Getting involved in the Politics of the Maya jungle.
Now this is muddy and wet and a miracle that Christina and I have come this far. Gliding the old Chevy van through slippery slime or hitting its low chassis from bump to bump without ripping away completely the useless plastic spoilers, I have experience from hudreds of kilometers and days on bad roads in Guatemala and Chiapas, just this is new, muddy wet and now on the first significant ascent I hazardously slipped almost off the track, stuck the right front wheel atop the muddy bank, another wheel hangs in the air. The thievery folk warned us, they always try to scare, I think wryly of my declared enemies of tour guides with fancy phones, Ray-Ban fakes and idiot talk and in the town of Flores they were no different then elsewhere in the world. We are in the northern Petén department, on road Flores to Carmelita, this is December and almost middle dry season, just the seasons are all in limbo and guides usually lie and these asked ridiculous 400 dolares per person for the El Mirador hike, price fixed and the moneys flow in who's pockets?
So I reasoned and now we are stuck on the road to Carmelita and the drizzles begin, but getting stuck sometimes is lucky destiny and some guys with picks and shovels push the van out. Near-by lives Esteban and family, their house on their land that he bought 35 years ago, we can leave the truck here he says. "The government decided not to maintain this road, they want us out of here", he mourns. So much of Petén has been designated protected land, he says and he only takes what the land gives, maintains a forest, "if I sell they'll raise cattle on it and it is cattle that destroys the land. Here people don't help each other!" He spoke to environmentalists here, but they are afraid to speak out as the civil war taught people to kill and "we are afraid to be killed when we speak".
The bus comes and we hop on, 2USDs to Carmelita in a huge ex-US school bus, painted in so many colors, the vintage diesels roar through the rains, as our mad driver takes the turns and slops fast and I hit my knees in the narrow space that is laid-out for children.
"El Mirador?" the old man in front asks, "my son is a guide." So quickly we are caught in another web, I think. But the man adds "independent". Yes this is the basic idea, if we pay big dinero we give it directly to those in the village, cut out the many useless middlemen. After 2 hours of body shakes and hard hitting the knees the rains have gone away, night has fallen as we approach destination, our old holds his hand in front of his mouth leans over and explains a strange thing "if police ask tell them you are set-up already". The monster bus stops, doors open, police jump on with flash lights, then jump off again. The bus rolls on a few more minutes/1km, 2 guys jump on, try to hijack us, "your name?" we don't give it, one introduces himself as the president of the tourist board, he seems more a hustler for an agency, or what is called cooperativa out here, a misleading name for what actually by-passes locals, a conspiracy or price fixing scam that monopolizing the tourist business. Whatever it is, I think simple and don't want my name on a list of someone dark in the shade of the night, a list that might contractually bind me to this or another person.
Have we arrived in Carmelita? I don't even know, the unfriendly woman next to us rants that we should have given our names, "Carmelita is dangerous territory!" We get off, cannot find our old man immediately in the dark, but once the bus and the ramble rolls off, the hustlers disperse too, the quiet sets in and our old man leads us into a wooden shed, to his son he says "really you want to go yourself?"
Yes, it is all a bit strange and nobody tells the newly arrived the 'true' story which we would learn over the next 5 days, about the politics in the Maya jungle. We agree on 150USD per person for a 5 day hike to El Mirador, we would set out the very next morning, he would go and buy food and prepare it all now, he shows us another shed with some moist mattresses on a wooden bench under an ash-dusty fly sheet, around in the dark I can make out the animal folk, horses and cows, ducks and chicken. Next door is a little comedor where Francisca serves beans, eggs, rice and tortillas, wise man eat mucho before a long hike to the jungle.
Over the open field wind carries over a rock concert, live music from loudspeakers; "la profecía" says our restaurant lady, Church of God of Prophecy, apart from government the other true evil in the Americas. "The catholics and we are all catholics here never come to visit us" she complains while she brings huge plates, "but the evangelicals run the door in, they're in bed with the government". Well funded from the US, yes I ask myself, why is every and even the tiniest jungle village that we hit and any day of the week awash with loud Christian rock music. After dinner we walk the dark town to buy minor but essential accessories, some batteries for the flash light, toilet paper, then we approach the noisy compound, I am interested about the size of the crowd, but then the party stops and a hysteric Jesus loves you mumble jumble follows, the ecstasy and Pentecostal aggressiveness goes badly with the Maya jungle, we shrug in disgust and turn back over the field to our shed under the ashen mosquito net in our sleeping bags on the moist and as C. says scabies infested pads.
