Time after time in Tikal

Published: April 30th 2016
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We were making our way northeast from Santa Elena to Tikal today, and we had an early start. We took a couple of sunrise photos over the lake surrounding Flores (Lago de Peten Itza) before leaving Hotel Maya Internacional at 6am. We stopped to pick up our pre-ordered breakfast bags at a small roadside shop (El Arbol) on the way to Tikal National Park. The bags included sandwiches (egg and bacon; ham and cheese), ramon seed biscuits, fresh juice and green oranges. The food was fantastic, especially the homemade bread and biscuits.

We arrived at the Tikal National Park entrance at 7am and met Juan, our guide for the tour of the Maya ruins. We made our way to the visitor centre and started walking into overgrown jungle in the searing heat – it was only 8am, so we knew it was going to be a hot day! We had hardly walked a few metres before spotting a toucan in the trees above us. The light was poor and the toucan was fast, so we didn’t manage a photo. However, we did manage a photo of Ren holding an enormous black tarantula.

The ruins were magnificent. Towering granite temples burst skyward out of the steaming hot jungle to heights of more than 60 metres. We walked in amazement for hours around these ruins, climbing some of the temples to get a bird’s eye view of the lush rainforest canopy stretching to the horizon. We strolled through plazas and causeways that were constructed in 200 BC. An iconic scene from ‘Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope’ was filmed here, and I captured it on camera from Templo IV.

It is hard to describe the feeling of walking through this enormous archaeological site with hundreds of temples and upright stone slabs, some of which remain unearthed. I got a little carried away with the panorama feature on my camera, as it seemed the best way to capture the beauty, serenity and complexity of the ruins. How these immense structures were erected so long ago is hard to imagine, especially considering the climate they would possibly have been working in. A number of men were working on the ruins on the day we were there, and I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be to carry scaffolding by hand to the top of Templo IV (which stands at 65 metres). I was exhausted by the time I arrived at the top, and I wasn’t carrying a heavy scaffold plank over my shoulder like the guy behind me.

After hours of walking in intense heat and cultural amazement, we made our way back to the visitors centre, and on the way our guide shared a few of his own thoughts on what happened to the Maya people (and how the same challenges are faced around the world today). His passion for his heritage was palpable, and it was a privilege to share these remarkable Maya ruins with him.

We arrived back at the Tikal National Park Visitor Centre at 12pm. We had been walking through the ruins for just over four hours, and the intense midday sun was beginning to take its toll. We jumped into the minibus and headed to Mon Ami Restaurant for lunch at 1pm. The lakeside restaurant was located on Lago de Peten Itza (the same enormous lake surrounding Flores), and I swam in the lake for half an hour or so before sitting down to lunch. I had cereal and bananas in cold milk, while Ren had the French salad (eggs, tomatoes, tuna, potatoes, onion, garlic and olive oil). The food was OK and the beer was cold, and after our experience at the Maya ruins, that was all we needed.

We left Mon Ami restaurant at 2:30pm and headed towards the Belizean border. We arrived at 4pm, jumped off our minibus, walked across the border between Guatemala and Belize, had our passports stamped, paid our 20 quetzal exit fee from Guatemala and walked into Belize.

We had an early start of 5:50am in Flores to try and escape the worst heat of the day when we explored the ruins of Tikal.

As we zoomed along in a minibus towards Tikal National Park, I started getting very excited about seeing our first Maya site. We stopped at El Arbol to get take away breakfast packs that we’d ordered the night before. I got an egg and bacon sandwich and Andrew picked the ham and cheese option. The packs also had a delicious cookie made from ramon seeds (which is considered to be a local super food), and a freshly made mixed fruit smoothie. We also picked up our local guide Juan here.

Deep in the El Peten jungle, Tikal was once one of the most powerful Maya cities (~300BC–900AD). An estimated 150,000 Mayas once thrived in the jungle of Tikal. They built masses of structures and a maze of stairways connected by roads and crowned with stone pyramids. The rulers of this city had fabulous names like Great Jaguar Paw and Fire is Born. Tikal city was the stronghold of the whole south eastern Maya region. It’s thought that the Maya population peaked about 800AD, but the civilisation inexplicably declined, and by 1000AD Tikal had been abandoned.

Ancient Maya cities like Tikal are amazing feats of engineering and craftsmanship. When I stopped and reflected that this was built without any of the construction and engineering tools we have today, it astounded me that so much knowledge was lost when this civilisation declined.

