Day 8: Tikal

I had a lot of trouble sleeping last night. My mind wouldn’t stop for no especially good reason. Sometime in the middle of the night something set the dogs barking and that made me really tense. The house isn’t in an especially good area, but I’m not sure there is one in San Ignacio.  Now I was worried about break ins. I locked the door to our room and got myself to relax eventually and sleep, but that feeling of tension lasted through the night. I woke up early worrying about not being able to get myself packed in time, but that made no sense once I was awake and getting sorted so I went back to bed for another 20 minutes or so. It didn’t help either that the bed was so small to share. I’m sure I ruined Jenn’s night sleep as well.

I got packed in time all the same, and had time for breakfast before Luis arrived to take us to border.

At the border we walk across and Luis is to meet us on the other side. While we tried to get ourselves out of the truck, a guy walked up and started talking to Chuck us he was our guide and introduced us.

We started into immigration and collected a new stamp in our passport at the cost of $40 BZ exit fee. While we were waiting for Jenn’s family to clear immigration our guide came up and was asking if we wanted to exchange money and pulled out a big wad of cash. Now I wasn’t sure, this seemed odd, and I didn’t know the exchange rate so I told him later. After they cleared immigration we found Luis on the other side of the border while Chuck talked to our guide. I didn’t think he was our guide though, this seemed to odd, and he didn’t hardly speak English. I asked Luis, is that guy over there in the green shirt was our guide and Luis told me he’d never seen him in life. I yelled “Chuck put your wallet away, that’s not our guide!” just in time too! Chuck was just about to buy a park pass he didn’t need…

Luis then introduced us to our driver, Marco who would be taking us to Tikal and back. Marco, a young clean shaven man with excellent English and a quiet smile. We got in his minivan and hit the road. Marco handles the next immigration checkpoint himself with our passports. He’s thorough too, we noticed he was checking the passports to make sure they all had stamps.

On the road we noticed Guatemala is significantly poorer than Belize, and probably poorer than Mexico. The main highway doesn’t just have potholes, but often large sections that aren’t paved. The live stock also doesn’t look as healthy. Most of what we see on the way to Tikal is small scale agriculture and ranching.

Tikal is huge, the protected area is 222 sq mi, 16 of which comprise the area accessible to the public. Tikal was once nearly the size of  at the time Rome and like most of the Mayan world worked like a Classic Greek city state. Much of what was known of the Mayans though has been lost to us because of their decline and the destruction rot by the Spanish.  It’s horribly sad because as stone age cultures go, the Mayans were incredibly advanced.

We made the obligatory stop at the tourist trap. Everyone walked around wasting time, refusing to spend money. We’re told we’re coming back for lunch, and we’re just waiting for our guide. It’s part of some agreement I’m sure that we have to stay here for a set amount of time and then our driver gets some kind of kick back. You see this all over the world, I’m confident at least it’s not going to be like Thailand where this can literally happen all day. Samuel our guide arrives eventually and introduces himself. His English is good which is promising and he tells us he grew up in the Tikal park and moved to Flores where he was lucky to learn English which gave him lots of options that he wouldn’t have normally had in Guatemala. We were told once that most Belizeans don’t finish middle school so it’s like always dealing with adolescents, but in Guatemala many don’t even make it that far before being pulled out of school by their families. I’ve always believed that education is the key to success of a nation, and this conversation brought it into relief.

Entering the park we see fun signs like snake crossing and tapir crossing. street signs you don’t normally see.

After an introduction at the entrance and a map of the ruins we head into the park, quickly taking a shortcut through the forest past Samuel’s old village school, 20 years vacated by the government and already almost reclaimed by the jungle. The bugs are vicious and everyone sprays vigorously but it seems no use, I still feel like I’ve been eaten alive.

It’s explained to us that to create this structures lime stone is mined, and lime separated by heat, and this took a lot of land and resources, 10 tons of timber is needed for 1 ton of lime, so much of the forest was cut down to make room for agriculture and construction. This lead to ecological changes that may have played a large part in their downfall as a civilization. Sam points out how the roots of the trees growing here go wide instead of deep because the topsoil is poor after being eroded away. The Maya also used to turn their limestone quarries into rain catches by plastering the walls. Much like the ancient Romans the Maya did a lot to change their environment to their needs. I’ve read since then that one of the leading theories suggests that in the 600s AD there was lots of rain which helped the Mayan civilization grow much larger than it normally would have, and then in the 700s there was extended drought leaving them beyond the carrying capacity of their environment. This was coupled with lower rain caused by the deforestation which exacerbated the situation. This in turn lead to war and strife as the people fought over limited resources, and an increased importance of religion and ritual sacrifice. This all rings true to me, though I wonder how much we’re projecting our own fears as a society onto this reading of the past.

Popping out of the jungle we find our first pyramid, it’s not so tall, but we can climb up the stairs on this one. Samuel explains that this one was built as an observatory to get them higher above the trees and the cities. Though he also explains they sometimes used it for human sacrifice. I’m not sure how much I believe this is true, I’d be surprised if a building like this, so insignificant compared to the size of the others would be used for human sacrifice.

