Sunday, March 30, 2008



The Tikal ruins are the most famous Mayan ruins in Guatemala. The area of Tikal was originally settled in 200 BC and grew in power and control until its unexplained demise beginning in 900 AD. Most of the great temples that surround the main plaza (and are the ones most often photographed for publication) were built around 700 AD.

The center of Tikal is over 16 square kilometers, contains over 4000 structures and, at its peak, once housed a population roughly estimated at 100,000. The park itself is about 550 square kilometers in size and upon walking around it is easy to understand how a tourist once got lost inside the park for 12 days.

The official “discovery” of Tikal by the Guatemalan government occurred in 1848. Excavations began in 1881 and continue to this day, as Tikal is located in a jungle, new growth is rapid and hard to contain. Most of the structures in the park are still concealed simply appearing like small hills to the untrained eye. Even most of the larger structures are not completely uncovered, with only their tops cleared of the foliage. Throughout the park you can see excavations in process, small temples that still have the roots of enormous trees bearing down on top of them.

Marissa, Laura and I chose to do the sunrise tour as it is when the wildlife is most active. Needless to say we found ourselves stumbling through the jungle of Petén somewhere around 4:30 in the morning with one headlamp desperately trying to make it to temple IV (the tallest in Tikal at 64 m) for the sunrise. Sweating in the heat (before the sun was even up) we booked it across the park, only pausing once to catch a glimpse of one of the temples that suddenly appeared right in front of us with the commencing light. Roars erupted through the jungle, a sign that the howler monkeys had awakened for their morning romp.

Out of breath after running to the top of temple IV, (Most of the temples, including all of the large ones, have wooden steps constructed up to their peaks, as too many people have fallen to their deaths attempting to climb the slippery stones) we arrived just in time to watch the first temples appear miraculously out of the mist and above the canopy.

Kodak moment x 400

It was truly the most amazing experience watching the temples appear out of nowhere, while the jungle clamor of howler monkeys, spider monkeys, tree frogs and the cacophony of bird calls erupted in full force. Our English speaking guide (not matagringas) was kind enough to point out the toucans to our right, and consequently every toucan during our 5 hour tour, by proudly exclaiming “Look! Toucans! Fruit Loops!” (Fruit Loops got a little old 30 minutes in, but the toucans continued to be fascinating). If the tour had ended there I would have been content.

Our luck didn’t end with the toucans; we left the beaten path and made off through the jungle, caught both the howler monkeys and spider monkeys in action (due in part to the uncanny ability of our guide to imitate their shrieks), and climbed to the top of all the largest temples braving steep shallow stone steps, rickety wooden ladders and nearly perpendicular ascents.

I’m sure the sunrise tour of Tikal will be one of my most vivid memories of Guatemala.

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