It’s early and the taxi driver is looking for the place he needs to drop me off. It’s still dark and we appear to be amongst the hangers at the airport. I wonder if he has the wrong address and we are hopelessly lost. He asks me to wait in the car and goes in through a small door to speak to someone. On his return he declares we are in the right place. I thank him and tip and dubiously enter the same door. There is a small waiting room and a desk where I present my documents for inspection and I’m then told to wait. Over the course of the next half hour a few other tourists arrive and I feel more at ease. It also begins to get light and this reveals that we are indeed at the airport and there are a number of light aircraft on the tarmac outside.
I was heading to Tikal. This had been on my list of must see places in Guatemala since I had arrived 3 months ago. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but this was the first of many light aircraft on my travels through Latin America. Soon we were all boarding and given some bottled water on the plane which seated only about 15 people. I settled back into my seat to catch up on lack of sleep from the early start as we took off from Guatemala City.
Tikal is one of the largest sites of Ancient Mayan architecture and is hidden in the middle of the lowlands of Guatemala, between Belize and Mexico. The site is in the middle of the jungle so from the airport in Flores (a jungle town in the Peten) a shuttle drove us the hour or so through the jungle to Tikal. There are hotels right beside the ruins which makes life a little easier if you want to be a part of sunrise and sunset tours.
The region has a strict policies about the movement of fruit and vegetables and at the airport our bags were thoroughly searched and some visitors had their food confiscated. This is to prevent the spread of parasitic flies into El Petén from other regions of the country.
On arrival we are given refreshment and settled into rooms before a two day tour of the site begins. Our guide points out a small reservoir where a crocodile lives apparently, thankfully absent on this occasion. Then, as we start to walk our of the clearing and through the jungle he tells us that if we look up to see the howler monkeys we should shut our mouths as they sometimes wee on people, we are indeed treated not to a shower but to some small projectiles thrown our way. A dead tarantula on the path is a reminder of the possible dangers of what might be lurking between the trees.
We soon reach the main area of ruins where we’re treated to the first view of the iconic Mayan temples: Templo del Gran Jaguar and Templo de las Mascaras in the Grand Plaza. These appear to be the best preserved and best excavated of all the temples and they are an impressive sight, the tops reaching out over the top of the jungle canopy (around 60m / 200 feet high). For those with a head for heights it’s worth a trip up the wooden scaffold.
We tour round much of the site in the first day. Alot of Tikal still lies buried under vegetation as the funding to excavate isn’t there. It is however a vast and impressive site and it’s possible to get a good feel for how large an area the ancient Mayan civilisation colonised (at its height around 250-900 AD).
Towards nightfall we climb the precarious wooden ladder up to the top of one of the other temples on the site to enjoy the sunset. We watch as the sun dips below the horizon and from this particular vantage point you can see many of the temple tops peeking out from the trees. It’s hard to imagine how the city was built so high and so large without modern machinery, in an area which is wet and muddy. Temples are built out of locally quarried limestone, the impressions this left in the landscape were then used as reservoirs. The city supported somewhere between 10000 and 90000 people.
What happened to the Mayan civilisation and why Tikal is no longer a centre is a matter of speculation. This civilisation was marked by its written language, mathematics and astronomy. Clearly an educated populous so why did it fail? Many think that the numbers simply got too huge. Too many people trying to live off the civilisation and that lack of food meant people turned on each other and order fell apart. Descendants of this civilisation still live on today in the indigenous people of Guatemala, southern Mexico and Belize. They no longer occupy grand temples but they do protect their languages (over 20 in Guatemala alone) and their culture, the women wearing traditional dress all of the time.
The following day we watch the jungle come alive at dawn from the top of another temple. The birds wake up and chatter to each other as they fly through the morning sky, like gossiping old women but still there is an element of peace and serenity about the scene.