Day 14 Tikal; The stone jewel of Guatemala
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We are all a bit bleary eyed at the 6am departure this morning, the party kept everyone awake. Today we head to the ruins of Tikal, and we want to beat as many tourists as we can. We’ll be stopping for breakfast on the way. Later today we will cross the border into Belize where we will be spending the next four nights.
Breakfast was one of the better ones I’ve had in Guatemala. Eggs are a staple and these are served similarly to how I make mine. The toilets are concealed behind a hanging curtain, and we giggle over the lack of privacy awarded to bathrooms in this country.
We’ve arrived at the Mayan ruins of Tikal before 8am where we are greeted by our guide, Juan. Guatemalans are already manning their stalls in readiness for the days influx of visitors, but other than a few scattered people we are the only ones. Tikal is a significant tourist destination and it won’t stay that way for long.
In front of the entrance a large, white, to-scale model shows the expanse of the site. The residential part of the city itself covers an estimated 65 km², of which a large proportion has not been excavated or mapped. The land of the city extended to an area of 120 km². The core 16 km² of the city has been extensively mapped and excavated. Tikal was discovered in 1848 and was one of the largest Mayan cities. It was opened to the public in 1955 and declared a UNESCO site in 1979. The meaning of Tikal is ‘in the lagoon’ but it is known as ‘the place of the spirit voices’. Juan spends some time pointing out the key locations on the model we’ll be going today and explaining the construction of the water supply to the city.
The map/guide I have purchased lists the local birdlife found in Tikal; Toucans, Vultures (though they seem to be everywhere else too) Woodpeckers, Parrots, Golden Oriole, Great Curassow, Occellated Turkey, Chachalaca and the North Jacana. There are also Howler and Spider Monkeys, Wild pigs, Coatis and Jaguars. I’m sure it’s unlikely that we’ll be running into a Jaguar (we can hope) but it would be cool to see some monkeys! The map doesn’t detail the distance we’ll be traveling on foot through the jungle today, but it does seem to give the time between each of the key locations in the city. Regardless, it’s a lot of walking. And Juan never stops talking the entire time. The man is a bottomless font of information. On our way to the first stop he is telling us about the evidence that supports the fact that the Mayans cultivated crops here in Tikal.
Our first stop is a complex of four pyramids known simply as ‘Q’, the biggest complex of twin pyramids in Tikal. On the map this is shown as four pyramids but all we can see is the East one, in good condition, with a row of nine stone altars lined up at it’s base. We are allowed to climb the stone stairs, which most of us do, admiring the view of the jungle canopy from the top. As with Teotihuacan in Mexico it is a careful climb down. Juan explains that the city is built on platforms elevated from ground level, and points out the edge of the one we are standing on, camouflaged by the jungle foliage. He also explains that each pyramid has a twin built on the same platform. The twin for this one belongs to the jungle still. After one of the pyramids collapsed during excavation they have become cautious of further excavations, and only one of the four in this complex is visible to us.
There is rustling in the trees above the clearing and we are all excited to see Spider Monkey’s hanging and swinging from branches. Hayley manages to get a great shot of one mid-air leaping between trees, but my attempts prove fruitless as I keep missing the all important moment by a fraction of a second. I do have my camera with me though, and with the 30x zoom I’m hopeful of some amazing close-ups.
This spot also houses a large stone tablet, fenced in and protected by a thatched roof. More Spider Monkey’s leap in the trees behind it as Juan explains that each of the tablets found in the site tell a story, this one is about a king and a ceremonial sacrifice.
We continue through the jungle to Temple IV, or the Two-headed Snake Temple, famous for it’s use in seven seconds of footage from the original Star Wars film. It is still recognizable as the same scene, another temple poking its top out from the jungle ceiling. The top is reached by a mammoth set of wooden stairs built beside the temple, it’s tough but I’ll take them over the stone steps of the pyramids any day. At seventy metres tall the temple is the tallest in Tikal and in all Mesoamerica. It is mind boggling to think of the ingenuity required to build a stone structure this high in 740 AD. The view from the top is worth the climb and most of us sit for a while to take it in. A Coati makes itself known, sniffing around the base of the stone steps of the top level, likely looking for food dropped by careless visitors. Back at the bottom Juan tells me this would likely be a male, as the Coati society is matriarchal and the females kick the males out of their groups.
We move along the path to a part of the city named the Plaza of the Great Pyramid, but referred to as ‘The Lost World.’ Juan tells us this is after the Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle novel. There are two main structures here, the Sloping Panel temple has clear architectural influence from Teotihuacan, supporting evidence of trade relations between the two cities, and the Great Pyramid, the oldest building in Tikal. It is another exceptional view at the top of the Great Pyramid, from which the tops of the other large temples in the city can be seen. All the temples are constructed on an axis to line up together and are placed according to the position of the sun at the Equinox. They were the resting place of kings.
