Who ever plans to visit Guatemala for sure puts the Maya ruins at Tikal National Park on top of the wish list. But why? What’s so fascinating about this place that shadows the other numerous ruins in Belize and Guatemala? I need to first explain a bit about the historic importance of Tikal so that we can better understand its magnetism in modern days.
The ruins that we know today as Tikal where only discovered in 1848, after centuries hiding in the jungles of Petén, northern Guatemala. It was the largest city during the Mayan’s Classic period (between 200-850 ad), a large population, cultural and trade centre, the most influential political, economical and military power at the time, its influence extending to areas as far as northern Mexico. Although Tikal was a powerful city-state, others were fighting for supremacy and so, around 600 ad, it was conquered by a rival and a silent period would follow, during which no construction of any kind was made. The city would recover its former glory and, in honour of his achievements, king Jasaw Chan K’awii I ordered the construction of two of the main features in Tikal: the impressive temples facing each other at the central plaza. His son would later order the construction of Temple IV, one of the tallest structures and from where you can watch the other temples rise above the canopy. As many other city-states, Tikal was gradually abandoned by the end of the 10th century, by mysterious reasons, until present day, where it’s part of a natural park committed to preserve wildlife and the Mayan cultural and archeological heritage.
For the tourists planning to visit the ruins, there is a first decision to be made: where to stay overnight. You can choose to stay at one of the villages, either the lovely colonial style island of Flores, or the more modest lakeside village of El Remate, just a 30 minutes bus ride to Tikal park. Otherwise, you can stay at one of the park’s hotels, surrounded by a stunning natural scene, but be prepared to pay more for less comfort.
Secondly, you need to decide how to visit the park, which means two approaches: let your mind at peace by trusting your experience with one of the pre-set tours arranged by one of the local companies, or do like we did and spend some time, and a lot of patience, trying to figure out how to enjoy all the experiences possible in Tikal without having to pay ridiculous amounts or hidden fees. We figured out that if we caught a bus early in the afternoon to get us to the park entrance after 3pm, we could use the same ticket the next day, sparing us from having to buy a second entrance in the morning and with the plus side of watching the sunset from the tallest temple, for free. In fact, we watched many tours of people who payed maybe 80 dollars each just to enjoy a couple of hours in the park, while we did the same for the price of a chicken bus ticket.
After discussing between us, we decided the best way to enjoy Tikal was to sleep in the park. We skipped the fancier options and opted by the cheapest one: camping. Jaguar Inn provides you with a tent and a comfortable air mattress and since we were getting up at 4am the next day to do the sunrise tour, it seemed the most logical and budget friendly option. Our guide was arranged as we got to the park entrance, Marcos Sep offered himself to accompany us the next morning to walk through the jungle and watch the sun rise above the rainforest canopy. He was a very friendly guy, with a very characteristic smile: the two front teeth were shiny gold and he was holding a stick with a feather on top, like an old American indian chief before the battle.
After the spectacular sunset the afternoon before and the walk through the increasingly darker jungle, we were already enchanted with the place but the sunrise tour would be an even more memorable experience, as we would find out, partly because the jungle behaved differently and the world slowly woke up and we could witness this magic happening. It would pay off the extra bucks that we payed to stay at Tikal, instead of losing time catching transportation from one of the other villages.
At 4am, Marcos met us at the entrance to the park and shared with us his 30 years experience living and working in Petén jungle. He had once been a park guard and with the help of a NGO, he took a guide course and now was leading groups of tourists along the park as a living. In the dark, the jungle grows in size, suddenly a tree looks like a menacing troll and its roots, traps to catch preys. With the impairment of vision, all the other senses became aroused and every little sound was amplified and distorted. All of the sudden, we hear a roar: a jaguar? They’re known to wander the jungle and follow tourists without being seen. Not this time, though. It was the cry of a howler monkey, marking his territory and warning any intruders not to adventure any further. The jungle would fill with dozens of these roars and, by the time we reached the top of Temple IV, with the first shy rays of light, birds started chirping and hundreds of dragonflies would rise from the jungle canopy and buzz around the groups of tourists awaiting the sunrise in awe. There was a fine mist and the top of the other structures would slowly reveal themselves, like the veil of a bride when she prepares for the groom’s kiss. Regrettably, we had to come down and so the magic slowly gave way to a full powerful sun, showing the central plaza and its two tall temples facing each other. At the centre, an altar with marks of old fires, where the modern Maya express their beliefs and honour their Gods. Marco had to leave and so we set alone to explore the wonders of Tikal’s national park.
If we had to resume our experience in Tikal in one word, it would be Connection, with the natural life, the buildings so consciously built, the old spirits of the Maya and their unique relation to life and death. It’s a one time life experience that you should definitely consider, specially if you want to immerse yourself in one of the most fascinating, yet so little understood, civilizations of all times.
For more information on the Park fees and rules, check their official page http://www.tikalpark.com. For accommodation, this is where we stayed and the respective prices:
- Tikal National Park, Jaguar Inn, camping $30/night for two.
- The chicken bus between Tikal and El Remate cost $3.5/person.
- The park entrance was $20/person and the guide cost us both $60 for the sunrise tour.