Wednesday, May 31, 2006

In Which We Are Stung by Plants, Accosted by Spiders, and Peed on by Monkeys

Your correspondent has, at various times, described visits to ancient ruins as having a certain "Indiana Jones" flair, whether because of daunting travels to get there or the overgrown remnants of long-lost cultures discovered in the jungle. Over the Memorial Day weekend, your correspodent and three trusted companions undertook an adventure, more Indiana-Jones-y than any previous: A three-day trek through the jungle from two less-known ruin sites to Tikal. Or, at least, the Yaxha and Nakum ruins were formerly in a logjam tie for last among the non-Tikal ruins of Guatemala's northern jungle. Then they were the setting for the Guatemala installment of the runaway CBS hit and bug-eating-for-fun-and-profit extravaganza that is "Survivor." The jungle trek was fantastic, but we did discover almost instantly that if you are scouting locations for appropriately large and disgusting bugs to make people eat, Guatemala's Peten region is not a bad spot.

On Friday evening we flew from Guatemala City to Flores, a charming town on an island in a lake and the base camp for many trips to Tikal, where we stayed the night. The next morning, as we searched for breakfast, we discovered many of the sidewalks to be covered with inch-and-a-half-long beetles that looked to have been washed off the rooves above by the night's rain, although the locals had not acheived concensus on where they had actually come from. Having already seen the required exotic creepy-crawlies and had not set out from civilization yet, but decided to soldier on anyway.

The guide service we had hired picked us up at 8:00, looked at our packs, and gently reminded us that we would have to carry our own packs on the third day because the packhorses could not take that part of the trail. Again we soldiered on, taking a mini-bus to the Yaxha ruins, an hour or so outside of Flores on the road to Belize. We were met by Joel (in Spanish, "HO-el") who would be leading us through the jungle for the next few days. Joel was about 5'6", totally ripped, with veins bulging out of his neck, home-made tattoos on his arms, and sporting a bandanna and a handlebar mustache. He looked more than a little like a pirate. Joel had previously been a xatero, i.e. he made a living hacking his way through the jungle collecting xate leaves, which are used in flower arranging. Currently, xateros make about $5 for a 12-hour day of work.

We took a brief tour of the Yaxha ruins, and took in the view of the lake from the restored temple. I really felt the spirit of "Survivor" in me at that moment. Like much of the Peten, Yaxha is home to howler monkeys (which don't howl so much as the growl like angry pack of dogs) and leaf-cutter ants (which cut huge (well, huge for ants) trails from their anthills to their latest victim).

That afternoon we hiked 10 miles or so -- mostly through thick jungle. Joel carried a machete, which people do here just as a matter of course, but Joel actually used his on many occasions to hack open the path through the jungle. He said the last time anyone used this trail was about two months ago, allowing plenty of time for re-growth and for trees to fall onto the path.

We slept at the ruins of Nakum, which was a more compact site than Yaxha, with lots of trees growing on the old temples, but enough restored or still-exposed sections to make it feel like ruins and not just funny-shaped hills. One of the highest buildings had a tall tree growing off the top with rickety ladders leading up to jury-rigged observation platforms that allowed great views of the jungle and a bunch of wild parrots. (We also saw a couple wild toucans later in the trip, but the staff photographer was a little slow with the camera.)

Hacking through the jungle that day, we were attacked by at least two families of spider monkeys. Upon hearing people approaching, the spider monkeys start jumping up and down and shaking tree limbs to try to scare away potential attackers. They pursue this tactic for about a minute before they mix in throwing sticks and branches and urinating on anyone in range. They are well known to throw their poo, as well, but nobody in the party could confirm any poo-related injuries. On that day's hike, we brushed by some plants that instantly started burning and left huge welts on our arms, and a bug that our guide said had urine that burned as well. Apparently burning and peeing are the jungle's two defense mechanisms, and this bug had combined them into a kind of super-jungle-attack. We were careful to provide him no reason to use it.

Speaking of burning, there was no organized campsite the second night, so Joel cleared out a spot that someone had used before and "sanitized" it by setting palm fronds on fire and then sweeping them over the dirt. We slept in hammocks with a thankfully unnecessary tarp slung over us.

The last day quickly changed from the first two when we ran into a flooded spot in the trail, requiring hiking for a while though standing, and quite smelly, water. The muddy conditions continued, which allowed for spotting a number of turtles and tons of jaguar tracks, but also allowed us to spend hours of the trip clinging to the less-flooded high ground along the sides where the trail met the jungle, or hopping from foot-sized island to island along the trail in a kind of long, tiring version of Frogger. It was all worth it though when we saw the coolest piece of wildlife of the trip (well maybe second to the acid-peeing bug), a huge tarantula. It's body was even bigger than the three-inch cockroach we had seen a day before. Actually, we saw two tarantulas, the larger of which was hanging out on the only passable piece of the flooded trail, a slippery log. Your correspondent's arachnophobic companion impressed all parties by calmly stepping over the tarantula, which our guide unconvincingly promised was "more scared of us than we were of it."

After a hike that took a couple hours longer than promised due to the slogging and the island-hopping and such, we finally made it to Tikal. We were almost too tired to actually go see any of it, but as we always do, we soldiered on. It was a gorgeous day, much sunnier than the previous trip, with great views of and from the temples.

Thoroughly exhausted, we took the shuttle back to the Flores airport, ready to leave the giant cockroaches and giant spiders and giant beetles and mushrooms and such behind us. In their wake, we managed to keep a piece of the Peten with us: your correspondent was still finding ticks on his person two days after our return. (If anyone knows more than Google about whether there's Lyme Disease in Guatemala, feel free to Holla Back.)

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