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Here's a universal truth about travel: any time you feel like Indiana Jones on a trip, you know you're making memories that will last a lifetime.
I felt a kinship with the fictional explorer last February as I rode in a small boat on the Usumacinta River on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. After passing by mile after mile of dense rain forest with occasional crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbank, our small group at last reached Yaxchilan, a Mayan archaeological site located deep in the jungle. As I jumped ashore and made my way up a steep hill, I was happy to be following in the celluloid footsteps of Indiana Jones, another traveler who searched for mystery and adventure in Central America.
My expedition was led by Sacred Earth Journeys, a Vancouver-based company that specializes in trips to some of the world's most significant spiritual sites. The remoteness of the Mayan ruins and the complexity of their history and culture made me happy to be in the care of experienced guides: Freddy Silva, an author and researcher of sacred places, and Miguel Angel Vergara, a native of Mexico steeped in Mayan spiritual traditions.
'Mayan spirituality isn't just part of the past - it continues to this day,” Vergara told our group during our first evening together in the Mexican city of Villahermosa. 'We want to introduce you to its living traditions as we visit some of the major landmarks built by the Mayans.”
My fellow travelers hailed from Australia, England and Canada as well as the United States. Some had been part of Sacred Earth Journeys before; others were newbies. All of us shared an interest in the spiritual side of travel and a sense of adventure that would serve us well during our week exploring Mayan sites.
The Mayans flourished between the third and ninth centuries in cities throughout the lowland jungles of Central America. They were master mathematicians and astronomers who mapped the movements of stars and planets with great accuracy and developed complex writing and mathematical notation systems. Excelling at agriculture and architecture, they dominated a sizable portion of Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish.
Instead of seeing the Mayan sites from a solely historical perspective, the tour was designed to be experiential, introducing us to contemporary forms of Mayan spirituality. At each of our destinations, Vergara led us in ceremonies with deep roots in Mayan culture, while Silva helped us see some of the similar patterns and stories associated with many sacred places around the world.
Yaxchilan is the smallest of the three sites we visited, but in some ways the most evocative of the past. More than 120 structures were built here, though only a small number have been excavated.
At the entrance to the site, we entered a shadowed passageway of stone, which wound around in the darkness for a number of yards before we climbed a small flight of steps. As we ascended, I could see the brilliant green of the jungle framed by a doorway ahead of us. The transition from darkness into light felt mythic and ancient.
At last we emerged into the full expanse of Yaxchilan. With each step, the sounds of the forest became louder: the shrill caws and melodic twittering of birds and the rasp of insects. The greenery pressed close to the buildings, as if it was eager to overtake them once again.
After passing several sets of low-lying ruins, we stopped at the base of a hill with a temple at its crest, a landmark reached by a set of narrow, steep steps. Before we started our explorations, Vergara led us in a ceremony. As he drummed, howler monkeys grunted and hooted above us, the essence of the jungle distilled in sound.
For the rest of the afternoon as I wandered amid the ruins of Yaxchilan, the memory of that ceremony framed my thoughts. It gave me a glimpse of why the Mayans chose to build temples here in the midst of the forest, places where they believed the spirits of the earth could be honored.
While I loved the pristine serenity of Yaxchilan, the better-known Palenque also intrigued me. The site gained worldwide fame in 1952 when Alberto Ruz Lhuillier found the tomb of Pakal, who'd ruled Palenque for nearly 70 years in the seventh century. The discovery was hailed as the New World equivalent of finding King Tut's tomb in Egypt.
Two treasures in particular fascinated the world, both of which are on display at Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology: an elaborate jade mask and a massive sarcophagus lid of carved limestone. The slab bears a complex design that shows a man either descending or ascending a tree with its roots in the underworld, a trunk in this world, and its branches in paradise. As with many Mayan artifacts, the exact meaning of the design is unknown.
Once we reached the archaeological site, our first stop was the building where these treasures had been found, the Temple of the Inscriptions. This beautifully proportioned pyramid of weathered limestone has nine sets of steps that echo the nine layers of the Mayan underworld. It's named after the hundreds of glyphs (the Mayan form of writing) that adorn the inner walls of the building at its top, the temple where ceremonies were once held.
Like other Mayan sites, the temples almost certainly were built to align with astronomical phenomena, said Silva.
'The Mayans had an amazingly sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, despite working without any of the technology used today to track the stars,” he said.
We concluded our tour by crossing the Guatemalan border to visit Tikal, an even larger archaeological site. Tikal, built between 700 B.C. and 900 A.D., once was home to more than 60,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the Americas. Today more than 3,000 structures remain, though many are covered by jungle.
The archaeological site is part of Tikal National Park, which protects 220 square miles of rain forest. More than 300 species of birds live here, along with jaguar, puma, several species of monkeys, tapirs and more than 60 kinds of bats.
The heart of Tikal is its Grand Plaza, a ceremonial space bordered on the east and west by two extraordinary pyramids/temples. The Temple of the Great Jaguar towers more than 150 feet above the plaza, its sides rising steeply to the sky. Across from it is the Temple of the Mask, a slightly smaller structure.
As I left Tikal's Grand Plaza to wander amid its vast network of temples, residences and ruins, the sounds and smells of the jungle were ever-present. It wasn't hard to imagine life as it was here many centuries ago. Then, as now, Tikal is a place to contemplate the connections between the earth, the stars and the human heart.