Quito, Ecuador Tarantula Staring Contest

Look, I’m a busy guy. Let’s get straight to the ruins.

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This is one of the main temples at Nakun; the first of the sites we visited. Nakun is 27 kilometers from El Sombrero hotel, where we stayed the night before. The road to Nakun is pure mud; generally not traversable in the wet season, but thanks to relaxed logging policies, moisture is no longer cycling back into the atmosphere, there’s been no rain, and the road can be safely used.

Thanks loggers!

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El Sombrero is owned by an Italian woman named Gabrielle, who we never met. She came over in the early 80s and fell in love with the region. Now she’s a local luminary.

In the middle of the night, during our stay in one of the more remote parts of the empty campsite, I was awoken to the sound of a UFO descending over our roof. Numerous cackling aliens poured out of the ship and surrounded us. They discussed their method of penetrating our cabin through a series of back-and-forth hoots and howls. I let Melissa continue sleeping so as to spare her from the trauma. The aliens continued discussing their plans until I eventually fell back asleep.

In the morning I found out it was just howler monkeys announcing their territory. They sound like this.

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This is one of the residential dwellings at Nakun. With a little work and some carpeting, it could probably fetch $600 a square foot.

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The excavation of Nakun has barely even started. The climbs up many of the ruins are treacherous. Not much more than loose rocks and dry roots with some footholds kicked in.

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A marching line of these ants moved all the way up from ground level to the summit of one temple; a vertical rank hundreds of feet tall. The operation was supervised at checkpoints by ferocious-looking soldier ants, several times larger than the workers, with massive chompers. I managed to get bitten by one on the way up. It hurt.

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Dear Melissa’s mom,
I kind of accidentally almost killed your daughter while we were climbing down this path. She was below me when I placed my foot on what looked like a sturdy rock. It ripped loose and began tumbling. I was so focused on what each of my other limbs was doing that I didn’t even notice. Melissa’s spider-sense tingled in time and she slid to one side as the rock plummeted past where her head had been a moment ago.

Sorry about that. Accident. Honest.

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This I had nothing to do with.

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That’s Juan on the left. He was our guide for the day. Juan’s grandfather moved to Guatemala from Germany to farm bees for honey. The family never left. Juan shares ownership of 30,000 acres with his sisters, who hold silent interests and live in the city.

Juan speaks with a local accent and considers himself Guatemalan. As a young man, he learned some German and visited the fatherland, but had no interest in it.

Gabrielle, the Italian hotelier, is his ex-wife.

Nakun is a fairly small site. We started back to the south and reached Yaxha shortly after noon. Melissa used the bathroom at the site entrance and found a huge, dead tarantula on the floor with its legs in the air.

Upon hearing this, I tried not to cry like a little baby.

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Many of the ruins at Yaxha were similarly buried under tons of dirt. But the maintainers of this site were much better at building stairways up.

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The mound on the left is one of hundreds still untouched. There are, without a doubt, many artifacts still buried all over the place, waiting to be dug up and put in a museum – or, just as likely, smuggled out of the country and sold on the black market.

Juan told a story of once brokering the sale of two hundred horded artifacts to a dealer for $8000. Some of the individual pieces from the collection later went for $30,000.

He told another story of hosting a party for Carlos Santana when he toured Guatemala. Santana noticed a particular artifact in Juan’s possession; a jade mask necklace. Juan gave it to him, and later saw him wearing it on television while accepting a pile of Grammys.

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We followed a long, straight promenade to a remote corner of the city where, presumably, important things were done – or maybe just things that smelled really bad.

The Maya liked their walkways extremely wide, not unlike the Dallas airport.

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This large temple is in mid-excavation; whole root systems clearly visible on its side. It’s amazing what nature can do with a millennia.

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This is up at the top of one temple, with Lake Yaxha shown in the distance. El Sombrero sits on the lake’s east bank. The land to the south of the lake, visible in this picture, belongs to Juan.

