The road from Belize City to Guatemala was mostly paved. As we came near the border, we encountered a bumpy gravel road for several miles. We wondered why they didn’t pave the road all the way to the border. Maybe they wanted to discourage too many tourists from coming. Nevertheless, when we arrived at the border town of Melchor de Mencos, we had to disembark from the medium-sized shuttle bus and go through customs and pay fees. Moneychangers were on hand to change American dollars into quetzals (the local currency in Guatemala). The exchange rate was eight quetzals for one dollar, but the moneychangers added an exchange fee to make money for themselves.
A sign at the entrance to the Guatemala side welcomed us:
We hired a taxi at the border to take us the rest of the way to Tikal. There was a river that we crossed – the Rio Mopan was a tributary of the Belize River. The talkative taxi driver gave us a preview of what was in store for us as he drove down a smooth paved road through the protected area of the national park of Tikal.
“There’s over 500 square kilometers in our most cherished national park,” said the proud Guatemalan taxi driver. “Most of it is jungle, with lots of monkeys, birds, and even some jaguars.”
“Jaguars!?” Our ears perked up. “There are jaguars here?” asked Elsa incredulously.
“Yes, I saw a jaguar cross the road here in the park last week,” replied the taxi driver.
From that moment on, I sensed the piercing eyes of the jaguar looking out from the dense jungle foliage, just like the mural of the jaguar that I saw at the restaurant in Belize City. It was a presence and an image that I couldn’t erase from my mind. It felt like a primitive fear that one has of a ubiquitous bogeyman, or a childhood fear of monsters lurking in the shadows. Fear has a way of altering one’s perception of reality.
The afternoon sun was starting to make its descent towards the horizon when we checked into the Jaguar Inn at Tikal National Park (Parque Nacional Tikal). We had made reservations over the internet. We left our baggage in the small bungalow and hurried to the entrance of the ruins. Our son was eager to see the sun set there. The tickets we bought at the entrance booth would be good for our evening in the park and for tomorrow’s entrance, too. We were thankful for that small favor. Across from the ticket office was a small round building that caught my attention. Actually, it wasn’t the building, but an artistic reproduction of the mythic (or cosmic) canoe painted on the white background that caught my eye. The deities in the canoe were paddling to the underworld, also known as Xibalba. Who were the paddlers and the other five passengers in the canoe? I would have to find out more about the canoe that pointed us in the direction of the magnificent Maya site. We consulted the site map, and then we trekked upwards to the great plaza.
A ceiba tree loomed high above us as we hiked up the wide trail. The birds sang their evening song. The jungle shadows became darker, and the image of jaguar eyes lurking in the underbrush played on our collective subconscious minds. Within ten minutes, we beheld the backside of the renowned temple with the roofcomb. I counted a series of nine steep levels, representing the nine levels or lords of Xibalba, the underworld. The same architectural feature of nine levels was what I remembered from the world-famous pyramid at Chichen Itza. The temple-pyramid of Tikal was called Temple I or Temple of the Giant Jaguar.
The moment we walked into the Great Plaza and saw the towering limestone structures – temples and palaces – our astonishment was verbalized with a prolonged “WOW!” The awesome sight heightened my inner awareness, and I had a déjà vu moment. With my mind’s eye, I saw myself standing in a vast city of white – the buildings were painted mainly white and there were no trees, just buildings. The inner vision penetrated my soul and opened my mind to a past-life experience in the ancient Maya civilization at Tikal. It was as if I had walked through a portal of time into a vibrant world. The bright evening sun illuminated the façade of Temple I. I noticed the shadows slowly creeping up the right side of the temple, and I hurriedly set up the camera to capture the moment of the four of us standing in front of the awe-inspiring edifice. We basked in the warm rays of the setting sun as the digital camera captured our images.
The sign near the bottom of the steep temple steps said, “No Subia” (Do not ascend). I looked across the plaza at Temple 2 and noticed two people on top of the steps. We were looking for a high place to watch the sun set into the underworld, as the ancient Maya believed. We walked across the plaza, past the North Acropolis. I stopped for a moment to take a picture and to read a sign near one of the altars: “No sentarse en los monumentos” (Do not sit on the monuments). We ascended the steep wide steps of Temple 2, about 50 to 52 steps; there was no sign prohibiting our ascent.
The people on top of the platform told us there was no access for a good view of the setting sun. The opening into the temple building was also closed off. We could see there were several small rooms inside the temple building with the roofcomb on top. I turned around to look at the vista below: the plaza, the acropolis, Temple 1, and the jungle in the distance. The North Acropolis to the left, where the shadows already enveloped the ruins, looked like a complex assemblage of rooms, tombs, and small temples. Rocks were stacked on top of each other like a gigantic set of interlocking Legos, forming elaborate structures on top of many levels of platforms. Two lines of stelae with circular altars at their bases stood in front of the grand palatial edifice on a hill, as if to advertise—like billboards—the ruling elite who lived there. Eventually, the eyes drifted away from the hypnotic spectacle of the North Acropolis and gazed into the bright reflective light of the sun illuminating the hallmark of Tikal – Temple 1, Temple of the Jaguar. The shadow of Temple 2 seemed to reach out and embrace the light of Temple 1, like a queen advancing toward her king in a drama played out on the Great Plaza.
