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Dodging jaguar in the jungles of Tikal


No one had been to Tikal for a thousand years following its 14 centuries of use. Now it had been discovered and mostly or partly uncovered. Aside from tall pyramids which look like curious green mountains, the area is a blurry tangle of dark green. There’s no telling how many more buildings, jade carvings, stelae, and canals await future explorers.

Why the residents left is yet the subject of conjecture and hot debate among archeologists and anthropologists (who seldom agree with each other even in matters of the simplest complexity anyway).

Always fascinated by the Mayan dual writing system, I made sketches of that which I could find carved in rock. I still have trouble understanding how the Aztec groups to the North and the later Inca Empire to the south functioned so well without the use of writing. And the Mayans appreciated its value as evidenced in this report I happened upon much later:

…the [Spaniard’s] book had frightened him more [than his weapons]. In all the world only real human beings, only Maya, had books. Others, like the Mexica, had pictures of course, but not the written words of ancestors and heroes, not the prophecies of the star companions. Books were records of the past, they were the truth, the guides to the cycles. ( Schele 378)

The ancient ruins at Tikal

The 'Lost City' of Tikal

The nearest Indians were way back near Flores. Save for the possibility of an occasional archeologist, nobody was here. Temple One, an intentionally steep pyramid, loomed 20 stories in front of us. There is no doubt it was designed to impress people. It impressed us as well. What curious–if morbid–history of blood-letting and perhaps human sacrifice involved this very spot upon which we stood!

Only Kathi, always cool and decently athletic, was willing to climb its 365 extra-steep steps. (The Mayan year, as does ours, has 365 days. Each step represents one day.) And, she had dressed for the occasion, but not in woven cotton pants, Vietnam boots, and jungle hats as we did. She dressed up. She climbed that gigantic cliff-like thing wearing a skirt. Let that be enough said.

We climbed about, photographed, and explored the half-uncovered 60 square miles of Mayan buildings all day, never seeing another human. I forget exactly how we came to realize it, but the gum-transporting chicken plane we hired to drop us here, via a coarsely cut strip in the jungle (with crashed plane carcasses lining its edges), wasn’t coming back. The old thing was so battered (and probably had a fair array WW2 bullet holes) that only by sheer ignorance of the laws of aerodynamics could it fly in the first place. Maybe my weak Spanish was at fault. BUT WHAT DID THAT PILOT EXPECT—WITHOUT GEAR WE WERE JUST GOING TO LIVE IN THE JUNGLE FOREVER?

Gary and Kathi were with me and not one among us wanted to actually spend the night out in the open in the jungle. I suppose we could have slept with the huge tarantulas and dragon flies on some flat slab of cut rock at a pyramid base, but that wasn’t going to be my first choice. So I formulated a plan. They would go in one direction, marking their path as they went. After 100 meters or so, they would return. They’d break small branches along the way so as to be able to find their way back. I would do the same in another direction. Perhaps we could find someone or something to mitigate our circumstance. After some understandable whining from Gary, the plan was a go.

When I got to what I felt was 85 or 95 meters, I heard an odd sound. It was not an animal sound, but a thump—thump—thump. Quietly, step by step, I followed the sound. Thump—thump—thump.

As the sound grew loud, I came to a point where I could see through the tangled jungle brush into a clearing maybe 60 or 70 feet square. There I spied a shirtless Indian teenager chopping a log with a crude axe right out of a Flintstones cartoon. Either I was upwind of him or maybe my boots made a sound on the vegetation. Either way, he discovered me watching him chop. He did not appear to be happy.

Gilded in sweat, he eyed me for a long moment, silently. Time seemed to slow its pace as if we were part of some science fiction temporal anomaly. His eyes looked as those of a lioness who’d fixed her attention on an object of prey. Sweat dripped from my temples. Then, with arms like Popeye, he grabbed his axe tightly and moved toward me. A quetzal, hidden in the bush, burst into flight, startling us both. By chance, Gary had my machete. I wished he had bought one also back on that mountain, Chichicastanango, so I would be wearing mine. Slowly, my hand reached for a thick stick (which I hoped was not a camouflaged snake) that I figured would be enough to block at least one strike of his axe. After that initial strike, however it played out, I would have to kick the axe from his hands.

I might have run, but there was nowhere to go. And the image of running though the jungle with an axe-wielding Indian chasing me wasn’t really working. More images collided in my head, most of them with bad endings. With no viable alternative available, I stood my ground. He came closer and huffed at me holding the axe out toward me. Then he huffed again almost as if a dragon, and pointed back to the log.

Ahh, now I got it. I had been watching him fail at breaking that log. If I thought it was so easy, maybe I should try chopping the damn thing!

Slowly, I reached for the axe, and I had been right. He gave it to me. I stood there momentarily, in shock I guess, and he again pointed to the log. I pushed through the thicket and approached it, one eye on the Indian at all times and one hand pushing away bothersome giant dragonflies. I drew it behind my back and swung with my entire reservoir of strength. It hit the log in the V he’d cut and the log broke in half. Wow. Now what?

