Tag: guatemala sacred sites

The Splendor of Tikal

Read the final instalment by Lori Erickson about her journey to Mexico & Guatemala with Sacred Earth Journeys. Next time – a guest feature by Lori’s husband Bob!

If you’re a Star Wars fan, this image might look familiar. That’s because in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, the Guatemalan archaeological site of Tikal stood in for Yavin 4, a jungle-covered moon used by the Rebel Alliance.

Tikal in Guatemala
The Mayan site of Tikal rises out of the Guatemalan jungle. (Bob Sessions photo)

But before it was used by the Rebel Alliance, it was used by the Mayans – and today Tikal is one of the largest and most impressive of all the pre-Columbian sites in Central America.

Tikal marked the end of our Maya Temples of Transformation Tour with Sacred Earth Journeys (see also Exploring Sacred Mayan Sites; Mayan Mysteries of Palenque; A Ceremony Amid Mayan Ruins; and Finding the Holy in a Tradition Not My Own). In many ways, we saved the best for last.

In Mayan, Tikal means “in the lagoon,” but its alternative name is far more evocative: “the place of the spirit voices.” This city, which was built between 700 BC and 900 AD, was once home to more than 60,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the Americas. Today more than 3,000 structures built by this civilization remain, though many are still covered by jungle.

The archaeological site is part of Tikal National Park, which protects 220 square miles of rainforest. More than 300 species of birds live here, along with jaguar, puma, several species of monkeys, tapirs, and more than 60 kinds of bats.

As I wandered through Tikal’s ceremonial plazas, temples, residences, and ruins, the sounds and smells of the jungle were ever present, from the deep grunting of howler monkeys in the trees high above to coatis (a raccoon-like animal) darting across the trails. The rich diversity of plant and animal life provided a counterpoint to the serenity of the ruins.

The heart of Tikal is its Grand Plaza, a ceremonial space bordered on the east and west by two extraordinary pyramid-temples. The Temple of the Great Jaguar (named after a carving above its main doorway) towers more than 150 feet above the plaza, its sides rising steeply to the sky. Across from it is the Temple of the Mask, a slightly smaller, but still impressive, structure. Its name is derived from a pair of masks carved into a wall on its top platform.

Jaguar Temple at Tikal
The Temple of the Great Jaguar is the most stunning of Tikal’s many temple-pyramids. (Bob Sessions photo)

Standing between these two landmarks, I was reminded of the Great Pyramids in Egypt. Both the ancient Mayans and the ancient Egyptians loved to build big, and their creations still have the capacity to evoke awe in us.

I loved, too, walking the winding paths between the ruins and temples. Because of Tikal’s sprawling expanse, it’s easy to get away from other visitors. I spent an entire hour in a set of ruins without seeing another person, a gift that allowed me to soak up its sights, sounds, and atmosphere without interruption.

That time gave me the chance to reflect on what I’d learned on our Mayan tour. I thought back to a conversation I’d had with Helen Tomei, the owner of Sacred Earth Journeys. We were visiting about the power of pilgrimage to change people’s lives, and she told me that when she was a young woman ready to start traveling on her own, she spent a lot of time looking at maps. She would spread them across a table and look at one country after another, trying to decide where her heart was being pulled.

“It’s sort of a mysterious thing, this going on pilgrimage,” she said. “The whole world is open to you, and yet you need to find the individual place that calls to you. For me, the first place was India. I kept coming back to that country on the map, especially to its Himalayan region. And that’s where I ended up traveling, which in turn set in motion a lifetime of journeys.”

If you’re a believer in the power of pilgrimage, you probably have a similar story, a time when the door to the world, and to the spirit, opened wide. In my own life, the Native American holy site of Bear Butte in South Dakota was the entrance.