We didn’t wait to see if the shadow of Temple 2 would climb up the nine terraces and 91 steps of Temple 1 to reach the sacred chamber where the king awaited his queen. We asked a tourist to take our family picture with Temple 1 in the background. I stood side by side with the queen of my life, and our two children flanked our right side, leaving the towering temple-pyramid in the middle of the captured image of our eventful moment in the ancient city of Tikal. Then we slowly, and carefully, descended together to the plaza below.
Elsa and Susie were the first to scamper up the steps to the North Acropolis. The idea was to get as far up to the highest platform or level before the sun went down behind the jungle trees. It was a matter of finding the steps between the structures and locating a place where the sun was visible. Elsa and Susie headed up the right side, and Paul Steven and I traversed our way up the left side. I found a room in one of the buildings that had a large peep-hole, and I could see Temple 4 in the distance. But I couldn’t see the sun.
We ran into each other, after some preliminary exploration, at a large platform overlooking Temple 2. We were high enough to look across at Temple 2 and feel that we were at an identical height with its upper platform. From our vantage point, we could see both Temple 1 and Temple 2, the entire Great Plaza, the Central Acropolis to the south, and way in the distance the roofcomb of Temple 5.
But we still needed to find the best spot to see the sunset. I looked towards the setting sun and realized we wouldn’t have enough time to climb around the North Acropolis anymore to find a better spot. As I positioned the family for a picture with the golden sun, I noticed the sun was sitting on the tops of the jungle trees directly behind my son’s left shoulder. Picture perfect! My son did an even better job of taking a picture of me with the family. He placed the descending sun on top of my head, making a crown chakra effect that gave a reddish halo to the sacred iconic image of my pilgrimage to Tikal.
That evening we ate at one of the comedors (dining rooms) in the national park. The one we chose was the Comedor Tikal, where the food was good and there was a framed painting of the ruins of Tikal, emphasizing the sites we had just seen. However, there was so much more to see, as I discovered by studying a map on the wall. I was glad our son had urged us to spend the evening getting a preview of Tikal – and also witnessing a spectacular sunset.
That night I had a dream of a jaguar. It was trying to force its way in through the front door of our bungalow. I could see the face of the jaguar through a small peephole (a broken piece of plank) in the door. Suddenly, I saw my dearly-departed teacher-friend Vern, with whom I had traveled to Mexico on my first trip in 1988. I told him about the jaguar that was trying to break through the door. I asked Vern to shoot the jaguar. He didn’t respond to my request. At that moment I saw myself face to face with the jaguar. And then I woke up. It was a frightening scene, and yet I realized the jaguar was probably not really going to harm me. Somehow I slowly became aware of the jaguar as a nahual (“nawal”) – an animal-spirit or Mayan deity who was going to accompany me on my pilgrimage.
Our scheduled tour with a guide was set for nine in the morning. Susie and Paul Steven were interested in waking up early and going on the nature trail that we had noticed during our evening adventure in the park. So the three of us rose with the sun and ventured to the interpretive nature trail. A large sign near the nature trail gave us some technical information about the national park: it was discovered on February 26, 1848, by Colonel Modesto Mendez and a Mayan named Ambrosio Tut; it was declared a national park in 1955; it was one of the zones of the Maya Biosphere Reserve; it was part of the old lowland rainforest of Peten, being at least 11,000 years old and having dominant trees as old as 1,200 years; it had a large biological diversity of birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, butterflies and trees.
The first major tree that we encountered was the tall, largely branchless trunk of the sacred Ceiba tree that spread out in a wide canopy on top. This was the first tree that drew my attention when we entered the park the previous evening. For the Maya, this tree symbolized the World Tree, which connected the underworld of Xibalba (with its roots) to the terrestrial world (the trunk) and the celestial realm (the canopy). The Mayan name of the tree was “Ya’ascche.” I read the interpretive sign near the towering tree:
We continued down the nature trail, reading each and every interpretive sign. It was an education in the jungle, a study in the ancient life of the Maya civilization. Each tree gave us an insight into the way the Maya people utilized natural resources.
(1) XATE MACHO (Chanmaedorea oblongata) Maya: A’xaat
Uses: Ornamental plant with the same characteristics as the Xate hembra, those in charge of extracting chewing gum utilize it to curdle the gum.
(2) PALMA DE PACAYA (Chaamderea sp) Maya: Chiib
Usos: es de importancia porque da un fruto que es aprovechado por la poblacion como alimento. The Pacaya palm is important because it produces a food source that is exploited by the population.
(3) LA PALMA DE LOS LACANDONES
En esto lugar existio una aldea Maya Lacandona se cree que ellos trajeron y cultivaron esta especie de palma.
It is believed that in this place there was a Lacandon Maya village that gathered and cultivated palm species.
