By Aaron Smith, Contributing Reporter
GUATEMALA – If, when asking how long a bus trip will take, a Guatemalan answers with a smile, it’s prudent to double the time they’ve estimated. Admittedly only sometimes is it just blatant lying on the part of the ticket tout – often it’s inclement weather, political uprising and natural disasters.
Our six hour trip to the lost city of Tikal, considered the pinnacle of the Mayan civilization and the finale of our two weeks in Guatemala, became an epic twelve hour ordeal. The road was closed due to a picket line of rural inhabitants protesting about environmental damage caused by a foreign mining company. Although sympathizing with their plight, we deserted our bus, crossed to the other side and hop-scotched on local transport onwards to Tikal.
From the rambling sprawl of polluted Guatemala City, once the location of the Mayan capital, we had originally headed west to the picturesque, colonial town of Antigua. For 233 years Antigua reigned as the capital during the Spanish occupation until it was all but destroyed by an earthquake in 1773. Although now a very pricey ‘Gringolandia’, complete with Irish bars and New York style, Wi-Fi coffee shops, this cobblestone town retains a rustic charm – it’s littered with photogenic ruins of the original city.
The active Pacaya Volcano stood as a constant reminder of nature’s unforgiving power. In fact, a hike up the side of the mountain, scrambling up still warm volcanic scree and gingerly hopping over solidifying lava that cracked, hissed and gurgled underfoot was nothing short of terrifying, not to mention unsafe. The icing on the cake was when our guide brought us within meters of an admittedly impressive, 700 degree, bubbling river of molten rock. Vivi catatonic, her sneaker soles melting, remarked, “My God, no, I don’t want to toast marshmallows,” as our guide offered her one on the end of a stick.
Continuing northwards on a six hour bus ride that took ten, we finally arrived at Semuc Champey, a stunning landscape of limestone mountains, caves and natural rock pools – considered the most beautiful place in all of Central America. It was from there we made our last dash north to Tikal.
Accomplished astronomers as well as architects, the Mayans had complex societies, a monetary system, calendars and cities a millennium before the birth of Christ and when we in the west were still running around with clubs in bear skins. However, by the time Christopher Columbus had set foot in the Americas they were already on the wane due to disease, over-population and resource depletion.
The Mayan Calendar ends on December 21, 2012, which is seen by some as a warning of an approaching apocalyptic end of times, while others consider it no more than a kind of ancient Y2K reset. Whatever it’s significance, we couldn’t help but be impressed by Tikal’s stepped pyramids, plazas and temples enveloped by steaming jungle which roared and hooted with howler monkeys and a iridescent palate of bird life.
We pondered on Mother Nature’s power to consume civilizations and wondered if the Mayan’s past may be a prophesy of our own fragile future.
Senhor and Senhora Smith are from different worlds; he, Aaron Smith, an Australian travel writer, still idolizes his childhood idol, Indiana Jones, and she, Viviane Silva, is a sassy Carioca ‘Sex in the City’ girl. They have decided to embark upon a trans-continental four-month honeymoon BEFORE they get married, from Bogota to New York, the Far East and Australia by bus, boat and donkey. Follow them along the Gringo Trail – it’s an epic Clash of the Titans journey to (hopefully) marital bliss at the end of the road.