Oct 26, 2012
As Dale and I stand amid the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, I see why George Lucas chose it for a rebel base in the original Star Wars. This lost city strangled by rainforest bears no resemblance to other cities I’ve seen, living or dead. It’s as if the Ancient Mayans came from “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
Our guide, Antonio, grew up in Tikal, and he knows it the way I know the neighborhoods where I used to play. At sixty, he walks like Fred Sanford: maybe his hips are spent after five-plus decades of walking this forest…or chasing women. He shares his knowledge on that topic too. “I’ve learned you have to buy your girlfriend the same perfume you buy your wife,” he tells us.
At sixty, our guide Antonio walks like Fred Sanford. (That’s Dale walking with him, on your left.)
The outside world discovered Tikal in 1848, but Antonio points out, “It was never lost. The local people always knew about it.” His father knew more than most. Antonio Ortiz Senior worked with Guatemala’s Tikal archaeological expedition in the 1950s, and he’s credited with discovering the Temple of Inscriptions.
Our Antonio was only six when his family moved here. His dad assigned a man to watch him, to make sure he didn’t get lost or killed by a snake while playing in the forest and the living quarters of the ancients. “I made him run after me all over the place,” Antonio grins. “We stayed friends for the rest of his life. He died already.” Death has long been a close companion to Guatemalans, and Antonio’s smile doesn’t falter at its mention.
Antonio’s dad assigned a man to watch him, to make sure he didn’t get lost or killed by a snake while playing in the forest and the living quarters of Tikal
There wasn’t a school in Tikal, so when Antonio was eleven his parents enrolled him in an exchange program in the States: Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Melbourne (Florida). After he graduated high school, he returned to become a guide in this place he calls home.
We start our tour at a white plaster model of the ancient city.
We start our tour at a white plaster model of the ancient city. At first I’m impatient with this stop, but later I’m grateful for the context, because the real city appears and disappears like a mirage rising and falling throughout the jungle. When the Mayans built Tikal, they leveled the area and chopped down the vegetation, replacing nature with a tribute to themselves and their gods. Archaeologists once believed ancient Mayans were great environmentalists. Antonio huffs and flaps his hands to indicate how ridiculous that idea was. “They were the worst of the bunch!” he says. “There was one king who had an entire tunic made of hummingbird feathers. Why would you need to kill that many hummingbirds?”
Antonio goes on to tell us about a boy in a nearby village who he caught shooting birds with a slingshot. He bought the slingshot and lectured the kid, though he admits the boy might simply get another. Destruction comes naturally to humans, conservation requires self-control.
Tikal’s wide, easy paths slowly devolve into invisible trails, crisscrossing through centuries of encroaching rainforest. What the Ancient Mayans destroyed is returning with a vengeance, burying their city. The record for someone being lost in Tikal’s jungle is ten days.
“Has anyone died after getting lost?” I ask.
“Well, the ones who die don’t count for breaking the record,” Antonio replies.
What the Ancient Mayans destroyed is returning with a vengeance, burying their city.
Trees shoot overhead into the nest of vines that make up a third of the canopy. I keep an eye out for the national tree, the ceiba, which rises from crouching knees to long straight neck and explodes into the sky, its top a twisting rain-god octopus of red-fuzz limbs and green-leaf fists. Most rainforest trees have similar buttressed roots to stabilize themselves, because they cannot send down deep roots. They take few nutrients from the soil, instead depending on decomposing leaves. The ancients didn’t understand that, and after they chopped down the trees, their crops surely depleted the soil.
I keep my eyes out for the national tree: the ceiba.
Antonio points out a massive mahogany. “That’s a lot of doors,” he jokes. One mahogany tree is worth about $20,000 raw. It’s illegal to cut them here, but Antonio once caught the park ranger doing just that with a small crew.
When Antonio confronted him, the ranger said, “I’m the boss. What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m going to get you fired.”
Antonio banded with a local organization dedicated to protecting the forest. They took photos, hired attorneys, wrote letters, and had the ranger fired. This Guatemalan Fred Sanford is more formidable than he looks.
The forest is such a penetrating green upon green that the few times I see a red berry or bloom, it stops me in my tracks. Antonio says the bright color helps the birds find food. During their heyday, the Mayans painted Tikal’s many buildings and pyramids that same shouting color: red. Today, any stones that aren’t buried have turned white, gray, or black under the onslaught of sun, rain, and time.
