Mayan ruins of Central America transport visitors back in time
BY SUSAN C. HEGGER
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
TIKAL, Guatemala - It was raining - but what did I expect? We were in a rain forest.
Still, a wave of disappointment washed over me as I pulled the rain poncho out of my backpack. Here we were, finally, in Tikal, which for years had been at the tippy-top of my must-see-in-this-lifetime list, and it was raining - raining after days of sunshine.
Was this a sign that Chac, the Mayan rain god, was angry at us? Or was this his perverse way of smiling?
Still, even in the rain, Tikal managed to enthrall. Even I had to admit that the gray mists swirling around a lonely temple's top only added to its mysterious beauty.
Tikal cannot help but impress. Its size, wildness and remote location make it seem as if you're entering a lost world. That impression begins with the long walk through the jungle from the parking lot to any of the structures in Tikal National Park. (Fortunately, our resourceful guide Mario Soto wangled a deal with guards to let our van park close to a major complex.) Once you're on-site, the paths winding through the thick vegetation and leading to the different complexes - as well as the frequent screeches of howler monkeys - only underscore the otherworldly atmosphere.
Then there are the temples, which are, for me, the most beautiful in the Mayan world. Built between A.D. 600-800, they are tall, steep pyramids with roof combs that add majesty and height.
In the Grand Plaza are two of Tikal's most restored and magnificent temples - Temple I (Temple of the Jaguar) on the east and Temple II (Temple of the Masks) on the west. A wooden staircase built on the side of Temple II allows visitors a less traumatic climb to the top.
Believe me, as someone with no love of heights, these staircases are a breeze compared to the pyramids' steep, narrow steps, but more important, the staircase helps preserve these structures.
On the day that we visited, we were fortunate to see two different groups of Mayan Indians from the Antigua region perform traditional rituals - one group in the Grand Plaza and the other in the Mundo Perdido, where the park's largest pyramid is. Dressed in their colorful traditional clothes, the Indians encircled campfires, lit incense, spread flowers along the rim of the incense burners and engaged in prayers and chanting. It was moving to witness this link to the past.
My biggest thrill came on the top of Temple IV (Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent). We first saw the temple, just the top actually, peeking through the trees as we left the Grand Plaza. The body of the pyramid remains unexcavated, encased in soil, vines and grass. From the distance, I saw specks of red and yellow on the temple's ledge - tourists in their rain ponchos.
"The only reason to go to the temple is if you're going to climb it," our guide, Mario, said. Half the group took up his dare.
After climbing a wooden staircase of 212 steps, we reached the pinnacle, stopped and gazed. We were rewarded with a literally breathtaking panorama of the dark green forest canopy punctuated by the tops of three pyramids enshrouded in mist. Spectacular.
"Now imagine," said Mario, "that all the trees are gone, that the pyramids are painted bright red and that a vast city is spread out in front of you."
That startling vision lasts but a second before the jungle takes over again.
COPAN, Honduras - 18-Rabbit was the king of Copan for 43 years, from July 9, 695, to May 3, 738, when he was unceremoniously beheaded by the rival leader of Quirigua. During his reign, 18-Rabbit, also known as Waxaklahun Ubah K'awil, was an extraordinary patron of the arts.
He designed Copan's Great Plaza, started the Hieroglyphic Stairway and, as memorably, commissioned the seven incredible stelae dating from Dec. 11, 711, to July 22, 736. All of these sculptures are reportedly still positioned where they originally stood in the Great Plaza, and each depicts 18-Rabbit as one of the Mayan gods. Our Honduran guide, Jorge Barraza, even suggested that these stelae chronicle 18-Rabbit's own transformation into a god.
The images on each of the stelae are detailed, dense and highly stylized - evidence of the Mayans' rich cosmology and visual imagination. Deconstructing an image provides a lesson in Mayan mythology and symbols.
It's easy to marvel at the creativity and skill that produced these works of art, and I certainly did while standing in the Great Plaza on a recent hot, sunny day. But I also couldn't help marveling that we know about a king named 18-Rabbit, that we can in fact identify the kings of Copan by name and that we even know the name of the real-life founder of Copan: Yax K'uk Mo' (a Toltec from Mexico) who arrived in A.D. 426.
