BELIZE IS NOT A RICH COUNTRY, but Guatemala made it seem that way. Immediately upon crossing the border my girlfriend and I were dogged by insistent money changers, taxi drivers, and peddlers of textiles, food, and drink. Just beyond this menagerie was a bridge leading over the Mopan River, which was lovely in spite of the debris strewn along its banks. We were carrying only our backpacks as we crossed the bridge to the little town of Melchor de Mencos, but even that small effort left us gasping from the heat. It was overcast and drizzling rain, but that only seemed to intensify the discomfort of breathing. As the rain increased I began to wonder if I was going to have to make a Sophie’s choice between getting drenched by rain or putting on my poncho and getting drenched in sweat. We were saved by the collectivo driver who shouted from the road, “Flores! Twenty-five quetzales!”
Three dollars for the three-hour trip. We hopped in. There were seats for fourteen people in the van and by the time we reached Flores we had twice that number, but the passage was not as uncomfortable as I’d been lead to believe. I kept my face near the open window, enjoying the breeze and watching the bucolic scenery of horses and farmland, and was watched in turn by raggedy children with beautiful eyes.
When we arrived in Flores I saw that we would have no trouble finding our hostel since the town was on a small island. The setting was lovely: Flores was surrounded by the still waters of Lake Petén Itzá and framed all around by forested knolls. The sky, however, was full of dark clouds. Hurricane Richard had just hit Belize, forcing the evacuation of Caye Caulker where we’d been enjoying the tranquil scene only a week ago. The hurricane was headed inland, following us, so our plans for Tikal were on hold for the time being.
The following morning showed promise. It had rained through the night and winds were still whipping the lake into a choppy sea, but now there were patches of blue and the dark clouds were being replaced by friendlier hues. We decided to make the trip to Tikal the next day. Since this site topped my must-see list, I splurged on a room at the Jaguar Inn for two nights. The inn was located at the entrance to Tikal, only ten minutes from the ruins, so we would be able to spend all day exploring the site, watching the sun rise and set without having to concern ourselves about whether we’d have enough time to see everything or missing the last bus back to town. With our arrangements in place we spent the rest of the day wandering around town and listening to people talk about their impressions of Tikal. It seemed to be the reason most everyone was here.
Brought to the attention of the West in the mid-nineteenth century by a trio of Guatemalans, including the governor of Petén, Tikal has become the best-documented Maya site in the central lowlands. The true name of the site appears to be Mutul, and the first king of this great Maya city was known as Yax Ehb’ Xook, who ruled around 100 CE. Little is known about this early monarch as he is only referenced by later kings in their monuments. Tikal was on the rise when, in 378 CE, it was conquered by an invading army that appears to have come from Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico. What happened next was an accelerated campaign of expansion through military conquest which saw Tikal rise to a dominant position in the region. Tikal had won over large areas in part by introducing a new form of warfare: they would surround their foes and launch spears at their enemies from a safe distance. Considering the fact that these were people who had an advanced knowledge of astronomy and calendrics as well as having created a fully-realized hieroglyphic writing system, the idea that they were still throwing pointy sticks at each other struck me as highly incongruous. For nearly two centuries its rule remained unchallenged until Calakmul, a comparably-sized city to the north, engineered an alliance with other Maya cities to encircle and defeat Tikal. This lead to a hundred-year hiatus from the limelight as Calakmul reigned as the leader in the region. Tikal re-established its dominant position in 695 CE with a victory over its erstwhile rival, but these continuous wars were ruinous, comparable to the wasteful Peloponnesian Wars which ended the Golden Age of Greece. When one of these Maya cities fell, it was a bloodbath, as explained in The Ancient Maya by Robert J. Sharer:
Battles for polity capitals were frequently bloody, and many deaths occurred on both sides. The aftermath of a Tikal defeat is made explicit in a text at Dos Pilas that describes the “pooled blood” and “piled-up heads” of the dead. The defeated capital was pillaged, its monuments and patron gods were “thrown down,” and its buildings burned.
By 800 CE the Maya of the central lowlands were already in decline, and carved depictions of Tikal’s later rulers show kings who have grown fat, and seem to have spent most of their time erecting monuments testifying to their noble bloodlines and right to rule rather than any notable accomplishments. By the latter part of the 9th century Tikal had broken up into smaller polities ruled by petty kings.
It is interesting to note that prior to its violent takeover in 378 CE, Tikal had been a more traditional Maya settlement which gave equal prominence to the female line in rulership, shown in depictions of joint rule between king and queen. After the takeover, depictions of Tikal’s ruling elite were almost exclusively male. This seems to parallel certain theories by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas about the usurpation of egalitarian societies in Old Europe by invaders from the Russian Steppes in the Bronze Age who brought their male-oriented Thunder Gods to the fore and debased the role of women. Calakmul, which still followed the egalitarian Maya tradition, may have looked upon Tikal as a foreign kingdom for this and other reasons, and used these differences as a means of building support for its alliance. At any rate, things had quieted down in Tikal of late, and I was looking forward to walking among the ruins of this New World Sparta.
