Sunrise along the highway
I was struggling to wake up when there was a knock at the door at 4:50am. I couldn't believe they were actually early! By the time we got to the bus, we got one of the last seats left, too. The sun hadn't risen yet and the air had an unusual feeling, as if it were actually still asleep too. We did witness sunrise on our way up to Tikal
, which took about an hour. By the time we passed through little El Remate
village, the skies were bright and people were emerging to begin their day. It wasn't even 6am yet.
Our official tour began after a chance for a snack and coffee at the entrance. Our guide, Boris, tried with humorous efforts to corral the group and explain various points along the way, beginning with the scale model of the site.
Our guide Boris at the entrance to Tikal
I purchased a map of the park that showed not only the trails via aerial photography, but also small pictures of local wildlife that we had a chance at seeing. Sure enough, it wasn't far before we spotted parrots in the trees and a coati
near a palm tree in the Cancha de Pelota, or ballcourt. Boris said the coati is a common animal there, like a raccoon might be to country dwellers in the US. In fact, the coati is actually a member of the coon family.
The path wandered up a small incline past the Plaza Este, with the back of a large temple to our right. When we emerged around the bend, we saw the main plaza, or Gran Plaza. This consisted of two opposing pyramidal temples, scattered building with various steps up and around them, stelae (both preserved under tiki hut structures and replicated in their original locations) and the royal palace.
The jaguar temple with the sun behind it
The two pointed temples were built in such a way that when an equinox occurred, the shadow of one temple would cast directly across the opposing temple, covering it evenly and deliberately. The Templo del Gran Jaguar (Templo I), or the jaguar temple, was presently in front of the sun and mostly in shadows. Directly across from it was Templo de las Mascaras (Templo II), or mask temple. To the north was the "Acropolis," a labyrinthine village filled with steps and structures of varying height. We had an hour to explore, so we climbed to the top of the northernmost building, from where we could see directly across to what's called Maler's Palace, or the former royal residence.
The jaguar temple was off-limits for climbing due to the poor structural condition of the steps and perimeter, but we climbed the mask temple via a series of wooden steps that spiraled up to the dizzying heights and a regal view of the plaza and environs.
We made it to Tikal!
Actually this temple is smaller than the jaguar temple, and is named for the queen of Ah-Chacau, the man responsible for resurrecting the Tikal
state after its fall to Caracol. The sun was so hot, it was hard to believe it was just before 8am. Our hour had ended and we were still exploring the royal palace with its nooks, crannies and varied windows and views of surrounding temples or jungle.
Our next stop was Temple V, which faced north. Its plaza was small, principally because it was surrounded by rainforest. It was an incredibly steep climb up a two-way ladder to the top. At the top, we could see the two temples jutting up out of the forest like buoys in a green ocean. There were no guardrails at the top, and the view below was vertigo inducing.
Experimenting with the binoculars...this is Temple V from the Gran Plaza
The now chipped and rocky steps may have been navigable hundreds of years ago, but the flanking sides plummeted at a steep angle straight down. This temple had a regal quality to it. It was too hot to linger at the top, but I stopped to take some photos of the stratospheric layer of treetops. We descended backwards down the ladder that was almost as tall as the temple itself, and nearly as steep. Thankfully there were handrails and small platforms every so often.
We walked through the Plaza de los Siete Templos and the Mundo Perdido. In the plaza there were excavations going on around us. In the trees above, we saw a beautiful toucan, the Froot Loop icon incarnate. Behind the Mundo Perdido we saw two spider monkeys swinging around on the tree branches, each one with a baby on its back. Boris introduced us to a man who was holding a giant tarantula.
View from the mask temple to the jaguar temple and the Gran Plaza
Apparently this man rustled them up for display to tourists. One girl wanted to hold it, and then another, and soon each of us took our turn with the tarantula. It was gentle as it crawled from the man's hand to my palm. Its feet were slightly bristly but it wasn't quite as creepy as I had expected it would be. I'd probably have been more terrified seeing a smaller spider, but the tarantula was large enough to seem less threatening, or at least not tricky like the smaller ones are. The tarantula we saw was not poisonous, and they explained that its bite would be no more painful than a bee sting. They also warned us not to poke it, or we would have a first-hand account of its comparative pain. I may never hold a tarantula again, but I'm glad I had the chance to do it at Tikal.
Nearby the Palacio de las Ventanas and the Templo del Gran Sacerdote, Boris explained the crop rotation that the Mayas practiced.
Temple V await our ascent
He pulled a leaf from a tree and explained that it was used for medicinal purposes when boiled in water and drunk as tea. Also, the "fruit" from the tree was ground into a powder and used as a savory seasoning. The tree: allspice! I chewed on a leaf, which made my tongue and lips numb in a medicinal way.
