This story appears in the July 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine, Israel edition.
Story by Idit Elnatan Photographs by Eddie Gerald
Page 3 of 3
We continue our journey north, deeper into the forests and the region where the Mayan civilization had existed 2,500 years before the Spanish conquest. The Mayan civilization was highly proficient in astronomy and science. It reached its power and influence around the sixth century AD, and came to its mysterious end in the tenth century. Aguateca in the Petén region is the first Mayan site we encounter on this trip. We cruise there on an old motor boat through the olive waters of Petexbatún lagoon on Aguateca River. The morning breeze cools the air, and numerous water birds flutter in and out the bushes, glide from one tree to another.
As the captain cuts the engine, we get off the boat and start off on a swampy hike. Suddenly we hear terrifying roars. "Jaguar!" I call anxiously. David laughs and points to the trees. It’s only two little howler monkeys who are trying to settle territory issues between them. Their roars, which remind me of the sound of Jurassic Park dinosaurs, can be heard from five (!) kilometers away through a thick forest.
The archeological site contains the remains of a relatively modest temple and palace, ancient slabs of stone, and endless stairs to climb. We ascend one high staircase in the main Mayan pyramid at the archaeological site of Yaxha. From its high viewpoint we watch the sunset on lake Petén Itzá, a recreation area with many resorts that had been established by Western hippies that came here in the past.
But the highlight of the Mayan world is waiting for us in Tikal – one of the most impressive Mayan cities of Central America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The royal city, the main buildings of which were built in the tropical forest during 600-900 AD, sprawls across a national park covering 576 square kilometers. There are thousands of stone buildings here, but only a minute portion of them has been excavated so far.
We explore the park under a clear sky, enjoying the cries of multicolored parrots. Spider monkeys are hanging from the trees next to magnificent keel-billed toucans. The slaty-tailed trogon – relatives of the Quetzal, Guatemala's national bird – glitter with their metallic red and green colors. The park has a very rich fauna, with more than 300 species of birds and five species of cats, including Pumas and Jaguars. A park keeper holding a machete in his hand tells us that only a week ago he saw a jaguar chasing its prey right past him. I ask if he carries the machete to protect him from jaguars. He shakes his head. It’s for snakes. "There is nothing you can do against a jaguar", he says.
During the afternoon, the tourists' battalions that have crowded the site throughout the day begin to thin. We walk among the stone structures – huge pyramids, temples, residences, monuments, altars, stone tablets inscribed with hieroglyphs of history, philosophy, astronomy. Tall mounds of earth covering structures that haven't been excavated yet lie everywhere, disguised by vegetation, tree roots winding around their base.
David suggests that we climb up Temple 5. At 52 meters tall, it’s the second highest in Tikal. Except for temple 4, the tallest structure on this site, that has safe wooden stairs, climbing the stairs of the high pyramids themselves is now prohibited in the site, and is possible only with special permission and with the escort of a guide.
Ascending the steps of the Mayan structures has become such a basic part of my daily routine at this stage of the trip that I don't think twice and start climbing, unaware of the fact that the reason for the ban is that a tourist fell and died.
The stairs are steep, the treads are extremely narrow and the ascent is exhausting. But only when I get to the top and look down do I realize I made a big mistake. The incline is terribly steep, and unlike Pacaya, now I see it in full light, clear and menacing.
I sit down on a step and cover my eyes. "I shouldn't have climbed this," I tell David. "I won't be able to go down."
"But you did things that are much scarier than this," David says, surprised by the unexpected drama.
"You don't understand, this is how my worst dreams look like!" I reply almost in tears.
David is smiling. "Well, it seems like your dreams came true. Now at least enjoy the beautiful view."
I try to relax and look around. The view is stunning indeed. We're surrounded by the glorious past of the Mayan people. The sky is reddening to a majestic sunset. A cool breeze is blowing, parrots are screaming everywhere, howler monkeys begin to jockey and roar for their favorite sleeping perches in the trees.
Suddenly we hear the rolling sound of thunder. "Fear is something futuristic. You are scared of something hasn't happened yet," David encourages me as I try to summon the courage to go down. It starts to rain and the stones become wet and slippery. I recall the words of a Parkour master I heard once, saying that there is no difference between actions you take at heights and those you take a meter high. "It's only in your head," he said. Cheap psychological trick that it may be, it actually helps.
I start down, placing each foot carefully below the other. "I go down stairs all my life," I repeat to myself again and again. When I finally reach the ground, the tension inside me disappears and I burst out laughing. The bad feeling I got in my gut is now replaced by triumph. I didn’t plan it this way, but my trip has been a succession of events like this — things that I once feared but managed, somehow, to overcome.
The night is falling. We walk in the jungle under a full moon that creates a magical sense that I can accomplish almost anything. Suddenly we hear stones rolling and a rustle in the trees. We stop and look around in the dark. A strange breathing groan is heard. "Jaguar," David whispers. But I'm no longer afraid.
Neotropic cormorants flying low over water in the tiny island village of Flores located in Lake Peten Itza