Nations Unknown: Maya


OK, most people have heard of the Mayan people, their ancient, lost cities, their complicated calendars about to be reset – maybe even their life and culture as it is today. The Mayan history has become devolved to three different modern nations: Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. If it had all turned out differently, this would be the Mayan Nation. The Mayan people have always been fractured politically, making it possible for invading armies and colonialists to divide and rule. There have been quite a few independence movements and rebel insurrections over the years but they have generally lacked a Mayan Identity, focused as they were on the particulars of the day, fighting for their present situation.

San Cristobal de las Casas Street Scene

However, driving south and east towards the Yucatan Peninsula, this is the beginning of the jungle, the cloud forests hanging above mountains trapped by hot, tropical air. The culture is obviously changing too; the peoples keep their own traditions and, even if they have different nationalities now, those traditions can be seen all the way to Honduras. For an outsider, their heritage seems united. Their future could be the same.


Temple of the Jaguar, Tikal

Tikal is an utterly amazing set of structures deep in a National Park. Many things come together to make this ancient Mayan city so much more of an experience than, for example, Palenque. The lack of people is one thing – no busy, busy car park, no craft sellers, and no massive coachloads of hundreds of kids. This means you can pretty much wander around on your own later in the day; the winding paths through the jungle are deserted except for the wildlife that always live there. The massive temples look impressive soaring up through the trees and  you can identify equally massive mounds with their coat of jungle still keeping them hidden. It kind of gets almost exciting. Climbing the highest temple at the end, using a stairway on wooden scaffolding, past a team of archeologists still cleaning away at the stones, the view from the top is awesome… Still, probably nothing like what a Mayan could see when the place was in action. And, still, can’t get that image out of my head – the one from the film ‘Apocalypto’ with the heads rolling down the temple stairs – but it’s much more of a moment than gazing down on the trimmed lawns of Palenque or Teotihuacan.

Tikal view

That evening, our minds were buzzing with questions – why were these cities ‘lost’ for so long and where did the people go? The collapse of Mayan civilisation is a well theorized topic – the more likely ideas being that over-population around these centres coupled with extensive droughts lasting generations caused the settlements to be abandoned. The actual Mayan people didn’t disappear – they still flourished further north until the day the Spanish and British arrived, and they still exist now. I’m not completely convinced that the environmental theory really explains it completely. These massive cities that took all that time and energy to build were just abandoned to the jungle? I can’t imagine that no one at all thought it was a good place to live…

Tikal costs Q150 to get in, which you pay at the entrance to the National Park. If you arrive after 4pm, the ticket is good for the next day. Supposedly – another guy we asked said that rule wasn’t working at the moment. The campsite charged us Q50 each to park on their field – they wouldn’t let us park in the car park overnight. We wanted to stay because, hey, we don’t often get to sleep in the jungle. The reality was that the Japanese are helping build some Education Center or other right next to the campsite and start up all their machines at first light. The better option surely would have been to drive back to El Remate and park up by the lake.

They don’t allow pets in the National Park. We softly argued for a while at the main gate – they let us hitch-hike 18 km into the park to ask the boss for permission, who appeared after a short wait and said yes, and then 18 back to the hot van and dog. We had to keep her chained up every second inside the park, though: Normally, half asleep Vaga was well up for chasing some of the loads of cute, furry rodent things running around. At least we know she’s properly past her recent pneumonia.

Read up on the quickest way to get to Tikal from Palenque…

Palenque to Tikal, Crossing at El Ceibo

You know when you’re at a big party with loads of people, there’s a cheap bar and a pretty full-on sound system stacking it up over a busy dance floor… But the music just ain’t right – a good DJ, sure, but he keeps mixing in dubstep/goa trance/death metal/jazz (delete as appropriate). Thing is you know there’s another floor somewhere around; you heard that the bar there is not so good but that’s because the sound is perfect and everyone is moving too it. You heard, too, that no one who isn’t there will know where it is, it’s tricky to find, you might have to go out of the building to get back in and there’s another door-crew to get passed. But maybe that’s a myth, to keep the riff-raff out?

Well, Palenque and Tikal are a bit like that. You get to Palenque and the place, well, it’s definitely impressive but there’s something about it. Maybe the crowds of people, the buses, the vendredores, the welcoming door safely admitting anyone who’s paid their $4 onto the neatly trimmed lawns of the ruined city complex. It was a pretty easy glide down from San Cristobal de las Casas – there are the same faces you’ve spotted last week at a bar there and you feel you’re moving with the people on a path preordained.

So close to the end of our Mexican visa and our thoughts are always on whether to check out Tikal just over the Guatemala border. The problem is that it’s a 400 km drive in the right direction, south across the border, but then a 500km drive back north. Is Tikal gonna be worth it, we thought, when we’re so under-whelmed by Palenque? Sure, we heard that Tikal is the superior experience, its true jungle setting, a genuine lost city, hidden on another world. We also heard it was about $20 to get in.

So, you’re wandering around the first party, beer in hand, get talking to this older Canadian guy who seems to know the place well. He mentions that there is a short-cut to the secret dance-floor. It could be a secret short-cut, he says, don’t hear much mention of it. But it’s there. You get to Tikal in just a few hours and the crossing is called El Ceibo.

