Anete and I sit on top of the second highest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas – Temple IV in Tikal, aka the Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent. Our gaze is directed eastwards, where a couple of stone colossi stick their necks out of the jungle. Minutes earlier, we’ve stared a spider monkey straight into the eyes. A couple of Olive-throated parakeets skim over the canopy. We remain on our throne for an hour – not speaking much, solely admiring the view. Anete tries to meditate, I climb up to the highest step of the staircase to check if the view gets even better. Any minute now, we’re expecting a group of tourists to join us, but they never arrive. We have Tikal all to ourselves. It’s a magical experience, a highlight of our trip through the land of the Maya. What a difference a day makes.
One day earlier, 13.17
“They can shove their stupid ruins where the sun doesn’t shine”, I rage, “I don’t even want to see them if they pay me!”
Forgive me my anger, but a monsoon downpour is soaking us to the skin. We’re standing next to a quiet road, 10 kilometres out of El Remate and still 25 kilometres to go to the ruins of Tikal. A busboy has just kicked us out of his chicken bus, just outside of the last town before the entrance gate to the national park Tikal.
We had refused to pay his inflated gringo rate for the ride to the most famous Maya site in Guatemala. A couple of months in this country has given me enough price knowledge to know when somebody is overcharging, although I sometimes wish I could put my pride on the side and just cough up the couple of bucks. But no, never give in to the money-grubbers! An hour and a half later, when the tropic sun has already started drying our soggy clothes, the next bus picks us up. We pay the normal price. Long live honest Guatemalans.
We walk into the park at opening time, together with a handful of other early birds, past the giant kapok tree, the ceiba that the Maya consider the holy tree of life. Instead of running straight to the Great Plaza, we turn into a side causeway and end up at the Temple of the Inscriptions.
By then, we’ve heard the first roars of the howler monkeys – one of the loudest animals in the worlds (even though I’m sure this list didn’t take Motörhead into account). We’ve yet to see our first signs of wildlife, but we don’t have to wait long.
High up the trees around the temple, we see how spider monkeys scavenge berries and eat them with delight. We follow their example and eat our breakfast in the shadows of the temple. The peace and quiet are only disturbed by the sounds of nature. When we leave our breakfast spot, a collared peccary (a cute wild pig) hops across the trail in front of us.
Yes, we might’ve had the solid part of the breakfast. I live, however, with the biggest coffee addict in the western hemisphere. Just like a car needs gasoline, Anete needs coffee. If I don’t pour in a generous amount roughly every four hours, she refuses service. Hence, we return to the Jungle Lodge, the cheapest of the three hotels outside of Tikal.
When we put Tikal on our itinerary, we debated for a while how we’d visit. We could’ve stayed in El Remate or Flores, relatively one and two hours from Tikal. Finally, we decided to splurge on a room for two nights in the Jungle Lodge. We figured this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and wanted to maximise the time we could spend exploring the site.
Because, let’s be honest, why the rush? This is the largest excavated site in the Americas – 576 square kilometres of national park, a rich jungle dotted with Maya temples. It took the University of Pennsylvania 13 years just to excavate a tiny fraction of that. The part open to visitors alone, 16 square kilometres, contains 3000 buildings. With so many temples to explore, it would be a shame to limit ourselves to the famous ones, like so many tour groups seem to do.
So, yes, our decision to stay next-doors to Tikal was totally worth it. And not only for the proximity to the archaeological site. Also for the chance to spend two hot and humid nights near one of the epicentres of Mayan civilisation, to see a fat bird on stilted legs walk in front of our door, to play pool in a jungle setting and to swim whilst listening to the howler monkeys.
We tramp through the jungle in silence. Not a word is spoken between us for eerily long times. No, we’re not experiencing a relationship crisis, we’re simply trying to spot some wildlife. With success. When photographing a Yucatan squirrel, we hear loud laughter nearing. The squirrel retreats into the safety of the forest and two gringos ask what we’ve seen. Moments later, we walk together into Group F, a complex that used to house Tikal’s market. Woodpeckers and toucans fly over our heads.
Entering the Grand Plaza for the first time, it’s hard not to be impressed. Once, this was the heart of one of the most powerful city-states in the Americas, the Times Square of its time. Or the Grote Markt in Antwerp or Raekoja plats in Tallinn, as you wish. At its peak, almost 100.000 Maya inhabited Tikal. Temple I and II rise up monumentally from the ground. It’s hard to fathom their size, until you spot an ant-like maintenance worker on one of the structures. But despite the enormity of the temples, it’s the details that make this place truly captivating – the intricate sculptures, neatly carved more than a millennium earlier.
A bunch of stelae are exhibited in front of the stairs leading up to the North Acropolis. Stelae are stone slabs with inscriptions or drawing. Their depictions may not look like much to the untrained 21st-century eyes, but they tell a history bloodier than the third season of Game of Thrones. Since archaeologists started deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphs in the 60s, they’ve discovered countless typical human tales of bloody battles, torture, human sacrifices, conquest, war, treason and rulers with an ego bigger than the Burj Khalifa.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take the example of Jasaw Chan K’awill I, also known as Ah Cacao, one of Tikal’s most famous rulers. He planned his funeral years before his death and instructed his successor to build a temple covering his tomb. Not just any temple, but the 47-metre Temple of the Great Jaguar (pictured above), the focal point of Tikal’s Grand Plaza. It’s as if Donald Trump would be buried under the Trump Tower… Well, I can actually see that happening.
