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Tickled by Tikal

The great poet Pablo Neruda once called Guatemala the “sweet waist” of the Americas.

It would be incorrect to disagree. The land mass of Guatemala offers virtually every possible terrain imaginable — from staggering mountains, dense jungles and black sand beaches to the urban pandemonium of Guatemala City. Wildlife? Take your pick of rare toucans, howler monkeys, and even hordes of stray dogs.

The diversity of people is on the same plateau (OK, a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much). The country houses the largest indigenous population in Central America, with more than a hundred ethnic groups who speak more than 20 different languages.

More astonishing is the openness and carefree attitudes these natives possess. It’s hard to imagine they went through Latin America’s longest running civil war — 36 years — until a treaty was signed on Dec. 31, 1996. This “war” claimed the lives of some 200,000 people, with the majority being poor and indigenous. The most severe time was the “scorched-earth” counter-insurgency campaigns of the early 1980s. The military, (with aid from the U.S. government to defeat “communist propaganda”), destroyed hundreds of villages to flush out a mere handful of phantom guerrillas. Each community was routinely desecrated — rapes, tortures, executions, and villagers burned alive inside the walls of their bombarded homes.

When the violence began to subside in 1985, the military had murdered 70,000 people and had “dissapeared” 40,000 more. It took 11 more years of coups, U.N.-sponsored peace talks and political honesty before the treaty (barely accomplished by President Alvaro Arzu) was achieved at the end of 1996.

Don’t accept the stereotypes of Guatemala being a dangerous region. With any Third World country there are problems — the downsizing of the police and military have led to an increase in roadside robberies, kidnapped ransoms, etc. However, common-sense precautions (not traveling at night, calling the U.S. embassy before traveling), will prevent 99 percent of dangers. Remember, the more tourists Guatemalans see, the more they realize their country is no longer in jeopardy. In a way, we’re the sign of peace these people have been looking for. Don’t turn away from this amazing country — Guatemala is an experience every willing adventurer should have.

Our first stop was the bordertown of Melchor de Mencos. The town was fairly chill, save the annoying hordes of money exchangers. After an hour or two of price negotiations, we settled on a friendly driver who would take us to El Remate — an eco-tourist haven that is a stop-over for pilgrimages to the great ruins of Tikal. Our driver dropped us off at the bottom of El Mirador Del Duend — a campsite recommended by virtually every traveler we met. Scores of children awaited us there and tried to persuade us into going to “better” campsites. One young go-getter even went so far as to state that Mirador had no lockers and that people got robbed there daily — all false. The owner of El Mirador, Manuel De Soto, told us that competitors make up stories to sabotage each other. One owner went as far as to hire people to rob occupants of El Mirador.

The minute I saw the campground, I knew we had picked the right place. The clincher was an encompassing view of the massive Lago (lake) Peten Itza. El Mirador Del Duende is a self-sustaining ecological park and was started by Manuel De Soto Villafuerte. The purpose of the park is twofold — to attract travelers and increase tourism in El Remate. This creates a cultural meeting place for locals and foreigners. By demonstrating to the locals that people from all over the world want to come and enjoy the forest, the villagers come to realize that their environment is very precious — which in turn educates them to protect their surroundings.

Manuel’s main purpose (the model is his camp) is to show the inhabitants of 20 different communities how to make a living with resources instead of destroying the jungle. The education is done through handicrafts, construction with limestone and wood, honeybees, natural medicine, lime production, and jungle trekking (59 employed guides). He also enables locals to step in front of a chalkboard and give foreigners Spanish lessons. Manuel provides jobs for three to 20 locals who learn to use local material (lime, precious wood, stones, white dirt) while earning an income. After intensive learning, the workers use their skills to help the community. Manuel is essentially preaching a self-sufficient economy while keeping in harmony with the fragile environment.