We checked the guidebooks but the Lonely People doesn’t mention it. Our map from 2010 doesn’t show it and there’s nothing on Google Earth. But there are some reports of it, even a few inconclusive photos, but they are Biker reports – wasn’t there a river crossing to be done at some point between Mexico and Guatemala? It seemed you could just drive through but why wasn’t on any maps?


Hence this post. This is the short cut between Palenque and Tikal; the border crossing from Mexico to Guatemala known as El Ceibo – the Mayan Tree of Life that links the 13 layers of heaven  (its roots are in hell).

El Ceibo border crossing map

From Palenque it’s half a day to get to El Ceibo, first going north towards Villa Hermosa then turning east and back down via Tenosique. There is a short cut turning to the right for a sign to La Libertad just north of Palenque – they are improving the highway further north though and should be the faster route. Tenosique is the last big town in Mexico. The last Pemex, just before and after town. Police Checkpoints everywhere. Nice enough town. Stock up on everything. The Guatemalan side of the border is 40% approx. more for diesel and up to 100% more for everything else with the exceptions of cigarettes, beef and single-scoop ice creams. Also get some photocopies of your passport, driving license and vehicle registration which you’ll need for the Guatemalans.

At the border you drive straight to park somewhere outside the first building. You go the next building to get your vehicle permit canceled. At the last small office on the left near the inbound-fumigation-unit you get your exit stamps – remember the visa slip and also the receipt for paying for it, that you got when you entered Mexico. Walk back to your vehicle and drive on through.

After 20m in Guatemala you pull up next to the truck – that is where you sort out the vehicle. First go the office behind to get your passports stamped in. Ask the guy to stamp the photocopy of your passport which the vehicle import office in the truck requires. The import cost Q60 which you pay at the green trailer next door. They accept Pesos but gave a slightly low rate for them. Next up is the fumigation which cost Q48. Check your change. No more stops or checks, nowhere really to examine or search the vehicle, nothing much, for the few hours drive to Flores.

There is a real change coming over the border. The first towns had a lovely chaos to them and reminded me of the Baluchi chaos arriving from Iranian orderliness. The first fuel station I identified was just before La Libertad which is 150 odd klicks from Tenosique. But there must be fuel available at some of the towns before. Thing is, there’s a real lack of traffic, this direct link between two of the biggest Mayan cities. This border has been around for years, so I don’t know why it’s not well known. Of course, as soon as you start partying afresh on the secret, cool dance floor, you’re kind of glad it isn’t.

Customs and vehicle registration building is on the left, passport control further along.


Vehicle check in at the white truck on the right, passport control is just behind it.

Avoiding Chixculub

It just dawned on me that we won’t be going to Chixculub in the Yucatán Peninsula any time soon because we have, like, five minutes before our visa ends and we have to chop chop it over the Guatemala border. Well, there probably isn’t much to see anyway – maybe a plaque or something saying how this town was the centre of the crater formed by the comet/asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs nearly 65 million years ago. Would have made a nice blog post, no?

But anyway! Right on cue a story surfaces on the internet about possible future impact mitigation -“Asteroid headed for Earth? Give it the laser treatment…“, which is all about the latest idea for avoiding the next collision coming our way sometime in the future; sending a swarm of spaceships equipped with lasers to rendez-vous with the unwanted rock and nudge out of the way of Earth’s path. Now this is a really great idea – just as great as the many other mitigation theories like mass drivers, painting it white and aiming nuclear missiles at it. The problem with all of them is actually we haven’t the technology to make it happen and we haven’t the information to guess whether it would work (or even worse – only half work)

So regarding the article; it would be nice to see an asteroid story without the mention of Bruce Willis in the first paragraph.

Anyway, a couple of issues that might be of interest:

1. Lasers, mass drivers, solar sail attachments and nuclear missiles are, of course, all untested when it comes to moving an object out of Earth’s way. The technology required is immense. And no government or organisation seems particularly interested in doing the R&D. Which is a shame because one day an asteroid/comet WILL impact and cause a right old mess the like of which humanity hasn’t seen for a while (think Noah’s Ark, rain for forty days, worldwide destruction and the collapse of civilisation to such an extent that the whole disaster becomes merely a long-lost myth that few believe could happen again).

2. The comments moaning about the weaponization of space have kind of got it half right. In fact, the asteroid/comet is the real weapon: Imagine the object is due to hit the Atlantic Ocean causing tsunamis that will wipeout the US East coast. Imagine then the lasers are sent up (or the missiles, or the solar sail attachments) but they only manage to move the asteroid half of the way required to miss Earth completely. Imagine, then, that ‘only half’ means the asteroid is due to hit Saudi Arabia instead. This is the big problem, first identified by Carl Sagan, that any impact mitigation attempt could do more harm than good.

Zipolite Nudist Beach Origin

Zipolite Nudist Beach

Zipolite Nudist Beach

On Zipolite nudist beach I was told the unofficial story. Zipolite is also known as the Beach of Death, la Playa de los Muertos, because of the deadly rip-tide and current. Local fisherman who had become tired of life came here to die. They stripped off their clothes and walked up and down before finding their moment to rush into the sea and drown. I think there must be a connection between the current nudist policies here and this old tale – maybe the first hippies came down and saw some naked old geezers… I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on the nudists even more than usual in case of any sudden waterborne disappearance.