Misadventures in the Mayan city of Tikal

The ancient Mayan city of Tikal conjures up otherworldly images of mystical pyramids rising above the dense, steamy jungles of Guatemala.  I was drawn to the area in order to explore the ruins of of one of the most powerful Pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas and I left with some of my most surreal travel experiences to date. Our journey started in the border town of San Ignacio, Belize; popular for its proximity to a multitude of Mayan sites. Joining our guide Max we crossed the border on foot, a first for me and I do admit to being slightly nervous walking by the guards with AK-47s.Once we safely passed Max ushered us to the dusty jeep he had arranged for the 2 hour journey. After a brief stop at a roadside stand for homemade tamales (the best in Guatemala we were assured and yes, they were indeed tasty), we arrived at the gates of Tikal National Park.  It was here that Max informed us that he would not be able to personally guide us as he picked up one of the many locals standing at the gates offering guide services. Raul introduced himself, flashing a partially toothless grin and began telling us about his 10 children from his 3 ex-wives. Raul accompanied us on the “sunset” tour which lasted from about 3:00 – 5:30 pm as all visitors needed to be out of the park by dusk. He was a jovial fellow but being a tour guide just wasn’t his calling. In between telling us stories of his childhood antics he would make a reference to King Chocolate, look at us quizzically asking “Riiigght???”, expecting an answer. Steve and I would glance at each other not quite knowing what to say before assuring Raul that he was indeed right. (Note: King Chocolate did indeed exist, his name was Au Cacao and he ruled Tikal around 700 A.D.He also favored a drink featuring his namesake pod, honey and vanilla presumably sparking the our worldwide obsession with chocolate). Raul did show us around the major sites at Tikal ( an UNESCO World Heritage Site) which were impressive. Our first stop the Great Plaza which is home to Temple I, Temple II and both the Northern and Central Acropolises; this plaza was the center of public life and was home to ritualistic ceremonies, theatrical performances and sporting events. Raul let us  explore  on our own and being that most of the day trippers had left we largely had the plaza to ourselves. While Temples I and II are not considered safe to climb you are allowed to scale the Northern Acropolis which affords some fantastic photo opportunities.

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