Two Men and the Jungle

Northern Guatemala 2010 - 2011

 Dos Lagunas - Campamento El Cedro - Uaxactun - El Zotz - Tikal

December 19 - January 1


My first introduction to the jungle was almost 30 years ago. I found myself in northern Guatemala, the part of that nation called El Petén. Since then I have returned many times, and have as well walked the jungles of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Guyana, Venezuela, Paraguay and Peru. One might guess that I have become addicted to the jungle; one would be correct. I cannot stay away from it for long, from that ‘wild weird clime lying most sublime, out of space, out of time.’

Shamefully, I allowed three years to pass since my last venture into the jungle with tent, pack and machete. That hiatus ended in December of 2010. My friend and colleague Justin and I wanted to make a route to Dos Lagunas in the far north of Guatemala, a place I had long desired to visit. Dos Lagunas is about as far away from the hubbub of modern life as any place on earth.

After a day and a night enjoying the fleshpots of Flores, Justin and I arranged transport to Uaxactun, the last place where one can find food and---more importantly---reasonably cold beer. The next day we began what became a five day hike to Dos Lagunas. We had a topo map, 14 days worth of supplies and enough water for 2 days or so. Water was the thing: Unless you know where it is---and that is seldom obvious---you could end up in a very bad way. And water is heavy: A liter of it weighs more than 2 pounds, and a man walking with a heavy backpack in the jungle needs at least 4 liters a day. A man can carry at most 2-3 days of water, and that is pressing it.

Our packs were more than heavy; I could not even lift mine without Justin’s help. It weighed around 85 pounds at least, which was a little less than half of my own weight. To state the obvious, walking was slow and rest stops were much appreciated.

We averaged 8-10 miles per day to Dos Lagunas, arriving there in the early afternoon of the fifth day. We found water along the way only by talking to the locals who occasionally wandered by. All water was of course treated with iodine, 6 drops per liter.

The track to Dos Lagunas can be traversed by a high ground clearance 4-wheel drive truck, though the guy behind the wheel must be fearless, experienced and relatively sober. The track was muddy but the route itself was clear enough. Along the way we ran into monkeys---we tried to kill some, but the simian gangsters kept just out of reach of our slingshot---and wild pigs, called peccary or jabalí. These creatures will either run from you or attack you, depending upon their mood and numbers. We lucked out, as the pack of jabalí numbered only about 15. Had there been 30 of them, things might have ended up differently. If you run across these things---easily recognized by their habit of loudly clicking their teeth---your best option is to back away the way you came and wait them out. If they see you and decide you are a threat, good luck and goodbye.

Justin and I rested two glorious days at Dos Lagunas. There were two rangers there, Edwin and Cain. They were gracious and hospitable, and allowed me to feed to my heart’s content upon mountains of beans. The four of us shared food, rum---Justin and I carried several flasks---and Marlboros. The rangers had a crocodile named Coroncha that lived in one of the lagoons. You would not believe me if I told you that the beast would come when called and would beg tortillas. It’s true, no matter what any zoologist might say otherwise.

After two days of rest and washing clothes we headed north 6 miles to another camp, Campamento el Cedro. That place is as delightful and hospitable as Dos Lagunas, and there are more rangers living there---which means a lot more food available. From here is a route to the even more inaccessible Rio Azul, some 15 miles away. With enough time one can also make a route to Naachtun and El Mirador. We stayed one night, and from there hopped a 3 hour ride on a truck that was transporting some workers back to Uaxactun.

After a couple of hours at Uaxactun to eat and rest, we began the 2 ½ day hike to El Zotz---“the Bat”. Water was again an issue, though about half way to El Zotz is an abandoned campamento called Santa Cruz. There is a huge lagoon there, but watch out for crocodiles while filling your water containers. Some of those crocs grow to 10 feet or more.

El Zotz is an oasis of sorts where food and water are available. We ran into a couple of travelers who had come with a guide by a much shorter and easier route to visit the Mayan ruins. The guide was a bit crazy and screamed a lot. The jungle does that to a man.

