We awoke at 5:00am for our private tour only sharing it with Leanna, a 26 year old from Chicago. The stars were still out as we pilled into the small bus to drive us another 35kms to the archeological site. Tikal was hidden in the heart of the jungle, surrounded by lush vegetation. It was one of the major sites of Mayan civilisation inhabited from the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. Traveling through the giant arches of the park gave it that “Jurassic Park” kinda feel and we finally arrived at the carpark to unload. Surprisingly it was incredibly quite. There were no signs of alien landings or Elton John (although still early morning) and even no line to pick up a quick coffee before heading in. In fact, it seemed that we had the whole place to ourselves solely sharing it with raccoons, toucans, iguanas, howler monkeys and the occasional bush turkey (apparently jaguars were also known to roam the area). Maybe the human civilisation bar us had been wiped out? We were in the largest and most protected rainforest of the country in an area called Peten. So with our styrofoam eco-friendly cups of coffee in hand, we set out with our friendly Mayan guide to learn something..
The Maya began building Tikal around 600 B.C. and at its peak some 1,500 years ago Tikal was a wealthy metropolis, home to an estimated 100,000 Mayans, as well as an important religious, scientific, and political center. It was made up of five great pyramids to which we had the opportunity to clamber and climber over being the heart or the ceremonial centre. The height of the temples, that looked more like stepped pyramids, the complicated assemblage of the palace structures around the Acropolis and the surrounding views on top of one pyramid to oversee another rearing its head out of the dense canopy was impressive. Our guide told us what he knew of the site but all in all, the origins of Tikal are barely discernible. Bits and pieces of information has been picked up over the years from drawings on pottery and bone, tools, similarities in artistic styles between Tikal and other Mayan and Non-Mayan centers, and the few glyphs that have been deciphered up to now.
But what our guide was truly excited about was the celebrations he had been apart of over the previous two days. They didn’t involve elephants or The Black Eyed peas but a 64km trek through the jungle from Tikal to the El Mirador. With no water, food or shelter on the way, our guide set off with a few hundred Mayan families into to the depths of the Peten with a mule to carry supplies and a hammock to sting up over the two nights. With a few having to be donkied out and one poor lady being evacuated by helicopter, he made the trek and celebrated full heartedly at the end. We knew it had to have been extremely rough as he had only just finished his adventure the previous day and was then escorting us, hobbling around the site and sitting were he could to continue our tour. I felt bad but we gave him a favorable tip.
A highlight for Murray was his very specific goal of holding a tarantula. And he got his wish. Just before our lunch break we found a toilet block that was being looked after by two gents. They escorted us over to one of the big trees, some over 300 years old, to which they had made a little rock house at the base for their resident tarantula. One of the guys pulled it out of its little hole and placed it on his arm, it was huge! “Anyone want to try?” he asked, “Murray will” I said. And Murray, although very quite when faced with his opportunity, held out his hand where his fury friend preceded to climbed slowly up his arm. We were told that there was only a small chance that he would be bitten and the poison would not kill but make him very sick for a few days. Apparently this was an expectable risk to Murray being in the middle of nowhere and a day before a long border crossing on Christmas Eve.
We ended the tour by climbing up the tallest temple of them all, the Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent, an iconic structure facing east and “the” spot to watch the sunset. Looking out over the Peten rainforest, it stretched all the way to the horizon only being broken by a slight view of the Lake. The walk out past some of the older temples was slightly dampened after our guide told us he was witness to two accounts of foreigners falling to their death after being told not to walk up the slippery, mold covered steps in wet conditions and falling backwards, toppling 140ft down the concrete structures and cracking their heads on the bottom. Apparently they knew better then the locals.
We headed back to our hostel just after midday and a comfortable 5 hours exploring. The heat was bearing down at this stage so after a quick bite with Leanna, we explored the little sleepy town of El Remate taking in a small local farmers market at the beautiful clear waters of the surrounding lake. The next day it was our third 5am start to take our bus across the boarder to Belize, taking in some five star luxury at a ten star price to celebrate Christmas and the New Year. Bring it on!