Ruins in the Jungle

We saw a lot of Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula and Belize, but Tikal—the premier Mayan site in Guatemala, which we visited last month—beats them all. It’s big (10 square miles) with structures spanning a period from 500 B.C. to the mid-700s A.D.

Best of all, Tikal sits in the middle of a vast national park, so much of the site is covered in dense jungle. The paths that wind through the forest would make beautiful hikes in themselves, as you stop to admire the curving buttress roots of a tall tree or a line of ants carrying pieces of leaf 10 times their size, or when you hear the crashing of branches overhead and look up to see a family of lithe spider monkeys or solid black howler monkeys moving through the canopy.

That in itself would be enough for a good outing. But then the path turns and suddenly reveals the top of a 150-foot stone temple poking up through the forest, sitting on a raised earthen platform to look even taller and more imposing.

Tikal’s big 6th- and 7th-century temples—five have been excavated so far—are different from Mayan temples farther north. Rather than symmetrical pyramids, they are nearly straight on the back and sloping on the front. The small rectangular structure at the apex of each temple is topped by a huge stone slab (now eroded) that was once elaborately carved with masks, figures, and hieroglyphic writing. These “roof combs” made the temples (where only high priests or royalty could go) look even more impressive and closer to the god-filled heavens.

A few of the temples have steep wooden staircases built next to them that give access to the flat area on top. We climbed three of them. The trip up is strenuous, but the view is worth it: tens (hundreds?) of miles of undulating green, with here and there the tops of gray temples sticking up through the trees like a mountain peak through clouds. The view from Temple IV was used for a scene in the original Star Wars movie as the location of the rebels’ hidden base.

Sites like Chichen Itza in the Yucatan are mostly cleared of vegetation, which is closer to how they would have looked in the ancient Mayas’ day. But that means they also feel more crowded by the swarms of tourists who visit each day. The jungle of Tikal swallows the crowds here and makes you feel like you have the place to yourself. Chichen Itza might give you a better idea of how a Mayan city looked to its inhabitants, but Tikal lets you imagine how such a city looked to the explorers who rediscovered it in the 19th century. It’s one with the jungle that swallows it, and now it’s being reclaimed little by little.

Only a small fraction of the site has been excavated so far. Everywhere you turn, there are tree-covered mounds that you know are some ancient structure. Men on scaffolding were working on one of the temples in the earliest part of the site when we visited. We got a very clear illustration of the difference between the excavated and unexcavated sides of the building. Clearing trees and bushes, with their deep-sunk roots, and shoring up and restoring old stones is amazingly hard, painstaking work in hot, humid jungle conditions.

What’s hard on the workmen and the tourists is apparently great for the birds. Several hundred species flourish in Tikal National Park. We saw only a tiny fraction of them, but some strange and wonderful birds nonetheless. Flocks of blue-headed ocellated turkeys (think a domestic turkey crossed with a peacock) wander around the ruins. There are also dodo-looking crested guans, brightly colored toucans and aracaris, hummingbirds, and Chris’s favorite, the turqoise motmot. One of these jewel-toned little guys sat and posed on a branch outside our hotel room for something like 20 minutes, much to our delight.

We were also amused by the small crocodile that would lie almost submerged in a pond near the visitor’s center, right next to a sign saying “Do not feed the crocodile.” Obviously, it was hoping tourists would ignore the sign.

Tikal is a long ride from anywhere, so we opted to spend a few nights at one of the three hotels that the park allows just outside the entrance to the ruins. The cheapest of the hotels (the Jaguar Inn) was a bit over our budget, but the splurge was worth it to be able to explore the site at our leisure before and after the tour buses arrived.

If you stay at Tikal, don’t make our mistake. We forgot to take out enough cash before we went, not realizing that there is no ATM anywhere near Tikal. After paying our entrance fee, we had enough money left over for a few postcards and a candy bar. So for three days we had to eat all of our meals at our hotel’s mediocre restaurant because it was the only place we could use a credit card.

Our last stop at Tikal was the wonderful little ceramics museum across the road from the visitor’s center. It was quiet; we don’t think too many tourists bother to go in. But the painted vases, carved figures, pots, and jade pieces unearthed at Tikal tell another side of the fascinating story of this place.

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