by Mike Reed
Photos are by Mike Reed, except for the first one.
Getting to Mayan ruins is not what it
was 20 or 25 years ago when I first discovered this incredible region. Then,
pavement was unknown in the Petén and Tikal had so few visitors that it had
it's own airport. But that's another hairy story.
I found that the time-honored technique of going without reservations or even an itinerary is a good way to see the Petén and never get bummed out about missed buses and flights and not getting to see everything in a certain order. There might be an order to getting around the Petén but it is better for me to have a good flexible plan of where I want to go and be content if I achieve only half my goals.
With that in mind, as I stepped off the plane in the late afternoon at Santa Elena, I was literally surrounded by hoards of tour operators and van drivers wanting to take me to places like Tikal. I easily found an agent for a tour operator called EXPLORE. The man was friendly and assured me he could easily arrange any kind of trip I could imagine to far-off ruins. Obviously, there's a niche for people like me in places like Santa Elena and in reality there were probably ten agencies who could set up the same itinerary for me. They make it simple, are direct, and willing to negotiate price to make your trip comfortable and especially to make it happen so they can make their commission. It was agreed that I would be picked up early from my hotel in the lovely island-town of Flores and taken by van to Sayaxché, on the banks of the Rio de la Pasión, where I would be taken to the Maya sites I wanted to see by an experienced boatman. Basically, I have seen so much of Tikal that I could give a tour of it a night without a flashlight. I was interested in the Petexbatun area, with its fabulous treasures of beautifully carved and well preserved stelae and other stonework. This was not a "climb to the top of the tallest temple for the view" kind of trip. I was given two nights at the Posada Caribe, a rather worn but actually quite nice jungle lodge. I was the only guest the whole time.
My boatman, Higenio, first took me (along with a few other day trippers from Flores) to the easily reached and well know ruin of El Ceibal. What a place! Just the forest, packed with giant trees, especially the "holy" ceiba, the cosmic tree of life to the Maya and of course, the national tree of Guatemala. The carved stelae were outstanding, especially the ones with lit candles at their bases. Obviously there are some "unconquered" Maya out there hiding out. Better call in the evangelicos!
After saying goodbye to our small group at Sayaxché in a pouring rain I became just another drenched Guatemalan standing on the porches of the little bodegas that line the muddy avenue leading down to the boat docking area (notice I didn't say boat dock) and the auto ferry. I laughed and joked with the very friendly and hospitable townspeople while drinking a cold beer. I felt like I knew them all by the time the rains ended and it was time to shove off.
Higenio brought along his 8 year old son, Cesar, to accompany him, and as I later found out, there was a long and complicated story behind the simple act of a little boy being with his dad. We immediately headed up the Rio Petexbatun, which meets the Pasión at Sayaxché and after about 5 kilometers the milpas and cattle clearings gave way to impressive tall tropical forest of the type that won't be around for long at the rate they are logging.
We arrived at the posada in less than an hour, located slightly back from the river. It had the traditional comedor hut, the dining and social sala and about 8 huts for tourists. Since I was the only guest I have no idea how many people they can accommodate at a time but since I was the only guest it wasn't worth the expense of working the electricity generator at night so my nightly routines of going down for dinner and back to my hut were by flashlight.
Candles provided a soft glow in the room but a better flashlight would have made me more secure with regard to the nasty vipers which occasionally curl up in a corner of the shower or under the beds lying in wait for the inevitable rats to show up looking for scraps. Alas, the place was as clean as a Motel 6....not a fer-de-lance (called locally "noyaca") to get my adventurous blood flowing. It was quiet, and oh so peaceful that I wanted to stay forever.
Higenio's contract with the tour operator was to operate the boat, but we became fast friends because I speak Spanish fairly well - and we were two guys alone in the forest. Who else to turn to? He agreed each day to guide me for no fee to the ruins I sought, Dos Pilas and Aguateca. Of course, I wasn't going to not give him a fee for his services but he tried to turn it down saying that he helped me out of friendship. How many Americans do I know that would lead me on a 24 kilometer day hike, up and down, slick limestone hills, through ankle-deep bogs and in general, through the pouring rain for free.
He taught me some lessons in friendship and humility. When I nearly tripped over a deadly "chalpath" or "mano de piedra" snake he calmly yet quickly reached down and grabbed it by the base of the head so I could see this incredible creature and its sharp "cat-claw" fangs. I got a great shot looking down the snakes throat. He told me it was a young snake, which were the most dangerous kind and delighted in being able to teach me things about the forest life I would never have known, like that the snake can leap up to six feet to strike at its victims. He gently tossed it into some grass and we were on the way again.
No way was I going to look in horror at
every little twig along the trail thinking about dangerous snakes so I preferred
to not think about it. The path was a beauty to behold with enormous mahogany,
cedars and ciebas and then bogs filled with so many different species of frogs
that I thought we were listing to birds and monkeys screech. A bog filled with
frogs is like a night a the symphony. There are few words to describe the
varieties of noises they made, all in some kind of "choir-like" unity
Dos Pilas ruins and the small ruins of Arroyo de Piedra an hour before it were beautiful beyond my wildest imagination. The structures were in a complete state of ruin, but the secrets hidden under the millennia of trees, branches, humus and topsoil were breathtaking. The quality of the carved images and the fine limestone used made the stelae much easier to interpret.
We spent hours gazing and photographing the multitudes of stelae and the hieroglyphic stairways which told the glories of Dos Pilas' victories over their enemies. We could see ruler II standing over the horribly disfigured and tortured captive, the king of El Ceibal, later to be sacrificed.
