Getting to El Mirador

Trip Start Feb 24, 2012
Trip End Aug 04, 2012

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Flag of Guatemala  , Petén,
Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On the morning of my birthday I woke up in a tent, inside of a thatched roof house owned by a man named Humberto, on a plot of land with ducks and horses near a stream, next to an old airplane landing strip, in the town of Carmelita.

Carmelita is literally the town at the end of the road.  This road runs through the middle of the farthest northern department in Guatemala called Peten.  The town is 30 kilometers from the  Mexican border.  But instead of the road reaching Mexico it dead ends into the landing strip next to the church and soccer field in Carmelita.

One of the things that I love about traveling is the unexpected surprise that turns into an adventure.  Squatting a hut with our own little kitchen hut on Humberto's land for three nights was one of those very unexpected turn of events.  To explain how we ended up in Humberto’s house requires a bit of a story…

Carmelita used to be a town in the middle of the jungle that was only accessible by plane.  The town was formed as a center of convergence for all the workers who harvested things from the forest.  The first main crop was chicle. Chicle is natural gum that is harvested from the resin of a tree called the Chico zapote to make chewing gum.   It is harvest in a similar way as maple syrup with small cuts into the bark and the resin collected from the drips. 

Wrigley’s gum company bought all the chicle from this town to make their chewing gum.  All the workers lived for 5 months in the jungle during the rainy season collecting the gum and then bringing it into a contratista who sold it to Wrigley’s.  At that time Wrigley’s had made deals with the mayor and the contratistas so that if the worker came out of the jungle with too little product they sent him back in without pay until they met the quota. 

Entire families lived in the jungle for months on end.  The wives, husbands, and kids all working together to meet the quotas and earn a living.  People came from Belize, Mexico, and far away in Guatemala to try their luck at harvesting gum.  But then someone invented synthetic gum and the chicle market crashed, as it was cheaper to make it artificially.

The next products the community relied on were xate and lumber. Xate (pronounced sha-tay) is an ornamental leaf used in cut flower arrangements and for decorations in churches.  The lumber that is extracted is especially high quality wood like mahogany.  All of these products are forest products that didn’t require complete deforestation of the jungle and provided jobs.  Also they were not possible to produce in a large-scale setting like a plantation. 

In the 1970s the lumber company built a road that was passable during the dry months to take out trees.  But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the road was improved so that it was passable almost all of the year with 4x4s.

Since 1996 they started officially with a new product: tourism.  In the 1930s some of the first planes flying over the area noticed mounds in the earth.  They assumed they were volcanos. In the 1950s some of the chicleros, or gum-harvesting people, started noticing rock mountains in the jungle that was completely flat.  It didn’t take long for word to get out and it was determined that these large mountains weren’t natural but were buried ancient Mayan temples.  In the 1960s American anthropologists started coming out to visit, but it was arduous. 

Even from the runway in Carmelita it was a 2 day hike to get to the biggest ones.  There was no running water in the jungle so it all had to be collected during the rains or carried in.  What they discovered was some of the oldest ruins known, built hundreds of years earlier than other Mayan temples. And most surprisingly they were bigger and just as intricate as the ones discovered. 

And by volume they are the biggest on the planet.  The basses of the pyramids were multiple football fields in stacked stone.  And the biggest temples themselves rose more than 70 meters about the jungle floor.  There were multiple cities with many temple complexes all connected with built stone causeways that were many meters about the earth and 20 meters wide in places.  It was an immense discovery.

Tourists have been making the long trek to see these mounds slowly becoming unearthed for decades.  However there is conflict.  The jungle in which these temples are located is some of the most extensive subtropical forest left in Central America.  It has the highest density of jaguars and other endangered animals in all of Guatemala.  Chopping down the forest to build better roads was not an option to environmentalists.  They were able to get the area to be declared a protected area.  If it wasn’t for that it would be a big cow field right now because all of the mahogany and cedar trees would have been cut down.  So there is a delicate balance being managed in how much of the temples to unearth versus how much jungle to leave intact.

To try and improve the lives of the people of Carmelita some organizations came in and made a cooperative of people.  This coop would created various types of employment while protecting the forest they live in.  They produce lumber, xate, and tourism.  The organizations brought in trainers to train locals on customer service, how to explain the forest, history of the Mayan, first aid, accounting so that they could have their own business, computer skills, wood working, marketing, and more to help the coop grow. 

They even got the government to sign over the chunk of land bordering the protected area of the largest temples called El Mirador or the lookout.  With the concession to this land they could manage it in a way that would protect it for the future of the community.

Now, normally all of this history would not matter to a tourist.  But as I mentioned something unexpected happened that caused us to live in Carmelita for a couple of days.  We had hired a guide that a friend had recommended.  She had gone with the guide about 2 years before we arrived.  In the first moment that we arrived the history of the town started to come out because there is huge conflict in the community over tourism.

Since the chicle industry went bust; the lumber industry is heavily regulated; the xate industry is really hard manual labor; then tourism is a great income generator.  In a couple of days work you can earn the same as you would in a month living in the jungle harvesting xate.  Everyone wants to be involved in tourism.  And there is work.  The Lonely Planet says that 3,000 people a year visit the Mirador and it is necessary to take a guide and a couple of mules because the trail is unmarked and there is no water or food to get along the way.

The thing is these organizations that have set up the coop have also worked with government officials to make the coop the only legitimate group that can take people to the Mirador.  The coop is open to all of the 73 families in the community.  However they require each guide to take a training and have a set wage to each tour.  This ensures that tourists get the best experience and the guides have a fair wage.