At 9:00 the next morning we were standing outside of our hostel waiting for the shuttle. It was a warm, breezy day. The kind of weather that seems especially gentle after a storm. It soon heated up though, and we were glistening with sweat an hour later when the shuttle dropped us off in a muddy field near the entrance to Tikal. We made tracks to our hotel and our second shower of the day. The accommodations were perfect: a white stucco bungalow with a king-sized bed, large ceiling fan, private bath, and a hammock on the porch. I lounged in the hammock while my girlfriend took the first turn in the bathroom. As I lay there an agouti came bounding through the garden. It was my first live agouti. Although it looked like a large rodent, it moved like a rabbit and its ample thighs seemed tailor-made for a barbecue. On the walls around me were large, winged insects. None of which, thankfully, took an interest in me. After we cleaned up and had lunch we walked out into the midday sun to see what remained of Tikal.
There was a simple crossing gate at the entrance to the park, which a guard lifted upon our approach. This was followed by a long pathway that was flanked by tall cedars, mahogany, and the occasional massive ceiba tree. It was humid and hot, but shaded. We passed a man who was trimming the grass with his machete. These groundskeepers were everywhere, maintaining great swaths of lawn one stroke at a time. It looked like back-breaking work. At last we came to the Great Plaza; an open, grassy square that was dominated by Temples I and II. These were pyramidal structures that faced each other across the machete-trimmed plaza like giant thrones. They are, in fact, funerary monuments. Temple I houses the remains of Jasaw Chan K’awil I, who restored Tikal to prominence after its long subordination to Calakmul, while Temple II appears to be dedicated to his wife, although no remains have been found there. In the middle of the plaza there was a large concave dais that showed signs of having been used as a hearth. For the citizens of Tikal, the column of smoke rising from this altar must have been like the axis mundi, the navel of the earth.
There are six large temples in the park, ranging in size from 125 to 230 feet in height. Most of them appear to be grand memorials to Tikal’s rulers. In order to get from one temple to another it was necessary to hike along dimly lit jungle paths while being scrutinized by spider monkeys and toucans high above us in the forest canopy. Upon reaching a clearing we would suddenly be confronted with one of these monolithic tombs rising out of the earth. We climbed to the top of Temple IV, the highest at Tikal, and were able to look out over the entire site. There was only unbroken jungle below us, except for the roof-combs of other temples which rose above the trees like headstones in an overgrown cemetery.
We returned to the hotel for our third shower of the day, had dinner, and spent the rest of the evening lounging around the bungalow. The night air was comfortable (but thick with the sound of buzzing insects, so we enjoyed our rum indoors).
The following day we plunged back into the humid jungle to explore the less visited areas of Tikal. As we passed through the Great Plaza I noticed a young man at the base of Temple II who was wearing a facsimile costume of a Maya lord. He drew stares but no customers as people seemed disinclined to cheapen their experience of this rich site with a campy photo. I had to feel bad for the guy, though.
Back on the trail, which deteriorated nicely the further we went, our progress was interrupted by a flock of wild turkeys with beautifully iridescent plumage and leprous heads. Coatis loped through the underbrush and rivulets of leaf-cutter ants crisscrossed our path. We were going deep in the woods to find the ruins of El Mundo Perdido, The Lost World. In a small courtyard with modest pyramids we found what we were looking for; the earliest structures built at Tikal, some of which date back to 500 BCE, making this perhaps the original core of what would later became an unrivalled Classic city. As with many Maya sites, the earlier buildings are far more elaborate than their latter-day equivalents. One of the best examples of this is the Rosalila Temple at Copan, Honduras, with its garish masks and byzantine ornateness. It was discovered beneath another temple which had been built over it: a common Maya practice. Compare this to the sleek, spartan lines of the Temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza, which was itself built over an earlier structure. Here, at El Mundo Perdido, the masks which adorned the pyramids have been so badly eroded as to be unrecognizable, but the setting is quite evocative: the crumbling stones, still half buried and covered in moss, seem to be in the process of being reclaimed by the jungle rather than restored by man.
Later, after a shower, rest, and more rum, we returned to the park. This time our destination was the secluded site of Temple VI. Although it took us only thirty minutes to reach this temple, which is unexcavated except for its 40-foot roof-comb, it seemed more menacingly remote because of what we’d read: that this area has been the scene of numerous robberies … “and worse”. It was only made more unnerving by the howler monkeys when they took up their caterwauling in the surrounding forest.
As sunset approached we decided to pay a final visit to the Great Plaza. We sat on the steps of the North Acropolis as stars began to appear over the darkening silhouettes of Temples I and II. We were alone except for two armed guards who were talking in low tones on the grass below us. One of them approached us.
“Is it time for us to leave?” my girlfriend asked.
“There is no hurry,” he said, and struck a match to light a cigarette. Then he glanced at his watch and added more firmly, “You have five minutes.”
At nine o’clock sharp we rose to leave, switching on our headlamps. But we switched them off when we realized that the path was still discernable in the twilight, and instead allowed the fireflies that were dancing in the trees on either side of the trail to guide us home.