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Published: December 13th 2013
I leapt back with leg muscles all aquiver whilst a less than manly sound escaped from my rapidly constricting throat. In the black of night, this shape was darker than shadow. An enormous, bulbous body skittered past my right foot and by all ten of my toes. I had come within a centimetre of stepping on the biggest tarantula my eyes had ever seen. Such are the perils of leaving your tent to relieve yourself during the dead of night in the wilds of Guatemala.
We were in the uninhabited far north of the country, with Mexico a handful of kilometres away. We had trekked to the largest of all the ancient Mayan cities, known today as El Mirador
, where the tallest pyramid they ever constructed still stands. From atop these structures, the flat surrounds seem to be dotted with small hills. In fact, these are all ancient Mayan constructions that nature has since overcome. At places like Tikal you can see what a cleared and partially reconstructed site looks like, giving you a great understanding of how their society functioned. In the wilderness though, you are constantly walking over homes and temples, often unaware that you are doing so.
Actually, one of the highlights from the trek was crawling into an old Mayan home, which is now inhabited by bats and spiders. To move within its stone corridors and see how these homes looked on the inside was something I hadn’t expected to be able to do. There is next to no living space, which leads me to conclude that they were essentially just places for sleeping, with daily life requiring them to be out of doors.
The absolute highlight of the trek was had upon the peak of a pyramid at sunset, staring out over their former empire. The only sounds were the occasional roar of a howler monkey or a ruffle of leaves in the trees. As the sun was melting into the haze of the horizon we each sipped on Guatemalan rum and appreciated beauty. The Maya believed that when the sun set, it turned into a jaguar (being an animal of the night). Strangely enough, the following morning we set off early and twice saw fresh jaguar prints in the mud.
Oh mud, mud, mud, MUD!!! So much mud!!! 100kms of trekking through mud can start to wear down one’s spirit. Squelch!
Splash! Slurp! Belch! The sounds of mud were our constant companion as it impeded rapid movement with such sterling success. On more than one occasion my boot was stolen from my person due to the tenacious grasp of mud that felt like it was trying to swallow me whole. If we weren’t in mud, we were in swampy water or shallow rivers. I have never been so filthy after a day of trekking as I was on this hike. Mentally, it was the most challenging hike I have done due to the relentless nature of the mud coupled with the voracious appetite of the mosquitos.
To reach the site, we had taken a local bus from Flores at five o’clock in the morning, bouncing along ruinous roads with our knees bumping into the metal frame of the seat in front. Every local male who boarded had their mandatory machete either in hand or hanging from their hip. I swear that a Guatemalan male learns to wield a machete before they learn to talk. They use them for cutting grass, sweeping, pushing something across the table, whatever. Our guide was from the nearest village to El Mirador (the village literally
lies at the end of the road, 50kms from the site) and he naturally had his machete in hand at all times, cutting a way through the growth. Paths here aren’t fixed – you make your own. We were fortunate to have a guide who spends every summer working with archaeologists at the site, so he not only knew the way, but was a wealth of knowledge and passionate about the area.
So, after five days of frijoles, rice, egg, countless tortillas, mosquitos, spiders, monkeys and wild turkeys, we found ourselves back in society, exhausted and filthy, mud seeped through our pores and intertwined with the strands of our hair. Yet we were happy, for we saw something real. We were off the beaten track: in fact, there was often no track at all. We were off the Gringo trail (which I do love being on, by the way), speaking only Spanish with a local guide and had been utterly and wholly in the wild. Try as I might, I could never have had this experience at home. There was one moment of sadness though (well, sad for me). My trekking boots had walked their last walk. Over the
past four years these boots have taken me on hikes through Patagonia, canyons and Inca trails of Peru, the highlands of Ecuador, a jungle trek to a lost city in Colombia, wandering through Petra in Jordan, to the craters of active volcanos, exploring the Australian wilderness and even giving me blisters for 700kms across the north of Spain whilst completing El Camino de Santiago. These constant companions and bulky filling for my backpack had come to their eventual end. Broken, split, worn through, mud covered and with a precious few lace studs still attached, it was time to say farewell. I removed them, took a photo of their well-worn state and then dumped them in a cardboard box with discarded pineapples and other such rubbish.
With no boots, a decision had to be made regarding our next destination. Conveniently, the Caribbean islands off the coast of Belize are only about a six hour journey from Flores. Bye, bye mud and brown water…sand and turquoise water, here we come! NB:
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