As we rode into Guatemala on CA13 we were stuck behind a bicycle race. The slow pace forced us to carefully soak in all that the countryside had to offer: a van went by with a loudspeaker announcing available medicine for sale out of the back of it. Senoras nursed on the front porches of their ranches. \Stallions nipped each other in the scorching sun. Vaqueros sat in their large white cowboy hats. Everyone stopped to cheer for the bikes coming through but life lingered at a slow pace.
Really we had luckily stumbled into finding the charming town of El Remate. Resident families swam in bliss in Lago Peten Itza. This was where Guatemalans came to vacation with their families. Juanjo, a long haired, tattooed, kind souled, twenty-something recommended that we watch the sunset on the boardwalk. The Palomino Ranch was an estate that sprawled with an immaculately kept pool. It was an undiscovered jewel of an accommodation. The foals whinnied and their mares whinnied in return.
We tasted slow cooked and organic stews at El Arbol (The Tree) in their open air cafe then headed back to the boardwalk for sunset. Juanjo skateboarded down the street.
The three of us had an encounter with a ferocious dog who defended its family while they swam. Luckily our hotel’s dog, Vaquero, was our companion who fought off the other dog. Vaquero means cowboy and fighting the small dog was easy compared to the almost lethal kick to the face by a stallion he had earlier in the week. The Blue Heeler expressed unrelenting loyalty to Juanjo. He proved this as he reluctantly swam out eighty yards with him into the lake. It was unnatural for a dog to swim that far. We discussed how some of the people of his country identified as indigenous; however there was no official way of tying anyone back to the Mayans. I would later think of this as I traced the evidence of indigenous heritage in the faces of beautiful little ninas through my camera lens. Juanjo expressed that he really liked working at the estate because he met many backpackers who were open minded. At the end of the evening I was surprised to learn that Juanjo had only been the attendant of the hotel for a week. He had escaped what he called the “constant pursuit of money” in Guatemala City and sought refuge trying to connect with nature at the lakeside. We bonded as kindred spirits as I told him that I had done the same in the mountains . Walking away I felt honored as I realized he had shared his secret spot with us, his favorite spot to end each day.
At breakfast our normal struggling of Spanish was worse than usual as the beautiful young housekeeper smiled at our embarrassment. In Guatemala the language was fast. They set a black majestic draft stallion out to trot below the balcony. Despite his beauty he had a foul personality. His crinkled hair glimmered. He was the pride of the estate.
Indigenous tribes named Guatemala, “the land of the trees”. The reasoning for the name was clearly evident upon entering the jungle. We had come into Guatemala to see Tikal, the largest Mayan civilization in the world. We opted for a government guide in the park. Elmer softly spoke about the “haguar” that lurked about and shared that we would soon see the most famous Mayan temple, the Jaguar Temple.
I imagined being met by Mayan scouts in the outskirts of the rainforest and taken to the center square to face the rulers. On the way I saw the commoners gathering maize, beans, and squash near the homes they lived in outside of the civilization. I saw the families of the political elite living in their dwellings made of mortar. Slaves carried in the limestone from the far corners of the jungle, burning and mixing it under a thatched roof, inside of a pit. This was a civilization built on the backs of slaves. Rulers built temples to honor themselves. One ruler even built a temple across from his, the Jaguar Temple, that honored his wife. Of course his wife’s temple was shorter than his. The ruler was always concerned about invasions by their enemies, especially those to the north. These people had disappeared as if vapor.
We learned about Mahogany. Rubber, and Parasite trees as sweat beaded down our backs. Especially noteworthy was the type of tree that the Mayans called the Tree of Life. We noticed the familiar tree shaking of monkeys. In this case, a family of howler monkeys. Further down the path a spider monkey teetered and a coati stepped out of the trees.
Wild Spider Monkey
My knees buckled as the wooden steps rebounded with each step. The steps traversed the outside of the temples as they climbed to the top. Indigenous shaman performed a ceremony by throwing handfuls into the fire. Smoke wafted around them and we were careful not to disrupt.
Elmer shared that the Mayans habitation began about 3,000 years ago. They reigned for 2,000 years with numbers estimated in the hundreds of thousands. The mystery remains as to why the civilization collapsed.The Mayans were a relatively peaceful people until their supremacy started dwindling. Then they resorted to sacrificing humans to appease their gods. Some say this was an attempt to relinquish their suffering from drought.
The rain forest of Peten is the largest north of the Amazon and the people there do their best to defend it. Slash and burn farming and the new conquest for oil both threaten the reserve as does the growth of the Peten regions population. Many archaeological sites remained buried in the forest as questions of funding for excavation exist.
After my visit, every hill in Guatemala was an uncovered ruin to me. The Land of the Trees crumbled the Mayans best attempts at remaining eternally relevant, their temples falling to the ground.
Guatemala is the first place in a long time that has me saying, “I’ll be back for more”.
Elmer later asked to ride back to El Remate with us. The car had air conditioning while the bus did not. We dropped him off to get a hair cut and get his medication for his beginning stages of kidney failure.
When heading back to Belize we then picked up our first ever hitch hiker, Maxim, possibly the most interesting man in the world. He had left his home in Russia to work in Spain where he became fluent in Spanish. He then abandoned his work and life there, decided that he was only going to live once, and had since circled the entire continent of South America with only a backpack, a water filter, and sleeping in a tent. He wanted to see the world, so he did. Proving that you can travel by any means necessary if you have enough determination, that you can learn anything if you have the desire to go far enough with a curious spirit.
Maxim, if you’re reading this I wish you all the best as you head north through Mexico, up the coast of my country, and head into Alaska. You, my friend, are an even more passionate and inspirational explorer than I or anyone else could even aspire to be.