Tripping through Tikal

Alex, Sarah and I knew we couldn’t miss a trip to the infamous Tikal during our stay in Guatemala. Jack and Java were put off by the admission price, ($20 USD) since they had a tight budget to stick to for their 7 months of travel, so they stayed and chilled in the hostel with some friends we had made in Caye Caulker that happened to have traveled to Peten as well.

We booked the sunset tour through our hostel mainly because it included transportation to/from the site. A bumpy van ride later (and a few nibbles on some left over brownies), we enter the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. We watched the peacocks go about their business.

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Tikal is an ancient city built in the jungle by the Mayans. In 700 AD, Tikal was the greatest city in the Mayan world with a population of about 90,000. The Mayans were quite advanced for a culture in their time. They were able to invent an accurate calendar system (climbing the tops of their temples to observe the planets), understand the number ‘0’, and  wrote books far before other cultures, even beating Europeans by a thousand years in some respects. Here in Tikal, schools, libraries, and hospitals were even present. The Mayan forest extends into Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. Tikal is located in the North East of Guatemala in the region of Peten. The abundance of plants and variety of wildlife, along with the remoteness of its location makes it especially appealing. Tikal houses more than 200 tree species, over 100 mammals (including over 60 species of bats), 33 species of birds, over 100 species of reptiles, 38 species of snakes, and many endangered animals. Tikal is 57,600 hectares and is a protected national park since 1955 (and was announced a World Heritage Site in 1979). It is the largest excavated site in the Americas and some parts remain untouched and just as the archaeologists have found them..

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Guatemala’s national tree – Ceiba

The architecture of Tikal dates back to 4 A.D and covers about 6.2 sq miles (222 sq miles of jungle) with over 3,000 structures. Tikal reined during 292 B.C. – 869 A.D. Its most powerful time was during the 6th century where it was an important site for commerce, politics, ceremonies, and cultural happenings for the ancient Mayans. There are temples, palaces, ball courts, squares, tombs, ceremonial platforms, roads, and even water reservoirs. Engravings and symbols can be found; some reference other Mayan cites such as Caracol in Belize, Copan in Honduras, and Teotihuacan in Mexico and can be seen on the ruins. We have a record of at least 33 known rulers of Tikal. It is still a mystery why the Mayan empire fell. Some theories include overpopulation, over exhaustion of resources, city rivalries, and weather conditions. Tikal was abandoned at the end of the 9th century, and as a result, the forest slowly engulfed the city, allowing it to quietly disappear. As time went on, legends were told by the indigenous people of Guatemala of a lost city in the forest where their Mayan ancestors used to rule until one day an expedition was made to discover it in 1848.

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We walked around the different areas of Tikal getting fed information of the flora and fauna on the way. We kept an eye out for Jaguars and Pumas since they have been spotting roaming the forest of Tikal during the sunset tours.

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Our tour guide found a tarantula and asked who wasn’t scared of it. He put it on someone’s arm, and then on some people’s faces. I don’t know why people do these things—that thing was hairy and scary as hell.

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It didn’t help that afterwards he flipped over the tarantula and blew on his face and belly. The creature unleashed his massive fangs…it was horrible.

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This is Great Jaguar, Temple I, in the Great Plaza. It rises 50 meters in the air with 9 tiers of stairs representing the 9 levels of the Mayan underworld. Mayan rule Jasaw Chan K’awiil (r. 682-734 CE) was buried inside. Magnificent!

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The top of the tomb may represent the caves the Mayan used to live in.

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The best part of the tour was of course the sunset. We climbed a tall pyramid with small steps (not for those who are afraid of heights…the steps were very small at times!)  until we reached the top. We sat on the top platform and looked out over the canopy of the trees. The light was dimming, the clouds a bit misty, the day coming to a quiet end. We all sat still and silently, taking in this incredible feeling of peacefulness and unknown mystery of what happened here over a thousand years before us. Jutting out of the top of the trees were the tips of the temples. It was a lost city indeed. This is one of my favorite views–An endless view of trees on all sides of you, feeling the cold stone under you, your legs dangling off the sides and the songs of birds and howls of monkeys growing louder as the sun goes down and the jungle awakens…and in the distance, the remains of an ancient city peaking itself out of the jungle below.

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Further Reading: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/64
http://tikalpark.com/
http://www.history.com/topics/maya
http://www.ancient.eu/Tikal/

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