The Maya civilisation is credited with many advanced technologies, including an intricate use of hieroglyphics, sophisticated agricultural practices, calculating complex formulae long before other cultures established mathematics, and the development of scientific calendars and predictions of astronomical events. The Maya had a very good grasp of time and had accurately calculated every solar and lunar eclipse until 21 December 2012. They had also predicted the end of the world on 21 December 2012, or rather we assumed they had predicted the end of the world as that’s when their calendar stopped.

The end of the world ‘predicted’ in the Maya calendar not only renewed an interest in Tikal and the ruins, but it has also apparently sparked an unexpected rekindling of interest in general Maya culture. Maya elders have started running storytelling events, and Maya recipes are being recorded from the older women in the community and put on restaurant menus. Our guide Juan was understandably upset that the history taught in Guatemalan schools starts with the arrival of the Spanish, so he was glad for the international attention that has put a spotlight onto a whole civilisation and culture that has not been given the recognition it deserves.

The Tikal complex was lost in the jungle until excavation of the city began in the 1850s, and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. Some well-preserved and restored ruins tower over the jungle canopy, while a maze of smaller structures are still hidden in the jungle growth. Much of Tikal remains a mystery, as large areas of the estimated 60 square kilometre thought to comprise the residential section of the city have yet to be excavated or even be fully mapped. The restorers have admitted that they are not in any great hurry to do more excavations, as each excavation is quite expensive and the exposed structures require ongoing finances for maintenance. I loved the restraint shown in the excavation and restoration process here.

The restored structures were an incredible sight, and each was a short jungle hike away from the next. Even after walking around for more than four hours, we only covered a small fraction of the whole site on our visit. The Maya had a good understanding of engineering and acoustics, and when we attempted to recreate their acoustic designs by clapping our hands a certain distance from the pyramids, a distinct echo was heard. That acoustic design was also used in many other Maya cities.

We arrived at Tikal quite early at 7am and started by walking to some pyramids, which we climbed to see the tip of Templo I over the tree canopy. Even though it was still early in the day, the heat and humidity were already making themselves known.

We then walked to Templo IV through what would have been the city’s water reservoir. This is the tallest temple in the complex and we could only access the eastern face as there was ongoing restoration work being carried out. It was hard enough for us to walk around the city and climb a temple without feeling completely drained of energy, but there were workers carrying planks of hardwood on their shoulders up the same stairs we were using – it looked like very hard and hot work. From the top of Templo IV we could see the tips of Templos I, II and III jutting up through the jungle canopy, and it was pretty fabulous. That view is famous for being in Star Wars IV – A New Hope. I can see the futuristic look that may have appealed to George Lucas. We’ll have to re-watch the film when we get home.

We then passed more renovated and unexcavated pyramids on the way to Templo III. The limestone path we were walking on at that point used to be a wide limestone road named the Tozzer Causeway between the temples.

At the centre of Tikal’s ruins is the Gran Plaza which is surrounded by a complex of stone buildings, including Templo I (Temple of the Grand Jaguar) and Templo II which soar up from the plaza, acropolis complexes with a maze of courtyards, and many other small rooms. The different designs and architecture of the buildings reflect the length of time over which they were built and the changing influences coming into the city. When we climbed Templo II there was a fabulous view of the plaza to the east and Templo IV to the west.

One of the building had a large carving of Chaac the Maya rain god, who archeologists believe was the focus of many ceremonies in the later part of the Tikal’s life when they believe it was a time of drought. Ironically Chaac has been covered by a thatched hut, in order to preserve the carving…as Juan pointed out, he was being protected from himself. 😊

The rapid decline of the Maya civilisation – within 200 years from the peak of its population growth – has been the subject of much academic research and debate, and has variously been attributed to warfare, famine, disease and deforestation. The general consensus is that habitat destruction triggered the decline of the great civilisation. Massive amounts of firewood were required to sustain the growing population. Forests were destroyed, which changed the patterns of rainfall, leading to ruined crops and famine. Now that the forest has grown back, I love the poetic justice of it – the Guatemalan jungle had devoured the very thing that caused its destruction.

Even though they looked impossibly steep to climb, I enjoyed climbing the pyramid and Templos IV and II. It was very hot and sweaty work, but we were rewarded with some pretty spectacular views over the canopy and of the tiny people down below us at ground level. The staircases and stone steps were so high and steep in some cases that ascending was almost like rock climbing, and descending was vertigo inducing. We were very, very lucky with the timing of our trip, because we virtually had the complex to ourselves, and we only saw one other small group on our walk. However, by the time we were finishing up at the Gran Plaza, large groups had started filing in. I don’t think I would have enjoyed climbing the temples as much as I did if it had been crowded.

