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A 4X4 jungle adventure brings new meaning to seeing the sights

By Bruce W. Smith - Special to GulfCoastNews.com-Photos by Bruce W. Smith-National Geographic

Clods of black mud fly into the air, and 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 are smiling.

In a couple hours they will be at a camp deep in the Yucatan jungle experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Barley and her husband, Jim Greenfield, are very successful Seattle attorneys. The family loves to travel and see new sights—many abroad. Typical of most travelers, nice resorts are their mainstay during a spring break vacation, with a swimming pool close at hand so they and their daughter and nine-year-old son, Evan, can lounge after a day of hiking, boating, skiing and sightseeing.

But now they are venturing out. As their children get older, the attraction of bolder adventures has attracted them to take on new ways of seeing the world. Like a growing number of people on vacation, the Eco-Toursim bug has bitten them.

Unlike the typical family vacation that centers around a resort or plying the great American highways, Eco-tourism involves travelers being transported by guides into the more remote areas of a region by whatever means needed be it bicycle, canoe, kayak, motorboat, or four-wheel-drive. It’s both adventuresome and educational.

Entrepreneurial 4x4 owners in places such 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 for at least 30 years. 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, the arm of renowned Air Locker and off-road suspension manufacture ARB in Australia) and his family.

So, when the opportunity to see Vanderbilt University archaeologists putting ARB products to use getting into a remote Maya dig site in the Guatemalan jungles, an Eco-Tourism vacation was afoot. It turned out to be an “extreme” Eco-Tourism outing.

The two families made their travel arrangements with Tikal Travel (www.tikaltravel.com) in Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala, a company specializing in tour packages to the Maya ruins in the region.

After a short three-hour flight from Houston to Belize City, Belize, the Tikal Travel van took us on a 1-1/2-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 the two four-wheel-drive Toyota pickups of the Tennessee archaeologists (and an old Montero owned by the lodge) for the trip into the jungle base camp. The adventure was about to begin.

The jungle road to the Holmul archaeological dig site—located about 20 miles north of Melchor and encompassing some 20 square miles of jungle—is at its best, bad. At its worst, impassable.  

The road is nothing more than a single-lane logging road cut into the jungle in the late ‘70s. Ever since then the jungle growth does its best to reclaim the narrow trail so machetes and power saws are in constant use keeping it 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 hard as a rock when it’s dry. It eats paint and metal in either form.

That’s why the expeditions are limited to the May-June time frame each year. Then the rains come hard and heavy, making the road impassable.

But even during the spring, four-wheel-drives equipped with mud tires are a must for safer travel, as are winches, spare tires, and tow straps.

Fortunately, both Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli’s and Jeremy Bauer’s Tacomas are well-equipped with Warn 9500 winches, Hi-Lift jacks, PIAA lighting, 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.

The doctor is an assistant professor of archaeology at Vanderbilt and leader of the Holmul Archaeological Project (www.vanderbilt.edu/estrada-belli/fieldschool/) is the one who “re-discovered” the Maya city of Holmul in 2000 after its first explored back in 1911.

Modern satellite imagery helped Dr. Estrada-Belli pinpoint the city, which ended up being three kilometers from the original map’s actual location. And as Bauer said, “A mile-and-a-half in this jungle might was well be a 100.”

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 some six kilometers in every direction. (All work in Guatemala is done with the permission of Instituto de Antropologia e Historia of Guatemala.)

Their finds at this early point in time have been remarkable in archaeological and scientific circles:

v     A stela (portrait carved into a stone slab) that dates back to 300 B.C., making it the oldest known image of a Maya king;

v     A cruciform cache cut into the limestone bedrock that contained religious offerings in the form of large pieces of carved jade (Maya equivalent of gold) dating to 500 B.C., which makes this the oldest and largest find of its kind to date;

v     And,  a 10-foot-tall anthropomorphic sculpture of a Maya deity carved into the 1-1/2-inch thick limestone stucco that adorns the buried face of the 100-foot-high main pyramid at Cival, one of the smaller cities that ring Holmul. 

The latter is unlike any other Maya find. Preliminary carbon-dating methods places the big sculpture at Structure 1 (main pyramid) at about 150 B.C. It’s so unique that Dr. Estrada-Belli is still trying to determine which deity and the actual size of the find. (They are excavating another tunnel below the first to see if there’s a second one.) 

During the two days we spend at the dig sites, we get to eat, sleep, and breathe the life of archaeologists who have devoted their lives to finding the answers to the Maya mysteries. We brave the bugs, the heat, the cold showers, and the other little 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. It has had an almost spiritual effect on us,” says Jim Greenfield, as we bounce along through 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.”

“It’s really great for the kids, too,” says his wife. “A trip like this allows them to get a much broader view of the world. This trip, has indeed, been a kind of extreme eco-tourism vacation on a world scale.

“And, of course, seeing these pickups make it through such unbelievably bad road conditions was a real eye-opener. It gave us a much better understanding of how valuable four-wheel-drive is outside of getting around in the snow we see in the Pacific Northwest.”

What all of us learned from our hosts is that the quest for knowledge is never-ending, and that four-wheel-drives are a key to unlocking mysteries that still lie buried in the jungles.

Dr. Estrada-Belli says the costs for supplies, local workers, tools, equipment, travel expenses incurred in his annual expedition is supported by small grants such as those from the Vanderbilt University, National Geographic Society, Ahau Foundation, and FAMSI. The rest comes right out of the archaeologist’s own pockets.

Some of that financial burden, at least as far as mechanical expenses are concerned, has been lifted by companies renown in the truck world.    

“ARB (www.arbusa.com),  Interco (www.intercotire.com), PIAA (www.piaa.com),  and Warn (www.warn.com),  really helped us this year, making the 3,500-mile drive from Nashville into Holmul that much easier,” says the grateful archaeology professor.

As many GCN readers, know, sometimes it’s the road less traveled that offers the greatest rewards. 

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