The Mundo Maya Challenge
Further into Guatemala in search of ancient Mayan settlements. Part 2
With additional photos by Alistair Calvert and Doug Ingles.
By the second week of the expedition our jungle camp rituals were well established; first of all, attempt a rather clumsy dressing routine within the hammock to at least be decent in front of other team members, ease the legs out of the side, but try and keep your feet off the damp ground, shake boots to remove any overnight lodgers, then stand up and commence the usual daily ablutions. This procedure complete it was time to all sit down and enjoy a hearty breakfast of cereals, bacon and eggs washed down with strong coffee. A remarkable achievement in dense jungle by our logistics support team, No Limit Expeditions and chef James Brown.
Having enjoyed a true ‘Camel Trophy’ experience with as much winching and mud as anyone could ever want, it was time to divert our attentions to the work in hand and join our academic partners to see if the vague spots identified on high res. satellite images were in fact previously undiscovered Mayan remains. We were in the basin of the Mayan Civilisation - The Petan, but 1000 years of jungle growth meant that much of their legacy has yet to be found, let alone excavated.
Tom Garrison and his team from The University of Southern California have been excavating the El Zotz site for many years following on from work done in the 1960’s by the English Archaeologist, Ian Graham. Whilst the equipment may have made significant advances, the passion and working conditions are much the same with access to the site still being a major logistical problem. For the first time ever, Tom was joined by Albert Lin and his ‘Engineering for Exploration’ team from The University of California, San Diego. Albert had been working with remote sensing devices and it was his interest in the three vague shapes deep in the jungle that had gathered the group together in Guatemala.
With seven new team members, a guide and three machete wielding locals to hack into the jungle, the two Land Rovers needed reinforcements in the form of three rented 4x4 pickups. It seems that there is some Central American tradition that if you own a 4x4 pickup you are morally obliged to rent it to whoever has a means of earning income from it. It was an unfathomable arrangement to us, but suited the local drivers who loaded the trucks with equipment and supplies and with their pals hanging on in the back, set off to try and keep up with the Land Rovers. Their road biased tyres were soon struggling in the mud, but with some pushing they at least got as far as the site entrance gate.
From there on, the track deteriorated and progress by all slowed. The local solution to getting through mud, which must be a daily grind for these guys, was to machete lengths of wood to fill in much of the rut, then add boulders stored in the pickup bed to aid traction. This, along with much pushing seemed to be remarkably good and if that failed they had a simple chain and pulley engine hoist to use as a winch. Mile by sweat stained mile, we made slow progress to the archaeological camp originally established in the ‘60s. Arriving by late afternoon we were met by reasonable facilities boasting two rain water fed showers and a toilet. There were two big communal huts for eating and working and a flat area for pitching tents, though our ‘Challenge’ group preferred the hammocks we had grown accustomed to. This was to be our base for the next few days and it was good to be able to leave hammocks and tents up instead of packing them up wet each morning.
The quest we were all most excited about was to check out the three possible new finds and plans were made for a foray deep into the jungle the next day. We would travel as far as possible in the Land Rovers, then continue on foot to the precise latitude/longitude that represented the centre of the new site. We made an early start the next day with the machete lads leading the way along a rough track that had not been used for years - probably established when the camp was built. The locals made swift progress clearing hanging vines and stray tree branches enabling the two Land Rovers to make reasonable progress without damage to paintwork.
After about an hour the GPS Units dictated that we should turn right off the track and into virgin jungle. The Land Rovers that had served us with such nobility had to be parked and we continued on foot - it would be a sweaty few hours with high humidity, tropical temperature and many insects keen to taste our soft flesh! This territory is where the machete rules and, in skilled hands, the three lads could hack a path as quickly as we could walk led by our local guide, Don Nado (The Boss!). Don Nado had assisted Ian Graham with his work at the site back in the 1960s and despite being 80 years old was as swift on his feet through the undergrowth as any of us, even when we started to climb up what may once have been a pyramid. A hole with tool markings in the area marked ‘3’ on the picture was encouraging as it must have been man made. It was thought to be a quarry where stone had been extracted to build whatever was at the top.
Spurred on we pressed on for another hour to the site marked ‘1’ on the picture and yes, it was the very top of a hill of some sort and may have been a pyramid, but with so much jungle covering it, all we could do was confirm there was evidence of a site. It is always a dream that you will come into a clearing and make some Indiana Jones style discovery, but sadly this is rarely the case, but site number ‘1’ did have further holes and quarry evidence and from what we could see through the trees was more likely to have been a bigger structure than the first find. It was deemed a success and flags were unfurled for ceremonial photographs with the find being named la Segura which translates to ‘mother in law’ after trip organiser Jason's own mother-in-law who had recently passed away. As it was late afternoon, we had to abandon plans to treck to the furthest site marked ‘2’ on the picture. That will have to wait for a future visit.
Mission accomplished we made a slow return with aching limbs to the camp to meet up with Albert’s team who had also enjoyed a great day flying camera equipped drones (large model helicopters) through the jungle to record localised aerial photographs of the excavated pyramids of El Zotz. The first time this had ever been done and setting new standards in remote sensing in a jungle environment. It was a jubilant meal that evening and from somewhere within James’s 110 Land Rover more beers and red wine emerged in celebration of a collaboration between the two academic groups and the Mundo Maya Challenge group with Team France being awarded the coveted ‘Challenge’ trophy for great team spirit and excellent winch skills learned whilst on the first leg of the trip. Ironic, as Doug ‘Frenchie’ Ingles had no connections with our European neighbours and had never done any off road driving in his life! He was simply drafted in at the last moment to replace the real Frenchman, Jerome, who couldn’t make it!
It was with some sadness that we loaded everything up the following morning to begin the long haul, firstly back to Flores via about 20 miles of the muddiest track one could envisage, then on to Guatemala City for flights home, but we were all agreed that we had fullfilled all the aims discussed when the plan was first muted - had a great ‘Camel Trophy’ experience on the very tracks used in the 1995 event and succeeded in identifying two new Mayan archaeology finds that will add in its small way to the knowledge of this fascinating civilisation.
The Peten Archaeological Expedition was devised and planned by Jason Paterniti, President of the Global Exploration & Oceanographic Society and an active member of The Explorers Club in the USA (Similar to The Royal Geographic Society here in U.K.) Expeditions considered important enough can apply to take an Explorers Club flag. All of these flags have an impressive history and ours was Flag 99 and dated back to 1939 when in accompanied Cdr. Finn Ronne’s expedition to The Antarctic. Over the last ten years it has been been flown in Madagascar, Brazil, Mongolia and Cuba. Miniature versions of these flags were on Apollo 8 and Apollo 15. See www.explorers.org for further details.
Toby Savage. March 2014
Reproduced by kind permission of 4x4 Magazine.