Maggie’s Birthday at Tikal

We dragged ourselves reluctantly away from Finca Ixobel, our 1 night stop already run into 3 with the temptation to stay another day or two very, very strong! But thankfully we had a greater attraction to draw us away – the Mayan ruins at Tikal. It was coming up to Maggie’s birthday and we figured Tikal would be a good special place to celebrate. This area is amazing – the 150km run from the Finca up to Tikal took us on a lazy winding road into ever more jungly terrain. Everywhere there were weird pyramidal shaped hills and mounds, much to regular in symmetry and form to be natural. We are right in the heart of the old Mayan Empire now and this area is teeming with unexplored sites. At Tikal itself, there are estimated to be over 3,000 buildings only a fraction of which have been excavated – the rest remain covered by the jungle, which in these parts is quick to reclaim anything that is abandoned. At Tikal we had a pleasant surprise in an off-season package we secured at the Tikal Inn, right inside the park. They had a special offer on, with 2 nights accommodation plus breakfast & evening meals and a full morning guided tour of the ruins. Somebody must have known it was Maggie’s Birthday! The hotel was beautiful, maybe one of the loveliest places we’ve stayed, with thatched bungalows set around an inviting ice blue swimming pool and surrounded by delicious tropical gardens. After unloading the bikes, we set off on our own for an afternoon traipsing around the ruins. We had the site virtually to ourselves. Tour buses flood the place in the mornings, when it is cooler and then whisk the tourists off to air-conditioned lunch. Although it is hot in the afternoons, it becomes bearable after around 3pm and the light settles for some fabulous photography. Tikal is vastly different from Copan in Honduras. For starters there is the whole scale of the place – it is huge and to visit the entire site requires a minimum of 2 days. Copan has quality – elaborate, 3 dimensional stone carvings on the proliferate stelae and altars; Tikal has quantity, with 6 huge pyramids and scores of lesser but equally majestic structures plus so many other jungly mounds as yet unexcavated. Then there is the setting; Copan has a cool mountain location, where Tikal is down in the lowlands in hot tropical jungle. The paths around the site were beautiful, some of the loveliest jungle walks we’ve been on and they are teeming with wildlife. Birds and butterflies for starters, but then there are Squirrels, Coatis and of course the ‘Monos’ – monkeys – troops of Spider Monkeys noisily crashing in the canopy up above and later as the sun settled down, the horrendous primordial roar of the lazier Howler Monkeys, sounding like King Kong let loose in the forest.

You have all seen Tikal in the movies. It featured in 2 of the Star Wars films with shots of starfighters flying low over the jungle with the huge stone temples jutting out of the forest. It is of course the planet where the Ewoks live. We didn’t see any Ewoks today but we did find an injured baby Spider Monkey – it had fallen from one of the giant trees and was lying flat-out on the ground crying for its mother. We were drawn to it by the commotion from the adults up in the trees who were shouting angrily at us, trying to drive us away. We didn’t see the baby at first and were a little surprised by the behaviour but when we realised what was happening, we retreated a short way and watched fascinated as its mother descended from the trees, checked the baby out and then scooped it back up into the canopy. We hoped it was only scared and winded by the fall and hadn’t suffered any more serious damage. Next morning we joined our tour party lead by Juan, a guide who works for the hotel. He started with an explanation of some of the trees we’d walked past yesterday and not really paid any attention to on our way into the park. First up Mahogany, a slow growing redwood tree so popular for furniture and wood fixings. We looked at the Mahogany nut, even more popular as a snack for parrots and squirrels who usually woof them before they get a chance to seed. Then he showed us an Allspice tree – pick the leaves, crush them and smell Christmas! The leaves make a good tea for upset tummies and of course the dried seeds are delicious in cakes. If the Allspice leaves don’t work on that jippy tummy, the next tree will do the job. It had a black seedpod around the size of an Acorn that when ground and brewed makes an excellent natural Imodium. It doesn’t have an English name, but the closest translation from its Mayan name is “The Ass-Plug Tree”! Use with caution! Juan showed us the tree that produces Chicle – the principal ingredient used to make chewing gum. Guatemala is the worlds leading producer and until fairly recently collecting the gum was a fairly hazardous task. Juan’s older brother had worked for years as a ‘Chiclero’. The problem was that the trees grew in the deepest parts of the jungle, requiring a few days of hard travelling to reach their location. The trees are scarred with a machete and the gum sap collected in bags – a slow laborious process. Once the lower part of the tree was exhausted, the Chicleros would have to climb higher to reach fresh trunk using a rope tied around their waist and spikes on their feet to shimmy up the tree. Expeditions would typically last 3 or 4 months, as great quantities of gum were required to make the trip worthwhile economically. All that time living in the jungle with mosquitoes, snakes and the dangers of climbing the huge trees – it was a hard life. Nowadays there are plantations – Wrigleys have their own – and the collection has been modernised. The final tree we’d come across before at Copan, revered as part of the Mayan religion – the Ceiba Tree. This is a tall silvery coloured tree with a massive powerful root system and then that silver trunk reaching high up into the sky where the branches spread out in a flat radius from the tree, like a mirror image of the roots. The Mayans saw this tree as the link between heaven and hell – the branches spreading out into the heavenly sky and the trunk interconnecting into the bowels of the Earth, down into hell. They believed that the dead first went down into hell for a series of trials, battles and judgement and if they survived these encounters, the spirit would ascend up through the body of the Ceiba tree and on into Heaven. At Copan, hippies come to hug these trees believing their huge trunks are channels of natural power. We still only gave this one a pet.