(4) BAYAL (Desmecus perox) Maya: B’ayal
Usos: Construccion de muebles cielos rasos de viviendas y canastos.
Uses: Construction of furniture, baskets and ceilings of houses.
(5) YAXNIC (Vitex gaumeri) Maya: Ya’axnic
Usos: Para mangos de herramientas, lena, construcciones de casas. Es utilizado por las abejas para colmenas y sirve para bebederos de los animals por la cantidad de agujeros que presenta.
Uses: For tool handles, firewood, construction of houses. It is used by bees for hives and serves for watering of animals by the number of holes that it presents.
The trail became dense and dark as the foliage surrounded us on all sides. The canopy above us hardly let in any light. I led the way deeper into the jungle. The vision of the jaguar impinged on my mind's eye.
(6) BEJUCO DE AGUA Maya: Ak’ilja’
Uses: Upon cutting its stalk, its inner reserves give a considerable quantity of water that is used for drinking.
(7) RAMON BLANCO (Brosimum alicastrum) Maya: O’ox
Usos: Sus hojas son usadas para forraje de animals, especialmente mulas y caballos, sus frutos sirven para alimento humano; tienen un elevado grado proteico y dado su escaso contenido de agua puede almacenarse.
Uses: Its leaves are used for fodder for animals, especially horses and mules; its fruits are used for human food, have a high protein level and given its low water content can be stored.
(8) COPAL (Protium copal) Maya: Pom
Usos: Su resina es utilizada como incienso, de importancia en lo religioso y para el dolor de muelas.
Uses: Its resin is used as incense in religious ceremonies, and for toothache.
(9) SAL TEMUCHE (Sickingia Salvadorensis) Maya: Chaktemuch
Usos: La madera se utilize para tallado, la savia es roja, sirve para tenir artesania de Madera.
Uses: The wood is used for carving. The sap is red and is used for painting wood artifacts.
Our guide Oliver met us in the lobby of the Jaguar Inn at the appointed time of nine o'clock. After introductions, he led us to the entrance of the archaeological site. At the building where I had seen the mythic canoe yesterday, I asked Oliver about the canoe painting and the passengers in the canoe.
“The canoe is traveling to Xibalba, the underworld,” explained Oliver, pointing to the creatures on the wall. “The two paddlers are Jaguar Paddler in front, and Stingray Paddler in the back of the canoe. Jaguar represents the darkness of night, and Stingray represents the light of day. A dog and bird sit behind jaguar. In the center of the boat is the king, who is being carried to the after-life. A spider monkey and an iguana sit behind the king.”
Now I knew who the animal deities were, but I still wanted to know more about the sacred journey that was represented by the painting on the wall. I would find out more as my own pilgrimage through the Maya world continued.
“How big is the park?” asked Elsa as we turned away from the painting and started our ascent up the trail to the city on the hill.
“It’s huge,” answered Oliver. “The protected area is 576 square kilometers. That’s the national park. The archaeological site, where we have excavations now, is 62 square kilometers. It would take two or three days to see it all.
“I guess that’s why people stay here for several days,” responded Elsa.
“As you can see there’s no mosquitoes here now. They come in June, when the rainy season begins.”
“We did see some last night, when we were eating at the restaurant,” said Elsa.
“I was here in June six years ago, and it rained all night,” added Susie.
We continued walking and talking. Several times Oliver stopped to point out some interesting natural sights, like a termite nest and a chewing gum tree. There was a fragrant flower smell that we scented as we breathed in the aromatic jungle air.
“How many people lived in Tikal?” asked Elsa when we finally arrived at the back side of Temple 1. Oliver stopped to give a short introductory talk.
“In the beginning, the population in Tikal was very small, but in 900 AD the population was large,” answered Oliver. “150,000 people were in Tikal.”
“Wow! That’s a lot,” exclaimed Susie. “So they would have problems with water shortage, I assume.”
“The Maya people needed water for the food, the corn, the crops, so water shortage would lead to food shortage,” continued Oliver.
“So they didn’t have enough water for their crops?” asked Elsa.
“Exactly,” replied Oliver. “The Maya people, according to archaeology, the most important thing for the Maya civilization was the rock. Rock.”
“To build the temples,” I added.
“Exactly,” confirmed Oliver. “There are 10,000 Maya buildings in Tikal, and each one was built with limestone rock.”
“10,000?” asked Elsa incredulously.
“According to recent information, Tikal had 120 square kilometers as an ancient Maya site,” quoted Oliver.
“Did they have animals to carry the rock?” asked Elsa.
“No animals, no donkeys,” answered Oliver. “Just Maya people, the low-class workers. Maya civilization had high class, who had the best life, medium class, and the lower class. The lower class did all the work. There are 2,000 archaeological sites in Peten, in the lowlands, so you can imagine how much work was done.”
Oliver led us into the Great Plaza. He stopped under a tree, where it was shady, and he waited for us to take in the grand view that he was about to talk about.
