Maya Adventures /2 – Flores and Tikal

(click here to read the first part of the story)

After leaving San Ignacio, we planned to spend 3 days in Guatemala.

Crossing the border is nothing complicated, although I noticed that the security personnel is more relaxed and easy going on the Belizean side of the border. In Guatemala, things get a bit heavier: more bureaucracy, more waiting, more police with heavy guns.

All in all it was a smooth process, facilitated by a couple of local kids who spoke English and were very happy to help speeding up formalities and offering translation help (for a small tip).

Crossing from Belize to Guatemala, the traveller has a clear impression of stepping into a different region. Belize is an exception in Central America, because of its British colonial history, first; and now feeling a bit too much like a US province state, especially along the coast and in the most touristic areas. Everything may look, feel and sound like you are actually visiting a USA favourite holiday place. Prices are also similarly aligned: we found things to be as expensive as in Europe, if not a bit more.

But entering Guatemala, you realise you are definitely entering Latin America. People speak Spanish, even near the border. Music and food are also different, with much stronger Mexican influences.

After a rather uneventful drive, we got to Flores. What a lovely place it is!

The view of the Petén Itza lake.

The town used to be a Maya city, and sits in the middle of the Petén Itza Lake. An ideal strategic (and scenic) position,

/ completely unnecessary historical note begins here

so much that, when the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes passed by the place in 1525, on his way to Honduras, he decided the city was too had of a nut to crack, and just moved on with his troops. Good guess: the region fiercely resisted Spanish conquest and defeated one expedition after another, until finally capitulating almost two hundred years later, in 1697.

/ completely unnecessary historical note ends here

The original Maya town has been completely destroyed, and rebuilt accoding to the Spanish colonial standards. That’s why when we walked in its tiny, lovely streets, we had a definite feeling of being somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Seriously, we loved Flores.

But that was not the main reason we were there. The morning after, we moved quite early to go and visit Tikal.

With Tikal, we were aware we were approaching one of the old capital cities of all the Mayan culture. And the difference with the other sites we visited in Belize was immediately noticeable. Everything was bigger, more impressive – and also, perhaps inevitably, more touristic.

From the entrance gate, in the familiar “welcome to Jurassic Park” style,

to the fairly peculiar road signs, warning drivers to be careful of the local wildlife crossing the street:

everything told us we were in for an interesting experience.

And indeed: wow!

The Great Plaza is one of the first site to welcome the visitors, with its impressive complex comprising Temple I, Temple II and more main buildings, all assembled around a square.

The Great Plaza complex, from the top of Temple II.
An impressive view of Temple I from the Great Plaza.
A class in a school trip was receiving a lecture on the site.

and many more stelae and remains, all collected around the area.

The site is really monumental. The visitor has the impression to be walking in the ruins of a capitol city of the past. The city must have had around 100 thousand inhabitants at the peak of its glory, and had important relations with the other major cultures of its time – including the Aztec metropolis of Teotihuacan, which also influenced its architecture.

Then, just as it happened with Caracol, its strategic importance decreased and the city simply started to fade away. The site shows signs of human settlement since as early as 1000 BC, while it has disappeared around 900 AD.

It is fascinating, and creepy in a sense, to imagine how it must have been. The city disappeared, became a ghost place, but its monumental temples and structures were still visible from miles away. What would people know about it? How must have felt, to walk in its streets once the city was deserted?

*

One difference we noticed from the sites we visited in Belize is that visitors are not allowed to climb up the monuments, in Tikal. It’s not only to preserve the monuments from tourists: it’s also to defend tourists from themselves. More than one person has fallen to their death (on Temple I, it’s a 50 metres tumble) while climbing, after which the authorities have decided to forbid it.

And this is… I honestly don’t remember which temple this is! One? Three? Five? To be honest, they look all very similar to the partially trained eye.

The site is really vast: three to four hours are necessary to explore it. There are several major and minor complexes, as Tikal was more than a city in our modern sense: it was more like an agglomerate of several entities, as each king moved the centre of power from one district, to another.

One site in particular is so vast that deserves a name of its own: “Mundo Perdido” (The lost world). Again, a Jurassic Park reference, or maybe it’s just me.

But when you visit Tikal, the definite star of the show is Temple IV. The giant structure is 70 metres high, and towers over the whole site. From the ground level, it appears more like a hill, still partially covered as it is with plants and vegetation,

And to get on top is not a job for the faint of heart, possible thanks to the wooden stairs constructed by the park administration.

Once on top, however, you know what it means to be sitting on top of the world.

Definitely the perfect place for a little subathing break.

And then… it occurred to me!

See what’s the view from the top of the temple?

It looked familiar, very familiar. And then it occurred to me, thanks to a message I received from a friend. The place was the location used by George Lucas in Star Wars (A New Hope)! It was the rebel base!

And a little (unconfirmed) Star Wars trivia, which I heard and makes sense, but for which I haven’t found a reliable source yet. Yavin IV – it’s the moon on which the Rebel Base is located, for those four or five of you who read this blog and are still for some reason Star Wars illiterate – owes its name to Tikal’s Temple IV. Neat, uh?

Again, I have no documented source for this, but I love the story. And so there you go, I managed to find my personal Star Wars reference even in my Mayan adventures.

AND – incredible but true – Bara could find a Pokémon right on top of Temple IV! A Wooper, exactly.

Yeah, Bara was rightly proud of her accomplishment!

How we ended up chasing digital monsters for Pokémon Go even during our archaeological adventures, it’s another story. Just trust me on this one: it really happened.

*

After Temple IV, we visited the equally monumental (if a little less majestic) Temple V, which was only recently restored. This particular pyramid was almost certainly built as a burial site of a (still unknown) person of royal blood.

The on site panels make a really good work documenting how the site was at the beginning of the works

and this is how it looks now:

Really impressive.

Our visit was approaching to the end. A few last sidenotes.

Sidenote #1: some altars are still used by modern days, contemporary Maya people, for cultural and religious purposes. I found it a very nice thing, after such an important culture was wiped out, at least some attempts are being made to bring some relief. And it made the place feel more alive, and a little less like a monumental tomb, reminiscent of past glory.

Sidenote #2: compared to anything we have seen in Belize, Tikal is much more exploited by tourists. Which is good and bad of course. In Caracol, our guide told us that sometimes there are only 10-20 people visiting the site in one whole day, and when a new road will be built, “everything will change”. In Tikal, on the other hand, things have already changed.

And the signs of (the worst part of) tourist interference with the site are visible everywhere. Like here:

I don’t know if you are ever going to read this, but Kelly (or whoever wrote this): know that you are an idiot.

And on this pretty note, the second part of our Maya adventures end.

It was a very intense experience (I had half a heat stroke after all the walking and climbing in the scorching sun… or maybe I ate something wrong), but certainly a memorable one. And Star Wars.

It was time for us to go back to Flores for one last sunset and evening, and the following morning we all left to go back to Belize City, and from there to conclude our journey.

Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this. As always, feel free to subscribe to the blog, and / or to its facebook page if you want to keep following my stories.

Have a good one, ciao!

 

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