It must be a tyrannosaur-rex, I think, while I turn on my side in another useless attempt to fall back sleep as the sun is almost rising. The roar from the Guatemalan jungle is so loud that I fear the size of the animal making this much noise, especially while spending the night in a small tent…
Awake as we are, we silently head out into the darkness to follow the impressive howls. It gets lighter slowly and the roars get louder as we reach the foot of temple IV in the ancient Maya city of Tikal. Climbing up the temple to observe the sunrise over the endless Guatemalan jungle, treetops are moving quite violently. Looking closer, we spot the source of these pre-historic howls: they are obviously not from dinosaurs, but surprisingly from rather small monkeys, the howler monkey, an endangered species living in the forests of Central America.
Sitting on top of that temple, Tikal’s highest structure with its 65 meters, we are taking in the jungle which is waking up. Howler and spider monkeys swing playfully from tree to tree, toucans fly around, green parrots make an awful lot of noise, the red breasted falcon tries to spot breakfast with the first sunrays peeping over the endless shades of green and the morning mist is slowly rising uncovering steep pyramids which have been thoroughly excavated and tower above the dense jungle.
This places breaths magic and I don’t know what strikes me the most: the animal sounds and stunning views over the jungle waking up, or the imposing ruins themselves of which the most striking ones were built about 1300 years ago.
We are finding our way around this widespread Maya city of more than 4000 structures, discovered in 1848. We have the ruins to ourselves and take our time to explore the Gran Plaza, the heart of the city, surrounded by the North Acropolis, a ceremonial centre doubled as a mausoleum of governing families, the Central Acropolis, supposed to be an administrative or residential centre, and the facing temples I (templo del Gran Jaguar) and II (templo de las Mascaras).
The scale of the city is impressive: it takes us easily 15 minutes to walk from complexes of buildings to plazas and temples along the ancient causeways. Contrary to Chichén Itza, Uxmal or Tulum, which were built close to cenotes to ensure enough drinking water, Tikal that hosted close to an estimated 90,000 inhabitants doesn’t have access to spring water. The limestone quarries used to build the temples were patched up and engineered to be turned into reservoirs for rainwater.
Tikal leaves us with a magical impression, thanks to its rich wildlife and its imposing ruins. Reflecting on our recent discoveries, we cannot help but compare it to El Mirador. From an architectural standpoint, realizing that the most characteristics buildings of Tikal are about 1000 years more recent than the ones of El Mirador confers even more mystery to the hardly-excavated-lost city. However, Tikal had been inhabited continuously for more than 1500 years until it was abandoned by the end of the 10th century, making it one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. With an apogee that lasted from 200 to 900, its influence on the Maya world can hardly been rivalled.
Claire & Marcella
- Arriving after 3:30p.m. in Tikal, you can buy your entrance ticket for the next day. This ticket is also valid for that same evening: this way you can view the sunset and spend the whole next day visiting the ruins.
- While both sunset and sunrise tours are offered, take into consideration that this part of Guatemala is in the middle of the humid subtropical forest. Most of the time, early mornings are cloudy and misty, making the sunset tour a safer bet to enjoy a nice light on the ruins.
Note: El Mirador’s apogee was from -300 to 150, while Tikal’s was from 200 to 900. From our standpoint, visiting both cities is a must!
In preperation of your trip to one of the stunning Maya sites you might want to read this practical and interesting guide written by Christian Schoen. Click on the link for more information about the guide.