“Temple 1 is also known as Temple of the Jaguar because of a jaguar carved above the door. It is forty-five meters high,” stated Oliver, trying to remember the facts he had memorized. “They started construction in 700 AD for the king, the original name was Cha’an Kawil. But now the archaeologists call him Ah Kakaw (Cacao). It’s more easy, more simple – or Mr. Chocolate. Because in my language, Ah is the lord, and Kakaw is chocolate. In 1962, an American archaeologist began investigation here, and he found the original tomb, the skeleton, of Mr. Chocolate. And they found sixteen pounds of jade.”
“He was buried with the jade?” asked Susie.
“Jade, ceramic, obsidian,” listed Oliver.
“How about gold?” asked Susie.
“No gold,” replied Oliver. “Maya civilization never used gold. OK, I forgot to say Mr. Chocolate was 1 meter and 82 centimeters long.”
“That’s about six feet tall,” estimated Paul Steven, using mental math.
“Temple 2 construction started in 700 AD,” continued Oliver, as he turned to face the opposite side of the plaza. “Same time as Temple 1. Temple 1 was for Ah Kakaw, and Temple 2 was in honor of the wife of Mr. Chocolate – the queen. Archaeologists now call it the Temple of the Lady of Tikal, because of the queen, the wife of Mr. Chocolate. We also call it the Temple of the Mask because above the door is a little carving. Some people call it the Temple of the Face because of the decoration on top.”
“What was the queen’s name?” asked Elsa.
“It was Twelve Macaw,” answered Oliver. “The macaw is from the parrot family.”
Here I felt it appropriate – and an opportune time – to take a picture of the ladies in front of the ladies temple, and then I had Susie take a picture of the men in front of the men’s temple.
“OK, here we are at Temple II, where the queen enjoys the sunrise. It is the most important for the Maya people because it is the beginning of the light,” said Oliver. The Temple I was watching for the sunset, because it was connecting with the life of the king. For the king, it was very important the sunset. It’s the finish of a life. That’s when the people organized your trip to the underworld – just like you saw on the wall painting of the king in the canoe.”
“Now my son and I were talking about when the sun would shine in a certain way on Temple II during the year,” I said. “Would it do that?”
“I meant like on the equinox,” added Paul Steven.
“On the twenty-first of June, you can climb Temple IV to see the sunrise,” said Oliver. “It projects through the window on top. It goes between Temple I and Temple II and stops inside Temple IV. You see the light of the sun inside Temple IV like a rainbow. You see seven colors. You see this only one time of the year, at the summer solstice.”
“At Chichen Itza,” began Elsa.
“At Chichen Itza you see the shape of the snake,” interrupted Oliver.
“That’s the spring equinox,” I interjected.
“OK, here we are facing the North Acropolis,” said Oliver, as he led us in another direction and another subject. “Behind us is the South Acropolis. We don’t see it. Sorry. It is still continued with excavations. It’s just a huge mound right now, covered with the nature. North, south, Temple I is east, Temple II is west.”
“Are they going to uncover the South Acropolis?” asked Susie.
“OK, remember that before 1956, everything was covered,” started Oliver, hoping to explain what happened.
“1956,” interrupted Elsa. “You mean it’s only fifty years ago?”
“Yes,” respectfully answered Oliver, trying to be a patient guide and answering any questions his clients might have. “All this was covered with the vegetation.”
“Wow!” exclaimed Elsa as she realized how recent everything was.
“When the Maya people lived here, there was no jungle here,” explained Oliver. “!20 square kilometers, no vegetation. Right now in the Great Plaza we have grass. In the Maya time, everything was painted, with the white. Everything was covered with stucco. The temples, each one also was painted, with different colors. Green, red, orange, blue and white.”
“That’s the déjà vu image that I saw last evening when we came to see the sunset,” I said, turning to my family members.
“You can imagine the city at that time – everything was painted,” remarked Oliver. “No trees.”
“It was like you come in and you see a huge city,” I remarked.
“No vegetation,” repeated Oliver. “Huge towers in the middle. Was very interesting how the Maya people lived in here: the high-class in the center, the medium-class around the main plaza, and the low-class around, outside. In the center of the plaza was the Camino Blanco, the White Way, where only walk the high-class, the king and queen. In 1962 was when the excavation and exploration began on the North Acropolis. 134 Mayan tombs the archaeologists found.”
“Did they find bones?” asked Elsa, anticipating the next statement. “Did they take them out?”
“Exactly,” replied Oliver. “Everything is in Guatemala City, in the museum. You see jade, obsidian, seashells, flint stone, quartz. You see everything connecting with the Mayan life. Everything was found here in the North Acropolis. Today we call it Necropolis in the Acropolis. Necropolis because it was a cemetery, right? And Acropolis because it was the system of how the Maya people built their city. City on top – Acropolis.”
“They just kept building on top,” added Elsa, clarifying the concept for herself. “They didn’t destroy it.”
“Exactly,” confirmed Oliver. “New layers. On the North Acropolis we have sixteen palaces together. Each one was a residential area. In the Central Acropolis we have 148 residential ruins. We found 162 Mayan tombs in the Central Acropolis.”