Not just for the preacher's screams this night sleep won't come too quickly, the brain works busily to absorb where we landed and how, our bench is narrow and short and C. is afraid of touching the foams, shortly before midnight knocks on the shed wake. It is the son, he excuses for the late disturbance and that he won't be able to guide us but has another guy, Henry, responsible and excellent, of course experienced, 'what ever' I say, 'is ok!', C. translates. He is off to town, drinking with the advance I handed him, I ponder.
The greatest Maya Fab Trek to El Mirador.
The bleating and shrieking of sheep and roosters wake early, the jungle around emerges from the mist while I pee where pigs and cows pee. C. laughs when she sees me wrapping the gaiters over my pants, "is muddy", I say. Over night Henry has turned into Ronaldo, in only ten hours the name of our guide has changed 3 times, but Ronaldo will stay and become a great lovable companion. The old man brings a horse, a castrated stallion, not a mule, I check the parts of the tent, while Ronaldo rolls up the moist foams. At the early hour we fall over a huge breakfast next door, the lady brings rice, eggs and beans, this morning she confesses that she converted to evangelicalism after her husband died of lung cancer and left her with 6 daughters, but she finds it odd that they forbade her to cry on funerals.
I help Ronaldo rig up the beast, a 20l canister of water, huge amounts of food, the tent and our backpacks, all stow inside two rice/coffee pouches that mount left and right in a very compact packing, with a rain tarp on the top, all tied down tightly on the horseback; there is only this one way of doing it. Then we walk out, wave a hasta luego, leave town swiftly so nobody could oppose us walking with Ronaldo instead of a cooperativa guy. Why didn't Umberto make it, I ask our Ronaldo, "he has already too many problems with the police" is his frank answer and soon he explains a lot more. There are two families that control the Carmelita area, the gum business, plant and wood cutting out here, now they wrestle for the tourist business. We would have to be careful, the police has gone into the jungle just yesterday, to take out guides and their tourists. We are headed north and I trot in front, follow the mule tracks in the mud, while C. questions Ronaldo, the horse follows at last. I drift out of their conversations, the jungle around has a still beauty and I hope to see some wildlife.
An hour or so into the jungle and I still have not fully understood, we meet a group of 10 pack-mules and two drovers coming the opposite direction, out of the jungle. The police is right behind them they warn us, "we have to hide, quickly" Christina conveys me Ronaldo's revolver decision. A minute later he drives our horse left, cross jungle, where you don't go because of the risk of snake encounters, snakes are plenty, big and venomous out here. But we go, follow the horse who breaks through the fern and palm thicket, further and further until we think we have gone far enough. Ronaldo ducks down, points us to do like wise, keep quiet while the mosquitoes bite in hundreds. Shortly after it seems we hear a group passing on the trail, but we keep down and wait without talking or moving for another 20 minutes, with no mercy from the mosquitoes, blood from scratched bites runs from my elbow, this is part of the jungle game; so-far in my life I've not hid from the police.
Then we move on, thanks the good horse kept silent, Ronaldo smiles. An hour later we reach a camp, we have hiked 10kms, here the talk is about nothing but la cooperativa and their bullying methods, just tonights actions show they are prepared to go ever farther. Sending 12 police and 4 military after 7 Guatemalan tourists, their 2 non-cooperativa guides and a couple of mule drovers has been unprecedented in the jungle, the police wasn't happy about their assignment in the jungle. What law is that based on I ask, who sets them in motion, no law, the judges are being bought, I hear.
