Mar 2012

Blog, Central America


The Guatemalan Adventures of Indiana Van Orden

Up until a couple of years ago, I spent my days as a medical products design engineer.  The best days were spent in the lab testing design iterations and new materials.  Most days, however, were spent parked in front of a computer designing the products, writing test plans, communicating with vendors, writing reports, or analyzing test results.  On the odd day when the computer system would go down in a storm, operations would come to a screeching halt.  When we arrived at the Guatemalan border that old feeling returned.  The computer system had crashed and we would have to wait indefinitely.

For the next couple of hours we sat with a fellow stranded traveler, a Mennonite farmer.  His family farmed rice in Belize, but export taxes imposed by Belize, combined with America’s subsidies for imported Asian rice, had made it impossible for him to make a living farming rice in Belize.  He was thus relocating his family to Guatemala where labor and export taxes were cheaper, which would allow them to continue farming.  As rough as we may think we have it sometimes, at least we don’t have to relocate our families to a developing country just to stay above water.

We finally made our way through customs as the sun went down, and then found a camp spot in the yard of a hotel a few yards from the border.  By morning we were on our way to Tikal.

The first hour the following morning was on a road that remained largely unpaved, so we put Nacho in first gear and sat back for the long haul.  This exercise has become far too common these days; slowly creeping along for hours on end in first gear.  Soon enough we arrived at the gates for Tikal, one of the most elaborate and extensive Mayan ruins in existence.

Since we had arrived at the peak of the afternoon heat, we figured we’d set up camp in the grassy camping area and rest until evening.  When the afternoon heat passed, we headed out for a hike, having decided that we’d hit the ruins first thing in the morning before it got hot.  It wouldn’t be so.  As we passed the guard shack we were stopped and asked for our tickets to see the ruins.

“We’re just going for a hike in the jungle.  We’re going to use our tickets to see the ruins in the morning.”

“Oh no, you have to use the tickets today.  They’re only good for one day.”

“But we will use them for only one day.  We’ll use them for tomorrow.”

“I can sell you more tickets for tomorrow, but you will have to pay full price.  These tickets will be no good.”

After having been put in a bad mood by the “foreigner” price, which was over five times the “local” price, things were only getting worse.  “So you’d like for us to pay the full foreigner price again, meaning that we will have paid the price of twelve local person tickets, just to see the ruins one time?  Why can’t you can just reissue us some tickets for tomorrow?”

The guards conferred, and then the one of them approached me as if he had a good idea.  “Tell you what.  You can just pay him the price for two more full price tickets, and you’ll be able to enter the park at 4:00 AM and spend all day looking at the ruins.”

We had no choice but to spend the last two and a half hours of the day looking at the ruins.  We didn’t have much time, so we hurried through as much as we could before the sun went down and the park closed.  The area contained a vast collection of pyramids and buildings, which used to support a community of over 100,000 inhabitants.

The following day we woke up early so we could do our hike in the jungle.  We had heard that there were some hiking trails but weren’t sure where to find them.  As we walked along a path leading toward the ruins we saw a small trail ducking under some vines and disappearing into the jungle.  It looked like a hiking trail to us, so we took it.

After a few minutes we came across a long concrete building in a clearing.  As we scoped it out we saw two men come out of the jungle carrying machetes.  They seemed to be guides for the park.  One of them called out to us.

“Are you looking for the ruins?  You should be careful, it’s very dangerous in the jungle.”

“What do you mean?  Are there dangerous animals?”

“Not really, but it’s very easy to get lost.”

We thanked him for the advice and found another trail that disappeared into the dense vines and walked on.  Heeding the guard’s warning, we devised a nearly fool proof method of not getting lost in the jungle; every time we came to a junction, we made a wooden arrow showing us how to get back the way we came.  As long as there weren’t any malicious people or monkeys behind us, we ought to be in good shape.

Our trek took us down several trails before dropping us onto a rough dirt road.  We followed the road for a while until we saw a place where two faint tire tracks could be made out heading off into the jungle in a different direction.  We took these, but they petered out after about a half an hour of walking.  It looked like two or three Jeeps had ever made it to where we were.

Finally, as we began to consider turning back, the outline of blocks in the undergrowth caught our eye.  In some places it looked like someone had shoveled away a few inches of topsoil to uncover the outlines of some buried structures.  We walked into the undergrowth, away from the tire tracks, and found more blocks forming the outlines of rooms; in all we found ten or twelve rooms.  It appeared to be a residential area where there must have been many homes.  We had stumbled into an unexcavated Mayan ruin.

On the way back we thought about how many ruins must be hidden in the jungle around Tikal.  For a site with so many enormous temples and gathering places, there must have been extensive residential areas sprawling out beyond the excavated center.  As we discussed this, Sheena froze in the path.  Her eyes grew into cue balls, her lungs filled, and her breathing stopped.  Her mouth formed into the ecstatic smile of a crazy person.  I looked ahead in the path and saw the object of her elation: a miniature deer.  It was like a normal deer, but it was the size of a whippet.  When it saw Sheena’s crazy eyes it turned and walked into the jungle on its pencil-thin legs.

For the next few minutes the conversation shifted to Sheena’s new favorite animal.

“You know, I’ve always wanted to see a miniature deer”, she said, matter-of-factly.

“I didn’t even know they existed.  How long could you have possibly wanted to see one?”

“Oh, many years.”

In the end, despite the negative impressions on our first day, we enjoyed our time at Tikal.  Our jungle excursion gave us an opportunity that most Tikal visitors don’t get to experience.  It was like going to Disneyland and finding a ride that nobody else had ever seen before, except that there weren’t any pedophiles dressed up as cartoon animals lurking about.  And best of all, Sheena got to fulfill her many years long dream of spotting a mini deer.

We’re trying to keep in mind that things won’t always go our way.  But just because things aren’t going our way, it doesn’t mean that they won’t turn out to be better in the end.


  1. Ernie WIeber

    Very interesting. The pictures are really good. what are the kooky little animals with the long necks?
    We have a animal in Arizona that looks very similar only much smaller. Ruins are so eerie just imagining all the people that once lived there. Probably completely unaware that some future visitors would be walking around wondering what happened. Does anyone know?

    Comment by Ernie WIeber on March 28, 2012 at 5:51 pm

  2. Marilyn Herrold

    The “racoon thingys” are Kudamundi… very common scavengers down there. Enjoying your posts. We had lunch with you at a roadside stand in Belize.

    Comment by Marilyn Herrold on March 28, 2012 at 7:23 pm

  3. Ada

    I was convinced for a few seconds that that picture was of a heard of mini brontosaurus. You know, I’ve always wanted to see a miniature brontosaurus.

    Comment by Ada on March 28, 2012 at 8:28 pm

  4. @Ernie: The most likely cause of Mayan decline was drought. You can read about Tikal and teh drought here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/cultures/maya_01.shtml

    @Marilyn: Nice to hear from you. Glad you’re enjoying the blog. I hope the rest of your trip has gone well!

    @Ada: We think of and talk about you often. All good, I promise. Yesterday we wondered how you were enjoying your time living on the Navajo rez. We should Skype one of these days! Thanks for your entertaining comments, it’s nice to hear from friends :)

    Comment by Brad on March 28, 2012 at 9:20 pm

  5. Ms A-La

    Just loving the. Logs, Brad.

    Comment by Ms A-La on March 31, 2012 at 10:38 pm

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