“Veinte turistas extranjeros que viajaban al Parque Nacional Tikal en un microbús colectivo fueron asaltados ayer en la mañana, en el kilómetro 36 de la carretera a Ciudad Flores, Petén, informó la Policía Nacional Civil (PNC).” (From the Prensa Libre, Guatemala)
Also a Global Heritage Site, The nearby temples of Yaxha, is our destination the day after Tikal. As we drive through Remate, the gateway city to the ruins, we see a huge police presence. The Guatemalan PNC (national police) and their trucks line the streets all displaying firearms of one kind or another. I’m scared. Bob, my resident political analyst, has been warning me about the isolated northern border of Guatemala and Mexico, “It’s the stomping ground of the drug cartels. A few years ago three dozen people were murdered up here for interfering.” Moya’s son Jason, a man of few words, when asked about it, just shrugs. “There hasn’t been any trouble lately, but we don’t keep up with the news. No TV, poor internet.” Hard economic times in a true third world country have taken a toll, aided and abetted by the drug wars and the death squads. I hold my breath as we drive through without being stopped.
Even less people are in attendance at the more remote and less excavated Yaxha. We walk through a surrounding jungle complete with a large population of howler monkeys calling and communicating with each other. It’s like we’ve discovered this place and have it to ourselves. Standing atop a temple we follow a huge lake to another temple top in the far distance. Remnants of the extensive causeway system link the numerous ancient cities. I revel in what a magnificent and intelligent society thrived here some 3000 years ago.
On the way home, past the cops still on guard, we stop for a late lunch and pick up a newspaper, La Prensa LIbre, while we wait.
Here’s a translation of today’s news: “Twenty foreign tourists traveling to Tikal in a microbus were assaulted yesterday morning 36 k. from Flores, Petén, Guatemala according to the PNC (National Civil Police). Total: 60 tourists assaulted in the last 15 días in Petén. Oh My God! We skirted disaster.
Bob and I float on Lake Péten Ítza on the isolated upper peninsula of Guatemala on the Mexican border, contemplating. (Yup, it’s so quiet and deserted we can do that.) The water is warm and crystal clear. We look through it, on it, above it to nothing; no boats, no fish, no animals, no people, except for guards and dogs protecting the concrete-walled compounds of the rich and powerful on the shoreline.
What used to be in the middle of Mayan civilization in Central America, was first deforested by the Maya themselves to build their cities, grow their maize, build their highways, and much more recently has become a hotbed of clashing Mexican and Guatemalan drug cartels, death squads and another huge deforestation, pesticide proliferation from cattle ranching, and the looting and selling of ancient artifacts. All very lucrative for the drug lords.
I love artifacts. It’s so exciting to find bits of antiquity and begin to understand how people lived and how the world has changed. I don’t sell them, but I like to collect them. I could appease my conflict by joining the non-profit Global Heritage Fund and Network which includes Tikal, its neighboring temples. El Mirador, possessing the largest pyramid in the world – La Danta – is now thought to be the cradle of Mayan civilization, and is largely unexplored. With my background in science and my record volunteering in primitive areas of Africa and Central America, this could be my next volunteer adventure!
I sit and reflect at the Aurora airport in Guatemala City waiting to fly back home to San Jose, Costa Rica. My dreams are filled with climbing pyramids of stairs, wild headed Mayas dressed in feathers and loin clothes standing guard above all they rule; looking down on their realm surrounding the great lake Petén Ítza. What now appears a typical campo of maize fields and cattle ranches sequesters the final great empire of Kan Ek, hidden from the outside world yet thriving in the lost jungles of the northern peninsula of Guatemala for almost 200 years after the fall of the other great Maya civilizations of Tikal, Chichin Ítza, Cobán.
I always wanted to be an archaeologist and am a treasure hunter at heart. It all started growing up on the Myakka River, where we found ancient giant shark’s teeth and spear points from the indigenous Indians.
The first archaeological site we visited, Tikal, was one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. It’s hard to visualize coming from 2012 perspective. The Guatemalan countryside surrounding Tikal and numerous other ancient Maya cities is low lying and has been denuded of jungle to make way for modern civilization. The vast clear lake of Péten Ítza, now devoid of life because of pollution from human and animal intervention, was large enough to support many great cities with its supply of fish, water for drinking and irrigation of crops.
Through a great old friend Ian we were turned on to this beautiful isolated spot on Lake Péten Ítza, Gucumatz B&B run by Ian’s cousin Moya and her two boys. What a great hostess! She picked us up and drove us everywhere. In between we walked to a primitive village San Pedro and took the motor taxi to San Jose, a village built into the hills and maybe over another late surviving Maya enclave. It is the last bastion of some 3-4000 Ítza speaking Mayas, their original language.