Tikal is the world’s largest known Mayan city, and one of the world’s most impressive examples of Mayan architecture.
It’s barely 6:30am, and I’m sitting, almost alone but for Geoff, a solo Japanese tourist, and a machete-wielding park employee, in the middle of a dense, Central American jungle. Despite it being barely past dawn, it’s hot; my hair is starting to stick to my face and neck, and I’m sweating in areas I’d forgotten even had the capacity to sweat. We’re on top of a monument to an ancient and mostly forgotten civilization: the west acropolis of Tikal’s magnificent Grand Plaza, and the creatures are beginning to awaken.
The jungle erupts in discordant, angry cries. Far from being symphonic, this is a cacophony in its truest sense: screeches and howls that resemble a cross between gigantic reptiles (dragons, perhaps?) and angry jungle cats being teased by a suicidal zoo keeper…or searching for a tasty breakfast. Uninitiated in the ways of this jungle, these cries scare the shit out of us. We look toward the pyramid to our left, and notice the Japanese tourist has a tranquil look on his face. Beyond our feet, the park employee is equally nonplused, relaxing under a tree on the grassy plaza below us. We relax a little, listening to this strange concert, before realizing we are listening to sounds for which Tikal is rather famous: nature’s loudest creature, Howler Monkeys (click on this video for a soundbite of what a Howler Money convention sounds like).
To get here, and to experience Tikal at its best, we had to roll out of bed earlier than we would have liked. Tikal’s varied and exotic jungle creatures — monkeys, toucans, foxes, jungle turkeys (yes! Jungle turkeys!), and the anteater-like coatis — are most active near dawn, and sensibly settle into a sloth-like hibernation as the jungle heats up, the combination of heat and humidity becoming nearly intolerable shortly after 10am. By 5:30am, we found ourselves on the shoulder of the highway, just outside our hotel in the village of El Remate, about halfway between Flores and Tikal, watching minibuses packed full of tourists and workers speed past us on their way to what would be a once-in-a-lifetime visit or just another day at work, depending on their perspective. Our bus arrived only half-full, and we piled in for the 30-minute drive to the park entrance.
The bus took us passed the main gates to Tikal Park, stopping to purchase tickets, and delivered us at the Tikal Jungle Lodge, which was ready with over-priced coffee and sandwiches. The 10-minute or so drive from the gates to the entrance to the walking paths is dotted by signs warning vehicles to yield to Tikal’s resident animal population: jaguars, snakes, and wild turkeys decorate the signs along the side of the road. Having decided not to take a tour, we had a quick cup of coffee, and set off from the group.
Tikal is located in a nationally-protected archaeological zone, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also the largest excavated site in the Americas, and the world’s largest Mayan city. Needless to say, it requires some walking. From the ticket gate, we walked for about 15 or 20 minutes, alone and nervous in the jungle — I’d be lying if I said my mind didn’t wander to images of ancient Mayan jaguar kings — until we found ourselves at the back door of the world’s most magnificent example of Mayan architecture.
Tikal’s Grand Plaza is one of the most awe-inspiring sights within this ancient Mayan city, itself the world’s most impressive example of Mayan architecture, and — as the Guatemalan tourist board is fond of saying — the heart of the Mayan world. It is laid out around a square covered in distinctively tropical grass that is wider, thicker, and far more hardy than the grass found in temperate climates, and framed by a pair of twinned 2000-year-old pyramids on the north and south sides. Two sprawling acropolises sit to the east and west, and rise gradually from the grassy floor by way of cascading platforms, stairs, and pyramid-shaped tops. At dawn, the sound on the Grand Plaza’s lawn is a deafening and constant buzz, the song of hundreds of bees going about their pollination duties. I stand for minutes, silent among the buzzing, contemplating both the sight of this ancient city and the buzzing sound, which I suspect would drive me crazy in mere days should I get lost out here, before realizing my ankles are surrounded by an enormous swarm of bees. I swiftly but carefully cross the lawn to climb above the Plaza floor and am rewarded with a breathtaking view of the most magnificent of Mayan architectural sites.
Put simply, our visit to Tikal was extraordinary – a highlight of our trip to Guatemala, and one of the top sights I’ve seen in the last 32 years and 45 countries of travel. It’s hard to imagine we almost didn’t come to Tikal.
I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little nervous about coming to Guatemala, and this region in particular. Guatemala is a beautiful place: the country is covered in lush, undulating greenery and the perfectly shaped cones of volcanos dot the landscape so frequently, it’s almost boastful. However, it is also fraught with many complex socioeconomic problems. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime puts Guatemala’s intentional murder rate at 8th worst in the world, with 38.5 murders per 100,000. That’s compared to two murders per 100,000 in Iraq, 1.6 in Canada, and 0.3 in Iceland (and I’m sure most of those were elvish crimes…oh, snap!). That’s not to say it’s safer to visit Iraq than Guatemala – it’s not – but rather that tourism to Guatemala, for all it’s attractions and well established gringo trail, seems to be more complex than the stoned hippies in Panahachel would suggest.
Before arriving, we read countless reports of tourists being robbed, many as recently as 2011, by gun- and machete-wielding masked men who ambush the tourist vehicles traveling the well-trodden road between Flores and Tikal. While this security concern seems to have improved over the past several years, some questions remain regarding the involvement of certain tour companies in these ambushes.
Petén — the political department in which Flores and Tikal are located — is isolated; this isolation has, in the not-so-distant-past, proven to be too much of a temptation for those wishing to unburden tourists of their wallets and electronics. And yet this is also the allure of visiting this ancient city: walking through an isolated jungle; alone with just pyramids and toucans to keep you company…
Fortunately, these issues seem to be in the past for now, and we were able to spend several hours wandering solo along the paths, climbing up Tikal’s glorious ruins, without ever feeling in danger (except, of course, for the tarantula).
If your driver pays for the entrance fee, but you are’t going on a tour, make sure to get your ticket – you’ll need it to get past the entrance checkpoint before hitting the pathways
Wear good shoes – you’ll be walking through the jungle and climbing up and down steep stone structures, which can get slippery if wet (that’s what she said!). This isn’t the place for flip flops!
Bring a good guidebook. Rough Guides was kind enough to provide us with a copy of their Rough Guide to Guatemala before we left, and it was an excellent resource both in the Tikal park and throughout the rest of the country.
Bring cash! Credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere at Tikal, including for the Q150 entrance fee, so you’ll need to bring enough Quetzales for the day. Outside of Flores, you’re pretty much screwed if you don’t have cash elsewhere in Petén.
If you’re allergic to bee stings, you might want to hold off visiting until mid-morning. At dawn, bees covered the lawn of the Grand Plaza, but they were all gone by 10am or so.
There are concessions within the Tikal park, but they don’t open until 9am, and are cash only. Also, don’t get too excited, as they only offer the simplest and crappiest of fare: chips a’hoy, chips (that’s crisps for you English types), and soda pop are the name of the game.