Alysa Landry
Temple II is on of the structures at Tikal, an archaeological site in Guatemala that encompasses 4,000 individual structures and 1,700 years of history for the Maya.

Mayan and Proud: Contemporary Maya Talk Culture, Tradition

Alysa Landry

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.”


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