We walked through a short path, past straggly tree vines, to the tallest temple of them all: Templo de la Serpiente Bicefalica (Temple IV), or the snake temple. The staggering height of this temple had, up until the the turn of the 20th century, been the tallest structure in the western hemisphere. Before we ascended to the top, we found refuge at a small vendor's that sold cold drinks and snacks. By this time, our legs had been on quite a workout, and that last climb was strenuous. But the reward was well worth it. An even grander vista, with glimpses of the jaguar and mask temples in the distance, but mostly endless skies above and endless rainforest below.
On top of the world, or at least Temple V
Each of us had a moment at the top where we paused, reflected and gazed into the endless sea of trees, trying to imagine what the mysterious Mayans would have thought when they were perched here in their heavenly lofts.
That mostly concluded our tour, and we headed back to the main entrance and just collapsed on the grass in the shade to rest. We got to talking with some of the other travelers, people from Australia, England, Germany, the Netherlands and the US. Just before we loaded back on the bus, it started to rain. The sun was still out, and I didn't see a rainbow, but it was a nice, refreshing shower there in the midday heat. Almost everyone fell asleep for some length of time on our ride back. By the time we got back to Flores
, we were pretty hungry.
Yes, that's a non-poisonous tarantula. Cute little fella!
We didn't even bother to clean up. We just dropped off our binoculars, used the bathroom and then headed out to a place I'd read about that supposedly had goblets of iced coffee. That sounded like pure heaven!
To venture there, we had to walk up a hill along cobblestone streets, turning corners this way and that until we reached a lonely corner restaurant called Las Puertas
. True to the name, there were about seven doors, all of which were open to let in what little breeze existed. Immediately we each ordered the iced coffee, and indeed it did arrive in glass chalices. I may have heard angels singing as well. There were many foods on the menu, but we were torn between the panones and paninos.
Atop Temple IV, the tallest of them all
The server explained well enough that panones were larger and paninos were smaller sandwiches. We decided to each order paninos and see where we ended up in the hunger department. They turned out to be sufficient enough to not warrant ordering more, and were delicious. But we were in the market for something else. Still hot and parched, we ordered a unique menu item described as an avocado smoothie. Mark and I shared it when it came, also in a big goblet. It was very light green, thick and the taste was more lime than avocado, but I definitely tasted it. Both refreshing and filling. Still, we yearned for a dessert to properly finish the mealtime. Well, it was probably around 3pm by then, but who was really tracking the time?
We found a place called Café Arqueológico Yaxha, which was not just a cafe, it was a Mayan restaurant and sustainable ecotourism center for surrounding archeological ruins of the lesser known kind.
Yaxha is actually a Mayan site that was featured on Survivor: Guatemala, but is much less frequented than Tikal. Pictures adorned the walls of many other small ancient cities, with an emphasis on trying to diversify the tourism base and prevent looting from occurring at these lesser visited sites. Since we'd just eaten and really only wanted some dessert and maybe a drink, we sat down and ordered what we thought would be light refreshing snacks. I ordered a fruit plate and pineapple-orange-chaya juice, and Mark ordered chocolate cake and a limeade soda. Again the chalices arrived full to the brim, and then an enormous fruit plate with an equally large slab of cake soaked in strawberry gelee.
Mark chills out with an avocado smoothie
Already we knew we had gotten too much, but that didn't stop us from gorging ourselves into oblivion. The fruit was fresh and delicious. I had heard the woman cutting it up in the back, and it included chunks of papaya, my favorite! Also, bananas, watermelon and pineapple. Mark's cake wasn't exactly "chocolate cake" but it was good: white bundt cake with chocolate icing, rainbow beads and a dollop of chocolate cream on top. There was a chocolatey filling as well, plus the strawberry goo drizzled all over the plate. It was the size of a teapot and must have weighed a couple pounds. I don't know how, but we managed to consume it all before waddling away in slight pain.
Sun sets on Lake Peten Itza
The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around the island, enjoying the views of the lake, cleaning up, checking e-mail and then watching the sun set from our balcony.
I had even squeezed in a call via Skype to my parents to wish them a belated Happy 4th of July. We also visited Julio again and dropped much of the rest of our cash at his store. We got his address and took some photos of him and his family. Somehow we managed to find room for dinner, back at Cafe Yaxha, where we split a meal of Mayan chicken with chaya sauce and a dark Moza beer. It was rather late by then and we had the last drink of the evening at La Villa del Chef where we'd had the amazing mojitos.
Sunset from our hotel's balcony
Foolishly, I decided to try a strawberry daiquiri instead, but didn't know it would be the last drink before closing, and it wasn't nearly as good as the mojito. But it had been such a good day, and long, so we were satisfied knowing that we'd had an excellent time, albeit short, in Guatemala, and while we were sad to go, we were very happy we'd decided to come and stay for a couple nights instead of just a day trip from Belize. We could have stayed another day, too, and almost did, but decided that the island would be nice as well, so we retired to our nice hotel room and packed up again to head back east the next morning.
Julio and his family