We started heading in the direction of Temple IV. Along the way I spotted a Mayan dressed in what seemed to be the original ruler's costume. I perceived the image to be Quetzalcoatl in my imaginative mind. Or a Mayan king, like Ah Kakaw. As the figure came closer and I saw the large headdress, I knew I would have to take a picture with the Mayan-king impersonator. I call it the child in the man that stoops to such imaginative heights (or depths).
“Here at Temple 4,” said Oliver when we arrived in front of the tallest structure in Tikal, “this was built for the children of Mr. Chocolate, mainly his son Yik’in Chan K’awil. It was built in 741 AD, after Temple 1 and Temple 2. Now we have the local archaeologists working. Two years ago we begin another investigation. At the moment we don’t know what exactly happened in Temple 4. Maybe have a tomb inside.”
“So they never discovered a tomb?” asked Susie.
“No, for the moment no,” answered Oliver. “We have to wait five years, because for the moment – no money.”
“The economy is bad for everybody,” said Elsa. “But the millennium of light is coming.”
“Exactly,” stated Oliver. “That’s my idea. In 2012 people will come and bring lots of money. In Temple 4, we call it the temple of the double-headed serpent, that’s the original name. From here you can see everything: Temple 3, the South Acropolis, Temple 5.”
“And they built the wooden steps here because it’s too steep?” asked Susie, looking up at the twin ladders on the left side of the pyramid-temple. One ladder was for the ascent, the other for the descent.
“Yes, exactly,” responded Oliver. “But you can climb to the top and see everything. On the right you’ll see the Mundo Perdido, or Lost World.”
“Why do they call it the Lost World?” I asked.
“Because it was the last one discovered in Tikal, in 1979,” answered Oliver. “It was lost until then. There’s a pyramid there, but you can’t climb it.”
“Why not?” I wanted to know.
“Sorry, but two years ago two people slipped and went to Xibalba,” explained Oliver.
“That’s where I saw the sunset six years ago when I was able to climb it,” said Susie. “That’s a good place for the sunset because you can see 360 degrees around.”
“Exactly,” said Oliver. “Best place to see the sunrise, and the best place to see the sunset.”
Susie and I climbed up 72 wooden steps; it was like climbing up a real tall ladder. Paul Steven and Elsa were afraid of heights, so they stayed on the ground, underneath the shade of the nearby trees. There was a refreshment stand, so Paul Steven felt comfortable just enjoying a refreshing Gatorade drink.
When we reached the top, we took several minutes to catch our breath. Looking straight down the 72 stone steps gave me a feeling of vertigo. I had to step back to dispel the dizzy feeling. We found a comfortable and safe place to sit and enjoy the view.
Temple IV is the highest building at Tikal and the tallest in the entire Maya region! At 64 m (212 feet) high, it towers over the Peten jungle. Someone told me it was possible to see the Maya Mountains in Belize on a clear day. I could barely make it out as an elevated range on the distant horizon.
We had a perfect view of Temples I , II and III, from left to right respectively. This view was used by George Lucas in Star Wars for the rebel base at the end of the film. The shot where a rebel oversees the Millennium Falcon landing on the moon Yavin was taken on top of the temple-pyramid we were standing on. For a split minute I felt as if I was participating in the science-fiction movie called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
The panoramic view of the temples and the Great Pyramid in the Lost World to the right was positively ethereal. It was as if we were on top of the world and had an eagle-eye view of the terrestrial world.
Susie and I descended very slowly after we had spent about ten minutes enjoying the otherworldly scene. We stood proudly in front of Temple 4 for a photo opportunity, feeling as if we had just climbed Mr. Everest or some other lofty height.
We continued on our journey with our tour guide to the next archaeological site. Along the way we saw a coati (also called a coatimundi). We passed by another sacred ceiba tree. The trunk of this tree was so wide as it sloped to the ground that we couldn't resist another picture. There was a sense of being part of the Maya world-view as we stood at the base of the tree whose roots descended into the underworld of Xibalba and ascended into the celestial world.
Susie and Paul Steven couldn't resist playing Tarzan and Jane with the long rope-like vines that hung in mid-air near the ceiba tree. They swung like monkeys and yelled with exuberance like children in a jungle gym.
Oliver waited patiently while we had a little fun at the ceiba tree. Then we continued walking with our guide towards Mundo Perdido, the Lost World. Along the way, Elsa asked Oliver what his Mayan name was.
"My Maya name is Yaxkin," said Oliver proudly. "It means new sun or green day and represents the corn god. Yax means first or new or green, and kin means sun or day."
Later I found out that Yaxkin was one of the 19 months of the Maya calendar, and it was the beginning of the agricultural year at one point in time. Presently, the month of Yaxkin comes during November to December, and is part of the harvest cycle when the corn-stalks are bent double.
“How about the Maya language?” inquired Elsa. “How many dialects do you have?”
“In Guatemala, we have twenty-four different Maya groups, and we speak twenty-four different languages,” explained Oliver.
