Ancient Cities: Tikal

We were woken minutes from Tikal to the screams of ‘Monkey!’. A man, who we later found to be an employable tour guide, was frantically jumping around, wildly gesticulating and shouting excitedly at us from the front of the bus. As we waited for his next animal impression, ahead of us a family of howler monkeys were crossing the road. The five furry mammals were marching in unison with their long black tails tucked in a tight spiral. The driver slowed down so as not to disturb them and we watched in wonder as they disappeared one by one from view into the thick jungle.

We ditched the poor charades player at the first opportunity as he was demanding more than we were willing to pay for his services. Leaving him to entertain the other guests we set off on our own.

A short walk away from the guide and the entrance took us to a large map of Tikal. From there we made our own itinerary. (Red, yellow, blue)

The UNESCO World Heritage site dates back to around 400 BC. Engulfed in the Peten rainforest, it is situated 60km (37mi) west of Flores. Within the 16km² (10mi²) national park are six main temples and over 3,000 structures. Now over-grown and unkept it is slowly becoming one of the more popular tourist destinations in Central America.

Temple I (Jaguar Temple) and the main plaza

The Jaguar Temple is the most recognisable structure in the ancient city. Built in the 7th century it was used for various rituals and served as a tomb for the Mayan ruler Ch’an (682 – 721A.D.) Standing at 45m (147ft) its name comes from the giant jaguar carved on its doors.
When we arrived in the main plaza a distinct buzzing was in the air. The damp grass floor was filled with wasp-like insects hovering above the wet blades. Although we were at first apprehensive that they may attack, we soon found by treading carefully they were perfectly content flying with no foreseeable purpose.
Sadly the Jaguar temple can no longer be climbed due to disrepair but to the left of the temple were some accessible ruins that offered a great vantage point.

Temple II (The Mask temple)

Situated opposite the Jaguar temple, although somewhat smaller in comparison, it is another impressive feat of engineering.

Temple III (The Jaguar priest temple)

The last of the great pyramids to be built. At 55m (180ft) we could only see the top of the temple through the trees as we were walking towards the largest structure in Tikal.

Temple IV

The tallest building in Tikal and also one of the largest in the Maya region when it was built in the 8th century. Although the original steps are too worn for tourists to tread, a wooden staircase has been built to take sightseers to the peak.

At 75m (246ft), this temple gives visitors the opportunity to see above the jungle canopy and see the heads of the Temple I, III and part of Mundo Perido.

After a mild hike to the top to be compensated with a blanket of trees below is especially rewarding.

Mundo Perido (The Lost World)

Home to over thirty structures, this is one of the oldest parts of Tikal and one of the most sacred to the Maya. So holy was this site that instead of the more traditional renovation (of building on top of the structures), they were preserved with paint and plaster.
The name seemed appropriate for the area as there was little to suggest that this place had been re-discovered, as there were very few signs and even fewer people.

Temple V

The second highest pyramid in Tikal at 57m (187ft). Another example of poor preservation, the stone steps leading to the top were understandably worn. However the replacement steps situated on the side were also badly damaged and sadly unusable, making it impossible to climb to the top.

The Rain

After walking for four hours and still a couple of miles from the exit we experienced the definition of a rainforest as a sudden heavy cloud burst fell on us. Whilst the jungle canopy provided some cover, the paths were turning into mud rivers and our clothes were doing a good job of absorbing water. We hugged the sides of the paths as they offered some shelter from the torrent. Eventually we slipped and slid our way back to the park’s entrance which offered some refuge from the elements. Then, as abruptly as the showers started, they stopped and we emerged from the sanctuary half-drowned to wait for the next bus to Flores.

 © John Brownlie 2012

* Getting to Tikal from Flores is straight-forward enough as there are plenty of tour agencies on the island. Expect to pay around 70-80Q ($8-9) for transportation and admission or 120-130Q ($15-16) for the additional tour guide.

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