Why Guatemala people asked? After all, the country was in the midst of a tragic civil war not too long ago; a war that lasted 36 years from 1960 until 1996; a war that saw slaughter of thousands of indigenous Mayans, sponsored by state. What led to the war you ask, dear readers? Surprise, Surprise – the greed and hunger of US of A. Now, though things are peaceful and travel is safe. The resilience of people especially in times of adversity fascinates me to no end. But I’ll leave the gruesome history for later. Let me start with the mystic and the beautiful. Mystic #1: In the most recent elections, Guatemala elected a “once upon a time TV comedian” as their President (and people still think Trump can never become US President!). Mainstream politicians have lost it the world over.
Guatemala, the name comes from Qui’che, the language of Mayans – it literally means the land of “many trees”. In fact, the forests of Guatemala are similar to our own rain forests. Like us, Guatemala too boasts of a very advanced ancient civilization of Mayans. And unlike natives of South America who have been completely exterminated by Christian colonial powers, indigenous Mayans still exist and live on. What also lives on is the legacy left behind in the form of pyramids and temples and city setting, by the ancient Maya. Exploring these Mayan ruins was one of the major reasons for choosing Guatemala as a destination for the long Memorial weekend. The 4 days I had were split across Flores/Tikal, Semuc Champey and Antigua (only a few hours in Antigua though)
Flores and Tikal
Taking an overnight bus from Guatemala city (where I flew in from Mexico), I headed straight to Flores, the tiny little island town that has become a base for tourists flocking to explore Tikal, one of the largest ancient Mayan cities in Central America. The site is second only to the more recently discovered El Dorado ruins in the north of the country. Getting to El Dorado is tricky though, involves a 5 day trek through the jungle. Hence, most tourists like me stick to Tikal.
Flores (in Peten region), where the bus took me, is an island, really small but a pretty one at that. It is so small that I walked twice around it in little over an hour.
Then around noon, along with other 20 something backpackers, I hopped into a van that took us to Tikal, 45 minutes drive away. Walking through the forest for about 15 mins, we got a first glimpse of the famed Mayan pyramids. It was hot (~35’C) and forecast said the mercury will touch 40 degrees mid afternoon. But the excitement of taking a sneak peak into the Mayan world kept us going.
What you see above was a “watching pyramid”, not a ceremonial temple. Mayans had an intricate sense of symmetry; such watching pyramids were in couples, one towards east and one towards the west. Moreover, the structures were aligned to the solar motions. observing the shadows of the pyramids, once could tell the seasons and the time of the day (much like jantar mantar). This one is the pyramid on the east, the one on the west is yet to be excavated. To preserve the bio diversity of the forest, most structures are left un-excavated. Here’s how those mounds look.
Around here we saw limestone stella. The guide explained to us about the advanced writing techniques and scripts that Mayans had developed and their sacrificial rituals, usually associated with animals but sometimes also humans. Unfortunately, few stellas and manuscripts from old times survive, thanks to the medieval ISIS or as they were called the Christian colonialists,who destroyed everything they thought was “devilish” according to Bible.
Jose, our guide, also told us about the origin of Mayans. Mayans have mongoloid features, small structures with a wheatish complexion. It is believed that eons ago ancient Mongoloids crossed over from Eurasia to the warmer climates of Central America.
Walking little further, and encountering a few howler monkeys on the way, we saw the backside of a giant temple. But we had first to explore ruins of palaces of the Mayan kings. As we walked along clicking pictures and climbing the limestone structures, rose before our eyes the majestic crests of the two temples (Temple 1 and Temple 2). We walked up one of the temples, to get bird’s eye view of the area. It was a sight to behold. One only have to imagine and marvel at the grandiose this place might have had when the Maya kings lived here.
A temple is a larger pyramid with a crest and has a ceremonial value. Temples were built to commemorate nobility or worship deities. Mayans were pagans, worshipers of Nature. I was told that some of rituals of worshiping nature still continue in spite of conversion to Christianity by the invading Spaniards. Another interesting aspect of the construction here in the ancient city, is the acoustic. Our voices echoed from certain sections of the site. This was intentional, for security purposes as well as for information transmission, so said Jose.
There are 6 excavated temples in Tikal. We were to see 4 of those (2 were further away), the tallest being Temple 4, from where we witnessed the sun set away! We reached Temple 4 after another temple hike and few ruins exploration (an bumping into few turkeys and more monkeys), at around 5:30 in the evening, and we started trekking up. Believe me you, the climb was so worth it, not so much for the sunset, as it was for the view of temple crests far away suddenly popping out of the forest cover.
A bit of Mayan history before we move on: 200 AD to 900 AD is called the classic Maya period, one of the most glorious chapters of the Mayan civilization when the cities flourished. Historians believe, post 900 AD people abandoned Tikal due to intense drought and lack of any other source of water. Mayans moved away from the forest lowlands of Tikal to the highlands where the Spaniards first encountered them. Those highlands are the present day Guatemala city and Antigua. Rains, the one element that has sustained and that has destroyed civilizations, one whose importance can’t be emphasized enough even today in spite of the scientific strides the modern man has made.