He was amazed at my apparent super strength. He smiled happily and became rather animated. Of course I had no super strength. I’m sure his strength exceeded mine. The log was merely ready to break. But if he couldn’t figure that out, I wasn’t going to tell him.

My new friend gestured me to sit down (something I rarely do in a jungle) and he gave us both a little green fruit to eat. He slapped me gently on the right arm and started talking in some language so fast that even if I spoke the language, I wouldn’t have understood. I guessed it to be a Mayan dialect. Using sticks, we drew pictures back and forth in the dirt, a strategy that seemed to work well enough.

We managed to collect my weary friends some 150 meters back and then followed him at a quick pace through the jungle, with doubtless no way to find our way back. We got to his hut after awhile and figured out that he knew someone somewhere who could speak Spanish. Another hike through the jungle brought us to yet another hut made, like his, of little more than sticks and thatch. Invited inside, we found an older man who indeed spoke Spanish.

“No, don’t have a ham radio. There is a road, of sorts,” he claimed (in Spanish). “Not a good road. More of a trail…more of a rough trail. But it goes to near Flores.”

There’s never a subway around when you need one.

“Mui bien,” I retorted.

“Pero,ahora, cervesas para ustedes, mis amigos nueve.”

Hot beer is not nearly as good as cold beer in such heat. That’s common knowledge. Now that we didn’t even know where the hell the Tikal ruins were, hot beer was clearly better than no beer at all. And the slices of spicy turkey meat matched well with it. I had watched for the sun and noticed we had gone east, but as it was mostly hidden by the emerald canopy, I couldn’t be sure we’d stayed east. My friends enjoyed the beverage, but were clearly uneasy at all this.

Kathi whispered to me that the spaces between the house’s vertical sticks would let all the bugs in. I responded that it was done that way probably to let them out since surely they would get in anyway. That’s why they don’t use window screens in rural Venezuela.

This guy, One-eye Jose, had an old jeep that had seen better days. But a jeep meant four-wheel drive. With my pockets quite a few Guatemalan dollars lighter, we headed into the jungle in the dubious thing. The good news was we were on our way. The bad news was darkness was falling. And when darkness hits, it hits fast as the canopy shunts all but direct rays. It’s a mighty good thing that Jose knew the trail because in the dark we couldn’t tell the trail from the jungle, and he was doing it with just one eye. Every 15 minutes or less we had to climb out and chop through the tangled growth with machetes. Kathi was cool as usual, but unable to swing a machete without taking her leg off. So for the most part, Gary and I chopped away and Kathi rode shotgun with old One-eye.

As the Peten darkness fell on us, it was like being submersed in an inkwell. Gary quietly pointed out that only one of the headlights was working. “Maybe he only needs one,” I replied, “since he has just the one eye.” Gary, however, found no humor in my words. The jungle is no funny place at night.

After a few long hours of trepidation, Gary had convinced himself that we were likely heading in altogether the wrong direction. After all, in the jungle at night it’s just plain black; even the stars make themselves invisible above the canopy. I assured him otherwise, but secretly I had the same worry. One-eye insisted he knew the way and, importantly, he brought a Mary and Jesus on a necklace to be sure of good luck. He showed it to us as we pushed every time the old vehicle got itself stuck.

“Look Gary,” I said, half falling asleep, “It’s late and we’re too tired to decide we are or aren’t going in the wrong direction. And even if we are, we wouldn’t know which other direction to go in. At least let’s not make changes while it’s dark.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Gary agreed, “Let’s keep going with One Eye. Maybe he does know the way…maybe.”

“Besides,” I said with a chuckle, “he’s got Jesus and Mary on his side.”

Every now and again One-eye would begin to ramble on in his own version of the Spanish language—travelers’ tales we supposed—although it was evident that none but himself understood. I was too tired and it was too much for me to understand. Yet that bothered him not a bit.

What a strange sight we must have been to the stealthy jaguar–bright headlight and plenty of noise crashing over the flora, bouncing on the rutted ground, squeaking between monster vine-wrapped trees. All night we encountered frightened turkeys that flapped their wings racing out of the way in terror. Pairs of eyes, attached to animals unknown, stared at us from the darkness, and then disappeared. I concentrated on trying not to step on some unfriendly rattlesnake and on dodging thorn branches intent on whacking me in the face. I hated myself for allowing my friends to be trekking through the jungle at night.

At dawn we were thoroughly relieved to have reached the lake. We were also thoroughly exhausted. One-eye kissed his Mary necklace profusely. The sun was rising behind us although we couldn’t see it for the jungle. But as we looked up and west we saw it paint a great strip of orange across the quiet lake. Not a breeze stirred. In the distance, Flores Town lay sleeping, the eastern roofs of closely-packed homes all bathed in fresh orange on top of their already-red color. There’d be some sort of makeshift restaurant there somewhere. Gary and I would just look like explorers or archaeologists—no big deal—and who knew what they’d make of Kathi in her plaid skirt here in the jungle. Perhaps they’d think her a movie star–if they’d ever heard of movies, that is. And sooner or later there’d be a small plane to Belize or Guatemala City, or San Salvador–relative civilization—anyplace where we wouldn’t need to use a machete.

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