Friday, February 21, 2003
We caught the 6:00 a.m. bus for the one-hour ride to Tikal. The first bus leaves at 5:00 a.m., but we are not those people. Hopefully the hippies won't have sucked out all the "energy" before we get there.
Finally, Tikal! I've been waiting for this for years! The massive ruins of Tikal are among the largest in the Maya world, covering some ten square miles and encompasssing thousands of individual constructions, including temples, sacrificial altars, residences, shrines, and more. More than 4,000 structures have been mapped so far, and excavation is continuously underway. It is believed that thousands of structures still lie below the shallow topsoil.
Templo I from Templo II
Tikal is believed to have been founded around 700 B.C., and at its height, around 650 to 750 A.D., was home to roughly 70,000 residents. It is unknown why the city suddenly became depopulated around the end of the eighth century, after perhaps 1,500 years of continuous occupation. Drought? Disease? Warfare? We may never know. Eventually, the site was swallowed by the forest, forgotten by all but a handful of local Maya. Tikal first became known to the non-Maya world in 1848, and scientific exloration began here in 1881. Tikal was the first fully protected archeological preserve in Central America.
The ruins are situated on a low ridge at the center of Tikal National Park and are surrounded by forest that has not been significantly tampered with since the city collapsed around 850 A.D. As well as the structures, Tikal contains exotic plants and wildlife. Hunting has been prohibited here since the early 1930s, and many of the animals show little fear of humans. We spotted spider monkeys, howler monkeys, foxes, coatamundi (like a raccoon), guaqueque (a big, weird tailless rat creature), bats, lizards, and lots of hawks and other birds, many quite colorful. We even saw another crocodile! I was looking for dinosaurs - I'm sure there have to be some here - but we didn't spot any.
Tikal is utterly amazing. Tikal's Maya name means "the place where spirit voices are heard," which seems very fitting. The morning was very damp and the ruins shrouded in mist before burning off into a bright, stunning day.
Templos III, II, and I above the jungle canopy
Though not the tallest building at the site, we found the best views from the top of what we believe from our poor maps to be the ingloriously named Structure 5C-54. This pyramid, located in El Mundo Perdido (The Lost World), affords 360-degree views of the ruins and the jungle canopy. We stayed up there as long as we could, until the scorching sun forced us down into the protective shade of the jungle.
Palacio de las Ventanas and Templo IV
The highest structure in Tikal is the 212-foot Temple IV, or Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent. This was the highest known structure in the Western Hemisphere until the first skyscrapers went up in Manhattan in the 19th century. How did they build these things? The view from the top of Temple IV overlooks an uninterrupted sea of green forest.
View from Templo IV
We've seen a few U.N. vehicles since we've been in Guatemala. I wonder what they're sticking their noses in this time.
We caught a 2:30 bus back to Flores, where we rehydrated, ate, emailed, and reveled in the day's experience. We have another early day tomorrow.