To accompany Ah Cacao in the afterlife, the Maya buried him with a generous cache of jaguar skins, ceramics, jade objects, mirrors and 37 human bones with hieroglyphs bragging about his exploits and good-doings. And, let’s be honest, who wants to face the grim reaper without a 3.9-kilo necklace? Right.
Another ruler, Yax Nuun Ahiin I or First Crocodile got buried in the company of nine ritually sacrificed youngsters, of which “at least one appears to have died in the funerary chamber.” Whether or not the latter first decapitated the headless crocodile that was also found in the tomb, remains to be seen.
A day in Tikal national park isn’t only a step into the ancient Maya world. As you’ve noticed by now, it’s also an exploration of Guatemala’s nature. As we pass the dizzying Temple V and walk towards the lost world of Mundo Perdido, I think about the numerous birds, snakes and lizards we’ve seen. About the elusive jaguars that hide somewhere in these forests. Tikal is a wonderful introduction to the primal rainforest of El Petén, the northernmost region of Guatemala. However, the thoughts also sadden me. Because the El Petén that I’ve seen so far is – alas – nothing like this.
The drive from Poptún (where we spent almost a month as carpenters) to Flores equals endless views of pasture land and cows. In Rio Dulce, a truck full of cattle passes every ten minutes, headed for the abattoir. Once, these were virgin forests, now El Petén is being eaten alive by agriculture, intensive cattle breeding and deforestation. Much like in Indonesia, the deforestation happens with lightning speed. In 1990, Guatemala contained 2.4 million hectares of virgin forest, in 2010 only 1.6 hectares remained. Between 2005 en 2010, Guatemala lost 68.000 hectares a year, the fastest rate of deforestation during that time period anywhere in the world.
The reasons are manifold, but it probably didn’t help that the Guatemalan population grew like weeds over the past fifty years. In an attempt to ease the pressure for land, the government opened up El Petén, like an escape valve. The government, admittedly, had contributed heavily to that pressure by dislocating hundreds of thousands of Maya during the seemingly never-ending civil war. From the 60s, anyone with a bit of pocket money could buy a plot of land in El Petén, like a proper colonisation of the land. 20.000 people lived in this vast area in the 1950s, now the population scratches one million. And though you can’t blame subsistence farmers for trying to feed their families, the consequences on the biodiversity are catastrophic.
Then again, during Mayan times, maize fields filled most of this land. Back then, El Petén was packed to the brim with 200 people per square kilometre (versus barely a dozen now). The Maya had no other choice but to clear the land for agriculture, to feed their ever-expanding civilisation. It goes to show that no matter how much we, humans, fuck it up, nature will always reclaim what was legally hers. Not that such knowledge is much consolation if you know how Tikal fell – but that’s for later.
The day trippers from El Remate and Flores have left the site a while ago. While we take the scenic route towards the exit, they are probably already enjoying their happy hour micheladas. We haven’t seen anybody for at least an hour and a half. Not a human at least, there are still plenty of spider monkeys to keep us company. That’s the kind of site Tikal is. Despite its fame as one of the most impressive Maya cities in the region, you can still be alone here. Tikal feels deserted. Like the Louvre after closing time – when all those works of genius are still there, but you don’t have to fight anybody to get a closer look. It feels like your own little secret, even though all the guidebooks shout from the roofs to come visit.
You can taste the solitude. The same solitude that the 19th-century gum collector experienced when he climbed a sapodilla tree, scanned the horizon above the canopy, saw a couple of stony monsters and ‘rediscovered’ Tikal. The same solitude the 9th-century squatters experienced when they moved into former royal palaces, played musical instruments and left a lot of trash behind (just like squatters from any other time). They had the Maya’s swift abandonment to thank for their fancy residency. By 950, Tikal was largely uninhabited.
Although the reason remains a mystery – unfortunately, the Maya didn’t carve about it – there are very plausible theories for the demise of their civilisation. Human arrogance is the most realistic one. In an attempt to keep feeding their ever-increasing population, the Maya logged entire forests on the surrounding hills. Those hills eroded, the soil was washed away and the land became too infertile to produce much. After a while, the Maya simply didn’t have enough to eat. A drought dealt the death blow. Deforestation, huh? Where did you read that before? For the record: the southern and central sections of El Petén – the ones that are affected the most by logging – already experience declines in rainfall and have longer and warmer dry seasons. Who said that history repeats itself?
On our way out, a German couple walks up to us. They ask if we think they can go in for the sunset for free. They also want to know how it was. I can’t hide my excitement, but find it hard to verbalise it. How do I even begin to explain the feeling of sitting on top of that temple – like those squatters in the 9th-century, not deserving of the absolute glory that was bestowed upon us? We urge them in, envying their prospect, their naïvety, their virginity in discovering one of the Guatemalan wonders. When we turn around, the sky colours pink over the forest. I want to cry with happiness. This is why I fuckin’ do it, this is why I travel.