A new hope … Tikal, one of the largest Mayan sites, deep in Guatemala's El Petén rainforest.
Climbing up a short steep incline, I dodge around the twisting roots of a strangling fig tree and push my way through into the ruined building. There was once a room here, but the roof has long since collapsed under the weight of jungle vegetation. Some of the ancient plasterwork appears to be intact and in one corner, just above the mounds of rubble and earth, is a mark, a single handprint in a deep red colour. Measuring my hand over it, I find it is about the same size – a 2,000-year-old handshake and as close as I will get to making contact with the ancient Mayans. Had the owner of this hand been a builder? A resident? A sacrificial victim whose heart was about to be cut out with an obsidian knife? No one can answer those questions because this entire site, a ruined complex deep in the Guatemalan jungle, is itself a mystery.
Locals call it El Pollo – the Chicken; others say it is San Antonio. Whatever the name, Bernie, our local guide, points out that it was an important spot. "Right on a trade route that came across the isthmus, from the Caribbean to the Pacific."
Given such significance, and all the impressive remains of pyramids and palaces, you might also expect a glut of tourists, but you would be wrong. Our little group is alone: just myself, wife Sophie, daughter Maddy, Bernie and a single caretaker guard. We find him sitting under a thatched shelter and he tells us that he sees fewer than a hundred people a year – and most of those are local schoolchildren. No guidebook mentions this place. Nobody comes. The only sound apart from our own voices is the triple honk of a toucan up in the forest canopy.
Ever since the rediscovery of Mayan ruins by Western explorers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we have been fascinated by a culture radically different from our own: one without functional wheels or metals, but possessing complex mathematics and architecture. Their hieroglyphics are still not fully understood, and the nature of their society remains enigmatic. Were they demonic savages addicted to blood sacrifice, or noble savants living in harmony with the jungle? The mystery draws visitors who want to feel proximity to the alien and magical. But that is precisely what most visitors never get – any sense of mystery disappears in a line of tour buses.
Mayan ruins and beach, Tulum, Mexico.
Our own Mayan experiences had certainly started without any hint of mystery. At Tulum on Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, we had seen the other side of the Mayan attraction business. A vast tourist car park was followed by a shopping mall and visitor area where men dressed in feathers and skins were having their picture taken for a fee. People emerged from their coaches and boarded electric cars that delivered them to the ruins, ready to be marshalled round.
The setting of the ancient city was spectacular – on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean – but most visitor time was spent shuffling along, waiting for the group in front to proceed. With irritation levels rising, I'd fought back a desire to grab an obsidian knife and make some brutal sacrifices to the rain god Chac. Fortunately all those lethal artefacts had been sent to museums. I cooled down with a swim beneath the cliffs and resolved that my mission was to find the real Maya experience, the one with some mystery intact.
It is not only mass tourism that has obscured an appreciation of ancient Mayans. When Hernán Cortés arrived on the coast of Yucatán in February 1519, the civilisation was around 3,500 years old. Many great cities and temples were already ruins lost in jungle and many cultural practices had been and gone. Nevertheless the conquistadores set about dismantling what existed. Temples were demolished to make way for the fortress-like churches that still dominate many of the towns in Central America. At San Rafael, a tiny Mexican village further north in Yucatán state, I found Mayan inscriptions in the stones of the church. At other places, like the stunningly attractive town of Izamal, the Mayan heritage is all in the faces of the peasants passing through the square below the imposing 16th-century convent of San Antonio de Padua.
South of the state capital, Mérida, is Maní, a small settlement with a huge basilica, outside which Bishop Diego de Landa conducted a notorious auto-da-fé, torturing locals for idolatry and burning a treasury of Mayan books. Only a handful remain.
Sophie exploring the Mayan ruins of San Antonio, and a death mask at Campeche museum.
Apart from grave-robbers, hardly anyone showed any interest in the Mayan heritage for the subsequent three centuries. What remained was scattered and neglected. At Campeche, a gem of an old colonial city on the east coast of the peninsula, there is a museum in an old Spanish fort where you can view some surviving relics – dazzling jade death masks and ornate pottery. It's a small reminder of the huge amount that has been lost.
The big three Mayan sites for tourists are Chichen Itza and Tulum in Mexico, and Tikal in Guatemala. The first two are popular because it is possible to do them in a day from Cancún; the third I found to be significantly quieter and far more atmospheric. And yet I wanted more. I wanted to be the only one. I wanted that feeling of pushing through steamy jungle and stumbling on a lost civilisation where the only sound for centuries has been the eerie cry of the howler monkey.
Mayan sites are scattered over several countries: Mexico, Belize and Guatemala have the majority while El Salvador and Honduras have fewer. In Belize most of the major places are accessible from San Ignacio, a small town near the Guatemalan border. The one I had heard about was the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, a sacrificial site discovered in 1992 and featured in a National Geographic documentary.
To visit takes a whole day: driving into the jungled hills, wading across rivers and finally swimming and scrambling a kilometre underground to reach an area where the Mayans practised human sacrifice. Skulls and pots lie all around under crystalline rock formations that appear to have been modified to resemble Mayan gods. It is a remarkable trip, but I'd come on a busy day and even as I crouched before the skeleton of a human sacrificial victim known as the Crystal Maiden, attempting to conjure up some shivers of Mayan mystery, there was a whining voice in the background saying, "Can we hurry it up? There's another group right behind."