Talking one on one with Manuel is like having your head go through a brain enema. He empties that swamp of misinformation and fills it with flora, fauna, and a deep appreciation of the ancient Mayan cultures. It’s hard to imagine from my priviliged upbringing the horrors he sustained during the military’s terror campaigns. Instead of pointing fingers, Manuel started the project to find his mental stability through nature. His plan was to educate himself, his village, and to maintain an inner peace despite the atrocities the army inflicted on a daily basis. He told us a story of how the military came to his place believing that Manuel was a communist. The confrontation was laughable — Manuel won them over immediately with his food and his honest approach to the environment. He says when he makes trips to the neighboring town of Flores, he has military personnel driving in front, behind, and beside him. They consider Manuel an important figure and want to insure this “commodity” is not harmed. It makes sense. Many corporate and higher entities don’t like what Manuel’s doing. He’s showing believers that it’s possible to stay out of the spend-spend quagmire and live a simple bountiful life through self-sustainment. His philosophies stem from the ancient Mayans who believed in rooting themselves in the natural world. Much of the architecture around the camp reflects this. Mayan drawings and elaborate carved faces protrude out of the sides of the bungalows. The jungle surrounding the eight-hectare park gives it that Mayan feel. If you decide to trek to Tikal, stop at Manuel’s dwelling. Ignore all the tourist traps (hotels on the Tikal site are blatant rip-offs) and contribute that hard-earned vacation money to El Mirador Del Duende. The traveler benefits and the area benefits in the most honest way possible.

Our favorite “resident” from camp was a tricky spider monkey named Mikaela. She was unlike her brethren in that she came out of her tree domicile to initiate human (and junk food) contact. Her second difference was the enormous pot belly she ammassed from chips, bananas, candy, and whatever else she could steal from unwary gringos. The only way to scare her off (the novelty and cuteness factor wore off quickly) was to wave this stuffed snake that the workers had found years ago. I really can’t blame Mikaela for the attempted food snatch, considering the cuisine El Mirador prepared daily — organic vegetarian plates (complimented with delectable yucca root), fresh squeezed juices, and an armadillo entree for the adventuresome carnivore.

Our third day at the campsite started briskly at 5 a.m. We had to get to Tikal to see the infamous misty sunrise. The hour before we got there was a meelee of confusion. The first driver stopped and asked for tickets. Once we produced them, he drove away. The next one gruffly told us our specific driver was on his way. The third one picked us up and drove us 100 yards and said the “real” driver was actually right behind him. Contestant number four stopped and showed us that his van was full. Somehow, a plethora of drivers later, we got to the entrance of the mighty Tikal. Everyone who ventures to Guatemala must go through Tikal. It is simply the greatest ruins in all of Latin America. Palenque? No way. Think of Tikal as Disneyworld and Palenque as Santa’s Land. There’s no comparison. The ancient city is surrounded by tropical rain forest. Some of the temples (especially the massive 212-foot Temple IV)are just above the jungle skyline, creating views worthy of National Geographic. To visit all 3,000 buildings you either need to have competed in the Iron Man Triathlon or spend a multitude of days there.

Perhaps most impressive is the array of wildlife. Like I said, we arrived early to see the sunrise. Since it was a cloudy day (and there was no mist in the vicinity), we had to “settle” for the going-ons of the early-risers. Droves of tropical birds greeted us atop Temple I. Toucans chased each other from tree perches as howler monkeys roared their gregarious welcome. On the ground were these furry animals the size of cats. They looked like tiny bear cubs with a curly tail and an aardvark-like snout. No one (including park employees) had a name for these wonderments of nature (responses are welcome). However, don’t be swayed by their adorable persuasion. If you open any sort of food product, a feeding frenzy will develop at your feet. The only safe place to dine is on top of a temple.

The highlight of the day (besides the two naps on the picnic tables) was a trek into the jungle. I was determined to see what a howler monkey looked like. Their roar is much like a lion’s, and I wanted to see if the monkey’s visage was just as ferocious. The four of us — Eric, Maartje, Kirstie, and myself — were rewarded by a family of six tree-dwellers. Large by monkey standards, the jet black howlers stood at roughly six feet. Their gentle nature belied the fearsome sounds that dominate the Peten jungle.

After 11 hours of exploring what we believe was a third of Tikal, we headed wearily home. This time, we got to ride with driver number one.

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