The Force is Strong with Tikal

Published: March 8th 2017
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So I hadn’t heard until today that Star Wars has a connection to the Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala. But once I got to the top of the largest temple here, it was totally obvious.

The tour guide today was named Manuel, and he sounded just like Ricardo Montalban. He didn’t look like Ricardo Montalban – a bit short, but with gray hair that was a little shaggy. He did make the tour entertaining and very informative, so when we parted ways back at my hotel, I gave him 50 Quetzaltes as a tip.

This was the first tour on this trip where I got what I was expecting, as far as group and transportation. It wasn’t a large group, only 5 tourists and 2 tour guides. Three of us did the tour in English, with Manuel, and the other couple (from Chile) took their tour with the other, younger, guide. The minivan was very nice, though, with a/c and comfortable seats. It also helped that the road was very good quality. I suppose that’ll always be part of my commentary after that minefield of a road going to Caracol on Sunday. A different driver picked the three of us on the English tour up at the hotel (we were all staying here at the Villa del Lago) just after 7:30 and took us to the airport, about 10 minutes away, where we met Manuel and transferred to another, larger van. Then we were on our way to Tikal.

It appears that many tour companies offer this same tour throughout Flores, where our hotel is. They all leave around the same time, taking minivans up to Tikal, which is only about 75 minutes away. Did I mention that the road is really nice? They all stop at the same shop on the way, too, about 30 minutes into the trip. They have a scale model of Tikal as it looked in its heyday, and you can buy local trinkets, snacks, and guidebooks. I got a drink and some queso Pringles. Then you’re back on your way.

The entrance to Tikal is deceptive. It’s where you get the tickets, and they have a nice Maya archway to pass underneath. But from the entrance to the main parking lot is another 17 km. Once you park, you have to pass through the visitor center, which is mainly a LOT of little nooks set up with cheap merchandise related to Tikal and/or Guatemala in general. But after a short walk, you get to the main dirt road that takes you to the ruins. As Manuel said today, what most people don’t realize is that most of these Maya settlements that we see on tours are mainly the ceremonial centers, not really where people lived. So these great buildings had purposes, but they had more to do with being churches or government buildings today.

We were warned that it would be a 4-hour trek, mostly on nice paths but sometimes through the jungle. This was not a lie. We were also told that we would have shade from the jungle canopy for most of the way. This was also not a lie. The problem comes when you want to climb a temple or a pyramid, and there’s zero canopy to keep the sun from beating down on you. If I could recommend anything, it would be to have a big breakfast before you go, and make sure to pack a large bottle of water. The vendors are set up strategically at the largest climbs, or where people tend to linger in the open sun, so bring money, too, and get something with sugar and/or electrolytes to drink at these places. Have a seat under the thatched roof and rest as you rehydrate. I was very glad to have these people selling these drinks at just the right places.

Manuel showed us many buildings that were only partially uncovered. Those with only one side exposed were temples, since only one side of any temple has steps leading to the top; those with two sides uncovered were pyramids, which had steps on all four sides. Some buildings were still covered with dirt – they remain jungle mounds, though we know that there is a building underneath. We saw lots of trees that are indigenous to the area and even got to chew some of the leaves of the allspice plant. And any time Manuel said that there was a building we could climb, I did it. The couple that were with me were from Seattle, in their fifties. I don’t remember their names, so I'll call them John and Yoko for simplicity's sake; but John was pretty agile and climbed everything, too, while Yoko actually had a foot injury and so didn’t climb as much. I was always worried that Manuel was walking to fast for her/them, but we never completely lost sight of them.

Manuel, like Leo in Caracol, made the tour a dramatic affair, with rising expectations as we journeyed on. Our first major building was the “Star Wars” temple, so named because when you get to the top, you can see a scene very similar to Yavin-4 in the first Star Wars movie. Temples poke their heads above the treetops at various locations, and George Lucas was no doubt inspired by this vision. To get to that level, though, you have to climb to the top of this temple, which is the tallest in all of the Peten area, where Tikal and Flores are located. It may indeed be the tallest in all of the Maya lowlands; it’s certainly the tallest building in Tikal. But there is a wooden set of steps to the side of the temple, presumably because the steps on the temple itself are in such bad shape. Many people get up there and linger, mainly because they need to catch their breath. I got a few pictures at the top before descending. And I was happy to find a plaza with one of those drink vendors not far from the base of the steps. Perfect timing. It was also about noon, so the sun was in full force.

After the wonderful rest stop, we continued our jungle slog. While stopped at a kiln where the Maya baked their limestone bricks, a trio of younger tourists passed by, without a guide. So I explained to them why my group was stopped at this point, what we were looking at. They thanked me, and then one of them asked if I had been in San Ignacio a day or two ago. I had been recognized! I didn't remember him, but I suppose my appearance can be rather distinctive in Central America - long hair, beard, glasses, and pink NASA hat. Small world, part one. We continued on our journey, making our way through another pair of pyramids and actually getting to go into a two-story palace with Mayan false-arch and everything. And there were bats. And loads of graffiti. At around 1:30, we hit the mother lode: the great plaza, surrounded on all sides by temples. The one that you see in all the advertising is there, but you can't climb it. You can, however, use the modern wooded stairs attached to the temple across from the famous temple to ascend and get pictures of the famous one. So of course we did, taking selfies and magnificent panoramic views. Tikal really has no bad angles.

After a few minutes taking in the view of the famous temple (there's definitely a reason it's famous), we went back down and meandered through the courtyard as Manuel rested in the center, under a tree. I ventured into one of the lower temples when he told me that there was a large stone mask of Chaakh hiding underneath a thatched hut roof. So I paid my respects, found some other hieroglyphics, and decided it was time to move on. We passed by a five-story Maya building, our last one of the day, on our way out of the main plaza and toward the restaurant. The path to the restaurant was just that - a narrow, winding path through the jungle. When we got there, I was never so happy to see civilization again. The lunch was good, the dessert was mushy, but it was all under a thatched roof, so we were saved from the sun.

On the way back to our minivan, we had to pass through the tourist booths at the visitor's center, where I purchased a huge bottle of water (which I left in the minivan when we got back to the hotel!) and a small pin.

Back in Flores, I purchased my shuttle to Palenque, Mexico, tomorrow for 250 Quetzaltes - 30 fewer than my hotel wanted to charge, and with the same company. The guy at the shuttle agency said I could leave at 5AM and take the old road, or 8AM and take the new road. I had flashbacks to Caracol and decided I could use the extra 3 hours of sleep anyway. So I'll be doing that not long after I wake up tomorrow.

I meandered around the "island" of Flores (more of a peninsula now with the causeway that attaches it to the mainland) to see what charm there might be. It's pretty much a tourist town, which is a bit sad. Hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and places to buy boat rides across the lake. So I came back to my hotel to write my blog post. But I got hungry, so I ventured across the street to eat at the hostel. And you know who I bumped into there? Robert. The Hungarian guy that TJ and I had seen Xunantunich with! Small world, part two. So we chatted, and some other hostel-goers joined us - Amy from Australia and Victor, but I don't know where he was from. They're planning on visiting Tikal tomorrow, so I gave them my stories, which actually made them more excited to visit. After about two hours of that, I needed to get back to my room, pack, and get in some decent sleep for the 6.5-hour bus ride to Mexico.

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