And so we find ourselves on the shores of Lake Petén in northern Guatemala, waiting for Bernie Mittelstaedt and Lori Castillo. I'd tracked them down through the Responsible Travel website and a few telephone calls to Lori in their jungle eco-retreat, Ni'tun Lodge, confirmed that they believed they could produce what I want: the Maya with mystery. Born in Guatemala, Bernie is a seasoned jungle-basher whose speciality is reaching the remotest and least-visited sites in the north, a vast region still largely covered in thick jungle. He picks us up by boat from Flores, a delightful island city on the lake, and takes us across the water to their lodge, pointing out sites of interest en route.
"This area was the last to be conquered by the Spanish, in the late 17th century," he tells us. "There are all sorts of sites in the jungles around. Obviously Tikal, but that's got lots of tourists. Yaxhá is great but people do go there. There are others though – places that get very few, or no, visitors. And some are really astonishing…"
He leaves this promise hanging and points ahead, across the perfectly smooth lake, to where a wooden jetty appears. Behind it is a solid wall of jungle.
"That's us. Ni'tun. The lodge is under the tree canopy."
We land and explore the astonishing hillside retreat that Bernie and Lori have constructed: thatched dwellings with adobe walls all surrounded by the flora and fauna of the forest. Hummingbirds sip nectar from a feeder in the open-air kitchen while two rescued parrots – Bartolo and Silvio – hop about. On the kitchen shelf, beside the well-thumbed books, there are the skulls of spider monkeys.
Bernie has done plenty of jungle exploration in his time and confirms that there are hundreds of ruins that are hardly ever visited: "There are amazing places like El Mirador – that's a month's trekking with mules. But for you I recommend San Antonio. Locals call it El Pollo – the Chicken."
Next day we set out by 4x4, leaving the tarmac after a few miles and bouncing along jungle tracks for a couple of hours. Finally we reach a clearing where the meditative guard greets us from under his thatched roof. We are the first visitors for a month, he confirms.
Leaving the car behind, we set off up a narrow footpath with jungle on all sides. Then vast shapes come looming out of the trees: great pyramidal mountains covered in ferns and undergrowth, then a small clearing between two banks.
"That's where they played their ball game, pitz," Bernie explains. The Mayans' notorious sport, something akin to pelota, was a serious business. The solid rubber ball was so heavy that a blow to the face could kill, and even after the game the danger was not always over. In the ritual version, played on courts like this in front of the temple, the loser, or possibly the victor – no one is quite sure which – was ritually decapitated, their skull placed on a nearby rack, ready, no doubt, to welcome the next visiting team. It's a tradition that would certainly freshen up the Premiership.
In the nearby palace we find the red handprint on the wall of one ruined room, then scrawls of graffiti on walls showing feathered warriors and serpents. The entire experience is very nearly what I want.
Back at Ni'tun, Bernie is amused. "One hundred visitors per year – is 99 too many for you? You want to do it without a guide?" He considers. "OK. You take the kayaks that we have here and paddle along the lake shore. Get around the next peninsula and start looking in the trees. You should see some mounds. That is Ni'tun, the place we named this lodge after. No one – and I mean no one – goes there."
Sophie, Lake Petén, Guatemala, paddling to Ni'tun.
Next day we set out, the three of us in a single kayak. Following Bernie's instructions we round the point and paddle along, scanning the trees to our right. Tall beds of reeds block our view and we land twice to try to see. At one landing place a tiny Mayan farmer answers in halting Spanish. "Ruinas? No, señor, I don't know."
We go on. Great blue herons haul themselves into the air and flap away. A belted kingfisher – one of five species on the lake – hovers then dives. Fish jump. Eventually we land and trek through pasture to the top of a small rise. Mosquitoes and sand flies begin to feast. Among the trees we can see a small hill, suspiciously pyramidal, though covered in vegetation. An attempt to reach it, however, ends in failure: barbed wire and thorny undergrowth block our way. Maddy and Sophie elect to go back to the kayak. I press on, determined. Clambering through one set of barbed wire, I get lost in a thicket, then run into more wire. Parakeets clatter out of the trees and then suddenly there is a man, standing before me with a gun.
"Buenas tardes," he calls, apparently friendly.
"Buscando las ruinas," I reply in my appalling Spanish. "Ni'tun. Pyramid. Temple. Maya." I run out of ideas.
He eyes me thoughtfully. "Antiqua?"
At least, that seems to be what he says. I nod enthusiastically. "Yes, sí! The Antiques!"
He indicates that I should follow him, taking a big detour to where there is a gate, then pushing through the undergrowth until we reach the foot of the hill. As soon as we start climbing, I know that this is it. Under the grass and bramble-like weeds, the hillside is stepped. At the summit, the farmer has put a plastic water tank, but I can see more pyramid-shaped hills. My armed friend points out the pitz court. I sit down and absorb the beauty of the scene, the late afternoon sunlight spreading a golden hue over the site of this lost city.
It was at Nit'un, and at Tayasal, across the lake, that the last flickers of Mayan civilisation were extinguished. The people here welcomed Cortés and tried to humour him with a statue of a stone horse. Unfortunately it fell into the lake and disappeared, though a legend says that it rises up occasionally and peers from the gloomy depths. It did them no good. In 1697 the Spanish decided to end this independent rump state and seized the area, destroying the last collection of Mayan books.
My new-found friend, Hilmar, the gunman, says something. I look up. Far away I can hear a distant cry. Sophie and Maddy are shouting, "Kevin! Mosquitoes!" They are being eaten and the insect-repellent is in my camera bag. Reluctantly I stand up, thank Hilmar, and set off back down at a trot. I had found my Mayan mystery, but now it is time to save my family from the modern touristic form of an ancient Mayan ritual: the blood sacrifice.