The Mayans and Star Wars
Location: Puerto Barrios - Guatemala
by Wayne & Karen Brown
Nantucket Clipper is tied up at a dock off in the Guatemalan city of Puerto Barrios. Today we will visit the ancient Mayan city, Tikal. Tikal is a long way from the coast, in the middle of the rainforest. It would take us many hours to get there by car, so we are taking an hour flight by jet plane from the coast to a village near Tikal. From the village we will have to take an hour van ride to Tikal National Park.
After our flight and van ride we get to Tikal National Park in the morning. We are deep in the rainforest. Mosquitoes buzz around our heads. Our Guatemalan guide, Juan, greets us at the entrance to the park and we start our hike down a trail leading to the ancient city. Juan tells us Tikal is the largest Mayan city ever found. Over 50,000 people lived in and around Tikal. Tikal was an important Mayan ceremonial center filled with temples, pyramids, palaces, ball courts and plazas. Mayans lived in Tikal over 1,700 years ago, then mysteriously abandoned the city in 900 A.D.
When the Mayans lived here they had cut down all the rainforest, so you could see all the buildings here very easily. It was only after the Mayans left that the rainforest grew over the city and covered everything. The city was hidden and forgotten until it was discovered in 1848. As we walk through the rainforest Juan points to a small hill. He says that under these plants and dirt is a Mayan temple. Juan says that many of the Mayan temples, pyramids, and palaces were excavated and repaired. Juan explains that, like this one, there are still many that have not been excavated.
Juan stops are the bottom of a large hill. There are wooden stairs that lead to the top. Juan tells us this is the largest Mayan pyramid temple in the world. It is 212 feet high and is called the Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent! The rainforest surrounds everything so thickly we can't tell it's a pyramid. We can't even see the top! We climb to the top of the pyramid. We sit on the top steps on the temple pyramid and look out over the top of the rainforest canopy. Poking out of the rainforest canopy we can see the tops of other temple pyramids! Juan asks us if we can guess what famous movie this view appeared in. We think for a minute, then it hits us! Star Wars! In the original Star Wars movie this view appears in movie for about 30 seconds as a guard in a tower looks out over the rainforest and ruins.
As continue our hike through the rainforest we hear some rustling in the branches over our heads. Juan points out a spider monkey staring at us from high in a tree! This monkey looks about three feet tall and has a tail that is as long as the monkey's body! Spider monkeys have long flexible tails that they use to hang onto branches. These monkeys are called spider monkeys because they have long, spider-like arms, legs and tail. Spider monkeys don't have thumbs on their hands like you do. Not having thumbs allows the spider monkeys to easily swing from tree branch to tree branch.
We see a clearing around a bend in the trail. We walk out of the rainforest into a huge plaza. This is the Great Plaza of Tikal! The plaza is almost square and is about as big as a football field. There are pyramid temples on three sides of the plaza and the palace on one side. Two huge temples are facing each other. Juan explains that the tallest of the two was made by the king for himself, called the Temple of the Giant Jaguar. The king made the other temple for his wife and it is called the Temple of the Masks. Juan tells us that the Mayans painted these temples bright red, but that color has washed away over the years.
We climb the steep, narrow stone steps to the Temple of the Masks, about 120 feet high. We can look out across the plaza toward the Temple of the Giant Jaguar. Hidden in the trees next to this pyramid is the ball court where the Mayans played a ball game using heavy rubber ball about the size of a volleyball. They hit the ball back and forth to each other using only the hip and elbow on one side of their bodies. You wouldn't want to be on the losing team because the losers had their heads cut off!
To our right the palace is hidden in the trees. To our left we see eight smaller pyramid temples built close together. Like the ancient pyramids of Egypt all pyramids are tombs for the rulers. Juan says these smaller temples were where the nobles were buried.
The temple in the middle of the smaller temples looks like it has fallen down. We see thatched roofs over part of the temple. Juan tells us that archeologists discovered that the Mayans often built larger temples over older, smaller temples. The archeologists dug inside the larger middle temple and found a smaller temple with huge carved stone heads. Unfortunately they had hollowed out too much of the larger temple and it collapsed. The archeologists cleared away the rubble and the smaller temple with the stone heads was uncovered. The thatched roofs we see protect the huge stone heads of the smaller temple from erosion from the rain and sun.
We climb down the from the Temple of the Masks and walk over to see the stone heads. Peering under the thatched roof we see the huge stone head. It is about six feet high and five feet wide and has a big nose! This head is not as eroded as the one we saw on the Mayan temple in Belize (Day 15). We wonder if the Belize stone head at one time had a big nose like this one. Juan says that the Mayans thought big noses were beautiful. We are surprised to notice that there is no tongue on this head, like the one we saw in Belize.
We have spent all day exploring the city of Tikal, but there is still more to see hidden in the jungle. We wish we could have two more days to explore this ancient city. We leave Tikal and arrive back on Nantucket Clipper just as it is getting dark.
Captain Dan is pulling up the anchor so we can head further down the coast of Central America. Tomorrow we will be entering the country of Honduras and visiting the tropical island of Roatan. We are excited about tomorrow because we will be working dolphins at a dolphin center on Roatan!
Wayne & Karen
Puerto Barrios, Guatemala
Position: 15º 49' N / 88º 45' W
Air Temp: 84ºF
Weather: light breeze, sunny with scattered clouds.
Poking out of the rainforest canopy is the top of the Tikal's tallest pyramid temple, the Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent. We climbed to the temple top to look for other temples.
From the top of the tallest Mayan temple we see the tops of other temples sticking out of the rainforest canopy. (This view appeared in the original Star Wars movie.)
This spider monkey hangs by its tail as it watches us from a tree high over our heads.
This is the Temple of the Giant Jaguar. It iis 140 feet tall. Hidden in the trees, at the bottom, on the right side of the temple is the ball court.
There are eight temples here built very close together. Under the thatched roofs are the huge stone faces.
This huge stone face with the big nose is about 6 feet high and 5 feet wide!