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Guatemala was once at the heart of the mysterious Mayan civilisation. James Bedding braves the jungle to uncover its remnants.
Would I really need a security guard to tackle the nature trail at the back of the hotel, I wondered? "You will feel safer," said the receptionist. "Meet him at the gate at dawn." I was to be grateful, soon enought..
We crossed the muddy lane and set off along a narrow path, climbing a slope through curtains of vines and creepers. The guard stopped to point: a column of leaves was crossing the path, borne aloft by tiny ants. Close by a flash of electric emerald was all I could make out of a tiny hummingbird flitting through the bushes.
Later, we came under a gentle shower of green flakes - seed husks - just as a flock of parakeets took flight from the tree tops. A little higher up the path, as I scanned the leaf canopy with my binoculars, I saw a pair of glinting eyes staring back - and soon made out a whole family of spider monkeys, dangling from skinny tails.
My skin was starting to prickle with sweat - from the humidity and the climb - when I heard a twig snap behind me. I spun round, and through the foliage 30 yards away saw a man with a rifle. "Esta con nosotros," said the guard. "He's with us." I swallowed hard; I still wasn't getting used to security, Guatemala-style.
We reached the crest of the hill - according to the guard, actually the ruins of a Mayan pyramid, overgrown by trees and creepers. He pointed to a trench near the summit. Robbers dug it long ago, he said, to raid the tomb.
At the far end of the trench was a small opening. I was lowering myself in to get a better look when the guard caught my arm and tugged me back. He pointed to the spot where I was going to put my hand. A snake, mottled brown like the dead leaves it lay in and as fat as a baby's forearm, lay in a coil. "Duerme," said the guard, grinning. "He's sleeping."
I felt moved to be protected in this way by the modern descendants of the Maya. After all, the original inhabitants of these parts are as famous now for their bloodthirsty ways as for the ruined cities they left behind. Their civilisation once stretched across most of the Yucatan peninsula, including parts of modern-day Mexico and El Salvador. Now much of this sparsely populated region, still scattered with unexplored sites, is covered by jungle.