The Peten Jungle--the Cradle of Mayan Civilization

Guatemala's Peten jungle is a thick rainforest with spider and howler monkeys, jaguars, racoon-type mammals, several-inch long spiders & tarantulas, and multi-colored plumed birds bordered by the countries of Mexico and Belize. Before leaving Guatemala after a number of presentations, community & prison visits and media events on the growing issue of gang violence, Fabian Montes & Pascual Torres, both of Homeboy Industries, and I decided to take a plane from Guatemala City to the Flores Airport in the Peten Jungle at the edge of Lake Peten Itza. We needed a few days to relax and to visit some sacred sites.

Our hotel was a clean and well-landscaped place about a half-hour from Flores in the community of El Remate. We could see the lake from our windows and from the dining hall. The day we walked to the lake, a Mayan woman was washing clothes by hand on rocks at the lake's edge; one morning, we saw horses grazing.

A full moon greeted us the first night, a good sign. The next day, we ventured another half hour to the nearby Tikal Mayan Ruins, considered the largest pre-Columbian ruins ever excavated in the continent. It has various temples, buildings, ball courts, ceremonial centers, and more on several acres of land. There are many other temples and structures, often appearing as hills or mounds, that continue to be buried beneath the jungle--perhaps thousands.

Interestingly, Mayan elders and shaman still do ceremonies and prayers at Tikal. A number of contemporary Mayan altars are clearly marked. The place also has tourists from throughout Guatemala and other Central American countries, but also from the US and Europe. Tikal is located in a national park that is well-taken care of. The ruins were discovered in 1848 and were a major spiritual and commercial center for some 1500 years, several hundred years before the Spanish conquest. The people of Mexico's Teotihuacan--called the Toltecs, or "the artists/people of knowledge"--had taken over Tikal for a while, adding to the cultural vitality of the site.

There are 34 distinct buildings and sites in the park. It's like Disneyland in the way the roads are marked with signs telling you where each site is located. We were told a person would need seven hours or so to see everything. We spent about four hours and saw amazing structures, including the world-famous Grand Jaquar Temple, some 147 feet high in the Grand Plaza overlooking an ancient ball court with a smaller but equally impressive temple (Temple II or Temple of the Masks) directly across the large courtyard at 124 feet.

We also visited Temple V that had one side still in the jungle and the other side excavated to show steps and carvings. Most impressive to me was the tallest temple at Tikal, called Temple IV, which went up through the jungle's canopy some 236 feet. Wooden steep steps were built at the side of the temple so people could climb to the very top (at their own risk). I wasn't sure I'd make it, but I saw old people and young kids climbing up and down. I had to try.

It was quite an ordeal, but all three of us took the steps up to the very top of what is considered the tallest pyramid in the world. At the top a woman told me, "don't worry--it's worth it." Once I got my bearings at the end of the wooden stairs, I could finally see what all the fuss was about. The temple stood above the jungle. You could see the amazing foliage over the land, but also various other temples rising above the canopy. It was quite a sight, and definitely worth the trouble (although not if one fell).

It proved to be one of the highlights of my many trips through this fantastic continent. The Mayan people speak varous dialects across parts of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador (there are also other tribal groupings, including Nahuatl-speaking natives, in those areas as well). They are one of several major indigenous peoples, including the Mexikas (Nahuatl-speaking) and Incas, who have created deeply rooted and complicated societies. They were not only masters of the jungle, nature, and relationships, but also knew about the stars, the earth's cycles, architecture, philosophy, mathmatics (they are credited for inventing the concept of "zero"), plant healing, and so much more.

In fact, the Mayan Calendar (of which the Mexika Sun Calendar is related) is considered the world's most accurate. But it also has another quality: it's a spiritual calendar system that appears to outline the birth, development and expansion of consciousness in the world.

Before we left, Fabian, Pascual and I did a prayer of thanks at a building called the Acropolis South. We made many important friends in Guatemala. It's a country suffering through so much poverty and violence--but I also saw much hope, creativity and energy for positive and lasting encompassing change. We hope to come back, each time helping enhance what is already a vital and important place in this vast continent called America.

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