“Not dialects, but languages?” inquired Susie.
“Yes, languages,” affirmed Oliver. “In the highlands we have K’iche (Quiche), Kaqchikel, Poqomam, Tz’utujil, Mam, Chorti, Poqomchi, Q’anjob’al. But here you are in Peten, here you are in the lowland. In Peten we are Maya Itza descendents. We come from the Mayas in Tikal, also. We are descended from here. And here we speak Itza, Maya-Itza, Maya-Q’anjob’al, and we speak Maya-Mopan.”
“Can you speak all three?” asked Elsa.
“No, I speak only my language Itza,” replied Oliver. “Sorry, I don’t speak well, I understand Itza. I lost a lot. You have to remember what happened in my country for thirty-six years, the civil war. We was discriminated, and it was obligatory to speak only Spanish. In the schools, where before we had Mayan teachers, now we had only Spanish. That is the problem we have. No Mayan in my school.”
“Are they trying to bring the Mayan language back in the schools?” asked Susie, whose interest in education was foremost on her mind.
“Exactly,” replied Oliver. “Now we have free education, and you can learn Mayan, Italian, and others.”
“But the main language is Spanish, Castillano,” stated Elsa.
“Are the little kids taught Spanish and Mayan?” asked Susie, rephrasing her question.
“Yes, two languages,” confirmed Oliver.
“So during the civil war, who was fighting?” asked Elsa. “Was there actual fighting?”
“Yes,” replied Oliver. “23,000 people disappeared.”
“I read the Mayas lived on all the good land and had the best resources, and the government wanted to get the resources,” stated Susie.
“It’s easy to understand what happened. It was a power struggle, between the rich aristocrats and the poor peasants.”
“Did you lose any family members during the civil war?” asked Elsa.
“Yes, several of my uncles disappeared,” replied Oliver.
“Like in a military dictatorship,” stated Susie.
“I had a question,” I asked, changing the subject, which was uncomfortable for Oliver to talk about. “If you say that Tikal came first, and then Chichen Itza came later, when did Chichen Itza come, according to what you learned?”
“OK,” said Oliver, gathering his thoughts. “Chichen Itza had a civilization at the same time as Tikal, but they had a very small group. They didn’t have a very good development. What happened, when Tikal was abandoned, the people from Tikal moved to Chichen Itza, in 900 AD. It’s easy to understand, because now you can see similar culture, architecture, sculpture, the same we have in Tikal. Some moved to Copan in Honduras, which I recommend if you have the time.
“Yes, I was looking at that,” I responded enthusiastically.
“Honduras is very interesting,” added Oliver. “It’s a small place, but you will see very rich sculpture. The main temple in Copan have 1,101 Maya hieroglyphics in the steps. The residential areas, each one have a lot of decoration. In Tikal, you don’t see that. In Tikal you only see the huge Mayan temples. For example, Temple II we call temple of the mask because it have a little mask on top. According to the archaeologists, the temple represents the power of the king. Temple I was built for the king Hasaw Chan Kawil.”
As we continued walking and listening to Oliver (Yaxkin), I kept my eyes peeled for any movement in the adjacent jungle. At one time I heard a rustling sound and noticed a small lizard on the ground. The design on the lizard was intriguing and I focused on it to capture a design that Mayas used in their artistic representations of Itzamna, a creator god whose name meant 'Lizard House.' We finally arrived at Mundo Perdido, the Lost World.
“Aqui, here we are in the Lost World, Mundo Perdido,” stated Oliver. “Another place, like here, we call Gringo Perdido.” We laughed at the not-so-subtle remark. “This name, Lost World, was given to one of the last plazas discovered in Tikal, in 1979. Thirty years ago. Now, you can climb the small temple. It’s twenty-four meters high.”
“How many temples are in this plaza?” asked Elsa.
“We have fourteen temples here. You can go inside to see the ruins of the residential area. From here you can see the Great Pyramid, which is thirty-two meters high. Sorry, but you can’t climb it because one year ago two people, one from Costa Rica and one North American, were sacrificed here. They slipped and fell into the underworld – Xibalba.”
“That’s the one where I saw the fantastic sunset,” said Susie.
“Don’t confuse the temple with the pyramid,” continued Oliver. “The temple has the roofcomb. And the pyramid is flat, like Chichen Itza. The Great Pyramid which you see there has 72 Mayan steps. According to archaeologists, the pyramid has a connection with the Mayan Calendar wheel. It’s interesting, because the Mayan calendar have 360 days and five extra days. For 360 days the Maya people can do everything – travel, everything to do with the life – but the five days, nothing. Rest. We call it five festival days.”
“What time of the year does that happen,” asked Susie. “What month?”
“July,” answered Oliver. “In the Mayan calendar the festival took place in July. My month. I born here. Now look here, we have five days of celebration in Semana Santa (Easter).”
“But it’s not in July,” asserted Susie.
“Yes, it’s different,” apologized Oliver. “But the idea is the same. Five holy days and five festival days. Five days in April we don’t travel, we don’t do nothing. For example, the women don’t do any cooking.”
