My traveling buddy and I had just spent a horrible night north of the Guatemala border. All the cheap hotels in the dusty Mexican outpost of Tenosique were full, so we ended up in a rat hole of a private room for rent, with only a couple hooks to string our hammocks up above the cockroaches. Next morning, we unhooked and left in a hurry. While waiting roadside for a lift, a strange person approached us, emerging from the Yucatan jungle.
The stranger was a tall German backpacker in flip flops, with unkempt dirty hair and a beard, bad breath, and an intense gaze. Kurt. His intensity reminded me of the stir-crazy German actor Klaus Kinski, who had the title role the epic movie Aquirre, the Wrath of God. The story follows the travels of the Spanish soldier Lope de Aguirre, who leads a group of conquistadors down the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers in South America in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. This haunting film creates a vision of madness and folly, counterpointed by the lush but unforgiving Amazon jungle. In the end scene, Aquirre succumbs to a viscous pack of bloodthirsty howler monkeys while floating down the violent Amazonian rapids on a wooden raft. Nature was victorious!
My instinct was right—this lone guy, Kurt, was one of those single-minded German adventurers you sometimes find popping up in the most remote places on Earth, as if on an existential quest. Somehow, they always survive and have a good story to tell. Kinski himself, when captured as a 17-year-old by the Allies in WWII, had heard that sick prisoners were to be returned first, and tried to qualify by standing outside naked at night, drinking little water and eating cigarettes. He remained healthy, but finally was returned to Germany in 1946, after spending a year and four months in captivity.
Kurt made me curious and when asked where he came from, he pointed his sooty thumb towards the river flowing out under the green jungle wall: “Von Tikal in schmall wooden boot!” He hooked me and easily persuaded us to head into the same unknown.
Time was our friend (money was not!) and this could be an exciting small boat journey into the primary rain forest of the Yucatan wilderness. We grabbed the opportunity to move upstream on the Rio San Pedro and somehow end up at the famous and ancient Mayan temple complex of Tikal. This was a journey not mentioned in our Lonely Planet guide book, but one that promised true adventure. We accepted that there were 120 miles of primary rain forest and untamed river between us and the famed Tikal and that our “Kinski” had just emerged unscathed.
Without further ado, we found the boatman sleeping on the San Pedro in his small wooden canoe—as if he was waiting for us. After a little friendly haggling, he agreed to take us upstream “as far as possible,” whatever that meant. We mentioned Tikal, and he nodded reassuringly. Soon, we were moving upriver against the current. The great primary jungle canopy of Yucatan wrapped itself around us. Our boatman pointed out curious spider and Capuchin monkeys playing in the foliage high above, and we also spotted colorful toucan birds. We were lucky to catch a glimpse of the magnificent and raucous Montezuma Oropendola birds, peeking back at us from their intricate hanging nests.
At a sharp turn in the river, we saw a small lizard skirting across the water surface—I recognized the brown basilisk. Its nickname is the “Jesus Lizard,” because when fleeing from a predator, it is so fast that it can even run on top of water. At dusk, we pulled in at the Guatemalan border post, manned by a handful of bored, gun-slinging uniformed youngsters and commanded by a captain with a voice so raspy it could remove rust from old water pipes.
After the usual ensuing hassle at the checkpoint, a few sucres changed hands and we were allowed to continue our journey into the tropical black night. The darkness was soon lit up by fires burning all around us close to the river banks. The jungle had been set ablaze by settlers clearing the grounds for cattle and small-scale farming. Gliding though this fiery inferno felt like a ride on the River of Styx in Hades, the Greek underworld, with our boatman serving as the ferryman Charon. It was frightening, yet somehow attractive.
I later learned that, over the last couple of decades, large swaths of the primary forest have been cut down, replaced by grassland for intensive cattle farming. Guatemala, which, after Brazil, has South America’s second-largest rain forest, has lost an average of 30,000 hectares a year, and the rate of deforestation has almost tripled in the course of the past decade.
The large-scale destruction of the rain forest is, however, not only a recent problem. The city states of the ancient Mayan empire flourished in southern Mexico and northern Central America for about six centuries. Then, around 900 A.D., the Mayan civilization disintegrated. Increasingly endemic warfare and a multi-year drought in the Maya region caused Tikal’s supporting population to heavily concentrate close to the city itself, accelerating the use of intensive agriculture and causing further environmental decline. It took years for the Peten rain forest to recover after the Mayan collapse, as the temple cities were slowly swallowed by the jungle foliage.
Lying on my back in the wooden canoe and feeling the heat from the burning jungle, I couldn’t help wonder—is history just repeating itself? It certainly looked like it. Today, sugar cane, palm oil and narcotics farms, as well as open-pit mining, are competing for land and are pushing small communities deeper into the rain forest. In Guatemala, one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Latin America, the forest has become the focal point of the tensions running through modern Guatemalan society.
But another factor now also plays a part: climate change. In the last two decades, there have been far more episodes of heavy rainfall, which, coupled with deforestation in this mountainous land, have led to disastrous mudslides. Despite the difficult outlook for Guatemala’s primal forests, local conservation organizations are not giving up. Discussions are underway with the French banking group BNP Paribas to use carbon compensation schemes to fund proper forest management.
After three days of grueling traveling up the San Pedro, we ended up in a huge shallow swamp area where the river petered out into narrow, unnavigable channels. At last, we disembarked at the trailhead of a newly hacked out jungle road. From there, we hitchhiked for two more days in ramshackle 4-wheel-drive vehicles and decrepit buses filled with new immigrants, oil prospectors, and the occasional missionary.
Finally, we reached the famed ruins of Tikal—albeit from the backside, where the “normal tourists” don’t arrive from. Tikal is a sprawling complex of more than 3,000 structures. Countless additional ruins lie shrouded in dense jungle overgrowth, where wild tapir, peccary and jaguar roam, just as they did when the Mayans ruled the region. At its height, Tikal was one of the most important Maya cities and one of the largest cities in the Americas. The impressive architecture of the ancient city is built from limestone and includes the remains of temples that tower more than 230 feet high, large royal palaces. In addition, there are a number of smaller pyramids, palaces, residences, administrative buildings, platforms and intricately inscribed stone monuments.
That late afternoon, we decided to climb the largest temple and spread out our sleeping gear to spend the night above the great temple complex on the offering platform. It was here that humans were sacrificed by the temple priests. The moon shone high above us and outlined other steep green hills jutting out of the jungle—other still unexcavated temple mounds of this abandoned Mayan metropolis. It was magical. We were even greeted by the primordial roars of a traveling band of noisy howler monkeys and my thought went back to the end scene of Aquirre, the Wrath of God—who would succumb in the long run—humans or nature? Or perhaps both?
Tikal occupies a space between natural and human endeavors. It is a “must see” for visitors who enjoy nature as well as culture, and Natural Habitat offers a Ruins of Tikal Extension to its popular Belize nature adventure.
There are easier ways to approach Tikal than the way we did it, either by modern roads or small airplane flights from various cities in Belize or Guatemala. But our adventure was one of classic discovery, totally decided on a whim and catalyzed by some crazy German walking out of the jungle.
I hope you will follow your own “Kinski” someday, as well!