Seeing the phenomenal scale of Tikal has long been on my bucket list! In previous travels Rick and I plodded along the paths of the ancient Mayans at Chichen Itza, Tulum and Uxmal in Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru. Our excitement heightens as our TAG prop-plane from Guatemala City lands in St. Elena Airport, the gateway city to Tikal. We are whisked away by a pre-arranged van to our choice locale – the peaceful village of El Remate, midway between the larger centres of Flores/St. Elena and Tikal.
Our Tikal Photo Gallery
The moment we settle into La Casa de Don David, “mi casa es su casa” is the feeling! The rooms overlook Lago de Peten Itza with a Mayan garden in between. In the middle a gigantic Ceiba tree touches the sky– this traditional “tree of life” was believed to join the earth to the spirit world. Paths lead to it from each of the four directions, the east signifies the sunrise and yellow corn, the west signifies the sunset and red corn, the north is for while corn, and the south is for blue corn – all encased in a circumference path.
Early the next morning, we walk across the street from the hotel to catch a “colectivo” to the entrance of Parque Nacional Tikal where we purchase our tickets. The colectivo then takes us another 17km inside the park to the Information Centre. A few minutes are spent planning our route in order to see as much as possible before exhaustion sets in. The Tikal National Park covers an area of 576km². The ruins area encompasses about 24km².
We follow the path to the Great Plaza, the heart of the ancient city. Its vast rectangular shape is sided by four massive structures. Towering at 47m, our first sighting of Jaguar Temple (a.k.a. Temple I) leaves us as still as if taxidermied! This iconic and most recognized temple was built in 700AD by Hasaw Chaan K’awil I, whose tomb was discovered inside.
Directly across is Temple II known as the Temple of the Masks for the two grotesque masks that flank the stairs. These temples are positioned for astrological importance. Wooden stairs allow us to climb to the top of Temple II for a spectacular vista of ruins and jungle.
We then walk across to the North Acropolis with its twelve temples. Peering into an old cistern, the face of the rain god Chaac peers back. In the usual Mayan style new buildings are built over old, and these twelve temples are the remains of about a hundred other structures. The population of Tikal at its zenith may have been 90,000, although estimates vary.
Ironically, we get lost looking for Mundo Perdido or Lost World. After backtracking a few times, we realize a loose sign at a crossroads was sending us in the wrong direction, but eventually we arrive at the Great Pyramid. Its towering 32m form, built as early as 500BC, dominates Mundo Perdido. To the east is the Plaza of the Seven Temples fronted by large trees and benches on a grassy area – perfect to sit and inhale the atmosphere feeling the accuracy of early explorer Sylvanus Morley’s take on Tikal – “Place where the Gods Speak”.
In our route, Temple V is the next heart-stopper, at 58m. Its roof comb has six large masks, now badly eroded. Onward to Temple III – its height of 60m is still mostly covered in jungle vegetation. Around the base are a dozen strutting Occellated Turkeys. Tikal is a sanctuary for wildlife for hundreds of species of birds and animals, including the elusive jaguar and puma.
Temple IV is the highest at 64m. And yeah!….we can climb it, not by the ancient stone steps, but by the wooden stairs at the side. Two hundred and nine stairs later, the last 13 being of rugged stone where Mayans once tread, we sit on a platform at the base of the huge temple that rises above our heads. It is surreal to be at the top of Tikal! The breeze does nothing to quell the scorching sun. An ocean of jungle flows far below us. The only sound to reach us is howler monkeys – and even this in eerily muted. This very same captivating view was used by George Lucas to film the planet Yavin 4 in his movie “Star Wars.”
The day wans, and with our energy bars long consumed, so are we. While Rick sits under a shade tree, I make one last stop at the Tikal Museum. I stare down through glass into a dusky-lit hollow. When the museum attendant tells me, “these are the bones of Hasaw Chaan K’awil encased in a replicated burial tomb” – I find it difficult to pull myself away.
Although we have not seen it all, we leave satisfied and with an acute understanding of the saying “Tikal is certain to exhaust you before you exhaust it.”
We have another day to relax at La Casa de Don David. Lounging on the deck overlooking the lake, about 100m from the hotel restaurant we summon the Tucan Express. Okay, this needs some explaining….on the deck is an intercom to order a drink or snack from the restaurant. A server at the restaurant places your order in the Tucan Express wagon, which is strung by cable to the deck and is powered by the server cranking a rigged-up bicycle wheel; a small battery pack adds flashing lights to the drama. After you retrieve your beverage or snack from the wagon, the server cranks it back – ready for the next order.
That evening flames rise from four pits edging the hotel’s Mayan garden. We are privileged to gather with others at the west pit for a Mayan Fire Ceremony. Tata (male elder) Pedro Cruz drums and chants with Nana (female elder) Shuni Giron translating his message into English. He welcomes us on behalf of the Mayan forefathers – possessors of great knowledge in the philosophical, astrological, and mathematical realms. He tells us the significance of the number 13. It relates to the number of lunacies or moon phases in the Mayan year cycle, and that there are 13 days from the new moon to the full moon, and for the 13 major joints in our human bodies, and 13 levels to the Upper World. Alongside, spiritual tour guide Danilo Rodriguez, holds the ceremonial items of small candles and bits of copal (sacred incense) for us to throw onto the fire after Tata states each intention, such as giving thanks to the Creator for all we have received thus far in our lives, and humble requests for our future goals and wishes. A stirring summation to our Tikal visit!
We fly back to Guatemala City, where within days we wing back home to Canada. It is with melancholy that we leave not only this wonderful country, but it is also our journey’s end of six South and Central America countries. We’ve been exhilarated by the large cities, dazzled by natural beauty in the wilds, been inspired by courageous citizens, and overwhelmed by hospitality….and leave knowing a lot more Spanish.