This post continues the retelling of my recent trip to Belize: participating in an archaeology field school and learning about jaguar conservation. It details the second half of a brief side-trip I took to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Tikal in Guatemala. Part 1 of this mini-series is located here.
The first part of this Tikal mini-series left off on top of Temple IV: the tallest pre-Colombian structure in the Americas. We sat there for a long time, enjoying the view and catching our breath. But there was more to see.
We descended the long staircase to the forest floor, and then made our way to the Lost World Complex. This group of 38 structures originally served astronomical purposes, allowing the ancient Maya to observe the movements of celestial bodies (Ecotourism & Adventure Specialists, 2015). At 32 meters (105 ft), the Great Pyramid is the tallest building in this complex.
I followed the director of the Dos Hombres to Gran Cacao Archaeological Project (DH2GC) up one of the Lost World pyramids, where we came to a dark chamber. We passed through the doorway, and there we beheld a harrowing scene: vandalism. Dozens of prior tourists had scratched their names on a section of the plastered walls, as if they thought that ‘leaving their mark’ on this priceless structure would elevate their status. They were wrong.
Fortunately, I did not remain grumpy for long. As I emerged from the chamber and began climbing down the pyramid, I glanced at a tree to my left. There, nearly at eye level, was a keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus). I stood there for several minutes, thrilled to have such a clear view of this magnificent bird – and in so special a place.
In fact, Tikal was full of life. Before long I came upon some leaf-cutter ants, hard at work as always. A few steps later a coatimundi (Nasua narica) climbed down a tree in front of us. It scurried along the ground for a few minutes, its long nose constantly sniffing the grass, before it ascended another tree. I was in heaven.
I am afraid that by now I was quite tired, and so cannot remember everything that happened. I know that we eventually came to Temple V, where a young couple was playing with their baby. It was a delight to see them so happy.
At some point we also linked up with a group of travelers from Israel. There were three of them, two women and one man, and they looked to be in their upper twenties. The man was boisterous, energetic, and exceptionally friendly. They were good company, but it was time for us to rejoin the rest of the Programme for Belize (PfB) group.
We left our newfound friends and located the forested path to Tikal’s marketplace. Shortly after we re-entered the jungle, a group of spider monkeys swung across the trail in front of us. Nearly a dozen tourists had gathered to watch them, and I was shocked at how well-behaved these monkeys were (see this post for an account of spider monkeys in less pleasant moods).
We linked up with the rest of our group at a marketplace that contained an assortment of gift shops and a restaurant. We meandered there for a while, before boarding our vans and returning to Flores.
Back in Flores, I ended the day by having dinner with a few of the students from Elon University. I once again had to be the translator, but I found it to be much easier than on the first day. Our waitress was patient and helpful, and the students’ exuberance was contagious. As we chatted in the cool, night air, I was happy.
So ended the archaeological potion of my journey. Tomorrow, June 17, 2017, was the day I had to break off from the main group. The real adventure was about to begin.
Great summary of your time at Tikal, Josh – it seems you were very lucky with seeing wildlife. When I was there I also saw ants and monkeys and…. a strange animal that I could identify and haven’t done enough research on it yet to know what it was. It looked like a cross over between a large rat and and small pig, but it was black. I don’t think it was a coatimundi – its body was different. I was walking back alone from one of the more isolated pyramids that I had returned to not too long before closing time, so there was nobody with me – anyway, I’ve got to look it up!
PS: Really sad that tourists feel they need to leave their names everywhere – as if anyone would know who they are/were!
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Hi Jacques! What you saw was probably an agouti: they’re large rodents that don’t have tails. Here’s a link to a picture of one:
The name scratching is always annoying, but it’s completely in excusable when carved into centuries-old pyramids. I sometimes wonder if some tourists are so arrogant that they believe everyone knows who they are.
Hi Josh – yes, that’s it! The one I saw was really large, so I did not think it would be classed as a type of rodent. Very interesting – thanks for the info!
I visited five archaeological sites during my stay in Central America and fortunately the graffiti that I observed was minimal. Only here and there. The one thing that impressed me about these sites was how freely visitors could walk around and how they are allowed to climb all the way up many of the pyramids. It would be a shame if access should become limited to some sites due to the damage caused by the name scribblers…
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We did have pretty open access to most of Tikal when I was there: there were only a few pyramids we weren’t allowed to climb due to the danger involved. And to be honest, the graffiti was pretty minimal there. What rubbed me so badly was where it was: scribbled onto what would have otherwise been an excellently-preserved plaster wall.
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Awesome stuff ! Do they exist purely or just in being mixed ? How do the maya people live today ?
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Unfortunately I’m not an expert on modern-day Mayan peoples, but I definitely met a few people who were part Maya and part other nationalities. However, I believe that in some parts of Central America there are people who are descended much more directly from the ancient Maya. I don’t like to get caught up on percentages or ‘purity’, so if someone identifies as mostly Maya then that’s good enough for me.
How modern Maya peoples live will differ depending on where they live and how much money they have. As recently as the 1980s there were Mayan peoples in Southern Belize who lived in traditional family groups in the jungle and practiced an agricultural system that was similar to the ancient milpa system (though not exactly the same). Nowadays those same Maya have been forced to settle in a town outside the jungle (the forest was designated as a jaguar reserve) and are largely involved in the tourism industry. I think most of them are Christian now too. So a lot has changed in a short amount of time. Dr. Alan Rabinowitz’s book “Jaguar” explains how the Maya in the Cockscomb Basin of Southern Belize used to live in the 80s.