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Day 7: Tikal National Park
A little after 3 am we awoke from our slumber to something of a shock. In the jungle canopy above the lodge, a howler monkey demonstrated exactly why they are so named. These monkeys, locally known as baboons, make loud gutteral growls that are often mistaken for the call of a Jaguar. This particular Howler was up in one of the trees in the courtyard which all our cabanas opened up to, so we all had front row seats to his performance. He continued his “howling” for about twenty minutes, and then took a break. Shortly before the sun came up, he started howling again for another good half hour… there’s no sleeping in late when you have natures alarm clock outside your door.
After our early morning wake up call, we hired a guide to take our group through the ruins of Tikal. Our guide, Juan, had been guiding at Tikal for about fifteen years and was very friendly and informative. While talking to him about our expedition, he proudly proclaimed that he helped lay out the trails for Camel Trophy in Mundo Maya in Guatemala.
Rather than take us straight to the ruins, Juan took us through some of the single track trails or “shortcuts” in the jungle showing us some of the indigenous flora and fauna of the area. Because Tikal is a National Park, it is home to a tremendously diverse array of animals. Along the way, he showed us a species of giant catapillar about six inches long that lived in the trees. Evidently, they never turn into butterflies, but spend their entire lives as caterpillars.
As we walked through the jungle paths, Juan explained that the ruling class of the Mayan people primarily used trickery to convince the commoners that they were the favored of the gods and thus worthy of ruling. Among the tricks they employed was using acoustics in the architecture so that when speaking from the top of a temple their voices would be amplified and had a bizarre chirping echo. In addition, the priests would use a type of signal communication to relay from temple to temple across the region, and thus “predict” to the commoners when the rains were coming.
After years of inbreeding, the rulers dumbed down and couldn’t remember these little tricks of the trade to keep the commoners in awe. The commoners then believed that the gods had abandoned their rulers, and so they left the cities. Or at least that’s one theory.
Tikal was once a powerful capital of the Mayan world. All Mayan cities were built without use of the wheel (the Mayan believed the wheel was a sacred symbol) and without beasts of burden to move the rocks. The stones were carved using flint as a tool. After the people abandoned these great cities, the jungle soon grew over them and covered the temples and buildings with dirt and foliage, where they would remain, forgotten for nearly a thousand years.
Tikal was then re-discovered in the 1800s by chicle farmers who would come through the forest harvesting the gum from chicle trees. In the late 1890s, the first anglo came to the ruins of Tikal and did some exploring. Because the ruins were engulfed by the jungle for more than a millennia, they were well protected and preserved from the elements. Now that many of these ruins have been excavated, they are once again exposed and have begun to decay. The solution that archeologists and preservationists have come up with is to pull the outermost stones out, cast them and then replace the outer layer with either replica stones or with fiberglass casts which look identical to the originals.
Tikal has a series of four temples lined up in a row. Each temple is slightly out of alignment from the others. The temples are arranged in such a way that the inner room of each one lights up in turn on a seasonal equinox. Juan took us through the woods to Mundo Perdido (the Lost World) another set of ruins in Tikal. Along the way, he showed us some tarantulas and even picked one up to show us it’s fangs. He had an interesting method of enticing the spider out of the hole. This consisted of putting a bit of spit on the end of a stick. The tarantula would smell the saliva and come out to defend it’s nest, once out of its nest, he picked it up by its thorax, which effectively immobilized it.
After touring the Mayan ruins, we made our way back to the lodge by way of a short cut. Along the way we saw a group of iradescent butterflies flittering through the jungle, as well as a well camoflauged walking stick bug. While stoping to look at the interesting fauna, some of us became separated from the main group. We stopped to look at the walking stick and Craig Reece even picked it up in his hand. Upon returning to the lodge, we told Juan about picking up the walking stick. He responded with a suprised look on his face. “Why?” I asked half jokingly “Are they poisonous?” “I am told that they are,” was his deadpan reply.
We bid Juan farewell and as a way of saying thanks for the tour, we gave him some shirts and toys to take back to people in his village. He also gave us some information as to where we could send some supplies that are very much in need here (ie. toothbrushes, vitamins, etc.). Juan said he would be more than happy to act as our contact and distribute supplies if we could send anything his way. He was more than grateful and said goodbye with a tear in his eye.
After a long day hiking through the hot jungles of Guatemala, everyone was tired. The rest of the day was spent just relaxing and enjoying the sounds of the jungles. Some took advantage of the nearby swimming pool, while others took naps right in the reception area of the hotel lodge.
After a week of travelling and long days, we’ll have a welcome respite tomorrow. It is a short day, with only a border crossing and arrival at Blancaneaux Lodge on the itinerary. Sam is excited to get to Blananeaux as his family flew in directly to the lodge and will be awaiting our arrival there.
A few people headed back into the park to attempt to watch the sunset from atop one of the mayan temples but the rangers found them and kicked them out of the park before the sun had set. Tomorrow morning some of us are going to try to get into the park early and go to the top of Temple IV to see the sun rise, supposedly a magnificient experience. We have no doubt our howler monkey friend will wake us up with plenty of time to spare.