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Guatemala: Stepping into the past

Following the ancient Mayans across Guatemala — from ruin-strewn rainforests to volatile volcanoes — reveals as much about modern society as it does a lost civilisation

Published 30 Jul 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 16:15 BST
View of Antigua from the Hill of the Cross, with a backdrop of Agua Volcano

View of Antigua from the Hill of the Cross, with a backdrop of Agua Volcano

Photograph by Getty

Hiking through the ruins of a near-2,000-year-old sports stadium — parrots flying overhead, jaguars roving unseen in the surrounding jungle — I recalled an oft-trotted-out quote from the late Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, who said: "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I can assure them it's much more serious than that."

Poor old Bill, I reflected, probably hadn't come here, to the abandoned city of Tikal in northern Guatemala, where the ancient Mayans played a game that really was a matter of life and death; as in those who lost, were killed. Not sacked or floated on the transfer market, but bludgeoned. Slain. Shown the sharp end of a sword. That's life and death. Not the English Premier League.

Much mystery still surrounds this murderous Mesoamerican sport — if we dare call it a sport — but my guide, Mario Ruano, reckoned it was played with a heavy rubber ball (ouch), which competitors had to strike with their hips (again, ouch).

We can learn a lot from the ancient Mayans; not about sport, perhaps — although the Premier League would probably garner even more attention if losing to Crystal Palace carried the death penalty — but about life, and how not to live it.

At least that's the conclusion I reached as I roamed the ruins of Tikal, which, in its heyday (200-900AD), was one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Mayan world.

Like most Mayan cities, Tikal is packed with lofty, limestone pyramids, which, in echoes of Ancient Egypt, were built as funerary temples for deceased rulers. Mario and I had spent the morning scaling some of them, saving the largest, Temple IV, until last.

We climbed tentatively and without looking down, and at a sun-bleached ledge near the top, we sat in silence. We looked out across the jungle, which stretched to the horizon in every direction; an endless carpet of green, punctuated by the stony summits of Tikal's other pyramids.

From our lofty vantage point we watched emerald toucans dart between trees and listened to the distant roar of what sounded like a Hollywood dinosaur, but was in fact the din of a howler monkey.

"Loudest land animal in the world!" exclaimed Mario, wiping the sweat from his brow. Later I would record the sound, which still brings me out in goosebumps.

The demise of Tikal and other Mayan cities, which started occurring around the ninth century, should serve as a cautionary tale for modern man. For while the Mayans, like us, had an understanding of complex subjects such as engineering and astronomy, their societies were unsustainable, which ultimately contributed to their downfall.

"To build Tikal the Mayans needed lots of cement, but to make cement they had to burn limestone," explained Mario. "This required huge amounts of firewood, which they got from cutting down the forest."

From atop Temple IV it was easy to imagine the surrounding jungle had been standing since the dawn of time, but when the Mayan civilisation was at its apogee, Tikal was a biological wasteland; they had essentially concreted over the rainforest or turned it over to agriculture.

Scientists believe this radical shift in land use changed the climate (sound familiar?) around Tikal and other Mayan cities, leading to droughts and crop failure. As the land withered, so too did the people.

Fearing unrest, the ruling classes proposed a radical solution: not green energy or sustainable living, but human sacrifices to the rain deity, Chaac. This wasn't a new ritual, but, explained Mario, it became more common when the drought set in. "The sacrifices became more intense, but the rain never came," he said. "People started rebelling."

We climbed down the pyramid and set off on a short trek through the forest. Though the hiking had been relatively light, scaling Tikal's temples had really taken it out of me. But the jungle is a place that preys on weakness — little beasties are drawn to weary explorers — so we moved quickly to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes and ants, whose sustainable subterranean cities had long outlasted the shortsighted human one above.

Nature prevails
As well as the folly of our species, Tikal stands as a testament to the resilience of nature, which started reclaiming the city when its citizens fled.

First to surrender were the pauper dwellings and maize fields on the outskirts of town. Then the jungle started nibbling away at Tikal's civic architecture — sports stadia, plazas, places of worship — before finally consuming the pyramids and royal palaces.

"After 100 years everything had come back," beamed Mario. "Jaguars, pumas, snakes, birds — all the animals we have today." The rainforest had swallowed Tikal. So much so that in 1525, the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, is thought to have trekked straight past the Mayan city without even noticing it.

Tikal has been wonderfully restored since its 'rediscovery' in the mid-19th century, but I found myself yearning for something a bit more, well, lost — or at least less found.

So the next morning I embarked on a trip to El Mirador, another long-abandoned Mayan metropolis, which is a two-day hike from the nearest civilised settlement. It is, by all accounts, a gruelling trek, not that I would know: I took a chopper instead, cutting the journey down to half an hour.

