Daytripping into the Spray Lakes region from our home base in Canmore, Alberta – gateway to the Canadian Rockies. A short jaunt up the pass and into the valley behind Ha Ling and Mount Lawrence Grassi yields a bounty of snow-capped peaks on this crisp, clear winter’s day. Can’t get much better than this for a winter wonderland! Back at the road, you’ll find what might be the loneliest phone booth around. Useful for a reservation at the Grizzly Paw I suppose :) Click the first shot below to view large and enjoy!
Spray Lakes, Canmore, Alberta.
Next stop in my Maya Archaeology series: the grand, Classic-era city state of Tikal. For me this was the holy grail of Mayan sites, a place I had dreamed of visiting since first opening a Mesoamerican archaeology textbook back in the university days. So, yes, a bit of a wait but man, it was well worth it! More than 3000 structures cover about 16 square kilometers of land and in it’s heyday, Tikal was the most powerful Mayan kingdom in Mesoamerica. Monumental architecture dates from 400BC while evidence of agriculture on this site dates back to 1000BC – that’s about 3000 years of history in this part of the jungle! Tikal reached a pinnacle during the Classic Period of 200-900AD with 90,000 inhabitants and remained in use until the late 10th century. This was an important ceremonial, political and dynastic powerhouse with both friends and enemies – Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico (Mexico City), Copán (in Honduras), Calakmul and Caracol. Tikal’s influence can be felt throughout the region into Belize, Honduras and up to Mexico.
Our experience at Tikal began with a 3:45am alarm call in Flores. Shortly thereafter, we were on a bus with other weary travelers, making our way north before sunrise. After an hour or so we got to Tikal National Park gates, still closed at 5:30am. We were given a little tip by some friends in Flores. When the bus assistant comes around to collect your park entrance fee, instead of handing him your quetzales, get off the bus and buy your own ticket, ensuring the higher fee you pay as a foreigner goes back into the National Park. It was a little sketchy as they didn’t want us to buy our own, but it felt good knowing we had a receipt, paper ticket and official stamp from the gate. No one else on our bus received anything in return and in hindsight were upset about where their money may have gone. We were told poaching is a major problem in the Tikal, and park fees allowed rangers more patrol time and environmental protection.
We were inside the park at 6am, rushing through the parking lot to meet our guide and get cracking to the Temples for a sunrise vista. Well, the sun came up at 6am, so we missed that (pro tip: stay the night inside the park at a bungalow and you’ll be there for actual sunrise, atop a temple). However, the first climb up Templo IV as the mist lifts, the monkeys howl and the birds sing was simply amazing. Emotionally charged by the energy, the sense of history, the beautiful architecture — time stood still for us up there. At 70m, this is currently the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas. From here we followed our guide back into the dense foliage. One of the cool factors of Tikal is the rich environment – the site rests in deep jungle, paths between structures are tight, dark and alive and sometimes a walk between temples reveals secrets. After all, almost everything you walk upon here has something of interest below the soil - unexcavated perhaps, but there, covered in jungle flora.
After almost losing our group completely in the vines (a good ten minutes of true panic!) we caught up and made it to the awe-inspiring, 57-metre tall Templo V. Officially closed to climbers, we were ‘special’, so allowed up the extremely steep, rickety wooden ladders. Ok then. Going up wasn’t bad, the view was astounding once again – taking in the tops of the Gran Plaza structures and temples. Going down — yikes. Nerve wracking, what with my sweaty hands (humidity 100%!) and cameras slung across my body. You can see the steep descent in the pics below (“Bajar – Way Down”). A walk to the Gran Plaza, Acropolis, altars, stellae and more collected in one giant main gathering place. After the four hour tour, we left our group here and spent the next five hours exploring the periphery. Spotted a toucan, numerous monkeys, stunning butterflies, hard working cutter ants and little furry mammals.