We returned for a third visit to Tikal late in the day when we climbed scary spindly wooden staircase that took us to the top of Temple V for that awesome ‘Star Wars’ eye-view of the complex. All around a carpet of green treetops, as far as the eye can see and then the massive temple crowns atop the huge pyramids jutting up like shipwrecks out of the emerald ocean. In the distance the sky was darkened here and there by the cloudy smudges of tropical rainstorms, a few containing flickers of lightning within, heralded by thunderclaps that along with the monster roars of the Howler Monkeys down below, told us it was time to leave. Tikal faded around 900AD with the rest of the Mayan empire. The reasons or its demise are not so clear here as at Copan where good archaeological evidence shows how the valley was overpopulated and suffered an ecological disaster. The reasons here are probably more complex. It was a massive society, with populations estimated to be way above the numbers who live here today. Eco-disasters (there were a number of harsh droughts recorded with crop failures leading to famine) and overpopulation probably lead to mass migrations away from the area to more fertile regions to the south. It is also known that the earlier Mayans were generally a peaceable people (they did have the odd blood sacrifices but nothing too elaborate) but then new weapons technologies arrived from the north – spears and edged weaponry, which they learned to use in the domination and subjugation of surrounding peoples, spawning inter-city wars which also contributed to their demise. The great cities were abandoned and the jungle slowly but surely reclaimed them all (by 1000AD Tikal had been swallowed up) and today we are digging them back out, trying to learn more about this great ancient society. The speed at which the jungle can reclaim man made objects is fascinating. Outside the Tikal Inn, the road is actually the tail end of an airstrip that was made after the war by Wrigleys to ship out their Chicle from this area. The section at the hotel is only clear because it is in constant use but it disappears into dense jungle just a short way beyond the hotel – all grown over in the past few years.

By the way, the world is going to end soon! We just thought you’d like to know. The Maya were remarkable for their counting system and calendars. The Mayan calendar is based around eras of 400-year blocks and 13 of these make up an age of man i.e. 5,200 years. We are currently in the age of the ‘Men of Corn’ that began after the great flood over 3000 years BC. That means that as this is the 21st century, the age is drawing to a close and is due to end, quite simply on 21st December 2012 when we’re all going to die. There you go! You heard it first here on!