A whole new world quite literally opened up when the Mayan code was finally broken about a quarter-century ago. Now we realize that these stelae record actual history, not myth. The more Mayan epigraphers are able to decipher, however painstakingly, the more they are unveiling the details of an American history.
Copan has architectural structures that amaze: the jewel-like ball court where the players tried to hit the scarlet macaw figures with the ball; the Hieroglyphic Stairway, with its menacing gargoyles and out-of-order historical glyphs (rebuilt before archaeologists could decipher the code); and enough structures to satisfy a climbing jones.
But as I looked at 18-Rabbit's many portraits or the depiction of Yax K'uk Mo' on Altar Q in front of Temple 16, I realized that it's this rich history that makes Copan come alive.
That point was driven home by David Sedat, an archaeologist with the University of Pennsylvania. In a talk at his home in Copan Ruinas that could have been titled "CSI: Copan," Sedat described in detail the remains from two burials.
The first, he said, was "one of the richest interments in the Mayan world" - an 80-something woman with pearls and carved jade objects around her head. She must have been powerful, because Mayans visited her grave after she died and painted her bones with cinnabar. Could she have been the matriarch of Copan? The mother of a ruler?
Below her was another tomb, holding the remains of a man, 60ish, wearing the same bar pectoral, or chest ornament, as the one of the image of the founder on Altar Q. He had injuries consistent with hand-to-hand combat.
Sedat was tantalizing but noncommittal: Could it be Yax K'uk Mo' himself?
CARACOL, Belize - Except for the last 12 miles, the road to Caracol through the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve is a nightmare: muddy, unpaved, full of ruts and potholes. I doubt that our driver exceeded 25 miles an hour as we crawled along, dodging huge crevices in the road.
The only upside: We went so slowly that we could actually see the birds our guide pointed out. I don't think I'll ever forget the toucan I saw flying over the van. (The visibility was helped, unfortunately, by the sad fact that the Canadian beetle has devastated the pine forests of this area.)
After an hour and a half that seemed an eternity, we reached Caracol, the third and last major Mayan site of our trip.
Though less restored, and so less visually impressive, than Copan and Tikal, Caracol - whose Mayan name means "place of three mountains" - was at least as important, if not more so. At its apex (A.D. 250-950), its population is thought to have been somewhere between 140,000 to 200,000. And it was a considerable military power, defeating Tikal in 562.
By the time we reached Caracol, I'd become a climbing fool, no matter what the weather. Despite the rain, I was more than ready for Caana, Caracol's largest pyramid, which rises 140 feet above the jungle floor and is reportedly the tallest structure in Belize. (The second-tallest structure in Belize is El Castillo, another Mayan pyramid, at Xuantunich, a site we'd visited six months earlier.)
This time, we mounted the staircase like the Mayans, not from any wooden staircase on the side. Ascending as the Mayans intended, we were struck by the grandeur of the structure and our smallness. When we reached the platform at the top, we had something of a surprise - low walls (perhaps the remains of the royal living quarters) and three temples, possibly representing the three mountains: one on the left, the right and center back. From the bottom they'd been barely discernible.
Of course, for old times' sake, they had to be scaled.
IF YOU GO:
Getting there and getting around: We visited Tikal, Copan and Caracol as part of a two-week small-group tour called "The Route of the Maya," organized by Overseas Adventure Travel and including other destinations in Guatemala and El Salvador.
The tour was terrific, in large part because of our expert guide Mario Soto, a walking encyclopedia of Mayan culture, ancient and modern, as well as a kind and thoughtful gentleman.
Given the amount of territory we covered in two weeks, we definitely appreciated the ease of traveling in a small organized group.
Safety concerns: We encountered no problems at all - although when we left Tikal, we did have a police escort to the Belize border.
Susan C. Hegger: [email protected]
Posted on Mon, May. 22, 2006 http://www.sanluisobispo.com/mld/sanluisobispo/14639280.htm?template=contentModules/printstory.jsp