The ruins we saw at Tikal were such a small fragment of a society that we can still only guess at. I’m not an archaeology nerd or a history buff by any stretch of the imagination, but these ruins were awe-inspiring and they seriously blew my socks off.

Even though the ruins themselves were really fascinating, the natural beauty of Tikal National Park was pretty awesome too. The forest has been cleared at the temples and around the plazas, but walking between the temples was a lovely earthy experience with the jungle canopy still overhead. However, as always with a steamy hot jungle, we had been warned about mosquitoes and other tropical flying things, so the insect repellent got a good workout! In terms of other wildlife, we saw a small but stunningly coloured toucan, spider monkeys high on the tress, squirrels and a few very cute coati who seemed to favour the hill near the kiosk in the Gran Plaza. I had never seen a coati before and I followed them around in fascination. The spider monkeys weren’t interested in us, but I’d heard that they could be loud and obnoxious towards tourists. Given they’ve been hunted quite savagely by humans, it’s absolutely justified that they hate us. While we were walking into the park, Juan spotted a guy with a tarantula and asked to hold it, and given I love animals of all shapes and sizes…I asked if I could hold it too. It was surprisingly soft and velvet like, and very beautiful to look at. I think I want a pet tarantula. 😊

We said a hot, sweaty, tired but happy farewell to the park. This was only the first of many ruins of the ancient civilisations we are hoping to explore on this trip, and I am now really looking forward to the others.

By this stage we were ravenous, so Sophie took us to one of her secret hideaway spots on Lago de Peen Itza. It was a small, tucked away place called Mon Ami run by a French expat, where the drinks were cold and there was a jetty for swimming. I drank my weight in ice cold agua de horchata (milky drink of rice, nuts and cinnamon) while Andrew went swimming in the lake. For lunch I was craving something cold and fresh, so I went for a local variation of a salad nicoise with eggs, tomatoes, tuna, potatoes, onion, garlic and olive oil. Andrew was craving something cold too, and he drew a raised eyebrow from the waiter when he ordered cereal and banana with icy cold milk. Suitably recovered from a big morning, we continued our journey to the Belizean border.

Next we cross the border into Belize, and travel east to San Ignacio.


30th April 2016

So thrilled you like my city!
I worked with archaeologists in Tikal and the surrounding jungle for six hot, humid, wonderful weeks (60 hours of hard work/week), and I'm so glad the ruins, the Mayan civilization and the jungle wildlife "blew your socks off" even though it was a bit warm! How fabulous that you climbed Temple IV for that incredible view of the tops of temples protruding from the jungle canopy (I used to do that for sunsets on my day off). Love the tarantula and the panoramas!
3rd May 2016

Re: So thrilled you like my city!
Thanks Tara. We were lucky that we got the place to ourselves, and the furry creatures were the icing on the cake of a fabulous day.
1st May 2016

I just came back from travels myself, and you are the first blog I'm catching up on! I love central America and I'm so glad you are there experiencing it. Can't wait to read your other blogs and you'll have to blog about Belize too, I'm sure its way different than the 25 years since I went there. Cheers!
3rd May 2016

Re: Fantastic!
Thanks Andrea. We love this part of the world, and I'm sure this is the first of many trips over here. Hope to read a blog about your travels too :)
2nd May 2016

OMG ruins and Star Wars!
The ruins look incredible, great photos and I am glad it was you that had to endure that heat and not me - much rather snow any day, than jungle heat. I think I would have been beside myself having all that history around me AND being where they filmed Star Wars, it was only a short 5 second scene, but that would have been enough to blow my mind.
3rd May 2016

Re: OMG ruins and Star Wars!
Thanks guys. Jungle heat can very be draining, but we are slowly getting used to the heat. Andrew remembered the scene when we got to the top of the temple, but I didn't, so we watched a clip...it was a long way to travel for that five second shot!
3rd May 2016

Mayan Civilization
We've always loved studying the Mayan Civilization. Such a fascinating time period. Their abilities to build are nothing short of a marvel. I would love to have talked with these people. The great views are always...way..up..hill....glad you made it.
4th May 2016

Re: Mayan Civilization
I'm ashamed to say that I knew so little about the Maya civilisation and the history of this part of the world... but travelling is the best history, geography and cultural studies teacher I've ever had :)

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