The Mayas, despite the fact that the civilization reached its apogee over 1000 years ago, were known to be keen astronomers, architects, engineers, and traders. They were highly resourceful, using materials found in nature to achieve many amazing feats. During our visit to Tikal, the pre-Columbian urban center of the Mayan civilization, we were able to understand how even today, Guatemalans are highly resourceful and have an amazing entrepreneurial spirit.
After a nearly 60 hour work week, we woke up Saturday morning at 4:30am and after boarding a 12-seater plane, flew 45 minutes through turbulence that would put to the test the stomach of even an avid coaster rider. After a shaky landing and a sigh of relief, we arrived at the city of Flores in the northern region of Petén. From there our tour guide Henry was waiting to pick us up and take us to Tikal, but not before first stopping to have a delicious traditional breakfast of fried eggs, tortillas, local cheese, refried beans, fried plantains, and of course a cup of Guatemalan coffee. Re-energized from the local meal, we ventured onward to the capital of the Mayan civilization.
The park itself is enormous; after entering, we drove another 10 kilometers until arriving at the main parking area. Henry began his tour by taking us through winding jungle trails and explaining the plant, insect, and animal life that thrives in this protected area. The vegetation was so thick that it was difficult to see more than a few feet off the trail. Our first view of the Mayan ruins was at an old living space. The building was two stories tall and had just enough room for someone to sleep. However, as most of their daily activities were done outside, there was no need for large indoor living spaces.
As we walked onward, we noticed that many buildings have not even been explored yet. Most of them were covered with thick jungle brush and looked like small hills to the naked eye, but Henry informed us that more than 80% of the structures in Tikal have yet to be uncovered. As we came around the next corner we noticed an incredibly steep building that towered over the forest canopy: Temple V. To climb this temple, we needed to ascend what was like a make-shift ladder that was built almost vertically. From there we could see the various temples that constituted Tikal and we gazed down on the jungle canopy as howler monkeys bellowed at the tourists on the ground trying to take pictures.
After gazing upon and even climbing in many different temples and hearing stories from our tour guide Henry, we arrived at Temple IV, which stands at 67 meters tall and is the highest Mayan temple ever built. Temple IV is currently still being uncovered by scientists and is in its last two years of a 10 year restoration project. After greeting a family of pizotes – a type of jungle raccoon – we took the stairs to the top of Temple IV and looked out towards the horizon. The sun was beginning to set and I reflected on the series of events in my life that caused me to be sitting there at that moment. I felt lucky.
On the way back to the car, Henry explained his disapproval of the hype surrounding December 21st, 2012 (some believe this to be the date of the end of the world, as the Mayan calendar completes its cycle on this day). However, Henry informed us that like many civilizations, the Mayas believed in cycles throughout the history of mankind. He explained that the locals believe that like any calendar, December 21st, 2012 represents the beginning of new era in time (The Mayas call this upcoming cycle “The Sixth Sun”).
As we returned to Flores, we arrived at our hotel which was located on a small island on a freshwater lake. We enjoyed an evening of good food and karaoke and spent the following day walking around town and getting to know the locals. It was a wonderful weekend full of mystique, enjoyment, and most importantly relaxation, but as I reflect on this trip I feel a rejuvenated spirit and take pride in the opportunity to work with a country that has such a rich heritage and culture.
Ch’abej chik! (“Goodbye” in the K’iche language of the Mayan language family.)