Tikal may be one of the grandest of the ancient Mayan sites but I still wasn't prepared for the sense of magic that radiates from this once thriving urban center that was wrapped up with mathematical and astronomical genius as well as plenty of warfare, royal politics and ritualistic ceremonies and sacrifice. Even the most jaded tourist can't help feeling a sense of mystery and majesty as you gaze on striking limestone pyramids rising out of the middle of a dense jungle.
I did Tikal as a day trip from Guatemala City. Sounds a bit crazy schedule-wise because I had to get up at 4 a.m. to catch the 6:30 a.m. flight aboard a 32-seat turbo prop to Santa Elena. It's only a 45-minute flight, but it still left a 40-mile drive to the park entrance. And I also knew that given thatyou have to do at least 7 miles of walking to see all of the major temples and excavations in the park, it was going to be a very long day. If I had to do it over again, I would definitely stay overnight at the Jungle Lodge probably the nicest of the three accommodations in Tikal National Park. That way you could be on the trails until dusk and then return as soon as the park opens in the morning. The chances of plenty of bird and other animal sightings are far likelier at those times of the day. Also, there will be less tourist traffic, though when I visited recently, I often felt that I had the trails all to myself.
Probably the most surprising aspect of my visit to Tikal was the array of botanical findings. Along the dirt paths that network the more than 200 square mile site, my guide pointed out the sapodilla tree where gum is derived. (The bark contains chicle, a gummy substance.) A variety of palms tower over our heads as do massive mahogany trees. Roots, especially the buttress kind that are like the old men of the forest, and vines are just about everywhere. I scratched the bark of a copal tree and sniffed a pungent scent. No wonder the Mayans used the wood to make incense. Then I crushed the leaves of the clover tree and was overpowered by the dramatic fragrance. But it's the Ceiba tree -- a specimen that's hundreds of years old stands prominently not far from the beginning of my walk -- that the Mayans have most revered. It's Guatemala's national tree and it's was considered to be a holy botanical, one that was at the center of the Mayan universe.
The air was thick with heat and moisture as I wandered the now slick paths thanks to a constant drizzle. Everything in Tikal is slippery on a good day and it becomes almost like an ice rink when there's a touch of precipitation. (But it's this precipitation that allowed the Mayans to survive here for the land is devoid of any water source. And the industrious Mayan builders constructed reservoirs and an elaborate canal system to catch and transport water to where they needed it.) Even my super sticky shoes weren't working here and I had to struggle to remain upright when I prowled around the stone ruins of the Grand Palace. Climbing along the steps and walking through a stone tunnel and through ruins of doorways, my guide pointed out a flat stone that may have been a bed and another that could have been a throne. On one side of the landscape a skinny string of a trail meanders into the woods. I'm told it's the tracks of ant colonies. (Later I crossed the trail of a caravan of fire ants that are renowned for their skin-burning stings.)
All my senses were on active duty in Tikal. As soon as I entered the thick jungle, I sniffed a combination of vegetation and wet earth. I was surrounded by an utter silence that was pierced on numerous occasions by bird sounds. Green parrots, parakeets and toucans are only a small sampling of the creatures that fly through the trees. I listened carefully and heard rustling in the upper story of the foliage. Howler monkeys and then spider monkeys were dangling from high branches. Ahead, I spotted what looked like a guinea pig. It turned out to be an agouti that was regularly on the Mayan menu. Then I saw a very cute raccoon-like creature. It was a coati that I was told not to approach because they have very sharp teeth and claws.
Among the many steep-sided temples, for me the most dramatic was Temple IV, the highest in the national park, rising some 220 feet above sea level. After climbing the steep set of stairs, I found myself far above the jungle canopy with panoramic views toward the Mayan Mountains. The only thing piercing the jungle are the other pyramids. But acrophobes should beware that Tempe V might be a struggle. The stairs are really like a very steep ladder rising up the side of the temple. (There's no climbing up the original stone steps. But at their base I found a contemporary stone altar that is used by Mayan shamans to perform various rituals during the year.) Temples I and II that face each other are Tikal's iconic image. You can't climb I but II is open via another wooden stairway on the side. And, of course, you've got great views of the entire acropolis from that vantage point.
Another interesting feature of the park are the multitude of stelae or stone pillars bedecked with hieroglyphs. They are almost like ancient newspapers telling the story of a king and the daily events during his reign. Aside from temples and stelae, there are countless other archaeological
findings worth exploring, including the ruins of a what was a sauna that may have been used for ritual purification as well as a ball court that, rather than a simple sport, were a sacred ritual practice.