This time I had the experience and knowledge to share with Higenio about the history of this extremely important place of the ancient Maya civilization we were standing in. As we stood there, along with a guard for the ruin to prevent looting, a howler monkey fell from a branch and landed at our feet. Another opportunity presented itself to my camera as if a gift of the gods. He gained his composure after a short while and scampered back up the tree.
Just for the reader's information, Dos Pilas is well-known (though only in the past ten years) now that the hieroglyphics can be read as not only a major league player in the 7th and 8th century wars that plagued the Petén, but was a principal protagonist in in wholesale conversion of war from primarily a religious tool to capture important victims for blood sacrifice to war for the purpose of territorial acquisition .
There was some real excitement in Dos Pilas because recently a previously undiscovered and perfectly preserved 20 foot long stelae was uncovered. What a sight, it was either ruler II or III, handsome as a young king and as powerful as king in the Maya world at the time. What more lies beneath the trees and soils of that plaza?
Dos Pilas almost single handedly changed the politics of the Maya political world with its hegemonic conquests and devious political alliances with other Maya cities, which eventually contributed greatly to the collapse of the lowland Petén civilization of the Maya. Dos Pilas was so reviled by its subservient states that together they rose up and attacked and overwhelmed Dos Pilas, not before the inhabitants were able to dismantle much of the superstructure on the temples and palaces to build a palisade, or defensive wall around the main plaza. The remains of the wall are easy to make out...a snapshot of the final hours of one of the greatest of Maya cities at its destruction. Dos Pilas was not to be so easily defeated and the nobility escaped to Aguateca, which served as its final capital, a veritable "Masada" fortress atop a mesa surrounded by fault scars in the bedrock up to 250 feet deep. It was a well protected city. But the enemies of Dos Pilas were not to be dissuaded from their task of killing a city, and Aguateca was somehow stormed and taken in a bitter battle. That was my next day's visit.
Higenio insisted on taking me to his favorite spot to eat lunch and I reluctantly followed him to the two pools of water that gave the site its original name of Dos Pozos. One of them was a round hole with a few inches of water but the other was undoubtedly the reason for the location of the city. A large spring gushed from a small river right out of the rocks just below the main plaza. Obviously, this was a holy place of "virgin water", where the Maya could communicate with the gods of the underworld, Xibalbá, beneath its lovely cool waters.
A swim in the pool would have been exquisite but somehow seemed to profane the holiness of the great steam of water, the gift to the Maya from the lords of the underworld. We did fill our canteens from the clear pool and hurriedly made our way back the way we had come. Now the heavens opened up. Looking like dusk was approaching, I glanced at my watch and astonishingly it was only 1:30 pm, yet the forest was so dark it was getting hard to see.
Then the rain began...not with a sprinkle, but like a giant waterfall cascading over our heads as we tried to keep up a steady pace to keep up with the horse we rented for the little boy and to carry our day packs. I have never experienced such intensity before (it must have been the forest and the smells and the howling of the monkeys) as it poured at a rate I have never seen (and I have been caught up in some real scary gully washers). I felt strong, content and tranquil as I trudged through the ever deepening mud and pools of water.
Trees crashed in the forest nearby,
shaking the ground. But as all things must end, so did the downpour and we
finished the 12 Kilometer hike back to the river in a faster pace than we had
gone in the opposite direction that morning. We celebrated our success, our
scrapes with danger and our dry clothes we changed into over cold beers back at
the lodge. I never felt tired that day...only the feeling of exhilaration one
gets a few times in your life. I slept well that night.
The next day, we made it across the incredible Laguna Petexbatun, arguably one of the most scenic tropical forest lakes in the world and arrived at a small pool of water which served as the entrance for boats to bring archaeologists and the occasional tourists to Aguateca. Higinio knew the ever-narrowing stream so well that he kept it at full throttle even though the stream was barely wider than the boat and the branches of the trees stung our faces as they slapped us. We could only grin and laugh. What a place!
Aguateca is situated 100 meters above Lake Petexbatun completely surrounded by sheer cliffs. It looked impregnable, yet it fell to a ferocious attack as did Dos Pilas. Once again the structures were not in the best of condition, but several plazas are in the process of being restored, showing the placement of the palaces and temples around rectangular courtyards. The real treasures lay in the untouched main plaza, filled with the history-laden tree stones erected to tell of the glories of the conquests and the sanctity of the religious ceremonies that these stelae commemorated.
We left Aguateca in the early afternoon so I would make my shuttle pickup for
the trip back to Flores from Sayaxché. For three days Higinio and I had
discussed the new knowledge we have of the ancient Maya and his own tragic
situation of having his wife walk out on him and his six small children in
search of a better life in "el norte." I attempted to make sense of
his tragedy by relating to him how the ancient Maya might have dealt with it
with their belief that suffering and ecstasy
are two sides of the same coin.
So yes, it's possible to just go there and within minutes (or hours if you are picky) find a tour operator to arrange the adventure of your dreams. The cost was $170 US for three days but it covered everything but meals and gave me the opportunity to fulfill one of my life's dreams of exploring parts of the Petexbatun.
Next, I easily arranged a van trip to Uaxactún, which is a lovely, well restored and very ancient site only about 10 miles north of Tikal. Nobody I talked to had ever heard of it but I talked a young Mexican couple into accompanying me to keep me company and of course, the adventures began again. He is a doctor and she is a teacher so we of course got a tour of Uaxactún's primitive but important medical clinic in which the doctor comes every other week.
By the time we had scrambled all over a
ruined temple/palace complex, Elena, the teacher had gathered all the little
children, who followed us everywhere into a choir, and we were serenaded with
children's songs by the descendents of the Itzá in the sacred plaza of the holy
city of Uaxactún.
So, yes Virginia, Santa Claus must have learned his love and acceptance of all of the Maya in Guatemala. Too bad the ladino and white rulers have failed to catch the spirit. What a place!