Why was a bigshot like Juan carting us around to these ruins? The short answer, it seems, is that he had nothing better to do. He’d recently recovered from stomach cancer; a three year ordeal that left him bald, Auschwitz-thin, and very close to death. He’d been in and out of hospitals in Guatemala City, and had only just returned to the area. He used to lead horseback tours of the ruins with Gabrielle, when they were married. This day was the first time he’d visited the sites in five years. A lot of what we saw was entirely new to him.

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This is one of my favorite photos I’ve ever shot. I’m craftsman-like in my picture-taking, less concerned with artistic merit and f-stops than the information that is conveyed. This image speaks volumes about the Maya people; their past and their present. It’s staggering in an immediate sense as a work of scale, and it resonates on another level, watching Guatemalan workers dust off the creations of their ancient ancestors.

…How’s that for fancy talk? Never had a day of college!

Avid viewers of Survivor: Guatemala will recognize Yaxha and Nakun as the names of the two tribes the cast members were divided into. This isn’t what inspired us to take the detour, but once we made the connection, it was an amusing perk.

Asking Juan if he was familiar with the show opened the door to a goldmine of information. Not only was he familiar with it, he’d rented the land that the production used to house its crew and equipment. This is the former site, active as recently as a few months ago.

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Unfortunately, Juan’s father had done the rental negotiation by himself and he had no idea what the show was, nor how many gajillions of dollars in revenue it brought in. The producers signed a deal to pay $5000 a month for the above plot, which is an absolute song.

Gabrielle fared much better. She set up a bar in their camp and sold $60,000 worth of booze to the crew in three months.

It was interesting to learn that the production was an enormous boon to the region. They employed hundreds of local workers at fair wages, many of whom came from the town we’d gotten stuck in the day before. That may explain the brand new minivan we rode in and the other nice, new cars we saw along the road. This is just speculation on my part, but it seems likely that the Survivor crew would have needed to bring a large number of vehicles into the area. It also seems likely that they would’ve been perfectly happy to abandon them once the show was complete in exchange for day-labor.

Juan and Gabrielle have three sons together. Two of them worked on the show, and one stayed on as a cameraman for the Panama season. He will soon be heading off to an island near (self-censored for fear of getting my butt sued) for the next one.

Having visited both sites, we paid Juan for his fuel and time and he gave us a ride to El Remate. We stayed at a hotel a mile or so outside of town and arranged for a van to pick us up in the morning and take us to Tikal. The van would come by at 4:30am. To shower, dress, and pack, we had to wake up by 3:30.

When the time came, we walked by headlamp along the hotel’s footpath toward the road where the van was to meet us. A flicker on the ground reflected back the light from my head. I stopped. The flicker moved sideways.

I stepped closer and realized I was staring down a tarantula – one big enough to catch my light with its eyes and reflect it back at me. We were both, the spider and I, frozen with terror.

Melissa, standing to my side, couldn’t see the reflection and thus had no idea where the beast was. I assured her with great confidence that it was a few feet in front of us.

I suppose I should mention, lest I get a bunch of “what’s the big deal?” comments, that I am hysterically arachnophobic; that the reason I’ve resisted South and Central America up to this point was specifically to avoid the situation I was presently in.

The story goes nowhere from here. In my mind, the tarantula had every intention of crawling down my throat and laying eggs in my stomach. In reality, it moved cautiously to one side while I moved cautiously to the other. I led Melissa forward and the three of us crossed paths without incident.

Up on the road, I remained on spider-watch duty until the van finally arrived.

Bus arrives. Bus dumps us off at Tikal. Moving on…

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This is Temple V, one of the highest and most spectacular in Tikal. It’s a bitch to climb.

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That tiny speck on the ladder is me.

Even here, at one of the oldest and most visited Maya sites, there are still massive structures yet to be unearthed.

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If this is any indication, the Maya people looked an awful lot like Gonzo.

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This image should be familiar to anyone with a healthy nerd background. I’ll give you a minute…

…need a hint? Wouldn’t this be a great place for a hideout?…

That’s right, it’s the establishing shot of the rebel base at Yavin IV, from which the devastating attack on the first Death Star was launched. We saw this view once as the Millenium Falcon descended, and again in the Special Edition, when squadrons red and blue emerged in their X-wings, followed closely by gold and silver squadrons in their outmoded, lumbering Y-wings.