A few notes gleaned from our guide’s tales: the site was re-discovered in mid-1800s by someone at the Wrigley company, in the area looking for gum trees for their Chiclets they built an airstrip and stumbled upon the overgrown site (true?). The stairs up many of the temples are very high, allowing only the taller royals to physically ascend. Temples are built upon temples and on and on. All for the little room atop, with many having no inner rooms at all. The structures of the Gran Plaza form the shape of the Ursa Major (Big Dipper) constellation when seen from above and are aligned for the solstice as an agricultural calendar. Templo IV features in the original Star Wars as the moon base Yavin 4. Jaguar are regularly seen amongst the ruins. One can devote a life to interpreting this place.
I’ll follow this post with some detailed images – textures, flora and fauna. I can safely say, experiencing Tikal is a highlight of any of my life’s travels so far. I would love a week here to explore further, sit and meditate and absorb some of the ancient energy and knowledge from the great Maya people. In this series, we’ll take a look at another fine site in Guatemala before heading into Honduras for the Copán experience.
Tikal, El Petén, Guatemala, 2011.
Time for another stop in the Mayan Ruins series and we’re crossing the border now into Guatemala – El Petén to be specific. This is the sparsely populated, jungle laden northern department in the country. It takes some time to get here by land but with a paved road all the way to the island city of Flores, it’s not a bad trip at all. We took an overnight bus from Guatemala City, arriving just before dawn’s first light. The city of Flores itself is incredibly charming. It’s tiny enough to walk around in an hour, and very colourful, almost Mediterranean with the architecture stepping down the hills to lake level. There is a church right on the high point, in the middle of town, that provides a seemingly non-stop fireworks spectacle, well into the night and first thing in the morning. When you are rising at 4am to get to Tikal the next day, it makes for an unsettled sleep.
Our first stop, however, wasn’t Tikal. We were working up to that, the big one in my books. For our first day in town we chose to hire a lancha and our new friend Miguel took us out onto Lago Petén Itzá for some sightseeing. Warm waters, warm air…it’s really hot up in here! Our destination was across the lake, to a largely unexcavated Mayan archaeology site called Tayasal. Along the way we passed another “ruin”, a hotel complex said to be abandoned after a particularly nasty storm.
A little further along and we pulled up on shore. Ants! Watching cutter ants hard at work was fascinating and meditative. The woods are so full of life, you begin to realize almost everything is moving if you stop and look. A short walk through the jungle and we come to a clearing. In sharp contrast to the excavated, restored and manicured sites we’d seen in Mexico, Tayasal in distinctly primitive. If not for the sign, we may have missed the fact we were climbing a crumbling, plant covered pyramid. And that’s what we did, up the stairs to a lookout and a platform in an old ceiba tree. The view is excellent, you can see all of Flores and really understand how perfect this place was as a defensive city of the Itza Maya people. It’s said these people were so protected by this island fortress, thick jungle and remote location, it took until 1697 for the Spanish to conquer them, some 150 years after most other Mayan cities had been taken. It’s also a point of debate about where the true “Tayasal” centre was located. Here, or within what is now Flores, or both? Possibly on Lake Yaxha further afield. It’s not quite clear.
Once at the top, however, there is nowhere left to go but back down. More interesting insects to check out, cocooned prey or a new lifeform hatching? Tayasal has been excavated here and there since the 1920s and numerous ceramics, burials and panels have been uncovered. None are visible here, now. Back on the boat, we went around the peninsula to the other side for some fresh coconut and a swim in the lake. As the day grew long, it was time to return to Flores and watch the epic jungle sunset from the hostel rooftop. Not a bad day, and our first taste of pre-Columbian living in El Petén. Of course, this was just a warmup for the mighty Tikal, up next!
Flores, Lago Petén Itzá, Guatemala, 2011.
Autumn in the Land of the Woods. Our garden is still delivering kale and some fresh herbs, but has mostly run its course for the season. Quite the transformation from June, July and into August — now the air is cool and damp, the spiders have packed up and moved on, the birds are working to get every last morsel of seed from the feeders and the soil soaks up the rains for next year. We learned many lessons with our little garden and next year we’re stepping up production and cultivating only ‘winners’. The big bad squirrels that stole many of our squash…well, we’ll have to find a way to interrupt their food chain. A few more rakes of the yard, some pinching, some pruning, ’til we plant again…
Tulum, situated on a cliff above the Caribbean Sea on México’s Yucatán peninsula, is perhaps the most dramatic Postclassic Maya site. As with other late-period architecture, the buildings here are more utilitarian than artistically decorated ceremonial centres, and as such it’s not the most obviously spectacular ruin in that sense. Consider then, the structures were built around 1200AD — they are far from simple. As a coastal port of call for surrounding Maya centres such as Cobá, Tulum was an essential link in this great dynasty and was the last Mayan site to be occupied prior to Spanish conquest in the 1500s.