“Who makes the food?” asked Susie.
“They prepare everything before,” answered Oliver. “According to Catholic religion, it’s five terrible days. Five bad days. It’s similar. Now look here, 72 + 1 step on top is 73 steps x 5 = 365 days of the year. So we know this was an astronomical center, like the pyramid at Chichen Itza.”
Oliver found a stick near the tree and found a sandy spot to draw a diagram of the pyramid on the sand. He drew four sides with the pyramid on top. Then he demonstrated the movement of the sun over the pyramid, from the spring equinox of March 21, to the summer solstice of June 21, and then the autumn equinox of September 21, and back again for the winter equinox in December 21. I was still puzzled by the previous explanation of the 72 steps, for I thought that the pyramid had only four sides of 72 steps, not five as indicated by Oliver. But before I could remember to ask the question, Oliver brought up the subject that I was most interested in.
“Anybody want to know what happen in 2012?” asked Oliver. “Because I have the same question. I am Mayan, and I want to know also what’s going to happen. We don’t know exactly what will happen in 2012. We have seven prophecies of 2012. First one, water shortage, no rain. Second, the Maya people talk of global warming. Third, the Maya people talk of the phenomenon of El Nino, when we have inundations. Fourth, we have earthquakes. Fifth, the Maya people talk about high temperatures. In 1992, we began the last Maya katun (a period of 20 years). 2012 will be 20 years. The sixth one is planet alignment with the center of the galaxy. The last one, we have natural disasters, which one we don’t know.”
“Maybe an asteroid, or a comet, like some people say,” I interjected.
“Maybe everything,” added Susie facetiously.
“Maybe,” responded Oliver pensively. “Many people are afraid. There is fear of change. So they make ceremonials because everybody is afraid of 2012.”
“Are they really afraid or do they understand that it’s just the beginning of a new calendar cycle?” I asked.
“Exactly,” said Oliver, affirming his own belief on the subject. “The long count calendar or the great cycle began in 3114 BC. It’s a 5,125 year cycle that finishes on the winter solstice, in December 21, 2012.”
“Maybe they shouldn’t be afraid,” I said. “They should just say it’s the end of an old age and the beginning of a new age.”
“Exactly,” agreed Oliver. “But the people still have a fear of change.”
We took a break from the conversation to climb one of the lost world pyramids. The Great Pyramid had 72 steps, but the one we climbed was hard to determine because the bottom half of the steps were in ruins. Nevertheless, we climbed around the ruined steps and made it to the top, where the view was great. We were able to see Temple 5 with its roofcomb projecting into the blue, cloudy sky.
There was one last place for us to visit: the Central Acropolis.
"Here at the Central Acropolis, we can see a large palace which has nine doors, nine entrances to the underworld." said Oliver. "Everything is connected to Xibalba."
“But why nine?” inquired Susie.
“According to the Maya religion, there are thirteen gods – nine gods of the underworld and four of the upperworld,” explained Oliver. “Today, we have the same tradition, and people sacrifice nine chickens at the same time.”
“So they always sacrificed chickens, and there was no human sacrifice?” asked Elsa.
“That was the Aztec tradition,” clarified Oliver.
“But how about in the past?” asked Paul Steven inquisitively.
“Yes, in the distant past there was an influence from Teotihuacan, and from Aztec influence,” admitted Oliver.
“So they did have human sacrifices in the past, but you said no,” informed Elsa.
“In the distant Maya times, yes,” Oliver corrected himself. “There was human sacrifice, in the early classic 250 AD. People ask why people were sacrificed. For the Maya civilization it was an honor to be sacrificed in memory for the king, or in memory for the god.”
“So they would sacrifice their own people?” asked Paul Steven, curious to know more about the subject of human sacrifice. “And not people they captured?”
“Exactly,” affirmed Oliver. “Just probably local captives. Sometimes the priest asked, would somebody like to be sacrificed? Someone would say, I would like to be sacrificed. Because it was an honor. They believed in the underworld, or Xibalba. Everything was connected with Xibalba.”
“When we were in Chichen Itza, there was a cenote, a well, and they say they sacrificed some of the virgins,” said Elsa. “Is that true?”
“Also here in Tikal,” confirmed Oliver. “Maidens. Sometimes. Don’t forget, each Mayan site have a different form, or different tradition. Like today. Here in Tikal, they tied the human sacrifice to a stela. Then they would take them to an altar to cut off their head. And then take out their heart. Because the most important parts that the king wants is the heart and the head. Life is in the head and in the heart.”
“But they don’t eat the heart,” said Elsa, a hesitant doubt in her voice. “You know, there are stories – we see movies – they take out the heart and they eat it.”
“Maybe you see the movie Apocalypto?” asked Oliver, realizing the source of the story.
“Yes,” we all answered affirmatively. We had seen Mel Gibson’s sensationalized movie.
“It’s similar,” continued Oliver. “If you see that one, you can have an idea of how it was.”
