CA 7: Tikal, Guatemala

So, you’ve all seen this place.

Maybe I shouldn’t say all.  But most.  Anybody who has seen the first Star Wars movie (the real first one, not Phantom Menace) probably remembers the Rebel Alliance’s jungle base.  Big, giant stone temple appearing above the treeline.

That’s Tikal.

That isn’t at all the reason I decided to come here, but it makes for an interesting fact. 

If that was all Tikal was about, I probably wouldn’t be here.  But it’s also one of the most important, monumental Mayan sites to have existed, the most impressive in Guatemala and, some would argue, the entire Mayan world.  With only Chitzen Itza and Palenque (two other potential title holders) on my “must see” list, I can undoubtedly give Tikal the crown as of now. 

This place is humbling to say the least.

We jumped on a shuttle this morning at about 8 am.  It takes an hour to get here from Flores and the ride is pretty much lake, then jungle.  DEEP jungle, once you really get in to it.  The “animal crossing” signs consisted of jaguars, snakes and the Guatemalan equivalent of a wild turkey.  I was looking for a monkey or tapir sign, but no dice.

After figuring out the ticket situation, we dropped our things off at the Jaguar Inn and started the trek.

Now, a couple things to keep in mind.  First off, we’re kind of doing this all again tomorrow morning.  The best way to see Tikal is at sunrise, so we’re booked on a tour at 4am.  A bit crazy, yes, but once you see the pictures, you’ll understand.

Second, Tikal is big.  Lonely Planet says that, visiting all the sites, you’re going to end up walking about 10 kilometres.  With the way the weather has been over the past few days (rain, rain, rain), leaving “better views” to chance tomorrow, when we’re being led by a tour guide, wasn’t something I wanted to chance.

So we took in the site.

All of it.

We kind of took things in order, first visiting Temple 1, also known as the Jaguar Temple, which is Tikal’s iconic monument.  It centres itself along the main plaza, surrounded by Temple II and a pair of acropoli, all coming out of the jungle like it has just been found.  And when you get to Temple III, which is still mostly overgrown by plants, you realize it kind of has.  They rediscovered this place in the mid 19th century but it wasn’t until the 1950s that serious work began. 

We walked past Temple III, checked out a few other smaller sites along the way including the “Bat Palace” (not Batman related) before making it to Temple IV, aka the “Climb 250 metres off the ground and above the treeline and see the tops of the temples and trees” temple. 

Not many places in the world where I’m content to just sit and relax and take in a view.  I guess it takes a lot to impress.  This, however, did it.  Really, you only see the tops of about four temples.  But you see them amongst all of this greenery.  Like, a solid mat of treetops with stone slabs sticking out of it.  Words don’t really do it justice, and I’m not sure pictures do, either.  You have to see it for yourself.

After taking our time on top of IV, we meandered through a few other sites before happening upon the massive Temple V.  We passed through the “Lost World”, a series of lesser known temples, and the Seven Temples, which are under restoration.  It was at that point that we got our best views of the nature around the park.

See, Tikal isn’t just a Mayan ruin.  It’s also the largest protected area in all of Guatemala.  So there are tonnes of different flora and fauna around the park. 

The first crazy thing we saw was an animal called a coati, which looks kind of like a raccoon with a lemur’s tail.  We had seen a few of these things around our hotel, but as we came back into the Grand Plaza, we were about six feet from one of these things digging in the ground.  Wanting to get a good picture, I decided I would wait until it stopped digging and take a shot.

Well, what it dug out of the ground was a MASSIVE tarantula.  I’m talking fist sized.  The bug tried to run away, so the coati grabbed it, smashed it against the ground repeatedly, and then began to tear its legs off one at a time while eating them.

This thing didn’t fuck around!

True story – the coati’s badassedness doesn’t want to be seen on the internet!  I’ve tried to upload the pic three times here and… nothing.  The coati is not to be trifled with.

We also came across a bunch of monkeys beside the trail.  There were two types of monkey at the site and, fortunately, we didn’t come across the howler monkeys, which the boards at the front said were “large and slow” and “will defecate on the heads of passersby to assert their dominance.”

Again, the animals don’t fuck around.

One thing I need to note here.  When we returned to Temple I and the Grand Plaza, it was about 3pm.  And it was empty.  Like, dead empty, nobody except Daina and me and a groundskeeper, 100% empty.  Not that it was super busy to begin with, but I was not expecting this, especially since they fly people in from Guatemala City and Belize to see these ruins.  To have them to ourselves was really priceless.

It also made it a bit scary as we saw the “Do They Poop On Your Head?” monkeys on the way to Temple VI, the Temple of the Inscriptions, which was neat but a bit anticlimactic once you’ve seen the carvings at Copan.  Then we made our way back to the Jaguar for some well deserved refreshments and food.

We hadn’t eaten since 7:30 in the morning.

It was 4:30 when we got back.

Tikal will do that to you!

So 4 am tomorrow, we’re doing this whole thing again, seeing the whole thing with a guide and the added lens of a sunrise.  I definitely don’t mind repeating myself on this one, though. 

This place deserves a second look.

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