Inside La Muerta, a group of stone tombs abandoned some 1,500 years ago, I breathed in the dark tunnel's musty air, a place only intended for the dead. At our guide's direction, I crawled into another chamber, an ancient burial place for Maya nobility. At the back of the chamber I was excited to find a vampire bat, then beat a hasty retreat upon spotting an enormous cockroach on the wall below it.
This was my second day in the jungle empire of Reino Kan, the Serpent King.
I was one of seven other hikers journeying to see the lost Maya city known as El Mirador, accessible only by foot or helicopter. A random assortment of travelers, we were accompanied by a cook, a guide and a mule boy in charge of the pack animals that hauled our food, water and bags for the five days we would spend trekking in the northern Guatemalan jungle.
Our group had met in Flores, an island town 300 miles north of Guatemala City and three hours from Carmelita, a desolate village nestled at the edge of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. To get there, our van creeped up and over sandy hills through farmlands — the forest long sheared off to make room for corn and cattle. When we finally reached Carmelita and the jungle, we began the long, hot march to our first site: Tintal.
First, to Tintal
"This is like a guerrilla camp," said Anthony Pagliani, one of my fellow trekkers.
A Googled photo of the Colombian FARC's jungle camps can give you a good idea of he meant. We entered Tintal, a ruined Maya settlement, and were surprised to see the camp buzzing with strings of mules and packhorses being led to and fro laden with water containers and other burdens. There were clusters of tents and hammocks strung in the trees, an open-air dining hall for workers and a team of archaeologists examining the day's findings in their hut.
That evening we watched the sunset from the top of a ruined temple, the sun's orb so defined it looked like it would ignite the trees once it hit the horizon. We looked to the north and saw a tiny hump rising from the otherwise flat, forested terrain. That was La Danta, one of the largest pyramids in the world, and our destination the next day.
Later that night I crawled into my tent and sprawled out on a foam pad, sweat trickling slowly and endlessly down the backs of my legs, a feeling I grew accustomed to for the four nights I spent in that heat. (A scorpion crawled out of my fellow traveler's tent, so I counted my blessings.)
The next morning we rose early to eat a traditional breakfast of tortillas, eggs and beans and began the next march past crumbling Mayan buildings punctured with holes that looters had dug out seeking treasures. Spider monkeys angrily shook branches at us as we drifted through the undergrowth below.
On our long walks I often chatted with our guide, Ambrosio Marín Gonzalez, a native of Carmelita and a member of the Carmelita Cooperative, the guiding company I went with.
With skinny bones covered in weather-worn skin and deep lines on his kind face, he was a man of many words. He told me about the ongoing construction for a hotel being built near Tintal — another piece in the debate over development versus ecological impact in Petén, a province in Guatemala stressed by mass deforestation — often related to narcotics trafficking — and pollution. I saw several newspaper articles about a proposal to build a train track from Carmelita to El Mirador to increase tourism.
Though he expressed doubts about the ecological harm the train could cause, Gonzalez said, "I hope they do build it. I'd like to ride it a few times before I die."
Next, on to El Mirador
We reached El Mirador that afternoon and I was struck by its immensity. Inspiration for scenes in Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto," El Mirador is believed to have been the largest city in the Western Hemisphere.
Following Gonzalez, we traipsed through El Mirador's various excavations, visited the Central Acropolis and learned how the triadic temples are aligned with constellations important in Mayan mythology.
Despite its size, El Mirador leaves much to the imagination. Dense jungle covers most of its ruins, and ocellated turkeys perch on seats that holy men once occupied. If you're a woman, imagine being marched slowly up a steep, red staircase to be cast onto the altar stone, hot on your skin, to have your blood spilled over it. See the jaguar's giant carved maw leering over you. If you're a man, imagine spinning and running in their version of the gladiator ring, an arena designed for the Juego de Pelota, a ball game played without use of arms or feet. The winner was given the ultimate gift of eternity: death.
The most evocative piece of art to aid our visualization was the Central Acropolis Frieze. Richard Hansen, the site's premier archaeologist and leading expert in Mayan lore, discovered this piece and is slowly restoring it. As our guide told us, Hansen learned that the carvings on this wall resemble the same myths found in the Popul Vuh, the Maya creation story recorded centuries after the fall of the Serpent King's dynasty. Historians use this as evidence that indigenous people today living 300 miles south in the Guatemalan highlands descended from Reino Kan's jungle inhabitants.
This spectacular carving was recently featured in Morgan Freeman's "Story of God" series on National Geographic. (He opted for a helicopter ride to El Mirador for the show during his trip to Guatemala instead of a string of pack mules). It depicts the Hero Twins, Mayan gods, carrying their father's head through the underworld, surrounded by intertwined snakes and birds.
That evening on La Danta, it rained. One of my companions thanked the Mayan rain god for the first shower of the season. Looking over the jungle, we could occasionally see a monkey leap out of the canopy far below. Gonzalez sat on the edge of the temple and surveyed the land for the umpteenth time in his career as a guide.
Exploring the animal world
On our second day's hike, our guide stopped and said, "Listen..."
I heard a series of warbly chirps coming from above us.
"Toucans," he said, scanning the canopy.
He then pointed to some bare branches far above us, and I studied them for a long time before spying the telltale yellow beaks of a pair of toucans.
Gonzalez was at different times in his life a guide, a chiclero (tree gum harvester) and an assistant to a jaguar biologist, but at heart he has always been a hunter. He has lived close to the earth his whole life. He told me about encounters with jaguars, mating tapirs and nearly every animal that lives under the Mayan sun. Experience has given him a deep respect for the mysteries concealed in the jungle's green tunnels and ruins.
"There are some animals in the jungle that never let you see them," he told me while describing a strange creature he chanced upon while hunting, one he thought might have been the devil in the form of a tiny deer with peculiar antlers. He was too terrified to shoot.
Hiking to El Mirador was for me as much about glimpsing the curious creatures that inhabit the jungle as it was about the repository of ancient Mayan culture encased in the ruins. Blue morpho butterflies floated across our trail, a crested guan perched long enough for me to catch a quick shot and coatis wandered around our camp at El Mirador.
Many tourists come to the region with the 'great illusion,' as Gonzalez called it, of seeing a big cat. The Maya Biosphere Reserve, extending into Belize and Mexico has one of the highest concentrations of jaguars in the world. We only found some clumps of monkey fur that had been buried in a pile of leaves, a construction Gonzalez believed to be a jaguar’s kill site.
On our last night, a group of seven howler monkeys, including two large males, had staked a claim to the fruit tree just above our huddle of tents. I watched them foraging peaceably and silently prayed they would move on before nightfall, knowing how impossible it would be to sleep should they turn territorial. That was an unanswered prayer, as I woke around 3 a.m. to the monkeys' Jurassic, guttural bellows.
The next morning we left the jungle and headed back to Flores, leaving Reino Kan far behind us.