Friday, July 16, 2010

A Closer Look: Tikal

Describing Tikal in a paragraph or two is like trying to get across the Belize border without getting ripped off by the moneychangers; it's just not going to happen. My brief description of the archeological site in a previous entry hardly did it justice; my intent here is to provide a more complete view of the ruins, based on my experience.

Tikal is a three-hour drive from the Belize border or from the beautiful island city of Flores (five or six if you're riding a local bus) located in the steamy jungles and wetlands of northern Guatemala. We were fortunate to charter a brand new SUV to get us there, passing by Lake Peten Itza on the way... we rolled into Tikal National Park around 10:00am.

We declined to pay for a map in the park, instead photographing the large direction map at the trailhead and referring back to it on the camera at a later time, and drawing a quick reference map on a blank page of my journal. Armed with these critical bits of guidance, we marched into the jungle. The first thing was came across was a Ceiba tree, an enormous specimen worshiped by the ancient Mayans as a connector of the planes of the underworld. The massive trunk absolutely dwarfed us, an appropriate introduction for what was to be a day full of awe.

As noted previously, we discovered a vine hanging next to a plunging gorge in the jungle while on our way to the pyramids; naturally we were waylaid and spent the next half an hour testing the strength of their hold and gingerly climbing up, daring to inch a little higher each time. When it was apparent that the trees above weren't going to give it away and let us plunge to our certain injury, we got more daring and donkey-konged it high enough to afford an excellent (if precarious) view of our surroundings.

Done with the vines, we meandered into a clearing in the jungle, where we spotted our first few ruins. They were outliers of the main center, the Grand Plaza, where we were headed. We were fascinated by the ancient structures; Tikal had existed for at least two thousand years before our time, and the ruins likely dated back to at least 700AD. We were treading on ancient history.

The southern end of the Grand Plaza opened up before us as we approached it; a massive pyramid very nearly blotted out the sun above us as it towered above the surrounding jungle. Wandered into the Plaza itself, bookended on the north and south by enormous temples and bordered on the east and west by a large number of stone religious structures, altars, carvings, etc. The northern pyramid had a wooden staircase affixed to the side where tourists could climb up and view the scene; we did so, struck by the immensity of the area.

Directly north of the Grand Plaza was Temple IV, the facade of which was under construction; scaffolding on the east side served as a reminder that we were indeed still in the 21st Century. The sounds of the jungle suggested quite the opposite: spider monkeys screamed from the treetops, parrots called to one another, fluttering in sudden flashes of color from branch to branch. On top of Temple IV we heard the belching, guttural roars of enormous jaguars, warning intruders on their marked territories.

Naturally we plunged into the jungle after a once-in-a-lifetime photo-op... no such luck, only sudden, horrifying silence and the hair-raising grumble of a very angry, very large predator a handful of yards away. Pictures didn't seem quite so important, and we backed out of the jungle, now quite content to explore Temple V and photograph things that wouldn't eat us.

Temple V was the largest of them all; surrounded on all sides by dense jungle, it was nearly impossible to get a full picture of. An altar, complete with blood grooves, was inlaid into the earth in front of the temple's face, a chilling reminder of the human sacrifices of generations past.

Joel and I found a smaller pyramid located on the eastern end of the park that was devoid of human activity; it was just us. Not quite mollified by our experience with the jaguars, we took our adrenaline out on the top of the structure. I edged along the three-inch outer rim of the top of the pyramid, clinging to the stone ledge above it, a deadly plunge to the jungle below the difference between a firm footing and a faulty one. Joel clambered to the top of the crumbling peak, posing arms-spread for an epic shot. We took turns leaping across an ancient doorway... poised on one ledge, we'd take one step and a carefully-calculated leap across the abyss, aware the price for missing would be at best a broken leg, or a face smashed into the opposite wall.

Thankfully our calculations were solid. We left the temple satisfied, and spent our last hour in the ruins exploring the throne room and palace structure. Indiana Jones type stuff. "I wonder where this water's coming from?" Joel asked, casually, when we were inside. The walls were dark and moist... he pushed his hand up against it and pulled it away just as quickly, suddenly disgusted.

"Bat guano," I laughed. On more than one occasion we'd approach a dark, heavily-shadowed room and duck as a swarm of bats fluttered out at us from inside.

Darkness had begun to fall, and we had to get back to our driver, who'd take us as far as Flores that evening. We purchased small wooden pipes and machetes at one of the small markets in the park, which was located next to a crocodile pond, and then met up with Hector. We'd spend the rest of the evening riding in the back of his truck, standing facing into the blasting wind, adrenaline flowing again, as the truck roared through the backroads of northern Guatemala. It seemed like something the ancient Mayans would've done if they'd had trucks.

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