The Maya world



Some breakfasts, and some ruins, you never forget. And, just occasionally, you can savour both on the very same day, as my wife and I did in the rainforests of Guatemala earlier this month. First, the breakfast, on the terrace of La Lancha hotel. Fresh papaya, pineapple and melon taste pretty good anywhere — but never better, surely, than when consumed in a trance-like state, gazing out over Lake Peten Itza, shimmering in a golden morning haze as hummingbirds flash by. And, of course, the fact that the world might be close to its end (at least according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar) only heightened the senses.

If you are reading this, Armageddon has, of course, failed to materialise. Not that the Maya, both ancient and contemporary, ever thought it would. For them, 21 December 2012 merely completed the cycle of 13 Baktun that began in 3114BC, a date comparable to one of our Gregorian millennia: remember that fuss over Y2K a little while back? For the Maya, a new cycle now begins, bringing with it not calamity but hope.

But then some bright spark hit upon the so-called 'Jaguar prophet' Chilam Balam. He is Mesoamerica's answer to Homer, and his vision of how "The sky is divided/ then the land is raised.  Then occurs the great flooding of the earth/ That is the flood which will be the end of the world". Stir in the fact that 21 December is the winter solstice, and one which moreover coincides with a rare galactic alignment, and a cottage Doomsday industry was born.

But I digress. A couple of hours after that breakfast, we were at Yaxha. At Tikal, the Mayan megalopolis that is the main reason why most people come to this corner of Central America, you feel awe. Yaxha is a smaller and much less-visited site. The city's peak was in the Early Classical Mayan period (roughly coinciding with the decline and fall of ancient Rome), when its population may have reached 40,000. Today, it is only a quarter excavated, at most.

As you wander though a forest whose every slope and hillock conceals a temple or a palace, long ago reclaimed by steamy, rapacious nature, you have the place to yourself. At Yaxha, the sense is less of awe than of mystery. There, a world did end some time after AD900, when it and every other major Maya centre were abandoned during what historians call el colapso, long before the first conquistador appeared. Why? That conundrum was one thing that brought us to Guatemala.

More important was a nagging guilt at having lived in the US for almost 20 years and never once visiting the different cultures on our doorstep apart from my odd day trip into Mexico, mainly on reporting assignments. For this first, serious foray, Mexico seemed too big (not to mention the chilling carnage of the drug wars), so Guatemala — half a dozen climate zones packed into an area the size of England — it was.

"The Heart of the Maya World" is Guatemala's tourist pitch, and rightly so. Almost half its people are Amerindian, more than any other country in Central America, while most of the rest, known as Mestizos or Ladinos, have at least some Indian ancestry. And, as you stand amid the ruins of Tikal or Yaxha, any Euro-centric view of the universe dissolves.

Gone is our history as geographically defined time tunnel — from the ancient civilisations of the Middle East, to Greece, Rome and today's European nation states and their offspring in the New World. When you encounter these astonishing lost Mayan cities (built moreover without the use of metal), any sense of Old World superiority is gone. 

You are in the presence of a people who realised centuries before Copernicus and Galileo that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and who developed the only fully evolved written language of pre-Columbian America.

We left Tikal exhilarated. Yes, they no longer let you climb to the top of Temple I at dawn and dusk. But from Temple IV (more than 200ft from base to top), the view east towards Temples I and II — protruding through the tree canopy and the endless rainforest beyond — is even more spellbinding than the guidebooks suggest. Surprisingly too, the place was anything but overrun — even though December is surely the ideal time to visit. The wet season is over and temperatures are a comfortable 27C or so, well below the stifling 35C of April and May.

But neither Yaxha nor even Tikal is the end of it. If you want the full Indiana Jones experience, there's always El Mirador, some 50 miles to the north west, up against the Mexican border. Asssuming you don't have a helicopter, it is accessible only by mule or on foot in a round trip that requires at least four days. (Rupert Cornwell/The Independent)

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