Dawn creeps slowly over Tikal National Park in northern Guatemala.
The sun’s rays break through clouds and early morning fog, illuminating the tips of ruined Mayan temples and pyramids that jut from the thick jungle foliage like decaying teeth. All is quiet on the steps atop Temple IV, the tallest structure in the park. At 230 feet, the temple is a lofty sanctuary within a lost world where Marco Sandoval retreats to welcome the day.
Sandoval, 30, was born at Tikal, an archaeological site that encompasses 4,000 individual structures and 1,700 years of history. Now he works as a guide, educating the public about this place, the millions of Maya people who once called it home—and those who still do.
“Every time I do a tour, it’s like taking people to my house,” Sandoval said. “Tikal is my back yard.”
The site has gained international popularity since its establishment as a park in 1955 and becoming a World Heritage Site in 1979. The temple peaks became iconic after George Lucas used them to portray the rebel base in his first Star Wars movie, Episode IV: A New Hope, released in 1977. The 2009 movie 2012, an end-of-the-world film based on the Mayan calendar, also was filmed at Tikal.
For the 15 million Maya who live in Central America today, however, the site means much more.
“Sometimes people don’t understand how important this site is,” Sandoval said. “This is a sacred place for meditation. It is a very significant place for the Maya people.”
As indigenous people around the world battle stereotypes and distortions of truth, Sandoval contends with misconceptions of more existential proportions. Simply put, Sandoval, who is half Mayan and half Spanish, constantly informs tourists that the Maya are not dead.
“Most people come here with the idea that they will hear what happened to the Maya,” he said of Tikal. “They think they will learn about a lost civilization, a dead civilization. The surprise is that they get to meet one. Their tour guide is Mayan.”
One of the five founding civilizations of the world, the Maya began in about 2000 B.C. It reached its peak during the Classic period, between 250 and 900 A.D., but Maya continued to occupy Central America until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.
The Maya civilization was the only pre-Columbian population to develop a written language. It also is known for its art, architecture, astronomy and complex mathematical systems.
The assumption that the Maya are extinct is based on a series of small collapses, Sandoval said. Like other ancient civilizations, the Maya endured many natural and man-made disasters over the centuries, including government bureaucracies, exploitation of resources and long periods of drought, before their great collapse in about 840 A.D.
A civilization that depended on slash-and-burn agriculture, the ancient Maya also depleted the jungle around Tikal, eventually destroying the lush vegetation that now hides much of the ruined city from view. During the centuries since the ancient civilization abandoned the area, the jungle has grown back and the Guatemalan government, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, has worked to excavate and preserve the ruins.
Less than one-third of the site has been excavated. In some areas, limestone temples tower over residential structures. In others, the past is left buried; the hundreds of tree-covered mounds are the only hint that more history lurks below the surface.
About 350 people work at Tikal, Sandoval said. That includes two archaeologists who work full-time ensuring the structures are preserved and repaired. Yet modern Tikal, much like the ancient city it once was, faces real threats ranging from illegal logging enterprises in surrounding areas to vandalism inside the park.
“People are climbing on things, scratching their names, leaving garbage,” Sandoval said. “When they sit on the sacred alters, they show a lack of education and respect. People travel for entertainment and treat this like Disneyland.”
Tikal, now an area of about eight square miles, once was as large as 70 or 80 square miles and housed about 120,000 residents. As an archaeological site, it is priceless, said Richard Hansen, professor of anthropology at the University of Utah and president of the Foundation for Anthropological Research & Environmental Studies.
“The Maya were the most sophisticated civilization in the new world,” Hansen said in a phone interview. “No one else managed to accomplish what they did.”
Although older Mayan ruins can be found north of Tikal, the site’s magnificent plazas and pyramids speak to a complexity and refinement unrivaled in the ancient past, Hansen said. Even the modern Maya are at a loss to duplicate the culture.
“The legacy today is that even the Maya still have a tough time relating to their glorious past,” he said. “This is an example of a society completely losing its identify.”
Yet the Maya are resilient, said Gilbert Cocom, who was born near the Xunantunich ruins in western Belize, about 65 miles from Tikal.
Cocom, 53, grew up in a house with a roof made of thatched palm leaves, without running water or electricity. His family survived on corn and what meat could be gathered from the jungle, he said.
Cocom estimates only about half of the Maya speak the language or know what it means to live off the land. That is changing with the rising generation, he said.
As cultural tourism gains traction around the world, the Maya actually are being encouraged to learn more about their own past, Cocom said.
“Being Mayan makes you feel proud of your tradition and culture,” he said. “Tourists are coming here because of that culture.”
In the village of San Antonio, a Mayan community near Xunantunich, some residents are trying to bring back the traditional way of life. Thatched-roof huts are going up and people are again learning to rely solely on home-grown produce.
“Tourism is leading to a revitalization of tradition,” said Leonila May, 50, who was born in San Antonio and later raised seven children there. Many tourists stop in this small community of about 2,000 people when they visit the nearby ruins.
“What I learned from my grandparents, I am passing on to my children,” she said. “We still speak our language. We still know how to cook traditional foods and eat what we harvest.”
Some corners of San Antonio are traditional enough that people still communicate by blowing cow horns or conch shells, resident Juan Canto said. At 32, Canto has only a sixth-grade education but earns a decent salary in the tourism industry, demonstrating skills like cooking on a traditional Mayan stove, or fogon.
“In my lifetime, I’ve seen a lot of changes,” he said. “Everyone is looking to better their lives, but we are still proud to be Mayan and to be teaching the younger generation what it means to be Mayan.”
In a place like Tikal, where visitors sit on limestone steps carved thousands of years ago and where the sun continues to rise and fall over ancient structures, it can be hard not to think about the past.
That’s the magic of Tikal, Sandoval said.
“It’s a hard feeling to put into words,” he said. “We have this sacred area where we’re trying to keep both the past and the future alive.”