As part of our Spanish schooling in Panajachel, we picked up a book covering a short history of Guatemala in Spanish to practice on. What a sad story with some of the worst and most disastrous politics in the world. The Spanish arrived in the early 1500’s to find the Mayans dispersed and promptly took over control of the area. In the following colonial period, the local inhabitants were made into serfs and forced to work the fincas (farms) under slave like regimes and dominated by church and state. There are now 2 big racial groups in the country – the indigenous descendants of the Mayans and the Mestizos or Ladinos – descendants of the colonials. The latter minority group has held all the political power since they arrived. When other Central American countries declared independence from Spain around 1820, Guatemala was reluctant to join in, as Spain was their main customer for crop exports so the main interest here was how to retain their riches during the transition of power. In the following years, they lost vast tracts of land to Mexico, El Salvador and Belize was ceded to Great Britain without even a treaty being signed. Economic interest now centred on the USA with land deals granted to the United Fruit Company (UFC) and the farm workers – the poor ‘campesinos’ – continued to live under slave conditions. Any attempt at social reform was swiftly dealt with by the state and the military, a pattern that has remained until recent times. The right wing regimes grew with clampdowns on trade unions and freedom of the press, all the while favouring relations with the US and eventually in 1944, there was a revolution and a democratically elected civilian president – Juan Jose Arevalo initiated social reforms, recognising workers rights and establishing a social security system. His successor focussed on land reform, taking land back off the UFC and giving it to the people for food production. This angered the USA (always looking for reds in the beds) and in 1954 they backed a covertly raised army in Honduras who invaded Guatemala, establishing a series of Military dictatorships and unleashing a strict regime of violence and suppression. This sparked a counter-Guerrilla movement in the highlands plunging the country into civil unrest over a 35-year period ending in the late 1990’s. During this time some 200,000 people were killed or ‘disappeared’, mainly executed by government forces as ‘enemies of the state’. The CIA were in the thick of it, staunchly supporting the corrupt right wing regimes with money and weapons in the belief that they were somehow fighting communism, all the while fuelling atrocities, which at times amounted to nothing less than genocide against the Mayans. An independent commission was set up to investigate the atrocities and in 1999 published a report that found that 93% of the recorded incidents were caused by state backed organisations – the military, police etc. Guerrillas accounted for only 3% and the remaining 4% were down as unidentified causes. President Clinton surprised the world by openly acknowledging the shameful role the US had played in Guatemala and apologising for supporting the atrocities. Now Guatemala is struggling to find a steady platform for economic growth and social stability. It’s not easy. Politics are still tainted with corruption to the point that people don’t bother voting any more (less than 20% turn-out in recent elections). Public utilities have been privatised and the money gone to make the rich richer. Attempts to bring to trial some of the perpetrators of the atrocities of the past 35 years have got bogged down on legal details and forgotten so the guilty go largely unpunished. The country has been demilitarised but the soldiers who left took their guns with them and banditry and hijackings still occasionally occur. To cap it all, the last President – a Señor Portillo, made off for Mexico earlier this year, with his pockets stuffed with public cash. He just legged it out of the country – made a stash and ran with the dough. The Mexicans have let him stay and Guatemalan authorities have again been sluggish in demanding any extradition. But good on the old USA! They froze all of his investments there. What will happen in the long run remains to be seen.

We hope the history & politics here didn’t bore you. We loved Guatemala – our favourite country to date in Central America and its story is interesting if tragic. It is a beautiful land, full of magical volcanoes, lakes, breathtaking scenery and oodles of history and legend. The people too are lovely; we met Ladrinos, Mayans and Gringos who have settled here and they are as fine a bunch of people that you could ever want to meet. They deserve a better future and hopefully it will come one day very soon – at least squeeze some good times in before 2012!

We left for Belize with a heavy heart, sad to be departing this fine land. The road to the frontier gave us one of our worst road surfaces yet. Some roadworks had churned the white claylike soil into what can only be described as ‘wet cement’. It was horrible glutinous stuff and the bikes slithered everyway possible as we crossed it. Fortunately it only lasted around 1km, by which time we were covered in it! The border crossing was a polite formality and on the Belizean side we were pleased to be speaking English to customs officials and changing money for notes with portraits of good old QE2 printed on them! God Bless Her Majesty!


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