The helicopter offered a fresh perspective on the Guatemalan rainforest — and the problems facing it. From the sky I saw columns of smoke rise from the jungle, a telltale sign of slash-and-burn farming. My heart sank at the large tracts of forest that were turning to ash.

Soon, though, we were circling the verdant pyramids of El Mirador, which, from a distance, could easily be mistaken for hills. I could see how Cortés and his men managed to miss them on their expedition.

Greeting me at the helipad was Manuel Cruz who led me through the jungle to a ramshackle camp, where weary hikers, mainly from Germany, lay knackered in their tents; they'd just completed the two-day trek to  El Mirador.

"I have a lot of pain in my legs — so much pain," groaned Felix, an engineering student from Hamburg. "And I have to walk another two days to get back." I smiled sympathetically before telling him that I'd taken the chopper. He sighed.

The helicopter didn't exempt me from hiking, however, and I was soon trekking through the jungle again, this time to the largest Mayan pyramid: La Danta, which Manuel helped excavate.

Joining us for the hike was a Guatemalan TV crew, who were putting together a documentary on El Mirador, and Juan Rivera, a birdwatcher and environmentalist, who works for the Guatemalan tour operator, K'uk Tours. Juan's company was seeing a sharp uptick in interest for hiking trips to  El Mirador, which retains an undiscovered charm.

We encountered just two other tourists roaming the overgrown ruins, a sharp contrast to Tikal where they arrived by the busload. In fact we saw more howler monkeys than we did people; their diminutive size belying their deafening roar.

Much sweat was produced climbing La Danta. At the top I took shade beneath a tree, sitting down next to a lizard. "We're on the roof of the Mayan world now," said Juan, looking across the rainforest. "Nowhere else compares to El Mirador." A statement I couldn't disagree with.

I chilled out with the lizard and marvelled at the tree we were sitting under. It must have been 20ft tall, yet it grew atop the pyramid with no soil and very little water. It wasn't just surviving, but thriving; it was a miracle.

Heading south
After the fall of El Mirador and other once-powerful kingdoms, many Mayans headed south to start new lives in the foothills of the volcanoes. Different kinds of pyramids.

This would, many years later, put them on a collision course with the Spanish, who arrived in modern-day Guatemala in the 16th century, and established the all-powerful city of Antigua.

The conquistadors used indigenous labour to construct Antigua, which was all-but destroyed by a deadly earthquake in 1773. Another quake left a similar trail of devastation in 1976, but again the city picked itself up and dusted itself off. Today Antigua endures as one of the most striking colonial cities in Central America; its crumbling churches, victims of the last quake, merely adding to its beauty.

Antigua sits roughly 10 miles as the crow flies from the Fuego-Acatenango volcano complex, which made headlines in June following the deadly eruption of Fuego. Dozens were killed, hundreds injured and thousands left homeless by the devastating geological event, which scientists were unable to predict.

Though active volcanoes are wont to acts of intermittent and devastating violence, they also provide fertile land for agriculture and, in the case of Fuego, opportunities for tourism. Indeed, some weeks before the eruption, I'd embarked on a hiking expedition up Acatenango volcano, with the express intention of camping at the top and watching Fuego erupt. Not erupt as it would on 3 June, just cough and splutter, which it did several times an hour.

It's a popular expedition that provides employment for many people in the region, including Pami Mendizabal, founder of Hiking Guatemala, who, with the help of her porters, leads regular trips up Acatenango.

"It's very special to see an active volcano," Pami had told me, words that would later seem vaguely haunting. The truth is, though, she was right. Watching Fuego billow smoke and splutter lava — feeling the ground shake as it rumbled — was spectacular. The seething volcano had a savage beauty.

Also spectacular was my altitude sickness. The 6.5-hour trek up Acatenango had taken me beyond an elevation I'm comfortable with and I spent much of the night being violently sick out of my tent; erupting almost in unison with Fuego. The howling wind and sub-zero temperatures further tested my resolve; at one point I became delirious. Like the Mayans, I had peaked too soon.


Getting there & around

There are no direct flights to Guatemala from the UK, but Iberia flies to Guatemala City via Madrid. 

Guatemala's famous 'chicken buses' go almost anywhere in the country and are the cheapest and most memorable mode of transport.

Internal flights can be arranged through Tag and Avianca

When to go
High season (December to April — average temperature 26C) is the best time to go if you're trekking to El Mirador, which means you'll avoid the rain. Low season (April to September — average temperature 23C) is best to avoid the crowds and get the best deals.

More info
Guatemala by Lonely Planet (£14.99)

Check FCO advice for latest safety updates. 

Produced in association with Visit Guatemala

Follow @gavin_haines

Published in the Adventure guide, distributed with the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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