Guatemala and Belize

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In Lord Chocolate's Domain
Northern Guatemala and Belize

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Exploring subtropical rainforest and exotic wildlife, Sarah Shuckburgh journeys to the heart of Guatemala’s ancient Maya civilisation and finds towering temples and riveting views.

Howler monkeys woke me before dawn with their strange grinding call, and from the ceiling of my lakeside casita, yellow-bellied geckos added their noisy croaks.

As the sun rose, I drove with Pablo, my guide, deep into the rainforest of Petén in northern Guatemala, heading for the ancient city of Tikal. Once the capital of the Mayan civilisation, with 4,000 buildings and 90,000 inhabitants, Tikal was mysteriously abandoned in about 900AD and for more than a thousand years was swallowed up by dense vegetation. Locals knew about the ruins, but European explorers discovered them only in the 19th century.

Tikal is spectacular and awe-inspiring – a labyrinth of limestone structures, half-hidden by subtropical jungle. From a grassy central plaza one can wander alone through palace courtyards and bedrooms, or scramble up the north acropolis, with its jumble of temples, stumpy pillar-shaped altars and carved stone stelae, some with hieroglyphs still visible. Tikal’s earliest architecture dates from 500 BC but the city’s Classic age began in 250AD. Successive religious rulers, such as Great Jaguar Paw and Stormy Sky, each left their mark with new or extended buildings. In the late 7th century, the tall and long-lived Lord Chocolate and his son Caan Chac erected the grandest temples of all. Some of their jade, ceramics, sculpture and jewellery has survived, and is displayed in the museum, with a fascinating model of how Tikal once looked.

A few buildings have been partially restored but nearly all lie buried under mounds of earth and vegetation, and the jungle inexorably encroaches on even recently cleared sites. It would be easy to lose one’s bearings in the dense undergrowth, and I believed Pablo’s tales of spotting jaguar at Tikal, as well as ocelot and tapir. Concealed among the trees are dozens of architectural complexes, built on raised ground, and each with a plaza surrounded by temple, pyramid, oratorium, dwellings and other buildings. The remains of raised stone causeways lead to other ruined cities, deep in the jungle. As long-limbed spider monkeys swung through the canopy above our heads, we passed the remains of a ball court - Mayan nobles played with solid rubber balls which astonished Spanish explorers - and further on, the ruins of a steam bath like those still used by highland Maya today.

Skirting crocodile-infested reservoirs which once provided the city with drinking water, we followed signs to El Mundo Perdido (the Lost World). Here stands the 100-foot high Great Pyramid, Tikal’s oldest surviving structure, built in about 200 BC. From its flat roof, astronomers and mathematicians discovered solstices, calculated complex calendars and mapped the stars. My visit coincided with a lunar eclipse, and I thought of Stormy Sky’s sages in the 5th century, correctly predicting such occurrences from this very building.

In the Classic period, sacred ceremonies were conducted in small, brightly-painted prayer rooms on temple roofs, close to heaven. I clambered to the top of Temple I, built to honour Lord Chocolate, whose tomb lies beneath it. Recently restored but still surrounded by tangled forest, Temple V is higher and steeper, with a series of alarmingly rickety, almost vertical ladders. The ascent looked terrifying, and coming down looked worse - I was too scared to attempt it. Half a mile on, the towering Temple IV has a new sturdy stairway with handrails. At 230 feet, this is the continent’s tallest pre-Columbian building, and from the top, I gazed out at hundreds of miles of variegated green, a bobbled, motley carpet pierced by pale temple roof-combs. It was hot and humid, and utterly silent apart from the squawks of toucans and parrots from the forest below. From this viewpoint, I found it hard to believe that in the last thirty years, almost half of Petén’s primary forest has been destroyed by logging or slash-and-burn farming, or that half a million people now live in this formerly pristine area. Attempts are being made to preserve remaining tracts of lowland subtropical habitat as part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

By the mid-16th century, most Mayan kingdoms had been defeated by the Spanish, but one Mayan tribe, living near Tikal, at Lake Petén Itzá, held out for 150 years, and were the last to be conquered, in 1697. I was staying on the forested bank of this unspoilt lake, in a small hotel owned by Francis Ford Coppola. As the heat subsided in the late afternoon, I canoed gently out across the calm water of the lake. Later, after a swim in the pool, I lay in a hammock, watching bright blue Morpho butterflies hovering over my glass of Coppola’s own Californian wine.

