Temple I at Tikal

Mayan Border Conflict

A plan to take my kids to visit the ancient Mayan site of Tikal ended up providing them a modern political education as well.

We hired a private car to ferry us the two hours from San Ignacio, Belize to the ruins in Guatemala. Because you cross the border it requires two drivers, one on each side.

Our Belizean driver kicked it off by describing his take on an international incident that occurred last week and is currently roiling the two countries.

What’s not in dispute is that the Belize Defense Force shot and killed a 13-year-old Guatemalan teenager on or near the western border.

The Belizean driver explained that the soldiers simply returned fire after an “illegal” incursion in the Cebada area of the Chiquibul National Park.

He said the Guatemalans in the area illegally farm and log across the border because they are poor. “They are always trying to take our land,” he said.

He said Guatemalan President Jimmy Moralles is a “clown” who is trying to use the incident as an excuse to seize Belizean territory.

The two countries have a land dispute that goes back 150 years. The Guatemalan government responded by dispatching 3,000 troops to the area.

“It is a preventive measure, it is not a declaration of war,” Guatemala’s Defense Minister said.

But since Guatemala is a country of 17 million and Belize has a population of only 350,000, it’s understandably alarming. I explain it to my kids with a comparison: Imagine if the U.S. stationed 520,000 troops on the Mexican border.

President Moralles described the shooting as a “cowardly and excessive attack”, and called for those responsible to be brought to justice.

We arrived at the border and carried our bags through immigration and customs. On the other side of a neutral zone our Guatemalan driver provided another perspective.

“The Belizean army murdered a child,” he said when asked to explain what happened. “Our government has been calm. We sent some people to patrol the region to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.”

He said the problem is that Belize had stolen land from Guatemala and refused to recognize the truth of the situation. The troops on the border weren’t a big deal, he said.

“The press has blown it out of proportion,” he continued.

He said he hoped it was resolved soon because it is bad for tourism and therefore bad for his business. That part wasn’t in dispute. Our hotel in Belize had suspended their guided Tikal trips.

Listening to the two versions of the stories my kids absorbed one of the great lessons of travel: how it’s possible to recognize truths in others you cannot see in yourself.

My kids loved the majesty and history of Tikal. The site is remote, located in the middle of the jungle in the Peten district. It’s the most impressive Mayan site throughout the region. The stone towers are so iconic they were used as the rebel base in the movie Star Wars.

We hiked onto the park late in the afternoon. The 1,300-year-old temples rose above the jungle canopy. We climbed to the top of Temple II, which afforded us a magnificent view of the Grand Plaza.

We saw toucans and parrots buzzing through trees and watched amazed as spider monkeys swung through branches and howler monkeys roared. As the sun set, it illuminated the buildings.

A guide explained the history of the temples, which ruler built which one. And how they were plastered and painted red and green. And how the city consisted of 100,000 people at its height and extended for miles before being mysteriously abandoned in 900 AD.

One story the Guatemalan guide left out is how Tikal was allegedly conquered by the neighboring city state of Caracol in 562 AD.

You have to wonder if that didn’t get mentioned because Caracol is located in modern day Belize.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.