When last we heard from them in the tropics, our world travelers Ramona Eichhorn and Uwe Krauss had crossed Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras on their KTM 640 Adventures. They now take us into Guatemala to explore the Mayan heartland of Central America.
The road curves from the mountains into the humid lowlands of northeastern Guatemala. The air remains thick for hundreds of miles, and the pavement that slices through the monotony of rolling pastures only occasionally passes by colorful villages and homesteads. Painted in pastels, the picturesque town of Flores lies on an island in the lake Peten Izta. The colonial architecture, the narrow alleys, and the lake all radiate a vibrant Mediterranean mood; and only the appearance of a man wearing a sombrero and paddling past in his dugout, with a bicycle strapped to the top, reminds us that we are in Central America.
A half-hour ride from Flores, we see the Maya pyramids of Tikal towering amid the thick jungle canopy and arranged like stoic sentinels guarding relics and ancient mysteries. Yellow signs on the way warn of snakes crossing the road. The large, bag-like nests of bayas (weaver birds) hang from branches. When the road ends, we continue on foot over a dark pathway piercing the dense foliage. Soon, we step onto a sunlit plain, and the vision we behold is impressive to say the least. The site, enclosed on all sides by jungle, is ringed with stone tribunes and stepped pyramids, some as tall as 200 feet. Parrots and toucans squawk and flit, and howler monkeys screech and scamper in the trees.
As we wander intricate pathways, entering the deep-green tangle beyond the cleared boundary, the jungle is splashed with brilliant, exotic flowers, and we "discover" even more ruins. Altogether, the archeological site of Tikal consists of more than 3,000 structures, including palaces, temples, steam baths, and ceremonial platforms. Built sometime around 600 B.C., Tikal became a prosperous metropolis of 100,000 inhabitants, and for the next 1,500 years the area was a vital religious, scientific, and political center. We constantly look out for snakes as we go, expecting one to uncoil and hiss from a tree limb. And at last, safe from that kind of harm, we climb one of the highest pyramids to watch the sun disappear: a bright orange disk dipping into the great green sea of leaves.
We now understand why many consider this one of the most spiritually powerful spots on earth, and as light fades we're left to wonder what made such a highly-developed Indian civilization, one that built these magnificent structures with the simplest of tools, die out? Assumptions range from overpopulation to diseases to a catastrophic environmental event. Whatever it was, before the conquistadors had set foot in America, well before Tikal was first discovered in 1695, the Maya had disappeared. When archeological excavations began in 1956, the entire complex of temples and plazas was completely ensnared by jungle.
Back in the mountains, the condition of the dirt road worsens with every mile. It takes us three hours to cover 40 miles, punctuated by an unexpected flight over my handlebars. A mirror is cracked, the aluminum cases are dented again, and my ego has one more bruise.
The jungle gives way to vast banana and coffee plantations. On our way south we pass low wooden huts thatched with palm leaves. Local women, ablaze in the colors of their traditional clothes, shyly wave back. However, some of them do warm up to us as we watch tortillas being made in the kitchen of a little restaurant. From here to northern Mexico, these round flat dough-cakes, filled with onions, lamb, and hot paprika, are the staple diet.
Out of the Jungle
The Cahabon River flows out of a mountainside and shoots through the jungle at great speed only to submerge itself some 500 yards later underneath bright limestone sediments. A beautiful series of small ponds and crystal clear pools appear on a natural land bridge that crosses the river, and they shimmer in shades ranging from a light-green emerald to dark sapphire. Cascades feed these terraced swimming holes, and tiny fish swarm to nibble at our toes as we soak our bones in the paradise called Semuc Champey: Sacred Water.