Zia Dai

In the Land of the Maya Part 1: Queen of the Jungle

‘Dude,’ whispers Anna. ‘There’s someone staring at the back of your head.’ I look askance at my oldest friend. Usually, it’s Anna people stare at. Most people are often can’t figure out where she’s from. With her short cropped hair she’s often mistaken for a boy. Once I managed to smuggle her into Warwick Castle on a child ticket –and no one seemed to notice that, at the time, she was a 23-year-old woman. That was a decade ago, and not much has changed.

We’re in Flores, Guatemala. It’s 4:30 in the morning. And yes, someone is staring at the back of my head. We cross the road to get a better look and floating in the murk of the doorway opposite is a disembodied face. Dawn is hours away and we are all alone. I think for a few moments about wandering over and asking whoever it is what the hell they think they’re looking at. Then a vision of me getting there and there being nothing but a head takes over, and I poke Anna in the ribs instead.

After a while, the face goes away. In the distance the sky begins to turn vaguely greyish, and a silvery Hilux rattles around the corner. We get in and settle down and soon I’m dreaming of the carpaccio and steak I had at Terrazzo last night. When I awake, we’re in the middle of the jungle, and my heart skips a beat.

I wake Anna up.

‘We’re here.’

And this is no ordinary ‘here’. Here is a metropolis that rose in splendour in the midst of a jungle and dominated all around it for hundreds of years. A place of toucans with technicolour beaks, of dancing shadows, of glyphs full of hidden meaning. A place I’ve dreamt of coming to since I first saw pictures of soaring temples rising above the endless green of the Mesoamerican canopy. We’re in Tikal, Queen of the Jungle – and dawn has just broken.

Pacaya Peak

Pacaya Peak

The Maya have been around Yucatan and its surroundings for over three thousand years. In that time they built an extraordinary civilization, one obsessed with the movement of the stars, with numbers, and with the chilling demands of their chaotic pantheon. Over the course of 2000 years, beginning in about 800 BC, they began to build cities in the highlands and on plains so flat that there are no rivers. Uaxactun. Calakmul. Kaminaljuyu. Chichen Itza. Each in turn rose and squabbled with the other and sank back into the wet soil of the jungles, or the volcanic ash of the mountains.

We know an awful lot about Tikal. We know it had a dynasty founded in the 4th century AD; that at one point it was conquered by the distant Mexican city of Teotihuacan; and that its abiding rival was the city-state of Calakmul to the south. We know the two warred and schemed and sacrificed each other to the gods for hundreds of years. We even know the names of their kings, surely the most awesome of any rulers anywhere. Great Jaguar Paw. Stormy Sky. Sun Sky Rain. They sound even better in the original Yucatec – Chak Tok Ich’aak. Sihyaj Chan K’awiil. Yik’in Chan K’awiil.

We also know that, beginning in the mid-9th century, most of the great cities of the lowland Maya collapsed. Within two generations, Tikal’s population evaporated. Squatters moved into the great palaces. Monuments were abandoned unfinished. Other cities began to take Tikal’s sacred name – Yax Mutal – and the great city was now apparently too weak to stop them. By the 11th century, Tikal was lost to the jungle. It would be a thousand years before a gum-tapper would bring back tales of hills in the jungle, where there should be none. Except they weren’t hills. They were temples, slathered in grass and trees and so big that no one quite believed they were man-made, until they started digging.

Our guide’s name is Loyd. Rotund and cheerful and outrageously flirty with the blondes in our group. Every time someone asks a questions he finds an excuse to touch one of them. “Look at this temple. Look at this girl. She is beautiful, no? So she would have been sacrificed. Why? Because the gods want the best.”

Wandering around the ruins of Tikal is easy. We arrive just after dawn and trundle along the paths in the twilight. There are spider monkeys here, flinging themselves with fluid grace from tree to tree in our wake. Don’t stand under them, though. They tend to send presents earthwards, and not the sort you’d want on your shoulder. There are toucans, too, and Guatemala’s national bird, the fabulous quetzal. I spy one in a tree, red-and-green-and-blue, warbling to itself. Then another one joins it. ‘His girlfriend,’ quips Lloyd.

Only 25% of Tikal has been excavated, and Loyd explains why. There is hardly any stone in the lowlands, apart from limestone – notoriously reactive to water and air. When the temples are first excavated, they’re a clean white. But within years, they turn black, then reddish, than brown – and then the moss and the grass takes over. So until we know how to better maintain them, we’re leaving them as they are – a playground for wild turkeys with mother-of-pearl feathers, and little jaguarundis watching you with yellow eyes from the treetops.

Nuns' Tower, Antigua

Nuns’ Tower, Antigua

There is still an astonishing amount to see. Temples 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all wholly or partly excavated, and you can climb some to the top. The Maya loved to build up. Each pyramid is really a giant pedestal, with the temple on top. Some, with flat roofs, were used to measure the movement of the stars. Loyd explains how at every solstice, the sun would align with one part of a specific temple – which in turn told the Maya which of their staple crops (beans, squash, chilies, and corn) to plant. The temples with big frills on top of them were for specific gods. It was here the Maya sacrificed warriors, aristocrats, beautiful women, and babies. With arrows, with clubs, and with flint knives. Holding their beating hearts up to the sun, which threatened not to rise if it did not receive enough blood.

Yet there is no sign here of the common folk of Tikal left. Those who lived and laboured in the miles around the temples, whose work and wealth were the backbone of the city. Unlike we of plastic bags and enriched uranium, everything the Maya possessed fell apart as easily as their political power. Their wooden houses rotted away, their cloth was devoured by the earth and by bugs. Their writing – hundreds of beautiful codices, lovingly coloured, and bursting with their cryptic hieroglyphs – were burned en masse by the Spanish in 1567 in what is surely one of the vilest acts of cultural violence in human history.

I make my way through the old palace, wondering about the people who built it, and trying to ignore the graffiti. Who walked these corridors with the peculiar weight of a love unreturned inside them? What did they feel when they stepped up onto the balcony and saw these magnificent temples, crimson and blue and smeared in blood? What did the words Yax Mutal mean to them? As a historian I’m keenly aware that sometimes, the only way you know something was there is from what it leaves behind when it disappears. What kind of people would leave something as magnificent as all this?

And what would they say if they could see it now?

We took a morning trip to Tikal. Lasts six hours in total and costs around US$50, including the Q150 entry fee to the natural park. The walk is easy, and you can take your time. The park has excellent facilities and is a known biodiversity hotspot – we saw wild turkeys, parrots, quetzals, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys, all within an hour of arriving.

We stayed at Hospedaje Yaxha (pronounced ‘Yash-ha’) in Flores (Avenida 15 de Septiembre, Flores Guatemala, Flores 17001; +502 4934 6353). A cute little hostel/hotel with a nice bar and good mojitos. The rooms are comfortable but there is no A/C, and this could be problem in the summer. No hot water either, and the internet was a little slow (and couldn’t handle more than five devices at a time). Staff are super friendly and helpful, and the location is great!

We ate at Il Terrazzo Ristorante and Bar (Calle la Union, Flores, Guatemala; +502 7867 5479). Amazing Italian place by the water’s edge in Flores. The beef carpaccio, steak, and minty lemonade are out of this world. The ravioli not so much. Reasonably priced and excellent service.

We will be going to Antigua Guatemala next, and climbing the volcano Pacayá.

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