We move on, still a long trek lies ahead. A half an hour later out of nothing a rustle starts up in the canopy, becomes louder, lluvia, rain. Sweat, salt and dust mix with rain water, it pours for roughly one hour, there is nothing we can do but get wet, then it stops. By 3 in the afternoon and we have walked some 20kms, we reach camp Tintal. There is a plant cutters (Xateros) camp near-by (the men cut leaves from the Xate palm tree that are used by the floral industry), the talk to no surprise is about the police in the jungle, one police guy was especially aggressive, threatened tourists and guides, this is the guy they paid, the cooperativa, a guy suggests. One guy says that one of the tourists was actually a judge himself, another guy says he was a member of congress and remembers him telling the police, that he would see to how this would play out.
I still cannot believe that a troupe of 10 or more officers were sent in the jungle, to stop what one 'agency' believes is illegal guiding, but hold on these 'independent' guides have been taking tourists in and out of the jungle for many years. "La cooperativa discriminates against us", argues Ronaldo, "they came up with a license system, but make it impossible for existing guides to get one". Ronaldo claims he walked in and out of the jungle with his father since he was a boy, those with licenses sometimes come from elsewhere, on top locals are not allowed to solicit their own clients. Those in Flores care fairly little about local involvement. There is a war going on and I think ahead that those who control who goes in and out of the jungle control what moves in and out. Drugs? We are very close to the Mexican border and a bag can easily be taken on the old foot path. As a matter of fact the independents and the cooperativa have accused each other of stealing and trafficking in narcotics.
While the horse gets a rest and is watered in the near lake we contemplate over coffee and the Ronaldo suggest the incredible, to move on to avoid any police surprises over night, to compress the going-out two day hike in one. It is 4.30 p.m. when we reload the stallion and Christina complains of some urinal infection pain, why now at this strangest hour? Drink more water is my stupid, quickly given advise while we walk out, pee it out. This is one hour before sunset, 25kms to hike till El Mirador. All the food we've had since this morning were a few crackers and crackers will be all we get until El Mirador.
Night falls soon and we walk el Camino Maya, the ancient trail, and C. drinks a lot of water and pees a lot. First I go in front, C. behind me, then Ronaldo, then the horse; "light the way and search for snakes", tells me Ronaldo, but I don't really know what my job is, slow us down too much, look too tediously, but C. needs to pee anyway all the time. Eventually we change our set around, send the horse first and he goes swiftly, Ronaldo behind, then C., then me. We see two snakes, one is a baby barba amarilla (wiki, 'ultimate pit viper'), very venomous, older specimen can be very aggressive, I refuse to think at the what if out here 40 kms away from Carmelita, 100 from Flores. We walk very fast, just look one step ahead, one stone or root ahead most of the time, follow the horse, follow the steps in front, only stop to give C. time to urinate and refill her water bottle.
Camp El Mirador and La Danta.
It is shortly before midnight when Ronaldo smacks his machete 3 times on a rock, we have arrived at destination and he gives the old Maya sign to the guards of the El Mirador camp who wake for us and gather in the kitchen. After 45kms of trekking the whole day a late coffee is the soothing we need, with lots of sugar, that may help our sore legs, butts and shoulders. No food, we simply cannot be bothered. But over sweet coffee in the dim shining light of an oil lamp and the flicker of the kettle fire, out here a stone throw away from the Mexican border at midnight the jungle's main topic is being discussed, la cooperativa, the mafia's (as one said it) actions and tactics.
The mind cannot grasp yet what long way we have come and at the latest hour a dead body wants to lie down flat, even when the aching bones rebel on the thin, moist mattress. Sleep finally takes over but is as fitful as the nightly bleating jungle, C. steps out to pee so many times still. 5 hours later the roars outside are real, as if war had come over the Maya jungle and I should be frightened as a referee confronted by a troupe of screaming football hooligans. Theses are howler monkeys and they perform a deafening morning ritual in the trees above camp, good morning Mundo Maya.
Very knowledgable Old Felipe prepares a bitter brew of the leaves of the guarumo (wiki) tree that he collected early in the morning, he is one of the welcoming guardians in El Mirador and he warns that under no circumstances one should drink it hot, but cold a single glass can wipe out a urinal infection, in late morning C.'s pain is already gone, to our all amazement. Felipe tells other stories from the jungle that worked miracles, of grinding dried barba amarilla snake and that taking the powder with his morning coffee once healed him of a very painful hernia he had, Felipe swears barba amarilla powder even can heal cancer.