Before the guides were charging almost nothing and not buying enough food for the tourists, or not giving them proper information.  The organizations saw the coop as a way to protect the forest and to create just employment for the community.  And since the coop has the concession of land that enters into the protected area they can demand that no one else can pass on their land.  So in January of this year they began enforcing a rule that any tourist going to the Mirador had to do so with a guide, horseman, and cook from the coop.

This means that the guides who didn’t sign up with the coop or take the training are now barred from taking tourists.  The government is siding with the coop so the untrained guides are seen as the enemy that don’t want to protect the forest.  The guide that we had hired was not from the community and could not be a member of the coop – when we paid him we had no idea because we went with the recommendation of a friend.

I know the organizations think they are doing a good thing.  I know that they believe that this is how the community will earn fair wages.  I know that they believe they are going to protect the forest better with the coop in charge of everything.

But I also know a lot more about community structure from my time in the Peace Corps.  I know how hard it is to implement big changes and regulations.  I know that there is a lot of distrust inherent in people.  This distrust is against neighbors and foreigners.  I know that rumors can cause the destruction of even the best intentioned projects.

So on the morning we were meant to leave we are waiting with our bags packed for Humberto to take us with the mules onto the trail.  He shows up and says we have a big problem, they won’t let me into the park.  We go out to the trailhead to see two men from the coop with machetes and four men from the police branch of the government agency for protected areas blocking the trail with assault rifles.  Humberto and the guide we paid are not part of the coop and should not have taken money from us to go to the Mirador.  They knew that there were new rules but they don’t like them so don’t want to follow them.  We did not.  We were stuck in the middle of a very heated argument.

In Humberto’s mind he is being screwed over by the coop.  He had someone contract him and he wants the job now.  If he is part of the coop he has to wait for a rotation with all the other people in the community before he can get a group.  He doesn’t trust that the secretaries and managers of the coop aren’t stealing money from him.  He doesn’t want to take the guide training class because he can’t read and write really well and doesn’t want to go to school for something that he already can do.  He doesn’t understand why things have to change from the way that they used to be.

In the coop’s mind they want to make sure that everyone in the community gets a chance at employment.  They want the forest to be protected for the future.  They want to work as a team to have a better outcome for everyone.  But the coop has about 120 of the 350 people in community as members right now – and of those, only 20 people understand the process enough to be in charge of the decision-making.  That makes everyone else distrustful of the decision making.

So here are Joe and I and these six men standing on the edge of the runway at the trailhead unable to walk anywhere.  The men are yelling at each other. No body wants to give on their point of view.  Joe and I are trying to piece it all together and decide what we should do.  After a few hours of debating, talking, and yelling we reached an agreement.  We would hire a guide from the coop and Humberto would be our mule man who would carry our food and water.  This was an unprecedented decision because we were working part with the coop and part without them.  But we had already paid Humberto and he had already bought the food.  We did not want to take the money back from Humberto and give it to his neighbor. 

We had to wait two days because Humberto had to take the bus 4 hours one way to the biggest city to get money from the guide who was not from the community.  He got the money back and we paid for a guide from the coop.  During those 3 days of decisions and money fetching Joe and I lived in Humberto’s empty house.  We had become famous in the small community because everyone knew we had not been allowed to walk.  Everyone had an opinion.  We sat with women on their front porches and talked about the evil coop.  We talked to students who were fighting against the changes of the coop.  We showered in the river with people who worked for the coop and said it changed their lives.  We bought food from the store owned by the vice president of the coop and he told us his plans of environmental education for the community.  Everyone was chatty and nice.  Usually no one stays in town they just start walking.

Finally 4 days after our arrival we set out walking with a guide, a mule, 25 gallons of water, and a box of food.  For two days we walked about 6 hours a day.  On the way we stopped to watch spider monkeys swinging in the trees above us.  We paused to hear the screaming of the howler monkeys that sound more like lions roaring.  We ran delicately over colonies of biting ants.  We swatted mosquitos and pulled off ticks.  We were entranced by the lush vegetation and huge trees that dwarfed everything.

The first day we stayed near an ancient town called the Tintal.  It was a Mayan community around the same time as the Mirador.  It had a large temple called Hennequen where we could watch the sun set over the jungle.  We could see far over the forest.  It was stunning to stand on the top and see all the other high points off on the horizon.  All the high points on the skyline were not mountains, but other temples that we would be walking too.

The second and third night we stayed at the Mirador.  We spent the entire third day walking around the pyramids there.  Our guide, Juan, was great.  He was enthusiastic, interesting, and informative.  He had grown up in the forests as a xatero, or xate harvester.  He only went to third grade because his parents couldn’t afford for him to live in the city while they were working in the jungle. He understood all about the plants and could tell great stories.  But he was very interested in learning and had taken advantage of as many of those trainings that the organizations offered so he could keep learning.  He has even learned GPS and map reading which fascinate him.  In the evenings we would have long talks about the history of Carmelita, the life of the xateros, the future of development of the protected area, his dreams for his family, and his impressions of the Mayans.

The forth night we returned to Tintal for one last sunset at the Hennequen temple.  We could see off on the horizon where we would be walking to the next day.  Out of the jungle back onto the runway of Carmelita.  In the end we walked 65 kilometers and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. 

But what was best about the trip wasn’t just seeing the jungle and the Mirador that we came to see.  The best was the unsurprising entry we had into Carmelita.  Through no fault of our own we ended up meeting some really great people and spending more time than we ever imagined in a town that is fighting the fight to keep a forest protected.  It was unforgettable to see how the forest, the ruins, and this community have so much external stress on them that could completely ruin them even though they are so beautiful.

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