Tikal – Guatemala

Tikal is a vast archeological complex, one of the wonders of the ancient world. The Mayas started building monuments in the Tikal area around 200 BC. The large monuments which are unique to Tikal were built between 600 AD to 800 AD. By 900 AD, Tikal was on its way to being deserted and forgotten. For an interesting explanation of the decline of Tikal, read Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Tikal consists of six huge and steep temples, a few squat pyramids, and many comparatively smaller structures. The whole complex is surrounded by jungle. When Tikal was “discovered” in 1848, the monuments were almost completely covered with dirt, mulch and vegetation. Even now, Tikal is not fully excavated. Templo III, for instance, shows only its beautiful top, peeking out of a huge unexcavated hill. Plan on staying eight hours on the site to get a good overview of Tikal.

Tikal is an isolated site, deep in the jungle. You definitely need a water bottle, bug spray and sunscreen. You will hear howler monkeys early in the morning (they sound like distant construction, like aggressive bulldozers), and maybe see a spider monkey up close. But visiting Tikal is not an expedition. The paths are wide and maintained like the alleys of a city park. Tikal was built with lime stone. It is believed that the temples were originally painted in sorbet colors (like most Guatemalan houses today). For a timeless structure, Tikal is actually very fragile. The inscriptions and stelae have been almost erased by the elements. Excavation is painstaking, as vegetation had almost covered the whole site. One is grateful that some fragile artifacts were purloined by the Swiss as far back as 1877 and kept in museums. Compared to Machu Picchu or to the Great Wall, Tikal feels impermanent, endangered.


Rodney & Windsor – Port Gibson, Mississippi

Port Gibson was spared during the Civil War because Ulysses Grant declared the town “too beautiful to burn.” Today, Port Gibson is a depressed looking small town, with a few blocks’ worth of historical buildings, which in turn are threatened by the possible widening of Route 61 (Church Street). My goal in the area was to visit two ruins: one being the famous Windsor Ruins, and the other being the forgotten river port of Rodney. I only spent a few moments in Port Gibson proper.

Rodney was originally a French settlement on the Mississippi, and progressed into a leading river town with 1,000 inhabitants and two newspapers during its prime in the 1840s. Several calamities hit the town, and the last straw was when the Mississippi changed course in 1860. The town was officially dissolved in the 1930s. Today, a few families still live there and are willing to talk to you. Rangers at the Natchez Trace Parkway office tried to dissuade me to go to Rodney, saying that there was nothing to see, but that is not the case. There are many ruined buildings, including a brick church surrounded by historical markers.

Windsor was a Greek Revival mansion, built at the heart of a huge plantation at the eve of the Civil War. While the enormous house survived the war undamaged, it burned down in 1890. Today, the 23 ghostly columns in the middle of thick Southern “jungle” are a mecca for photographers. The site is famous, but you will likely be the only visitor there. There is no cost, no gate, no gift shop… just a dirt road. On the day I visited, I witnessed a furtive African-American couple wearing military camo uniforms, obviously in love and in great distress. I tried not to intrude on their private time, but their broken-hearted demeanor added to the overwhelming sense of loss that permeates the Windsor ruins.


Machu Picchu – Peru

Machu Picchu is a magnificent archeological site. The three daily trains from Cuzco are usually paced so that the tourists arrive in distinct waves. But on the day I visited, due to some vandalism on the tracks, all the trains were late and formed a huge convoy. The small depot town of Aguas Calientes was overflowing. After the hours spent listening to passengers’ complaints and worries, I wasn’t in the mood to visit Machu Picchu in a slow-paced group. I told the guide I would meet him on the train back that night and I hopped on the first bus to the Sanctuary (a scene straight out of Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana: a busload of elderly Brazilian lady-teachers, singing their hearts out with their guide conducting the chorus with a little Brazilian flag).

In order to bypass the numerous groups, I chose to visit the Sanctuary backwards. I had a guidebook with me, so I’m pretty sure I could tell the Temple of the Condor from the Chamber of the Queen and so on. I never stopped walking, so I saw a lot. It took me about one hour to shake off the vibes from the train trip, and after that, I was able to savor the beauty of the monuments and the natural setting which they occupy.

Not much is known for sure about Machu Picchu. It was built by the Incas around 1450, probably abandoned before the conquest, and never reached by the Spaniards. Machu Picchu was discovered by the American Historian Hiram Bingham in 1911. Once the jungle was cleared, it was obvious that Machu Picchu is a site as impressive as the Great Pyramids and the Great Wall of China. Machu Picchu was never a city. It was more likely some important ceremonial location or an imperial estate. The Sacred Valley between Cuzco and Machu Picchu is dotted with minor sites, and chances are that Inca priests walked the trail to Machu Picchu just as backpackers do today.