Wednesday, March 22, 2006

So Where Did They Go?

Jeff claims that I like to worry about stupid stuff because it distracts me from worrying about serious stuff. Maybe, he’s right. As evidence, take my life-long angst about Virginia Dare, the first European child born in the New World who vanished, along with 116 colonists without a trace. Ever since my parents took me to see, “The Lost Colony”, now playing in its 69th season on Roanoke Island in North Carolina, I have been worried about those folks.

But after visiting Belize and Guatemala, I can take worrying to a whole new level. Now I have the disappearance of an entire civilisation to keep me busy. And not just any civilisation. Almost 2,000 years ago, the Maya, spread across what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, without benefit of metal tools or beasts of burdens, built massive cities filled with palaces and temples, developed sophisticated systems of astronomy, mathematics and calendrics, and outperformed the heck out of a slumbering Europe mired in the Middle Ages.

Robert Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania called the collapse of the Maya one of the most profound cultural failures in human history. While most scholars agree that the collapse was probably due to some combination of the effects of prolonged warfare, overpopulation and sustained drought, these same scholars are also in agreement that the demise of the Maya remains a cracking mystery yet to be resolved. Even Mel Gibson is about to release a major motion picture about it.

For a NoCrowds traveller, visiting Mayan sites presents the perfect opportunity to see intriguing ruins in sublime privacy. Compared to the scores of people you usually find traipsing around Roman or Egyptian antiquities, you can pretty much climb on, in, and around the Mayan monuments all by yourself. Rent a car, buy a guidebook and get lost for a day in the jungle. Or you can join a small group with a guide and have the story told to you. Either way, you can’t help but share in the excitement of discovery.

With four days to fill and with hundreds of Mayan sites distributed across five countries, we made our choices based on budget, time and accessibility. In Belize, we visited three sites: Actun Tunichil Muknal, Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. For the grand finale, we drove across the border into Guatemala, spending the night at the ancient ruins of Tikal.

We spent our first day “Exploring the Place of Fright”, as National Geographic’s Adventure Magazine described it in 2001. Actun Tunichil Muknal is a 5 kilometer cave first discovered in 1989 and filled with objects left by the ancient Maya including over one hundred and fifty ceramic vessels and implements, a variety of animal remains and the skeletons of 14 individuals believed to have been sacrificed. To visit the cave, you must ( and believe me you need to) join a group. We used PACZ Tours (the same outfit used by National Geographic) out of San Ignacio who did an expert job of guiding us through the eerie netherworld while expertly highlighting the geological and archaeological treasures along the way. When we began to worry that we would drown, fall off a ledge or never see daylight again, our guide, Jamal, carefully encouraged us forward.

To reach Tunichil Miknal, we first hiked for 2 miles through the jungle. We then approached the cave, strapped on our helmets with flashlights and swam into the deep water pool at the entrance. After the heat of the jungle, the water was shocking. Following an hour of climbing over boulders and wading neck deep through the flooded cavern, we arrived at the main chamber filled with the pots, implements, vessels for bloodletting and the most remarkable of all, the human skeletons.

I don’t think this cave will stay open to regular tourists much longer. The impact of so many humans is taking its toll. The objects are too important and the visitors are too exposed to injury. If you are in Belize, I would encourage you to make every effort to see Tunichil Muknal while you still can. Throw caution to the wind, be sure to wear closed shoes (we didn’t) and have the time of your life “exploring the place of fright”.

For a less demanding but very interesting experience, we also recommend Xunantunich (pronounced shoe-nan-too-nich ) and Cahal Pech, two sites which you can see in one day from San Ignacio. One of the best ways to see these sites is with a rental car. You are in control of your itinerary and timing and the driving was easier and more enjoyable than I expected. We rented from Crystal Auto Rental at Belize’s International Airport. The company provided excellent rates and service and is the only firm in Belize that allows its cars to be driven into Guatemala.

If you want to join a tour to any of the sites, including Tikal, Caracol and Tunichil Muknal , the best place to get oriented is Eva’s on Burns Avenue which is San Ignacio’s unofficial tourist bureau and the social equivalent of Rick’s Place in Casablanca. Sooner or later, everyone ends up there and whatever you want to do, Bob Jones can sort you out.

From our base at Ek Tun, it was a short drive to the ancient city of Xunantunich, situated near the Guatemala border in the oldest archaeological park in Belize. You reach the archaeological park via a free, hand cranked ferry which takes you across the Mopan river. There is an excellent visitor’s center. When we visited the site, there was absolutely no one there which was spellbinding.

This was also the case at Cahal Pech, down the Benque road from Xunantunich and only one mile from downtown San Ignacio. During the Classic period, Cahal Pech was the palace of an elite Mayan family. The site was continuously occupied from 900BC to at least 800AD. Hundreds of figurines have been found there, many of which can be seen in the visitor’s centre.

Saving the best for last, on our fourth day, we left Ek Tun early and headed for the Guatemala border. There is a complicated set of procedures and payments to exit Belize with a car and enter Guatemala. Once we crossed the border, we had about a two hour relatively easy drive to the Tikal National Park, a 370 square kilometre protected area which forms part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the largest tropical reserve in Central America.

When arriving at Tikal, it is the scale of this mighty megalopolis rising above the forest canopy that is so impressive. Covering an area of roughly six square miles, central Tikal contains over 3,000 separate constructions including temples, palaces, shrines, ceremonial platforms, small to medium residences, ballcourts, terraces, causeways and plazas. In addition, there are over 200 stelae ( carved stone monuments) and altars.

In response to the daunting size of these mighty ruins, we hired a guide for the afternoon who did a wonderful job bringing the ancient city to life as well as explaining the interesting plants and wildlife. Our guide, who found us at the entrance with a very charming marketing pitch, charged US$40 for roughly four hours of touring and we felt he added real value to our experience.

Having heard so much about Tikal, I expected large crowds, but they weren’t there. We saw plenty of tour buses when we arrived but the site is so large that we viewed most of the ruins with only a handful of people. By 3:00, the buses were long gone and the ruins were left to a rugged group of backpackers, bird watchers and others who elected to overnight in the three rather crummy hotels in the park.

We stayed at the Tikal Inn which is a small hotel with a nice pool that serves lousy but cheap food. Rooms range from $40 to $80 a night. I insisted on this option, although others tried to warn us against it because I thought it was the best way to beat the crowds in the early evening and late afternoon but you really don’t need to stay in the park to have a NoCrowds experience. If I had it to do over again, I’d stay in the nearby picturesque city of Flores which sits on a small island in Lake Peten Itza.

After our night in the Tikal Inn, we left the next morning to go back to Belize. Somehow we missed a turn and were half way to Guatemala City before we sensed something was wrong. A quick u-turn and we were back on our way to the border which was much easier to cross in the other direction. After an uneventful drive to Belize City, we returned the car, headed for the docks and caught the next boat for Caye Caulker.

Reading List - With the 2 books below and buying the guide books at the sites, we were well equipped:
The Rough Guide to Belize (includes Tikal and the Bay Islands) by Peter Eltringham
The Maya (7th Edition) by Michael Coe


PACZ Tours
Tel: 501-804-2267 or 501-824-2477

Crystal Auto Rental
Tel: 501-223-1600 or 800-777-777
Fax: 501-223-1900

Eva’s Restaurant and Bar
22 Burns Avenue
Tel: 804 2267

Hotel Tikal Inn
Tikal NationalPark
Tel: 502 7926-1917 or 502 7926-1950 or 502 7926-1953
Fax: 502 7926-0065

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