Propelled by an ancient prophesy, Jonathan Franklin explores the relics of a great civilisation in the jungle of Tikal.
My hotel room has sporadic electricity and useless internet; it's the kind of place where flashlights and granola bars should never be out of reach. But it's full of life - a toucan taps on my window as it eats bugs off the screen and butterflies and hummingbirds join me over a shot of fresh local coffee, before I head into the heart of the Mayan empire in northern Guatemala.
As I bounce along in a jeep towards Tikal National Park, I pass farmers leading burros packed high with firewood. An estimated 150,000 Mayans once thrived in the jungle of Tikal. They built hundreds of structures and a maze of stairways connected by roads and crowned with stone pyramids. Their staircases are so steep that an ascent is almost like rock climbing. The Mayans' population peaked about 800 AD, the civilisation inexplicably began to decline and then , by 1000 AD, Tikal was abandoned.
Conspiracy theorists and the History Channel have spent the past five years warning that a similar fate awaits us, based on a prediction inherent in the Mayan calendar that the world as we know it will end on December 21, 2012.
As with Nostradamus's predictions, the Mayan prophecies have flourished in the internet age. Will the Earth stop spinning? Reverse direction? Get sucked into another galaxy? Or be annihilated in nuclear conflagration? The anticipation is fuelling doomsday tourism; like surfers who flock to shore at the rumour of a tidal wave, travellers are turning up in increasing numbers at Tikal to see the civilisation that predicted the end of the world, before it's gone.
DuPlooy's Jungle Lodge, a stylish bed and breakfast in the jungle near Tikal on the Belize side of the border, is promoting a five-day "Apocalypto" tour on December 18-22, 2012. The lodge owners have come up with a bonus: December 22, 2012, the first post-apocalypse night, if it exists, is free.
"We came here to see what the excitement was," says Debbie Long, an American traveller I meet at the ruins. "We read books about the Mayan calendar but here you can see how they made these predictions. That's what I so love here - you can see history for yourself."
The Mayan civilisation is credited with developing a host of advanced technologies, ranging from mathematics (where the number 0 was used long before other cultures), astronomy (with both calendars and predictions of astronomical events) and a sophisticated use of hieroglyphics that scientists today still seek to decipher. Textiles were made from cotton and paper from tree bark. Many of these activities are thought to be a result of sophisticated Mayan agricultural practices, whichfreed time for their scientific and religious pursuits.
Known for early development of written words and astronomy, Mayan culture is highlighted at this ancient site, which attracts scholars, students and explorers of all ages.
The Mayan calendar prophesies have prompted local tour operators and hotels to upgrade their services. El Camino Real, a luxury hotel near the Tikal ruins, arranges storytelling evenings with Mayan elders, including explanations of the doomsday prophecy. Mayan recipes are being resurrected and appearing on restaurant menus. "I come from the restaurant side," says the manager of El Camino Real, Xavier Duc. "So I am completely redoing the menu - going out to the community, meeting the older women and asking them what ingredients they use, what traditional dishes we can include in our menus."
With heightened interest in the Mayan calendar, travellers are hiking to the hinterlands to explore El Mirador, a complex twice the size of Tikal and not extensively mapped until the 1980s, with the largest pyramid in the Americas. Getting there involves a helicopter charter and a two-day hike or a one-day horse ride from the main entrance to Tikal National Park.
Mayan cities - and Tikal is one of the largest - are wonders of engineering and craftsmanship. Resembling futuristic spaceships, the temples, palaces and plazas rise from the jungle. Much of Tikal remains a mystery, for large swathes of the estimated 6000 hectares thought to comprise the residential section of the city have yet to be excavated or even mapped fully.
At the centre of Tikal's ruins is the Great Plaza, a complex of stone buildings, including steep pyramids that soar more than 70 metres from thick jungle. These pyramids were used for human sacrifice: as the victim was held down, a priest cut open his chest and removed the beating heart. Sportsmen playing on seven ball courts were also sacrificed before crowds of spectators.
Temple 1, also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar, was built about 700 AD and over the subsequent century another three temples were added to the Great Plaza. Lost in the jungle until excavation began in the 1850s, the complex was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979.
The rapid collapse of the Mayan civilisation, within 200 years from the peak of its population growth, has been the subject of much academic research and debate, variously attributed to warfare or deforestation leading to degradation of soils, less-efficient farming, hunger and a spiral of ever more serious environmental collapse.
Richard Hansen, a US archaeologist who has spent decades researching and excavating ruins in and around Tikal, believes habitat destruction triggered the end of a great civilisation. Massive amounts of firewood were required to burn the limestone to make a cement-like stucco widely used in the pyramids. Forests were razed, which changed the patterns of rainfall, leading to ruined crops and famine. This theory is based on evidence that the stucco became increasingly thin as the Mayan empire went into decline.
Today, the forest has grown back - the Guatemalan jungle devours almost everything. What remains at Tikal are tantalising fragments of a society that developed a timeless ideal of aesthetic beauty. So timeless, that when director George Lucas wanted to depict a rebel base for the movie Star Wars IV - A New Hope, he searched worldwide for an ideal futuristic buildings and settled on the temples of Tikal.
Jonathan Franklin stayed courtesy of El Camino Real Tikal.
Delta Airlines flies low-season return to Guatemala City for about $2883 from Sydney and $2983 from Melbourne (connecting in Sydney), flying non-stop to Los Angeles (13hr 45min) then changing aircraft to Guatemala City (4hr 40min). The one-hour flight to Flores on Aviateca Airlines costs about $163 one way. From Flores, the Tikal ruins are a 90-minute drive. Guatemala has one of the highest crime rates in Central America; authorities advise the use of an official tour guide or tour group to Tikal National Park and other tourist sites.
For tours to El Mirador, see nitun.com.
El Camino Real Tikal is a five-star hotel beside Lake Peten Itza, with customised tours and Mayan food. Rooms from $US100 ($111), see caminoreal.com.gt.
La Casa de Don David is a small hotel also on Lake Peten Itza with efficient bilingual staff. Rooms from $US60, see www.lacasadedondavid.com.
Jungle Lodge, inside Tikal National Park, is a 10-minute walk to the ruins, allowing morning and evening viewing. Rooms from $US100, see junglelodgetikal.com.
Casa Americas fronts Lake Peten Itza. Its staff have extensive contact with local culture and can offer Spanish language classes or week-long guided excursions. Rooms from $US40, see casaamericas.com.
Duplooy's Jungle Lodge is in the jungle of Belize, about two hours' drive from Tikal. Rooms from $US180, see duplooys.com.
In the region
The lovely provincial city of Antigua, about 45 minutes' drive from Guatemala City, is so quaint and traditional that the spoken Spanish here is said to be among the clearest in the world. There are more than 100 Spanish language schools in this city of graceful colonial buildings. El Convento Boutique, a luxury hotel near an 18th-century convent, is a good base, with smartly designed colonial-style rooms from $US190, see elconventoantigua.com. For more modest budgets, the stylish Hotel Posada del Hermano Pedro has double rooms from $US85, see hotelposadahermanopedro.com.