Kapok tree
A huge kapok tree, a species sacred to the Mayans, stands near the entrance to Tikal. (Bob Sessions photo)

And I find it curious that the world’s sacred sites have so many similarities – not in their particulars, but in their essence. I know I experienced a similar feeling standing in the Grand Plaza of Tikal as I’ve felt in many holy places: it felt like coming home.

That said, the Mayan world still holds many mysteries for me. I was introduced to just a few Mayan sites on my trip to Mexico and Guatemala. But I learned enough to know that I want to go back to these remote landmarks filled with beauty and power. I want to hear the howler monkeys again, and to sit on the steps of a temple and imagine what it was like when it was a living place of worship.

Let me end with a story from our friend Brian, who traveled with us on our Mayan journey. When he came back to the bus at the end of our second day in Tikal, he told us about an experience he’d had earlier that afternoon.

“I was on top of one of the temples, not saying anything, just looking out over the scene,” he told us. “And there was a guy sitting a few yards away, saying nothing, just looking out at the landscape like I was. And when he got up to leave, he turned to me and said, ‘This is the best day of my entire life.’”

That interchange crystalizes for me one of the reasons why we go on pilgrimage, whether it’s to Tikal or Egypt or Bear Butte: we go because of those shining moments, the ones that we store in our treasure house of memories, the ones that give depth and meaning to our entire lives.

Here’s a little video I took on top of the Temple of the Masks at Tikal (the sounds in the background are howler monkeys):

~ Lori Erickson

This post was first published at Patheos.com: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/holyrover/2017/03/08/12584/

Exploring Sacred Mayan Sites in Mexico and Guatemala

Sacred Earth Journeys’ participant and travel writer Lori Erickson shares her recent experience of travelling to Mexico & Guatemala in this week’s feature guest blog.

palenque mexico
Tour Leader Freddy Silva exploring sacred Mayan sites with the Sacred Earth Journeys group

For years I’ve been getting press releases from Sacred Earth Journeys, a company that specializes in trips to spiritual sites around the world. So much about the company appealed to me—its focus on spirituality, its expert guides, and the locations of its trips. But the timing was never right and there was always a good reason I couldn’t go.

mexico guatemala tour
Bob and I spent a week on a Sacred Earth Journeys tour of Mayan sites in Mexico and Guatemala

But last month, I finally got the chance to travel with Sacred Earth Journeys—and the experience more than lived up to my expectations. A tour called Maya Temples of Transformation immersed me in the culture and spirituality of pre-Columbian Mexico and Guatemala. During the week we visited three major Mayan sites: Palenque, Yachxilan, and Tikal. Along the way we trekked through jungles, took part in ceremonies with ancient roots, and listened to howler monkeys in the treetops above. It was a marvellous trip! And over the next posts I’ll be telling you about what I experienced.

I was accompanied on the tour by my intrepid husband, Bob, and our equally intrepid friend Brian. But during the week I also got to know our fellow travelers, who hailed from Australia, England, and Canada as well as the U.S. Some had been part of Sacred Earth Journeys before; others were newbies. All of us shared an interest in the spiritual side of travel, and all of us wanted to truly experience the places we were seeing, not just skip across the surface.

misol ha mexico
Misol Ha Waterfall in Mexico (image by Cronoser, Wikimedia Commons)

My week with these people made me realize that in all my years of spiritual journeying, I’ve missed one of the classic elements of pilgrimage: being put together in a group with complete strangers, fellow pilgrims who during the course of the journey become friends. Though we hailed from far-flung corners of the globe, we quickly formed bonds. During conversations over breakfasts and dinners, on bus rides, and walking down forest paths, I heard their personal stories and learned from their insights and wisdom. It was a little like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a moveable feast of spirituality and camaraderie.

Bringing like-minded pilgrims together is one of the missions of Sacred Earth Journeys, according to its founder and owner, Helen Tomei, who also was part of our group. “Traveling solo can be wonderful,” she told me. “But there are things that happen in groups that you can’t get when you travel on your own. When you travel to sacred places together, you benefit from hearing about other people’s experiences, and they can help you process your own experiences. You learn from each other.”