Next day we drove east, along hot, dirt roads dotted with dilapidated shacks built of rough planks, mud and palm thatch – today’s Maya poor, Pablo commented, live in similar houses to the poor in Lord Chocolate’s day. Pigs, turkeys, chickens, dogs and children scuttled to the dusty verges as we approached. Men, bent double, hacked at weeds with machetes. Cows and horses grazed under palm trees on degraded pasture. Women washed clothes on riverbanks. Stallholders sat on plastic chairs under awnings, as food cooked in clay ovens.

The Mayan empire stretched beyond modern borders, north from Guatemala into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, south into Honduras and El Salvador, and east into Belize. Today, modern descendants of the Maya still make up half the population of the Mundo Maya – and speak 30 different Mayan languages. At the Mopan river, I waved goodbye to Pablo and crossed into Belize where I was met by a new guide, José.

In the forest a few miles from the border lie the ruins of Xunantunich, a Mayan ceremonial site dating from 200AD which, like Tikal, was suddenly abandoned in the 9th century. From the top of its tallest temple, El Castillo, another mesmerising view of seemingly endless jungle opens up.

I stayed that night at Chaa Creek Forest Lodge, home of the charismatic Mick and Lucy Fleming. On a whim, as hippy travellers in 1977, the Flemings bought 140 acres from a man in a Belize City bar. Undaunted by a two-hour canoe journey to the nearest town, the young couple erected an earth-floored shack, grew fruit and vegetables – and had two babies. Other intrepid travellers soon heard about the Flemings and came to stay, and from these humble beginnings today’s rainforest lodge has developed, with 26 comfortable thatched casitas, and – for budget travellers - a forest camp with stilted cabins, camp fire and communal washrooms. Guests can still canoe to St Ignacio, but now there is also a road.

On a hilltop above the Flemings’ twenty-five acre organic vegetable garden, a series of mounds mark the site of another small Mayan settlement, which archaeologists believe was a middle-class meeting place for competitive feasting and displays of wealth. The wooded hilltop has dozens of holes, dug as cool larders for food and drink – and for burying corpses. The overgrown site is a peaceful, shady lookout over endless acres of forest.

Hot after my walk, I followed a narrow path to the river, and swam in the dark, opaque water between banks of tangled forest. My body was gently nibbled by tiny fish. As I swam upstream, an otter paddled across and disappeared into a hole in the bank. From the forest came the weird call of howler monkeys. At dinner under a lofty roof of bay-leaf thatch, I heard accounts from excited guests of their day spent canoeing, wading and scrambling through jungle caves containing ancient Maya artefacts. One family had seen a 7-foot boa constrictor.

Rainforest animals are famously hard to spot, but on my way to the international airport next day, I stopped at the wonderful Belize Zoo, where native animals live in forested enclosures, dotted with Mayan statues. Suddenly I stood within inches of sleek jaguars, spotted ocelots and shy tapirs like the ones Pablo saw at Tikal. I studied the garish plumage of the toucans and parrots that I’d heard from the roof of Temple IV. Here were the crocodiles that lurked unseen in reservoirs, and otters like the one I’d glimpsed at Chaa Creek, and also margays, harpy eagles, coatis, anteaters, spider monkeys, iguanas, ugly jaguarundis - and boa constrictors even longer than seven feet. And above the rainforest cacophony, the familiar whirring roar of howler monkeys.

Sarah travelled with The Ultimate Travel Company
First published by the Telegraph

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