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.
Satisfied with our time at the Great Plaza Raul led us through the jungle path pointing out wildlife as we passed Temple III(coatis, howler monkeys, turkeys and variety of birds are common.A lucky few may catch a glimpse of an ocelot or the rare jaguar). We made our way to Temple IV and began climbing the wooden stairway built alongside the Temple. Close to the top we stopped at a landing to glimpse the view made famous George Lucas, the view of Temples I, II and III rising above the jungle was featured as the planet Yavin 4 in Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope. We made a brief stop at the top of Temple IV and hurried back down to our hotel as the park was soon closing for the evening.
We parted ways with Raul and met our original guide Max at the Tikal Inn, one of two hotels located within the park. Max arranged for dinner, showed us to our room and left us with some pastries and snacks for the next morning. Climbing ancient ruins in the Guatemalan jungle can be a sweaty ordeal and a shower was in tall order. While I was preparing to shower Steve noticed I had a gift from my day at Tikal- a nice dose of some weird jungle rash (Luckily it didn’t itch and it was gone by the time I woke the next morning). The rooms at Tikal Inn are basic and electricity is turned off after 10 pm. No electricity=no fan, which coupled with the fact that the room had only one window and no cross breeze made for quite an uncomfortable night of sleep.
Morning came very early with a frantic knock at the door at 4 am telling us to hurry or we would be late. We were caught a little off guard as we were told the night before to be ready to go at 4:30 in order to watch the sunrise from the top of Temple IV. The knocker never told us his name but we grabbed our flashlights and followed this stranger through the jungle(which in hindsight kind of sounds like a bad idea). This guy was going at break neck pace and I had some trouble trying to keep up without tripping over any errant tree branches or stopping to wonder what the glowing pairs of eyes staring at me through the dark jungle night belonged to. We reached the top of Temple IV to discover that we were the first ones there. Well, almost the first ones. A lone Japanese girl, without shoes, was curled up sleeping at the top of Temple IV. She apparently hid in the park and spent the night on top of an Mayan Temple. From time to time I often wonder about her story. Where did she come from? Why was she sleeping on top of a Mayan Temple in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle? And lastly, where were her shoes? These contemplations would have to wait as we took a seat waiting for the sun rise. We were joined by an Australian family who had met up with their backpacking son on his gap year and a wealthy South African man. Chatting with our new friends, we munched on the cinnamon rolls provided to us by Max the night before(thinking just how surreal it was to be eating cinnamon rolls on top of a Mayan temple), and watched the jungle wake up as the day began.
We left Tikal with awe of the mighty structures left behind by an ancient civilization as well as the surreal memories that had us wondering “Did that really happen?”. What are some of your strangest travel stories?