Helen sees many transformations among the groups she coordinates. “Most of us live in a world of endless distractions, especially because of the overwhelming presence of technology,” she told me. “On trips like this, we’re given the chance to disconnect, slow down, and look inward. I think that’s one of the reasons why interest in spiritual travel is growing. My hope is that people will come home from a journey with us changed in some way, and that their lives will be better once they return to their ordinary routines.”

tour leader freddy silva
Freddy Silva (Photo: Lori Erickson)

During our week together, we were fortunate to have two leaders with great experience in guiding people through spiritual transformations. Freddy Silva is one of the world’s leading researchers of sacred sites, ancient systems of knowledge, and the interaction between temples and consciousness. His books include First Templar Nation and The Divine Blueprint. And Miguel Angel Vergara is a native of Mexico who studied for 17 years with Mayan elder and wisdom keeper Don Vincente Martin. Today Miguel teaches seminars in Mexico and abroad on Mayan shamanism, traditions, and culture and is also the author of The Sacred Knowledge of the Maya.

The two were a powerful combination. Miguel led us in ceremonies and provided a deep background in the spirituality of the places we were seeing. And Freddy was our trickster teacher, making us laugh, inviting us to consider new possibilities, and sharing his knowledge of similarities between sacred sites around the world.

As the week went on, I especially appreciated Miguel’s deep kindness and his unassuming way of teaching profound truths. One day as we entered the jungle on our way to the Guatemalan site of Tikal, for example, he made an off-hand comment that is one of the most profound pieces of spiritual wisdom I’ve ever heard. “You know, the most important part of a ceremony is the love in your heart,” he said. “If you don’t have that, it doesn’t make any difference what rituals you do. And if you have that love, all the rituals will work, no matter how you do them.”

During our trip, Miguel did a masterful job of leading us in rituals designed to open our hearts to the spirit of the sacred places we toured. On our first day, for example, we visited Misol Ha Waterfall, a gorgeous cataract in the forest near the Mayan site of Palenque. On the bus ride there, he told us that many sacred sites have a cave of some sort associated with them. They provide a direct connection to the divine spirit of the earth, the mother who sustains us all.

“Surrender your ego and be humble,” he told us, echoing the message that spiritual teachers of many traditions give. “Ask yourself: what do I need to give up? What do I need to heal?” At the site, we got out of the bus and walked down a slippery path leading to the waterfall, then passed behind its torrent on our way to the cave itself. In darkness lit only by a few flashlights, we made our way into an inner chamber, where another, smaller waterfall cascaded into a pool.

“Water is a connection to the Spirit,” Miguel told us. “Enter the water if you’d like. Ask for healing for yourself and for others.”

I watched as most members of our group slid into the water. Fighting a cold, I felt it would be unwise to join them, because as much as I believe in the power of the Spirit, I’m also a believer in the power of a virus to make a trip miserable. So I sat there with my feet in the pool, savouring the sounds of the waterfall, watching as my fellow pilgrims immersed themselves in holy waters that have drawn seekers for millennia.

Palenque in Mexico
Miguel Angel Vergara is a master teacher of Mayan spirituality.

It was one of my favourite moments of the trip. And if I’d had some paint supplies with me, I’d have drawn animals on the walls, just like in those French caves covered with prehistoric paintings. It was that kind of moment, a time-out-of-time when I felt I could have channelled something wild and mysterious.

In my next post I’ll take you to Palenque, one of the greatest of the ancient Mayan sites. But let me leave you with another comment made by Miguel, one that summarizes much of his perspective on the world. He told us that the traditional greeting exchanged by the Maya translates as, “How is your sacred path today?”

That’s a question we all can ask, whether we’re in a sacred cave in the middle of a jungle, or sitting at a desk in Iowa.

~ Lori Erickson

This blog was first published at www.patheos.com