Published: March 1st 2009February 16th 2009
We took a shuttle from Antigua to Guatemala City, then a ten hour bus to Flores, in the El Peten region of Guatemala. Flores is often used as a base to visit the Tikal ruins. It is a sleepy little lake island with a bridge to the mainland; we can walk all the way around the island in about 15 minutes. We booked a tour to Tikal leaving at 4am, since we have a better chance of seeing animals in the early morning, and less of a chance of too many other tourists.
Our tour guide at Tikal was amazing. He grew up in the park, and learned about animals and medicinal plants from local elders. He taught us all about the functions of the buildings we saw - most interesting were the plazas of four buildings that were used for astrological purposes.
Tikal means 'city of sounds'. This name is due to the numerous bird and monkey noises emanating from the jungle, but also to a more interesting feature. Many buildings reflect sound in the most interesting way; clapping your hands or stepping sharply on the temple steps creates an echo that sounds like a squawking bird or
Apparently they have their tails up like this so that predators will be distracted and attack the tails first. They sure look funny when there are twenty of them trotting around in the undergrowth.
treefrog. It is unclear whether this function of the temples was intentional or accidental, but either way, it is extraordinary.
There is another huge ancient city near Tikal called El Mirador; this one is only reachable by doing a multi-day hike through the jungle, which we did not have time for. Our guide told us that although Tikal had a population of around 100,000 and was important in terms of rituals and ruling figures, El Mirador was maybe 4 times as vast! These huge cities have been photographed by satellite, and hundreds of buildings have yet to be discovered. We are told that around 80% of Central America's ruins are still unearthed.
One of our favourite things about this visit was the wildlife that we saw. There were birds everywhere, which our guide named for us (although we forgot most of them), and he made sure that we saw both spider monkeys and howler monkeys. He woke up the howler monkeys by roaring at them, and they became alert and started roaring back. They are the loudest animal in the New World, so a few of them surrounding you in the trees is quite an experience. We also
came upon a group of about fifteen coatis, which are fuzzy raccoon-like animals with long red tails. They hold their tails straight up in the air, and nose about on the ground for fallen berries and insects and such. They were fairly unperturbed by human visitors. We also saw a crocodile at the end of our visit. The Mayans created man-made reservoirs which filled with rainwater during the rainy season, and some of these are still preserved at the site in their original orientation and size. In one of these there lives a crocodile, which our guide called over to us by splashing the water (it gets fed at that spot on the bank, presumably).
The city of Tikal was quite large, and the ruins are not even close to being completely excavated. It costs a lot of money to unearth on building, so we saw many small hills which are actually tree-covered pyramids or temples. Tikal resembles Calakmul in that there are several pyramids that tower above the treetops, giving marvelous views. According to our guide, these buildings are precisely aligned so that astronomical observations may be performed by sitting at the top of one pyramid and looking
at the others (or something). The classic Tikal pyramids that are on postcards and posters are not as tall, in the main plaza, which was a bit tourist-covered but still really neat. You can climb many buildings here, although the tall ones all have wooden stairs to the side. This is necessary to prevent damage, since so many people visit and want to climb up, but we selfishly preferred the deserted atmosphere of Calakmul, where you can go anywhere you want, and feel like you are the first to discover the site.
There are more photos below