Highlights include the great view of course, a secluded cove and landing beach welcoming you to the sea just below El Castillo and a nicely restored collection of buildings, altars and inscriptions. Tulum was also known as Zama (translation: City of Dawn) and as expected, the sunrise from this coast is astounding. Tulum is definitely worth a visit if you are staying in the area (the ‘Mayan Riviera’ stretches 125km up the coast to Cancún). Just don’t forget your trunks for a swim in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean below.
Tulum, Yucatán, México, 2008.
Chichén Itzá. Even those with a passing interest in pre-Columbian history know the name. It is the most famous Mayan archaeology site on the Yucatán, if not throughout the ancient Maya dynastic region. It’s one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. North America’s very own grand pyramids. A ceremonial centre with strong ties to astro-archaeology, celestial events and the natural world. A place to gather on the equinoxes to watch the plumed serpent shadow crawl down the side of the glorious pyramid – El Castillo – as it has for more than 1500 years. In short, it’s astounding.
As a student of archaeology, particularly Meso-America & Mayan (before the photography bug caught up with me that is), my first real world look at a Mayan ruin was here, at Chichén Itzá, and it blew my mind. We were on a family holiday on the ‘riviera’ and a short day trip from the Playa del Carmen region took us right to the gates. The gates beyond the parking lot filled with tour buses, private automobiles and hawkers, hawkers, hawkers. It was a whirlwind of everything all at once. Once inside, the temptation to buy from any of the 100s of vendors lining the paths was only tempered once you realize it’s mostly all the same stuff. Masks, cloth, pyramid trinkets, cold water. Ok, cold water please! It was damn hot that day, even the breeze was a hot blow dryer of air.
The first big sight is El Castillo, now properly restored people are no longer allowed to climb this structure. From the earth, it is impressive. Waiting for a spell to find a shot without throngs of people was an exercise in patience. It’s ok — this place begs for meditation and reflection. You are amongst giants in the ancient world. A place so in tune with the surroundings and the sky, planets, sun, stars. You can feel the energy here, and this was just a regular day, far from the craziness of solstice or equinox. Other areas of the site are equally intense — the Caracol observatory, the massive ball court, the huge cenote (“sacred water, underground river”), the effigies of deities, the wooden beams still built into the walls. Iguana everywhere.
Stay long enough and the tour buses will depart, the hawkers will begin to thin and the late afternoon tropical light starts to play off the structures, inscriptions and glyphs. You get a sense of what the serpent might look like on equinox and plan to return for that celestial spectacle, even in your mind’s eye alone. The empty ballcourt beckons for one last shot as the light fades. Masks are selling for just a couple pesos now, the water is no longer cold and it’s time for tacos and cerveza in the neighbouring town, before the short drive back to the coast.
Stay tuned for more from this series, including the gem of this coast – Tulum – coming up next.
Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, México, 2008.
Kabah (“mighty hand”) isn’t only about the Palace of Masks (although it’s hard to top the beauty of that spectacle). Across the highway is a very large structure – the Grand Arch of Kabah. One of what was once many across the region, these arches were mostly along the sacbé, the sacred white walkways between the ancient cities, or as entrances to ceremonial grounds. Remnants of the sacbé exist under the arch, and further down the trail. This sacbé continues to Uxmal, and represents one of the main transportation routes in the area. Of course, much is still buried under a thousand years of jungle growth. My brother Jon relaxes in the shade of the Grand Arch above, our only respite from the intense sun in this area. While under the arch, sound does strange things, muting your voice and playing tricks on your ears. Hard not to suspect this was somehow all part of the plan. While this arch isn’t as grand as the more restored arch of Labná it is still worth the short sidetrip as it stands alone in the woods.
Kabah, Yucatán, México, 2008.