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 Petén Itzá, 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 Yaxhá. At Tikal, the Mayan megalopolis that is the main reason why most people come to this corner of Central America, you feel awe. Yaxhá 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 Yaxhá, 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 Yaxhá, 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 Yaxhá 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.
El Mirador may have been even larger than Tikal, but reached its zenith earlier, in the very first centuries of the Christian era. The site occupies 10sq miles, but was first mapped only in 1962. Seen from the air, its tallest temple, La Danta, is little more than a lump in an endless green carpet. In fact, it’s one of the largest pyramids on Earth, reaching 230ft above the forest floor.
For reasons of time (and, it must be said, advancing years), we didn’t make it to El Mirador. But the animal inhabitants of the region compensated for that. We spent a marvellous day birdwatching, logging our sightings of brilliant tanagers, warblers, kingfishers, toucans and much else – although the birds that skimmed, unsought, past our balcony at La Lancha were amazing enough. Then there were the howler monkeys who are part of the furniture at Tikal and Yaxhá but who also set up camp 30 yards from our hotel room, in the treetops above the lake. In fact, they don’t so much howl as emit a groaning, rythmic roar. Scary at first, but after a while it becomes almost soothing.
The descendants of the Maya of course are to be found all over Guatemala, not least in Antigua, the former Spanish colonial capital evacuated after a string of earthquakes in the 18th century. Antigua indeed provided us with another marvellous conjunction of breakfast and ruins; the former spent in another trance on another glistening morning, gazing at the 11,000ft El Agua volcano with its perfect cone, standing sentinel over the city; the latter belonging to the monasteries and convents that presumably were to inspire the natives to give up their pagan ways.
Mayan Guatemala, old and new, brimming with colour and exoticism, is an endless assault on the senses. But throughout our stay, a question gnawed at the mind: in this land of tropical plenty, how could el colapso happen? Why were these mighty cities, as advanced as our own at the time, abandoned – and so long before the Spanish arrived?
The constant fighting between the various Mayan city-states might have had something to do with it. So might the weather. Successive years of drought may well have defeated even the Maya’s sophisticated irrigation system, forcing them elsewhere. But the most likely explanation is what you see all around you today on the road to Tikal and Yaxhá: green fields where nothing of consequence grows.
Even now, the Mayan cities are not safe, for all the jungle that surrounds them. The threats are multiple, from looters to drug traffickers whose resources outstrip those of the impoverished government. The largest of these threats, however, is slash-and-burn agriculture. For more than three decades a civil war, nasty even by Central American standards, raged. The northern forests were a main base of the rebels. The conflict was horrible; up to 200,000 people were killed or “disappeared”. But the fighting did provide protection of a kind for the temples and the ecosystem that hid them. No longer. After a peace treaty was signed in 1996, people relocated to one of the country’s less populous regions, clearing away tracts of forest to plant crops.
But the tropical soil is thin; after a year or two the nutrients are gone, and the land reverts to pasture. Today, a Maya Biosphere Reserve has been created to safeguard what is the largest area of tropical forest left in Central America. Maybe it will succeed, maybe not. But a millennium ago, no such devices were around. Most likely, the old Maya, conducting their own version of slash and burn as they sought to feed an ever-growing population, pushed their ecosystem to the point of collapse. And that, in its way, led indeed to the end of a world.
There are no direct flights from the UK to Guatemala. Options include United (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk) or American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) from Heathrow via Houston or Miami respectively.
Journey Latin America (020-3468 1875; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers a 12‑day “Best of Guatemala” tour which visits Antigua, Lake Atitlán, the Mayan ruins at Quiriguá, the San Felipe Fortress, Flores and Tikal National Park, with two nights spent at La Lancha (coppolaresorts.com), from £2,523pp, with Heathrow flights, transfers, excursions and breakfast.
Rupert Cornwell is chief Washington commentator at ‘The Independent’