I wake up at 4:00AM, just another early morning, for my departure to Tikal. We arrive shortly after sunrise and just as the gate opens into the park. I pay my admission fee and enter the park. The National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is huge, covering some 222 square miles of ruins interspersed amidst thick forest. Tikal was one of the largest classic Maya city-states which emerged as a power in the 3rd century AD. It retained its military, political, and economic strength until the Classic Maya collapse in the 10th century. At its zenith, the city covered 16 square kilometers and had some 3000 structures, which probably supported 10 to 90 thousand inhabitants. The exact cause of the Maya collapse is still aggressively debated, with some claiming it was a function of overpopulation and agrarian failure, others suggesting excessive military action and eventual social upheaval against the ruling class, while others still claim that it was caused by drought and climate change. Whatever the reason, construction ceased and the Maya abandoned their cities. Tikal was rediscovered by Ambrosio Tut, a gum-tapper and then-governor of Peten in 1848, at which point archaeologists and historians began visiting the site. Most of the excavation was completed from 1956-1970. With its well-preserved monuments and stelae, it has become one of the best understood dynasties in the Maya world and incredibly important for documenting the history of the civilization.
I passed the Great Ceiba tree, the sacred tree of the Maya, who believed that its roots connected Xibalba, the underworld, the earthly realm, and the sky. Its ebony white trunk rose straight up from the ground, a pillar holding up its crown, which spread like a spider’s web across the sky. I climbed the 70 m tall Temple IV, making it the tallest building at Tikal and the second highest Maya construction. The top of the temple gazed out over the canopy of the rainforest extending to the horizon. Only two other temples, temples, Temple V and Temple I at the Central Acropolis break through the carpet of vegetation, two dots of white amidst a sea of green. One can even see Calakmul, Tikal’s rival to the north, on the distant horizon.
The Maya that inhabited the city did not name the site Tikal themselves. They seem to have called it Yax Mutal, meaning first hair bundle. The name Tikal was bestowed upon the site shortly after its discovery and was used by local hunters to describe the site, as it means “the waterhole” in Yucatec Maya. The site has a number of reservoirs and a complex system of aqueducts that the city used to provide its residents with water. After the depopulation of the city, the reservoirs attracted animals, which may have been the root of the hunters’ moniker for the site.
I continue to walk amongst the temples, palaces, and causeways, imagining being here when the area was inhabited. Much of the jungle cover would be gone, priests offering sacrifices atop steep, towering pyramids, civilians walking between acropolis along wide limestone causeways, merchants selling corn, breadnut, and cacao. My reverie is disrupted by the smell of garlic emitted by the crushed leaves of Cedrela odorata trees.
Tikal is a nice change from Palenque, the other major ruin I visited. There, the central plaza was filled with merchants aggressively trying to hawk cheap souvenirs. Although it may have been more realistic, in that the city was probably actually full of merchants selling their wares, it made for a claustrophobic, chaotic experience. The merchants at Tikal, however, are limited to the periphery of the archaeological zone near the parking lot, allowing you to explore the ruins in peace. That being said, I must admit that the temples did tend to resemble one another after a certain point. It is more the scope of the site, which one feels while walking around the steep pyramids, which are far more svelte than their Egyptian counterparts, and loom over you as though they are ready to topple over. Other families, both white and latino, walk quietly and speak in hushed tones as they admire the construction. The site of the Central Acropolis is particularly spectacular. Two large temples stand opposing one another at opposite ends of a large field in a North-South alignment, with a small altar at the center. Two palace-temple complexes stand on the East-West axis of the plaza, and although are smaller than the Temples I and V, still tower over the smaller buildings on the periphery.
After hiking several kilometers and climbing probably around half a kilometer vertically as a result of my obsessive compulsive need to visit and ascend every structure that is open to the public, I head back to the bus, which is just about ready to depart. The rain clouds looming on the horizon open up and pour rain just as we depart the parking lot.
We return to Flores, where I relax after the long trip. I buy a bus ticket to Belize City. Unfortunately, it looks as though I will have another early morning. The bus to Belize leaves at 4:45AM. I pack up and pack it in.