Entering Tikal, Jungle Heart of the Maya Empire

From atop Temple IV, above the trees of the jungle, the noisy morning sounds of animals went on for ages. “Little” Cesar, our tour guide, had instructed us all just to listen. “Don’t talk,” he said, holding his hand next to his head as if Einstein presenting a novel idea. Birds whistled, bugs chirped, and to everyone’s delight, a strange raccoon-like animal called a pisote wondered up the front face of the temple. The most prevalent noise was a low growl that periodically rumbled from below. The jungles around Tikal are one of the last remaining habitats of jaguars.

Mayan Pyramid Rising into View (courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

Mayan Pyramid Rising into View
(courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

Tikal is in the northernmost province of Guatemala, Peten, which borders both Mexico and Belize. A little over 1200 years ago, it was a thriving metropolis and controlled the entire southern region of the Mayan civilization. However, before the 10th century A.D., long before the Spanish ever whiffed the shores of Central America, the city’s inhabitants had vanished, leaving only theory and mystique to explain their disappearance. It was nearly 1000 years before people began visiting Tikal again, and not until the 1950s that it didn’t require days of trekking.

When the sun had burned the last of the morning fog of the top of the jungle, Cesar finally broke the silence. As the animals continued their breakfast chatter, he began to tell us about the Maya, the jungle, the animals. He pointed out the tops of other temples rising through the trees, some of them over 180 feet high, but Temple IV, our temple, reached 230 feet and is the tallest Mayan pyramid remaining. Finally, he distilled the myth of the growl: It wasn’t caused by jaguars but rather howler monkeys, which look pretty fierce in their own right.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Buried deep in the jungles of Guatemala, Tikal is one of the world’s great archaeological sites.
  • Besides the ruins, the setting provides close encounters with wild animals.
  • Rich with history, mystery, and discovery, the stories of Tikal only enhance the experience of seeing it.
  • It’s still possible to climb up and around some of the temples and other structures.
  • Good for: Archaeology and history buffs, animal lovers, adventure travelers.

A World around the Ruins

Before the sun rises, collectivos idle through the island city of Flores picking up tourists. Though more than an hour away, Flores, little more than hotel-restaurants and souvenir shops, is where most of Tikal’s contemporary visitors stay. As the passenger vans clear the bridge back to the mainland, they take a left and follow along the edge of the lake. Some people sleep, but for me, the dark and quiet only heighten the atmosphere.

Monkey Admiring the Ruins of Tikal

Monkey Admiring the Ruins of Tikal
(courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

Pulling into the park entrance, visitors pass ocellated turkeys (peacock-like birds) that parade through the grasses looking for worms. The ruins remain invisible behind the canopy of trees, and drivers chauffeur their new crop of visitors through the ticketing process. There are a couple of park hotels (too expensive for this humble EFL teacher) and cafes where people vie for breakfast before entering the site. Then, it is into the jungle on a dirt path that leads into the heart of Tikal.

I’m a sucker for an animal sighting, so this walk is usually the highlight of my visits to Tikal. Besides pisotes, which have appeared in impressive numbers as I’ve ambled through the park, I’ve also seen plenty of those growling howler monkeys and spider monkeys whipping through the trees, slightly dismembered tarantulas, bat-sized butterflies, a distant toucan, and plenty of strange insects. This, of course, all with the backdrop of ancient ruins.

The Rise and Fall of Tikal

Of course, the big draw to El Peten and the deep, dark depths of the Guatemalan jungle are the ruins that are there. Some sites at Tikal date back as far as 400-300 BC, when the first massive pyramids were built. The city’s development continued for around a millennium. Nowadays, there are still literally thousands of structures for people to visit: temples, altars, stelae (stone shafts with hieroglyphics), acropolises and burial sites.

Looking Back from the Top (courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

Tikal: Looking back from the top
(courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

Unlike the pyramids of Egypt, however, which are just a few massive constructions in the middle of barren desert, walking through Tikal is full of surprises. The city’s landmarks are linked by great causeways, built centuries ago, that function like hiking trails. Following in the footsteps of the long-departed inhabitants, you roam from site to site to site, discovering rich details along the way: the limestone quarry, reservoirs, and canals. The shell of city remains.

By 950 AD, Tikal was more or less vacant. For its last half century, the city was left to squatters and poachers, who looted the tombs for jade. Then, it was left to the jungle. In 1525, Hernán Cortés is believed to have passed just miles away from the site but never discovered it. Though knowledge of its existence was passed down through the indigenous population, it was only recently restored to its former glory: In 1979, two years after George Lucas filmed part of Star Wars (the original) at the ruins, Tikal was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Practicalities

  • Rainy season in Guatemala is from May to October, so be sure to bring or buy appropriate wet weather gear. It can get a little muddy. If it does rain, ponchos are sold at the park entrance.
  • For the love of nature, don’t feed or touch the animals. Most guides will, at some point, arrive with a staged tarantula crawling up their shirt. This one is probably okay to hold.
  • There are hotels right outside the park entrance, or there are other spots—El Remate, specifically—along the route from Flores. Francis Ford Coppola even has a resort, La Lancha, out that way. Flores, however, is the standard place to stay.
  • It is possible to bus or fly from Guatemala City. The bus takes around twelve-hours and can be done as an overnight trip. The flight is a lot faster but above my pay grade.
  • This is one place where I highly recommend a guided tour, and I will vouch for “Little” Cesar—a seasoned vet at the game—as an excellent choice if he’s available.

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