“Coffee turkey!” our driver shouts while laughing and slapping his thigh. An incensed turkey angrily gobbles at our passing car. The sun has yet to rise and I have just dumped a cup of steaming hot coffee out of the moving truck and onto a turkey with a misfortune of being in the path of the stream.
“Do we need to pay for the turkey?” my husband inquires, half-joking. In this remote part of the Petén district of Guatemala, causing damage to livestock comes with a fee. A chicken will set you back a few dollars. Harm a cow and expect to have your automobile surrounded by the locals until you can reach a resolution with the village chief. As the turkey isn’t damaged, just upset, we drive on.
We are making a three-hour drive to Sayaxché, where we will then take a long boat ride down the Rio De La Pasión before beginning a jungle hike to the ancient Mayan ruins of Ceibal.
Bumping along these rough roads, I regret the two hours of sleep that I got the night before but not as much as I regret the resulting hangover. We had stayed out all night with local friends who had harmlessly asked us to dinner before taking us on a whirlwind of a journey that culminated in too much alcohol and a possibility of landing ourselves in a Guatemalan prison.
I will myself to be lulled to sleep by the bouncing of the truck over pitted roads. When we finally reach the river, my eyes open to an alarming sight; The dock is teeming with military soldiers, automatic weapons strapped to their shoulders, machetes hooked to their belts. “Don’t look at them” our guide advises.
A decade previous, as a brutal civil war came to an end, this river is said to have run red with blood. During the 36-year campaign of terror, mainly perpetrated by military hands, an estimated 200,000 lives were lost. The appearance of the soldiers today serves as a bleak reminder that pockets of violence and instability remain.
As the soldiers pack themselves on a boat, my husband takes a risk and snaps a photo. Despite shooting it from waist level, the digital image shows that this action did not go unnoticed. Several soldiers angrily stare at the camera. Days later, this photo mysteriously disappears.
We hire a boat and continue our journey, the ride providing a nice reprieve from my hangover. With the wind on my face, I’m able to enjoy the sights of the river. Caiman slide into the water. Blue heron perch on floating logs. Toucans skim bugs from the water’s surface. We stop the boat to watch three tamanduas pick fruit off of a fallen fig tree, a rare daytime sighting of these nocturnal anteaters.
Our hike begins. The sun is baking the moisture out of the canopy and the jungle is thick with fog. As we climb our way up a steep forest path, the stifling humidity steals my breath and curls my hair into sticky tendrils. The excitement to begin our journey led to an oversight of a most important resource: water.
Every step deeper into the jungle intensifies the dehydration created by a night of boozing. However, our guide, Jesus Antonio, comes fully equipped with jungle survival skills. (“Don’t call me Jesus…it’s too much responsibility.”) Spotting a strangler vine, he pulls a knife out of his belt and hacks away until water begins gushing out. The three of us take turns sucking water from the vine. It tastes of the way the jungle smells, earthy and green, like drinking a mouthful of chlorophyl.
The nutrients of the jungle turn everything into gargantuan versions of their normal selves. Single leaves are as big as we are tall. Millipedes seem to stretch on for eternity. Nothing illuminates this more than the mosquitos. They sound like B-52 bombers and leave behind welts the size of a quarter. When starting the journey, Jesus Antonio laughed as we covered ourselves in Jungle Juice, a concentration of 98% DEET. “That’s not enough,” he said before whipping a can of 100% DEET out of his backpack and spraying both of us to the point that the chemicals turned our eyes red and our lips numb. “This still won’t be enough. Don’t stop moving. The mosquitos will catch up to you,” he had warned. True to his word, we are now overwhelmed with mosquitos. The joy of drinking from the vine is short-lived. As one person drinks, the other two run in circles and swat madly at the air. The five-minute break results in too many bites to count.
Continuing on, we climb up and down giant hills. Only when I trip over a rock do we come to find that the hills are not as they seem. We are climbing up and over uncovered ruins of the Ceibal complex. The dense tropical forest has claimed the ruins over 1100 years. Jesus Antonio estimates that Ceibal could be larger than Tikal. He would know. His father, a prominent archeologist, began digging Tikal out of the jungle in the 1950’s. Growing up at the dig site gave Jesus Antonio a keen eye for what lies beneath.
Walking toward the only two excavated temple platforms, we have the site to ourselves yet dozens of eyes watch our every move. High above, branches rattle. Howler monkeys begin to scream, enraged by our presence. It is a haunting noise, guttural and primordial. Goosebumps creep up my spine.
(Press play to hear a howler monkey.)
In this clearing, with no trees to shade us from the tropical sun, the need for water intensifies. We are left to investigate the area on our own while Jesus Antonio searches for more strangler vines. The heat is unbearable. We find a single shady spot in the ruins, only big enough for one. Giant scorpions scurry away as we take turns pressing our backs into the cool stone. Returning from his search, Jesus Antonio shakes his head with disappointment. There is no source of water in the immediate area. It will be a long trip back to the car.
Just as we cross back into the trees, my husband gets pegged on the head. I grab the binoculars and look toward the sky. Before we can figure out what hit him, it happens again. From 130 feet above, a hailstorm of small fruit rains down on the forest floor. We are standing underneath a ramón tree and a large troop of spider monkeys are stripping it of its tiny fruit.
“We can drink from them” Jesus Antonio says, scooping one up and popping the orange-fleshed fruit into his mouth. We follow his lead. The skin is astringent but piercing it releases a teaspoon of sweet juice. Working quickly, we steal from the monkeys, stuffing fruit into our pockets and, when those are full, gathering them in the bottoms of our shirts. Shrieks ring out as the troop leader discovers our thievery. Fruit stops falling. The entire troop quickly moves to the lowest branches of the tree and begin screaming at us in unison. Several monkeys run down to the ground to grab fruit before we can get our greedy little hands on more. When one bears his very sharp teeth, we take it as an invitation to leave, dropping the fruits in our shirts as a mea culpa. One should not argue with a two-foot tall primate.
The hike back to the river is mainly downhill. We make double time, anxious to get to potable water, stopping only to crack a few coconuts that are lying on the ground. As we near the boat, a stranger emerges from the jungle, filthy and wild-looking, a large machete in hand. Startled, I trip over the exposed roots of a banyan tree and face plant into the muddy trail. The stranger jumps into action, helping me up and fretting over the deep gash in my hand. I refuse his help, pulling my hand away to wipe the blood on my pants and clean the cut in the river. I am not a delicate flower.
The stranger asks for a ride back to Sayaxché. He’s spent the past four months trekking through the jungle and is now in a hurry to leave. His machete, while alarming at first, is simply a useful tool for cutting through the dense overgrowth, for killing dinner, and for protection against the multitudes of poisonous snakes.
He tells us of two days in which he is stalked, of knowing that his life is in danger by an unseen threat. On the third day, he gets lucky and his stalker reveals himself while pouncing on another bit of prey…a tapir that had wandered onto his path. In a flash, a jaguar leaps out from behind him and takes out this pig-like creature. Death is instant. The predator shrinks back into the jungle with its prey clutched firmly between its teeth.
This, and the other dangers of the jungle, have nothing to do with the stranger’s urgency to get back to Sayaxché. A few days back, he had come to a village. The inhabitants passed on a rumor that trouble was on the way…soldiers were supposedly heading into the area. He does not want to chance an encounter. I confirm the rumor and my husband shows him the photograph taken earlier that day. We become his saviors, offering a direct route back to town.
The stranger digs through his pack looking for some way to thank us. He pulls out a canteen of water and we collectively pounce on it. The saviors have become the saved. I down three long gulps and settle in for the long journey home.