Our faltering Spanish drew blank stares as we frantically asked the locals directions - as it happened our timing was perfect even if our linguistics were not. The collectivo drove us through the countryside where folds of cleared hills, fertile farmland, quarries and colourful villages sped past as the morning’s heat intensified.
Sayaxche has a reputation as being one of Guatemala’s Wild West towns. It lies very close to Mexico, easily reached on the waters of the Rio de Passion, which slithers through Western Peten to the confluence of the rivers Usamacinta and Salinas, which, together, form the Guatemalan/ Mexican border. Once the river was a major trade and travel route for the ancient Mayans and served in war and peace. In modern times its vein has been a lifeline for the flow of illegal activities.
The road stops at the river and as there is no bridge a giant barge ferries the cars, buses and trucks across the narrow watery expanse into the town.
Walter appeared from the back of the crowd that milled around the shore to welcome us. He was to be our guide for the day.
Walter was a Mayan who was as proud of his river as he was of his boat. His command of English matched ours of Spanish but with his enthusiasm for communication it didn’t matter.
Walter’s aluminium boat slid into the calm waters of the Rio de Passion and we began our three hour cruise upriver to Ceiba. Dug out canoes deftly manoeuvred by the river dwellers floated silently past, skippered by men who were fishing with finely woven nets that they spun in the air before throwing them in a graceful arc into the muddy waters.
A tangle of forest grew right to the water’s edge occasionally leaving small sections of mud bank exposed. These served as places to bathe and wash clothes for the villagers and for the river crocodiles, tortoises or vultures to sun bask.
The ecosystem here enjoys a modicum of balance, wildlife is prolific and I see now, as always, the river provides life for many.
Everybody smiled as we passed and in the echo of the waves and greetings we exchanged hung the mutual question, “What is it like in your world?”
I felt like I had arrived from not just a different place but also a different time.
After two hours, the villages gave way to tall hills consumed by thick green jungle; we were entering Ceiba Parque. The majestic bare leaved Ceiba trees soared above the canopy. Their shapes, like lightening silhouetted against the sky, enhanced their imposing image.
The iconographic Ceiba or Kapok tree was the sacred tree of the ancient Maya. In ancient times it was referred to as the cosmic tree and served as a channel of communication between the three levels of the universe; it was worshiped as a symbol of abundance and immortality. For the modern Maya it represents life, beauty, strength and union. The Ceiba trees grow in the jungle with their great buttress roots aligned to the four directions and the Maya used them as ancient compasses.
Ceiba Parque holds the key to the ancient Mayan civilisation; archaeological excavation is still being carried out and the findings are astounding. El Ceiba ruins, once a great city, are situated atop a high hill overlooking the Rio de Passion. It flourished and reached its peak during the end of the 9th century at the time when the once great Tikal was well into decline. Not only was El Ceiba one of the last outposts of the great Maya civilisation of old but new evidence points to the possibility that it was also the first city originally settled by the Olmecs of Mexico.
This area of the Peten is rich in history and archaeological ruins; the sites of Aquateca and Chiminos are woven into the tales of old and play an important role in the fall of the Maya Empire that spanned more than 1000 years.
We continued down the river to Chiminos Island to spend the night. The lodge commanded a spectacular position in a private reserve and was surrounded by pristine jungle that grew all the way to the shores of the silver waters of Lake Petex Batun.
The morning descended in a crescendo of jungle music, a delicious blend of sounds, a chorus of exotic harmony.
Although there was a slight chill in the air, it had a tangible thickness and dampness to it creating a sort of ethereal mist that fell like a gossamer shawl over the morning. The glass surfaced lake mirrored jungle covered hills in a perfect reflection, as white egrets and herons glided and skimmed across the surface of the still lake. This was nature at her finest, truly a space to qualify peace.
Well maintained pathways meandered through the property, taking you up close and personal with the flora and fauna of the reserve. It is possible to see toucans, parrots and spider monkeys high in the trees. A stroll at sunrise or sunset will be accompanied by the dramatic chants and growls of the howler monkeys as they call to their families.
Chiminos Island Reserve holds the remains of a fortified Maya citadel that has a ball court and small palaces which are still partially unearthed.
Another boat ride into the morning took us to the well preserved ruins of Aquateca, which flourished from 600 to 800AD. Aquateca is an impressive complex and one of the last outposts for the Mayas and is the largest archaeological site in the region of Petex Batun.
Guatemala holds many secrets and these little known sites that we explored are as important and as beautiful as the better known areas like Tikal.
Important not only in their testament to times gone by but, if examined, perhaps they can hold the solution to the exquisitely delicate balance between ecology and society.
The fall of the mighty Maya empire demonstrates that if something throws that tenuous balance off, it can all tragically end in a moment. Perhaps if we do not recognise the signs, our civilisation could also be swallowed by the jungles of time.
Miranda Munro is a sound healer based in Toodyay Western Australia - kyela.com.au