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DESTINATION: GUATEMALA

Atop the world of the Maya

Visitors brave snakes, mud and mosquitoes in the Guatemalan jungle to visit an ancient civilization's jewel. With `Apocalypto,' more tourists may hit the trail.

January 07, 2007|Ben Brazil | Special to The Times

But his proposals do not sit well with community logging cooperatives and industrial loggers, who have doggedly defended the rights they gained under an earlier conservation plan based on sustainable forestry. That initiative received U.S. development assistance and involved the World Wildlife Fund and other prominent green groups.

In a region rife with drug and immigrant smuggling, the question of who best preserves forests gets complicated. Slash-and-burn farmers have ravaged strictly protected areas with impunity, and logging representatives point out that their lands have fared better. But it's clear that they're losing forest too, and Hansen thinks unprotected areas of the Mirador Basin soon will be overrun.

If they don't want to implement his tourism plan, Hansen said, "then we can all watch it burn down."

Tourist development got a major boost in September, when the U.S. Interior Department signed an agreement to send American park management experts to Guatemala. Better signs, better trails, better security and better lodgings are on the agenda.

"Apocalypto" too may draw more tourists to El Mirador, where visitor numbers have climbed from 400 in 2001 to more than 3,200 in 2005, according to the Global Heritage Fund. Executive director Jeff Morgan predicts 10,000 visitors in 2010.

For now, the biggest problem is access: Not everyone can afford a helicopter ride or make the five- or six-day walk. The obvious solution -- a road -- would open the jungle to slash-and-burn farmers. A narrow-gauge railroad has been studied.

Although the environmental politics are complicated, visitors' options are clear: Wait and see if the trip gets easier and more popular, or go now, while you still have the jungle, and its travails, almost to yourself.

I did the latter, booking with a Flores tour operator to whom I confided my fear of poisonous snakes.

"Don't worry!" he said. The snakes in the trees were harmless; I just had to watch out for the ones on the ground.

Flora and creepy fauna

THIS one was on the ground.

"Un coralillo!" exclaimed Victor Bol, a 48-year-old park guard who quick-stepped through the forest like a hound following a scent. He jabbed his finger toward the trail's edge, where a beautiful red, yellow and black coral snake was squiggling away.

Our boots provided ample protection against the fleeing snake's tiny, deadly fangs, but still, it had taken less than 10 minutes to see our first poisonous snake.

Bol was on his way to La Florida, a ruin he would guard for a 30-day rotation. He'd fallen in beside me and my guide, 34-year-old Humberto "Beto" Machuca, at Carmelita, a strip of ramshackle homes where the trail begins.

The flora changed constantly -- low, brown and brambly in the bogs, soaring and green on the high ground. In the taller trees, spider monkeys flashed across the canopy like sunbursts, shaking branches to pelt us with sticks. At random intervals, brilliant blue butterflies floated past like visual grace notes.

Not all my wildlife encounters were so pleasant. At our Nakbe camp, something grazed my head and alighted on my thigh. When I glanced down, I saw a cockroach the size of a mouse. Its antennae twitched atop my quadriceps.

But the abject misery I'd been warned about had not yet materialized. I was dirty and tired, but my bug repellent, pants and long sleeves had kept the mosquitoes at bay. At night, we camped at guards' quarters and backcountry camps, snoozing comfortably in hammocks covered with mosquito nets. I was even lucky with the weather: It hadn't rained for more than a week.

But two days later, on my first night at El Mirador, thunder boomed, the skies opened, and the rainy season was back on.

The all-night deluge hit two 31-year-old Londoners, Bob Bardsley and Chris Taylor, a day's walk from El Mirador. By the time I met them at the ruins the next day, Bob was airing out gigantic blisters on both heels, staring blankly into space and refusing to visit any part of the ruins he'd walked two days to see.

"I just want to get the hell out of the jungle," Bob told me.

Here's what he missed: A ruined city sprawling across an area about the size of downtown L.A., its remnants simultaneously stunning and disappointing.

Because the majority of the site still is covered with jungle, most of its buildings look more like natural, vegetation-covered hills than man-made pyramids. But their enormous size helps you imagine how the city once looked, painted the same sinister red as the metropolis in "Apocalypto" but with different architecture. The site is pockmarked with excavation pits, and one small temple has been restored -- you can see a huge jaguar face and claws. Unfortunately, a lack of interpretive markers makes it difficult to understand what you're seeing.

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