Samuel now takes us north through the jungle again to Temple IV, the highest structure in the complex where we can see some restoration going on. He explains that all of the excavation happened with foreign money, mostly from U Penn. Guatemala is not wealthy enough to spend money on such things, but our park fees are used to maintain what they have. We then walk around to wooden stairs constructed to let people climb to the top without wearing down the limestone with their feet, and climb to the top. From here we can see the tops of the two other large structures in the complex sticking above the tree tops: Temple I and Temple II, the first of which is kind of like a national symbol for Guatemala, and is called the Jaguar temple. The Jaguar I later learn from a guide named Vitalino, was seen as one a symbol of one of their most revered gods. Samuel tells us that Temple IV where we stand has been drilled into by archaeologists and there are several layers of construction, hoping to find the tomb of one of the kings, but weren’t able to find it.  Additionally at the top is a kind of cap that houses some paintings that still exist, but for safety reasons they’re locked up. There is a lot more information on wikipedia about Tikal Temple IV than what we got from Samuel though.

From there we went to Mundo Perdido which apparently shows Teotihuacan influences in architecture.

Then it’s onto the main attraction, the main plaza where Temple I and Temple II are visible. Temple II is able to be climbed and gives a great view of the plaza. We’re then left to our own devices to wander the plaza for a bit and we explored the ball courts where they played Pok Tok Pok (I’m guessing at the spelling), the predecessor of Jai Alai.

That was the end of our tour from there. I was disappointed with how little I learned from it, our Guide Samuel was nice and spoke clearly, but his knowledge was very limited. At the time we weren’t sure if this was because of him or because there hasn’t been enough research. Now I believe it to be a little of both. Mayans build their structures from limestone which weathers poorly, and the civilization as a whole collapsed around 1000AD, not to be absorbed by a different competing civilization that lasted which meant a lot of knowledge was lost. What little there is comes from inscriptions on protected inner walls and on stellas, tablos found in the ruins. Some books had been saved by small city states that might would have contributed a lot of knowledge but were deliberately destroyed by Spanish conquistadors and Priests, and only 4 remain. But what we do know is still a lot more than what our tour guide knew, and now I’m determined to fill in some of the gaps. Hopefully when I get home I’ll have time to read on wikipedia and our guide book probably has some information.

Back to the border we head and a couple more stamps. While in line a pickpocket pushes his way through the crowd bumping into us while standing. He has his arm in a sling and seems a little high. Luckily none of us is carrying our wallets or phones or anything in our pockets but securely in bags on our back, passports in hand, and nothing is lost to him. Luis is waiting for us on the other side in his newly cleaned truck. He says that the road to Black Rock is good and he’ll be happy to take us, but first we need to grab our bags.

The drive to Black Rock Lodge turns out to be much more difficult and slow than expected, the road is a bit torn up from the recent rains, and his truck does fine to get us there, but it’s slow going. At one point we had to close the windows because of a waterfall right along the rock wall lining the narrow road. On the other side is a cliff and Luis tells us don’t look down! I feel like I’m on the Indiana Jones ride at Disney Land. Eventually we pop out into the nice grounds of Black Rock Lodge. Luis’ truck is wet and muddy. I feel really bad and try to hand him the $40 US it would have cost us to take the transfer but he won’t take it and he and Chuck quickly leave.

Checking in we’re told about how the Lodge is done in a sustainable way, their power comes from hydroelectric and solar and it’s limited so please keep lights and fans off when not in the rooms, we’re told about their greywater reclamation. They have their own farm and much of the produce they use comes from there. We’re also told dinner is $22/p which is very reasonable and is at 7 if we’d like to join. Of course we would, it’ll be with other people and a chance to meet new friends. Dinner is served in a large open air room with a great view of the opposite bank and the river. We have about an hour until then to get ourselves cleaned up and ready to go.

Our room is adorable but small. The bed and the wall it’s on are mahogany, the other walls are black slate until about waist height and from there mahogany wooden blinds all around. The room is decorated with hibiscus flowers cut from their garden.

Dinner was amazing, one of the better dinners I’ve had and definitely the best in Belize, even beating out the wonderful lobster at Rose’s in Caye Caulker. It’s a 4 course chef’s menu started by a bean soup and then tomato salad. We have grilled chicken over white rice topped with a mild coconut curry sauce and roasted pumpkin seed, all circled by little chunks of sweet fruits for the main course. It’s amazing. Finished by a banana cake that was similar in texture to a carrot cake. Our dinner companions are a couple from South Carolina named Richard and Katherine, their pleasant enough but retired and from very different background and world. Jenn finds she can talk to Richard about horses as he used to train hunting dogs and they would go on horseback to work them. Katherine strikes me a bit like a trophy wife, she sits there with this wide fake smile on her face with blank eyes interjecting from time to time, never really participating or pushing the conversations along.

It poured all through the night, luckily we made it back to our room before it started. With the windows open you can hear all of the wildlife in the jungle, and the rushing of the river. It’s kind of magical in a way, and a great experience in itself, something I’m sad we didn’t get to share with Jenn’s family. Something I experienced in St. Lucia that I’m glad I was able to share with Jennifer.

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