Tikal once encompassed 42 square miles, 13,000 buildings, and 250,000 people. That made it one of the largest cities of the Mayan civilization, which boasted some five million people at its height. The Ancient Mayans disappeared in about 900 A.D. Rather, their writing disappeared – sixty percent of Guatemalans are still indigenous Mayans. Their ancestors had the only ancient Western civilization with a complete writing system. When civilizations break down, the 99 Percent often kill the One Percent, and since the privileged few hold the keys to education, writing vanishes. This loss hits me hardest, as vines and trees turn into question marks and exclamation points: writing just vanishes?!
The Mayans disappeared in about 900 A.D. Rather, their writing disappeared – sixty percent of Guatemalans are still indigenous Mayans.
Theories about why the Mayan civilization fell are many, but the tipping point was likely three ten-year droughts in close succession. Tikal’s greatest stock in trade was flint, still plentiful here. These were a stone-age people who needed flint to make tools, but, like all people, ancient or modern, they also needed water. Though Tikal is a wet semi-tropical place, it has never had a natural river or lake. So Tikal’s people dug nine reservoirs to trap up to 40-million gallons of rainwater. When the rain stopped, that was it.
Our first sight of Tikal is a humble green hillock. Antonio explains that, because the Mayans flattened the area, “any time you see the ground go up, that is construction.” He over-pronounces that last word, “con-strook’-shyn,” and repeats it throughout the day. Dale and I will spend the rest of our time in Guatemala mimicking him whenever we see a hill, “That is con-strook’-shyn.” As we pass our first con-strook’-shyn, its personality splits: one side a severe slope covered in vegetation, the other a small but impressive pyramid. It’s likely a tomb dedicated to one of the less celebrated or later kings of Tikal, as evidenced by his distance from the Grand Plaza.
It’s likely a tomb dedicated to one of the less celebrated or later kings of Tikal, as evidenced by his distance from the Grand Plaza.
Several stele front the temple. One is carved with a king wearing finery from head to toe: massive headdress, huge earrings, necklaces, tunic, arm bands, leggings, sandals laced high up the leg. “The Mayans were some of the best-dressed guys who ever lived,” Antonio says. This king, also Tikal’s high priest and general, is stabbing himself to let flow a stream of blood, possibly to induce hallucinations or visions from the gods. Perhaps he sought answers about the future. If he saw the truth, would it have changed anything?
We stroll a long path to the next surprise: the East Plaza, a massive yet intimate space that looks like a secret room for giants. We’re surrounded by a cluster of buildings, doors, arches, and steps where diminutive Mayan people, not giants, once walked, worked, and lived.
The East Plaza is a massive yet intimate space that looks like secret room for giants.
We climb a stairway to stand atop a building for a view down into the Grand Plaza. The massive Temple 1 and Temple 2 face each other across a field, two gunslingers ready to draw. They rise from the jungle like yesterday rising from today, until today is nearly forgotten. We circle around to enter the Grand Plaza below, where the sun is working up a burning sweat.
Temples 1 and 2 face each other across a field, two gunslingers ready to draw. (1 is above, 2 to your left below. The structure between is the North Acropolis.)
Dale and I spend 45 minutes exploring, giggling like two kids who’ve discovered a real fort, like six-year-old Antonio. As we climb around the tumbled North Acropolis, we see three massive stone masks, including a well preserved one devoted to the god of rain. If nothing else, the ancients respected nature’s power.
As we climb around the tumbled North Acropolis, we see three massive stone masks, including a well preserved one devoted to the god of rain.
After we leave the Grand Plaza, tantalizing glimpses of the slender white peak of Temple 3 tease us from gaps between trees. But the complete temple eludes us. The rest of it remains buried.
Temples 3, 2, and 1 struggle to stay afloat. (From left to right: Temples 1, 2, and 3.)
Still, the day isn’t without a climax. We climb a long zigzagging wood stairway to the excavated top of Temple 4. As the setting sun warms its stone bleachers, we gaze out over the jungle spread below us like an ocean seen from the crow’s nest of a ship. The white masts of other ships rise in the distance between undulating green waves. Temples 3, 2, and 1 struggle to stay afloat as the rainforest threatens to pull them down, drowning the “long ago and far away” in the here and now. Antonio has seen this view hundreds of times, but he tells us to relax, he’s in no hurry to leave.