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Extreme Tourism: Offroad on a Guatemalan Jungle Adventure

A 4x4 jungle adventure brings new meaning to "seeing the sights"

Bruce W. Smith
Apr 18, 2004
Clods of mud fly into the air--one lands right in the lap of Susan Barley who, along with her 12-year-old daughter, Simone, are riding in the back of a Toyota Tacoma 4x4 that's axle deep in Guatemalan jungle goo. Both mother and daughter are laughing. In a couple of hours, they'll be at a camp deep in the Yucatan jungle, experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Barley and her husband, Jim Greenfield, are successful Seattle attorneys. The family loves to travel and see new sights, many abroad. Typical of most travelers, nice resorts are their mainstay, with a swimming pool close at hand so their daughter and nine-year-old son, Evan, can lounge after a day of hiking, boating, and sightseeing.
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But now they're venturing out. As their children get older, they're looking for bolder adventures and new ways of seeing the world around them. And, for a growing number of people like them, the eco-tourism bug has bitten.
Unlike the typical family vacation that centers on driving great American highways, eco-tourism involves travelers being transported by guides into the more remote areas of a region by whatever means are needed--bicycle, canoe, kayak, motorboat, or four-wheel-drive vehicle. It's adventurous and educational.
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For at least 30 years, entrepreneurial 4x4 owners in such places as the Oregon Dunes, Moab, the High Sierras, Colorado Rockies, and California deserts have been taking out-of-towners into remote areas to see the local flora and fauna while learning about the history of the region. But it's only been in the last half-dozen years that eco-tourism has taken off around the world.
The Barley/Greenfield family is close friends with Jim Jackson (president of ARB USA, an arm of ARB, the renowned Australian Air Locker and off-road suspension manufacturer) and his family. When the opportunity to see Vanderbilt University archaeologists put ARB products to use getting to a remote Mayan dig site in the Guatemalan jungles, an extreme eco-tourism vacation was afoot.

The two families made their travel arrangements with Tikal Travel in Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala, a company specializing in tour packages to the Mayan ruins in the region.
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After a short three-hour flight from Houston to Belize City, Belize, the Tikal Travel van took us on a 11/2-hour van ride to the Mopan Lodge Hotel in the rugged border town of Melchor located on the Mopan River, which separates Guatemala from Belize.
Early the next morning, everyone squeezed into two four-wheel-drive Toyota pickups owned by the Tennessee archaeologists (and the lodge's old Montero) for the trip to the jungle base camp.
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The road to the Holmul archaeological dig site--located about 20 miles north of Melchor and covering some 20 square miles of jungle--is nothing more than a single-lane logging road cut into the jungle in the late 1970s. Since then, the tropical growth has done its best to reclaim the narrow trail, so machetes and power saws are in constant demand, keeping the way clear for passage.
What we're driving on is mostly clay with copious amounts of limestone. The mixture turns to a slimy, clingy potter's mix at the first exposure to rain and is hard as rock when dry. It eats paint and metal in either form.

Four-wheel-drives equipped with mud tires are a must for safer travel, as are winches, spare tires, and tow straps. Fortunately, Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli's and Jeremy Bauer's Tacomas are well-equipped with Warn 9500 winches, Hi-Lift jacks, Super Swamper Bogger tires, and Old Man Emu suspensions. Dr. Estrada-Belli's pickup is also running an ARB Air Locker in the rear differential.
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The doctor is an assistant professor of archaeology at Vanderbilt and leader of the Holmul Archaeological Project, which rediscovered the Mayan city of Holmul in 2000 after its first discovery back in 1911.
Modern satellite imagery helped Dr. Estrada-Belli pinpoint the city, which ended up being three kilometers from the original map's charted location.
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Now, after three years of mapping from the ground, the professor and a few of his elite graduate students are finally doing some digging in the ruins that extend out from Holmul Central, around six kilometers in every direction. All work in Guatemala is done with the permission of Instituto de Antropologia e Historia.
The Holmul Project's finds at this point in time have been remarkable:

A stela--a portrait carved into a stone slab--that dates back to 300 B.C., making it the oldest known image of a Mayan king.

A cruciform cache cut into the limestone bedrock, containing religious offerings in the form of jade (as valuable to the Mayans as gold), dating to 500 B.C.: the oldest and largest of its kind to date.

A huge anthropomorphic sculpture of a Mayan deity carved into the 11/2-inch-thick limestone stucco that covers the wall of the 100-foot-high face of the main pyramid at Cival, one of the smaller cities that ring Holmul.
The last is unlike any other Mayan find; preliminary carbon-dating methods place the big sculpture at Structure 1 (main pyramid) at about 150 B.C. It's so unique a find that Dr. Estrada-Belli is still trying to determine which deity it portrays and the actual size of the find. (They are excavating another tunnel below the first to see if there's a second sculpture.)
During the two days we spend at the dig sites, we get to eat, sleep, and breathe the life of archaeologists on the verge of making extraordinary discoveries. We brave the bugs, the heat, the cold showers, and the other things that go with jungle living.
In order to get to the numerous dig sites, we take to the narrow, muddy jungle roads in the Tacomas. "This is the experience of a lifetime and is almost spiritual for us," says Jim Greenfield, as we bounce along the mud and ruts on the way back to civilization. "To see everything first-hand and have the relevance explained by the very scientists who discovered these centuries-old ruins--that's exhilarating."



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