Our guide Ronaldo has been no stranger to the amazing guards since his father worked with the archeologists and took the boy to the jungle; we can use their compound, are allowed to use their kitchen. While we treat ourselves to coffee and sugar and listen to Felipe Ronaldo prepares a grand jungle breakfast, above all corn tortillas as this gives energy, eggs and beans.
We set out to explore the El Mirador site late this morning, follow a 2kms long zapote gum tree (wiki, Maya gum) trail, the barks of those trees show deep scars as they're being cut every 7 years for the liquid which is used for making chewing gum. Zapote also carries a sweat fruit which the spider monkeys love too who have fun high up in the canopy. The cute looking animals are classified as an endangered species, here they receive us with loud shrieks and we screech back which initiates wild acrobatic show-off tirades on their part, but those ghostly long armed creatures are known for other non-verbal forms of communication, sometimes they throw stuff at you or pee down, tells us Ronaldo.
La Danta then is enormous, has a partly excavated base of vast dimensions making it by measure of volume the biggest pyramid in the world (wiki). We climb the 70m high top, look out over the Maya jungle and unbelieving try to imagine where we have come from, all the way under the canopy and much at night. I calibrate my GPS and type in Calakmul, it is just north in Mexico 41kms away, then Caracol, in Belize 136kms away a bit south-east, so is El Pilar 97kms away, Palenque is west more than 200 away, this summer my boys, Christina and I went to all these fabulous Maya places. Just it daunts that all mentioned sites (maybe apart from El Pilar) strived much later during the classic period till 1000 A.D. El Mirador with La Danta was built about 800 years earlier, its population of maybe 100,000 abandoned the site around 150 A.D., the first Maya collapse! It is easy to get blown away by the numbers alone and the extent and grandeur of what might represent the earliest well-defined political state, but what exalts us is the site's remoteness and the fact that we defied mosquitoes, police, rain and snakes on a nightly jungle trek of 45kms and now look beyond the boundaries of wilderness, the boundaries established by nature.
Ronaldo shows us some other important structures, some lately important finds included a particularly impressive relief (archeology.org) in a Maya water collection compound depicting the Maya creation story, restoration work is underway. Late and tired we climb El Tigre temple/pyramid for sundown behind clouds; in all humbleness we thank the Maya Gods.
On top of the world, Maya Nakbe.
3rd day morning is once more relaxed, with coffee in hand we watch wild turkeys being fed corn by the guards in the camp area, also two toucans rest for a second in the tree above the kitchen, late in the matinee we pack and leave for Nakbe. The other grand ancient Maya city is reached east by a nimble 14kms walk, hilly and at times muddy. I go way in front for a chance to peak wildlife but apart from some pheasants and spider monkeys at the end only a few tiny camouflaged toads on the path show up. In the end, already near Nakbe camp Ronaldo grabs a nonvenomous baby snake, it takes a trained eye to see.
For a chance of a sunset we climb Nakbe (wiki) pyramid and are once more taken by the indefinite horizon of la selva, the jungle, the tiny blip at the bottom on the right is El Mirador's la Danta on whose top we sat the day before.
Two cola de hueso Snakes in Love.
4th day we set out early and I ask the universe for wildlife. A long days's walk lies ahead and for most of the trek 2000 year old Maya 'houses' line our path, smaller and larger heaps of stones all overgrown by the forest, the fringes of the old Nakbe city which stretched far out, or buildings lining the main trail south? I don't know, but I am astounded by the regularity that caves and tunnels lead to the central parts of the structures, nightly digs by looters in distances of 5 meters or less; there are hundreds. Trafficking in Maya artifacts is big business, of an estimated 10million USDs a month as thousands of Maya pottery pieces leave the El Peten basin.
On the trail I walk far ahead in front of the others and curious and alert like Indiana Jones I duck down to glimpse through the bushes for a closer look in the tunnel. Sweaty and my glasses steamy with mosquitoes buzzing around my face I cannot immediately make things out clearly but something big, green and long certainly moves there between the stones, rather gracefully and rather two than one. I back off and wait for Ronaldo and C. Then we dare again and watch two intertwined snakes copulating, 1.5 meters long each, "cola de hueso, don't go to far, they are big and may attack". I shake while I take pictures; I am simply damn afraid of big snakes. P.S.: Anyone knows their scientific name? Are they really in Spanish cola de hueso?