…sheltered childhood.

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And here are some glamour shots of Temple I, also known as the Grand Jaguar Temple; the most iconic in Tikal, and one of the main symbols of Maya civilization.

…not much I can do but heap superlatives on it, and there isn’t much point in that when you can look for yourself.

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This view was taken from atop the slightly shorter Temple II. The two temples face each other head on, and the second seems to exist solely for the purpose of getting great pictures of the first.

On my way down from Temple II, I crossed a small group consisting of two families: one Guatemalan, the other hopelessly American. It was clear that the son in the American family was a Christian proselytizer of some sort, and he had taken one of the local women to be his bride. His parents were visiting their son and meeting their daughter-to-be for the first time.

As I passed, the boy’s father, dressed in hiked-up baby-blue golfing shorts and a WalMart button-down, was trying his best to bond with the girl’s mother. This was difficult, since she spoke not a word of English and he spoke not a word of Spanish. He referred to her, improbably, as Gladys.

“Gladys, did you count the steps on the way down?”
…blank stare.
“DID…YOU…COUNT…THE STEPS?”
…still no answer.
“Tom? What’s the word for ‘count’?”

The father made it clear, through his tone, that the problem was not a language barrier. It was simply that people who don’t speak English are incredibly stupid.

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The public bathroom at Tikal is very progressive. It has stalls for both men and broad-shouldered transvestites.

After leaving the site, we ate lunch at the Hotel Tikal Inn. How could we not, with such an appetizing billboard?

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And away we went. We took an afternoon van back to El Remate and then on to the larger city of Flores, sleeping the whole way. At Flores, we bought plane tickets to Guatemala City so we could catch our morning flight to Quito.

We had a couple hours to kill, so we took a taxi from the airport to the island of Flores itself. Flores is a tiny party island, packed full of bars and carnival rides and the incessant, grating, ear-splitting music that can be heard in much of Latin America, whenever there’s alcohol nearby. We had a drink, then caught a tuk-tuk back to the airport.

Tuk-tuks are small, three-wheeled vehicles that come from Thailand. They hold two passengers, run on low-grade fuel, and are often used as super-cheap taxis. I was surprised to find them in Guatemala.

The plane to Guatemala City was only three years old – practically fresh off the Boeing factory floor. Even in coach, each seat had an electrical socket for plugging in laptops and other devices. I’ve been waiting years for that innovation to hit the US, and I will probably continue waiting for a decade or more, until our ancient relics from the dawn of aviation start sputtering out mid-flight from old age.

The plane was filled to maybe 20% capacity, giving us tons of room to spread out. Our flight attendant was the hippest I’ve ever encountered. He hailed from El Salvador and toted a Sony PSP in his pocket to kill time between flights. Had I known before deplaning, I could’ve switched on my wi-fi and challenged him to some Grand Theft Auto multiplayer en route. Who’d have thunk it?

In Guatemala City we splurged on the luxurious San Pedro hotel, hoping rightly that we’d get our first warm showers since Belize.

For the second day in a row we woke up at 3:30am, this time to get to the airport for our 6am flight to Quito. Getting up at weird hours and sleeping in transit is one of my superpowers, but it’s been tough for Melissa, whose sleep patterns are closer to what one might term ‘normal.’ I’ve said this once already, I will probably say it many more times on this trip: she’s a trooper.

We landed briefly in Nicaragua and were stunned by the string of active volcanoes and massive crater lakes that line its countryside. Might have to go there sometime.

Another stop in Panama to change planes. Gee whiz! Panamanian women sure do get dolled up.

And here we are in Quito and loving it. Neither of us has been able to articulate why yet. The best I can come up with is that it’s just got some kind of vibe that’s really appealing. The food is great, the people are great, the weather is great. The only problem is the altitude — walking a block leaves me breathless and dazed.

We’d acclimatize in a day or so if we were staying, but we’re continuing on in the morning to the Galapagos Islands for a four day cruise.

…should be interesting.