Overland miles: 3836 Tacocount: 53 Days without Sodas: 2
Despite what Jovian’s posts would have you believe, we don’t spend all our days eating and drinking, and in between our many, many long bus journeys south we’ve found time to explore the continent’s historic sites.
A clear window of time had passed since we’d OD’d on Aztec history in Mexico City and by the time we’d got to grips with sophisticated San Cristobal, we decided it was time to learn more about another of Latin America’s great civilisations, the Maya. Palenque, in Mexico’s Chiapas state, and Tikal in the north of Guatemala were two sites that could be added to our route with relative ease. Having been handed a packed breakfast by our hostel the night before, in the eery silence of the awakening city we jumped on cramped minibus, complete with cracked windscreen and rusting dents (de rigour in these parts), and headed deep into the Lacandon jungle.
The Maya were the dons of the pre-Colombian civilisations. At their peak (AD 750) we learnt that they numbered 10 million in cities of up to 200,000 inhabitants – that’s about the size of Luton. Like their Aztec counterparts, the Mayans could be pretty cruel. Slaves, children and animals were all routinely sacrificed to the Gods and apparently women even threaded their tongues with thorn-studded rope. However, it wasn’t all self mutilation and ritualistic sacrifice for the Maya: apparently they enjoyed a game of football, or jeugo de pelota too (presumably they needed a bit of light relief to take their minds off all the blood letting). They also had some pretty cool names for their leaders, including Smoking Frog, King Great Jaguar Paw and our personal favourite, King Moon Double Comb.
So after six nausea-inducing hours of swerving pot holes, speed bumps and on-coming traffic at break-neck speed, we finally reached Palenque and gingerly disembarked. Like many other Mayan sites, Palenque remained largely undiscovered until the 1800s and even now, the vast majority of its structures lie under the cover of the jungle, meaning it’s a fairly compact site. Only the huge mounds of vegetation in the distance, which the casual observer would dismiss as just that, reveal the fact that there are still hundreds of uncovered secrets here.
After such a hair-raising journey, we weren’t sure we were so keen to tramp round temples in near 100% humidity so we were pretty pleased to learn that this was one place where we could see all the main sites in less than two hours. The most impressive structure was definitely the 25 metre high Templo de las Inscripciones. We weren’t able to climb this one (probably a good thing in the heat) but here’s what it looked like:
We did, however, brave it up the steep steps to the top of Templo de la Cruz, one of the largest and most gob-dropping structures in a group of temples constructed by King Ba’alam II in honour of his long-reigning father. It provided one of the best vantage points visitors today can have of the site. How the Maya, who were presumably considerably shorter than the region’s current inhabitants, ever made it up these steps we don’t know; some were easily 30cm high or more. Here’s us at the top, once we’d got our breath back:
The awe-inspiring temples of Tikal proved to be a completely different experience to Palenque. Whereas Palenque’s edifices are the English country garden of ruins, with neatly trimmed lawns and plentiful signs, Tikal lies deep in the Guatemalan jungle, its looming temples surrounded by acres of densely packed undergrowth linked by basic dirt tracks, home to plenty of giant ants and mosquitos keen to get their teeth into us.
If you really wanted to transport yourself back to Mayan times, this would be the place to do it, with miles of paths stretching between temples and only Howler monkeys, brightly coloured birds and butterflies for company. One of the most satisfying moments for any visitor is climbing to the top of the taller temples, through the tree canopy, where you can see right across the top of the jungle, with only the odd peak of another temple breaking your view.
We’d heard stories of hoards of temple spotters spoiling the Tikal experience but luckily for us, our trip is in low season so we were able to enjoy wandering around the site free from our fellow tourists. Some of them have funky names based on findings within them (or myths about them), but a lot are just cataloged numerically, according to the chronology of their excavation. Here’s the imaginatively named Templo I. At 38 metres high it’s one of the biggest at Tikal, but visitors have been banned from climbing it after two tourists fell to their deaths. We were pretty happy to enjoy the view from the ground:
So, there you go – our lightning trip through the heady heights of Mayan history. Palenque and Tikal: they’re not exactly Luton, but then, what is? Next on the trail, the PFB crew attend an illegal rave and smoke Honduran cigars in Antigua.