My next destination was Semuc Champey based on suggestion given by my brother. It took one whole day to get there. The van left Flores at 8:30 AM and reached Lanquin at 5:30 PM. I sleep well on moving vehicles so it wasn’t too bad for the first few hours and then got chatting with my fellow traveler. A young 20 year old German who loved planes, was an amateur pilot and had just gotten back from the 5 day El Dorado trip. We had enough to talk about till the destination arrived. Some journeys without a spoken word and some that bring surprisingly interesting and enriching conversations with strangers you’d never meet again, are both equally fascinating aspects of solo travel.
So we reached Lanquin, I got to my hostel, chatted with some more backpacking youngsters and passed out, only to wake up at 5 in the morning by the sweet singasonging of birds I had never heard before. Fifteen minutes later, as the cover of darkness slowly started to fade away, the cocks woke up and punctured the whistling of the birds with their cuckada coos. It was magical and mesmerizing! I just sat there staring away into the hills and forests lost in the early morning sounds. Sublime Peace, that’s what it is called I would think, the feeling I had that morning.
The main draw of Semuc Champey are the natural limestone pools. Then there are caves. Most tourists take a day tour to cover both. I didn’t want to do the caves and nor did I want to take the tour, also because I was hoping to leave for Antigua in the evening. Furthermore, I found another young backpacker who had a schedule similar to mine. So we tag-teamed and headed for the pools.
The journey to Semuc Champey from Lanquin is itself quite an experience. Riding behind an open pick up van through the hilly tortuous path with the locals heading to sell their wares at the park, is quite exhilarating, especially because the ride is so bumpy that it lifts your spirits (or probably it was the magical morning rub off). This ride was followed by a short but a steep trek to see the pools. 20-25 minutes later, there we were, overlooking the emerald waters and the natural limestone bridges below.
We couldn’t wait to jump into the enticing waters and headed straight down. As it was still early and the tour groups were yet to come, we shared the pool only with few other local families. The pools are so amazing that one can spend a whole day loitering and swimming around. But time halts for none and we had to head back.
After another 6 hour drive, I reached Guatemala city from Lanquin and decided to stay there overnight. Early next morning I took off for Antigua, a beautiful colonial town, 45 mins away from GC, in the much famed “chicken bus”. And boy those drivers are rash! But they seem to now what they are doing or so I wanted to believe. When you travel, you learn to trust those around coz’ frankly there’s not much else you can do.
Antigua is quite a small town, one that can be walked around in about 3 to 4 hours. I was short on time so that’s all I could do. Many people couple their Antigua trip with Volcano treks around. One of live Volcanoes called Pacaya is close to Antigua. This side of Guatemala (including Lake Atitlan area, which I had to skip) is a trekker’s paradise.
More on the History
I’ll skip the colonial history. That one pretty much follows the same story-line as most other countries of South and Central America. I will summarize the more recent history of civil war based on the little bit I heard and little bit I read
- In 1870s , , a lot of land was taken away from the natives by the ruling party,forcibly and literally distributed at no cost to those Germans, Americans, Europeans who were favorable to the government. for coffee and fruits plantations.
- A regime of dictatorships followed and lasted until 1940s when in a rebellion, the then dictator was ousted. Following this, elections were held and a more people friendly socialist President took office, who ushered in many reforms favoring labour and working class.
- One of the major initiative undertaken by this government was taking back fallow and unused land (which accounted for in millions of acres) from the Plantation owners to distribute it back to the locals and land labours.
- United Fruits Company, a US based multinational, which had vasts tracts of land in Guatemala obviously wasn’t happy and lobbied with the US government to topple the democratically elected government.
- The coup was successful; the elected government was overthrown. More American friendly regime was established. And UFCO got its land back. But what followed were multiple military rebellions and US sponsored oppression of anything that was considered leftists leading to counter retaliation by locals. This eventually culminated into a massive civil war that lasted 36 years.
- In these years, over 200,00o Guatemalans were massacred by state, most of those being indigenous Mayas
- Finally, in 1996, following a treaty, war gave way to peace, and so far things seems to be going fine.
Strange isn’t it, wherever there has been a problem – From Cuba to Guatemala to Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq and now Syria, US of A has had a role to play. Create mass and then try to clean that mess, in either case making Pentagon richer by day.
As I mentioned before, there is no trace of civil war left in Guatemala (at least not in the tourist friendly areas that I visited). People are sweet and happy, poor – Yes but Bitter – No.
And of course, my tryst with finding Dharmic symbols abroad continues – this time it was the hostel that I stayed a night in Flores – Los Amigos
A long weekend well spent, Finding Mayans of the past and Meeting Mayans of the present!