This story appears in the September 2017 issue of NG Traveler magazine, Israel edition.
Story by Idit Elnatan Photographs by Eddie Gerald
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Walking above a city
The same darkness greats us the next day when we wake up before dawn for a jungle trek to the Mayan site El Perú-Waká. So do the roars of the howler monkeys, the buzzing of the cicadas and the hammering of woodpeckers drumming on the trees, all remind me of the noise at a construction site. Long convoys of leafcutter ants busy by with their heavy loads as huge beetles stride alongside. Overhead, jacana and trogon birds dart by while spider monkeys, once again, make targets of our heads with their fusillades of branches and leaves.
We enjoy the morning's pleasant chill and the fragrance of dry leaves and blooming flowers. But Melvin detects something else. "There is a smell of animals," he says and points to the fruit laying on the ground. "Pigs. They came to eat." Melvin had grown up in the jungle, he told us, and his well-honed senses do not mislead him: A moment later, we spot a family of peccaries collecting fruits from the ground.
Soon after, we find a number of large rectangular nests, about meter long, that Melvin explains are home to macaw parrots. Some of these are man-made, created to support this endangered bird’s population.
Suddenly a parrot spreads its wings in a vibrant display of red, yellow, green and blue. I had only seen these birds in cages so far, and watching them in the wild was a great experience.
A few kilometers later, we reach a tall dirt mound covering an ancient structure. In the past, this place was densely populated by Maya people, but it was abandoned, and its remnants were swallowed by the jungle, as many other Mayan cities in Guatemala. We notice that the trees' roots are spreading across to the sides and not in depth. "There are numerous structures that are buried in the land. It's a whole city we're walking across," says Melvin. But the most ancient Maya city is still awaiting for us.
What changed everything in our understanding of Mayan culture was the excavation of El Mirador, in northern Peten, in the late 1970s. Until then, the scholarly consensus was that the peak of Mayan civilization was between 250 and 900 AD. But excavations by distinguished American archaeologist Richard Hansen of the University of Utah demonstrated that El Mirador, was already a large flourishing city in the sixth century B.C.—in fact, it is the largest Mayan city discovered thus far.
Due to its remoteness, this archaeological site is visited by just a few thousand travelers a year, mostly Guatemalan. Tikal, by comparison, draws hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world. To reach El Mirador, one must hike across 45 kilometers of rugged terrain from the city of Carmelita, and then the same route to get back. The weather doesn’t help: either the heavy heat of April, or the knee-high mud of the wet season. Either way, the hiker also faces snakes, scorpions, fire ants, sand flies, and endless mosquitos. There is one other option, however, for those with deeper pockets: a comfortable 30-minute helicopter ride from Flores. We opt for the easy option.
Once we are airborne, our views of the patchwork quilt of the island of Flores and the deep blues of the lake surrounding it give way to those of the immense jungle carpet of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. This tropical forest, home to many Mayan sites including Tikal and El Mirador, sprawls across 22,000 square kilometers and is the largest remaining natural forest block in Mesoamerica.
Only small portions of the city of El Mirador, has been uncovered to date. The first pyramid discovered at the site, known today as El Tigre, stands 55-meters tall. The administrative complex known as the Central Acropolis features a stucco frieze depicting a scene from the creation narrative of the Mayans, the Popol Vuh. The frieze was an astounding discovery, since it proved that the Popol Vuh text pre-dated the Spanish arrival, as had been previously assumed.
Suddenly we hear cries of excitement over a new visitor. As we approach, we see an ATV driven by none other than Richard Hansen. "I love being here," says Hansen, who has been considered a celebrity in Guatemala for a long time now. "It is a great privilege to be the first to uncover some of these marvels." He tells us that he took his first steps in archaeology in Israel as a young man. In fact, he met his wife on that same site. Since he spoke Spanish, he was offered the job of overseeing the excavation at El Mirador, and the rest is history.
We finish our tour with the La Danta pyramid. 72-meters high, La Danta is one of the highest pyramids in the world. After climbing to the top, we and a lucky few other travelers are treated to a spectacular sunset. The skies turn red, a light wind cools the air, and the spider monkeys leap between the trees --only this time we get to watch them from above.
"Archaeological sites have so much power," says Juan Rivera, a Guatemalan guide who leads a group of travelers to the site. "The trekkers always arrive here totally exhausted” – here I feel a bit guilty for my helicopter shortcut – “but as they take in the Mayan ruins you can see how they are caught up in the energy, how they relax and surrender to it.”
A night in the jungle
"Arriving here is like finding out a secret," says Andres, a young computer expert from Guatemala City, who came here for the Easter holiday with his girlfriend Angi, who’s in marketing. As we enjoy the delicacies the group's cooks prepared for us, termites crawl next to our legs, someone is picking out ticks from her friend's head, another chases off a scorpion, and a few hikers approaching in a festive procession of bobbing head lights tell us of an encounter with an unusually large snake. There is no shower or electricity in the camp, but the harsh conditions do not discourage Angi. "I enjoy being disconnected from the internet and the phone," she says, her face shining in the candlelight. "The silence and nature are so relaxing. I can't stop smiling. I'm happy," she says.
I try to feel the same way as we are led to our tent. Unfortunately for me, the tent is set up at an uncomfortable distance from the main camp, and the deeper we get into the dark jungle, I start to panic. "Animals are prowling around here all the time, so it's very likely that you will hear them," our guide says. “Keep your tents zipped up so you won't get unwanted company. If you're in trouble, give a whistle. We will come," he said as he disappeared into the darkness.
We seal ourselves up in the tent and try to fall asleep. The wind is blowing in the tree tops, the leaves are rustling, falling fruit thump to the ground. Soon enough, we hear an animal padding around the tent, and around again. Then something scratches at the tent's fabric. I am too nervous to peer out to see what it is. But inexplicably and all of a sudden, my anxiety fades and I feel a sense of ease. Angi is right, I think to myself, as I surrender to my tiredness and fall asleep.
At dawn, I awake to the howler monkeys’ cries and it seems that I'm not the only one. The jungle orchestra warms up for a new day’s live performance. Tropical birds cluck and chirp their good mornings, insects buzz, the donkeys brey, and the horses neigh, as the trekkers prepare for the exhausting trek back to Carmelita.
We say our good-bys to them and get ready for our final stop of the trip. A helicopter ride and then a short airplane flight take us away from Petén to a totally different experience – the Semanta Santa celebrations in Antigua.
The jungle sounds are replaced by the drumming and trumpets of the procession from San Francisco Church. The monochromatic green of the jungle give way to the riotous colors of the flowers and the multi-hued sawdust carpeting of the cobblestone streets. Adding more relief still are the rainbow colors of the houses and the purple robes of the "Cucuruchos", the men carrying ornate religious-themed-floats through the streets. In the distance, the tall Mayan pyramids are replaced by the towering basalt silhouettes of the surrounding volcanoes. My spirits alight in the festive atmosphere, as my eyes drink in the bold colors and sights, no less a part of Guatemala’s nature, I have found, than the flora and fauna of the lake and jungle.
I recall the words of Monica Samayoa, the proprietor of La Danta restaurant in Flores: "Guatemala is in the heart of Central America, that's why it has such a powerful energy." As I walk among the crowds, taking in the atmosphere, I already know this energy will bring me to Guatemala for a third visit too.
- The End -
The village of Paso Caballos near Rio San Pedro Martyr river located in the Laguna del Tigre area of Peten