In the jungles of Yaxhá and Tikal

When we last left our intrepid traveler, he was in Belize, mon. Although I could have spent a few more days in that wonderfully relaxed spot hanging with Marisol, I decided to catch a ride back into Guatemala with the couples (Alex & Sarah and James & Jessica). We managed to leave fairly early, got back through the border alright (although on our way we were stopped by another damn roadblock, this time by the military asking if we had any firearms on us. huh??), and made it to Yaxhá just before dark.

Yaxhá is one of the lesser-visited Mayan ruins. [Although not as off-the-beaten path as El Mirador, which requires three days of hard trekking through swampy jungle to reach. Will tried to convince me to do it with him, which I declined.. one intrepid venturer described it as ‘purgatory’.]
It was neat to have the ruins practically to ourselves. We spent the night at the only accomodations for miles around, a rustic jungle lodge. We met a French archeologist who has been living there for 28 years. That sounds like living hell to me. The closest town is 10 miles away, over a very rough dirt track. Electricity is provided by a generator that only runs certain times of the day. There is absolutely nothing to do after you´ve seen the ruins. You can´t even swim in the lake, because of the crocs. A few years back, a tourist lost his foot.
Anyway, she told us about how a few years ago, the TV show ‘Survivor’ was filmed there. We were glad to hear that the contestants really do rough it. No mosquito nets, no help whatsoever from the crew for food, shelter, nada. The crew, on the other hand, lives it up. Those few months were the best thing that happened to the locals in years. The crew spent tons of money on booze, setting up nice trailers, the works.

I´m not usually bothered by mosquitoes, but those little buggers were really bad there. We were eaten alive. And of course i hadn´t planned ahead by taking my anti-malarial meds beginning a week prior like one is supposed to. Nobody else was worried, you only hear about it from the CDC. No one down here talks about it, so I guess it´s not a big problem. All the same, the next day I re-read my medical notes and started getting worried. So I double dosed as instructed, and haven´t experienced any of the dreaded side effects. Turns out my body is pretty strong – I still have yet to have any GI trouble, unlike a lot of other gringos (touch wood).
On the list of other things to worry about, we saw a baby scorpion but were told not to worry, as most are harmless to humans.

The next day, the gang dropped me at the crossroads for Tikal and we said our goodbyes 🙁 They were great to travel with, I´ll miss them. But I´m also looking forward to striking out on my own. It was a lovely spring morning, and I was trying to hitch a ride to Tikal when a tourist bus came ambling by that I flagged down.
Tikal is one of the most popular Mayan ruins. I had been advised to spend the night there, to be able to catch both sunset and sunrise. There are three incredibly overpriced hotels that one has the priviledge of staying in. Still, it was great to witness the sunset over these amazing temples that were built 2,000 years ago. The guards even let me climb much higher than they should have, so I had a fantastic view over the entire jungle canopy. One of them even offered to get me in at night (it was nearly a full moon) but I declined, since I wanted to get up at 5 to catch the dawn chorus.

This included tons of crazy birds and other critters, but it´s the howler monkeys that really take the cake. They look like regular black monkeys, but sound like hell. There was a family of them at Yaxhá going at it to a bunch of spider monkeys – protecting their territory, I suppose. Their sound is unreal – apparently it is the loudest land animal, and their cry can be heard over three miles away. It´s a deep, scary growl that sounds much larger than they look. One of the monkeys was preggo, which was neat.
The oscellated turkeys are cool, too – they look more like peacocks than turkeys. Walking back after dusk, my guide stopped and pointed out a rather large tarantula that I was about to step on! (again, not to worry, as most tarantulas are not poisonous to humans). I briefly saw a toucan, as well. It´s so weird to be in a place where animals that I only know as exotic species kept in a zoo are actually living in their natural habitat.

It’s interesting how long it took these ruins to be (re-)discovered. Mother nature is so crafty in it´s ability to cover up mankind´s creations. Only about half of the ruins have been restored, and looking at the unrestored ones is a lesson in humility. In fact, on our drive we passed a region with very sharp ‘hills’ that are undoubtedly other temples overgrown by trees and shrubs.
It’s powerful to sit where an ancient civilization thrived that we know relatively little about. Tikal peaked in importance around the time Jesus was doing his thing; it was a fairly large city-state, with about 100,000 inhabitants – which made it the largest city in the Americas until the whities came.
A couple of other neat factoids: Due to the clever architecture, the voice of a person at the top of one pyramid speaking at a normal volume can be heard by another person standing at the top of another pyramid an astonishing distance away.
Tikal had no water other than what was collected from rainwater and stored in underground storage facilities. The absence of springs, rivers, and lakes in the immediate vicinity highlights a prodigious feat: building a major city with only supplies of stored seasonal rainfall. It’s theorized that this also led to it’s downfall.. a great drought is one theory put forth to explain the decline of the Mayan empire.

These temples you see in the photos are astonishingly tall (some over 200 feet high, which makes them the tallest structures in North America until the construction of skyscrapers) and much steeper than one realizes. It´s pretty thrilling to climb one of these things. And precious, because surely every tourist’s footstep is wearing them away at an ever-alarming rate. It’s hard to imagine how they built all of this having never invented the wheel.
As you look at the photos, imagine what the structures would have looked like in their heyday – plastered smooth, and painted in bright colors – red, pink, gold, green. Lots of hieroglyphs and writing. All of the trees in between the structures were cleared. Instead, there were huge plazas, pathways, and open areas. A real city, in other words.

I still can’t figure out how to make a slideshow, so for now you just have to click on each photo for the full picture. The first 7 photos are from Yaxhá, and the rest are from Tikal.

Sound clip of a howler monkey

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