Travel/Photos: The Ruined Mayan city of Tikal, Guatemala. This is Why it Blew Me Away.

Ever since I was a 9-year-old boy watching the Star Wars remastered movies in the cinema with my Dad, I have had Tikal in my head – I just didn’t realise it! That scene at the end of ‘A New Hope’ when the X-wings take off from the jungle, fly past exotic looking stone towers, and then head off on their mission to destroy the Death Star – that was filmed at this mysterious ancient city, hidden by the dense rainforest.

Getting up early, and being at the National Park’s entrance as the gate opened meant we had effectively the whole place to ourselves! 16-square kilometres of towering trees, thick vegetation, unusual wildlife, vast causeways through the jungle, and gigantic stone structures waiting to be discovered.

A far cry from shuffling tour groups waddling after a flag-waving guide, free from an excess of hassling vendors trying to sell shiny trinkets and ‘lousy t-shirts’, and not a single iPad held aloft above the heads of hundreds of other tourists in order to take a photo that will never be looked at again. Tikal was clearly going to be a very different experience to the tourist attractions I had visited in my past!

As we walked down the pathway cut into the profuse vegetation towards the ruined city, we were struck by the enormity of the surrounding trees. Their lower reaches relatively un-encumbered by limbs as they soared towards the sky finally breaking into an eruption of thick branches and a ceiling of leaves high above the jungle floor. The further we got, the more the trees competed with each other for light, and their individual tops gradually converged into a impenetrable barrier of foliage. The Ceiba trees in particular looked striking with their light-coloured bark and above-ground root buttresses.

A little background: Tikal is situated in Northern Guatemala. It was built by the Mayans in the 4th Century BCE, but reached the height of its power more recently, around 200 – 900 CE. For over a thousand years, it was a leading city of art, architecture, and culture within the Mayan world. However, through a variety of factors believed to include war, deforestation, and contamination of reservoirs by pollutants, it fell into silence after 900 BCE. Little mention was made in the journals of Spanish Conquistadors during their travels through the region. More recently during the 1800s, there are accounts of local people leading explorers and archaeologists to the site; back then, it was several days trek through primary jungle by pack mule to reach this remote place.

Our mission was to make a beeline for Temple IV, the farthest structure from the main gate, and we would work our way out again backwards. The reason for this is that we knew that we wanted to climb to the top of this particular temple, and at 230′ (70 metres) in height, it’s the tallest one in the whole city, so we figured it would be great to have it all to ourselves! I am so glad we did this as my experience here on this ancient stone monument was one I will cherish forever. Temple IV also carries the coolest name – Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent! Badass!

The day was gloomy, and rain had been threatening since we had woken up. If anything though, this only added to the whole ambience of the place, and gave the day a much more ethereal feel. It was mesmerising sitting high above the treetops on a narrow ledge with no guardrail, looking out at the ominous gathering storm clouds, while flocks of swallows flew around us ducking and diving, catching their breakfast amongst the swarms of buzzing insects. I took the opportunity to have my own breakfast too, and Candace laughs to this day how my crunching and cracking on trail mix certainly took something away from the other-worldly atmosphere!

I also took the chance to engage in one of my other favourite activities – scaring the crap out of Candace! I had noticed the edge of the ledge a little way below our perch, and decided to drop down to look over it. Once I got there I could see that instead of a direct drop hundreds of feet down to the forest floor as it appeared from our viewpoint, there was instead another ledge just a few centimetres lower down – but Candace did not know that! So, I made a big show of balancing shakily on the edge before toppling to my apparent death! I thought it was funny, Candace not so much!

As we made our way back down to continue our exploration of the site, we wanted to try and get a photo of a Spider monkey. Taking a photo of a fast-moving monkey swinging through the jungle canopy using a cellphone camera was never going to result in a nomination for National Geographic’s ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ award, but we are happy with the result we did get!

Coatis were everywhere on the ground, large groups of them scuttling around foraging for food and seemingly uncaring of our presence. Sometimes they were in the open like the one in the photo below, but more often than not we could only see them rustling through long grass, their upright tails held aloft the only betrayer of their presence.

What makes Tikal so unique compared to many archeological sites globally is the fact that, in many ways, the site is still being excavated, with new areas being unearthed even today. In fact, many of the structures still looked somewhat overgrown with plant life which only helped to maintain our naïve yet glorious delusions that we were actually intrepid explorers discovering this ‘lost world.’

In fact, the site in some parts is still so much a part of the jungle that from time to time we would believe ourselves to be lost after walking around in circles for ages with nothing but forest around us, not a trace of humanity in sight; modern or ancient. One of us would inevitably be studying the rudimentary map we had downloaded to our phones while the other would suddenly notice a dark shadow hidden behind the overgrowth, full of the tell-tale right-angles and straight-lines that betray human design. Sure enough, we would then discover that we had been right below a temple the whole time, its walls obscured by the concentrated plant life and moist, misty air.

The local authorities have done a great job of preserving the natural environment without the billboards, gift-shops, audio-tours, and other such tacky nonsense so commonly associated with tourist attractions. Where noticeboards do exist, they are discreet and free of bold colours and smiling mascots, and the various information stands and exhibits are tastefully placed within little thatch-roofed huts in certain places of interest. Even within the Central Plaza, historically the centre of the ancient city, and today the main area of interest for visiting tourists, there is none of the hustle and bustle typical of other locations. (Tulum – I am looking at you!)

We really enjoyed the ability to climb the structures around the vast site of Tikal. I do realise however, that for many global sites of significant importance, that allowing throngs of tourists to wreak havoc on them would not be good for their preservation, nor does it respect their spiritual and religion significance either. But, for now however, visitors are allowed to get elevated views from these fantastic buildings at Tikal.

We certainly tried to treat this as a privilege, not a right, and did what we could to not cause damage. It was a real treat to be able to touch, hold, and feel such amazing history in our hands. Even if the stones were wet and cold now that the rain had well and truly set in. We actually took shelter within these stone walls during the worst of the downpours! I can only hope that other visitors to the site try to show respect so future generations can enjoy this wonderful place first hand.

Some advice:

When intending to visit Tikal, rather than staying in the town of Flores where most visitors end up, instead stay in El Remate (map below) on the eastern edge of Lake Petén Itzá. This little village is much closer, and the bus from Flores has to pass through El Remate anyway – so you will get extra time in bed!

Get there early! Although there were plenty of other folks who came during our time in the park, the vast area of Tikal meant everybody could spread out and not get in each others’ way. I have been told that by the afternoon it can get a lot busier!

Head straight for Temple IV once inside, and then work backwards. Because you heading against the general flow of people, you will get much more of the site without too many other people around.

Tikal is only one of the many incredible things that Guatemala has to offer, it is definitely my favourite country in Central America. I would go back again in heartbeat! I still have plenty of posts in the works for my experiences in Guatemala, but in the meantime – read some of my completed ones…

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