We walk past Temple III, buried in foliage, towards the Great Plaza, considered the most important part of the site and the most impressive
demonstration of the architecture. The buildings were built over a period more than a thousand years. The plaza is the largest clearing we’ve yet seen, bordered by Temples I and II, the North Acropolis and the Central Acropolis. Behind the Central Acropolis lies the South Acropolis, which has not been excavated. Temple V lies behind the Central Acropolis. It is on our way to the Great Plaza that I, having abandoned my attempts to perfect the timing to capture a photo of a Spider Monkey leaping between the trees, instead change my strategy to video and am rewarded with a fabulous recording of a monkey scurrying down a tree then launching into another one with its arms spread wide.
Juan sends us off to explore, telling us with a sly wink that most tourists don’t know that at the top of the North Acropolis is a window with a view looking straight to Temple IV and we’ll get the best photo from the site. A number of us make a beeline for the Acropolis, searching every window of each of the buildings. I find a series of windows facing the right direction but placed well above my head and call Shane, towering over us at 6’4”, to look. They aren’t the right ones.
It is Shane that eventually finds it at the top of the rear building on the other side of a sign saying do not go beyond the point. We figure we have permission though. The depth of the window makes it challenging for the phone to focus, but I am able to get a better shot on my camera.
By the time we’ve climbed up and down every part of the North Acropolis I am breathing heavily, and welcome the flat ground of the clearing. There are excavations taking place at the base, but it is hard to see the subject of them beyond the scaffolding. The platform of the North Acropolis holds eight funerary temples built over more than 300 years, and engraved steles describe the history of the governors.
The group has all gone their separate ways now and I wander over the grass to the Central Acropolis, which Juan said was the residential part of the plaza. Within the walls is another large clearing, surrounded by rooms built into the stone structures. Despite the heat of the day it is quite cool within them, the structures are specifically designed to create an air flow that cools them down. I wonder where the bedrooms are as these rooms seem awfully small.
The place is a maze of passages and rooms and I eventually find myself at the top of the structure off to the side of where I entered, looking down at the stone and grass below. Temples I and II tower above the grass. Temple I is known as the Big Jaguar and was built in 700 AD by Governor Jasaw Chan K’awiil, whose tomb lies within. He also built Temple II, the Mascarones Temple, and the carvings contained within resemble his wife.
Looking at my map there is still much of the city to explore and see, but we have a schedule to keep so once the group comes back together Juan leads us on the path out, explaining how they now knew that a combination of decades of poor weather had left the Mayans unable to cultivate the food to support a growing population. There was rebellion, and sacrifices of the leaders, their skeletons identifiable as leaders by the flattened foreheads achieved by binding the head from birth to eighteen months old. Unfortunately for the citizens, with the leaders went their knowledge. Eventually the city was empty, its citizens departing for greener pastures or dying in the arid place Tikal had become, to be reclaimed in time by the Guatemalan jungle. Still no Jaguar sightings but we are lucky enough to see a toucan sitting on a branch above the path.
Purchase your tour from Flores to Tikal.
There is no time for gift purchases when we exit, but we stop for lunch at a hotel on a gorgeous lake and while some of the others swim I browse the store there, ticking another few gifts off the list as well as a three wise monkeys statue for myself. I’ve seen it many times so it is obviously a common design over here.
The border crossing into Belize is smooth. Our bus isn’t coming through with us so we need to carry everything through to reload onto our new bus on the Belizean side. Our destination for the evening is San Ignacio, where I will need to make a decision on the optional activity for tomorrow, the ATM cave. The idea makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I keep hearing about how amazing the experience is and it’s the highlight of everyone’s trip. The alternative is sleeping in and catching the public bus to make the trip of several hours to the water taxi that will take us across the sea to Caye Caulker. I’m still uncertain as we sit listening to the guide explaining the day, but I take a breath and remind myself that it is something I wouldn’t get to do at home and I should suck in the experience. With a lump in my chest I tell them I’m in.
Dinner that night is a short distance from the hotel, and I have the first lobster of the trip. Lobster is my absolute favourite food. It also happens to be my mothers. Growing up whenever it was one of our birthdays the birthday meal of choice would always be lobster. I also always like to eat seafood when I’m on the coast, so when I saw lobster on the menu it was a no brainer. I usually go for a mornay but that’s not an option, here it is served in a garlic butter and it was seriously amazing. The meat is tender and full of flavor and it is like no other I’ve had before. It’s also a generous serve. Some of the others are looking enviously on as I close my eyes and savour the taste with a contented sigh, and understand when I share some with them, vowing to order it themselves the following night.
We have to pay extra to use electricity in our room since it is expensive in Belize. While we are able to be comfortable with the ceiling fan, our sleep is instead disturbed by nearby karaoke. I mumble to Ruth that I bet its some of our group, which as it happened turned out to be the case.