“So that really did happen?” asked Elsa, looking for a conclusive answer to her question.
“Yes,” responded Oliver apologetically.
“OK,” said Elsa, being convinced of the guide’s veracity.
“In Teotihuacan, the people were sacrificed on the top of the temples,” elucidated Oliver. “In Tikal, they were sacrificed down on the ground.”
“The head rolled down?” asked Elsa, visualizing the scene from the movie.
“In Teotihuacan, the head would roll down the steps,” clarified Oliver.
“But that was Aztec, not Maya,” interjected Susie. “So they confused the two cultures.”
“Exactly,” said Oliver.
“It’s all a sacrifice, just a different way of sacrificing,” I said, inserting my opinion.
We roamed around the palatial grounds, read the sign, and took pictures. The Acropolis Central sign said:
This is a complex of palacial type buildings constructed on a filled platform which was augmented over the centuries to reach its present appearance. The complex is bounded on the north by a steep incline which separates the complex from the East Plaza. A depression in the earth named the palace pool, formerly called the Water mirror, marks the southern boundary. Stone steps provide access on three of the acropolis. The groups of buildings are organized around six interior patios whose specific function is unknown. Many of the patios contain benches and grafitis inside. 38 different buildings with 148 vaulted interior spaces, the majority of the visible structures date from the Late Classic Period 550-900 A.D.
Elsa and I felt like a king and a queen for a day as we stood together and took a picture at the Central Acropolis. Oliver was concluding his tour with us, and we made a full circle with him as we stood together one last time at the Great Plaza. I wanted to remember Oliver (Yaxkin), and I took a picture with him. He was a good guide, leading us through the ancient world of Tikal and the Mayas.
On our way to the exit of the park, I heard a howling sound coming from nearby. It sounded like a howler monkey. We headed in the direction from where the howling resounded. My eyes searched the top of the trees for any sign of the monkey. I spotted a spider monkey. It was swinging with a group of monkeys through the tree tops. Eventually, we came to a clearing where a group of people were looking up together into the tree top. We found the spot. Words can do very little justice to what we saw and experienced. Only the modern technology of a movie clip can transmit a portion of the thrill we had as we watched the howler monkey exhibit the deep vocal cords and the expressions on his face. I apologize beforehand for providing only an amateur YouTube video of a recording of what we saw and heard.
Howler Monkey video
A fantastic video of what we actually saw was captured by someone else -- here is a link to that site:
Seeing the monkeys brought to mind what I had read in the Mayan story of Creation, the Popol Vuh. There were four experiments that the creators (Heart of Sky and the Sovereign Plumed Serpent) made with the human design. The first was the animal form, which resulted in disappointment because the animals couldn’t speak like people or name the creators’ names; the animals only squawked, chattered, howled, and made unintelligible sounds. So their flesh was eaten. The second attempt at designing the human being was with earth and mud, but the body simply crumbled and dissolved in water, so it was dismantled. The third attempt involved the seers Grandmother and Grandfather, who divined with corn (solar) and bean (lunar) seeds that manikins (woodcarvings) be carved out of a tree to be humans.
The definitive Popol Vuh, the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life by Dennis Tedlock translated the story this way:
“So be it,” said Heart of Sky and Sovereign Plumed Serpent. The moment they spoke it was done: the manikins, woodcarvings, human in looks and human in speech. This was the peopling of the face of the earth. They came into being, they multiplied, they had daughters, they had sons, these manikins, woodcarvings. But there was nothing in their hearts and nothing in their minds, no memory of their mason and builder. And so they fell, just an experiment and just a cutout for humankind. (p. 83)
"So the third race of humans was crushed by Jaguar, and a great flood destroyed them. Notwithstanding their destruction by the deluge, the unknown author of the Popol Vuh says that the wooden manikins are the people who now inhabit the surface of the earth."
"It is said their descendants are the little monkeys who live in the forests (and jungles) today: it is a family-resemblance handed down from those whose flesh was constituted of wood alone, in the experiment of the Former and the Creator. That is why the little monkey has the likeness of man, a family-resemblance showing his descent from a former race of human beings, who were only manikins carved in wood." [The Book of the Azure Veil, James M. Pryse]
Much later, it dawned on me that this third race of humans, the wooden (automaton) manikins, was presently embodied in the deity of MAXIMON – in the highlands of Guatemala. Maximon was a god created in the image of the third race of humans by the "woodcarved manikins" (humanoids).
Afterwards, we stopped at the visitor's center, where there was little to see except for a decent model of Tikal. We also stopped at the nearby reservoir to see the water supply the ancient Maya people used.
And so our momentous tour of Tikal was drawing to a close. We packed our bags and waited for the small shuttle bus, which was like a nine-passenger van, to take us to Flores, where we would spend the night. An ocellated turkey came by to wish us well and to thank us for visiting the park as we boarded the shuttle bus and left Tikal National Park.
Map based on Guide Map in William Coe's
Tikal: A Handbook of the Ancient Maya Ruins
CHAPTER 3: PETEN (House of Spears)