Good Things In Mayan Country

FLORES/TIKAL, GUATEMALA: July 17-18

Leah: 4 buses, 1 lancha, many hours, several buckets of sweat, a few handfuls of peanuts from a kindly grandma on our bus and hundreds of miles later, we found ourselves in the Peten region of the country, famous for virgin jungle and the Mayan ruins of Tikal. We had made Couchsurfing arrangements with a local family in the nearby city of Santa Elena, consisting of an expat American, his Guatemalan wife, their 4 children and their menagerie of assorted animals, all of whom make up Buenas Cosas. They live in a poorer barrio, but have worked hard in their community to start different programs and bring in outside volunteers to help; they currently have quite the compound, complete with multitudinous fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and a wetland stream full of lizards who walk on water, freshwater eels, fish, lightning bugs (I haven't seen those since Connecticut!) and geckos who chirp. Oh, and there may have been a litter of 15-day-old puppies and their mama (who likes to play fetch with rocks) with whom I spent way too much time. We spent the night in hammocks under the giant palapa, having bathed in Deet and not even bothering to change out of our clothes; I haven't slept in a hammock since Semester at Sea on the Amazon River, so that was quite the trip! Out in the open, all sorts of bizarre animal-made sounds lulling us asleep and/or startling us awake, with the words of our host echoing in our ear that their cat recently caught and ate a scorpion--needless to say I kept my headlamp nearby and turned my boots upside down.

After cocooning against the mosquitoes to the best of our abilities throughout the night and rising yet again before dawn (it's a sick necessity lately), we were off to the fabled Tikal, about 45 minutes and a $21 entrance fee per person away. On the way out Steve and I sat on either side of a withered old lady holding a white plastic bucket on her lap. At one point she caught my eye and with a cackle on her lips and a twinkle in her eye she pointed inside her bucket, where I saw a pair of beady blinking eyes staring back at me through a tangle of feathers. Yup, she had a tub of ducks-2 to be precise-I prefer not to think about their fate, but I did notice her softly stroking the ridge above their beaks and cooing to them, so I'm going to live in denial that they're family pets. Riiiiiight.

We reached Tikal under a grey sky and were no sooner walking down the path dripping with lianas when we noticed this cutie, a coatimundi, foraging in the bushes for breakfast, after which dozens of them came scurrying across the forest floor and shaking fruit from the trees as the youngsters tried to keep up. Just a few yards more and we heard the telltale swooshing of leaves and crackling of branches as monkeys high in the canopies also got a start to their day-we had just noticed a sign that said they like to defecate and then throw the result at people down below, so we observed from a safe distance!

Steve: As you can imagine, this is a real jungle if it has poop-throwing monkeys...the whole nine yards. There was a map but we just followed the trail markers and figured we'd just see where they took us. Some of the trails were dirt roads and others were hardly discernible foot paths, many of which were slippery as the ground was rocky and hard-packed while also being wet and mossy. We were a bit tired and cranky due to the heat, humidity and intermittent sleep the night before but we were both in awe as out of the jungle canopy rose a giant Mayan temple, Temple V, which is part of the Great Plaza.

Sure enough there was a large tour group assembled in the center of a the plaza (we even recognized some of the Aussies from our Semuc tour). The sprawling complex had served as one of the more important worshiping and gathering places for the ancient Maya. We were able to walk around most of the complex however there were signs everywhere indicating that climbing the temples was not permitted. Due to the slipperyness of much of the park I could see why that would be such a liability, if not just to protect the ruins from contact with tourists.

We continued our solo tour around the park and stumbled upon temples, artifacts and exhibits. Amazingly much of these ruins are still buried underground, either waiting to be discovered or sleeping for eternity (we heard later that they had just discovered another temple that actually exists over one of the already-exposed temples). Although the park was very clean, I was floored at the amount of tourist graffiti that adorned many of the ruins. This was clearly the work of naive tourists--and perhaps some unappreciative locals--who felt it important to let people know that they had been there. Interestingly enough, we also heard stories from our Couchsurfing host about her days as a child when the government actually sold of blocks from the Tikal temples to the highest bidders--she even remembers seeing the townspeople surround the helicopters, trying to cut the ropes that lifted the stones. All in all though this park is clearly a source of national pride and it harbors much of Guatemala's cultural history, much less some of our human history.

The most memorable part of our Tikal visit was our ascent up to Temple IV. We saw some signs pointing to a large wooden staircase but hadn't read up about this temple in the guidebook. Had we, we would have anticipated the climb up the 64 meter structure, the tallest of all the Tikal temples. As the temple is entirely surrounded by tall, lush jungle we had no idea of the spectacular view we were about to encounter. The top of Temple IV stands above the canopy of the jungle and overlooks what was once the Mayan empire; other than a couple of the temples at the Great Plaza, nothing could be seen across the horizon except for an ocean of green. This was truly an awe inspiring sight.

After leaving Tikal we made our way back to Santa Elena where we planned on staying another night in the hammocks depending on the bus schedules. It turned out the bus line everyone recommended only left at 9 P.M. (or so the receptionist said) so we talked it over with Jonathan and it made more sense just to head out that night...and without mosquito nets the 8 hour bus ride sounded like a better place to attempt sleeping. So we purchased our tickets and headed back to Buenas Cosas so hang out for a few, say our goodbyes and play with the puppies one last time. I'm a bit surprised that we didn't end up with a furry friend traveling in our backpacks...but that would make our border crossings a tad more difficult. Good-bye Peten!

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