Travelogue – Tikal, Guatemala
Guatemala is just a few miles from the where we stayed in the Cayo district of Belize during last summer and as soon as we realized that it was just a border crossing away Guatemala was instantly on our list to visit.
Tikal is universally recognized as one of the most impressive of all Mayan sites sharing a top three spot with Machu Picchu and Angkot Wat, and our hotel organized for us a day trip for us to visit.
Although the border crossing is pretty routine, we discovered during the days leading up to our day trip that relations between the neighbours isn’t especially friendly with lots of water not completely passed under the bridge and sure enough a tricky border passing ensued.
Our tour guide was half Belizean and half Guatemalan, which was obviously important and as we got to the slightly ramshackle border crossing where we were given strict instructions of what to and what not to say, our guide took our passports and some cash and returned with them stamped. We then swapped driver and car and headed off into the Guatemalan countryside.
Guatemala is a large country, the most populous in Central America with over 14m people. Despite suffering decades of civil war it has plenty of resources, rich in petroleum, coffee, forestry and sugarcane.
Once into Guatemala we drove for around two hours deep into the north east of Guatemala’s Peten Province. The countryside if anything lusher and greener than in Belize as we swept past small hamlets with invariably adults and children sat outside homes as if work and school didn’t exist in their lives.
We passed the massive Lake Peten, that covers an area of 61 miles. The ancient city of Flores lies on an island near the Lake’s south shore. Flores was the last independent Maya state held out against the Spanish conquerors.
This area of Guatemala is bordered by Mexico to the north and west, about 30 miles in each direction. This very northern tip is considered bandit country and a lot of drug trafficking occurs through the Mexican border and into the discreet rain forests. Fortunately we saw no sign of any bandits although we weren’t over comforted by some of the stories our guide told us.
With the journey compete and entrance tickets negotiated (everything appeared to be negotiated) tall ceiba trees greeted us as we walked into the Tikal National Park, one of only 9 sites in the world that UNESCO have made a natural and cultural preserve.
Tikal sits pretty in the middle of a 222-square mile national park coveted for it’s wildlife. Black-brown birds with golden tails sat atop ceiba trees as we walked through the sheltered tree-lined road that led to the mecca of the Mayan world.
Although the region was home to Mayan communities as early as 600 BC, Tikal itself wasn’t established until sometime around 200 BC, but over the next three centuries the city grew at a dizzying pace and it is estimated that by AD500 Tikal covered more than 18 square miles with a population of close to 100,000 people.
Tikal was declared a national monument in 1931 and a national park in 1955, one of Guatemala’s first protected areas. In 1990, the vast Maya Forest Biosphere Reserve was recognised by UNESCO.
4,000 buildings have been discovered in Tikal, although only 600 have been restored. 600 is a lot to see and it leads to lots of walking. The inner urban zone of around 400 hectares contains the most impressive of the ruins. Here are the principal monumental architecture and monuments which include palaces, temples, ceremonial platforms, small and medium sized residences, ball-game courts, terraces, roads, large and small squares.
The Temple of the Grand Jaguar (Temple I) and the Temple of the Masks (Temple II) stare at each other across the Great Plaza. Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, one of Tikal’s greatest rulers is buried in Temple I and was built during his rule (AD 682–734). The temple has a height of 154 feet and was excavated between 1955 and 1964.
Temple II stands at 125 feet and was built for the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awiil I. Thank the lord they invented flowers! Temple III known as the Temple of the Jaguar was built around 810 AD and stands at 173 feet high.
The tallest of the ruins in the park is Temple IV. We climbed to the very top, 230 ft up, and the views of miles and miles of jungle canopy were incredulous. In the first ever Star Wars film George Lucas showed the Millennium Falcon cruising over this location. This is thought to be the tallest edifice ever erected by the ancient Maya.
The top of Temple V, the second highest structure in Tikal also gave us some amazing views of the National Park at 187 feet high and lastly the most recently discovered Temple, VI, in 1951 stands at a paltry 39 feet.
The major excavation work was done in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. They started digging only as recently as 1956 and today armies of volunteers continue to unearth several hundred’s of years of Mayan history.
The whole National Park sits on over 50,000 hectares of wetlands and tropical forests with thousands of architectural and artistic remains of the Mayan civilization. Wildlife includes five cats, both Jaguar’s and Puma’s, anteaters, the raccoon-like coatimundi and several species of monkeys, including the Howler, which eerily you could hear calling all around. There are more than 300 species of birds counting toucans, parrots and wild turkeys as the most notable.
After a full day walking amongst the Tikal temples with my step counter sweating with the exercise, we finished off with a meal at the Comedor restaurant. It was very basic but the smell of grilled meats was inviting as was an enjoyable local beer called Gallo.
On the way back to Belize our guide made us stop at the obligatory roadside souvenir shop off the main road, where us and others thumbed through wooden face masks, textiles, jewellery and artwork. They sold beer too. We then headed back through the border and back into Belize.
One day of course is hard to gain an impression on a whole country, especially one so big, sprawling and mountainous. Dipping our toe in the water of this dense corner jungle of Peten didn’t seem enough and I’d very much like to witness the historic Pacific coastal town of Antigua, Lake Atitlan, in the northern highlands, described by Aldous Huxley as the most beautiful lake in the world and more properly Flores. Also because I am a slave to a capital, a little whizz around the countries capital Guatemala City would be an experience.
Nonetheless Tikal appears very high if not the highest on any ‘best of Guatemala lists’ and it was an incredible encounter, albeit brief. Tikal is hugely important to Guatemala and Central America and is what the Great Pyramids are to Egypt, a national symbol and a source of pride in the past.