I had visited El Zotz some years back:

Justin and I cleaned and dried everything we had, drank an ocean of water and prepared for the two days it would take to hike to the ruins of Tikal. This part of the walk was difficult---water issues again---and some of the “trail” was lost as very few people have ever walked it. We had to scratch around a bit but eventually ended up at Temple IV at Tikal. I was completely spent and so sat down to rest a few feet from the temple, but Justin headed off to climb the thing. He returned after an hour or so cradling four bottles of beer and some bags of chips. Justin is a good lad, and God is gracious.

We stayed two more days at Flores. This was time well spent. Both of us were lean and hungry, and our breakfasts and dinners were marvels of desire and anticipation. Beers we had aplenty. We downed the last of the rum, smoked the final Marlboro, and headed back to the USA.

The 14 days Justin and I spent backpacking in this region required several months of preparation. This hike is not to be taken lightly. You must be in excellent physical shape, which means a great deal of time spent beforehand in running shoes, in the weight room and in generally torturing your body. You must be well acquainted with the mechanics of backpacking and the ins and outs of hiking gear. You must be able to speak Spanish and understand the culture of Guatemala. Perhaps above all, you must be able to laugh your way through the difficult and demanding parts of this 14 day backpacking adventure, of which there will be many. Laughter came easily to Justin and me, and both of us had a well-developed sense of the absurd---a necessary quality while traipsing about in the jungle.

Rum helped in all situations. So did prayer. Lots of both.

Here is some advice. Under no circumstances are you to do the following:

1. Chase after wild pigs and wave a huge knife and a machete while screaming, "You [expletive] pork chops!"

2. Get into a conversation about the Maya with the alcoholic owner of the only restaurant in Uaxactun.

3. Try to support yourself using an ungloved hand on a tree bristling with long spines.

4. Toss your hunting knife onto your sleeping pad and watch it bounce from the pad into your colleague's boiling soup and then watch the soup spill onto colleague's foot and then hear the colleague yell all sorts of amazing things.

5. Think you know a route just because you took it years before.

6. Drink enough rum to spend half the night screaming at the jungle where you know---you just know---there is a 'super peccary' stalking you, just waiting for the right moment to steal your soul.

7. Defecate in front of your colleague after you come down with dysentery.

8. Watch your colleague defecate in front of you after he comes down with dysentery.

9. Stuff your backpack so that it weighs more than Rosie O'Donnell after she has polished off a well-stocked 24 hour buffet.

10. Wander off for an hour or so into the jungle without your machete.

11. Watch your colleague wander off for an hour or so into the jungle without his machete.

12. Believe that you are smarter than your compass.

13. Think that just because the only water available for miles and miles has weird stuff floating and wriggling in it that it is therefore not suitable for drinking.

14. Consider Guatemalan instant chicken soup as something a human being would eat.

Avoid all of the above and all will be well. Or not.

Our gear was Marmot, North Face, Kelty, REI, Mountain Hardwear, Stetson, Therm-A-Rest, Outdoor Research, Al Mar, Smartwool and MSR. Our meds were cipro, Flagyl, chloroquine, Lanacane and aspirin. Our boots were US Army jungle boots. The camera was a Nikon CoolPix P60. Our rum was Botran---7 flasks worth. Our smokes were Marlboro Lights---10 packs worth. Our food was oatmeal, coffee, instant soup---ghastly and scarcely edible---Ramen and macaroni and cheese---14 days worth---plus anything we could scrounge from the locals. We covered ourselves with 100 percent DEET, though insects were few. Nights were cold. It rained only once.

The map below shows a rough estimate of our route. There are photos below that---plenty of them.




  Heading out from Flores    









On the road to Dos Lagunas



  Dos Lagunas    
  Campamento el Cedro    

  On the road to El Zotz    

Santa Cruz and Heading toward El Zotz




  El Zotz    

El Zotz to Tikal



  Tikal at last---Day 14    


  Back in the flesh pots of Flores    


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