Out of the Maya jungle and back in Flores.
For the rest of the trail we only stop once to give a break to our brave horse. Before nightfall, after 33kms we approach la Floridas camp for a 4th night in the jungle. Completely exhausted and there is no more coffee as we shared it all with the guardians, sugary hot water and milk concentrate must do. Ronaldo compensates and prepares a great noodle dish and tortillas and beans, but our grand leader himself suffers from a cold from the rains of the first day.
The police in the jungle and the methods of the cooperativa are still number one theme for the families who live and work in the rain forest. As for us our plan how to walk out without detection has been clear for a while. We would get up in the middle of the night; so better go to bed early. C.'s urinal pain is a thing of the past, but then - she focuses her energy on the old scabies scares that allegedly emit from the mattresses.
1 a.m. and I wake with no alarm, we pack up and leave, send the horse in front and while all around the howler monkeys start their frightening and blaring concerts we stumble swiftly along the muddy mule tracks for two and a half hours and reach Carmelita. As we enter the village by the back door we keep the flash lights turned off and reflect on the evening 5 days ago, what an adventure tour of 110kms. We hug Ronaldo, stick him a sound tip, then hop on the bus at 5. The police enters shortly after at the 1st checkpoint but show little interest in us, an hour later when sun rises we are back at the van and to our luck the road has dried up considerably in the past 5 days, driving back is much easier. At the military checkpoint and the one by the forestry again nobody wants anything from us, we are out and happy but would keep a low profile in Flores.
Was our fear justified? We don't know. We had our grande jungle adventure, an amazing and knowledgable guide and fantastic companion on our sides and we managed to get a peak view onto local dirty jungle affairs. This night back in Flores to go with my Gallo beers I light a Romeo y Julieta Cuban cigar and smoke it down till the tips of my fingers burn off. Next day I am sick and think of Ronaldo. Next day we also manage a shower and C. goes and buys cream against scabies.
Maya Tikal after all.
What can we expect in Maya Tikal (wiki) after the great hike in the jungles around El Mirador? Tourists, rules, idiot bureaucracy and dollarization. The imaginary signs are up "tourists give us your money!". But we are easy and accept the partly overcrowded luna park atmosphere. Just then atop of structure 4 in late afternoon we are surprised as not so many crawl up yet another pyramid, it is a perfect divine spot, howler monkeys howl in a distance, parrots chatter in a close fly-by, apart all is quiet and the Grand Plaza Temples that stick out of the canopy in front of us go down slowly in a sea of haze. Tikal is maybe the jewel amongst the Maya ruins and we hang out there on top for a while because maybe I know this would be the last of the Maya sites I would see.
Befor El Mirador, descending from the Western Highlands to Laguna Lachuá.
This page is obviously completely overshadowed by the main events of the El Mirador hike and shamefully these long days prior driving over the Western Highland mountains north from Todos Santos take a backseat when they were maybe the most beautiful days on very difficult to drive roads. First we stay for the longest part above 3000m and I start having my doubts whether this road would ever descend to the lower plains so near. Eventually we leave the pines and drop into the clouds and this is where the dirt road starts, damn scary with dead breaks, northern Huehuetenango and El Quiché is a bit forgotten country, border country, drug trafficking country, so beautiful bush and fields country and I remember that I drove the opposite direction on the other side in Chiapas with my boys.
Via Barilla and Playa Grande and countless villages in between we struggle to Laguna Lachuá on almost 200kms of bad and rough tracks.
Laguna Lachuá then is a friendly, humble place, a national park comprising a lagoon lake with surrounding bio-divers jungle and old Lorenzo has worked here for 27 years, some years were horrible amidst the worst of the civil war slaughters with rebel and army fractions moving in and out. About the water color he says it has not changed since he started here and smiles.
We hike out, watch for snakes and take a bath in the lake and small fish bite feeding off our dead skins.